Twenty years ago the Bangladeshi community in London's East End finally fought back against the area's racist skinheads. Today the battle is almost over
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The Independent Culture
TWENTY YEARS AGO this month, Altab Ali was murdered in Whitechapel, in London's East End. The 25-year-old machinist, who had recently arrived in this country from Bangladesh, was returning home from his job in a sweatshop in nearby Brick Lane when he was fatally stabbed. Ali's assailants, three local youths - two white, one black - were 15 years old.

I was also a teenager when Ali was killed. Although I lived much further east in Ilford, I remember how racial violence was endemic across the whole of east London. I had witnessed skinheads using an iron bar to split open the head of a middle-aged Asian man at Upton Park Tube station in Newham. It was hard enough to persuade him to go to the hospital, let alone the police. Even in the leafy middle-class suburb of Gants Hill, further out in Redbridge, there were regular rucks between National Front supporters and Jewish boys, most of whose parents and grandparents had started their life in Britain in the East End.

Brick Lane, the narrow street that runs from Shoreditch down to Aldgate was the most dangerous place of all. It was where skinheads from all over east London came to indulge in "Paki bashing". Most of their victims were newly arrived immigrants working in the local sweatshops - and who, for the most part, preferred to run and hide, looking forward to the day they would return home. Ali's murder was the wake-up call, not just for Bangladeshis in the East End but for Asians all over Britain.

On 14 May 1978, seven thousand people marched behind his coffin to 10 Downing Street to demand police protection. And by the end of the year, after a campaign of sit-down protests, the National Front, whose headquarters were not far from Brick Lane, was forced out of the area. The Anti-Nazi League and the Rock Against Racism movement were born out of the events of 1978 - and the extreme right suffered a blow from which it has never really recovered.

Brick Lane has changed a great deal in the last 20 years. These days, tourists and Londoners go there for its 24-hour beigel shops and Jack the Ripper sightseeing tours, for the Sunday-morning flea market and the famous curry houses. New restaurants open up all the time, but nowadays many have designer interiors - Bangladeshis, after all, own and run most of the "Indian" restaurants in this country. There are even plans to run a rickshaw service between nearby Tower Hill and Brick Lane's restaurants.

The street is now the loudly beating heart of the East End's 50,000 strong Bengali community, the largest concentration of Bangladeshis outside Bangladesh. Brick Lane and the surrounding streets were recently renamed Banglatown by the local authority and, in a further bid to attract tourist business, pounds 10 million of EU and government funds have been earmarked for the area. The street names are now written in Bengali and English and the lamp posts are painted in swirling green and red, the Bangladeshi national colours. Now and again, in a burst of East End kitsch, stretch limousines glide by - ferrying young women, dazzling in their jewels and saris, to local weddings. There is a mosque, on the site of an old synagogue, sari shops and cash-and-carry grocers selling exotic vegetables, betel nut, rice, spices and halal meat. There are shops touting colourful garlands, gold turbans and red ceremonial thrones, and record stores blasting out the latest film tunes from Bollywood. There is even a Bangladeshi publican: Mujib-ur-Rahman, landlord of the Seven Stars. These days, the only territorial battle is the one being waged by young, placard-waiving Islamic activists, who are campaigning to clear the area of prostitutes.

As Brick Lane has changed, and the Bangladeshi community has become more established, so its political agenda has developed. The fight against racism is no longer the main concern. Young people, most of whom were born here, are more likely to talk of Islamaphobia than racism, while the struggles of their parents to establish a presence in Brick Lane - not to mention the struggles of the Jews and the Huguenots before them - are all but forgotten. The distinguished Bangladeshi journalist Gaffar Choudhury sums up the situation: "Today in Tower Hamlets all people care about is the hijab [Islamic dress] or heroin, which is a big problem now."

