Alternative for Ahmed

Alternative for Ahmed

Mon 08 Jan

Forever absent from Beatrice, alone and perhaps humiliated, Dante imagined the scene in Paradiso in order to imagine he was with her. Unhappily for him, happily for the centuries that would read him, his consciousness that the meeting was imaginary distorted the vision. The reality, for him, was that first life and then death had taken Beatrice from him.

Jorge Luis Borges

The nationalist party, Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), won more than 90 seats and entered the German parliament for the first time as I was about to finish my new book. The underlying theme of Beatrice’s Last Smile is the resurgence of nationalism in our world. Eleven years had passed since I published my second book. The time had been lost and I thought the only way to regain it was to write about the past.

No person can judge the condition of exile who has not experienced it. There is a great deal of anxiety in many European countries, particularly in Germany, about the people who have arrived on the Continent during the last three years. I am myself a relative newcomer to the UK and can feel the burden of sorrow of those men and women who have fled wars and found refuge of sorts in a European country. In Beatrice’s Last Smile I have tried to discern the weight of that sorrow arising from the loss of one’s homeland.

As for Germans, they looked up to America as a beacon of hope after World War II but now America herself is descending into a historical abyss. I feel more concerned these days by the rise of nationalists in America than in Germany.

I had sold the paperback rights of my previous two books to a mainstream publisher and had endless trouble with them regarding their cover design. I felt bewildered and bereft when I saw the images the publisher wanted to use on the cover of my books. My own editor thought it was a marketing choice of the crudest kind, showing disrespect for the content and mood of my work. The pictures looked as if they had been lifted out of some copyright-free stock-shot library by someone who’d either not read my books or failed to understand them. I wanted to return the publisher’s advance but I had already signed a contract with them and felt compelled to accept their cover designs. I am not much of a mainstream writer and that is why I like to publish books under my own Coldstream imprint.

Article by Iqbal Ahmed

Iqbal Ahmed's first non-fiction book, Sorrows of the Moon (London: Constable, 2004), dealt with the struggles facing migrants in London. It became something of a phenomenon. Having worked as a bookseller in Waterstones, Iqbal knew distribution was important. He cycled around the city, hawking copies to all the independent bookshops he knew. His book was spotted, and then championed, by the London Review of Books bookshop. It won favourable reviews from several establishment journals, including the Times Literary Supplement and the Guardian. Sorrows of the Moon was chosen as a Book of the Year in the Guardian and Independent on Sunday.

EXTRACT from Beatrice's Last Smile by Iqbal Ahmed

When Sharif saw his nephews and nieces in a Peshawar refugee camp, he was distressed by their wretched appearance. They had travelled by a pick-up van from Kabul and then on foot to reach Peshawar, surviving on dried peaches on this treacherous journey. After six months without a haircut Sharif's nephews looked so bedraggled that he took them to a barbershop straight away and then bought shoes and clothes for his sister's entire family.

[One of Sharif's nephews] Faiz showed me a picture of their family house in Kabul. It was a three-storied building surrounded by a considerable amount of land. Someone who had recently travelled from Kabul told him that his ancestral home had been hit by a shell and reduced to rubble. The UN had provided tents for the camps but even basic facilities like drinking water and toilets were scarce. It was tough to live in a tented camp for six months. On top of their material hardships, the refugees feared bombardment by Soviet warplanes during the night.

Faiz and his siblings sometimes ate only one meal a day in Peshawar and when they arrived in Hamburg they were shocked to see how much food went into rubbish bins every day. They didn't like the idea of wasting food so there were usually no leftovers on their plates at mealtimes. Faiz said that he found it bewildering in the beginning to see the ripe and ready fruit that had fallen to the ground in the orchards around his uncle's country home. He collected all the fallen apples in Sharif's orchard and his mother made apple jam and distributed it in bottles among the Afghan families living in Hamburg. Faiz's mother also cooked pilau rice with raisins once a week and sent it to a mosque in Hamburg where many Afghan men went for Friday prayers.

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