At Julie Begum’s Group
Julie (top right) and her group
Like those feisty East End pub landladies of yore, Julie Begum calls for order above the din of voices and laughter. She is a formidable figure, despite her size, one who demands attention and one on whose wrong side you would never wish to be.
“Enough of your chat, young lady,” she says with a grin to a sprightly eighty-year-old, who is giggling unaware with her friend. We are all seated in the art room of Hackney Museum. Due to the summer break, many of the fifteen or so women have not seen each other for a while and there is noise and excitement as they catch up on news and gossip. But Julie’s energy never wanes. She has already made everyone steaming mugs of sweet tea, handed out the biscuits and passed around the plump dates that one of the women brought with her (‘to hell with the diabetes’ is the attitude here). She has welcomed latecomers, found them seats and made guests feel welcome too. Eventually, the women heed her calls and calm down, and Julie introduces me to them. “He is here to ask you questions. You can talk to him if you want but you don’t have to, although he is a nice boy.”
“Are you?” one of the women heckles from the other side of the room.
I shake my head from side to side, jokingly.
“There’s so many of us, how will you ever choose?” she asks, cheekily.
For the last seven years, Julie has been working with this group of East End women. But it is more than just another community group, these women are between forty to eighty years of age and from all over the world – Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Sierra Leone, Tanzania and Kenya. They speak a mixture of languages, including English, Bengali, Swahili, Urdu and Hindi. Most came to London to be with husbands who were working here, finding themselves settling and having families. Throughout their lives, they have worked as carers, machinists, arranged-marriage fixers, receptionists, bakers, factory-workers and as teachers. What they have in common is that over the years, they have all made this city their home. Jointly, as well as individually, these women overflow with tales, histories and stories of migration, of creating homes in new places and with new people – of learning, suffering and hard work.
Julie’s gang of women have been asked to work on a project by Hackney Museum which involves putting meaningful items into a suitcase that says something about the lives of their owners. Alongside other suitcases filled by groups who also use the museum, a collective picture will be built up of the lives and inhabitants of the borough in the twenty-first century.
These women are in demand. Before they even have a chance to talk about the items which will represent them in the suitcase, visitors from Stoke Newington Knitting the Common group make an announcement. They would like the women to participate in their own project which involves knitting a model of Stoke Newington Common complete with trees, bushes, houses and railway tracks. Many of these women have been knitting, crocheting and embroidering for decades and, as the visitors explain their idea, the women quizzically inspect the knitted trees, passing them round the room and, as they put their glasses on, peering carefully at the stitches. In a quiet hum, they translate for one another and for those hard of hearing. “How many trees have you made,” one asks on behalf of another. “Seven,” comes the reply, “but we need many more.” They all laugh. “The stitches are really very good, aren’t they?” the woman next to me comments, “What wool do you think they are using?” I shrug my shoulders.
Julie explains the origin of the group and what holds it together. “In 2007, the Geffrye Museum received funds to attract non-traditional visitors to the museum. One of their target groups were Asian women. The Geffrye had never done anything like this and it was all new territory for them but it had to open itself up to local people, so I was brought in to help them do this. One of the things I did was to contact the Asian Women’s Advisory Service, an organisation that provides a range of services to women such as welfare and benefits advice, help with domestic abuse, health and educational training – that sort of thing. I met some of the women there and we have been together ever since.
During our time at the Geffrye, we transformed the garden at the back of the museum. We bought seeds, soil, flowers and plants and got involved with the gardeners to grow a community garden. When there was a glut of produce, the women would share them out. Even the restaurant there made use of our tomatoes. In the autumn and winter, when it became too cold to be outdoors, we did activities in the art room. I invited people to run workshops, doing arts and crafts, photography, using the Geffrye’s own collections for inspiration. Over the years, we did projects with other local community groups too.
The women came on buses to get to the museum, week after week, something not necessarily easy if you are seventy years of age and travelling on your own. They are always bringing food along with them in tupperware for everyone to share. We go on trips to the V&A or the William Morris Gallery, and the tupperware rammed with biryanis, naans, pasta and couscous always come with us. They always have a really good time, enjoying each others company, building up relationships independent of the sessions. They go to each others homes and attend their children and grandchildren’s weddings together.