This is not to say that racism in the East End has miraculously disappeared. The council still fits flats with fire-proof letter boxes to prevent arson attacks on Bangladeshi homes. It was in Tower Hamlets that a member of the British National Party was elected as a councillor in 1993. And in the local elections earlier this month, one candidate was reported by the local press to be a member of the Ku-Klux-Klan. Young Bangladeshis still face discrimination in many areas, not least employment. But the threat of physical attack that persisted throughout the Eighties has undoubtedly decreased. As Revd Ken Leech, a local historian and an anti-racist campaigner in the area for more than 40 years, puts it, "The Bangladeshis have succeeded where the Jews failed. They have broken through the barrier of the no-go area of Bethnal Green."

Rajan Jalal, 38, helped organise the 1978 protests and until recently was a local councillor. "You no longer have passive old men who don't fight back," he says. "If anything, it has gone the other way and you have the old gangster culture of the East End penetrating the Bengali community." As one local youth puts it: "Now it's more likely to be Bang- ladeshi youths from Whitechapel fighting other Bangladeshi kids from the Commercial Road."

AS THEY SPEED on the Docklands Light Railway through Tower Hamlets towards their gleaming offices in Canary Wharf, commuters can glimpse the desperate poverty in the borough. The dilapidated, overcrowded council blocks of Shadwell are nearly all occupied by Bangladeshis. Their flats sit side by side with the luxury warehouse apartments of Wapping. It's the kind of juxtaposition of extreme poverty and wealth that you associate more usually with New York than London. Unemployment is around 17 per cent in Tower Hamlets and among young Bangladeshis it is as high as 38 per cent. The clothing industry, once the major employer for Bangladeshi workers, is collapsing because of cheap imports, and apart from canteen work, the development of Canary Wharf has not delivered on its promise to provide jobs for local people either. While Banglatown, with its neon lights, may appear to be booming, Rajan Jalal says that most ordinary Bangladeshis are not doing well, even by the standards of other British- Asian communities.

Part of the problem seems to be that those Bangladeshis who have made money have re- invested it back home, in preference to setting up new businesses here. "Bengalis don't have capital," says Jalal, "that's why they are a bit lost. Now they are actively considering selling what they have in Bangladesh and bringing the money here - but they can't do it because the housing market in Bangladesh has peaked and they are finding it difficult to sell." East-London Bangladeshis, most of whose parents come from villages in Sylhet in the north-east of the country, have also found it difficult to break into the white-collar professions. Jalal says this is because they suffer the double handicap of being both Asian and working-class.

ONLY 50 PEOPLE, nearly all of them middle-aged Bengali men, attended the recent meeting to commemorate the anniversary of Altab Ali's death. In the icing-pink hall of Brick Lane's Kobi Nazrul Centre, named in honour of a Bengali poet, people took it in turns to recall their experiences as young political activists during the events of 1978. Several of the men are now local Labour councillors. Others, like Shirazul Haque, owner of the Shampan restaurant in Brick Lane and the City Spice in Tower Hill, are successful businessmen. The two-hour meeting was designed as a brainstorming session, grappling with the political and social issues facing the Bangladeshi community in the run-up to the new millennium; it ended up more like group therapy, with much reminiscing about the days when politics were a black- and-white issue of Left and Right.

This low-key event stands in stark contrast to the 3,000-strong demonstration which gathered earlier this year to lobby for the enlargement of the East London Mosque, a beautiful building on an otherwise bleak stretch of the Whitechapel Road. It's the only mosque in the country where the call to prayer "adhan" is allowed, and the Arabic chant can be heard across Brick Lane five times a day. But in recent years it has grown too popular for its own good, and now cannot cope with the demand for its services.

