2013 Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize winner: British Muslim Soldier
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He’s joined the White Man’s Army and he’ll have to kill Muslims, they said. Mum had taught me to put my hands together for Allah and here they held a gun for God. It’s everyone’s army, Mum, I told her, everyone’s – even mine. I swore to defend this country even after the lads at school had kicked my head around in a backstreet shouting “Paki”.
It takes a little time for your eyes to get used to the dark but they do, then you see. In your tiredness the edges still blur and then the last bit of warm leaves you with a shake, things are now cold and clear, like a glass of water. On your own, laying on wet grass with a metal rifle sight against one eye, you scan: a sentry is the eyes and ears of his section, he must not fall asleep. You’re keeping them alive. Keep scanning. And think, think, think about life.
Here you are living in a hole in the ground and each day it’s Morning Routine – cleaning your rifle, shaving your face, cooking and having breakfast – all in a mess tin. When the day goes to sleep and the night wakes, the fight isn’t over. It’s then that the enemy will come, bad men with knives and guns, coming in our sleep to cut throats and make holes, so stay awake boys and girls, stay awake, Corporal said. And stag duty was how we did it; we’d be a sentry while our friends slept and then we’d shake them awake and they’d do the same for us. First stag and last stag were a dream to get, but a stag that broke your sleep broke you. An hour or more in which you spent the early part dragging yourself out of sleep and the last part wanting a sweaty sleeping bag in the soil. In the middle of it was a space in which you looked for the bad man but also thought: what am I doing here?
Why was I here? Yeah, I was poor, but the army? What was this? Me proving I was as white as them? The ultimate test, to die for a country and cut into friends’ shoulders, a flag over me standing to attention in my last sentry box. Mum wanted a doctor but she got a soldier – and not an officer, she got a ranker. One who digs holes in the ground, one who follows orders. She washed my face with water before I left home and I told her I could look after myself now but she shook her head and prayed.
The army didn’t care who I spoke to when I cupped my hands, didn’t care in which language I begged forgiveness for the crime of being human, they only cared that my rifle pointed the same way on their judgment days. I wanted more, I told the Recruiting Sergeant in Burnley. He asked what I would do if we went to war with Pakistan. What would I do? Would I kill? And if I found I could, would it matter to me if it was a dead brown guy or a dead white guy? What if we had to fight people who looked like your brothers and had the same names, he asked. Think about that.
I told him I was British. Think about it, he said. Pakistani boys from Burnley joining the British Army? So I thought. I didn’t think much about identity because it left a metal taste in my mouth. The Pakistanis would have called it “zehr” – poison. There was a lot of talk about how bad the west was, how disgusting they were, these white people, these Goray with their drink and their girls. At school they used to say to us, If you don’t like it, go back to where you came from. If we didn’t like it, why were we here? Speak English, they’d say to us in the town – you’re in England now. So, yes, I’m here because it’s better than the place I come from and it feels like zehr to say it but why? Because it’s shameful to admit that where you are and who you are isn’t where or what you want to be and if those around you see or hear that, they’ll not like it, so to spare them you’ll suffer and not say it. So I made it simple for me, I thought about what being a Pakistani lad with no degree meant in Burnley. It meant nothing – I meant nothing.
And I wanted to mean something, to do something with my life. I said to him, I want to be a British soldier because that’s something. They were the men in Burnley who got the respect. Remembrance Sunday reminded me of that every year. I was sat here with him because it was the first thing that came when I decided to leave being a Pakistani behind to become my own man, become a man. Write my own story. It was complicated, so I stuck to the easy line – I want to be a British soldier because it is something. He said, Fine but I needed to think about what the army did. So I went further. I’ll give my life for this country, I’ll die for it if that’s what you want, I’ll fight for it, give my body to it. He said, Fine and went to find a Koran for me to swear my Oath of Allegiance with. I said the Bible would do, I’m British. He got a Koran and said, We do things properly in the British Army. I stood with my hand on the holy book and read the oath swearing to be faithful and bear true allegiance. For Queen and Country.
And, after marching for weeks, I got to living in a hole. I hadn’t been home in a while, Mum had become a voice on the phone with me trying to prove I could be a soldier who didn’t need anybody; bullets and water, that’s all I need. Where was this place they had taken me to? These Britishers. I looked at them sleeping in their holes, letting this brown kid watch over them. I get it, Mum, you know, I get it. I get the same feeling you get when you pray. I see the same beauty in the struggle and feel the same warmth. I’m filled with it, drunk on it here, I’m smiling. They make my heart beat like a drum and play my nerves like string and I want to walk this road with them. They’re slightly ahead of me and they keep turning and smiling. I’m always trying to catch up. It’s a family that never tells me no. Do what you want, we’ll never judge you, mate. Drink if you want. Pray if you want. Put down that beer if you don’t want it, I’ll drink it for you. Put down that god of yours if you don’t want him, I’ll make him go away.
