Friday, May 1, 2009

Yorkshire Curry (The Friday Times, 2004)

When I first set eyes on the (in)famous Manningham Park, I was fascinated by the visual bricolage of Pakistani migrants adapting to their urban northern English habitat. Women in niqab jogging with their friends, bearded maulanas playing tennis in knee-length shorts, inter-racial couples with their young children throwing breadcrumbs at cooing pigeons, adolescent girls in shalwar-kameez sharply swearing at desi boys in urban sportswear endeavoring to chat them up. This scenery was accompanied by the soundtrack of blaring bhangra music from screeching BMWs, all driven by young Asian boys—an accepted irony in this economically deprived neighborhood in the heart of Bradford.


Bradford. The name instantly brings to mind two types of media-infused imagery. The first—the Angry Muslim Male image invoked by the July 2001 Bradford Riots, when Muslim youths rioting with stones and petrol bombs fuelled dramatic headlines worldwide. The other—a parody of migrant Pakistani Corner-Shop Culture as portrayed by the UK box office hit, East is East (the ‘Welcome to Bradfordistan’ sign that appeared in the film was later imitated by graffiti artists near its city center in an example of life imitating art).


We were to discover layer upon fascinating layer of socio-political nuances in our journey to document the aftermath of the Bradford Riots on the social fabric of Bradford and its surrounding regions. The project: After the Bradford Boil, a documentary series for ITV/Yorkshire TV by Serendip Productions, led by the inimitable Huma and Dr. Farooq Beg and a diverse team from Pakistan and Yorkshire—Haroon, Imran, Linda, Tim, and myself. Our role: to build bridges between ethnic minorities and native (white) communities and in doing so, represent a range of perspectives, and experiences in a multiethnic society that has faced considerable challenges and is bravely standing up to them.


Though located in the heart of the quiet, green country that is Yorkshire, the city of Bradford is dramatically different from nearby metropolitan Leeds, quaint, cobble-stoned York, or the romantic, heathery hillsides surrounding Haworth that Emily Bronte vividly described in Wuthering Heights. 80% of British Muslims originally hail from Mirpur, in Azad Kashmir, that to 1st, 2nd and even some 3rd generation British Pakistanis, represents an almost mythical image of a dearly loved motherland. Despite fond memories, many migrants have not set foot in their maiden country for as many as 30 years, thereby finding themselves trapped in a cultural time warp which not only contrasts sharply with certain modes of metropolitan Britain, but also with social trends in contemporary urban Pakistan. Some interviewees even complained that they found their visits to Pakistan “disturbing” as it had become “too westernized” for them to relate to.


Many of the original Pakistani migrants were initially lured to England to provide valuable labour force needed for running factories and mills in cities such as Bradford and Sheffield in the 50s and 60s. Philip Lewis, in his Diocese of Bradford, describes the collapse of the textile industry in the early 90s, which resulted in the loss of 60,000 jobs. With limited employment opportunities, the ethnic community has successfully turned towards providing services for a niche market. Operating family-run small businesses such as corner-shops, taxi services, and ethnic restaurants has been a suitable means of earning one’s livelihood. Over time, with hard work and prodigious luck, the most ambitious of the lot have emerged into business tycoons with restaurant chains or construction companies complete with inspirational success stories. Their personalized license plates on fleets of gleaming Mercs symbolize their ascent to the upper echelons of the British economy.


British Asians have also over the years excelled in the academia to become prominent surgeons, barristers, professors, social workers, clerics, Members of Parliament and even Peers of the Realm, or alternatively, prospered in the arena of professional sports. There seem to be enough positive examples for ethnic Bradfordian youth to turn to for inspiration. Unfortunately, this is not always so and the lure of quick money and a flashy lifestyle seems all too appealing. Many of Bradford’s young Asians are notoriously associated with for earning their BMWs by dealing illegal substances, namely, drugs. The tragedy in this lies in possible shortcomings in their upbringing. According to some of our interviewees, this was ascribed to the double standards synonymous with British Muslim parenting, being “more concerned with their daughters remaining at home to preserve their family’s honour,” whilst turning a blind eye on “the easy money” their sons were bringing in without a university education, even continuing to “live in welfare housing projects while luxury cars line their driveways.” Although this may be true in some cases, it is also an unfair stereotype, which other more diligent and conscientious British Pakistanis do not agree with in their daily endeavors to make better lives for their families. It is interesting to note, however, that from the 16-24 age bracket, only 31% of Bradfordian ethnic youth are employed, compared with 40% of ethnic youth nationally and 60% of white youth nationally ( There are, however, many attempts being made at the grassroots level to provide mentorship programs for delinquent youth so that their energies may be diverted toward a more positive direction.