The demonstration in March was held in the nearby park named after Altab Ali - and provided a clear insight into how the Bangladeshi community has changed over the years. Throughout the Eighties Altab Ali Park provided a focal point for protests against racism and the controversial housing policies of the former Liberal administration (whose suggestions included placing homeless Bangladeshi families on a boat moored on the Thames). At the time I was working on a local Bangladeshi newspaper and I remember these occasions well. For young people the struggle was to cast off the stereotype of Bangladeshis as poor, downtrodden people from a country where nothing happened except floods and famines. They wanted to show white society and other Asian communities - many of which look down on Bangladeshis as their poor cousins - that Bengalis could be cool too. The Joi Bangla sound system - now called Joi, and recently signed up to Peter Gabriel's Real World record label - used to play at these events, mixing Western and Asian music for the first time. They were secular occasions, with many local white and black people in attendance.

But the atmosphere at the recent demonstration in support of the East London Mosque was quite different. There were few women present and no pop music; instead there were prayers and the battle cry was "Allah Wakbar" ("God is Great"). The rally had been called by religious leaders who complain that Tower Hamlets council is preventing the mosque from buying an adjacent plot of land, currently used as a car park. They accuse the council's planning committee of racism in blocking their attempt to acquire the land from property developers by insisting that the developers stick to an agreement to build low-cost housing for single people on the site. (For its part, the local authority is, as one councillor put it, "cornered". If it allows the mosque to have the old car park, it fears it will set a precedent by which property developers would be able to escape the current obligation to develop 20 per cent of any land they acquire for social- housing purposes.)

Above all, the current row shows how priorities have shifted. The mosque was a peripheral concern to the secular-minded Bangladeshis who arrived in Britain 20 years ago; now it is increasingly the focus for political protest. In their quest for an identity, young Bangladeshis in east London are rejecting the materialism of Nineties Britain and returning to Islam in droves. On Fridays, the Moslem holy day, so many worshippers converge on the mosque that many are forced out on to the street to pray. "There is a large younger generation that over the next couple of years will want to come to the mosque and at the moment there is no way we can accommodate them," says Dilour Khan, one of the trustees.

Shahhan Alom, an 18-year-old student and part-time youth worker, is a "revert" to Islam, as the newly devout Moslems call themselves. Hair short at the back, long on top and parted in the middle, with a small goatee beard, he would fit in just as well at a West End nightclub as in a mosque. Alom has never heard of Altab Ali or the events of Brick Lane in 1978 but he can talk at length about media mis-reporting in north Africa. The Gulf war, Bosnia and Algeria are the events that forged his political ideas. "For the youth in this area, the values are all confused and fuzzy. Islam gives you fundamental values which don't change," he explains. Young people like Alom see Islamic youth movements in Europe as their natural allies, rather than the Bangladeshi political parties followed by the older generation. Their new-found conviction sometimes brings them into conflict with their parents over issues such as divorce, which is allowed in Islam but frowned upon by the old-style Bangladeshi village culture that draws much of its inspiration from ancient Hindu traditions.

Ayesha Islam was studying physics at Bristol university until she "reverted" to Islam; now 24, she works at a centre for Bangladeshi women. She sees Islam as a means of gaining independence and respect. "My family thought I would grow out of it but Islam has really empowered me," she says, her round, smiling face framed by her tightly fastened headscarf. Her decision to revert was not taken lightly: "I thought about it for months, especially about the hijab - I am a scientist you know."

Many parents welcome their children's new-found religious convictions as a preferable alternative to outright rebellion or delinquency. "Every family I know is going through a generation crisis," says Hassan Khan, a 30-year-old youth worker. "The parents think the kids are out of control. What can they do? They can't beat them with a stick. Many parents just give up. Over the next 10 years I foresee a lot of unhappiness as the gap between parents and children gets greater."

The freedom afforded by mobile phones is one reason why parents' control over their children's activities has been weakened. Previously, girls could be prevented from contacting their boyfriends; now they can't - and an increasing number of young women are resisting the pressure to accept arranged marriages as a result. Another, unhappy side-effect of this new-found freedom is that the abortion rate in Tower Hamlets is now disproportionately high among Bangladeshi girls when compared with other ethnic groups; and the number of single parents is only slightly lower among Bangladeshis than the rest of the Tower Hamlets population.

