Doing fieldwork interviews with elderly Bengali women

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I have interviewed around 5 Bangladeshi women who are pensioners and one would assume, when doing a narrative interview with them, they would turn out to be the longest out of all the interviews conducted but they weren’t! One of the first challenges I was presented with was ensuring I was able to convey the questions in Bengali to the women, providing them with as much context as possible. Before starting with the interviews, the women would enquire about the project and ask me many personal questions about where my family is from in Bangladesh and how I became involved in the project. Once this segment of the pre-interview was over the women made themselves comfortable and we were able to start the interview.

The interviews with these women were fascinating because I could see their hesitation initially and had assumed that would disappear during the course of the interview but the women kept their responses very short, brief and were not too keen to elaborate. As the researcher and interviewer this made it rather difficult for me but as an ‘insider’ doing research on Bangladeshis I could understand their hesitation and reluctance. It stemmed from various places: I think it had much to do with the women never having had the opportunity to process their migratory experiences to Britain, as many of them joined their husbands in the UK after many years of marriage and having lived in Bangladesh on their own, including, for some, raising the children on their own in Bangladesh.

The sudden interest by a stranger in wanting to learn about their narratives and journeys is another reason why I think the women struggled to open up. It certainly did comfort them that I am Bengali but that also added to the cultural etiquette of not exposing too much of yourself, even if it may just be a life story. The women never had questions posed about their insights and once they did move to the UK they became preoccupied with motherhood, adjusting to the new environment and also learning how to navigate the new culture in their lives. The interviews were never longer than half an hour and I always felt like I hadn’t asked enough questions but it was after bidding them farewell that I would realise that the women were sharing what they wanted, even if it was limited.

As a researcher and in this instance as an ‘insider’ also, I have learnt that as much as I may be hoping for elaborate and ‘in depth’ data for the research the interviewees should always be in charge of the interview. The women centred their narratives and journeys according to their comfort zones, their memories and essentially how much they wanted to share with us. They showcased the complexity of interviewing people who have narratives to share about their lives but on their terms and not the researchers.

 

Photo: Elections – “A group of Bengali women vote in 1992 – when the BNP stood in Tower Hamlets – many for the first time,  following a drive made by groups including ‘Women Unite Against Racism.’ This was formed when local women found themselves to be three or four in meetings of over a hundred men and decided that, rather than be patronized as token females, they preferred to reach out to empower and support those women who might not otherwise vote.” 

Link: http://spitalfieldslife.com/2012/08/16/daniele-lamarches-east-end/

The Story of Altab Ali

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Have you heard the word, my mother told me

One of our own was just killed near Brick Lane

She pulled me closer so she could hold me

But I was too young to understand her pain

My life had just begun, I was a mere eight years of age

When Altab Ali was murdered on this very spot

I would have, should have really, cried tears of rage

When Altab was killed for something he was not

 

Altab Ali was a working class Bengali man

An eager new comer to distant British shores

Leaving his family and home in a faraway land

With a simple desire to provide them with more.

After a long day sweating in a sweatshop factory.

He strolled casually down

Brick Lane to catch a bus

With no desire for a fight, or trouble with anybody

The young Mr Ali was a peaceful man, like the rest of us.

 

Yet they harassed him and eventually gave chase

Fearing for his safety, he fled down to St Mary’s Park

Three racist delinquents took his life in this very place

He fell to the ground engulfed by a deep cold dark

As his lifeless limb lay there on the cold concrete

Blood flowing faster than the ambulances call

The three youths ran off laughing down the street

Unaware of how their actions would liberate us all.

 

The youths were caught and imprisoned, but not for long

Serving short sentences due to the justice system

But ten days later, a crowd of seven thousand strong

Marched with Altab’s coffin and got Downing Street to listen

A turning point in British Bengali history in the east end

Although countless Asian men had been killed before,

The time had come stand up and make amends

The camels back was now broken, with this final straw

 

For the next 20 years, we pulled together as a community

We had to fight many a fight, on many a night for many a right

We raised our children to understand and respect our history

For fear that they would forget Altab and we would lose sight

Today in 2016 we are standing here to remember his death

Standing here, all nationalities united as one.

On the very spot where Altab Ali drew his last breath

Because unless we learn from this tragedy the fascists that killed Altab will have won.

 

By Salam Jones

Home

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None of our parents had any idea where we were. Brick Lane was a whole twenty minutes walk from our homes and not somewhere we normally came by ourselves.

