Barrister's best: Mohsin Zaidi

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The cultural life and times of the barrister whose memoir about a gay Muslim’s journey to acceptance and liberation has made headlines

Tell us about any books or poems that have inspired, engaged or comforted you and why.

There are so many I could choose from. Three come to mind. Educated by Tara Westover is an inspiring book about the power of education and is beautifully written. The transformative impact of education is an integral part of my story and forms a central theme in A Dutiful Boy. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi was one of the first books that made me think seriously about writing a memoir. Kalanithi writes with an honesty and an insight that I can only hope to aspire to. Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie is one of my favourite writers and her book Americanah is a work of art. It deals with issues relating to identity with subtlety and sophisticated depth.

How about music? Are there any pieces you find evocative of a time or place or perhaps listen to again and again and why?

In my opinion, The Miseducation of Lauren Hill is one of the best albums ever made and I listen to it regularly. The interludes are recordings of conversations between a teacher and his students. The album was released when I was a young teenager and I associate it with my old secondary school and with Walthamstow, the place I was born and raised. I am now a governor at my old school and listening to those songs today brings with it a sense of nostalgia. It prompts me to reflect on all the things that have happened since the first time I was moved by those lyrics so long ago.

The Miseducation of Lauren Hill: ‘one of the best albums ever made’.

 

What about films or works of art; do any stand out as life changing or seminal in some way?

East is East was a film about young British Pakistanis dealing with the clashes of being raised in a Muslim household but in a western society and it made me feel like my experiences weren’t abnormal. This isn’t a film but in A Dutiful Boy I write about the experience of watching Queer as Folk. It first aired on Channel 4 in 1999, when I was 14 years old. I don’t think the impact of Russell T Davies’ writing can be overestimated. Watching two men kiss on TV was the first time I’d seen anything like it and it prompted me to come out, if only to myself.

I didn’t grow up with an appreciation of art and, in honesty, didn’t really understand what all the fuss what about. That changed when I saw my first Edward Hopper painting – Room in New York. It depicts a couple, with the man reading a paper and the woman seemingly bored at a piano. Looking at the painting, I remember being moved in a way that, until then, I thought only music had the power to do.


Room in New York by Edward Hopper (1940): brought a new-found appreciation of art.

 

Are there any special places or experiences which stand out in your memory?

I try not to be one of those people that goes on about having studied at Oxford but it really did change my life. For me, it was a golden ticket out of the circumstances I’d been born into. Once I got there, I had the freedom to figure out who I really was and it gave me the confidence to break away from the person I thought I had to be. I also learnt a lot about Britain. For example, I’d never heard of Eton or Harrow and didn’t realise not everyone had a student loan.

The impact of reading law at Oxford is an integral part of Mohsin’s story.

 

Finally, if you were stranded in the middle of a trial, what’s the one piece of kit, luxury or comfort you can’t do without on a hotel stay-over?

Some readers might argue this doesn’t count as a ‘luxury item’ but I could not be without a pair of running shoes. In his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami writes about how much he needs running. Unlike Murakami, I am not an ultramarathon runner, not even a marathon runner, but when I’m away from home I do need to go for a run to clear my head and help myself think creatively. Mid-trial, I find it can be an excellent opportunity to practise the closing speech but, mostly, not out loud.

Mohsin Zaidi’s first non-legal book, A Dutiful Boy published by Penguin Random House in August 2020, is a memoir about growing up in a religiously conservative, working-class household before reading law at Oxford and coming out.

 



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Mohsin Zaidi

Mohsin Zaidi is a criminal barrister at 6KBW College Hill. Mohsin has worked at a UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague and at the UK’s Supreme Court. He is an advocate for LGBT rights, BAME representation and social mobility. He is on the board of Stonewall, the UK’s biggest LGBT rights charity and is a governor of his former secondary school.