The borough of Tower Hamlets lies just to the East of the City of London and in the heart of London's East End. It was formed in 1965 from the areas of Bethnal Green, Poplar and Stepney. The borough includes the famous West India docks, and as a result of its maritime history, it has a long tradition of migration and settlement. Tower Hamlets includes some of the poorest areas of the United Kingdom and some of its most wealthy developments around the former dock areas and Canary Wharf. Along with Newham, Tower Hamlets is one of the five boroughs chosen for development around London's 2012 Olympic Games.
There is evidence of a Bengali presence in Tower Hamlets since at least the 1920s, mostly made up of lascars – sailors who worked for the East India Company – many of whom came from the Sylhet district of Bengal. The borough is often described as the 'heartland' of the Bangladeshi community in Britain and it has the largest concentration of Bengalis in the country. The 2001 Census recorded around 65,500 Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, making up about 30% of the local population and 40% of the 170,000 Bengalis estimated to be living in Greater London. The borough is over 36% Muslim (the vast majority being of Bengali descent) and has over 40 mosques – the most famous being the Brick Lane Mosque and the East London Mosque.
Bangladeshis live across the whole of the borough but make up over half of the electoral wards of Spitalfields and Banglatown (58%) and Whitechapel (52%), and nearly half of Bethnal Green South (over 48%) and Shadwell (49%), and one-third or more of the population of Mile End and Globe (30%), Limehouse (30%), Weavers (37%), Mile End East (35%) and Bromley-by-Bow (40%). The Bangladeshi population is overwhelmingly from the Sylhet region, though over half are British-born. There are signs, though, that the Bangladeshi community is getting smaller – (from over 30% in 2001 to 29% in 2007), in part due to migration eastwards into Newham and Essex.
Tower Hamlets is famous for its Bangladeshi restaurants, the most famous being around Brick Lane (also known as Banglatown). The community holds an annual Boishakhi Mela, a fair to mark Bengali New Year in April, and the Brick Lane Curry Festival in September. The borough is also the site of a Shahid Minar (Tower of the Martyrs) – a memorial to the start of the Liberation Struggle.
Jakia Chowdhury: two Tower Hamlets
Jakia Chowdhury arrived in London in 1987 with her family and later stayed behind illegally. She settled in Tower Hamlets and became an active member of cultural and political organisations. She was given the legal right to stay in 2003. She now works for Tower Hamlets Council and told us of the social and economic divisions in the borough:
Two divisions are being created in Tower Hamlets. Docklands, for instance, is a new city - rich people live there, there are big businesses there. But if you go past Commercial Road, you'll find all the poor people in areas like Whitechapel, Brick Lane, Bethnal Green – Bengalis live in all these areas. Now the situation is getting better.
She told us of the changes across the generations:
There is a third generation now. The first generation is very old – they were not very educated, they came from underdeveloped villages. They came on ships using voucher visas. They got work permits and, after the 1970s, started bringing their families. The second generation is like us – many tried to get educated. They do mainly community-based jobs. And the third generation is our children… Other people think we are a poor community, but I am hopeful our children will do better.
Jakia spoke too of the successes of Bengali children in education but of the problems this brought with it:
Our children are doing well and they are above the national average… They're going to better universities. But one thing is obvious: the students who have done well are not coming back to the community… They're going to the City, or getting good jobs for a good salary.
Boshir Ahmed: the struggle for community
Boshir Ahmed arrived in Britain in 1963 and worked in the north of England and in the Midlands before settling in Tower Hamlets. He spoke of the earlier struggle of Bengalis with local racists:
In the '60s and '70s, Bengalis faced problems with the skinheads. They would beat up Bengalis… They would eat in the restaurants but wouldn't pay the bills. Nowadays this doesn't happen… This racial problem has gone now.
He also spoke about the setting up of religious community facilities:
When I first arrived, it was difficult to perform our religious duties. There wasn't much scope. There weren't any mosques. We had to hire a room in the town hall to say prayers. Nowadays it is easy. All the facilities are there, more opportunities, there are mosques. The children can get an Islamic education. There are mawlanas [religious teachers] to organise a milad [gathering to remember the prophet]. Until the '70s, there was no mosque… Now, there are more than 40 mosques in Tower Hamlets.
