‘Nothing prepares you for the moment’: Osman Yousefzada on the death of his mother

Published by The Guardian.
12 Feb 2023

I was holding the belt and we were lowering her down. Mum was in her coffin. There were two pairs of hands holding on to each of the four grey straps. We were her pall bearers: me, my elder brother, her nephews through marriage, and her cousin – her maternal uncle’s son. We slid the straps through the faux-metal handles on the oak coffin. I can’t remember if it was veneer or solid, but we began moving the wooden slats the casket had been sitting on. Mum was suspended now.

I was worried. I had recently hurt my shoulder, but had been doing exercises routinely, so when the time came my grip would be steady. She came to rest on a mixture of wet clay and pebbled stones. The sides of the chamber had been poured with concrete. There are two types of graves on offer in England. An earthen dug grave we describe as a katchi kabar, and the other, a solid lined grave described as pakhi. Our preferred choice was the pakhi, a Hindustani/Urdu word that crept into colonial speak.

I come from a caste of tribal carpenters and builders who make the homes of the Muslim dead in Pakistan. It is our gratis commitment to our community. Those graves are different: brick-lined, with a sealed inner chamber that would act as a coffin to hold the shrouded body. Here, in England, the concrete sides protect the coffin from shattering under the weight of the tumbling earth. This is our preferred choice for the dead. The grave diggers from the cemetery sealed the vault with concrete slabs and a rainproof membrane. Mum was in darkness now.

You might have said her whole life had been spent in darkness. She never left her local streets, in Birmingham; unable to walk down the local high street, she was always in purdah. The seclusion and division of genders has always been my norm. I grew up watching women and men occupy separate spaces. A curtain divided our inner-city Victorian terrace. Men in sober hues in the front room; women, covered head to toe in kaleidoscopic colour, occupied the back. When Mum was buried, the demarcation of the mourning process had been the same: women congregated in one part of the mosque, men in another.

When my mother died, women I had grown up with and knew well could only pass on messages of condolences through my sisters. The solace I sought from those women came via my female siblings, or occasionally from women I bumped into while opening Mum’s front door, before they disappeared into the back room. It wasn’t right or customary for me to be sitting among them. I had been ejected from that space a long time ago. When my body began to change at puberty, I had become a sexualised being and I could no longer intermingle between the sexes.

As I grew older, the divide became stronger. For someone who had self-appointed themselves the keeper of our people’s stories, I often grappled with a community that didn’t want to be documented. While in mourning, I yearned to hear these women’s nuanced memories of Mum, of the times they had together, before they were forgotten. And yet…

For Mum, the four walls of her home provided her space, sanctuary and only a limited understanding of the world beyond. She and my dad couldn’t read or write, in English or their mother tongue. A friend of Mum’s once revealed to me that she wished she could read a novel or the paper and momentarily get lost in another world, to forget her own worries. Mum didn’t watch television – she thought the people on the screen were watching her, too. Yet it was to this new Orwellian world that migrants like my parents arrived from rural Pakistan – my father in the 60s, my mother in the 70s – to urban England, where the skinheads were waiting for them. The matriarchal strength and spirit that emanated from inside those houses in the 80s – into a sea of control and patriarchy – lit the neighbourhood.

These migrant women created a parallel world for themselves. Their strength could be seen in their food, their ways of making, the shops they opened in their spare rooms, the local saving committees they formed. Mum discovered an ingenious ability to make upholstered footstools from milk crates, along with bedspreads and other embroideries – it was women’s work that created focal points for the local community. Many of these non-consanguineous aunts, along with their daughters, surrounded Mum’s coffin as it lay open in the segregated substructure of our mosque.

For the past three years I had travelled from London, where I live, to Birmingham, where I grew up. First it was Dad. A growth on his pancreas along with dementia had diminished the invincible man we knew. He died in 2019. I had got used to staying the weekends in Birmingham. Now Mum was by herself, I began staying longer – three or four nights a week. When the pandemic started she was admitted to hospital with breathing problems. We thought it was her time. The hospital was in full lockdown and the conversations with the doctors in hazmat suits still haunt me. It was surreal, more Hollywood than the cosy British National Health Service.

But Mum survived. I brought her home. My siblings had Covid and my eldest sister was hooked up to a ventilator in ICU. It felt like the world was ending. There were seven deaths from Covid on adjacent streets – some were relatively young, others had lived longer lives, but they were all from our marginalised community. Communal mothers and fathers that had brought us up, mothers who had bathed us and whose kebabs and cooking were talked about. Now there were only stories filled with grief. The mosque was shut, so we prayed at home. When someone died, how could you choose just 10 mourners among these large multi-generational households? Who do you say no to?

