Tower Hamlets: A Millenial’s Perspective

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Living in a multicultural society, I see the desire for harmony being threatened by ignorance and apprehension, which steer people along divergent paths. With my parents’ country politically torn, and my religion a centre of misunderstanding and conflict, I feel further embroiled in issues of my community. My interest has been intensified by my studies of civilisations and their conflicts, followed by my first-hand experience of being in the midst of the Arab Uprising, which is proving to be a trigger of historic movements and international change. Being born and raised in Tower Hamlets, in government statistics, can be seen as a plight or a burden on national services. Mentioning those two words springs lame jokes by peers of Bangladeshis and fish, or the obsession of headscarves from Whitechapel Market by respected genders. However, there is a consensus across the board from all social classes for the fondness of the unlimited supply of curry houses that the borough has to offer.

It is without a doubt that there are many learning curves that Tower Hamlets has faced and is facing. A population of slightly wealthy landowners descended onto this piece of land, and entered the paradox of a ‘British identity.’ Eventually, it formed into what I believe, a falsely described ‘war between secularists and the religious.’ Growing up, I saw the evolution even amongst family members of ridding of what was understood to be cultural practices that did not align as Islamic yet preserving ethnic and traditional observances with vigour. Touching of the feet to give ‘salaam’ to the elders was swiftly abolished, yet the English language was outlawed at home in order to preserve the Bengali language. Traditional chairs, known as a ‘mura’, were decoratively dotted around the various rooms of the house to add a touch of the ‘homeland.’ I believe the lengths that my family went through to educate every one of us to a very high standard, from the careful selection of schools to sitting with us late into the night to assist with learning, eventually achieved the equilibrium of a religious yet what I believe to be a progressive rather than secular upbringing. It is worthy to note that the word secularist has caused much grievances in Bangladesh from its birth to date, with the lack of a clear definition, thus, allowing ‘religious individuals’ to use it as a weapon when attacking what they believe to be morally wrong, both at ‘home’ and abroad.

The welfare of my community is a priority for me. Being a native speaker of Bengali, fluent in Arabic and having memorised the entire Qur’an when I was eleven, gave me the privilege of schooling children in both the Arabic language and the Qur’an, thus opening my mind to beliefs and questions asked by young people and taking responsibility at a young age. The glint of desire in the students’ eyes as they question concepts and say with honesty what they hope to achieve through this education is, for me, the reward for teaching on a voluntary basis. Their innocent belief in religion’s power to end world conflicts may bring a smile to the teacher’s face, but it is this honesty that inspires us to strive.

Working regularly with a youth group, where I was given the chance to share my experiences and aspiring endeavours enabled me to empathise with youths facing issues such as peer pressure, bullying, and drugs. They realised they had someone with whom they could share their feelings about growing up in a minority society, and from whom they could gain the hope that there is a better stretch of land out there for them. My goal is not to be a saviour, but rather a hand stretched out offering help.

Cable Street, Clement Attlee, William Booth, Keir Hardie are all names vividly alive in my locality and prominent in my mind. Shahid Minar in Aldgate brings a flurry of emotions every time I walk past; sadness, longing for community cohesion, and desires of social uplifting. Together, they symbolise liberty in political principles and religious conviction, and independence of thought. I should like to play a similar role in what I know is a complex minefield of ideals in conflict with the demands of reality.

Tower Hamlets in my metaphorical eyes is a paranoid teenager. It needs to learn to trust, but trust has not been afforded to it as yet. For it to blossom into a mature adult with learning’s of life and its responsibilities, it needs to not be seen as a hostile hormonal teenager, rather a small, loving, and beautiful being with many issues that have not been resolved as it has always been left abandoned after being used as a guinea pig by anyone wishing to trial their many experiments upon it. For an honest answer of what it is to be a child of Tower Hamlets, an outsider must learn to embrace it of its goodness and its shortcomings, before being given a warm hug of embrace by its souls.

M. Habib.

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The role of emotions whilst conducting semi-structured interviews

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Emotions. They’re not something you can really switch off. When I was preparing to do my fieldwork for my PhD I was instructed, as per usual, to remain ‘objective’ and not get ‘too involved’. The latter comment implied I should keep my distance from the research participants on my fieldwork in order to retrieve the most amount of data without ‘imposing’ myself. Surely, my presence itself will influence the outcome anyway? It was once I started working on these projects that I was told it was okay to be fluid and flexible. It was okay to go ‘off-script’ during an interview – although it is supposed to be a semi-structured interview anyway(!) – and give the research participants authority to also guide the interview.

One of the reasons I was hoping to write this piece was because of a few encounters I have had with some research participants whist working on both the projects. One interview, in particular, moved me so much that it inspired me to (finally!) write this particular piece. These were moments where I suddenly found myself really caught up with the research participants’ emotions. I could feel their emotions and I felt them intensely when they shared gruesome memories from their lives. In these instances I felt awkward because I was always taken back to the workshops where I was told to remain as distant as possible in order not to manipulate or induce any emotions. Alas, I was to experience something quite transformative, personally as well as a researcher who will, hopefully, continue to conduct qualitative research in the future.

