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Aminul Hoque & The Paradox Of British Bangladeshi Identity

June 22, 2015
by Rosie Dastgir

Contributing Writer Rosie Dastgir meets Aminul Hoque as he returns to the familiar streets where he grew up, and reflects upon childhood memories of racism and football in Spitalfields in the eighties

Portrait of Aminul Hoque in Spitalfields by Sarah Ainslie

One bright morning in Whitechapel, I am sitting in the Brady Centre with Aminul Hoque, a lecturer at Goldsmiths College, when he asks a deceptively simple question - “Who are you?  If you aren’t Bangladeshi and you’re not really British, tell me who you are.”

The question of non-belonging is at the core of his new book, British Islamic Identity – Third Generation Bangladeshis from East London, an exploration of the lives of young Bangladeshis and the new British Islamic identity they have constructed for themselves. The book draws on hundreds of conversations that he conducted over a five year period with a group of young people, their friends and families, colleagues, boyfriends, girlfriends, social workers and teachers.

We meet in a place that is close to Aminul’s heart, near where he used to play football and where he grew up in a council flat with his family, after moving here, aged two, from Bangladesh. The trees are in blossom along a street now studded with new coffee joints and a starburst of silver street art glints against a grey brick wall, its reflection captured in a huge black puddle. The rough aesthetic of the area is almost unrecognizable from the place where Aminul grew up and where he spent years working with local young people.

“The conundrum is ‘not belonging’ because you are reminded you aren’t British,” Aminul explains, “Many young people express their sense that you need to be white to be British, so they say to me, ‘But I was born here, so what am I then? They keep telling me to go back where I come from. Go back where?  You tell me.’” But there is no going back – so where, then, do you go?

The image of the Bangladeshi community has changed from being quiet, hard-working and law-abiding to one that poses a national threat. Aminul suggests to me there has been a shift from old style racism to the politics of otherness, of difference.  “You are different, because you wear a hijab, you have a beard, you believe in the Ummah, you pray to a different god, you’re attracted to extremism,” he declares, quoting the commonplace mis-assumptions.

Outsiders point fingers at the community for its refusal to be like others. Yet is it a refusal or, rather, is it the impossibility of that expectation? Expectation is a river that runs deep beneath the bedrock of the Bangladeshi community and the question is – do you cleave towards or against it?  Aminul seems to have done both, confounding some expectations and embracing others.

“I was football hungry growing up,” he says, as we take a stroll around Whitechapel towards a grassy football pitch that did not exist when he was a child. “It was a survival thing, growing up in Bethnal Green in the eighties and nineties.”

It was a time of poverty and of racism so commonplace that it was considered just a normal part of existence. ‘Paki-bashing’ was a feature of daily life and football was the antidote. Most families Aminul knew, including his own, were too poor to have a television back then, so they all watched football matches crammed into the front room of someone’s flat where they were lucky enough to have a telly.  On the estate where he grew up, he and his friends played football on a concrete pitch.

“It was like a prison,” he recalls, “with a barbed wire fence. The neighbouring block was for the white boys and girls and we wouldn’t go into their area for fear of being attacked, but they’d always come into ours.  And they’d do it routinely, just for fun. Paki-bashing.” A popular pastime in those days was for white kids to come and let loose their pit bulls when the Bangladeshi boys were playing football, trapping them in the pitch so they would have to climb the fence to escape the vicious dogs. Even going to school involved running a gauntlet through the neighbouring estate of predominantly white residents. “We were just really scared,” Aminul admits, “So we used to go in numbers. It was like a game of cat and mouse.”

Football was Aminul’s passion and he dreamed of making it as a professional. Bangladeshis have never really made it in the sport, yet he was determined to until his dream was shattered in 2002 when he fractured his leg during a game. Marooned in his bedroom, his leg in plaster, Aminul hit a low point. At his bedside sat a complete stranger. The stranger was his father, somebody he loved, yet barely knew. Everything was about to change.

“I’d never really had a proper relationship with my father emotionally – he was a disciplinarian, really, a fantastic person, always present, but he never spoke very much to me.”

The fracture forced the two men to start talking to each other. At first, it was simply the son asking the father to fetch the TV remote or a glass of water, but later it evolved into longer, deeper conversations. Out came the family photographs and the story of his father’s own migration to this country from Bangladesh – his hopes and dreams of return gradually unfurled. His father had eventually settled permanently in the East End of London after a period in the north of England, like many fellow Sylheti fellow migrants. That was 1963.