Even so, in many ways, young British-born Bangladeshi women are the local success story. Mulberry Girls School on the Commercial Road is 97 per cent Bengali. Its GCSE results are consistently higher than most other schools in Tower Hamlets, with 38 per cent of pupils gaining five A-C grade GCSE's last year, compared with 25.7 per cent for the borough as a whole. While their brothers hang around the streets, Bangladeshi girls are at home studying. "The community values education as a means of improving its position and we see a lot of parental support," says Marlene Robottom, headmistress at Mulberry.

With Bangladeshis making up about half the borough's youth, there are many schools like Mulberry where the pupils are almost entirely of Bangladeshi origin. Indeed, compared to other areas, the different communities of the East End remain remarkably separate. This process of segregation has been tacitly supported by parents from all communities, with many white families sending their children to Catholic schools or even to schools outside the borough. Hassan Khan, now 30, went to Daneford School in Bethnal Green (now renamed Bethnal Green Technical College). "When I was at school there were only seven of us Bangladeshis," he recalls. "We'd get kicked, abused, you name it. So I used to bunk off. Parents want to send their children to schools where they will be safe." Khan remembers that his parents would be suspicious if they thought he was hanging round with white people. "If my father saw me with white guys they'd think I was up to something." As a result, many Bangladeshi kids are now growing up without white friends.

A new unifier has emerged among young people in the East End, however: heroin. "All the kids round here are at it, blacks, whites, Asians," says Charlie, an unemployed white 16-year-old who is currently trying to break his two-year habit.

According to Judith Cooper, the borough's substance-misuse and drugs- action co-ordinator, "Tower Hamlets has a reputation as the cheapest place to buy heroin in London. It demonstrates market forces because economically we are bottom of the scale as well." Attracted by the promise of easy money, Bangladeshis are becoming dealers, something unthinkable only a few years ago. "If you see young Asians in R-reg cars you know they are selling smack," says Charlie, who knows an impressive amount of Bengali, including a wide range of insults. He says his mum "went mental when she found out I was hanging out with Pakis"; but his attitude towards the young Bengalis - as hard, streetwise and exciting - is in stark contrast to that of the skinheads 20 years ago.

Although heroin use is a widespread problem in Britain, it is hitting the Bangladeshi population harder than most. Because of their large families and overcrowded living conditions, Bangladeshi children spend a great deal of time on the street where they are more likely to come into contact with heroin. Youth workers say children as young as 11 are already addicted, chipping in their pocket money to buy the drug - pounds 2 is enough to get four 11-year-olds high. "Before, they'd try a bit of cannabis, maybe have a drink, but now they go straight onto heroin [which they burn in silver foil in order to smoke the fumes]. It has become the first drug many of them try," says Monza Ahmed, 25, a member of the Tower Hamlets Community Drugs Team. "Before, older dealers had principles. If a 14-year-old came up to them, they wouldn't serve them. The problem now is that it's kids selling the drug to other kids." A third of the young drug-users who attend the Drugs Team's facilities are Bangladeshi boys, often brought there by their concerned sisters.

I went with Charlie to Bengal House, the largest block on Stepney's Ocean Estate, one of the most deprived council estates in the borough, and mainly Bangladeshi. It was here that he used to come to buy his supplies. It is, and always has been, a grim place - although the young people hanging round outside seem friendly enough. During the daytime the heavy metal doors of Bengal House are left open, so that children can come and go from the adjacent playground.

Inside, the flats are situated on either side of a concrete staircase. Each one is fitted with an iron grille through which children and adolescent girls peer out. Evidence of heroin-use - in the form of burnt pieces of tin foil - is scattered on the stairs; there seems to be more of it the higher you climb. A dealer in Bengal House was arrested recently but Charlie points out the home of another supplier in the opposite block. Gazing out from a window at the top of the stairwell we watch customers coming and going from the ground-floor flat, as children play only yards away. The heroin epidemic is also apparent in the faces of the Bangladeshi boys hanging around outside. Some are too young for acne yet their skin is covered in tiny pimples brought on by smoking the drug. Their expressions are glazed. They are, as Charlie puts it, "off their faces".

