Comment: Cool Britannia II - the Bangladeshis are coming

Never have I seen such excitement and such joy in this community - a mark of growing self-belief

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown
Sunday 04 July 1999 23:02

IT'S OFFICIAL. British Bangladeshis have arrived. According to the relentlessly trendy London Evening Standard magazine ES, "Shoreditch is the new Soho and Brick Lane the cutting edge of cool".

This was certainly evident in the aftermath of the bomb which blew up the stylish Cafe Naz in Brick Lane three months ago. Cute City yuppies with wet eyes were seen on television mourning the violation of one of their favourite haunts. There was a time when you couldn't walk down this street without tripping over earnest photographers from around the world (especially from Sweden), all of them eager to snap images of ethnic poverty and racial disadvantage. I wonder where they will go now.

Of course there are still massive socio-economic problems faced by Bangladeshis, most of whom still live in the east and north-east of London and in run- down areas of other major cities. The last recent survey on the visible communities in Britain by the Policy Studies Institute concluded that this group continues to be among the most severely disadvantaged. Unlike Indians, for example, they are much less likely to be home owners or to go into higher education.

The myth of return haunts families and even now savings are more likely to be put into properties back home (which then remain empty and decay) than here. Too many women have their lives destroyed by sexism and community expectations. Birth rates are high and health poor.

But if a community only ever sees itself reflected as poor and victimised it can become paralysed and unable to progress. It also encourages the wider society to believe - quite unfairly - that all Bangladeshis are people either to pity or despise. This week we see the launch of the largest ever festival to celebrate the accomplishments of this community which have been unrecognised for far too long. The prime minister of Bangladesh, Begum Sheikh Hasina, will be flying over to London to launch the festival at the Foreign Office. The ICA, the V&A and the Barbican are all involved. Never have I seen such excitement and such joy in this community. It is a mark of a growing self belief and creativity which has only really emerged in recent years.

Until 1996 I worked in Tower Hamlets, teaching unemployed Bangladeshis and others, especially women. Although I used to love my work, I hated going to the area, which was truly depressed and depressing. I was often tearful when taking my baby daughter to her childminder who lived in one of the many run-down tower blocks.

There was urine everywhere, awful racist graffiti, syringes and at least twice I found young Bangladeshi boys drugged and asleep in the lift. There is still a drug problem and poverty persists. But now you also have upbeat people who are doing things with their lives which were unthinkable. You find them in the hugely popular band Asian Dub Foundation, which imaginatively fuses different musical traditions. You see them running brilliantly provocative newspapers. Sarwar Ahmed, the editor of the tabloid Eastern Eye, who is impossibly young, brash and bright. He often upsets people with his brand of journalism, but no one I've spoken to fails to say how proud they are of his achievements. You see them at Oxford and Cambridge.

Rushnara Ali, personal assistant to Oona King MP, was a local Tower Hamlets girl whose father was a manual worker. She went to the local comprehensive and confesses that until she was 18 she knew no one who had been to university. She ended up doing a degree at Oxford, one of a number of such girls. She says that now she can feel proud of her background where once she felt ashamed of it: "I want people to see that we are turning things around. The only thing people knew about us was that we were on welfare benefits, or that we were all basket cases. We have so much to offer. A gentle culture, real talent. This is a turning point."

Those who came before this generation have also made their mark, although most people would not know that they are Bangladeshis.

This year, Pola Uddin entered the House of Lords. A mother of five, including one son who is severely disabled, Uddin spent most of her life struggling against massive odds in the East End of London. Unlike most of the other Asian Labour peers, she is not there because she is a good little millionaire. Lisa Aziz, the television news reader, is another name, as is Anwar Chouduroy, an assistant director in the Ministry of Defence who is convinced that one day there will be an equivalent of Colin Powell in the British Army and that he might just be Bangladeshi.

But if there is one thing that we all need to thank British Bangladeshis for, it is for transforming the eating habits of this nation: 95 per cent of all "Indian" restaurants are run by Bangladeshis. They created a cuisine which has got an entire population addicted, although snobs have long derided this cooking. And the caterers have real power. Last year, when one of their own, food writer and erstwhile editor of Tandoori magazine, Iqbal Wahab dared to criticise the service and food in most Bangladeshi restaurants, he found himself embroiled in an unexpected drama. He had to avoid death threats from extremists.

Amin Ali, the owner of the famous Red Fort restaurant, is convinced that there is likely to be an even more dramatic success story in the coming years, because chefs are now bringing in new sophistication which will appeal to the affluent. This week he hosted a fundraising event for the One World charity and the place was packed out with celebrities such as Rory Bremner, Glenys Kinnock, Greg Dyke, and The Two Johns (Bird and Fortune). Ali was a village boy from Sylhet who worked as a waiter before setting up a worker's co-operative in the Seventies. The Ahmed brothers in Manchester have similar roots. They came here in the 1970s and survived tough times in a family coping with the demands of a corner shop. This month 41-year- old Iqbal Ahmed won the Barclays Business in Europe export award for his company, which distributes frozen fish products and has a turnover of pounds 32m.

British Bangladeshis have a long way to go, but what they are today could not have been anticipated by the most optimistic. And once some individuals have come this high and a community feels this confident, there is no going back down and out.

The Arts Worldwide Bangladesh Festival runs from 7-25 July

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