Northern Ireland

Growing up mixed race in the Troubles

Joe Nawaz
Image caption Joe Nawaz grew up in Belfast during the Troubles with an Irish Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father

Joe Nawaz grew up in Belfast during the Troubles but from the day he was born, on the first day of the Ulster Workers' Council strike in May 1974, Joe was different.

As the son of an Irish Catholic mother and a Pakistani Muslim father, Joe didn't fit easily into Northern Ireland's religious/ethnic divide.

In a funny and moving new Radio Ulster documentary, Sticking Out, he relates how his uneasy relationship with his dad led the teenage Joe to reject his Pakistani heritage and change his name to Joe Donnelly on a fake ID card.

"You were just very awful as a teenager," Joe's mum tells him, in a interview that shows a tender mother-son relationship, but also reveals the callous attitudes she and her husband endured in the Belfast of the seventies.

"We were in the Club Bar one night and this old lady started screaming: 'What the hell are you doing with him?' So we just had to get up and walk out," she says.

Image copyright Joe Nawaz
Image caption Joe's dad, Rab Nawaz, arrived in Belfast as a a young man and worked in the Ulster Museum

Rab Nawaz, Joe's dad, was born into a Muslim family in the Indian Punjab. He was just seven in August 1947 when a border was drawn dividing the newly-independent states of India and Pakistan.

"I guess it's ironic that he eventually settled in another country divided by a British border where people saw him as totally alien," Joe says.

'Like an epiphany'

Now a writer with a sideline in stand-up comedy, he recalls as a child seeing an episode of the TV series Till Death Us Do Part where the comedian Spike Milligan "browned-up as an Irish Pakistani buffoon".

And he remembers being called "Curry Face" at primary school.

Image copyright Joe Nawaz
Image caption Young Joe encountered racism at his primary school - as a teenager he rebelled against the Pakistani side of his heritage

In a country where the question "what are you?" demands one of two answers, Joe clung to the side of his identity that made sense in the context of Northern Ireland.

"My mum's background was Irish Catholic," he says. "That was the one thing I would have tried to hold on to, but my dad blew my cover every time."

He describes his dad as "a very complicated man", a man who could be both authoritarian and warm-hearted, with a dash of eccentricity.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption As a child, Rab Nawaz experienced the chaos resulting from the partition of India

The teenage Joe's rebellious streak led him to obtain a fake ID identifying himself as "Joe Donnelly".

He says he was "hot with intense shame" when his mum found him out.

'Racism worse now'

It was perhaps inevitable that Joe and his dad would come to blows.

Rab discovered his son had been lying to him about skiving from sports practice over a considerable period.

Joe describes how his dad punched him in the car while bystanders taunted them with racist catcalls - it was a crystallising moment.

"I'd never both resented him and pitied him so much," he recalls. "It suddenly hit home. It was like a flood, a revelation, an epiphany."

Image copyright Joe Nawaz
Image caption Joe's mum says his dad didn't like living in Northern Ireland and was never really accepted there

Joe says it is his abiding regret that he and his dad never achieved a proper moment of reconciliation.

That became an impossibility after his dad's tragic death - murdered on a trip to Pakistan 15 years ago.

"He didn't like it here. He wasn't accepted here," says Joe's mum.

Rab's children have flourished in the years since his death. Two of Joe's sisters are doctors - "a Pakistani man's dream", he says.

Joe tells the story of his relationship with his dad with humour and a thoughtful affection.

He says that, if anything, the level of racism in Northern Ireland is worse now than it was in the seventies and eighties.

Looking back at his experience growing up mixed race in Belfast, Joe now believes you make your own identity: "We are who we say we are - not who we're told to be."

You can hear Joe's fascinating documentary, "Sticking Out", on BBC Radio Ulster on Sunday 28 April at 12.30 BST and also on BBC Sounds.