My memories of the lane up to that day involved ones holding my father’s hand as we made our way from one Bangladeshi-owned shop to another, greeting sasa (uncle) after sasa – it seemed every Bangladeshi man in east London knew my father the Dakhtarshaab (Doctor).

I particularly loved popping into the Bangladeshi grocers where my father would take great pride in showing me the exotic foods from ‘back home’. He’d teach me how you knew if a mango was just ripe, and point out what fish in the freezer may have once swam in the Kushiyara river near our village. My favourites were the huge round stubbly kathals (jackfruits). They were always piled outside the shops like yellowie-green boulders, surrounded by sasas bent over inspecting them. My father and I would join them, using our thumbs to press firmly on the thick skin. Too hard and it wasn’t ripe, too soft and it might be spoiled. My little hands could never really tell as it hurt to push down on the tiny little stumps, which left little reddened pockmarks all over my thumb. We both loved their sweet, fruity aroma – “it smells like kathal season back home”, my father would say, smiling.

Smells were a defining part of my childhood. Where I grew up, we instantly knew it was lunch time just by the waft of deliciously smelling curries. In fact, we could even work out who was eating what that day.

“Mmmm, smells like you’ve got tengha maas (tangy fish curry) for lunch Zahed! let me come round!”

Maybe that’s what they didn’t like about us? The smell.

“You smelly paki!” was an oft-repeated slur.

Is that what made them so angry?

What exactly had we done to make them hate us so much? I wondered as we stood there watching the lane I knew so well, filled with men wearing skin-tight jeans, large shiny black boots and bomber jackets. Their angry red faces mounted on thick, tattooed necks, some, making the odd salute. They resembled the soldiers I’d seen on the grainy videos Mr Crump the history teacher used to show us.

Many had shaven heads. They were the ‘skinheads’ in my nightmares, where I imagined being stabbed by one with a HIV infected needle attached to the end of a brolly – a recurring dream since the day I first overhead my father describing this latest weapon to Ghoni sasa.

The air was filled with strange chants I didn’t understand. The parade of white men were kept from the angry onlookers by a line of police. Occasionally one of them would glance sideways in disgust, his glare met with a violent outburst from ‘our’ side.

I didn’t know what a fascist or a Nazi was. In fact, I barely understood racism at that age. But as I walked home that day with my friends past the abandoned old Victorian hospital behind Whitechapel station, which looked scarier than usual, I finally understood why our parents always took us ‘back home’.

I think we all did.

That was probably the day I also first began to wonder If I knew where my real home was.

By Tharik Hussain

Thoughts on Bangladesh Independence Day

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Independence day, for many living in the diaspora, is a significant day. It’s a day your relatives celebrate and commemorate for a variety of reasons. For some it is a day when they feel nostalgic for their homeland and miss the greenery. Some have to revisit the horrors of the war; memories that they probably shove to the back of their minds for the rest of the year. Others may see it as a day to pay their respects to those who fought to liberate Bangladesh.

Whatever the reason may be, it certainly becomes a day for much discussion. These discussions tend to focus on the Bengali identity, the future of Bangladesh and possibly the one I have come across the most: the talk of justice for the culprits involved in the liberation war.

I tend to observe these celebrations more than participate in them, as I’m still trying to figure out what this day means to me. This year, I was making my way to an event in East London and the memory I have of the day is having a smoked salmon bagel from the famous bagel shop on Brick Lane. I thought about the significance of the day in my life as I was eating the bagel. I realised that although it may have little relevance to my life; it continues to shape many people’s lives. People use it to navigate their relationship with Bangladesh. I believe people will continue to do this in the future.

Here are some pictures from the Bangladesh Independence Parade in Little Bangladesh, Los Angeles. Images taken by Dr. Victoria Redclift

 

 

 

Retaining links with ‘back-home’

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This is one of the areas we look at for this current project and the discussions and exchanges I have observed between the parent and the child has been interesting. The different understandings of how to retain those links and maintain them at a steady rate was insightful, as it reminded me of how my own family navigate these streams of contacts. Maintaining this contact has become much easier over the years where you no longer have to go to phone shops to enter one of those booths to speak to a relative in a village somewhere in Sylhet. This phone call also entailed arranging the next phone call and ensuring other members of the family or village are there, so you can catch up with as many people as possible in one go.