He told us that he preferred London to the other places he had lived:
Now I like London more. We have a Bengali community. Most of our relatives live here. In this part of London it's like we're at home. Food, culture, everything. London is good.
Shaila Sharif Mou: a Sylheti Space?
Shaila Sharif Mou arrived in Tower Hamlets in 1999 with her family and works as a teaching assistant. She spoke of Tower Hamlets as being a Sylheti space:
The language of Tower Hamlets is Sylheti. But I don't understand or speak Sylheti… I can't communicate with the local people. When I took a job at the school, it was terrible… the Bengalis wouldn't talk to me… Gradually, they became more relaxed with me.
Shaila also spoke of differences between Sylhetis and people from other parts of Bangladesh:
Those of us who are non-Sylhetis have a good educational background; once we're trained, we can do the work. We haven't faced any problems anywhere and the Whites have always welcomed us. That is my experience.
Wahiduzzaman: leaving Tower Hamlets
Wahiduzzaman moved to Newham from Tower Hamlets in the 1980s. He recalls:
Back then the trend was to move out of Tower Hamlets because people wanted to live in a better place… In the '80s Tower Hamlets was very poor and there was very little going on there. It was quite a depressing place. However, I think it has changed since then.
He comments on the redevelopment of the borough and the improvements for the Bengali community there:
Brick Lane is very good. There is lots of investment there. I think in general people are doing very well… The community is doing better than many other communities, financially, educationally, in terms of holding on to the family and cultural practices.
Mehjabin Islam and Aleya Parveen: a view from outside
Mehjabin Islam has been living in Newham since she arrived in Britain in 1989 to join her father. She spoke of the differences between the Bengali communities in Tower Hamlets and Newham:
If you go to Brick Lane, you'll get a taste of Bangladesh. You'll meet Bengalis. You'll experience 90% of Bangladeshi culture. If you go to Whitechapel market, you'll find it like Bangladesh: the noise, the people. But Bengalis in Newham are not like them… Because I have become very used to the environment in Newham, I don't like the atmosphere in Tower Hamlets. It's very crowded, the noise is like in Bangladesh - the vendors are shouting to sell their items or they are calling out to customers. I don't like it.
Similarly Aleya described her surprise at visiting Tower Hamlets for the first time:
I didn't go to a relative's house to eat, so I went to a restaurant – it's not in Brick Lane. It was like an area of Bangladesh, a Sylheti area. At first I couldn't believe it - so many shops besides the road… People were chewing betel leaves. They were wearing lungi. It was like a Bangladeshi road… It is a hundred percent Bengali para…. Actually I don't like the way we present ourselves here. London should be like London. Our movement, behaviour, attitude, how we represent ourselves should all be different... But I had a good feeling too. I felt as if I was in Bangladesh.
One of the most famous streets in Tower Hamlets is Brick Lane. Brick Lane runs from Swanfield Street in Bethnal Green in the north of the Borough to Whitechapel High Street in the South. Its name comes from the brick and tile makers who used to live in the area. Brick Lane has been home to wave after wave of immigrants, from Flemish silkweavers and Irish dockworkers to Eastern European Jewish refugees, before Bangladeshis arrived in large numbers from the 1970s onwards. In the twentieth century it became a centre for the clothing industry, where many early Bengali migrants worked. Most of the clothing factories closed by the 1980s, but in the 1990s the area was a focus for renewal through the development of the 'Indian' restaurant trade. There are now nearly 50 Bangladeshi restaurants and cafés on Brick Lane, and the area has become known as 'Banglatown'.
Brick Lane has long been a site for anti-racist struggle, by the Jewish community in the 1930s, and by the Bangladeshi community in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1978, garment worker, Altab Ali, was murdered by racists. Local Bengalis organised a protest of 10,000 people who marched from Whitechapel to Westminster. This struggle has made Brick Lane even more important for Bangladeshis in Tower Hamlets, and across Britain, providing a sense of safety and community identity.
Momin Ahmed: the importance of Brick Lane
Momin Ahmed was born in Birmingham, but grew up in Bangladesh and returned to the UK as a teenager. He came to work in Brick Lane as a youth worker in 1990. He told us of the importance of Brick Lane to the British Bengali community:
I think Brick Lane is the blood centre of the Bengalis because most of the Bengalis living in England are in Brick Lane… Brick Lane is a historical place because our community has developed around Brick Lane… They built a mosque here, they brought out papers, they developed political organisations and the leaders of the Bengali community live here… On every important occasion, every Bengali rushes to this area… It is now a focal point, a symbolic place for the Bengalis. The Boishakhi mela began in this area and the Shahid Minar [Tower of the Martyrs] was built. This area can be called Bengali para. You can get everything you need - Bangladeshi food, magazines, CDs, DVDs, everything, even aarang … Everything you need is in one place.
Jakia Chowdhury: Brick Lane as a Bangladeshi space
Jakia Chowdhury has lived in or around Tower Hamlets since 1987. She told us how important she felt Brick Lane is as a Bangladeshi space:
Brick Lane represents the whole of Bengalis in the UK. Bengali restaurants, sweetmeats, bookshops, Bangla literature, Bangladeshi cultural practices – they're all in Brick Lane. There is the space and opportunity to organise events here… Brick Lane is the centre for all types of meetings.
She also told us of the importance of Brick Lane and Banglatown as a tourist attraction:
Brick Lane has become famous for one thing: Banglatown… Brick Lane is famous for Bengali restaurants. It's not only Bengalis who go to these restaurants; White people also go to them. If you go in the evening Brick Lane takes on a different colour; you'll see people from different countries… I enjoy it when I see this scene.
Amjad Ali: Brick Lane as the capital city of British Bengalis
Amjad Ali came to Britain in 1973 and grew up on Brick Lane. He told us:
Tower Hamlets means Brick Lane. And everything starts from Brick Lane. You can say it is the capital city of the Bengali community. All people need a capital city – London is the capital city of the UK. Likewise, Brick Lane is the capital city of the Bengali community… Whatever happens in Tower Hamlets or Brick Lane, it is reflected in other areas of the country. Every good thing of Tower Hamlets has its reflection in other areas.
He told us of his strong emotional feeling towards the area:
I was brought up on Brick Lane. At one time, though, I lived somewhere else but I would come to Brick Lane regularly. It felt like if I didn't come to Brick Lane, my rice couldn't be digested. We had a regular place where all our friends would sit together for adda [chatting] in the evening. It was our area.
Shanu Miah: the Struggle for Brick Lane
Shanu Miah came to Britain in 1967 as a child and later worked as a tailor in Hanbury Street, off Brick Lane. He now owns a restaurant in the area. He recalled the struggle of the Bengalis for Brick Lane across the generations:
My grandfather struggled when he came here. They fought one type of war. We all struggled, generation after generation. Step by step we progressed. Today's face of Brick Lane has not happened overnight. We reached this stage gradually, we had to fight a lot… During our time the National Front was very strong. All immigrants helped each other to build resistance against them.
Mostaq Ahmed: the changing face of Brick Lane
Mostaq Ahmed arrived in Britain in 1982 with his family. In the 2000s he stood as a Labour councillor in the borough. He told us of the history of Brick Lane:
Brick Lane is historically a place for settlers. Once the Brick Lane Mosque was a church, then it turned into a synagogue and then it became a mosque…
He spoke too of the pace of change in the area:
Brick Lane is being transformed so rapidly that you don't know how it looked even the day before yesterday. You see the road in front of us? You will not get any house for less than £1,000,000... 10 years ago, these houses cost £150,000-£200,000 maximum… Now Brick Lane is a fashionable place.
These changes bring new challenges for the Bengali community:
Once Brick Lane was an outdated area - it had tailoring factories. Now you don't see any tailoring factories. Instead, you see curry houses on the main street… But I don't know where we're going with this trend. In future it will be difficult for us to survive… 15 years ago, you wouldn't have found anyone but Bengalis; now 50% of Bengalis have moved away… That has been the major change.
