Then two middle-aged white women arrived with their three dogs and placed their deckchairs with their backs to the picnickers. But they couldn't resist turning around frequently to stare blatantly at the unexpected company. Two small children shouted in Punjabi at the dogs. 'Do the children speak English?' one of the women asked, ignorant of the fact that they had been born in Britain and that their only language problem was
The two women said they came regularly to Long Mynd, a beautiful Shropshire valley with a stream and steep green slopes, countryside redolent of A E Houseman, English pastoral poetry and patriotic platitudes about our green and pleasant land.
But for many on the two coaches from the Muslim Community House in Dudley, West Midlands, this was a first visit to the English countryside, a project sponsored by the British Trust for Conservation
Happily, they had chosen the last really hot day of summer to enter the white heartland of Britain, where local schools offer little multicultural education and the only brown faces are seen on television programmes about the inner cities.
In 1992, the group from Dudley should be as much part of the British scene as nearby Wenlock Edge with its troops of elderly walkers. But here the sight of a group of shalwar-kameez-clad women attracts attention, as Nursureen, whose samosas I shared, disarmingly reminds me when she asks: 'So what is this article about? A bunch of Asian women on a
I waffle a bit about the relationship of non-whites to rural Britain and the politics of alienation, to which another girl replies: 'Well, I'm fed up with reading about arranged marriages and Asian corner shops. There is more than that going on in the community.'
Indeed, it is Mrs Ehsan's job (with Dudley council) to ensure that plenty does go on for Muslim women. It was also, I felt, her personal crusade. Passionately enthusiastic, a sort of glamorous Guider, she organises trips to places such as Stratford-upon-Avon and Alton Towers.
'Ten years ago, many husbands wouldn't let their wives go out,' she says. 'At first, many of the older ladies were very shy, and many women wouldn't leave their children.'
Mrs Ehsan has also taken a group of girls to the Brecon Beacons, where they stayed overnight in a hotel, something of a breakthrough as some parents won't let their daughters go on school trips in case they mix with the boys.
'Sometimes I feel sorry for the younger generation,' Mrs Ehsan says. 'They are in prison in this country.' She feels that some parents are stuck in a time warp. 'They don't realise that among their relations in Pakistan, girls have more freedom, go to parties, become doctors.'
Many of the women on the picnic are of the generation that came to Dudley in the Fifties from Kashmir. When the British government built a dam there, it offered people work vouchers in return for their land. Initially, the men toiled as cheap labour in the Midlands iron foundries and steel works. While most of the heavy industry nowadays is in the Black Country Museum, Dudley's red-brick terraces are the only home that 27-year-old Nursureen and the younger generation have known.
As we drove over breathtaking Clee Hill, field and forest spread beneath us, Mrs Ehsan elaborated on her fears for this younger generation: 'I'd say that 50 per cent of Muslim girls are OK, going to college, and 50 per cent have no communication with their parents, no support from the community and are going astray' (which covers going out with white boys, running away from home or losing their virginity).
In the latter cases, Mrs Ehsan attributes 80 per cent of the blame to repressive parents and 20 per cent to children who forget their duties. 'The harder you press down on a ball, the higher it will bounce back in your face,' she says.
Sometimes she finds the constant negotiations of her job wearing, especially when she is criticised for not being a 'proper Muslim', a charge she denies.
'It can be hurtful. People say, 'Oh Mrs Ehsan, she's educated, she's got short hair, she's not a good person for our
But her contribution to keeping girls out of trouble - coach trips to the countryside - seems an innocent enough initiative, and it also often puts older people back in touch with their rural roots. Ninety per cent of the first generation came from villages in Pakistan, but often the only parts of Britain they've seen are Bradford or Leeds. Clee Hill, Mrs Ehsan says, looks like the landscape of Kashmir.
She points to the rolls of hay swathed in sheets of unecological black plastic: 'You see hay like that in Pakistan, but they make it into cubes and cover it with clay.' As a 'city girl' from Lahore, however, she admits to a townie's fantasy of returning to her husband's land in Pakistan, where she wants to build a Shropshire barn with red brick walls and a tin roof.
It was some well-meaning members of the One World organisation who invited Mrs Ehsan to organise the picnic near Church Stretton. They decided they should 'get together with some of these ethnic minority people', she says, so she and some other Dudley residents had organised a cultural exchange.
Their Church Stretton hosts were 'warm and friendly', but the mingling remained at an inter-party level. The older women were content to gossip on the grass while a younger group tackled the fern-clad slopes.
Despite Mrs Ehsan's exhortations to wear sensible shoes, gold sandals and armsful of gold jewellery were much in evidence. As they struggled up the hill, the women joked that they weren't used to walking farther than the bus stop (one twisted her ankle). But when Mrs Ehsan noticed a group washing their feet in the stream, rubbing their heels with the large flat stones as they would have done in Pakistan, she said: 'They're beginning to feel at home.'
Inevitably, the group's reactions were different from Mrs Ehsan's vision of a misty-eyed reunion with the soil. The expedition wasn't offering enough excitement for some. One middle-aged women had expected Blackpool-style entertainments; a few older women seemed bored.
But while the younger women were conscious of the curiosity they aroused, they were more confident in unfamiliar surroundings. Saida Rashid, a community liaison officer in her twenties, said she felt Long Mynd belonged to her as much as Dudley. 'I can cope with the stares, but
I think some of the older women feel
Nursureen said: 'I don't mind visiting the country with my family, but I wonder what the locals are making of a big group like this.'
And with that, she and her sisters went off alone. But perhaps, in 40 years' time, she will retire to Church Stretton, and perhaps by then a bunch of Asian women having a picnic will pass without
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