Then, the calling cards became popular and I have memories of having to buy them anytime I was out, so my parents had spare ones just in case they needed to make a call ‘back-home’. The calling cards no longer required you to go to one of the phone shops and it allowed you to stay home and make those calls. Moving on, this was further changed with Skype, Viber and various other apps that make it much easier to stay in touch with relatives. Receiving daily updates via WhatsApp, receiving short videos or photos of family events, funerals, weddings, and so on we could not attend due to commitments here we still feel connected to those precious moments.

Though most of the British Bangladeshi families retain this link through their family, I feel those settled here are making spaces to feel more connected to their roots. Various events across East London, especially ones held at Altab Ali Park, demonstrate the Bangladeshis’ desire to express their grievances, support and even anger at the unfolding events in Bangladesh. The park itself has become a contested space for commemorating Bangladesh’s history, identity and the local politics and racism, which consequently led to the renaming of the park.

I think this link will dwindle with time as the third and fourth generation of British Bangladeshis are forging their homes here across the UK but I may be wrong. I have met many young people, in their 20s, trying to reconnect and find out more about their parents homeland. The country their parents will not lose ties to and a country that continues to define their heritage. Who knows…maybe my generation and younger will revive this link with Bangladesh and won’t allow it to diminish.

Insider or Outsider: The Elephant in the Room

insider-outsiderWhen I embarked upon my PhD, the first questions I was asked were:  ‘why are you studying ‘your own people’?’ Or ‘Surely studying a group you already know so much about is a cop out, no?’ At times I felt demotivated by such comments and most certainly felt undermined, as the questioner was, in some passive-aggressive manner, declaring their distrust of an insider studying an insider’s group. Now, surely this depends on your understanding of who or what an insider is, no?

‘Insider’s approach’ or being an ‘insider’ refers to when researchers conduct research with populations of which they are also members, so that the researcher shares an identity, language, and experiential base with the study participants. I appreciate that as a British Bangladeshi woman, and as an ‘insider’, it may enhance the depth and breadth of understanding the British Bangladeshi population, which may not be accessible to a non-Bangladeshi. However, questions about objectivity and authenticity may arise out of my participation in this research project because, perhaps, I may know ‘too much’ or am ‘too close’ to the subjects I am studying. Also, the Bangladeshis are among the most homogenous, with ‘nearly all of them originating from the Sylhet region of Bangladesh’ (Rozario and Gilliat-Ray 2005: 4), and as a Sylheti myself, I will be able to interact, if needed, with the participants in the local dialect rather than standard Bangla (Bengali language).

Having said the above, I also feel an outsider, at times, may provide comfort for participants who wish to engage in a topic/subject area they feel passionate about without feeling restrained by an interviewer who is an ‘insider’. Also, the participants may also go into the interview with the assumption that an ‘outsider’ may know little about the nuances of the community politics/customs/rituals he/she is studying therefore making it easier for the participant to feel like they have the upper hand.

Though many will see me as an ‘insider’, I’d argue I have found myself being treated as an ‘outsider’ by the participants because I am not from East London. This made the participants assume I know little about the area therefore lack of familiarity with the space politics. Nevertheless, I do believe that this insider role will allow me, as a researcher, to a more rapid and more complete acceptance by the participants thus making the participants typically more open and gain a higher level of trust so that the data gathered will be of great depth. This surely will only enrich my research rather than limit it to ‘researcher subjectivity’.

 

 

 

 

 

Thought Piece: My first dyad interview

 

informal-roomIn this piece I hope to share some of my thoughts of conducting my first ever dyad interview. The interviews I collected for my PhD fieldwork involved doing one-to-one interviews, so doing a dyad interview was a new challenge and experience for me. In addition to the interview itself I had to keep in mind to live-translate as the mother being interviewed didn’t speak English.

I interviewed a mother and daughter regarding their experiences of transnational relationships between the UK, particularly between Tower Hamlets and Bangladesh, and vice versa. I had prepared myself for the live-translation part though one can never fully prepare for such occasions. I made sure I found out how to say some words in Bengali, as I have a habit of switching to Benglish when I don’t know a word in Bengali but for the purposes of this interview I wanted to ensure I was able to convey the questions as accurately as possible. I was incredibly nervous, as I was very conscious of my insider status (I will discuss this topic in another post) and remembering to live-translate.

The interview commenced and much of it went smoothly. I, in hindsight, didn’t translate some of the long responses given by the mother, as I became preoccupied with making sure I was capturing the responses and actually listening so that we were effortlessly moving onto the next question. Thankfully there were moments when the daughter stepped in and translated bits but now looking back I could sense that I was too conscious of my positionality.