What left me speechless during some of these interviews was how much people confided in me about different phases in their lives, which in other contexts would be perceived as information you only share with your close circle of friends. I was left feeling overwhelmed and, at times, wondering how can one can trust a stranger this much? During one interview I witnessed a mother break down in front of her daughter while she was sharing her love for Bangladesh and what the country meant to her. I lost myself in her descriptions of her love that I found myself crying with her. Her daughter also started crying but left the room to grab some tissue for us. On another occasion, I interviewed an adult male in his 30s and once he started reflecting upon his mother’s dedication and how much she sacrificed for her children he started crying. We were in a public place and I asked him if he wanted me to switch off the voice-recorder but he didn’t respond. I grabbed him some tissue and I sat quietly, looking down and blankly staring at my shoes. I was overwhelmed because this was the first time an adult male I have interviewed was crying in front of me. I asked him what triggered his emotions and he then went into detail about how his mother, like many other Bangladeshi women in the East End at the time, were sewing t-shirts, trousers and many other items in their homes on either Brother or Singer sewing machines to make some extra money for the household.

In addition to the two occurrences I have described above there were many more. One elderly Bengali aunty (in her 60s) started crying when she spoke about her husband, who deceased 8 years ago, and how much she missed his company. He did everything for her, so now that she was taking English lessons she felt she had missed out on so much but would have loved to have him around to support her in her new endeavours. One other interview involved an uncle, 60 years of age, to cry. He vividly described his experience of witnessing the West Pakistani army burning the villages near his and how he tried to escape the village with his relatives. In trying to escape and forcing his relatives out of the village to find a hiding place he realised his two grandfathers couldn’t move along with them because they were too frail. He then went back in and lit their hookahs for them and ran out, seeking safety for himself. He apologised for crying. I sat there in silence and, once again, looked down at my shoes and stared at them. I had tears rushing to my eyes, hoping to stream down my face but I managed to control myself and lifted my head to look at him again. He wiped his tears and explained how those memories still haunt him.

These are just some of the experiences I have had doing qualitative research. I am aware of the role of self-reflexivity in research and how it is vital in navigating one’s position as a researcher. However, one thing I was never quite prepared for was how to handle emotions or if I was ever allowed to express them in front of my research participants. Within academia emotions are sometimes frowned upon and perceived as not ‘scientific’ enough but what I have learnt from my time on these projects is that they are central to the research process and should be embraced rather than disregarded – they’re an asset, not a burden. How can this be possible when the very premise of qualitative research, particularly when pursuing topics such as immigration, racism, transnationalism, citizenship, identity, and so on, involves many different layers of emotions. These various topics are driven and explored through people’s lived experiences, which, inevitably, are drawn from multifaceted emotional memories without which the data would surely be vacuous? Even if research participants aren’t crying in front of you you are still having to navigate emotions crucial to the individual’s narration because doing interviews involves listening to people sharing precious moments in their lives, which consequently enrich one’s study/research. Without people’s emotions I am not too sure if the data would be raw but most importantly it would simply take away the human element: emotions.

Birangona and their legacy

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Illustrator: Asha Dangol

 

Bīrāṅganā (বীরাঙ্গনা), which translates into war heroine in Bangla means ‘brave women’, which was the title given to the 200,000 to 400,000 Bangladeshi women who were raped and made sex slaves in military rape camps by the Pakistani Army during the 1971 Bangladeshi Independence War.

I distinctly remember first learning about their struggles when researching into the liberation of Bangladesh, after I had heard a passing comment by Amā, who was hesitant on celebrating Independence Day because of how traumatic the war was for women in contrast to my dad.

I believe most of the diaspora can relate to this when I say our parents do not speak about the war – it’s like that secret everyone knows but never mentions; we might hear small snippets but in my particular case I researched most of it on my own before I asked my parents.

In no way do I blame them for the coping mechanisms they use in dealing with a truly horrific and genocidal war. It was 2012, I was 16 in Bangladesh when I asked my parents, after meeting my Nāni, about the war. As I sat there awkwardly trying to get over the language barrier, I could not help but wonder what she was doing in the war, what had happened to her, what was her story?

That night I heard about stories of the war before I could not imagine even thinking of. You can read as many books about 1971 possible yet there is a certain context with which only those who lived through it can comprehend.

Amā went on to talk about the stories that she had heard growing up, about how Pakistani soldiers would come village to village, killing whom they please and taking girls and women as young as 7 and as old as 75 to the rape camps.

She told me how Nāni’s mum and all her sisters had to hide for days in the attic when they heard that the soldiers were coming. How so many women and girls got dragged by their saris, how their screams can be still heard, how girls she grew up with were never seen again, how no amount of rainfall can wash away the stench of blood from those nine months.

After this summer, I took it upon myself to learn about their struggle. The struggle of the Bīrāṅganā is important to me because of how much these women had to suffer and historically how much Bangladeshi women have had to suffer.

The Bīrāṅganā are still alive today which reaffirms how, given the living collective consciousness of the tragedy, history is still wet with the blood of their loss and survival. They are still living with their stigma they are still living with their trauma.

This is another example of how our pain is erased, war is gendered it means different things for different genders. Yet it is always the women who suffer the most and it is always the struggles and pain of women that are never fully acknowledged. The last stage of every genocide is denial, and so the denial of the genocidal rape, which gets erased from the discourse surrounding war, is violence in itself. Their pain has still not been acknowledged, and their muted pain, if anything, is being erased.

This is why it is imperative for us, as the Bangladeshi diaspora, to know of them, and to know of the Bīrāṅganā. How can we expect others to know when we do not even know? Why do we not know? We need to let go of this performative nationality we indulge in and we must start understanding these struggles for no one but ourselves, and the honour of the sacrifice made by our ancestors. Otherwise, these stories will fade away with them too.

By Tasnima Uddin

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.