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Gulam Taslim, Funeral Director

January 8, 2013
by Rosie Dastgir

“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.”

Like what?

“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

Moona Taslim

Photographs copyright © Jeremy Freedman

13 Responses leave one →
  1. January 8, 2013

    A fascinating account. Somehow I’d never thought about the different needs of varying religious communities when it comes to burying the dead. Thank you for introducing us to a most interesting family.

  2. Kevin Batchelor permalink
    January 8, 2013

    Wonderful inspiring story. By the way, Newbury Park is near Ilford in NE London. It’s where I grew up

  3. Hardy permalink
    January 8, 2013

    I’ve been walking past Haji Taslim Funerals many times wondering how it operates and what it would be like inside. Now I know. Many thanks.

  4. Melvyn Brooks permalink
    January 8, 2013

    If only we could all be like Gulam. Thanks
    Melvyn Brooks Karkur Israel

  5. January 9, 2013

    salaam! shalom! this is beautiful, miss rosie. it’s what i long to know about east london. perhaps some you could provide us with a little insight into the islamic burial traditions themselves. does mr. taslim have tales or pix of his motorcycle rides thru bangladesh and the states??? stories of growing up biracial??? i’d love to know more about his life.
    thanks again.

  6. January 10, 2013

    Thanks, Jeanette. I think Gulam does indeed have photos of that amazing motorcyle journey – I’ll have to ask him for the link. Glad you enjoyed reading about it. Moona told me a lot about the burial traditions – but I had to limit the length of this piece.

  7. andrew plume permalink
    January 13, 2013

    terrific stuff Rosie

    Gulam and Moona featured very well in a three part BBC doc on ‘their trade’ last year, this is probably no longer available as BBC seem to seriously curtail the ‘viewing period’ of their progs


  8. suraya begum permalink
    August 25, 2013

    Masha allah what a lovely story about Haji Taslim and his family. Its inspiring and wonderfil to hear about Gulam and Moona’s story. Their dedication to muslims and their families is immense. May allah reward all those involved in the Haji taslim funeral service, insha allah

  9. abdul tahid permalink
    August 31, 2013

    Asalamualaykum inshaallah I would like to help out as a undertaker if that’s possible?

  10. Gulnaz khan permalink
    April 18, 2014

    Subhanallah what a beautiful establishment .
    May Allah s.w.a shower your family with blessings.
    You have so much noor on your faces.
    This is the best business you can ever have.
    I remember I went to Gardens Of Peace in Hainault last year and there was a burial
    Taking place.
    Mr Gulam let me and my mother look to see
    What the inside of grave looked like.
    It was a reminder to a sinner like me that once
    You are down there there is no turning back
    Ever since I repent all the time.
    I wished people could understand the fear of Allah.
    If people fear Allah death will be the most beautiful
    Experience to look forward in meeting the almighty Allah.
    Mashallah your funeral services are doing a fantastic job.
    I would love my funeral to be organised by your establishment
    Inshallah if I am destined a shroud ameen.

  11. Mohammad Saeed-ur- Rahim permalink
    November 21, 2021

    Asallam-o-Alaikum Wa Rehmatullah Wa Barakatuhuu,

    I have the following Querry :

    (1) I live alone and wanted to know how best to engage your services for people who live alone?
    (2) In case of an emergency, how do I make sure that you are informed so that you can collect the body, give the Ghusul and make the burial.
    (3) What would be the Costs for all the items under (2)
    (4) How do I make the payment in advance?

    Mohammad Saeed-ur-Rahim
    landline No. 0207 263 1966
    Mobile/WhatsApp : 07960110425
    Woodfall Road,
    Finsbury Park
    N4 3JD

  12. Mohammad Saeed-ur- Rahim permalink
    November 22, 2021

    Assallam-o-Allaikum Sister Moona and Abu,

    I left a message as above yesterday, but it hasn’t got any acknowledgment.

    I look forward to hearing from you soon.

    Ma Assalam
    Saeed AbdulRahim

  13. Hamida Ali permalink
    November 5, 2022

    I am currently collating information from my father who arrived in England in 1958. Haji Taslim Ali was his maternal uncle and he provided a place for my dad to stay in as a new arrival at the age of 22. My father lived above his uncles shop at 11 Montagu Street E1. He set up a job for my father to work in a restaurant but my father who worked in the courts in Sylhet did not like it and jumped on the first bus that came and headed off until he got off in Enfield, not knowing where he was going and walked around looking for a job. He applied for a job in Bylock electrics in South Street Pondersend. He passed his interview and started his first job but travelling back to the east end as there was a shortage of accommodation in Enfield. Haji Taslim Ali was the only grandfather (dada) I had as I never met my own grandfather. I have very fond memories of him coming to our house frequently, but always fleeting off as he was always on his next adventure. After long trips giving dawah in his black hearse he would come and visit my father and his family. As children we were eager to hear about his ventures going across America in his dusty black hearse. He would always bring my favourite fruits, wrapped up in a brown paper bag, lychees was my favourite. He would always sit on a chair never on the sofa as he did not like the luxury’s of this world, a very humbling person. He always had a beautiful glow and gleaming smile and told us stories from the Quran in such a gentle voice. He was an amazing storyteller, always leaving us with the moral of the story to ponder on and until next time….he was gone. I used to wait for his next visit contemplating what new things he would discover travelling around the world in his black dusty hearse. His wife was a great lady with determination and always busy doing charity work. When I used to visit her in Valance Road, she would tell me how she had been collecting winter clothes which were piled up in the corner of the lounge for needy people. Only recently I found out she was from Wales. Sometimes I wonder maybe that’s where I got my inspiration from, to help the community and do good for others. My Uncle Gulum loved motorbikes. When I used to see him he was like a rocker with leather jackets and leather trousers on his huge motorbike., not sure if it was a HarleyDavidson. Things haven’t changed much he still loves his motorbike. I have lost touch with my grandfathers side of the family but taking part in the heritage project has taken me back to my childhood and revisiting fond memories of Haji Taslim Ali, a loving grandfather who had time for everyone.

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