“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.
Of course there were incidents involving race. I saw racist graffiti during my service in the toilets at Camp Doha in Kuwait, where some angry Marine had scribbled, “Get the Latinos and Blacks out of the USMC.” In the toilets on the British camps there was graffiti, too. It made me smile that ours was along the lines of, “My regiment’s better than your regiment.” In our graffiti, paratroopers would fight the Marines and engineers would fight the artillery, but they’d never fight each other. On the camp in Iraq we had British soldiers who were Welsh, English, Irish, Scottish, Chinese, Fijian, Trinidadian, South African, Pakistani, and Nepalese. They all wore the same uniform, the same flag on their arms. They were all held to the same standards. My sergeant major asked only two things of his men. You had to be fit and you had to know your job. If you weren’t fit, you couldn’t soldier. If you didn’t know your job, you couldn’t soldier. But if you ticked those two boxes, you could be a soldier in his Army.
During a field exercise once, a Muslim soldier attached to my unit insisted on praying five times a day wherever he was. I knew he could catch up on his prayers later, but he insisted on stopping the exercise. After a few times I’d had enough. I told him he was being unreasonable and that if we were in Iraq he couldn’t stop the war to pray. Instead of taking my point, he accused me of being a racist. This wasn’t racism, it was common sense. This soldier didn’t lack acceptance; he lacked intelligence.
During my time on operations, Asians at home would question my parents why their kid was in the “white man’s Army,” which made me think the British Army had accepted ethnic minorities but the minorities hadn’t accepted the Army. Going home on leave to Burnley, Muslims would argue with me in the street, telling me I was killing fellow Muslim brothers. BNP supporters would tell me they couldn’t understand what a brown face was doing in a British uniform. But there are many brown faces in the Army, more so than in the Air Force or Navy by comparison, and these brown faces are fighting and dying alongside the white ones.
The British Army says it wants more ethnic minorities to join. It saddens me to read of soldiers who’ve had a bad experience. I never felt like a second-class citizen. I felt the Army was egalitarian. I’m sure it will continue to have problems as will any organization, but there are no more “D factor” soldiers and racism certainly isn’t endemic. Back at my high school in the 90s you could tell there was a race problem by where you sat in the canteen. I avoided tables of white kids and sat with the Asian kids. In the Army I could sit at any table.
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