I have reminded myself to not be so hard on myself and through constructive criticism on my first dyad interview I have also learnt to enjoy the interviews as well as accepting that there is nothing wrong with going off script here and there.

 

 

 

The Bengali Language

Bengali language

 

In my previous post I spoke about the role of language and its significance in my life. I mentioned how we were banned from speaking English in the house, as my parents recognised that our home was the only place where we could practice our mother-tongue whereas the outside world demanded English. As a teenager this was rather frustrating but writing this piece as an adult I am ever so grateful to my parents for having such conviction to ensure their children knew who they were.

My parents took us to Bangladesh for almost 16 months and enrolled us in a private grammar school. We also had after-school tutors; one was for Qur’an recitation – in Arabic this is known as tajweed – and the other tutor helped us, inaddition to the Bengali we were learning in school, learn Standard Bangla, which included writing, reading, listening and speaking aspects of the language.

I have fond memories from that period. The hospitality culture humbled me because people’s generosity there is so magnanimous that receiving it leaves you with no other emotion but humility. The next time I experienced such hospitality was through my backpacking journey across South America.

This experience in Bangladesh not only reconnected me to my roots but this was also the moment, now looking back, that was going to change my life. 9/11 happened while we were living in Bangladesh and as a young girl I didn’t know or understand what that meant. It was around that time my dad’s youngest brother was getting married, so the whole family was consumed by the pre and post-wedding preparations. Little did we know that this event was going to change our lives.

I experienced life in Bangladesh. People’s attachment to the land, not in a nationalistic sense, but more in an esoteric way where one shows gratitude and earnestness to the land for providing rice, the staple food for Bengalis. This made me appreciate the greenery around me as well as creating a connection with the earth.

Once again, by accessing the language I gained an insight into the culture, the everyday nuances I would have missed otherwise. It gave me, and continues to give me, access to a world I can escape away to as my work life involves the English language, which, to me, lacks animation and is slightly burdensome. Speaking Bengali gives me life and breathing space; it gives me freedom.

 

A poem by Ena Ganguly:

 

you call my name

and I respond

in Bangla.

 

that’s how intimate

I feel with you.

 

that your voice pulls

some

from underneath

my tongue.

Growing up in a monolingual house

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I grew up in a house where we were forbidden from speaking English because my mum felt we were already speaking it outside the house and it only made sense to speak Bengali at home – the only place she felt we could preserve and engage with our Bengali identity.

My mum was, and still is, a firm believer in maintaining one’s own heritage along with its continuous changes and appreciating it. We were never told English isn’t important but that it would be with us anyway and that Bengali is something we have to activate as well as actively practicing the language skills. Language, in the case of Bengalis, is a sensitive topic as it revives the memories of the Language Movement, which, some argue, was the foundation for the independence movement in East Pakistan to break way from the central government in West Pakistan, modern day Pakistan.

Though language is important my mum’s emphasis stemmed more from a place of requiring her children to know their roots rather than for nationalist reasons. My dad felt the same way, however, it was my mother who instilled and ensured we grew up with a stable, Bengali identity, which I am grateful for, as it has allowed me to tap into a whole new world. Knowing another language is like having another soul; what is more beautiful than the ability to switch languages, dream in them, and also understand the mannerisms that come with acquiring a language.

So when I read the comments made by David Cameron about English language tests and linking it to Muslim women and counter-terrorism, it left me feeling a lot of anger because in addition to speaking English I have 5 other languages under my belt. I am hoping to pursue my 7th language as soon as I am done with my Phd. It was just incredible how Cameron instantly undermined Muslim women and linking their language deficiency to counter-terrorism. There is simply NO empirical evidence to suggest this but yet these women are being threatened with deportation. I wonder how many English families who have settled in Spain over the years have learnt to speak Spanish. I have travelled a lot to Spain and have met English-Spaniards who do not speak the language. Should we lobby the Spanish government to introduce a budget for immigrants who refuse to learn the language of their host country?

Much of this discussion and my own personal upbringing in a monolingual household was perfectly and succinctly summarised by Afzalur Rahman who wrote this piece in The Independent: ‘The Bengali language really comes into its own when dishing out discipline and that is something my mother excelled in. This proves that fluent English is no prerequisite for keeping children away from extreme influences’