Among the diasporas of people interviewed with a range of professional and ethnic backgrounds, a growing picture has begun to emerge of a city that is being ripped apart by generation and cultural gaps, a city that has once too often become a guinea pig for British policy makers and legislators, whose residents ask themselves the following questions:

  • Why is it that the Bradford Riots were made the object of national scrutiny, with “unusually harsh sentencing” for the accused rioters and “one-sided criticism” from Home Secretary David Blunkett even though there have also been racial riots in cities like Leeds and Oldham?
  • Why did the National Front—a political party with an anti-immigrant stance—get away with provoking the Bradford Riots when they tried to start a rally through Asian-populated areas?
  • What is the harm, they ask, in cultivating predominantly Asian neighbourhoods if that is the domestic environment they feel they can relate to? Lord Ouseley, in the famous Ouseley Report titled ‘Community Pride, not Prejudice,’ printed soon after the Bradford Riots, explained that the ethnically segregated “comfort zones” which characterized many Bradfordian neighborhoods caused minimal interaction between ethnic minorities and the mainstream. Importing Imams and spouses from rural areas in Pakistan further deterred the “integration” process—a major keyword for the many government-funded efforts being made such as Bradford Vision to invite investors back to this stricken city.


Going to one of the many well-organized Melas that are organized annually in every major British city, one would think otherwise, that integration is already taking place and that Asian culture has already been accepted into mainstream Britain. This fanfare of South Asian cultures attracts a diverse ethnic population, not to mention sponsorship from a growing number of firms and media who are recognizing the consumer power of Britain’s largest ethnic minority. In terms of popular culture, British Asians have already succeeded in winning over the mainstream: urban-bhangra music like Panjabi MC has topped the pan-European charts, comedienne Shazia Mirza performs successful gigs at comedy clubs whilst donning her hejab, Asian-genre film and tv programming like Bend it like Beckham and Goodness Gracious Me and West End musicals like Bollywood Dreams are targeted at an eager white audience, chicken curry has become part of a traditional English pub menu, there are Bollywood-themed evenings at clubs and parties, and punjabi vernacular has made it’s way to the Oxford English dictionary. Certainly, in the entertainment spectrum, it seems that British Asians have truly arrived.


However, there is a great struggle for identity taking place beneath the deceptively cheerful beat of the dhol, in the gritty world of interior England. In Bradford, British Asian migrant culture is coming on it’s own. For subsequent generations of British-born Asians questioning both their parents’ traditions and the values of mainstream English society, it is a time of reflection. For instance, many young British Muslims are educating themselves about Islam and rejecting the culturally infused views of religion of their parents’ generation. The age-old slur, “Paki, go back to where you came from,” is no longer applicable since the majority of today’s British Asians are born in Britain, not in Pakistan. A staggering 43% of them are under the age of 22 and have known no home outside of Britain. The often-conflicting parallels may create confusion and angst amongst today’s youth but they also work to create stronger beings with more control over the direction in which their futures will develop. Where their parents remained quiet, even docile, today’s minority youth elect to raise their voices in debate or alternatively, exhibit their frustration in the boisterous style of English football hooliganism. Whatever the manner, they are getting their point across: they want to be heard.


The many ingredients in the socio-cultural pot of emerging identities could very well simmer with misunderstanding and resentment, thereby boiling over and causing another Bradford Boil. Alternatively, the juices of integration could effectively marinate communal strife to create the flavours that social workers and theorists are trying to stir in—assimilation on a national level without risking the freedom of preserving and expressing both personal and sub-cultural identities. The answer is, that there is no one answer.


Will today’s Yorkshire Pudding and Chicken Curry become tomorrow’s Yorkshire Curry? We’ll just have to wait and see.



The writer is Researcher and Coordinator for After the Bradford Boil, which is scheduled to air on ITV/Yorkshire TV in the UK in Spring 2004.

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