A young Pakistani Muslim reared in Britain, Sarfraz Manzoor, once tried to convince his Pakistani-raised father about the wisdom of spending a summer in the United States. “Why do you want to go to America anyway? Americans are unclean, immoral, look at how little their girls wear,” his father said. And then Manzoor, whimsy not quite disguising hormonal honesty, notes: “I did not want to confess that was one of the reasons why I was desperate to visit.” Such cross-cultural humour, as well as cross-cultural tension and poignancy, mark this engaging book.
Manzoor is a Pakistani Muslim, a successful British journalist, a Bruce Springsteen fan and the author of Greetings From Bury Park. His coming-of-age tale might be easily dismissed by Springsteen’s American fans. What can a 30-something Pakistani-Muslim tell them? Sure, Manzoor incorrectly, if charmingly, places the iconic southern United States city of Charleston in North Carolina. He misspells the name of E Street keyboardist and pianist, Roy Bittan. And, he appears oblivious to the bitter irony of Springsteen’s “The Tunnel of Love” tour, seemingly unaware that The Boss’s marriage to Julianne Phillips was sadly ending. Still, there is much for even the most sophisticated fan to enjoy in this work.
The author provides refreshing cross-cultural insights on familiar Springsteen themes including family, friendship, class politics, love and sex, spirituality, and patriotism. He offers a rare glimpse of how these themes are experienced by a sensitive, if confused and alienated young, Pakistani Muslim. For as long as he can remember, Manzoor has had to try to accommodate his strict Pakistani Muslim upbringing while confronting the worldly allures of the west. Throughout the often frustrating ordeal of growing up, he holds on to the inspiration and values he finds not only in Springsteen’s music but also in several intriguing, and rare for any fan, face-to-face encounters with his idol.
His handling of two Springsteen themes are particularly moving, the evolving dynamics of father-son relationships and the bitter-sweetness of one’s longing and searching for a promised land. The father-son theme often plays out with the rebellious, angry son, after a long period of often bitter conflict, coming to better understand and love his father – it also adds an intriguing twist. Bruce Springsteen and his father, Douglas, had their epic battles but at least they shared an American nationality and upbringing. They co-existed divided by a generation but immersed in a similar, if evolving, American ethos. Not so for Manzoor and his father. For them, there were not only the daunting generational differences and disagreements, but also those tensions heated still more by a combustible clash of cultures.
The cultural differences between Springsteen and Manzoor are, of course, many. Raised a Muslim, young Manzoor religiously follows a nightly ritual of lovingly massaging his father’s feet and dutifully turning over to his father any money he earns. One cannot imagine either Douglas demanding such commitment from his son or, even more unlikely, a young rebellious Bruce placidly acquiescing. Manzoor does. And while Manzoor and Bruce might have little in common culturally, they both come to share the experience of weathering different but similar clashes with their fathers and enjoying a wonderfully moving and loving resolution of their earlier conflicts. In passionate words as easily uttered by Springsteen, Manzoor writes: “When I was younger, I didn’t want to know who my father was because [he] had nothing to do with me. How wrong can a son be?” And adds: “Where once it was resentment which inspired me, now it is the hope that in my own life I can do his memory proud. These days I am a willing prisoner of my father’s house.” Somewhere, Doug Springsteen is smiling.
Manzoor, especially as a boy, embraced the abundant freedom and opportunity he perceived in his long-anticipated promised land, the United States. He longed to someday live and work there, recalling: “All my hopes were encapsulated in the life I imagined was possible in the United States.”
He recounts the memory of his 1990 visit to the roof of the east tower of the World Trade Center: “I was in the country I had always wanted to see. The city I had always wanted to visit and I was on top of the world.” He adds that what he loved especially about the United States at that “magical time” was that he saw it as a country where no one cared if he was Pakistani or Muslim.
And then, September 11, 2001. He recalls watching the horror unfold on television with his mother. “My mother was crying. ‘Those poor people, all they were doing was going to work,’ she said. ‘Going to earn money for their families, why did they deserve to die? Who would do such a thing?’” Manzoor can only remain silent. Pressing him to translate into Urdu what they both were hearing, his mother asked again: “Who are the idiots that would take innocent lives? Do they not have a conscience? Taking fathers from children. What are they saying? Do they know who did this?” Breaking his long silence and likely confronting his own horrible realisation, Manzoor must tell her, “They’re saying it was Muslims.” He writes that he learned a bitter lesson that day, after 30 years of running away from his Muslim religion, his religion caught up with him. Recalling when his good friend Amolac later told him: “You realize what this means, don’t you? It means America isn’t ours anymore.” He writes, “I said nothing but I understood.”
After the London subway bombings of July 7, 2005, Manzoor’s Islamic religious beliefs are further tested. Four British Muslims, three of them of Pakistani origin, carried out the first ever British domestic suicide mission. Drawing inspiration from Springsteen’s “World’s Apart” from The Rising album and relying on his own maturing process, he bravely responds to this test of faith. “World’s Apart” features Pakistani Muslim qawwali singer, Rachat Ali Kahn, and in listening to it, an epiphany Manzoor describes “an intensely emotional experience,” he draws saving hope that the Muslim World and the Non-Muslim world can exist together. And, his own mature reflection culminates in the conclusion that what the Muslim bombers did in Britain was not in his name. Realising there are more ways than one to be a good Muslim, Manzoor elects to believe in “an Islam which was much more tolerant.”
Manzoor’s quest and his book end on a hopeful note as he openly embraces his Muslim faith and he discovers his real promised land, Great Britain. And even this discovery, he attributes at least in part to the Jersey musician, writing, “Bruce Springsteen changed my life because in his music I saw the promise of hope and escape and self-improvement, but where once I longed to escape to the United States, these days I am convinced my father did the right thing coming to Britain.” And then in the words of a man at peace with himself, Manzoor adds: “It has taken me three decades to realize there is only one country that is truly mine. The life my father had built, the family he had raised and the life I have fashioned are all due to living in Britain. Every opportunity, every job and every chance I have had to pursue my dreams has been offered by this country, not by America, not by Pakistan. My father used to tell me he regretted coming to Britain, but in truth, it was the greatest gift he gave his children. I was born in Pakistan but made in England; it is Britain which is my land of hope and dreams.” Evidently, there are more ways than one to be a good Springsteen fan.