Cafe societies

In little corners of the capital, each community of immigrants and refugees finds its home from home. By Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Photographs by David Modell
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The British Bulldog is an increasingly nervy beast: snarling and snapping at dark strangers, sniffing them out in the back of stinking lorries, protecting his territory from people whom he believes are a threat to his good life. They may claim to be genuine immigrants and refugees, but to him most are cheats, scroungers and, above all, aliens who are bound to defile all that makes this country British. As unprecedented numbers of people - an estimated 50 million refugees - are uprooted around the world, this fear and hatred of the outsider has been growing, actively nurtured by some tabloid newspapers and Tory politicians. Our most recent asylum legislation means applicants awaiting decisions are denied benefits, and appeals procedures have been made harder, especially for those from the so-called "safe countries".

It was not (altogether) ever thus. People have always been received into this country as asylum seekers, immigrants and workers. Way back in 1601, Elizabeth I demanded that "blackamoors" should be "discharged with all speed, out of these dominions", but the command was quietly ignored by the migrant ex-slaves and servants, many of whom had settled down with white women and had children. Henry Mayhew recorded the presence of Indian jugglers, herbalists and magicians on the streets of London. Swarthy princes, seriously clever students and other children of the Empire also came over, bit by bit laying the foundations of the fertile cultural mix we find today.

After the war, Britain accepted persecuted Jews and others and was proud to do so. Offering refuge was considered virtuous, especially for the signatories to the 1951 Geneva Convention. Tories such as the MP Sir David Maxwell Fyfe said in 1948: "We are proud that we impose no colour bar restrictions... We must maintain our great metropolitan tradition of hospitality to everyone from every part of our Empire." Enoch Powell encouraged nurse recruitment from the West Indies. And, as Paul Foot wrote in 1965: "Commonwealth immigrants in Britain, before they became playthings of party politics...were greeted with general friendliness and hospitality."

In the Sixties, it became trendy to befriend soulful intellectuals and artists fleeing communism and military dictatorships. When I arrived here in 1972, one of 30,000 Asians with British passports ejected out of Uganda, we did have to confront overweight Smithfield butchers who stood outside the airport spitting out abuse, but many other people in this country took us into their homes, gave us warm clothes and became trusted friends. For years afterwards, you would find in the houses of immigrants garlanded pictures of Prime Minister Edward Heath next to images of various deities, an expression of gratitude to the leader who stood up for us. When Britain took in Vietnamese refugees, even Margaret Thatcher made glowing speeches about our international obligations.

Life for these arrivals was not easy, and many of their children have ended up feeling it has been a wasted journey. But many, too, have flourished, delighting in the way their presence has altered landscapes, lifestyles, the very definition of Britishness. A very proper Englishman once spent an entire train journey expressing his joy that Britain was now a multi-racial country: "You couldn't get any aubergines before." Reader, I married him.

But the most integrated immigrants still have to deal with complex dilemmas. Their children speak in a foreign tongue and learn ways which wreck the cultural baggage carefully transported across the seas. They retain an emotional bond with their homelands and yet feel disconnected from them. Although they decry Western materialism, many feel superior to their brethren back home because they now have cars, colour TVs, mail-order exercise bikes and tiled bathrooms. And there is the thorny question of how to behave. Are you forever a guest? Do you have to be eternally grateful and polite? Should you assimilate? Will you ever be a person of this nation? Or will your attempts to try this simply irritate the natives the way Salman Rushdie describes so brilliantly in East, West: "Foreigners can be dogged and can also, on account of language difficulties, fail to take a hint... Foreigners forget their place (having left it behind). Given time, they begin to think of themselves as our equals. It is an unavoidable hazard... Nothing for it: turn a deaf ear."

These are the subjects incessantly, fervently, discussed by immigrants and refugees. They also have other needs. Joseph Conrad wrote in Lord Jim: "Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength; and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life."

Across the country, in all our big cities, you find them, intimate little eateries, re-creations of sorts, of that spot on earth they left behind which still clings to their hearts.

Colombian cantina

The cantina looks like it's been painted with raspberry sorbet. Roberto, the flirtatious owner, tells me that Colombians are voluptuaries. We drink aguardiente, which burns my entrails, but to complain would be asking to be mocked. Being Colombian, they tell me, is an act of faith and of pictures in your head - of the Andes, the light, the valleys, the forests. "Look," says Hernando Reyes, a driver with Parcel Force, who has been here since 1979, "we are not only about drugs, coffee and Marquez. We export emeralds, flowers. We have surgeons, bankers."

The lure of London in the Sixties - "and of Emma Peel" in The Avengers TV show, one jokes - brought these early economic migrants. They have lingered much longer than they intended, although Roberto now loves England, especially its law and order. Hernando disagrees: "When I think of home, the hair on my hand, it stands up. In my house here I make a little Colombia." There's no going back because the country and the immigrants can no longer understand one another.

