Gulam Taslim, Funeral Director
“We’re all human beings, we all live and die, whether we’re Jewish, Muslim or Christian.”
Gulam Taslim, the funeral director of Haji Taslim Funerals is in a rush. Dashing into the office, he explains he is on his way back from a funeral – the family called him last night in the small hours, wanting a burial this morning.
It is a 24/7 business. Founded in 1950 by Gulam’s late father, Syed Haji Taslim Ali, it is open 365 days a year, including Eid and Christmas Day. These days, Gulam Taslim is semi-retired but he still works three or four days a week, helping out his daughter, Moona, a partner and manager in the business, which is next to the East London Mosque in Whitechapel.
Born in Calcutta and brought up in Cardiff, Spitalfields and Whitechapel, Gulam now lives out of Central London in Newbury Park. Dressed in white shirt and tie, and a loose fitting dark waistcoat, he has silver hair, bright sparkling eyes, and a kindly, open face. He cheerily wisecracks, as he checks on paperwork and updates on clients; seemingly so agile and energetic that it is hard to accept he is semi-retired.
“I’m just back from a five thousand mile road trip around the USA, by car and motorbike, with my wife,” he says, reeling off a list of destinations: New York, Niagara Falls, Chicago, St Louis, Indianapolis, and Charlotte, where they picked up the motorbike. “A Goldwing,” he says with relish. “I’m into motorbikes.”
It is not his first intercontinental jaunt: back in 2005, he went to Bangladesh by motorbike, raising over £4,000 for charity. The route took him through Afghanistan.
Was that hair raising?
“I got a little bit of aggro,” he recalls affectionately, “But I used the religious card, and got through it.’
Is there such a thing as a card carrying Muslim, I wonder?
“I hate this tendency we have in the free world today: labeling people as Jewish, Muslim, Protestant, Catholic. You’re human, above all. Your belief is personal: it’s nothing to do with me or anyone else.”
This philosophy seems to be at the core of his approach to his life and work.
“We’re all human beings,“ he says, “we all live and die, whether we’re Jewish, Muslim or Christian – we are all from Adam.”
He identifies a shared cultural and religious history rooted in the Old Testament, the Talmud, the Koran, our common links to Adam, David, Abraham, Moses.
“God is forgiving and loving,” he says.
It is clearly a deeply held conviction and one shared by Moona, who sits at the front desk fielding calls. She arrived at the office fourteen years ago, an economics and business studies graduate, at her father’s request to help out with the accounts. She never left. Another sister, sundry cousins, and Jim, a local East Ender who drives the hearse, all work alongside her.
Moona is a live wire, fending off criticism from some of the more conservative clients, who pass through the office or the mosque, that she should not be working alongside men – “They’re relatives!” she protests, jerking her head over at Abu, her cousin. And she has no patience with the brothers who come in and shun her because her arms are not more fully covered. Her face, framed by her hijab, is animated and expressive, and she cannot but help exude life force; no matter that her work is all about burying the Muslim dead.
“When I was a child, we were in the car park, and my grand-dad ran it in a garden shed, and the mortuary was a Portacabin!” she says fondly. After many years, they moved into the premises at the back of the East London Mosque, living in the imam’s flat. They are currently waiting for the new mortuary to be finished: it has taken three years. “And it’s going to be lovely!” she declares.
The business has changed substantially since her grandfather founded it. “It wasn’t tailor-made back then, and people weren’t as worried about seeing to the cultural and religious needs in those days as much as they are now.”
“Well , everything shut on Friday for the weekend, and so if someone died on a Friday, there was nothing grand-dad could do – which allowed him two days off. In those days, you couldn’t fulfill the required paperwork, register a death, or conduct a burial over a weekend. That’s all changed now we’re open 365 days a year – on Eid, at Christmas, any time, any day! And our service is really tailored to people’s needs.”
In her grandfather’s day, things were simpler, she says, with mainly first generation Muslims burying their dead. They had a memory of how things were done back in their home countries and so they could simply replicate that. Nowadays, the only frame of reference for some second, third or fourth generation Muslims might be gleaned from episodes of East Enders. So they might ask for a horse and carriage or insist on wreaths to adorn the coffin. One family even had a procession of ice cream vans behind the hearse to honour a dead ice cream seller. Moona and her father do their best to oblige these wishes, whilst providing a proper Islamic funeral service. It is not always easy. Frequently, they have to fend off accusations that what they are allowing is “haram” (something that is forbidden by Islamic law). “But where does it say in the Koran that you can’t have a horse and carriage?” Moona exclaims. They’re not necessary, she concedes, but certainly not haram.
It is all about good intentions. The need to help someone bury their loved one within the religious tradition of Islam and the concomitant need to make sure that those left behind, the grieving relatives, feel happy and satisfied that they have said goodbye properly. The question of intention is a theme to which Moona keeps returning. One of the most challenging things, she tells me, is contending with a vast variety of different cultural needs.
