Worlds Apart, by Azi Ahmed, is straplined A Muslim Girl With The SAS. As the book is described as a true story, and is written in the form of a memoir, this is perhaps unfortunate marketing as the veracity of the army section appears questionnable.
I read the book in a sitting. There is a lot about it that I found interesting. There are also elements that lead me to do further research as they did not ring true. As I gleaned my information from the internet it is hard to know what to believe but it took the shine of what could have been a fine story had it been written as a work of fiction.
The tale takes the reader through the early life of a young girl growing up in a traditional Muslim household in working class Manchester. Azi is the youngest of five children whose parents came to the UK from Pakistan a few years before she was born. They worked hard and saved, eventually opening up their own business selling halal meat. Azi describes her mother as illiterate. All her children were encouraged to gain good grades at school.
There are incidents of bullying and racism. Azi was raised to be subservient to men, trained to be a good wife and compliant member of the Muslim community. It was assumed that her parents would arrange a marriage for her. She had little knowledge of anything that went on outside of her own culture and lived a sheltered if frustrating life.
The first event that made me question the authenticity of what was being recounted was the means by which Azi attained her place at Central Saint Martins, an art school in London. It is hard to believe that such a prestigious establishment would offer a place in this way. Setting that aside, once Azi moves south, away from her family, she discovers a world she is eager to explore. Although never managing to fully shake off the shackles of cultural expectations she enjoys her freedom. She has a surprising amount of luck finding work placements and goes on to set up her own business. When this is no longer enough of a challenge a friend jokingly suggests she joins the TA.
The story of how she ends up in the army, like that of how she got into college, seems suspect. My research suggests she may have joined something like a since abandoned prototype training scheme for women wishing to experience the armed forces. It seems unlikely this was for the SAS.
Nevertheless, the reader is taken through months when Azi’s army experiences challenge her to the limits. Sometimes what she claims to achieve is quite hard to believe but I am not an expert in how much a small and slight body could endure. She comes out the other side changed. There is then a period over which few details are shared.
The final section recounts her decision to go into politics. Here the narrative comes across as somewhat self-aggrandising, which had not been the case before. If anything her childhood had been the opposite. Although she struggled with the strictures imposed on her life by her parents, she seems to have willingly worked hard and developed a strong self-reliance that stood her in good stead when she broke away.
I enjoyed reading the early chapters and valued the opportunity to learn more of a family life that is rarely opened to outsiders. It was interesting to read that Azi also considered she had no idea how those from other cultures lived. She resented the preconceptions others held about her people, the assumptions about how she must think. Nevertheless she recognised that she too harboured prejudices as was demonstrated when she discovered that a friend she valued was gay.
The writing style reminded me of celebrity memoirs I used to read. These were ghost written leading me to ponder who penned this work.
When a book is marketed as a true story and subsequently uncovered as inaccurate it can make readers angry as they feel hoodwinked. Whatever elements of this tale are true, it is an easy and often entertaining read. As an army memoir it has been badly received by those who know more about this way of life than me.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by Bookollective.