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April 26, 2012

Book Notes - Imran Ahmad - "The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West"

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, David Peace, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Imran Ahmad's The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West is an entertaining and insightful memoir about growing up as a Pakistani immigrant in Great Britain. Ahmad handles heavy issues like racism and culture clashes with deft and often humorous prose. wrote of the book:

"This laugh-out-loud book has a deceptively simple structure, with each chapter representing a school year of his life, including summer vacation. It doesn't feel like a literary crutch because it reflects Ahmad's orderly, rational character. The complexity of his spiritual searching—and his desire for better cars—increases with each chapter. Funny stories about his Jaguar XJS and crushes on girls keep things light, but the book’s real value is in Ahmad's explanation of misunderstandings between secular Westerners and Christian culture and the multi-faceted Muslim world. A feminist and a peacemaker, our "perfect gentleman" has this reader impatient for the sequel."

Stream a Spotify playlist of these tunes. If you don't have Spotify yet, sign up for the free service.

In his own words, here is Imran Ahmad's Book Notes music playlist for his memoir, The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West:

The Perfect Gentleman is my memoir about growing up as a Muslim of Pakistani origin in Britain in the 60s, 70s and 80s. Although I use the medium of a memoir as a vehicle for discussions about a diverse spectrum of subjects, these discussions are woven into the narrative very lightly, so as not to weigh it down. I have had feedback from many people of all backgrounds that they could completely relate to virtually all the experiences related, allowing me to conclude that – whatever our ethnicity, religion, culture or nationality – there is a core set of human experience which is common to us all.

"The Night Chicago Died" by Paper Lace

From a very early age, I was conscious that I was on the side of ‘good', and vehemently opposed to corruption and injustice. Somewhat naively, with the simple vision of one with little real-world experience, I was always a supporter of the police – who were obviously on the side of good, of law and order – and I was opposed to criminals, who were obviously bad people. This song is very intense and deeply moving, being about the human cost of the war of good vs bad. I was too naïve to realize that the Chicago police department of the 1930s was probably only marginally less corrupt than Al Capone and his criminal gang.

As a child, I was very aware of the concept of orphans, and so very worried about losing either or both of my parents – something which this song poignantly touches on: "…And I asked someone who said, Bout a hundred cops are dead."

But there is something else very bittersweet about this song, which reminded me of my Indian-subcontinental origins and that I was not a regular person in western society. In the song, the narrator's father eventually arrives home: "… and he kissed my mama's face, and he brushed her tears away."

This was something that never happened. I never once saw my father kiss my mother, not even on the cheek. This does not mean that he didn't love her (I know that he did) and that he didn't do this behind closed doors (I have two brothers, so they must have done it a few times), but it was an absolute rule that people from India and Pakistan never ever showed romantic affection in public. That was something vulgar that only white people did.

I believe that one of the factors driving an abusive attitude towards women in certain societies is that children in those cultures never witness affection between men and women, not even at home (never mind in the street). They never witness the holding of hands, or a simple kiss. So how would they understand the concepts of affection, of physical intimacy? If they never witness such simple acts of love, then they may become incapable of such expression themselves.

I think there should be a comfortable middle ground of non-vulgar physical interaction by which we can demonstrate to children that love and affection are perfectly okay.

James Bond theme by Monty Norman

Not strictly a song, but probably one of the world's most recognizable tracks. When I was growing up as a Pakistani Muslim in Britain, I was aware that I was expected to behave very differently from regular people – but in reality I really just wanted to belong. This desire for belonging creates a need for role models, and the role model I chanced upon was James Bond – for a number of reasons. He was the ultimate establishment figure, which meant that he totally belonged.

When I discovered the original James Bond novels by Ian Fleming, I found them to be utterly compelling, exciting, erotic. (This was very bad timing, as I was supposed to be studying for my exams to gain admission to medical school.) And I discovered that I had a particular connection to James Bond – a quite unexpected one. It was his physical description. Fleming describes James Bond as having a dark face, black hair (parted on the left), long black eyebrows, and a long straight nose. He was describing me!

