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20Feb

We Are All Birds of Uganda by Hafsa Zayyan review – a powerful debut

Belonging and exile are at the heart of this novel of dislocation and trauma

Early in Hafsa Zayyan’s debut, 26-year-old City lawyer Sameer sits sobbing at the door of his smart London flat. He has been walking in Leicester Square, weaving absently between street performers and tourists, when he realises his pockets have been emptied – his phone, wallet and keys are gone. First comes panic, then a bitter sense of betrayal. How could a city he knows so well suddenly turn on him, he thinks, as though he were a hapless visitor? It’s a minor moment in a sea of troubles, but one that becomes freighted with meaning in this multigenerational novel about belonging and exile. It becomes clear, too, that Sameer’s growing disenchantment is symptomatic of deeper feelings of dislocation.

In We Are All Birds of Uganda Zayyan tells two stories across different timeframes, moving between Sameer in contemporary London and his grandfather Hasan in 1970s Kampala. While Sameer wrestles with his demanding job and contemplates a move to Singapore that will devastate his Muslim parents, Hasan grieves for his dead wife and struggles with his business as Idi Amin seizes power in Uganda. For both of them, the future feels uncertain, and Zayyan uses their dual narratives to expose the fragility of different forms of belonging, national and familial. Citizenship is an unstable experience for Hasan. He knows it can be rescinded. But Sameer too is troubled by the problem of how to belong to a culture that might reject you. When a colleague excludes him from a party since “you lot don’t drink”, Sameer becomes painfully aware of differences unnoticed before.

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