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Happy Sad Land
No Worries
Jack and Zena
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JACK AND ZENA (1997) - buy this title from Amazon.co.uk

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After two travel books I did a one-off bit of ghost-writing. Partly for the oldest reason for writing - money - partly because the story that my agent outlined to me over the phone was so utterly compelling and heartrending.

Here's what had happened. In a back-to-back street in Leeds, a beautiful young Pakistani girl had fallen in love with a white man ten years her senior. Zena (as we called her in the book) was one of the much-loved daughters of a local restaurateur. Jack, whose sister lived in the same street, was a semi-criminal wheeler-dealer.

Jack had first noticed Zena sitting on her front doorstep with friends. He got to know her better in the local park, as they supervised the young children of their respective families. Eventually, he summoned up the courage to ask her out. Right from the start, he said, he knew he was getting himself into trouble. He just didn't know how much.

The pair began a secret affair, meeting in parks and cinemas and other out-of-the-way places. It was innocent enough, as Zena's Muslim religion forbade her sleeping with anyone before marriage. But their love had grown deep. When her older sister Miriam discovered what was going on, Zena decided to elope. She had been promised, under the system of arranged marriage to which her family still adhered, to a hill farmer from Kashmir she had met only once.

When Jack and Zena ran away, early one January morning, they had no idea what they were letting themselves in for. Zena's family went crazy. Her brothers were going to come after them, Miriam told Jack when he phoned, and if they caught them, they would both end up 'in binbags'. Later, when Zena spoke to her beloved father, he told her coldly that she was now dead to him. The family hired a private detective and a bounty hunter to track them down. Meanwhile, the brothers called on Jack's elderly mother and smashed up her house.

So began an extraordinary life on the run, as Jack and Zena searched in vain for sanctuary. One by one the agencies that could - and should - have helped them let them down. The police, the DSS, Victim Support. The pair ran from Leeds to Huddersfield to Cleethorpes to Grimsby to Lincoln to the Isle of Wight to Portsmouth and on, in fear of their lives. Eventually they ended up under a sort of police protection in Norfolk, where they eked out an existence on basic welfare.

Having exhausted the official outlets, they eventually wrote in desperation to a number of prominent figures: Tony Blair, Peter Lilley (he was then the DSS Minister), and the hostages Terry Waite and John McCarthy.

John McCarthy was the one who replied and followed through with practical assistance. The idea of a book was conceived. If Jack and Zena's story was told, their case heard in public, surely they could be helped in some way.

So it was that I found myself in a private room in a London club meeting the famous hostage and this haunted-looking, unlikely couple. She was young, flashing-eyed and beautiful, with a broad Yorkshire accent; he, shaven-headed and wiry, his tight mouth a metaphor for determination. Within a week we were holed up in a secret flat in Central London, and Jack and Zena were telling all to the tape-recorder. Jack was a natural story teller, with a sharp eye for detail. Zena had a more romantic view of the world, as befitted one so visibly devoted to her partner. They shared a sense of humour, which had sustained them through their darkest times.

From a purely selfish point of view, turning the long transcript that resulted from this week together into a readable narrative was an interesting challenge for me. I had decided to tell the story in the dual first person (he talks, she talks) so there was the problem of getting a distinct voice for each of them, also of keeping some elements of their accent and dialect (Jack's speech was punctuated with 'and that like', for example) without ending up with an Irvine Welsh style phonetic narrative. In the end, I asked Zena to write down some of the sequences, and the voice that emerged from her on paper proved to be the thing that distinguished between them.

My two travel books had been partially made up of people telling their stories verbatim, and one of the frustrations I had experienced then was that there was never room to go into the stories I'd been told in great depth. The travel genre is about getting a glimpse of a life, then moving on. Here, at last, I found fulfilment in being able to go into the detail of a single story.

The book came out the day after Princess Diana died. As the PR woman handling it told me, the eager phone calls she'd been getting about the issue on the Friday dried up on the following Monday. There's only space for so much compassion in the media and that autumn it was all Diana's. Jack and Zena sold well enough, and was much discussed within the Asian community. It was mentioned on the Nine O'Clock News. But it never took off in the way the publisher who had commissioned the idea had hoped and Jack and Zena's story was not at the time recognised as a public scandal.

As for the couple themselves, they had a temporary respite when the money from the book came through. For a while they were able to get off welfare and rent a decent little flat. They bought a new bed and a spectacular new TV. Their spirits were lifted as the book did well abroad, reaching top ten status in Norway, where the publishers invited them out for a visit. But their problem hadn’t really gone away. Despite the help offered by many kind people, they were still traumatised and living in fear. When the book money ran out they were back to welfare and an increasingly dingy series of flats.

Slowly, however, the wider issue began to be recognised. As more terrible stories emerged from the Asian community, the legislative began to take notice. In 1999, after the murder of Rukshana Naz, a 19 year old woman from Derby who was strangled by her brother while her mother held her down, the MP Anne Cryer instigated a debate on the issue of forced marriages in the Commons. She even quoted from Jack and Zena and the book was featured on that evening’s Nine O’Clock News.

By 2004 the Government had set up a Forced Marriage Unit and in March 2005 Jack was invited to be a key speaker at the International Police Conference on Honour Based Violence. How times had changed! He was now hobnobbing with the very officers who had cold-shouldered him in the past. Later that year he met up with Lib Dem peer Lord Russell-Johnston to give testimony for the debate on honour killings which took place in the Lords in December 2005.

In Spring 2006 Jack and Zena called me to say they were sick of living in hiding and wanted to ‘come out’. So I interviewed them for the Sunday Times and their faces were revealed to the public for the first time. In the town where they live they were recognised and Zena had some explaining to do to her work colleagues.

They are now living a relatively normal life, though they are not reconciled in any way to Zena’s family; nor do they feel secure enough to start a family. Their location remains a secret and Jack is still unemployed.

I have put the full, unedited Sunday Times article in the Journalism section of this site under the title ‘Jack and Zena Come Out’. It provides a fuller account of what happened after the book ended, how the forced marriages issue became recognised, and how the couple are now.

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