“Islam is very simple,” Moona declares, “but people’s varying cultural needs are where it gets very complicated. You have these different cultures: Bengali, Pakistani, Somali, Turkish, Turkish Cypriot, Algerian. They’re very different, and some of them – through ignorance – will confuse culture with religion.”
Whitechapel has changed enormously since Moona was a child. There were precious few places to eat halal food and people looked askance when she wore traditional dress or a headscarf.
“The only place we’d go to eat apart from Tayyab’s, was Pizza Hut – it was the only place you could go and not feel like a vegetarian! My mum doesn’t like eating vegetarian food…” she says.
That has all changed. Gone are the dark days of having to resort to an egg or cheese sandwich. Nowadays, she tells her children, you can go anywhere and get halal fried chicken in the East End. The demographic has shifted, and she observes that if a Muslim woman is not dressed conservatively, members of the Islamic community will often be disapproving. She is less comfortable unless she dresses in a modest fashion, in contrast to her experience growing up when the opposite was true.
Her father has mixed views about the myriad changes and shifts in East End life. As a man who once stood next to the Krays in a fish and chip shop, and who grew up amongst the mixed community of Jews and Muslims in Spitalfields, he seems to miss that world.
“I came to Spitalfields in 1960-ish and my father had a shop at number 11 Old Montague St, he was the first Asian to open a grocery shop in the Brick Lane area. He also had a little mosque in the basement, so that on Friday people could pray… I was very much involved with the youth in the area, mainly Jewish. We had an old slaughter house in Old Montague St, and we slaughtered chicken and supplied kosher meat for the Hasidic Jewish people. It was very derelict round there in those days. There were maybe only two other Asian families back then, hardly any Asian shops in Brick Lane. There were boarding houses on Hanbury St with Bengalis - mostly bachelors, living at least three to a room, working in the rag trade.”
It was in the early sixties when his father was asked if he’d come and be the superintendent of the East London Mosque, which was then based on Commercial Rd in Whitechapel.
“A lot of people liked and trusted my dad, and he was a recognized leader of the community and he agreed. He sold the shop to an East Pakistani, and he and my mum moved to the East London Mosque where they had a flat.“
Does he think that things have changed for the better around these parts? He mentioned the spate of “Paki-bashing,” as it became known. Round Brick Lane, gangs of white youth would descend upon the mainly middle aged Bengali bachelors, beating and robbing them of their earnings stashed in their back pockets. The police turned a blind eye. Gulam’s father was beaten up once, and even though he handed over the culprit, the police ignored him.
Don’t these sorts of events tarnish happy memories of that time? Clearly, it is complicated – what has been lost, what gained, what is better or worse between that time and now.
His eyes light up. “I remember the buzz!” he cries, “And that buzz isn’t here any more. It’s safer and more affluent but I wouldn’t say better. Maybe I’m reminiscing too much, the world keeps on changing, not always for the better.”
He bemoans the state of Asian youth culture, its slouching drift into crime. “They’ve learnt that there is easy money to be made from drugs,” he says, “and they carry knives, all these Bengali gangs from Plaistow and East Ham. There isn’t that culture in Bangladesh – they’ve learnt it here.”
Yet he does not condone the enthusiasm amongst some parents in the area for sending their children to madrassas to separate them from non-Muslims. As a boy growing up in Cardiff and later Spitalfields, he went to local schools alongside East Enders – white, Jewish, whatever – and is the product of a mixed marriage between a Bengali father and Welsh mother. The only Taffy Bengali Brit mix in the UK, Moona likes to joke.
Gulam goes on, “I’m really worried about what’s happening with young girls round here being sent up to madrassas in the north of England. They’re chaperoned, kept within their own community, like Hasidic Jews. Their parents don’t want to send them to places like Mulberry School in case they’ll be influenced and somehow diluted.”
Growing up in East London, Gulam was a member of a popular Jewish youth group, the Oxford and St George. He used to go to haida on Christian St with a bunch of his Jewish friends until the rabbi noticed he was not Jewish. He and his old friends from those days still have the odd reunion. Both he and Moona mention the Fieldgate Synagogue, nestled in between the increasingly expansive East London Mosque buildings, and are clearly saddened that its future in the East End is uncertain. The mosque tried to buy up the synagogue, but they refused to sell.
“The rabbi always comes out and says salaam to me,” Moona says, “and I always say shalom to him.” She sometimes helps him out, switching off the lights in the synagogue, or carrying up matzos when he is not meant to be working.
“Then I found out years later that he and my mum were neighbours in India. He took me out for lunch after I had my first child. They were both off Kanak St in Calcutta! I went ‘shut up!’ to him. They lived in 1A and 1B Victoria Terrace – neighbours in Calcutta and in Whitechapel. It’s such a small world, isn’t it?”
Small, and yet infinite.
Gulam grows restless. There is work to be done, funerals to arrange, people to meet and families to comfort. I ask him what made him do the motorbike road trip just now – did it mark some special occasion?
“I’m living my life out,” he says, “It’s slowly ending, and I want to do it all before I’m too old or I die. I want to do it all.”
Gulam and Moona Taslim
Moona and her cousin Abu
Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman