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4.1 out of 5 stars
Ours are the Streets
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 October 2016
Sunjeev Sahota's first novel is the story of Imtiaz Reina, a young man from a close Pakistani family, born and reared in Sheffield. Imtiaz's parents have not had a happy experience in the UK - his father, despite being a university graduate back home, can't get any work other than taxi driving, and is subjected to unpleasant loutish behaviour from his clients, and neither he nor Imtiaz's mother have ever really mastered reading English, or made enough money to live anywhere other than a fairly unpleasant council estate. However, Imtiaz has settled reasonably happily into British life, has British friends, and although a practising Muslim is laid-back enough about his faith that he gets his girlfriend Becka (an English fellow-student at university) pregnant while the pair of them are still completing their degrees. Unfortunately this action - coupled with his penchant for daydreaming - leaves Imtiaz with a poor (or is it a non-existent?) university degree, and little chance of a life that's any better than his father's - and in addition, he has to cope with being a father at the age of 22 to his baby daughter Noor. Imtiaz is just realizing the effect that all this will have on his life and how much his family feel he's let them down when his father dies (of a heart attack while chasing a fare-dodger) and the family return to Pakistan to bury his father in his homeland. In Pakistan, Imtiaz suddenly feels that he's found a home, proper friends and an extended family that love him. But when he becomes close friends with Aaquil, a super-confident local lad who introduces him to a radical cleric called Abu Bhai who decides to give the lads some 'training' out in Afghanistan, it becomes clear that Imtiaz's sudden identification with his homeland could be used to dangerous means. And, as we see from the start of the book (as Imtiaz, back in Sheffield and separated from Becka, lays plans for his 'mission'), that is exactly what may happen.

All credit to Sahota for attempting to get inside the mind of a suicide bomber/jihadist, and this book contains some beautiful writing - particularly about Imtiaz's love for his father, his messy relationship with Becka and his time in Pakistan, where Sahota deftly evokes both the country's landscape and its sense of community. The book was certainly an interesting read in many ways. But ultimately I wasn't sure it worked. If the aim was to make the reader sympathize with Imtiaz, I didn't feel that Sahota did a good job (other than in showing his love for his father). For me, Imtiaz summed up the late, great Hannah Arendt's remark about 'the banality of evil' - though he in himself was not evil, he plans to do evil, and in his case for quite stupid reasons. Blowing up a shopping centre will not help people like his father, who admittedly have suffered much in the UK, nor can he be seen as trying to help his family back in Pakistan, who are not under threat. Aaquil, the man who leads him to become radicalised, is clearly someone not to be trusted - as another of the characters says, he's largely been drawn to radical action as it's a great way of getting attention. Moreover, Imtiaz has had chances in the UK to have a better life than his father - it is largely though his weakness and failure to focus that he hasn't been able to take them. In Afghanistan Imtiaz witnesses the devastation caused by another suicide bomber and is horrified - but he persists in planning for his own mission partly (I suspect) because it's easier than thinking about what purpose this mission will serve, and what he has got caught up in. My general impression of Imtiaz is of a weak and vacillating young man, who is led into radicalisation despite his doubts because it is much easier to have someone else command him and to be part of a 'popular group' than to make his own way and try to forge a peaceful path through life - and because it is a way of getting out of family responsibilities and admitting that he has probably caused set-backs in his and Becka's lives by getting her pregnant so young. He doesn't even seem particularly religious - all the 'Ameens' in his narrative have a distinctly mechanical feel, and there is no real sense that he is deeply committed to the teachings of the Qu'ran - he prefers medieval narratives about splendid battles, in which he can imagine himself the hero. I felt a lot more sympathy with the would-be suicide bomber Hassan in Sebastian Faulks's 'A Week in December'. I guess - as another reviewer notes - that if we'd had more of a sense of Imtiaz's commitment to his religion, and of the exact turning point when he went from not-particularly-devout Muslim and family man to radical believer, I might have understood, if not sympathised with him, more. But for me he came across as an immature young man desperate to join an exclusive 'gang' and be seen as a hero, whatever the consequences, which was really a bit pathetic. And what was with the writing 'sempt' instead of 'seemed' all the time?

Still, the quality of the writing in some of the Pakistan sections, the interesting information scattered through the text about Islam and the few really loveable characters such as Becka, Quasoomah and her family and Imtiaz's father made the book overall quite a good read - and I'll definitely read Sahota's second book, which looks extremely interesting.

