'Philomena' author and the hunt for a killer in Pakistan
Non-Fiction: Ayesha's Gift, Martin Sixsmith, Simon & Schuster, hardback, 336 pages, €26.59
So much "fake news" driven by racism has been shared on social media in recent years that a new internet campaign was launched last November to remind Facebook users to "Think Before Sharing". The video showed how a local report on the Swedish Transport Administration's decision to ban Christmas lights from being hung on street poles (for safety reasons) had quickly morphed into the incendiary and widely shared lie that Sweden was "No Longer Celebrating Christmas for Fear of Offending Muslim Migrants", as the Morning News USA website put it.
When I learnt that Martin Sixsmith, a white Englishman, had partly fictionalised Ayesha's Gift, his account of violence, crime and corruption in Yorkshire's Pakistani community, I felt apprehensive. Surely Sixsmith - a former BBC foreign correspondent and the Labour spin doctor fired for having the integrity to make a stand on the burying of bad news - should realise the importance of truth on this subject, especially in a book being sold as "non-fiction"?
But Sixsmith's publishers assure me that the main thrust of Ayesha's Gift is true. He had to change names, places and other identifying details to protect those who had confided in him, and only one speech is verbatim. It does dent the story's credibility, but I don't think Sixsmith had much choice. During his investigation, powerful gang members flex their muscles by showing him men they have illegally imprisoned and tortured; Sixsmith is given the impression that one of these men has just been executed in the next room. The gangs even track down the home of Sixsmith's translator's elderly mother.
Written at thriller pace, Ayesha's Gift tells the story of a British-born Pakistani woman who had been impressed by Sixsmith's expose of the Catholic Church in Ireland's "orphan" trade in The Lost Child of Philomena Lee, and approached him in 2010 for help investigating the murder of her father when he was visiting his native village in rural Pakistan. Setting up a meeting, Sixsmith's lazy expectations of an "afflicted Muslim in veils and tears" were confounded. "Ayesha" turned out to be a confident, Cambridge-educated professional in a pencil skirt and heels with a thirst for good French wine.
Via email, Sixsmith tells me that the "Ayesha" he created for his story is a composite of more than one woman he met during his investigation of what turned out to be "a series of cases, all of which opened my eyes further to the drama of the place [Pakistan]".
His Ayesha is incredibly brave and resourceful. After being told over the phone by Pakistani relatives that her beloved father has "committed suicide" by taking poison, she gets on a plane, establishes that things are fishy and demands to see the body in the morgue. Despite resistance from the corrupt police, she manages to unwrap the sheets wound around her father's corpse. The back of his head is missing. Clearly, no poison had been required. An elderly great uncle tells her that the police can be easily bribed to engineer a cover-up; a private investigator she hires ends up in hospital with a bullet in his spine.
Ayesha expects help from the Foreign Office but finds they treat people with dual nationality as second-class citizens. She thinks Sixsmith's profile will force them to act on her father's behalf, but although he secures her a meeting with a minister, it is fruitless. A civil servant snaps: "Pakistanis are always murdering each other over honour feuds, land disputes and family quarrels… My advice to you is to get out of here and ask your Pakistani friends to sort things out for you."
Sixsmith shows how British-born Pakistanis can be left adrift. Ayesha says: "I used to think I was British and I used to think I was Pakistani too; but now I know I'm neither. What I discovered in Pakistan, all that cruelty and dishonesty and corruption has made me realise that I'm not Pakistani; my DNA is different from all that. But since dealing with the British establishment, it's made me realise that I'm not British either. As a family we're in no-man's land."
The racism Sixsmith finds in both communities fuels the criminal gangs who turn out to be responsible for the appalling murder of Ayesha's father. Trips to Pakistan expose a terrifying web of gangsters and terrorists who run the "deep state".
Sixsmith sees how, when the immigrant dream of being accepted into Britain turns sour, previously good, hard-working men can turn to crime, trafficking drugs and girls for these gangs. It is, he tells me, "sad and sordid".