More recent political refugees also hang out here, like the disconsolate Gloria whose husband was kidnapped and killed by the Colombian army, she says, and who now fears for her own life. An Amnesty International investigation shows that state terror is getting worse. Asdrual Jimenez, a man without a smile, has been here eight years. A Marxist lawyer, he was shot at and nearly died. He cannot understand Roberto and his petty bourgeois friends. The tensions between these two groups are real enough, but so is the loyalty. Posters on the wall ask for still more donations for liberation causes.

"We never got independence, we just changed owners," says Asdrual. They all resent the arrogance of the USA and claim Colombians are merely producers not consumers of drugs. They abhor the violence, where "the killers and the killed are young boys who want to help their families".

What you also notice is the potent love and lust that flows between the sexes. "It is even better now," says Hernando, because some men have become less macho - they even change nappies - "but I used to be frightened when Englishwomen came after me in a pub". The refugees go silent and look disapproving. Roberto tells them with passion: "You politicos don't understand - we also suffer for Colombia."

And it is that pain which they say makes them turn to strong food and drink, the sleepless nights when they dance salsa till they drop - usually at Bilongos in North London, in a beautiful ballroom where formality helps to rein in the sensuality of the dancers, turning the plainest of them into the most intensely desirable creatures on earth.

La Piragua Colombian Cafe, 176, Upper St, Islington London N1; Bilongos Latin Club, 6-9 Salisbury Promenade, Green Lanes, London N8

Persians, poets, plastic ponds

Hassan, who runs this extraordinary cafe in downbeat West Ealing, spills over with natural warmth. He came after the Iranian Revolution in 1980. His heart is still there, but safely nestled in a time and place before the megalomaniac Shah and the cruel Imams caused such devastation. And so this place represents the stuff of his fantasies.

At the front of the cafe is a DIY plastic pond (money is not freely available even to dreamers) and a fountain. Little black fish swim and bump frequently into watermelons lying in the water. I presume that they are some poetic cultural symbol. Hassan laughs: "It is to keep them cool, like we did in Iran, in the rivers." In another fish tank, curiously, an enormous green-haired plastic troll keeps guard. Everything else smells, looks and tastes like Iran, I am told by the Iranian customers who fill the place on a Sunday afternoon. Besides the fragrant rice and meat platters, there are exquisite paintings and statues of villagers, books with poetry and pictures of old Iranian cities, and a hand-painted tiled oven.

It is a place that draws many young Iranians. Most were toddlers when their parents fled. They don't feel British; nor Iranian either. They are Persians, says Reza, who is 19, confident and clever: "If you say Iranian, they all think terrorists, or those women dressed like they are in mourning, or that stupid fatwa. You have to explain yourself. If we say we are Persian, the images are different. It is One Thousand and One Nights, Omar Khayyam. That's the culture I want to follow."

So they come here, to drink tea from the lovely brass samovars, to look at the books, dance to Iranian music. Sometimes, they come for the excellent belly dancer, there mainly to attract rich businessmen - even belly-dancing is not Persian and the dancer is English. They don't want to be part of the (British) in-crowd, says Nargis, Hassan's teenage daughter: "There is too much pressure in the club scene, to smoke, do dope." The parents, too, are happier that their children mix with their own.

They still miss the fruit, the air and even the water. Nargis describes village hospitality, but adds: "They're also naive; they can be fooled by anyone too nice, a bit like my father." Nargis and her brother Sayid have turned to Sufism to find inner peace and sense of identity. For Reza and others it comes through art. "I look at those pictures of Isfahan, I read Hafez, an old poet, and the ghost that lives inside me stirs. I don't know why I love it so much." The Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi describes this as a drift of the hopeless towards the only area where "phantasms can flourish, toward the past."

Ba Ba Iranian Cafe, 222 Uxbridge Road, London W13

Poles apart

They've been here for over half a century. Their grandchildren were born here, but the Polish centre in Hammersmith is still thriving. Here, Marak, the chef, serves up authentic Polish food to all those who cannot forget where they came from. He laughs: "They love the food and try to believe that they are not going to put on weight if they eat Polish cakes or potato dumplings."

I sit with four effusive, retired men: Boleslaw, Zbyszek, Janusz and Hampel. They fought with the Allies and were invited to come here in 1949. We drink coffee, eat delectable doughnuts with rose-petal jam filling, and they regale me with history which is wet-blood fresh. They were never to share in the joy of victory because, as they see it, Poland was betrayed by "that Roosevelt and his communist wife, Eleanor. They kissed the backside of Mr Stalin".

So do they have mixed feelings about the Allies? Not really, says Hampel: "We have very definite feelings. We felt outraged." So they took up the role of a government and army in-waiting, refusing to accept what had happened to their country. Some died before democracy finally came to Poland.

But they coped, they tell me, as we emerge from that dark tunnel of recollection. Once demobbed, Hampel became a grave-digger, Janusz a kitchen porter, while Boleslaw hand-made lavatory chains. Then they went to college, qualified, and obviously found prosperity. This magnificent centre, with its restaurants, card rooms, a theatre and cafe, was built entirely with private cash. The place is full of professional people, many born here, and they still speak Polish. Fabulous paintings by Topolski and others cover the massive walls. Perfectly dressed women with bright red lipstick work behind the counters. Upstairs, gypsy musicians play as old men bicker and fight over bridge.