Three and a half stars.
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on 19 September 2017
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 August 2013
There are few authors who would take on writing a novel from the perspective of a would-be terrorist, and fewer still who would pull it off, but debut novelist Sunjeev Sahota succeeds. The subject is of course a controversial and potentially upsetting one, but it is handled very well. It is narrated in the first person, in the form of a journal written by a British Muslim preparing a suicide attack on a shopping centre. Addressed to various family members, particularly his estranged wife and daughter, it tells the story of his recent life and how a formerly moderate young man became 'radicalised'. It is a disturbing story, with a bit of a twist that becomes apparent later in the book and makes you question the reliability of the narrator.

It would be all too easy to sound like terrorism was being justified or even glorified in such a story, but Sahota avoids this. In fact, it is never really understandable why the narrator - Imtiaz - settles on such an extreme course of action. In fact, you come to feel Imtiaz himself doesn't really know. It's all too common to hear how a terrorist or murderer seemed 'very ordinary' and people who knew them can barely believe it of them. Sahota sets his protagonist up in this mould; married to a white woman, with a young child, brought up by respectable and caring parents, well educated, previously very moderate in his religious leanings, preferring going out drinking to attending prayers. Imtiaz's voice is convincing, right down to his Sheffield accent. He's not exactly a likeable character, but he's certainly not dislikeable either. He comes over as a fairly typical confused young man, desperate to 'fit in', struggling with the responsibilities of new fatherhood and mourning the loss of his father. There is no real hatred or spite in his narration, and particularly towards the end he cuts a pathetic figure. It is disturbing how easily he is converted, and the sections around this seem believable enough although I don't know enough about it to know for sure.

It is a short novel and remains gripping throughout, particularly in the final section as things start to unravel for Imtiaz, and as his retelling of events in Pakistan reaches its horrible climax. It doesn't really provide any easy answers for why people become radicalised in general, rather it is a more personal story. The characterisation is good and it does touch on the difficulties faced by Muslims in non-Muslim countries and of inter-faith marriages, but it's not really a preachy story and you don't feel the author is trying to make a specific point. Whilst I wouldn't describe it as outstanding, hence the four star rating, it is very strong first novel and definitely worth reading.
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VINE VOICETOP 500 REVIEWERon 19 March 2011
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The premise for the story behind Ours Are The Streets is an excellent one, and in the right hands this could be a powerful story that could go some way to explain why young men that have been born and brought up in Britain feel the need to turn to extreme fundamentalism.

However, the writing style in this book is so very odd. Imtiaz is a recognisable character, he is young, bored and has found himself married and a father at a young age, but there is nothing in his thoughts to make the reader feel as though he is particularly angry with the world, or that he feels hard done by. Imtiaz and his young white wife live in Sheffield with their toddler daughter, they married against the odds and Becka, his wife has 'reverted' to his relgion.

It is not until Imtiaz's father dies and he returns to Pakistan for a visit that he starts to question his life back in England, and even then when he starts to associate with other young radicals there is no real explanation as to why he decides to become a suicide bomber.
Life in Pakistan is portrayed as idyllic, with family members almost worshipping him, feeding him and bestowing gifts and money on him. Coming home to Sheffield brings him back down to earth with a bang, and he realises that he is just another young man trying to make a living.

The passion and emotion that you would expect from a story such as this is lacking and the language is annoying at times but there is something strangely compelling about the character of Imtiaz that made me read on until the end.

Living very near to Meadowhall, I did find Imtiaz's plans to blow himself up there quite disturbing, his regular visits to check out how busy the place was did bring home to me just credible a plan this could be.
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on 27 November 2010
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How do you write a first person narrative about a potential suicide bomber? I mean, how can you imagine yourself into such an extreme situation and tell a believable story about it? I really had my doubts but, on the whole, I think that Sunjeev Sahota has achieved it.

The story is written in a popular slang style - Imtiaz is from Sheffield and so the narrative is written with Sheffield slang - 'I were this', 'I were going up Meadowhall', 'it sempt to me' - and there are no chapters, simply gaps where the narrator stops writing. It's not a diary but more sort of notes to himself, not to justify his actions, but to try and explain them to himself.

Basically, it strikes me as a desperately sad story. It's about a deep, deep sense of alienation. Imtiaz grows up in this northern town, watching his parents sacrifice themselves, taking almost any abuse in order to raise him, to see him have a better life than they. But when his father dies and he returns with the body to Pakistan, he finally feels a sense of belonging and quickly wants to fit in, to adopt the clothes, manners and beliefs of those around him, to not be the foreigner.

And really, it's this sense of belonging, of wanting to belong, that prompts him to take the actions he does. He watches the videos of atrocities but doesn't seem particularly moved by them, says that he's seen them before. He is outraged by what the fighting has done to Kashmir, but it's not a strident, violent anger. His commitment seems to come much more from that sense of belonging he finds in Pakistan and his sense of alienation when he returns to Sheffield.