I stayed in Birmingham then. For over a month I helped Mum in and out of bed, waited for her calls in the middle of the night, ran to put her on the commode. I made sure her oxygen machine was working. I was enjoying feeding her, combing her hair, caring for someone who had let me grow inside her. It was time to honour that source. I became her carer. Work and the rest of the world stopped. Eventually, she regained some strength and with the help of her Zimmer frame we got her back to sitting on the sofa. I started going back to London during the week as my siblings took over, returning at the weekends.

Sometimes fluid would accumulate in her hands, her face, and we would administer doses of the diuretic Furosemide by tablet – when that wasn’t enough, she went to hospital in the hope of a fast-acting intravenous hit. A few months later, she briefly fell into a coma. Her features were unrecognisable with oedema. On that occasion, the doctor gathered all of us together, telling us she had days left. “I can’t do anything,” he said. “If I give her more diuretics her liver will give up.” So we discharged her and brought her home. A few days later, mum was sitting up and pushing herself to use her Zimmer to get to the bathroom. Our local GP visited. He said: “I think it’s weeks, not months at this stage of congested heart failure.” And then: “She should have gone by now, but the love around her is what is keeping her here.”

By October 2021, Mum was bed-bound. The strength had gone from her legs. We had support for her care from community nurses and care workers. I was continuing to split myself between London and Birmingham. I would go to work every Monday morning. Each time I left, I would walk into her room, stroke her hair and kiss her head. Mum had her eyes closed; her words now slurred regularly. She had been saying, “When will they kill me and what time will they bury me?” She had already put aside the money for her funeral and told us to send her belongings to her sister in Pakistan. She declared the house was to be mine and she rid her arms of the bangles of gold in preparation, distributing them among her daughters. There were attempts to marry me off – she had already found a girl. That morning as I said goodbye, she looked up. “You say you’re going for the day, then you don’t come back.” I sometimes had to lie.

It was Wednesday, when I was in London, my sister called and shouted down the phone, “Get back here, Mum is unconscious.” Everything stopped and I walked out of a meeting and headed to the station. That day was the first of 21 that she spent in a coma – no food or drink would pass her lips. We just waited, watching the rhythms of her breath. Words of solace and wisdom came from my aunt in Pakistan. She said Mum was between two worlds, that the battle between the body and soul had begun. “The body can’t accept that it needs to let the soul go,” she said. I learned new understandings of our ways: how we don’t contemplate death or mortality, it just happens. It is sanitised and tucked away, and then we must try to bounce back. I remember being taken aback watching a colleague burst into tears. Her father had died and she had come back to work after a month’s leave. I thought, this is England with its stiff upper lip. It didn’t cry.

My aunt consoled me. She said the world was for the living and that I needed to be strong. The dead leave empty spaces – they return to the elements; are gobbled up, interred into the earth, leaving us with ritualised spots where we honour their memory. The Muslim cemeteries are busy in Handsworth, in Birmingham. I had once taken Mum to visit Dad’s grave. She would say that on Eid days he was waiting for us, looking out for us, as his neighbouring graves received visitors. On this occasion, Mum popped by to pay respects to a recently departed friend. She pushed her way forward, calling out, “Sister, congratulations on your new home.”

It was these rituals, these divergent ways of thinking, that kept me marvelling – how a grave is also a home, and needed to be decorated. Mum was preparing to move into her new home.

It was 21 days now. That day I lay in bed upstairs, listening to the women huddled in Mum’s room, praying, gossiping, sitting on her two double beds. That morning the chatter was particularly loud. I thought how my mum had always been there, mostly in the background, though lately very much in the foreground of our lives. She led, she guided. When she was conscious she was in control even from her bed, telling whoever was in the kitchen to feed her guests, to offer them fruit, mango Rubicon or guava juice, to cook them a chai on the stove. We knew she was leaving, but we were content with this set-up: the continuous visitors to her room, the way they sat with her in vigil, the incense burning, women reciting prayers and reading chapters from the Qur’an.
This time the breath didn’t start again. It was New Year’s Day. Mum was gone
Just then the chatter stopped, and when I ran downstairs everyone was around her. Her chest had stopped heaving. I had heard of laboured breath – that, towards the end of life, the breath could stop and start again. This time the breath didn’t start again. It was New Year’s Day. Mum was gone. I closed her open mouth and tied a gauze bandage under her chin. I had seen death come close to Mum several times, then turn its back, but it had taken her now. Nothing prepares you for that moment.