Talking to his father, Aminul discovered how tightly his own identity was bound up with his notion of home. Home was Bangladesh. Home was the river he jumped into, the mangos he pinched from the neighbours’ tree. Home was the country where Aminul had been born and yet it was unchartered territory.

Aminul shows me a black and white portrait of his grandfather, which features his mother as a young bride, left behind in Bangladesh while Aminul’s father struggled to become established in England. Behind the formal image lies a poignant story.

“My grandfather was very strict, old-fashioned, a conservative, traditional man, who gave my mum a hard time. She was expected to do chores, keep the house clean, but to her that was normal.” It was in the years just before the 1971 War of Independence with Pakistan and there were many women who had to live through the war while their husbands were away working in the UK. Snippets of his father’s oral history inspired a need to know more about his own identity and origins.

Once his broken leg had healed, Aminul took a journey home to his village in Bangladesh and, to his surprise, even though he had left when he was a baby, he experienced a magnetism drawing him to his birthplace that he could not fully explain. Is the place you are born so tied up with your sense of identity, he wonders?

He is a father of three daughters now, all born here. Aminul and his wife, a teacher in the East End of London, used to visit Bangladesh regularly with their children but, these days, the trips are less frequent. His daughters’ connection to Bangladesh is minimal, acquired primarily via the medium of cable TV, yet they are reminded constantly, he says, that they are not actually British – and that herein lies the tragedy for this third generation of Bangladeshi young people.

In 1995, Aminul Hoque ventured south of London to study at Sussex University, confounding the usual expectations to stay close to home, as many Bangladeshis still do when choosing higher education. Encouraged by the example of his older brothers, it was an iteration of his own migration, away from the urban landscape of the East End to the undulating chalk hills of the Sussex Downs.  It was a world that was new and adventurous, very liberal, very welcoming, and white.

At Sussex, he studied Politics and History, with American Studies, and his fascination with the United States grew. Once more, he bucked expectations of what young Bangla boys from the East End do, by hopping across the Atlantic to study in the sleepy seaside suburban town of Santa Cruz in California.  He was frequently taken for Latino, something that did not faze him, but rather added to his youthful sense that identity is complex, fluid, and more than skin-deep. What did he do there, so far from home?  “I settled in,” he says, “It was amazing.”

These days, home is in Walthamstow, where he lives with his wife and three daughters. There is an expectation for the extended family to live in close proximity, sharing accommodation, mingling generations, yet Aminul chose to leave the East End for the suburbs. In Walthamstow, the attractions are manifold – the leafy appeal of Epping Forest, more living space, a garden, good schools nearby.

How does he find suburban life, I wonder, after the tight-knit world of the East End? Aminul is enthusiastic about it and the family have settled down – yet he mentions that, when they first arrived in the area, there was some resistance from the neighbours in the form of an objection to the building of a loft extension, which he had to overcome. One neighbour said, “This place is changing,” an indirect comment on the influx of people like Aminul, now that the suburbs no longer contain or express what they used to.

Yet Aminul seems adept at straddling traditional and progressive values in his work and life, in particular in his thoughts on Islam and feminism. He points out that there is now a burgeoning resistance from young women to be easily defined by old stereotypes. “Younger girls are part of a rising, educated generation – a numerate, literate generation, who are globally aware, and whose interpretation of culture and religion is not oral, handed down from their elders. It’s something they’ve read about for themselves. Girls are becoming financially independent, they’re going to university, they are challenging their fathers, their uncles, brothers, husbands.”

Expectations about who these young Muslim girls are and what they should do with their lives are being confounded, he says. Education has been a significant driver and the parents of third generation Bangladeshis are literate, engaged and critical. Unlike their parents, the first generation, they are more deeply engaged in their children’s education, in helping with homework, and pushing for participation in sport and after school activity. Consequently, the old image of underachievement is swiftly vanishing.

Does he challenge certain patriarchal attitudes to women and girls in the community? “I do challenge patriarchal conventions,” he admits with a smile, “and I get in trouble.” The elders sometimes disapprove of his ideas. “Women should get to know their partners before marriage,” is one example he cites which causes plenty of friction and he admits to getting ticked off for being too westernized at times – “For insisting that women shouldn’t wait to eat after their men, but should that they should all sit down together.”