By making Imtiaz's motivation more subtle and complex, perhaps Sahota risks making the story less believable. I had my doubts almost all the way through. But, in the end, it hardly matters because the story ends up being much less about a potential suicide bomber and far more about belonging, friendship, loyalty and loss.
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on 2 March 2011
Imtiaz, a british born boy of Pakistani parents meets Becka, a white girl from Sheffield and when she becomes pregnant his world and in turn his parents hopes and dreams for him are dashed as he does the honourable thing and marries her. She agrees to convert to Islam and for a while they are happy, but when Imtiaz's Abba (father) dies and he goes back to Pakistan to bury him, he tries to make sense of his feelings, his cultural heritage and beliefs and when he gets in with the wrong crowd and is offered a trip to Kashmir and then Afghanistan, he thinks he's found the perfect cause and solution to his feelings of inferiority and loss and a sense that he never made his parents proud or fulfilled his potential. Written in first person as a suicide letter/diary/memoir to his family, especially Becka and Noor his daughter, from whom he separates on his return to the UK. He outlines his feelings about his life, the visit to Pakistan and what has led him to the momentous decision to become a suicide bomber, but it's not until the end that you know whether or not he goes through with it. My only annoyance with the whole book is the occasional lapse back into "Northern" dialect and as a northerner myself this grated with me e.g sempt for seemed to, were instead of was etc. Written in otherwise "normal" language, it was as is Sunjeev suddenly realised his own roots and that of his character and felt he had to speak the lingo.
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on 6 April 2016
This is a well written book, a good story but the subject matter is hard.......what makes a suicide bomber?
Westerners will find it hard to understand the hold of a religion on a whole nation, the hate it produces, the fanaticism .
It is so very sad that some may follow this route in their lives, that they are manipulated and used by narrow , uneducated and evil people in the name of a god to right perceived wrongs.
Religion is a dangerous opiate of the people.
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VINE VOICEon 29 March 2012
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I found this book in many ways quite frightening. It is scary because of how banal, yet fulfilling the life of the main protagonist appears to be. He seems "just like me", a Western liberal agnostic who goes through the motions of certain religious beliefs simply so as not to cause offence to others.

Yet this same young man prepares to make the ultimate sacrifice (the absurdity of calling a suicide a bomber a coward as many Western leaders often do after another "outrage", whilst rewarding the heroism of those on our side who make the ultimate sacrifice runs through the mind whilst reading this).

I'm no longer a young man, but a middle aged fool and a great physical coward. This book made me wonder, what would it take to transform me into the kind of person who would do this. Is this bravery or sheer stupidity?

Those who seek easy resolutions and explanations should not look here. Those who want to contemplate the human condition and examine their own journey through life (and perhaps beyond) will find this book a good "jumping off" point
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VINE VOICEon 10 April 2011
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There are quite a few books out that follow the story of an asian in Britain. This book tells the story of a young man born in England who grows up to marry a white girl and have a child. Imtiaz is quite likeable, he proclaims his love for his wife to his parents and they make a go of things as a family. She even converts to Islam. It all changes when Imtiaz goes back to the homeland to visit family. He becomes sucked in to the propaganda and his family aren't enough to save him. The story is written in the style of a journal and towards the end of the book you would probably describe him as mentally i'll. He seems depressed, doesn't go out, thinks he's being followed etc. Seeing his mental decline really does make this a good book. The story itself is the cliche but seeing how Imtiaz crumbles emotionally in the name of the cause is quite gripping and makes you feel sad because he has so much in his life to live for but he loses it all and accepts that he must. Overall, this book was an easy read and gave you an insight into a very worrying topic. I enjoyed it and liked the style of writing.
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VINE VOICEon 16 October 2011
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The headlines of this book is that a Sheffield born Pakistani man is trained in Afghanistan to return to Sheffield as a suicide bomber and writes this autobiographical book as a confession for the wife he expects to leave behind. As he contemplates this action his wife takes their child and leaves him; clearly his treatment of her has become cruel and unreasonable. Hardly someone to like it would seem; and yet somehow one develops a degree of sympathy for him.
The book really is an exploration of alienation and belonging, particularly for the immigrant whose home is here in England and yet still talks of 'back home'; of someone that has been brought up in cultures and is a foreigner to each and doesn't know which to choose.
This subject matter could easily elicit cliche after cliche, with facile cut and paste statements from a lesser writer. Here though is a writer with a deft touch who uses light and shade, seriousness and humour and happiness and sadness to produce a powerful, moving novel.
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