It was England outside but the world inside the wire was controlled by Corporal. In here was where soldiers were made and it wasn’t the business of any civilian. I’ll salute this flag of three crosses when I’ve grown up kissing crescents, I’ll wear these crosses on my arm, stitching them on myself, I’ll put myself in the fire for these boys and girls, and don’t worry, Mum, they’d do the same for me. You see I made a pact with them, you be strong and I’ll be strong and nobody needs to know how we really feel because when you look at me I know. And it will never end; if you ever fall it’ll be my hands you feel under your arms and my lips in your hair. Let them take me too. Wherever you stand, no matter how hard the ground, I’ll stand there with you, and there will not come a time when you’re out there alone. Ever. Because I love you, British squaddie.
That was what it came to, love. And they were no longer the Goray who kicked my head in in the back streets. Not the Goray who dragged me open after I’d gone into the foetal position, dragged me over glass and stones to open me up for another kicking back in a backstreet in Burnley. No, now they were me and I was them and it was love. And I could kiss their skin and mean it, share their water and not think their lips dirty, mix my food with theirs and eat it, tell them I loved them and make them smile. Tell me where to point my gun, Corporal.
What about the Muslim Brotherhood, the boys from Burnley asked? What about the Brotherhood? The glorious brotherhood they dreamt of. I thought about this too – the religion. I’d seen the RAF shot down over Iraq on the news in 1991 but what would happen if they caught me? A Muslim in the White Man’s Army, a Muslim crusader? The lads joked that the Brotherhood would have a field day with me, pulling out my teeth and my nails, drilling into my legs, electrocuting my testicles, tearing pieces from me, burning my body and hanging me from a bridge. I couldn’t imagine what any of that would feel like but then I couldn’t imagine getting caught. If the Muslims got me, they’d torture me and I’d be a grainy video with a knife on my neck with people shouting that God was great as they cut. College kids would watch it thinking it made them more manly if they did, then they’d forward it to their friends making comments that they thought they were meant to, I’d be a file on a memory stick, sticking in your memory. It wasn’t the brotherhood for me. There were other brothers.
Mum came to the camp on the day of the passing out parade. My brother drove her from Burnley to Winchester. He’d told her to wait, that I’d be home on leave soon, just wait. But Mum came. She came all that way even when she wasn’t well and I said to her, Stay at home, I’ll be back soon, I’m back tomorrow, but Mum came. I went to the gates to meet her and asked, Why did you come, Mum? I’m trying to be a big boy. She said she had to come, I was her son. Her youngest. Her little boy. Can’t you be my little boy again? Not even for a little bit? There I was in another uniform meeting my mum at another set of gates. I’ve come to collect you she said. But we both knew that this was all I could have wanted – Mum. Winchester was hundreds of miles from home. It was hot, we were coming into the summer and we chatted all the way back to Burnley.
I wanted her to not worry. I wanted her to see me as a big man who could look after himself. We didn’t live in Burnley because we were millionaires. There was a clothes shop on the main street and I went in there with Mum when I was nine or 10 and she went in to look at cloth to make into something on her sewing machine, something for her to wear, and there was a dark blue armless body warmer on the rack and I grabbed it. I didn’t know about money, about what things cost or much about how you can hurt people. You hurt people when the only thing that is is you. I remember whining about the body warmer and Mum bought it for me, she never got the cloth. I didn’t know what it took for her to afford it but I know she paid with everything in her purse. I felt wrong when I wore it and realised I was ashamed of making her buy it, I was still ashamed of it when she came to the camp, still ashamed now. Here I was now, the soldier at the army gate, wearing the army’s cloth. Don’t worry about me, Mum, I can look after myself. I can buy clothes because the army pays me. Nobody’s going to kick my head in because the army’s taught me how to fight. Don’t worry about me. But Mum came.
Come now, enough thinking about old Mum, there’s an enemy out there, a bad man. Get on with it. Find the enemy. He’s out there somewhere. Always a man. I’d pretend it was real, that I was at war and waiting for someone to cut that horizon. In my head a hero. Who was the enemy? The first Gulf war had ended when I was in school so they weren’t Iraqis, the Bosnian war had finished five years ago and Muslim refugees moved into our area, they weren’t Serbs, there wasn’t an enemy to imagine. The Falklands war happened when I was four and I knew nothing about that. Who could be my enemy? I started by pretending they were Vietnamese from the war films I’d seen and then I’d think about the question the Sergeant had asked: if we went to war with Pakistan, would I fight? Could I fight myself? So I’d imagine a Pakistani soldier creeping towards me. There you are. Get out of me. A young man with a rifle in his hands and a crescent on his arm. He’d only been in a few years and looked keen. His family back in Lahore worried but he told them not to, he was a soldier. A full moustache like his mates and an arranged marriage waiting for him. He told the others that he wasn’t going to go through with it but they knew he would, just like them.