Sitting down together is an eloquent image of kinship and equality between the sexes and across generations. It carries the emblematic force of inevitability. Yet the journey to this point has been anguished, long and hard fought, even violent at times. When Aminul was around eight, he remembers one hot day when a group of white kids invaded the football pitch where he was playing with his friends, brothers and cousins. Name calling and teasing escalated into a brawl with his older brother being attacked and Aminul ran home to fetch help from his mother. She had once been set upon herself by a mob of men and women from a neighbouring estate yet, sensing her son was in danger, she was fearless. She abandoned her work at the sewing machine stitching garments and ran to her son’s rescue.

“I remember going back home with them,” Aminul says, eyes shining, “and I vividly remember the sound of the sewing machine, which was still running.“

In Hanbury St

Aminul’s grandfather and mother, holding Aminul as a baby, taken in Bangladesh

In Heneage St

Aminul’s family in the eighties

Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie

British Islamic Identity – Third Generation Bangladeshis from East London is published by Trentham Books

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9 Responses leave one →
  1. linda salter permalink
    June 22, 2015

    What an interesting and surprising read. If only this were more widely read and really understood…

  2. Carolyn Hollifield permalink
    June 22, 2015

    Excellent article! Very well written. Gives a sense of the difficulties of belonging and finding a place to call home. The alienation experienced by Aminul and his friends is reflected in several immigrant based communities and explains many of the problems we are experiencing today.

  3. June 22, 2015

    What an interesting and brave life you have led.
    Thank you for sharing, I’m sure your childhood was not unusual but it’s awful – and important – to hear it.
    I’ll look out for your book too

  4. June 22, 2015

    And by complete co-incidence, a friend forwarded this link to me – about the history of Sylheti writing in Britain (had never heard of Sylhet until today!)

    Banglaphone Fiction:
    http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2015/06/banglaphone-fiction-i.html

  5. jeannette Smyth permalink
    June 23, 2015

    thank you ms. dastgir, always interesting to read about the last east end immigrants and — for an american — british racism. we have our problems this side of the pond, and it’s interesting to see how brits of color deal with it over there.

  6. Sundus Ali permalink
    June 23, 2015

    A very interesting article. Reminded me of my own childhood growing up as a Bangladeshi in Whitechapel. Although i did not play football myself, i remember vividly the black/white divide in the school playgrounds and the horrible daily reality of racism. Now in my 30s, i often think back to my childhood days and have become more philosophical – we just did not understand each others cultural lifestyles and there was an element of two working class communities literally ‘fighting’ each other for scare local resources. It doesn’t excuse it. I am just trying to understand why? Thank you Rosie for telling this important and insightful story. It is important to read Aminul’s story because we all have similar experiences and have a shared history. It is vital that we document these stories of historical struggle and trauma.

    Loved the black and white photos btw…

  7. Laloy Ahmed permalink
    June 23, 2015

    What a refreshing read. Finally we (Sylheti Bangladeshis) feel our voices are being heard after living such scrutinised and marginalised existence. As a British born Bangladeshi also growing up in the 8O’s we were either known or refereed to as ‘ABDUL’, ‘PAKI’ or ‘INDIAN’, ironically we were none of those and neither did we fit any of those descriptions. Yet me and my brothers strived to do well academically and force our way into creating our identities in the workplace.

    Similarly to Aminuls trials and tribulations I too faced all these obstacles and ironically now face these from our very own community who think we have become anglicised and have forgotten our roots because we see ourselves as British.

    Keep up the good work Aminul I have recommended this article to my friends who will benefit from your voice and indeed will have a role model to shout about.

  8. Richard permalink
    June 24, 2015

    What a fortunate accident you had Aminul! So interesting and rare to hear from the Bangladeshi community. All we get is extreme views being argued out in the media.

  9. Philip permalink
    June 25, 2015

    Wow. Can only echo the enthusiasm of the comments above. Great story, moving, recognisable and relevant but strangely under expressed. Definitely getting the book. I had a neighbour who boasted of his glory days in Paki-bashing. He told me “We used to gob on their backs.” I used to see him drinking mid-morning in the park. One time he wanted me to go on holidays with him and his brother “it’ll be great, there’s about fifty of us, it’s all taxi drivers.” Another time I met him badly beaten up, black eyes, blood encrusted face, crutches, the works. “Fucking Paki kids,” he said, but not with any bitterness, just a kind of shrug that to me suggested he was accustomed to some kind of a culture of violance, and had no other particular horizons.

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