Mobarak Hossain: changing opinions of Brick Lane
Mobarak Hossain came to London in 1983 as a child and first of all lived in Camden. He spoke of his early attachment to Brick Lane:
If I didn't go to Brick Lane, I felt like my breath stopped… When I worked in the restaurants, I got one day off a week. On that day I'd meet my friends and we would go and spend time in Brick Lane… Brick Lane is a small Bangladesh.
However, he told us that as he got older, his feelings for Brick Lane had changed, and that the restaurant trade had destroyed the sense of community:
Now Brick Lane is two minutes away from my house, but I don't think I go there more than once every six months. It's a place of curry houses. There is no room for adda [chatting with friends]… It seems to me there is no Bengali culture in Brick Lane any more, only curry houses… So I do not find it interesting to go there.
Shaila Sharif Mou: Brick Lane as a Bengali Space?
Shaila spoke to us of the importance of Banglatown to Bangladeshis when they first arrive in London, as she herself did 10 years ago. However, she raised questions about how 'Bengali' the Banglatown development is:
It's a false place. But it has lots of Bengali shops, lots of Bengali restaurants. They have tried to give it a Bangla flavour. When Bangladeshis come to the UK they want to go to Banglatown. But I think the name Banglatown is not the right name because most of the food available in the restaurants is not Bangladeshi food, it's Indian food… We would say it has no flavour; it doesn't have the Bangaliana style. Whitechapel has the Bengali approach. Brick Lane is chaotic.
Mostafa Kamal and Rimi: Brick Lane from a distance
Mostafa Kamal lives in Bradford and works as a restaurant owner and taxi-driver. He told us of his image of Brick Lane:
I like Brick Lane. When I go there, it's like I'm in Bangladesh. The shop signs are written in Bangla. The Bengalis read Bangla. Most of them talk Bangla. I can get betel leaves. Every Bangladeshi item is available over there. So it's like I'm in Bangladesh… I like the music shops in particular. I hear songs, I can get the CDs I want in these shops. They're not available in Bradford or other places.
Rimi is a teacher who lives in Essex. She described Brick Lane:
It seems to me that this is our place. I feel proud when I see that our community is so well settled here. I like it very much. Sometimes I think, 'It would be better if he didn't go out in a lungi,' but it's still a great thing. If everybody were neat and tidy, then we wouldn't get the real feeling of home.
The Boishakhi Mela, which traditionally marks Bengali New Year, is the largest Asian open-air festival in Europe and the largest Bengali festival outside of Bangladesh. It is the second largest festival in Britain after the Notting Hill Carnival and attracts around 80,000 visitors each year. In Bangladesh the Mela takes place on 14 and 15 April. However, the Mela in Brick Lane takes place on the second weekend in May to avoid April showers. The Mela was started in 1997, and marked its 10th anniversary while we were carrying out our research in 2007. It begins with a parade that starts in Allen Gardens and proceeds up Brick Lane to Weavers Field where there are stages with music, dance and drama performances.
Jakia Chowdhury: two Boishakhi Melas?
Jakia, who has been actively involved with cultural organisations in Tower Hamlets told us that the Boishakhi Mela in May is not considered by many Bengalis to be the 'true' celebration of Boishakh. She and some of her colleagues have organised an event in April, the same time as Pohela Boishakh, the traditional New Year event in Bangladesh:
The Mela is not on Pohela Boishakh. It is organised one month after the start of the New Year... That's why we have started a new celebration on the same day as Bangla New Year… It will create awareness amongst the next generation of children and they will learn about it… It will highlight Bengali culture.
By contrast, the Boishakhi Mela is seen as a chance for 'fun':
Second generation children get involved with the Mela because they think it is open and they can have fun there. There are no limits, it is held in an open space. They think the Mela is Pohela Boishakh, but it's a commercial fair… But it is good, though. It is the biggest mela in Europe; people from Europe come to celebrate it.