He crept through the tree line looking for me. I watched him through my sights and let him live a bit longer. He stopped and looked at me as if he could feel my crosshairs on his chest, like a thin steel cross pressing his skin. He was trying to make out if I was just a mound of grass and there I was, just a mound of grass with my face painted green and black and a rifle pointing at him. I’ve got you. It took less than a second for a bullet to hit cloth, leather or skin and the grass caught him in its green fingers. I could kill a Pakistani, could kill everything I was for them. Could I kill him because I was British? No, for those sleeping around me and what I felt for them. I’d play other games to keep occupied until it was time to wake the next person up then think about how I was calling home less, think about what my family might be doing, how Mum and Dad were and then think when did these clothes fit so well? When did Corporal become an older brother and when did the army become a mother? When did I become a British soldier?
‘A Community of Mortals’, the runner-up in this year’s Bodley Head/FT Essay Prize
Adnan Sarwar, 35, was born in The Hague and grew up in Burnley, where he joined the British Army. He served in Cyprus, Kuwait, Iraq, Qatar and in the UK. On leaving, he worked as a military consultant on films and TV shows. He is now a writer and actor based in London. More of his writing can be found at adnansarwar.com
The judges’ view: winning words
The second Bodley Head/Financial Times non-fiction essay prize was truly a global competition, with more than 200 entries coming from Bangalore to New York, Surrey to the Alps. In an age remorselessly defined by Twitter, it was a relief and, more importantly, a pleasure to see so many young writers embracing the long-form essay.
We had hoped to whittle down a list of eight; in the event the judges debated a shortlist of 11, ranging from an essay capturing digital madness in Bangalore to a Swiss adventure with Thomas Mann, to a history of Sri Lankan landmines, to an essay by a former policeman that opens with the sentence, “Nobody had reported a wallaby missing.”
An honourable mention goes to “Mushroom Season”, by Nina Lyon, a piece that seems as if it will be a hippie essay about psychoactive mushrooms but, instead, takes the reader on a fascinating journey into sociology, chemistry and anthropology.
Our runner-up, “A Community of Mortals”, by Alexandra Zelman-Doring, is a brave and elegant reflection on the role of a sudden accident, with insight into the power of modern medicine.
Our winner is Adnan Sarwar’s “British Muslim Soldier”, non-fiction with all the velocity of a gripping short story. Stuart Williams, publishing director of the Bodley Head, best summed up the judges’ view, calling it “arresting for its style, for its urgency, for the freshness of its approach to challenging subjects. It’s a wonderful piece of writing and a worthy winner.”
Caroline Daniel, FT Weekend editor
Pure non-fiction: what winning has meant for me
One of the best things about winning this competition (for my essay about writer JM Coetzee) was receiving emails from all around the world by people at work on similarly non-rigorous accounts of Coetzee, or “Curtsy”, as (one of them pointed out) he is generally referred to by non-South Africans. All this certainly made me feel less alone, and I was glad that all the things I had been trying and failing to approach for so many years in more constrained, academic language eventually made it on to the page – the “back end” of my PhD, so to speak, which seemed a lot more interesting to the world at large than the monograph (dreadful word) itself.
Since then I have received a number of invitations to write short pieces for different publications (for an academic, anything under 6,000 words is short, and real deadlines are a welcome change from the tortoise-like pace of peer reviewed scholarship).
Also, I was affected in an unexpectedly personal way by Raghu Karnad’s runner-up piece in late 2012, “Everybody’s Friend”. He was writing about his great-uncle, one of the forgotten Indian soldiers who fought on the “wrong” side during the second world war, defending the Raj of their imperial masters from the Japanese army on the Burmese border. This was a conflict that my late paternal grandfather, a soldier in the British Army, was also involved in. A frightening oil painting of the tank battle at Kohima hung above his dining table, even though he never spoke much of the war. I emailed Raghu and he sent me a scan of a document he had located in the archives: a citation for the award of the Military Cross to one Major Russell Lewis Twidle.
Both southern Africa and India, we sensed, have so many unusable pasts: histories that do not provide any easy political yield, that exceed and escape narrow, partisan agendas – but which in their very awkwardness and unpredictability may prove all the more interesting for those drawn to non-fiction narrative in all its forms.