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19 July 1999

I was a half-caste; now the future belongs to me

Once proud to be Pakistani, then desperate to be English, Zenab Shortrecalls her journey to a new id

By Zenab Short

The year is 1971; the place, Salford. As a half-Pakistani, half-English man leaves home for his arranged marriage, a white neighbour spits out one word: “Piccaninny!” Spool on a few months and another young man from the same family is being introduced to the Pakistani girl whom his father wants him to wed. The meeting does not go well, and the girl’s mother declares:

“I will not allow my daughter to marry a jungli half-breed!”

Thus the writer Ayub Khan-Din exposes what it means to be mixed race in his new play East is East. It means being reviled by whites, as evidence of a nation polluting itself, and by blacks, who fear cultural annihilation.

The play combines wryly observed comedy with painful home truths. Its humour lies in the twists and turns of the journey the mixed-race kid makes to find his feet in the dual societies he belongs to; this is also where the pain lies, because when two worlds collide, the result is culture clash. In my experience as a biracial contemporary of Ayub Khan-Din’s, being mixed is double the trouble.

I remember a humid summer’s day when, as I was walking alone along Streatham High Street in south London, a bunch of boys barked over at me: “Half-caste! Go back to where you came from.”

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I was 13 years old, and the great maw of emotion that rose up in my throat was not rage at their ignorance, but shame. I was outed; I thought I had blended in, but they had seen through my aping of “real” white girls. I half-walked, half-ran away from their grinning faces. It was only as I calmed down slightly that I said to myself: “But I don’t know where I come from.”

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This is the quandary of those of us born to parents of different ethnicity: the mixed-race community is emphatically without an established homeland.

As the child of an English mother and a Pakistani father, I have a sense of nationalism, of wanting to be an acknowledged entity, without having a valid physical place to call home.

My mother was a Young Communist and member of the Movement for Colonial Freedom. She met my father while selling the party newspaper in Chapeltown, Leeds. He had come from Pakistan to study for a degree, and soon their shared passion for the politics of the left bound them together. When she took him to meet her parents, his was the first real “black” face ever seen in their small Yorkshire village.

My mother tells me that when she married my father, she believed she was part of a movement cooking up a gorgeous, rainbow-coloured melting pot, where babies were created through love that transcended artificially created notions of race. We were to be the forerunners of a world without boundaries where, as humanity got itself all mixed up making coffee-coloured children, racism would recede into a distant memory of the bad old days before nirvana.

Once she had created her dream family, though, her idealism was shaken as the reality of being an English agnostic woman married to a Pakistani Muslim man set in. My seemingly liberal father was revealed as a creature of his culture and soon reverted to type. When we moved to Karachi in the sixties, the situation declined further, as he metamorphosed into a “he who must be obeyed” patriarch.

Karachiites in the sixties were living in the golden age. Under General Ayub Khan, who projected an image of an enlightened, Nasser-style leader and reformer, the city was experiencing a boom time. The IMF rated it an ideal model of economic development, and business delegations from Korea and Taiwan visited the city to learn the recipe of its success. There was a spirit of adventure in the air as urbane middle-class westerners and Pakistanis sat around hotel swimming pools drinking gin and tonic, planning parties and dancing the night away. The country was still only 20 years old, and anything seemed possible.

Pakistan’s biggest city now is a very different place. After Khan, there came Bhutto and then Zia ul-Haq, who proceeded to Islamicise the nation. Nightclubs were closed and alcohol banned, as religious scholars preached that women should be confined to four walls.

Even back in the sixties, my mother discovered that, beneath the veneer, tradition held powerful sway. Like many Pakistanis, my father was not a religious man but did expect his wife to conform to Islamic mores. She had to be unquestioningly respectful of her mother-in-law and defer to him in every way. All talk of freedom and equality, from their student days, was forgotten.