So with such a perfect match to his description, in my mind I could perceive myself as very similar to James Bond – apart from the vodka, the cigarettes and the women. (Only one of those items has ever appealed to me.)

There are advantages to having a desire for this persona. I tend to exercise more, keep myself fit, shave regularly and generally look presentable. I always favor an attaché case over the more contemporary "gentleman's handbag." I never wear a patterned tie with a patterned shirt. I always have a wonderfully brisk cold shower after my hot shower – the colder, the better (you should try it – it makes you feel great!).

Even today, whenever I do anything vaguely James-Bond-like – such as checking into a luxury hotel; boarding an aircraft in the front section; picking up a smart rental car – I hear the James Bond theme start playing in my head. I probably need to see a psychiatrist.

"Late in the Evening" by Simon and Garfunkel

Back in 1981, at the age of 19, I transitioned very suddenly from a boys' grammar school to a university in Scotland, where there girls everywhere. To be away from home and free! (Although I wasn't really that free, due to all my programmed constraints and inhibitions.) And I met a slightly irritating and very scruffy fellow called Milton, who had a regional accent. But he was very friendly towards me, and we often sat in his terribly untidy room, drinking coffee, whilst he strummed his guitar or played music tapes. He introduced me to the songs of Paul Simon, both as a solo artist and as "Simon and Garfunkel."

At that time, my major preoccupation was how to impress girls in general and one girl in particular, Janice, whom (I believed) I had fallen head-over-heels in love with. (I think the novelty factor of meeting girls for the first time was having a far greater impact than I could comprehend at that age. I now understand that there are different kinds of girls, and they have different personalities, and what's below the surface is far more important than the superficial beauty which first catches the eye. Duh! You already know this, don't you?)

Anyway, this song has a really exhilarating, high energy beat and a heady exuberance, and in the lyrics Paul Simon proclaims that when he first met this particular girl, he said "I'm gonna get that girl no matter what I do."

And that was exactly how I felt about Janice. (It's all in The Perfect Gentleman.)

"I Am a Rock" by Simon and Garfunkel

So, it didn't go well with Janice. I completely put my heart on a tray for her, and she rejected it, with that that cutting, archetypal line: "I think we should just be friends."

How could I have so misread the signs? We had spent so much time together, she had come to my room a lot, we had been to see Alien (on something which I thought resembled a date), she even liked James Bond novels. I thought she was perfect. I knew (or so I thought) that I would never meet another girl like her. Her cold words stabbed me in the heart – that I had completely misinterpreted everything and our "relationship" was all in my head.

It was December, nearly Christmas, approaching the end of our first semester, and with the exams just days away. I was woefully unprepared for the exams, having been too distracted by the Janice project. This being Scotland, it had snowed heavily, and the snow was still thick on the ground.

"I Am a Rock" was extremely poignant as I listened to it, because I was also looking out of my window at a "softly fallen silent shroud of snow" and feeling a pain in my chest that was so intense, I thought my ribs were going to break. To me this is the ultimate song which describes that melancholic heavy ache of a broken heart.

Over thirty years later, I've just had my heart broken again recently. And you know, that pain in the chest doesn't get any easier with age or practice. In fact, it's worse now, because the love I experienced wasn't delusional – it was real (and mutual). But to truly experience authentic love, you must have the courage to be vulnerable – and that means there is a risk one must accept of feeling such pain.

Once again I have experienced an authentic "I Am a Rock" state of pain and melancholy. The only difference is that I'm currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – and there's never any snow on the ground outside my window.

"Duncan" by Paul Simon

The Janice saga didn't end there. She started seeing a Neanderthal man who used to park his car illegally under my window, whenever he went to see her (Janice and I were in the same hall of residence). This meant it was always obvious to me when he had spent the night. This agonizing observation used to drive me insane.

