Belfast Telegraph

My identity crisis as 'Catholic Muslim' in Northern Ireland

Writer Joe on growing up at height of Troubles

Joe Nawaz
Joe Nawaz
Joe Nawaz aged 10
Joe Nawaz's parents
Joe on a family holiday
Allan Preston

By Allan Preston

A local writer has spoken about his struggle growing up as a "Catholic Muslim" during the Troubles as a radio documentary telling the story of his childhood is broadcast this weekend.

Belfast man Joe Nawaz (44) discusses his early years in Sticking Out, which is broadcast on BBC Radio Ulster tomorrow at 12.30pm.

Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph yesterday, he outlined how the question of identity shaped his childhood.

"I grew up with a Pakistani father and Irish Catholic mother," he explained.

"It's just a tale of growing up and struggling with identity in a land where identity is everything.

"But it does have a few jokes in it as well.

"My dad came here to study at Queen's University in the 1970s and stayed for the love of a woman, which is the eternal mistake of history - giving everything up for love and then 10 years later thinking 'what the hell am I doing here?'"

The documentary reveals his experiences of struggling to fit in from an early age.

"Growing up with a singularly dusky father in a society which, with no disrespect, is homogeneously pink, and it's unavoidable to feel different," he added.

"It was also clear in people's reactions to us.

"There was out and out hostility as well as the polite: 'Oh my goodness, what's that woman doing with that chap? Are those her kids?'

"We would go into restaurants and people would stop eating mid-forkful."

With two religions under one roof, Mr Nawaz's parents tried in vain to find a balance.

He said: "My parents agreed to have an armistice but as soon as we were born they just couldn't help themselves.

"My mother was sneaking me out to Mass and on Friday I was taken out of class to do my first confession.

"Then on the Saturday afternoon when my mum was in the shops my dad would be teaching me Islamic prayers and showing me the direction of Mecca - not the bingo hall obviously.

"Bizarrely, being indoctrinated in two faiths meant I was the first atheist in my class, so that was a result."

He recalled how, in his teenage years, he forged an ID with the surname Donnelly so he could appear "carefree, Catholic and dashing".

"It's a pivotal moment in the programme as my parents found it. They were suddenly aware of what I was prepared to do to escape the shame of who I am," he explained.

"The only reason I can talk about it now is that I've left it all behind.

"I am as proud of my identity as I was mortified by it growing up.

"This show has been a catharsis and slightly cheaper than therapy."

Mr Nawaz said many children of immigrants growing up in Northern Ireland today face similar issues.

"It's very hard coming here, especially if you're coming from a community that's full of war and terror and you're trying to make a life," he said.

"It sounds a bit cliched but here's the thing - I spent most of my time here trying to fit in and be Irish, but most saw me as Pakistani Joe or worse.

"I went to Leicester to university, as it had a large Asian and Pakistani community. When I tried to reach out to those guys they said: 'No way, you're Irish Joe, bugger off.

"So I had to go to England to be called Irish Joe!

"I would say to people even if you are having troubles, they pass and whatever you think is a weakness is a strength.

"We are the stuff we experience. At the time these things seem horrible, but they always get better."

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