So we came back to London, for a fresh start. But, sensing Mum’s growing disenchantment, I grew up in a state of confusion – denying half of what I was. The trick of Anglicising my name, so as to integrate fully into white society, from Zenab to Eve Ahmed (my current surname is from my marriage) began in my late teens. Perversely, at the same time, I was hugely flattered when one of my Karachi aunts, on a visit to London, told me about a “very good” family whose son wanted a marriage arranged, and how desirable I would be to them because I was “ghauri”, or fair. I was filled with pride because she was courting me as belonging to the Pakistani side, although I could not speak Urdu or Punjabi.

My need to disguise who I really was drove me to marry an Englishman, while other mixed-race people choose a more overtly political alignment by taking black partners.

In my search for identity – and roots – I returned to Pakistan in 1991, to see the country again for the first time in 25 years; if I did not feel at home in Britain, I reasoned, maybe going back to the bosom of my extended family in Karachi was the solution. But the visit was disastrous; I felt just as much an oddity there as I did in the UK.

The story of my journey was told in a documentary for Channel 4. The film director decided to immerse me in “exotic” eastern experiences and clad me in a black burqa and took me to a shrine to watch whirling dervishes, high on hashish. None of it touched me, though. I felt like an English person looking in from the outside at their strange foreign ways.

I only truly came to terms with who I am when I had children of my own. I knew how important it would be for my daughters to have a mother with a complete identity, and not a navel-gazing neurotic. I realised that my ability to glide seamlessly across the cultural divide could become a useful tool and began to appreciate, at last, the benefits of the Islamic community, especially in the strength of the extended family.

Now I can see the glimmerings of change throughout society. In America, over the past ten years, a multiracial movement has been building. Dubbed as “the bridge generation”, the mixed race there see themselves as the interface between black and white.

Academics, including the British sociologist Stephen Small, a professor at Berkeley who is writing a book on the theme, testify that there are many experiences that multiracials of whatever ethnic heritage share. There are at least half a dozen Stateside websites offering a meeting place to discuss the new cohesiveness of the mixed-race experience. Mavin, a magazine produced for and by mixed-race people, has just been launched, and its British supplement is currently in production.

It is not going to be easy, though. The coalescing of mixed-race consciousness goes through three phases. Stage one is having no collective voice: you are preoccupied instead with fitting in with the majority group. Stage two is choosing to identify with the black in yourself: you gain strength from being part of a marginalised group with a strong voice and profile. Stage three: you don’t take a “black stance” or merge with the whites, but celebrate the oneness, the completeness, of being mixed.

In the UK we are somewhere between stages one and two. Yet this country has almost the highest number of interracial relationships and resulting offspring anywhere in the west, with 15 per cent of black women and 25 per cent of black men having white partners; one in 20 pre-school children in the UK is mixed.

An Institute for Public Policy Research seminar last year on “rethinking mixed families and mixed parenting” concluded that there was a pressing need for more analysis of the issues to allow clarity about policy and practice decisions.

The proportion of young people in the mixed race community is far higher than for any other ethnic group. After years of neglect, there is now academic interest in how such things will affect the future of British society.

There is a nationwide voluntary group, Harmony, which provides mutual support to mixed families. A whole raft of recently published books (Alex Wheatle’s Brixton Rock, Jo Hodges’ The Girl with Brains in her Feet, Ann Phoenix’s Black, White or Mixed Race?, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown’s True Colours), fiction and non-fiction alike, have initiated the debate on how it feels to be a mixed-race Briton.

As our numbers increase, the amount of successful role models is growing, too, including the half-black, half-Jewish MP Oona King. And our profile will be raised still further with the 2001 census, when, rumour has it, we will officially exist for the first time, with the new, separate mixed-race category.

My mother was, as in so many other areas of her life, way ahead of her time. My sister and I bore the brunt of her experiment in social idealism, but how grateful we are now for her precociousness.

The “rainbow nation” that she foresaw 40 years ago is happening and, before you know it, we, the “bridge generation”, who play with the boundaries of blackness and whiteness, will be finding our place in the world.