A Walk in Whitechapel
One Sunday, I came across the Zoar Chapel of the Free Presbyterian Church of Scotland tucked between a row of houses along Varden St. It was the Sunday before Christmas and I could hear the minister’s voice preaching to his congregation percolating into the street as I passed by. Nearby, on Nelson St, is the East London Central Synagogue, one of few remaining in the area. But there is no trace of the Jewish school on Christian St where the funeral director Gulam Taslim tells me he used to go to haida with his Jewish friends.
Walking around the neighbourhood, I come across shop fronts advertising Islamic schools and courses, springing up to fill a demand for a religious-based education that is not fulfilled in the mainstream. Along New Rd is “The Tayyibun Institute For The Teachings of Qu’ran and Sunnah” offering classes and advertising its online services. Oceans of Knowledge are at our disposal, the foundation proclaims on its shop window. Registration at the centre is segregated; women are permitted to register between 10 am and 4 pm, and men from 4 pm till evening. Courses on offer include: Quarani and Tajweed Studies, Arabic Language, FIQH Studies, Hadith Studies, Islamic History Studies, Tarbiyyah Studies, and Authentic Spiritualisation. According to the website, many of the teachers have gained their academic qualifications in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Outside one morning, I pass by a cluster of women in hijabs and burkas excitedly gathering to register for classes. Devout observation of the faith seems to be increasing these days in Whitechapel.
Interestingly, it appears to be reflected in some of the local shops popping up in the area. Nestled amongst the longstanding Indian style sweet shops around New Rd is one such new arrival: Yummy Yummy Halal Sweets. An array of temptingly coloured sweets with familiar names – sherbet flying saucers, mint humbugs, strawberry bonbons, apple shoelaces – line the shelves in big glass jars. A man in a long black robe and prayer cap stands outside by the sandwich board, handing out leaflets with special offers on the sweets. You can look up their products on their website, and follow them on Twitter and Facebook. The site offers an astonishing range of sweets that are not haram – the gelatin that is used is vegetarian – or if you are planning a special event, you can rent a popcorn maker, candyfloss machine and even a chocolate fountain.
At the shop counter are piles of leaflets about Islam: “The Muslims without Shariah Are like Fish Without Water” says one. “Is Islam a Threat to Britain?” poses another. A third has instructions and diagrams on how to wear a hijab correctly. When I chat to one of the shop assistants, a student volunteer, he is eager to tell me about the beauty of Islam, which he is studying part time – though not at the Tayyibun Institute, he says ruefully, because he was too late to enroll. There is a sister shop on the Mile End Rd and judging by the numbers of parents who take their kids here for sweets, business is thriving.
Yet it is unclear how long these idiosyncratic local shops can survive in the face of competition from the high street chain stores which are coming to Whitechapel, thundering towards us from Aldgate and the City. There is a Costa Coffee on the corner of New Rd and Walden St, a reflection of the changing demographic around the hospital. Tesco Metros seem to breed with one another overnight when no one is looking. A Metro begets an Express, or perhaps it is the other way around. In any event, these modern temples to grocery shopping attract a steady stream of customers from the neighbourhood at all times of the day or night. Nobody seems too bothered that they are annihilating local shops. Or are they?
Around Fordham and Romford St, there are a slew of small independent shops that are managing to survive, and even thrive; a haj and umrah travel specialist, the Bangla Super Store, Hindi and Bengali Lava Video, Film Asia Weddings, Grace Gents barber, a tailor shop, a carpet seller, the Java coffee shop which shares its premises with a hairdresser.
On New Rd, a string of swish new cafes cater for the expanding student population, as well as for young locals, though some of the older style eateries persist. There’s the traditional style Cafe Donatello on Turner St, offering multiple variations on a theme of English breakfast, displayed in bright coloured photos on the wall outside. It is very popular with local council employees, contractors and craftsmen working nearby who pop in for a fry-up or a sandwich. A neatly brown painted restaurant has just opened on New Rd; Masala Desi Eatery, featuring Pakistani food. Arguably fancier than its poorer cousins in the side streets, its stairs are studded with blue LED lighting and glistening cabinets show off prepared foods. Outside, its terracotta tiled roof gives it a distinctly Italianate look. But the old curry and kebab houses still attract the faithful, and whether the Masala Desi Eatery will be a hit and divert their custom is uncertain.
I did not notice it at first, The Whitechapel Hotel, but perhaps it portends something of the Crossrail era, when that eventually arrives: a smart, modern establishment, that has recenty opened on New Rd. The bedroom curtains remain resolutely shut, though the reception looks busy, with its permanently on flat screen TV above the desk, and beside it, the Sahara Grill, where people in suits gather for meetings. Now I cannot stop peering at it whenever I go past to see who, if anyone, checks in.
Whitechapel photographs copyright © Colin O’Brien
Dear Readers, I’ve much enjoyed writing for Spitalfields Life this week. Thank you so much for reading the stories about this corner of London - Rosie Dastgir