It’s been a year now. Sometimes I catch myself feeling jealous of people who haven’t experienced this kind of loss yet, that their most important relationships remain intact. I catch myself thinking, “I should phone her now” – then realise I can’t. When I am struggling with a recipe, I think, “Mum would know how to cook this, let me ask her…” I still haven’t cancelled her mobile phone contract; £20 a month with unlimited calls. I don’t know what’s stopping me. She would call everyone, even for a minute, asking how they were, counting through the members of their household, from eldest to youngest.

As Covid restrictions relaxed, she would ask everyone to visit: “The disease has gone, why aren’t you coming? Come for my heart.” I can’t look at her picture. The iPhone pops up memories of her and I have to look away. They appear out of nowhere – the algorithm is in sync with my fears and grief. I feel her with me sometimes, when the bus arrives just as I turn up at the stop. I think she has sent it so I get to an appointment on time. On those occasions she is guiding all the harmony of the universe towards me. I smile and feel blessed.

The Go-Between

A memoir by Osman Yousefzada

Published by Cannongate
Jan 2022

‘Osman Yousefzada’s - The Go Between is a coming of age story set in the 80s & 90s, opening up a window into a closed migrant community.

The author Osman explores the clash of cultures; through a series of vignettes seen through his eyes as a child, universal stories unfold of the battle of genders, of female erasure, and of honour based violence in patriarchal communities. This is set against the background of a search for belonging whilst burdened with the baggage of race, class, community expectations and the legacy of colonialism and empire.

The stories from these parallel communities, all living cheek-by-jowl in a red-light district, takes you on a true but fantastical journey. They range from his encounters with prostitutes, the sermons of the local mosque, to his Jewish school teacher, to Thatcher and Reagan, to Malcolm X and Mohammed Ali, to the banks of the river Kabul and the river Indus, to the stirrings of Jihad and Salafism, to alternative masculinities, and the divide between the world of men and the world of women.


︎︎︎ Amazon UK
︎︎︎ Foyles
︎︎︎ Waterstones
Author Osman Yousefzada The Go-Between

Here to Stay

Here to SA Poem by Osman Yousefzada & Red Medusa

Look at ME
Get used to my face
My thick and slender frames
My weird and wild ways
Observe my displays of femininity
Get use to what you see
Whether you like it
Whether you do Not,
I am here to stay

My bhindis, locs and traditional frocks
More than a fashion statement,
More then appropriated symbols of identity
More than part-time adornments of the privileged
They are symbols of MY survival
You have a history of Theft
Taking from us, putting us on ships
Shackling our Hearts and Splendor
Enslaving us
Enslaving us for your profit

Except I am free
It makes me smile to see that in your ignorance
In the wearing of my culture,
My Heritage, My History
My colours and symbols,
My gifts and my curses

You are celebrating me
So copy, reinvent, try to obliterate who I am
But the truth is, and always will be that
I am here to stay

I have survived your long famine
And now fill my belly with love
I have survived your wars
And replaced them with my peace
I have survived your poverty
And am rich in spirit
I have survived your technologies
And transformed your weapons
From the Whip, to the Gun, and into the pen
Which joins these letters to write these words
With which I will change the world

Because I was taught that
You were better than me
That God is white, that God is male
That this God was chosen to rule over ME
Except I was born of a WOMAN
I grew in her womb
Nurtured by breasts
And it was SHE who gave me Breath

I am more than Kipling’s “white mans’ burden”
I am more than the sum of my Ancestors labour
I am my language,
I am my struggle
I am the glory of my heritage
Despite the crimes of colonialism
Capitalism and its father, neoliberalism
I am still the Perfume of Arabia

I am still the Silk of the Silk Route
I am still the Comfort of cotton
I am still the kohl Black that lines the eyes of MY beauty
I am the strength in the tin pots you mock
I am the pride of your Britain
I also built this place

And now you protect your statutes, your histories
Yet these are my histories, of how I got here
And here I will Stay

Occupying spaces you said I had no right to

I will fight despite your insults
And here I will Stay
And you will insist that I get back, get back, get back to where you once belonged!

I am Here to Stay
See my face
Remember my name
Because I have and always will
Be here to stay.

I’m Coming

by Osman Yousefzada

Bring the dark dust from my feet

I’m coming

Our footprints that intermingled in the past

I’m coming

To protrude forward and create our new cosmos
to heal, to muster up our amulets and potions

I’m coming

To flower and let them feed off me

I’m coming

To germinate and activate my metabolism
to rise each morning when the sun breaks it’s dawn
and each future is new

I’m coming

And when I’m gone... the animals trample over me
and the roots of the plants entangle and sustain off me

I’m coming

When I turn back to see its cycles... its haste
...its speed... its consumption... its harm... its humanity...

I’m coming...

Osman Yousefzada On How Coronavirus Has Devastated “Forgotten Voices” In The BAME Community

Published by Vogue UK.
4 June 2020

Photograph of Writer Osman Yousefzada by Ophelia Wynne
Photograph: Ophelia Wynne
In March 2017, a notification popped up on my WhatsApp feed: “Salam Bro, we are famous!... For the wrong reasons.” It was followed by a link to an article in the Daily Mail, with the headline “So How DID Birmingham Become The Jihadi Capital of Britain?”

The piece was referring to the working-class, inner-city area I grew up in: Balsall Heath, Birmingham, England. I prefer to think of it as similar in atmosphere to the Netflix TV show, Unorthodox – full of tight-knit, insular communities who migrate to a place and perhaps feel that they have to hold onto the values they arrived with, even if those values have since been fossilised.

At one time, Balsall Heath was one of the largest red-light districts in England. There were hundreds of women working here up to the mid-’90s, some of them doing business on the street where I lived. When the sun set, the streets would come alive with heels clicking, kerb crawlers, pimps. In the aftermath, we waded through the debris of used condoms and syringes to get to school in the morning.

Our community comes from the Afghan border region of Pakistan, sometimes called the frontier. It’s an ultra-conservative area which came under the Taliban influence for a while. It was a patriarchal system: the men came to England in the 1960s, invited to work as cheap labour in the foundries.  They were a class of very low-skilled workers, most of whom couldn’t read or write. The women followed in the 1970s, and they gave birth to their children. But, by the time the 1980s came around, the deindustrialisation of the north had begun. A community who came to do manual jobs, which were fast disappearing, found they couldn’t retrain. Many of them didn’t speak English, and they were illiterate – they couldn’t exactly go and find work in a call centre. They wanted to work but the only alternative, when the factories closed down, was to live off benefits. The economic situation in general was quite desperate.

The community became more insular. These people feel British, and are happy to be here, but they have never really assimilated. Up to the late ’80s, you would regularly see neo-Nazi slogans spray-painted on walls and bridges: “Pakis, go home”. A distant relative, who lived across the street, was beaten up so badly by white supremacists on his way home from a nightshift that he never left his house again. Another uncle, my Dad’s friend (we call everyone uncles and aunts) used to tell me stories about how he was spat on, on his way to work. At the factory, he couldn’t use the main toilets in the building. They were only for the white employees. Instead, he had to go outside. Still, in 2017, a wall near our home had the words “No Pakis” spray-painted on it, accompanied by a swastika.

As the coronavirus has spread, I have seen Birmingham, and particularly the BAME communities where I grew up, become some of the hardest hit in the country. Four people have died on the street where my mum lives, and nearly 70 people have passed away within our close community. This week, a report by Public Health England confirmed what we have all known for weeks: that people from ethnic minorities are at a far higher risk of dying from coronavirus. The report says people of Bangladeshi ethnicity, for instance, have twice as high a risk of death than people of white ethnicity. There are many reasons for this, but fundamentally, it comes back to poverty. For families in my community, three generations all live under one roof because they have to – they’re all on Universal Credit. There was a shooting two weeks ago a few streets down – stuff like that just happens regularly, predominately over drug turf wars. Last week, the local chippie was robbed at gunpoint. Living there is not a choice.

I have seen the ravaging effects of the coronavirus first hand. My mother and my three sisters all became extremely ill in March. Mum got ill first. She had already been in and out of hospital for the last few months with a chest infection, and then again with low kidney function – the “underlying health issues” that plague BAME communities. Then, she had a fall in the kitchen, and developed breathing problems. I called for an ambulance and they took her in, but they wouldn’t let me go with her. By this point, all my sisters were unwell too, some more than others, coughing and spluttering. I sat down with the doctors in a cordoned area, post Mum’s admittance, and it felt like a TV programme, where they take you aside to tell you the bad news. They wouldn’t let me see her: it was the first day the hospital had gone into full lockdown mode. I sat opposite the doctor in her scrubs. Looking back on it now, consoling someone from two metres apart felt so unnatural, but it was soon going to be the new normal. She nodded, and tried to answer my long list of questions, with my sisters and brother on speaker phone. At the end, she concluded: “We will do our best, but we aren’t hopeful.”