Deepa, for example. is in her seventies and had an accident on the bus recently. The women all went to visit her in hospital to offer their support, and when Shamena had an operation on her liver, they went round, taking food with them. As they age, loss of mobility is an issue for them, especially for the those who have been working, raising families and being independent for much of their lives. It is particularly sad to see them lose their independence.”
Then the funds that the Geffrye Museum was providing were reduced and the women could not meet as regularly. Nonetheless, they continued seeing one another. But, in order for them to remain together, Julie sought other venues to host their meetings and they found a new home at Hackney Museum. However, they all miss the Geffrye’s garden terribly, because many live in high rise flats and it was their only opportunity for them to get their hands dirty.
Julie explains to me that while they have all been together, there have been any number of illnesses, operations, family traumas and bereavements. Coping with bereavement and loss is an important part of what binds them. Julie says that this is why the experiences that they have together grow more meaningful, because they are trying to have as much fun as possible in the time they have left. “I have become really good friends with these women and, by doing so, am learning to nurture my own relationships with others. My bond with them has made me confront issues in my own life and to not put them to the back of my mind. I’m much more conscious of how ageing will be for myself and my family members, in particular my mother.”
Deepa Bhatt, 69
“I live in Bow. I have done so for the last twenty-five years. I am originally from Delhi but moved to London because of my husband’s work. He worked for the Bombay Taj Hotel as a chef for many years, but he was transferred to London to work for the Bombay Brasserie on Gloucester Rd. He worked there until he passed away. In November, I am going to Delhi where the warmth is better for me and better for my bones. I have had operations on both of my knees and find walking very difficult.”
Shereen Jivaji, 76
“In the fifties, my husband came to London to learn to be a plumber but changed his mind and went back to Kenya where he worked for a suitcase factory. It was very specialised work. I married him in 1952 or 1953 – I can’t remember the exact date. I had been a receptionist but had to stop working to stay at home to cook and look after his very large family. In 1975, my husband and I along with our two young sons moved to London. He worked for a suitcase factory on Commercial St. I started working again, first as a machinist, making skirts and trousers in a factory. I had used a home machine before but not an industrial one – it was totally different. I hardly made ten pounds a week, as it was piecework yet, over time I improved. I then became a packer on St John St, working for Scholl. I would pack athletes foot powder and nail clippers into boxes. I made seventy-two pounds a week. I worked hard then, but now I can’t even pick up a bucket. My husband suffered from cancer. He had good treatment, but died in 2001. One of my sons became a computer scientist and the other a civil engineer. I live by myself and I’m happy.”
Rashida Siddiqui, 65
“I worked as a child minder for thirty years. My husband had been a Charted Accountant but he died young of a heart-attack, so I had to raise my children somehow. I really enjoyed doing the work. One of the children I raised many years ago, came to visit and have dinner at my house recently. She is now twenty-eight years old and doing very well in her life. A Jewish mother I worked for said that when she went out, she never worried for her children when they were with me. My secret for looking after children is patience and calm. I enjoy the company of my English friends. When my husband died, people were very supportive. When they got married, they invited me. I sometimes go to Peshawar where I come from – I love it there, but a lot of people came to Peshawar from Afghanistan during the Russian invasion and it has changed from the way I remember it.”
Jamila Mushtaq, 44
“I have been coming to the group for the last three years and I love it very much. It’s like family. My family are all in Pakistan, so this is my second family.”
Razia Sultan, 78
“I have been coming to Julie’s group for five or six years, mashallah. I enjoy it all: the knitting, cooking, exercising, gardening – there are too many things to list. But I like gardening the most. I like flowers the best, mashallah. My husband was a soldier in the British Army but then moved here in 1960, and I came and joined him in 1961. Initially, we were in Yorkshire and my husband worked for a biscuit factory as an accountant. I would make salwar kameezs at home. Then we moved to London on 14th August 1978, I remember the date – after the biscuit factory closed down. I love London, but I prefer Yorkshire even though it is colder. I’m always very busy, mashallah. I knit, I pray five times a day, read the Quran, magazines and newspapers. I enjoy my health, but I have high blood pressure and I have to use walking sticks now.”
Portraits copyright © Sarah Ainslie
ENVOI FROM DELWAR HUSSAIN
“Though it has only been one week – just seven days – I have been overwhelmed by dozens of lives, decades of history and hundreds of traces of other people’s stories. Now back to The Gentle Author… “
Portrait of Delwar Hussain copyright © Lucinda Douglas-Menzies