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A Walk in Whitechapel

January 13, 2013
by Rosie Dastgir

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

14 Responses leave one →
  1. January 13, 2013

    And I’ve enjoyed you guest appearance too. It’s odd to me that I so much enjoy these glimpses of a community I don’t know at all… and yet there’s so much here I recognise as well. Sadly, the tale of local shops disappearing in favour of national and multi-national chains is too familiar wherever you are in Europe. I’ll be sure to visit some of the more traditional stores when I visit the area – and I will come one day! I hope you too will return again one day as a guest of the wonderful ‘Spitalfields Life’

  2. annie permalink
    January 13, 2013

    Thanks Rosie, I have enjoyed your articles very much!

  3. Sue permalink
    January 13, 2013

    Rosie have really enjoyed reading your stories this week, you have bought your area to life. Superb writing, thank you.

  4. January 13, 2013

    Thank you, Rosie, I have very much enjoyed reading your stories. Good luck with your novel!

  5. andrew plume permalink
    January 13, 2013

    ………….and it’s been great Rosie, thanks indeed

    see you on here again, hopefully……………………


  6. Lizzie T permalink
    January 13, 2013

    Have really enjoyed reading your contributions.

  7. Gary permalink
    January 13, 2013

    Thank you Rosie for an interesting week.

  8. Libby Hall permalink
    January 13, 2013

    It is good to read reassuring descriptions of real shops and know that the corporations haven’t captured all of Whitechapel yet. And lovely to see Colin O’Brien’s photographs of those shops taken at dusk. Many of Tony’s photographs of shops in Spitalfields were taken at that time of day. It’s a lovely moment in city time that Tony and I always specially enjoyed: when the artificial lights look so warm and yellow against the fading purple/blue light of the sky.

    A couple of days ago I read bits of ‘A Small Fortune’ on the internet and immediately ordered a copy. I know I’m going to enjoy it. I hope it turns up quickly. This is definitely the right sort of weather to be snug inside with a good book!

  9. Siggi permalink
    January 13, 2013

    Thank you for a very interesting week – hope to hear more from you – and good luck with your book !!

  10. January 13, 2013

    Thanks so much for your appreciative comments – I’ve much enjoyed writing these pieces, and working with delightful and talented photographers.

  11. joan permalink
    January 13, 2013

    I went to school on Christian Street. Bishop Challoner girl’s school (now a huge expanse on Commercial Road) temporarily based its lower school there while the new building in Lukin Street was made ready (this would have been in the mid 1970s). It was an old Victorian school building and I seem to remember being told that it had previously been a Jewish school. I haven’t been down Christian Street for years but looking at street view it looks like it has been replaced by a new, no doubt much needed, housing development.

    Thank you for the heads up on the halal sweet shops. It is always an issue when my children are taking sweets to school for birthdays etc. Yummy Yummy could provide a nice easy solution.

    Thanks and best wishes,


  12. January 14, 2013

    Enjoyed reading your articles. Thanks for writing them and hope to see your name here again.

  13. sprite permalink
    January 16, 2013

    changing cityscape –
    Sartres and Simone once
    deambulated there too


  14. Mary Lou permalink
    March 12, 2013

    I enjoy your articles very much. I have always loved London, it is in fact my favorite city. Recently, about 6 months ago I was in London after not having been for quite a few years. It absolutely saddened me when I saw the changes in Whitechapel. Of course like everything else, time moves on and progression is required. However the changes that I saw brought tears to my eyes. I so long for the Whitechapel of my memories, the Whitechapel of old.

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