Mum was pumped with antibiotics, and they moved her into a Covid ward where, slowly, she began to improve. I could only imagine the isolation that mum felt – she doesn’t speak any English, so had no way to communicate with the NHS staff who were looking after her. She can’t read or write, not even in her mother tongue, which is Pashto, (one of two official languages of Afghanistan, and also spoken in the Frontier region of Pakistan). I managed to get a smartphone to her. She couldn’t use it, but with the help of the nurses we could speak to her on FaceTime.

Just as we got Mum out and back home, our eldest sister got worse. This turned into days and weeks of real touch-and-go moments. The doctors couldn’t get her off the ventilator in the ICU. They kept trying, and her stats would drop. She got better; she got worse. Again, no one was allowed to visit.  We tried to send recorded voice messages that her medical team could play to her: messages of strength, love, messages asking her to pull through. But the doctors said that she was too deeply sedated for these to have any effect. Once a day, we would get a call from a fourth-year medical student, giving us an update. “She’s still on active resuscitation.” Which meant that they hadn’t given up. Mum prayed, everyone prayed, and we were lucky: she has made a recovery, and is now at home.

What coronavirus has done is turned everything on its head. The nurses who are underpaid are life-saving heroes, the supermarket workers who stack shelves are key workers, the care workers are frontline defenders. Many are from BAME backgrounds. Forget the glitz and glamour of my world in London, of fashion. The dedication from these people has been amazing, and I am so grateful to the NHS staff for caring for my family. 

The extraordinary number of deaths in Birmingham, too, has made me think again about my identity. I don’t always feel like I belong here; but I don’t necessarily belong where my parents came from, either. I was born and raised here, I am British, and I see England as my home; but sometimes it doesn’t feel like it sees itself as my home. This also applies to my work. When I started out, there weren’t really many designers from BAME backgrounds. The fashion industry was very much about presenting and being part of an elite and exclusive club, and I felt I had to downplay or hide my background in order to be accepted. I had to be one of those Asians who puts on his best accent and tries to learn the codes.

While I’ve been very lucky to have always sold my clothes, allowing me to gradually build my brand from one collection to another, my core approach of fusing western tailoring with Asian cuts and construction was never really of interest as a story. It was always different aspects of my work that were picked up by the fashion press. Thankfully today, the industry has really changed and there are a lot of new designers from a multiplicity of different backgrounds. Yet, the Asian narrative is still not strong. I’m hoping that in the near future we’ll finally see more designers emerging from British-Asian backgrounds.

I have been reconnecting with my roots over the course of the last year, going back to Birmingham from my home in London almost every other weekend since my father died last year. I am very close to my mum, and she lives alone, so I go back out of a sense of love and duty. Life revolves around the mosque, though it had been many years since I had attended – I left Birmingham when I was 18 to study at university in London. But, when Dad died, there was a huge outpouring. My dad was a carpenter (my mum is a dressmaker) and he was one of the people who built the local mosque: the ablution areas; the areas where you pray; the Mehrab, which he made of bathroom tiles, and which denotes the direction of Mecca. The community is simple, and apart from the reading of scriptures rarely does a sermon happen for anyone who dies. But they did a sermon for my dad. Three thousand people came to pay their respects. There was this strong sense of community that I realised I’d missed.

Every weekend, before lockdown, I visited an elder on behalf of my mum (she had to nag me a bit). Before, I used to hate the formalities of conversations with the elders, the ritual of saying a proper hello, asking after their health, how their family is, or how someone’s mother or father is keeping, and so on. But now, I kind of cherish it, these niceties that reveal a well-oiled machine of community. I have realised the importance of keeping those ties together, reflecting on the fact that these are the forgotten voices who came from the Empire to actually build this country – who took those jobs in the foundries that no-one else wanted. These people, too, are the salt of England ­– and they are the ones who have shouldered the burden of this pandemic more heavily than anyone.

Writer’s note: I am thankful to Vogue for giving me the opportunity to tell this story. When I began to write this piece, Covid-19 was the global issue on which the world was focussed. Due to the tragic death of George Floyd, and the crucial actions of protestors, the world is now finally waking up to the real and ubiquitous issue of racism. I would like to take the opportunity to say that I stand with the black community at this critical time and to repeat that Black Lives Matter.

Click here to view this article on the Vogue UK website.