These days, the centre attracts Poles who are now coming over, legally or otherwise, to make some money. They are mistrusted, looked down on. An old aristocratic lady with fox fur around her neck thinks the problem is that these post-Communist Poles are "interested in money only, not in voluntary work like us". Hampel thinks he knows why: "They have lived too long under communism; they're not like we used to be or are now."

Is it because they have become English? They look aghast and rush off to get Polish beer before answering. Janusz (who has an English wife) speaks for the rest. "We are Polish, in our hearts, our religion. I have a 44-year-old son. He's still my baby. That is our culture." Going back to Poland even for a holiday is too painful for this generation, but younger, ambitious Poles are going over to start up businesses. "They will build the bridges which have been broken for so long," says Hampel optimistically.

Posk Cafe/Polish Centre, 238 King St, London W6

Black tea and dreams of Kurdistan

It was the week in which Kurdish factions turned on each other in northern Iraq. The unshaven, intense men at Yildiz, the cafe in Stoke Newington, can barely speak. This is a man's place, full of smoke and fury. A few mill around the pool table. Turkish television is blaring out, loud arguments erupt. Carrying cups of black tea, they pace the floor like caged creatures.

On the wall is a giant painting of the owner and a dissident Turkish actor; they met in prison in 1976. A beautiful young lad repeatedly kicks at the broken video games machine. His friend, wearing a camouflage jacket, laughs. Aly, who's about 28, is the only one who can speak English.

Thousands of Kurdish refugees live here, mostly in North-east London. They might have come from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, but they have a shared identity and a dream of a greater Kurdistan. But today is a very bad day, says Aly, almost crying: "Brothers are killing brothers. We are so angry. I find difficulty to say the words. Even if your life is quite good here, you worry about your country. We cannot sleep; we come here and talk to each other. But we cannot understand: How can this happen?"

If they feel betrayed by the factional leaders, they feel even more let- down by their own next generation. Dreams of reclaiming a homeland require passions and anger to be passed down the generations. But this, says Aly, is not happening here: "They are growing up here; they don't care about Kurdistan. Parents are worried that they're losing their children."

They also have much to say about the British asylum laws. Three years ago, two Kurdish torture victims from Turkey were denied asylum. They burnt themselves to death, leaving messages for the Home Office accusing them of inhumanity. The incident left a terrible mark on the community. It also stopped their deportations. Another example, says Aly, of how their destiny is to suffer first before they can win anything. You realise that these Kurds are en route. The last thing they want is to belong to this country.

Yildiz Kurdish Cafe, Stoke Newington Rd, N16

Vietnamese veterans

One of the 28,000 boat people accepted by Britain, ex-soldier Peter Giao Ngoc Vo now runs a Vietnamese community centre in Hackney. Here, an ageing cast gathers to eat, gossip, cry, moan about their children and play mah jong. Lunch today: mullet with lemon grass and fresh coriander.

Mr Vo relives his nightmarish journey, of how 204 people started off: "stuffed like dead fish in a boat just 18 metres." The engine failed. One beautiful young woman announced: "Listen, if I jump, you will be saved." So she did, leaving behind two babies. They were saved on 8 October by a British ship. That day, remembered each year, is now called 203 day.

These once-affluent, educated people try now to regain a sense of self; otherwise, says one old Vietnamese woman, "you are lost, you can't speak the language, you have no confidence." Back home, status accrued with age. No more. The young are losing the language, the old ways. During the new-year celebrations, the old make sure they generate guilt in the young, reciting poetry about the lights "getting dim", expressing fears that their isolation will continue in death as they will be buried next to people who only speak English.

The bloodbath they expected after the war never came. Vietnam is beginning to prosper. But their painful longings to return cannot conquer their fear of communism. Besides, their children have made it. Mr Vo's only son, now 32, still lives at home and (unlike many others) deeply respects his parents. They all feel they have a huge debt to pay the British: "They're like a house in the winter - cold outside, but, if you can open the door, warm inside." Some will admit, however, that they have paid for their faith in the free world. Racial abuse has been met with silent stoicism by these proud people.

Go down the road and you get to the Viet Hoa, a thoroughly modern cafe run by a young entrepreneur called Hien. "I'm not working for the community," she says. "This is my business, to make money." Her generation is bored by stories of the war. What they seek are business opportunities in Vietnam. But when some "new" Vietnamese business people come in, Hien's mother declares that she hates these Communists, jokes that she could poison them, and then waddles off to the kitchen.

The young, meanwhile, move on says Huyen, a science graduate: "I am my own person. We still respect our elders, but they're not always right." These are citizens of the world, with no sentimental attachments to their history. Their inspiration comes from the thrusting yuppies of the Tiger economies. They are only nationalistic about Vietnamese food, which is "the best".

The Vietnamese, Laos and Cambodian Community Centre, Whiston Road, Haggerston, London E2. Viet Hoa Cafe, 72 Kingsland Rd, Hackney, London E2

Comments