How could she possibly have fallen for such a caveman? He completely lacked my refinement, he always wore denim and leather (like Fonzie in Happy Days), and his regional accent was so thick, it was impossible to understand him.

The song "Duncan" begins with the narrator complaining that he's in a motel room, trying to sleep – but the sounds of the couple next door incessantly making love are keeping him awake. This always made me think of Janice and the Neanderthal man. Okay, I couldn't actually hear them making love, but I could imagine it. It was so depressing.

The worst time that I heard this song, I had the tape on auto reverse, and I was up all night cramming for a Chemistry exam the next morning, which I had completely neglected. The combination of the exam, my lack of sleep, my general state of unhappiness about Janice, and this song – all these combined to create one of the most memorably miserable nights of my life. Thanks Paul!

"Last Christmas" by George Michael

In our final year, there was an amazing development. Janice finally fell into my arms. I always knew it would happen! I always knew that I was the one for her.

It was just before Christmas, snow was thick on the ground, the end of semester was approaching, and I had persuaded Janice to have dinner with me. She agreed, and it went incredibly well. We ended up in her room afterwards, and she let me kiss her – quite a lot. As I walked away from my first such experience, I was absolutely elated. Janice was my girlfriend!

The next morning, I went to see her, to plan our day together. It didn't go quite as I expected. She was as cold as ice. It was just a bit of fun. We were NOT in a relationship. Why did I always have to take things so seriously?

I tried to salvage some self-esteem, but it was a lost cause. As I stumbled outside, it was snowing heavily. I wandered around campus in a daze, not really sure what I was doing. In one of the campus shops, this song (which I'd never heard before – it was brand new) was playing, and the words caught my attention. The singer lamented that, last Christmas, he had given his heart to his beloved, and she had given it away the very next day. That was exactly how I felt! This song seemed to be speaking directly to me.

"Free Man in Paris" by Joni Mitchell

Milton also introduced me to the music of Joni Mitchell. And this is my favorite Joni song. It's so upbeat – whenever I want to give myself some kind of mental boost, I sing it to myself (not out loud, fortunately).

From an early age I knew that I wasn't free. I had so many cultural and religious constraints placed upon me, that I envied the regular people, who seemed to be able to do whatever they wanted. (Of course, this isn't necessarily a good thing – there should be a comfortable middle ground between utter depravity and relentless self-denial.) I never felt that I could study whatever I really wanted to and enjoyed (ie liberal arts), and I knew that there were rigid constraints on who I could marry. And I rationalized this, made it acceptable in my mind, by having a disparaging attitude to these liberal, western freedoms. It's taken me decades to set myself free and accept the joy and responsibility that comes with personal freedom.

Back in college days, I had ended up studying Chemistry, which I didn't really enjoy, but when it came to my final exams, I knew I had to excel – or face a bleak, under-achieving future. For once in my life, I totally focused on those exams, to the exclusion of all else, and I sung "Free Man in Paris" to myself as I walked to the exam hall.

April 2012

Just the other day, I was having a video-Skype conversation with Milton. I told him that I was about to leave for New York, to start my 50-city US speaking tour for the launch of The Perfect Gentleman.

"When I'm in New York, I'll be going to Paul Simon's office, to pay for the permissions to use his lyrics in my book. I might even meet him, if he happens to be there. But I may not have much to say to him – after all, what do we have in common? I've just been so deeply in love recently, and now she's run away and left me heartbroken. How could Paul Simon possibly relate to that?"

We both fell on the floor, rolling with laughter.

Imran Ahmad and The Perfect Gentleman: A Muslim Boy Meets the West links:

the author's blog
the book's website

Autumn Blues Review review
Caffeinated Muslim review review review
New York Journal of Books review review
The Record review

Huffington Post contributions by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

other Book Notes playlists (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlists

List of Online "Best Books of 2011" Lists
List of 2011 Year-End Online Music Lists

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
52 Books, 52 Weeks (weekly book reviews)
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
Try It Before You Buy It (mp3s and full album streams from the week's CD releases)
weekly music & DVD release lists