It is difficult to get white parents to talk on the record about their children's drug problems, or even to admit there is a problem at all. In many Bangladeshi homes, the taboo is even stronger. "It is really difficult to talk about in our culture because if only one person is on it, then the whole family is shamed," says 15-year-old Hussain Uddin, who lives on the Ocean Estate. Many parents have resorted to locking their children up and forcing them through cold turkey, or "clucking" as it is known on the street.

Drug workers report that some parents are making matters worse by sending their children back to Bangladesh in desperation. The problem is that Bangladesh, which shares a long border with Burma, part of the notorious drug-cultivating "golden triangle", has changed since the parents left and top-quality heroin is now widely available there too. "Over there heroin is cheap and pure so the kids are laughing. They just come back and start selling it here," explains Kieran Burke, leader of the Tower Hamlets Community Drugs Team.

A pilot project was set up recently in Shadwell to help Bangladeshi mothers whose children are using the drug - but the group is struggling to secure permanent funding. For these women simply attending meetings takes great courage, so strong is the sense of shame. Maleka Begum, a 38-year-old mother of five, is one of the group's members. She swings from tears to anger as she recounts, through an interpreter, experiences with her heroin- addicted 20-year-old son. She has sold her jewellery to pay his debts and protect him from dealers' violence. She has tried keeping him indoors but says his friends passed drugs to him through their balcony window. She has handed him over to the police, but says he comes back, stoned. It is the dealers she blames: "Even if the police use my son and spy on him I don't care. I want them caught."

The group nod knowingly as another woman, tears welling in her eyes, tells how her son, in a state of withdrawal from the drug, beat his head against the wall, and then fell to the floor faint and shivering. "If we keep him in he goes crazy. He sits by the gas cooker, blanket around him, just trying to keep warm." The others laugh in sympathy when she says she is so worried sometimes she forgets how to pray. All are concerned that the habit will spread to their other children.

Monza Ahmed says the biggest problem for the borough's fight against drugs is the lack of employment training and other facilities for young people. "What can we give an 11-year-old taking heroin? We don't have anything for them. We can't give them all money and say: go swimming." The fear is that young people will move from smoking heroin to mainline injecting and so to a full-scale habit. Though a glimmer of hope is provided by Trafalgar 2000, a multi-media and information-technology centre being set up for local youths, many parents think it is not enough - and are looking to the newly elected local council to take a lead.

The local elections earlier this month marked another watershed in the community's quest to establish itself in Tower Hamlets. Twenty councillors of Bangladeshi origin were elected to the 41-strong ruling Labour group. This success was partly due to the high turnout among Asian voters - around 80 per cent compared with just over 30 per cent for the borough as a whole. "The culture of voting is very strong among Bangladeshis. They do it out of necessity," says Rajan Jalal.

With two other black councillors, non-whites now make up more than half of the Labour group. "The expectations from everyone will be very big on us, not least from our own community," admits Abdus Shukur, one of the councillors elected. He says the main task of the new council is "to make sure we keep a balanced agenda, dealing with issues and not race". One thing is for sure: the task facing the administration is enormous, with the most pressing problem being the rapid rise in heroin use among young people. But there are also reasons for hopefulness. And if some things in Brick Lane have changed out of all recognition, others have come full circle.

As former Labour councillor Phil Maxwell says, "In some ways Bangladeshi councillors are closer to the old white working-class, East End political tradition, which meant you could knock on your councillor's door if you had a problem. They are more recognisable than the new breed of white politicans, many whom are barristers and college lecturers who don't come from this area." !