The Secret Diary of a British Muslim Aged 13¾ by Tez Ilyas – Book Review

It should be noted that whilst writing this review, I became aware that Ilyas ‘stepped down from the steering group of new industry body the Live Comedy Association after admitting “inappropriate behaviour” towards women’ (source). I hope that he learns from his mistakes, truly feels sorry, makes real changes in his life and applies the same care he took in writing his book into bettering himself. There is so little positive representation of British Muslims in the media, and it is such a shame that he has hurt people. I feel complicated about this book now, as I don’t want to praise someone who mistreats women, but I also believe his book is a great source of education. I may end up deleting this post. If you would like to read more about this subject, please click here and you will be taken to Chortle’s article on the events.

This review only contains minor spoilers.

I’d love you to develop a deeper understanding for what it was like for a young British Pakistani Muslim kid growing up in 90s northern England.

Ted Ilyas (2021). ‘Foreword’ in The Secret Diary of a British Muslim Aged 13¾. Sphere, Great Britain.

This is one of the opening mission statements in the foreword of Tez Ilyas’ new book, The Secret Diary of a British Muslim Aged 13¾. It is not his real teenage diary, and actually in the foreword he states that he never kept one. It is instead a retelling of the events of his life, told in the shape of a diary. Each chapter is separated by year, beginning with the first chapter, “1997”, and ending with “2001”. The speech patterns, misspellings and grammar used in the book are written in a way to reflect the person he was at the time. There is a lot of detail and it is truly written as though it were a real diary. He says in the foreword that he worked with his family and friends to collate these experiences, in an effort to give a true account.

This was much appreciated. Although I attended international schools my whole life, I didn’t meet many South Asian kids at all, and even fewer Muslims. It’s important to have such insight into their experiences and Ilyas is very generous in this regard. There were many eye-opening moments. One of the ones that struck me the most was this exchange that took place after the tragedy of 9/11:

I bumped into Steve, a kid I’d coached all summer, my star defender [and] second best player, one of the two goreh [white people] on my team. He didn’t say hello. He just asked if I was Muslim. I said “Yeah.”

“Go fuck yourself, you bastard!”

And then he ran off.

Ted Ilyas (2021). ‘2001’ in The Secret Diary of a British Muslim Aged 13¾. Sphere, Great Britain.

Steve does eventually apologise to Ilyas, but I was surprised by the outright hatred that an innocent Muslim, only 18 years old, received from one of his own pupils. He should have been seen as someone worthy of respect, but instead he was blamed for a crime he was innocent of. There are similar moments in the book where he talks about being racially profiled by the police and getting jumped on the street. Another moment that captured my attention was in his 1998 chapter, where he competes in a district final for a public speaking contest:

There were fourteen schools competing. I was only one of three people who weren’t white. There was only one Black girl and another Asian guy. I don’t know why I always notice that wherever I go, how many Asian people or Black people are there. The more there are there, the safer I feel. That’s weird, isn’t it? I don’t think the goreh are gonna do anything to me or anything like that but yeah, it’s just a weird thing that, if I see another Asian kid or even Black kid actually, I just nod at them, and they nod back. We don’t even have to say anything to each other.

Ted Ilyas (2021). ‘1998’ in The Secret Diary of a British Muslim Aged 13¾. Sphere, Great Britain.

These moments in the book are so important, not only (I imagine) for fellow British Muslims, to see their own experiences reflected back to them in print, but also for white people like myself. It’s important for us to understand and acknowledge the comfort and uneasiness of our British Muslim friends, colleagues, neighbours and strangers when they are in white-dominated spaces. By listening to our friends’ feelings, I hope we can begin to break down these issues and hopefully improve the situation.

In addition to learning about the stigma he faces, Ilyas also speaks enthusiastically about Eid celebrations, fasting, food, prayer, shaving rituals, wedding and funeral ceremonies and other events that take place in every young Muslim’s life. The way he talks about these events are really interesting, and offer great insight.

Another thing I loved about this book was the language used. Ilyas uses terms that are used within his community. Entire sections of dialogue are written in Punjabi and there are prayers dotted throughout. He provides a helpful glossary at the back and the reader never feels lost. I actually listened to the audiobook and I think this was the best way for me to experience his work. Listening to the audiobook really helped bring me even further into his world, and taught me how certain words were pronounced. It was a fantastic way to keep the book true to Ilyas’ roots and upbringing, and to educate readers about his culture and language.

In addition to the benefit of being able to hear the correct pronunciation of Arabic, Punjabi and Urdu words, Ilyas’ reading itself was brilliant. You can hear how passionate he is when retelling these stories; sometimes he would start laughing halfway through an anecdote, unable to contain his joy whilst he reminisces, and you can hear in his voice just how much he loves and cares for the people around him. This makes the book really warm.

Despite all this praise, the book does suffer in some regards. A lot of the events that take place feel inconsequential, even unimportant. Very early on, Ilyas gets hit by a car but fortunately isn’t harmed. Worried he would get scolded however, he never tells anyone about the event, and so it only ever gets mentioned once more in the book, and only in passing. But when the accident was first mentioned, it felt like it would be a moment that would come up over and over again, and be important to the story, but actually, the car crash story ended as soon as it began. This wasn’t the only time this happened, and this meant for a confusing read, as it was unclear at times which moments were important to the story and which were fluff.

There were other instances that I felt suffered from being overly nostalgic, like in moments where he simply lists films he enjoyed at the time, or the names of all the classmates who left school with awards, and those he would miss when he left to start college (some of these students only appear in the book once or twice). From a storytelling perspective, these moments felt like they could have been edited down or cut completely.

This being said, although some of the action felt unimportant, I think that that in itself is important. It is crucial to see life for teenage British Muslims in terms of their daily run-ins with oppression and racism, but it is also important to see them as just what they are – kids. Kids who obsess over grades and fantasy football teams, who stay up too late watching movies on a school night, who fight and make up with friends.

Ilyas therefore seems to succeed in what he set out to do: to depict the life of a young British Pakistani Muslim kid growing up in the 90s.

Note: As stated above, I listened to the audiobook. I have tried to transcribe any quotes as best I can, but there may be some errors in terms of style or punctuation.

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