A British-Pakistani pens an open letter to Riz Ahmed for ‘The Long Goodbye,’ his latest venture that doubles as his “breakup” with Britain.
Dear Riz Ahmed,
As a third culture and British-Pakistani icon, time after time you deliver for your community. Your latest feat, ‘The Long Goodbye’, is no different. It is an amalgamation of rap, history, and culture and is all too real for third culture kids like myself. I have always been vocal about the internal struggles that I and many of my brown peers face. But those words don’t come easy.
‘The Long Goodbye’ makes it easier, slickly encompassing everything that I feel but cannot find the words to say.
Let’s set the scene. Friday, March 6th, Canary Wharf, London. I took my hour for lunch in the office kitchen. After a quick four-minute call with my ma, I spent the next 56 minutes absorbing the tracks of ’The Long Goodbye’ over a sandwich.
Track after track, it became harder to swallow as tears glazed over my eyes and a lump precipitated in my throat. Whether that was the impact of your powerful words or the consequence of grabbing a budget-friendly sandwich, we will never know (let’s be real, it was the former).
It is all too familiar a feeling, put into words and set to your beat
Starting with the sobering “The Breakup (Shikwa)” you delve into the toxic love-hate relationship many of us have with Britain. You spit the tales of British colonization, the Indian WW1 effort, and bloody Partition, all in a mere three and a half minutes. A mammoth feat, considering it took me almost 10,000 words, four months and many a breakdown to do when I was writing my dissertation.
The lyrics made me pause mid-bite. “I’m heartbroken and I’m homeless, forgotten who I was”.
The track draws out how the place so many of us call home is growing increasingly hostile towards us, reminiscent of our ‘othering’ during the era of the glorious British empire. In just three and a half minutes, you lay out the gritty but common crisis of being a Pakistani born and raised in a nation that never really wanted to make us kings or queens, just colonies.
As I navigated my way through the anthology of painfully familiar culture clashes and crises, I found myself increasingly aware of myself as I sat in the office kitchen. Much like Toba Tek Singh’s displacement, I felt an all too recognizable feeling of being out of place. It is part of human nature, as social animals, to crave a sense of belonging. But for many second-gen immigrants, the repercussions of the Brexit referendum, the Trump administration and the rise of right-wing nationalism globally, pushes this sense of belonging just out of reach, leaving you where Manto’s titular character lay – neither here nor there, in no man’s land. At this point, I looked down at my sandwich and wished with all my might that it was a paratha and not a ploughman’s.
And then I reached what, for me, is the identifier of this album – “Where You From”.
The track’s title evoked a heavy sigh when I saw the tracklisting for the first time. It threw me back into overlapping memories from my childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Not to mention the quick follow-up – “but where are you really from?”. Asked by new school friends, prospective flatmates, colleagues with no malicious intent, this question cuts deep. Regardless of intentions, it opens up internal dilemmas that too many third culture kids like myself are reluctant to face.
As the track progressed, I found my heartbeat matching the quickening pace of your words. I remembered every variant answer that I have ever used in response to that question.
“Britain but my parents are from Pakistan.”
Or, even the often negatively connoted “I’m a British Pakistani”.
I also remembered the dissatisfaction that followed each answer, both for myself and for the person asking the question. Let’s face it, telling someone that you are from some obscure town in Wales isn’t answering the question that they really want to be answered – “why do you look like you and not me?”. “Where You From” is a solemn reminder that despite our “British” accents (or in my case British with a slight twang of Welsh), our melanin makes “Britain” an insufficient answer for our interrogators.
From Mindy to Mahershala, ‘The Long Goodbye’ overflows with representation
Twenty-seven minutes and half a sandwich later and I landed on a brighter note, with the sassier “Deal With It” and the boppy “Karma”. The shift in mood bears semblance with the strong British-Pakistani identity that has established itself in recent years.
And while this letter is for the most part directed to you, Riz, let’s not forget the friendly faces (or rather, voices) peppered throughout “The Long Goodbye”. These brown and black icons, such as the ultimate homecoming king Hasan Minhaj, everyone’s #bestfriendgoals Mindy Lahiri and the coolest guy on my screen, Mahershala Ali, represent the growing unity within third culture communities.
These voices of strength and support placated me with their soothing words. While your heavy lyrics hit home in an ineffable way, these cameos instilled a sense of reassurance that the identity struggle is not individual. It is a common struggle between many third culture communities and their members, no matter our ethnic backgrounds. These snippets bring out an element of support and comfort, a feeling that I am not alone here; a feeling of being represented.
With twenty-nine minutes of my lunch break remaining, I went in for round two, this time stopping and restarting some numbers for deeper analysis. Over and over, I played lyrics like “if you want me back to where I’m from, then bruv, I need a map” and “hope my people don’t just end up as a memory”. Each repeat became more difficult to hear, adding a coating of uneasiness in my gut (but again that might have been the sandwich, who knows?).
In an increasingly unwelcoming world, you implore us to celebrate our differences
It was coming up to the full hour. I hit the pause button just as you declared “I’m outstanding because I stand out”. I felt the anger and power behind those words. For too long, many third culture communities have been told to go with the grain, to assimilate, to fit in. With rising xenophobic, ethnocentric and anti-immigrant sentiment globally, second-generation immigrants are feeling more out of place than ever. The changing attitude towards immigrants is fostering a sense of uneasiness in our communities and fear of persecution by those who we once called fellow citizens. Balancing the need to ‘be British’ with what our DNA dictates is an arduous task. While ‘The Long Goodbye’ acknowledges this, it also celebrates these differences. In today’s environment, this is a lifeline for those of us who are stretched out by our dual identities and forced to choose between the two.
As I sat there with my half-eaten lunch sprawled in front of me, the uneasiness slowly dissipated. Its replacement? Pride, empowerment, confidence. Through ‘The Long Goodbye’, you made me confront my old demons that I thought I had long-conquered. But you also reminded me that in order to get comfortable, you have to face the uncomfortable. In this “business of Britishness”, you are carving out an identity which normalizes our duality. In order to fully understand this identity, you encourage us to dig deep, understand our roots and own them. While others work towards building walls, you are contributing to the construction of a space for our tribe of Brit-somethings. And for that, I will always have mad respect.
With peace and hope,
Cover image via Riz Ahmed/YouTube