Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Islam, Immigration and Bruce Springsteen

He’s an unlikely Bruce Springsteen fan, a Pakistani kid living in the blue-collar English town of Luton. But he’s quite possibly the most avid Boss nut I’ve ever heard of, surpassing even my mother and my aunt who both went to the same high school as Bruce, and my friend from the Jersey Shore who has “Born to Run” tattooed on his chest.

Sarfraz Manzoor’s love of Bruce is the one thing that gets him through his chaotic circumstances. He’s a strange kid in a strange place. Manzoor was born in Pakistan to a Muslim family, but his father was living in England to support the family. It wasn’t until years later that the rest of the family moved to England to join Manzoor’s father. Times were not easy for Pakistanis in 1980s England. Margaret Thatcher, economic stagnation, racist hatred, terrific working conditions, etc. Manzoor’s father works all the time in factories to save money for the family and relatives back in Pakistan., and his mother and sisters work for hours on end making dresses by hand for upscale London shops.

Manzoor wants to be close with his father, but it does not seem destined to happen. (To say Manzoor’s father is strict is a gross understatement, tantamount to saying that “Thunder Road” is a decent song.) The connection he seeks with his father is unattainable, so Manzoor turns to music. And music changes him. It opens his eyes to the beauty of romantic love (as opposed to arranged marriages), free expression (as opposed to religious structure). And Manzoor is at his best when describing his adolescent connection with music in general and with Springsteen in particular. After seeing The Boss for the first time in London, Manzoor tells his friend: “I had started getting sad before the end of the concert, the knowledge that it would soon be over almost ruining my enjoyment. We had spent so long dreaming of this one evening that now [that] it was over there seemed nothing left to look forward to…” Maybe this is why the next time Bruce comes to England, Manzoor goes out and buys front-row seats for six concerts in a row.

Being a music nut myself, one who has chased Social Distortion across the country, I completely understand Manzoor’s drive. There is a unique sense of belonging that comes from understanding a musician’s lyrics, feeling the beat and the guitars, and experiencing it all live among crowds of other people. The differences among the fans fade away, and all that’s left is a shared enjoyment. Manzoor, perhaps because he was fiercely sober his entire life, does a great job describing these moments of musical bliss.

He writes with power and raw emotion when he describes meeting The Boss himself. During one concert, a 21-year-old Manzoor holds Springsteen’s guitar while he takes off his jacket. He stakes out Bruce’s a hotel and gets a photograph. Later that night, Bruce plays Manzoor’s request and dedicates it to him. Manzoor relives this incredible time with smooth, poetic prose, and he does a great job of describing that love and obsession young people have with music and the people who make it.

There are some hilarious cultural elements in this memoir. One of my favorites is when Sarfraz, at 33 and unmarried, finally agrees to let his mother set him up with Pakistani women. She doesn’t want him to date white women, so she tries to find him a Pakistani wife. He speaks to one such prospect on the phone, and can tell immediately that their values do not align. “It was clear I had nothing in common with this girl,” he writes, adding: “but I didn’t want to be rude in case she was beautiful.” An understandable thought.

This memoir is a family drama, but it’s also a story of divided loyalties and confused cultural and religious identities, themes which seem to follow Manzoor his whole life. “At the age of thirty, I was comfortably British, occasionally Pakistani, and only technically Muslim.” This tension between identities is the main driving force to the narrative.

The attacks of 9/11, and the subsequent terror attacks of 7/7 in the London Underground, feature prominently in this book. They wreak havoc in the Pakistani immigrant community. Manzoor and his family watch television with horror as the second tower collapses. “Those poor people, all they were doing was going to work,” his mother laments. “Going to earn money for their families, why did they deserve to die? Who would do such a thing?”

One of my favorite portions of the book is when Manzoor flies to New York for the first time after 9/11. He is terrified of being detained, frisked or questioned because of his Pakistani descent. When the passport control officer asks him “What’s the purpose of your visit?” Manzoor answers, bluntly, “To see Bruce Springsteen.” The agent’s reply is perhaps the best remark I’ve heard come from a passport control agent: “Well, let me tell you something: there is no better reason to come to the United States than to see Bruce Springsteen. You take your passport and have a great time at the gig, you hear.”

Now, here come the clarifiers…Unfortunately, this book is riddled with garbled language and outright errors. For example, when Manzoor describes hiding in his house while Indian jets bombed Karachi in 1971, he writes, “Our home had no windows and doors and we could see the jets flying over our heads as they dropped bombs…” That sentence, like many others, left me scratching my head and wondering if Mr. Manzoor could use another copy editor.

He describes his dad's farting as: “letting one rip with both methane-fueled barrels.” As far as I know, there’s only one barrel that shoots out methane. When Manzoor sees his first English film, he writes with joy about how he just “popped my cinematic cherry,” which is a bit odd for someone with as many sexual hang-ups as Manzoor.

Paragraphs and even whole chapters are thrown together with little transition and seemingly little forethought. There are other bothersome structural errors. For example, it’s only on page 235 that we hear that Manzoor’s mother doesn’t speak English. Considering this is a tale of an immigrant family in England and Manzoor’s mother is a key character, if might have been helpful to know that fact before the end of the book.

Putting aside the lazy writing and bad editing, this book is a rewarding read. And, hey, at least every chapter starts out with a quote from The Boss.


  1. Hey Isaac, looking for something else on your blog but couldn't resist the lure of the Bruce Springsteen tag. I love this post, as a music lover, it's so true.

  2. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. I'm a music lover myself, from Belmar, New Jersey. I'm a huge Bruce fan. My mother went to the same high school he did. I tried to get tickets for the E Street Band show in Washington, DC, but they were scooped up in minutes. Thanks for reading. Cheers!