“They’re racist and they’ll kick your head in,” a white man named Paul warned me outside a convenience store in Burnley. He’d heard I was starting basic training the next day. I’d been buying a few last things: padlocks, black marker pens, and sweets for the train down to Winchester. After growing up in the 1980s and 90s, not many immigrants in Burnley would have thought it a good idea to join the British Army. The Falklands War of ’82 and the Gulf War of ’91 brought national pride but also an “us against them” feeling to the streets.
After the school bell the white lads would chase us immigrants while shouting, “fucking Pakis!” Sometimes they’d catch us. In the back streets of Towneley we’d scrap like dogs. Teeth and fists clenched. There’s no point going for the stomach; the face would win it for you. Punching the nose would water the eyes, a smacked ear would disorient, and then they were yours. You’d rain fists into their head. Hit the face with a left, right, left, and then come around with a strong right into the ear. There was no coming back from that. It would end with the loser on the floor holding their head crying into forearms. A few goodbye kicks from school shoes would bruise the ribs. After it was safe the loser would shuffle home wiping his face on a white school shirt. By the time he got home the blood, sweat, and fear had dried. Sometimes that loser was me. But on some days I’d blacken their eyes, bloody their noses, and send them home with their heads ringing for their mums to clean their shirts.
They’d tell me it was their country and I would argue later in my years that it was mine, too. My dad taught me how to fight. He ran a corner shop. The white lads would smash our windows, swear at us, and put fireworks through our letterbox. Lesser men would have shut up shop and gone home. My dad stayed and fought. He fought for his family to have a life he never had. Dad wasn’t going to go away, and the swearing gradually stopped. So when Paul told me the Army was full of racists who’d kick my head in, I laughed. They can’t be as bad as the lads at Towneley, I told him—some of the ones I’d fought were now friends. I wondered how much of it was racism and how much of it was just growing up.
I got to Winchester to start my training and it was here, 250 miles away from home, that the Army showed their true colors. It was here they were supposed to kick in my head. I didn’t find any racism. I found a group of soldiers who went to great pains to welcome me. I found an Army that embarrassed me with its acceptance. I found a system that judged me solely on soldiering ability. Never did they act as if my skin color mattered to them. I found people who wanted to know so much about me, about Pakistan, and about Islam with a curiosity no one had answered before due to Asians evading a career in camouflage.
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