East London Bombing: Stoic Banglatown gets back to business as usual

Click to follow
The Independent Online
TWENTY HOURS after the bomb went off in Brick Lane, the mood among the local Bangladeshi community was one of stoicism and growing frustration with the police operation that was preventing them going about their day- to-day business.

After all, racism at its most vicious, and the fight against it, is a fundamental part of the collective history of this part of London's East End, a traditional landing post for waves of immigrants.

"If it wasn't for the cordoning off it would be business as usual," said Mahmoud Rouf, chairman of the Brick Lane Business Association. "The longer the place is sectioned off the more people will be frightened. This is nothing, nothing. Whoever planted the bomb is just a coward." He said he had been trying since early morning to get through the police cordons. "There are a lot of perishable goods in the shops and restaurants. We want to see what the damage is."

Brick Lane's Bangladeshi community, now about 40,000- strong, came to the East End in the Sixties and Seventies. As the Jews who preceded them moved to the suburbs, the synagogues were gradually transformed into mosques, jewellers into sari shops and salt-beef bars into curry houses.

But the establishment of the Bangladeshi community didn't come without a fight. In the Seventies and Eighties, Brick Lane was a very dangerous place for Asians. 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.

The catalyst for the fightback came in 1978 with the brutal killing of Altab Ali, a 25-year-old factory machinist, by three 15-year-old local youths. The murder triggered a march by 7,000 Bangladeshis to Downing Street to demand police protection. By the end of the year, after a campaign of protests, the National Front, whose headquarters was near by, was forced out of the area. The Anti-Nazi League was born out of the events in Brick Lane in 1978 and the extreme right suffered a severe blow.

"First we had the skinheads, then the National Front and now this," said Javed Iqubal, 48, who owns a television shop in Heneage Street, just off Brick Lane, and has lived in the area for 40 years. He was attacked and badly beaten in the Eighties by a gang of 16 white youths.

But for the most part, racial attacks are a thing of the past. "The Nazi groups have tended to stay away from the area for several years now. It simply isn't safe for them to come to Brick Lane. All their activity has been in periphery areas," said the Rev Ken Leech, a local historian and anti-racist campaigner.

Brick Lane was recently renamed Banglatown by the local authority as part of a drive to regenerate the area, backed by pounds 10m of European Union and government funds. It is now a thriving tourist area with about 50 curry houses with neon fronts and trendy names such as Le Taj and Cafe Naz.

"We're not frightened," said Anwar Sufi, 17, yesterday. "We had all predicted this incident. We all knew it was going to happen. We haven't really suffered racism. It used to be bad but now it's OK because most of us round here are Bangladeshi."

Abdus Shukur, a Labour councillor and veteran of the 1978 events, agrees the racial violence has decreased significantly. "Racism is now more on an institutionalised basis, like employment opportunities rather than on a street level. People are very worried about what happened but we are from a country and a continent where we are used to catastrophes like bombs and floods. We mourn and then we just move on."

Hilary Clarke, of `The Independent on Sunday', won the national newspaper `Race in the Media' award from the Commission for Racial Equality for her article on the changing face of the Bangladeshi community in the East End of London and the problems it faces.