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'White Teeth' bites Zadie Smith

Sunday, 19 February 2006 - 10:48pm IST

The novel that catapulted its author to fame has been denounced as being far from the truth by the person who is the model for one of its characters.

LONDON: White Teeth, the novel that won awards and catapulted its author Zadie Smith to fame has been denounced as being far from the truth by the person who is the model for one of its characters.

Zaid Haider Rahman, the inspiration for Magid, one of the Muslim twins at the centre of the novel has said Smith’s tome on race relations in multicultural Britain is “divorced from reality”. Rahman, a corporate lawyer with an American firm in London, is the elder brother of Jimmi Rahman who Smith dated some years ago and eventually dedicated White Teeth to.

While Smith has always argued that the book is not autobiographical, the central character Irie has striking resemblance to her own life. Like Irie, Smith is the daughter of an English father and a Jamaican mother and grew up in north London. In the book Irie too falls in love with one of the Bangladeshi Muslim twins.

Haider Rahman argues that the book was too optimistic and did not reflect his anger at “being alienated from British society”, and “and at the Asian community with which I’m in profound disagreement”. Rahman’s assessment of Britain provides a riposte to White Teeth and appears in a book by his former girlfriend Claire Berlinski to be published in New York next month. In Menace to Europe Rahman urges Britain to abandon multiculturalism, and accuses Bengalis of “not really integrating”.

Rahman’s own experience in Britain was not as racism-free as Smith makes out. Growing up in the East End he was bullied and beaten, insulted in the street and once had coffee thrown at him from a moving car. When he went to Oxford University he was chased out of the bar and even had a swastika daubed on the door of his room, prompting him to change colleges.

Smith wrote the novel at the age of 24, after reading English at Cambridge, and after it was published in 2000 it was celebrated for its optimist portrait of a “post-racial” country.

Rahman, however, accepts Smith’s right to artistic license. “I recognised myself in White Teeth but I also recognise that it is work of fiction,” said Rahman.

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