Jakia also pointed, however, to some criticisms of the Mela by local Islamic groups:
The Islamists campaign against the Mela on the day. They hand out leaflets. They say that the Mela is haram [forbidden], that people shouldn't attend it. It doesn't make any difference, though. Every year people still come to the Mela… They can't stop people coming and celebrating. Yes, it's true that some people don't come to the Mela, especially people who live in the area, but people who live outside do come.
Nazrul Islam: negative views of the Mela
Nazrul Islam came to London in 1990 and owns a shop in Tower Hamlets. He told us that he did not approve of the Mela:
You know the biggest event in this country is Notting Hill Carnival. Some million people go to this festival, but there will be no quarrelling among them. In our case, fighting starts in the morning… Women go to show off their bodies… I don't think it's good. Oh brother, there is nothing there except pushing each other… This is not part of Bengali culture.
Shaleha Begum: religious opposition to the Mela
A widow living in Newham, Shaleha Begum told us that she had been advised not to attend the Mela because the music and dance was considered not Islamic:
I went to a Boishakhi Mela once. But the imam at our mosque told us not to go to it. He gave his opinion in an Islamic way; he said we would be committing a sin by going there because there is a music show there. That's why he asked me not to go. I went once, then I did not go again.
The Shahid Minar (Tower of the Martyrs) stands in Altab Ali Park, at the southern end of Brick Lane. The monument was built in 1999 and is a copy of the original tower in Dhaka and the first Shahid Minar in Britain, which is in Oldham. The original Shahid Minar stands outside the Dhaka Medical College in Dhaka, Bangladesh. It was built as a memorial to the language martyrs who were killed by police in 1952 as they protested against Urdu becoming the main language of East Pakistan (later Bangladesh). This incident is seen as the start of the Independence movement in Bangladesh.
The monument in Altab Ali Park was built with the donations of 50 local businessmen and community groups, who each gave £500. At midnight on 21 February (Ekushe) every year, Bengalis gather to commemorate the language martyrs and those who died in the Liberation struggle; they lay wreaths at the monument.
Jakia Chowdhury: the importance of the Shahid Minar
Jakia has been involved for many years with the Nirmul Committee, which is concerned with bringing to justice the war criminals from the Bangladesh War of Liberation. She told us what the Shahid Minar means for her:
I celebrate it every day, I keep the importance. But I do also mark important events like Ekushe [21 February] and our Independence Day… It's my identity, it's our identity. If I don't mark that, I don't know my roots.
Mostaq Ahmed: the greater meaning of the Shahid Minar
Mostaq Ahmed was a labour councillor in Tower Hamlets for several years. He described to us the importance of the Shahid Minar to him:
I think the Shahid Minar is a symbol, it is an emotion. It is not only a sculpture; so many things are involved with it. My personal opinion is that it is not only art, it is something more. We should honour it. Now the question is: are we doing this?
Amjad Ali: the meaning of Altab Ali Park and the Shahid Minar
Amjad Ali was a central person in the anti-racist struggles of the 70s and 80s. He described the effect of the murder of Altab Ali in 1978 on the Bengali community and links this struggle to the Shahid Minar:
One evening after work, Altab Ali left his factory in Hanbury Street and walked through Brick Lane to the park area. While he was walking three racists attacked Altab Ali and killed him… We protested this killing and organised a demonstration. We went to 10 Downing Street and held a meeting at Hyde Park Corner. Some white, anti-Nazi organisations supported us. This was how our movement started… Because of this a change began in society. Saint Mary's Park was renamed Altab Ali Park and that's where the Shahid Minar is set.
Momin Ahmed: the Shahid Minar, anti-racism and the Bangladesh Independence Movement
Momin Ahmed has been a cultural and political activist in Tower Hamlets since the 1990s and is a member of the Nirmul Committee (an organisation concerned with bringing to justice the war criminals from the Bangladesh Liberation War). He described the beginnings of Ekushe February in Tower Hamlets:
Bengalis observed Martyr’s day by creating a temporary Shahid Minar with wooden planks and stuff and using community centres. They had been doing that for years, since 1952… Then the council thought we should have a permanent monument.
He also told us of the importance of where the Shahid Minar is and its links to the Independence movement in Bangladesh:
Altab Ali Park was important to the community because of the murder of Altab Ali there and the park being a rallying point for lots of demonstrations, meetings and protests. It was always seen as a symbol of protest and of celebration… A lot of the people who fought the anti-racist struggle were inspired by Bangladesh's independence movement, so it's all kind of connected.
Brick Lane Mosque and East London Mosque
There are two mosques of particular importance in Tower Hamlets. The oldest is the Brick Lane Jamme Masjid (Great Mosque) which stands on Brick Lane itself, on the corner with Fournier Street. The Brick Lane Mosque was opened in 1976, in a building which began life in 1743 as a Protestant chapel for the French Hugenot settlers. 60 years later, in 1819 it became a Methodist chapel. In the 19th century it changed again into the Spitalfields Great Synagogue because of the many Jewish refugees coming to the area from Russia and Central Europe. As these Jewish settlers gradually left the area and Bengali Muslims began to arrive in greater numbers, the synagogue was bought and in 1976 it was transformed again into a mosque.
The Mosque is mainly there for the local Bangladeshi Muslim community and can hold up to 4,000 people for jummah prayers on Friday. The Mosque committee is closely involved with Bangladeshi national politics.
Shanu Miah: Brick Lane Mosque
Shanu Miah told us of the significance of Brick Lane Mosque to the history of the Bangladeshi community in and around Brick Lane:
Brick Lane Mosque is our mosque. My father and uncles worked hard to establish that mosque… I do pray in other mosques, but I don't feel secure. This mosque is the Bengali's mosque. It is not like East London Mosque. I am not a politician but my national pride is within me. I have affection for Brick Lane Mosque.
Momin Ahmed: Brick Lane Mosque, religion and nationalism
Momin Ahmed told us of the links between Brick Lane Mosque, the nationalist struggle in Bangladesh and a Bengali version of Islamic worship:
We who are in favour of Liberation go to Brick Lane Mosque. There are a number of mosques that are under the control of the Fundamentalists [groups with a strong belief in following the basic core texts and practices of Islam]. We do not go to those mosques. We avoid them, we refuse to go to them. I think of Brick Lane Mosque as my own mosque. In Brick Lane Mosque, I find Islam in the spirit that most of the people from my country like – for example, folk-based Islam or Sufism… In this tradition, the people do not use the mosque for politics, they think of it as a sacred place. They use it simply for prayer.
East London Mosque
East London Mosque is a specially-built mosque on Whitechapel Road just to the south of Brick Lane. Built in 1985, and partly paid for by the King of Saudi Arabia, it is one of the largest mosques in London, holding up to 4,500 people. In 2004 it was expanded to include the London Muslim Centre. The Mosque has prayer areas for both men and women and was the first mosque to broadcast the azaan (call to prayer) from the minaret. The Mosque also runs a number of community and welfare services aimed at women and young people.
Husna Ara Begum Matin: East London Mosque as a place for women
Like many Bengali women, Husna Ara Begum Matin attends mosques on special occasions. She told us she goes to East London Mosque because it is nearest to her house:
A mosque is the house of Allah, so every mosque is the same. There is no favourite mosque. I just go to East London Mosque because it is close to my house. I only go to mosque for tarabi [prayers] and if the body of any dead person I know comes there.
She is happy that East London Mosque and others are becoming more and more open to women:
It has become easier to practice religion. There are many groups for women to discuss Islam and to practise Islam. There has been a lot of progress in this area… Now the opportunity to practise religion is better than it is at home.
Rimi: East London Mosque as a diverse space
Rimi lives in Newham but attends East London Mosque. She told us she prefers it because there are facilities for women and there are all kinds of Muslims worshipping there:
I go to East London Mosque. They have a separate place for women. It's a big place. All kinds of communities go there, not only Sylhetis, not only Bengalis, but all kinds of communities. In Brick Lane Mosque you see many Bengalis but there are few women.