Sadiya Ahmed has been busy during Britain’s latest COVID-19 lockdown. She has produced a podcast, created a heritage photography competition, and is working on setting up a Muslim History module to run alongside the national curriculum.
It is all part of this former tutor’s aim to ensure British Muslim history takes its rightful place within mainstream British history.
“Muslims aren’t just on the margins of British society, but are part of British society,” she says.
She wants to place their stories alongside the already documented “mainstream” British history in archives, museums and academia.
“It gives our communities an authenticated representation and claim to British history, as ‘our history’, one we are evidently part of.”
It is a mission many historians say is long overdue.
There is “a popular [mis]perception that Muslims in Britain are an alien presence, people who have arrived here only recently. In other words, they lack roots, and because of that they lack ties and emotional bonds with this country”, explains historian Humayun Ansari.
“Rootedness”, Ansari says, is a “human need”.
“It is the sense of ‘rootedness’ that establishes emotional ties between people and place. Archival silences have a demoralising effect and are damaging to self-esteem.”
Sunder Katwala, the director of British Future, an independent think-tank focused on equality, diversity and human rights, is optimistic. He believes a new generation of historians, and history that is more accessible through online sources and social media, is creating space for everyone’s history to be told.
“I think we are seeing a broadening of the stories that are being told and heard,” he says.
“British history is the story of how we, the British, came to be us. It can only fully do that job by becoming more inclusive.”
He mentions the recognition given to the 400,000 Muslims in the Indian armies that fought for Britain in the first world war, more than a century ago.
“This used to be a largely unknown and untold story,” says Katwala, “but there has been rapidly increasing public awareness of the Black and Asian contribution to the world wars, which had a much higher profile during the First World War centenary than it had before.”
‘Our histories will be lost’
Ahmed set up the Everyday Muslim Heritage and Archive Initiative (EMHAI) in 2013 to document the history of British Muslims.
“Future generations need to understand that Muslims have historic roots in Britain that actually go back centuries,” she says.
The first Indian restaurant in London was established by a Muslim surgeon in 1810, and the first purpose-built mosque was opened in 1889.
“I feel each generation thinks that they’re ‘the first’ because our history is largely undocumented, but we aren’t aware of the all the accomplishments of the past … Without that knowledge, we’re kind of stuck in a perpetual cycle, which grounds our identity as migrants or immigrants, and not citizens, and therefore not seen as equal to someone who’s from a white British heritage.”
Britain’s more than 3.3 million-strong Muslim community is heterogeneous. The largest part of the religious group originates from South Asia, but there are also Arab and African communities, Muslims from Southeast Asia, the Balkans and Turkey, as well as those who have converted or are the descendants of converts, all with histories waiting to be told.
EMHAI aims to tell these stories and create space in history for a group Ahmed says has largely been “absent from places such as museums and archives”. She believes it is one of the reasons Muslims and other diasporic communities, “do not visit or engage in these spaces”.
“If we don’t visit museums and archives, we won’t feel like we belong here. Not belonging is alienating.
“If we don’t take ownership and document these stories, our histories will be lost. As if that history never existed.”
Like the post-second world war migration from the West Indies to the United Kingdom, many South Asians came to plug Britain’s labour shortages, with migrants from Commonwealth nations often working in transport or factories.
But, says Ahmed, while “the stories of unskilled labourers from South Asia that came to work in factories is a true portrayal” she is keen to emphasise that “it’s not the only perspective”.
Ansari, who is a professor of the History of Islam and Culture at London’s Royal Holloway University, explains that: “In the early 1960s, the government sponsored [a series of] films – Calling all Muslims! – enthusiastically inviting Muslims to come to work in British industries or to study in British universities.”
Ahmed says there were “very educated people that came here with PhDs, and they were more educated than some people here, but they weren’t getting the jobs that they were qualified for”.
Some early migrants were lawyers, teachers and doctors. There were also zoologists and biologists. “They’re not the stereotypical professions that you’d say, ‘oh, Muslims only do x, y, and z’. The stories give you a wider picture of who the Muslim community really are,” Ahmed reflects.
‘Transient guardians of our history’
Ahmed, the oldest of nine children, was born in Walthamstow in east London, to an Asian-Kenyan mother and a Pakistani father from Wazirabad, which is “affectionately known as the Sheffield of Pakistan because of its stainless-steel industry”, she explains.
Her motivation “to do something” to document and share Britain’s tapestry of heritage has always been there, she says.
“It came from the convergence of my parents’ stories from my childhood of their lives growing up in Pakistan and Kenya, their early lives, and experience of making a home in Britain.”
Growing up in an intergenerational household of siblings, “some of whom are around 15 to 20 years younger than me”, made her realise “we are all but, transient guardians of our history”.
Through building these intergenerational connections, of shared photographs and the stories behind them, conversations were started which may never otherwise have happened. Ahmed discovered that, unless probed, many people chose not to share the details of their early life in the UK, the struggles and the sacrifices.
“I don’t think it was necessarily a sense of shame or a lack of pride, but something that just isn’t spoken about. Everyone is so busy with their day to day chores and responsibilities, histories might only be shared in passing, but not in-depth or documented,” she says.
Oral history projects, like Ahmed’s, allow younger generations to better understand some of the “complex choices” early migrants faced.
One example is the creation of prayer spaces and mosques. The post-war generation may have “arrived from Muslim majority countries, creating a community that developed from nothing”, Ahmed says, “but it didn’t mean that they were Islamic scholars, architects or designers”.
That came later, through the next generation of Muslims, who, among other things, questioned the limited space for women’s prayer areas that were created by the first wave of Muslim migration, and have redesigned mosques of today with inclusivity.
The birth of an archive
Ahmed’s ultimate goal is to create a museum or “museum-style” learning space, but she realised there was a more immediate need to create something “more tangible” that has “historical significance”.
And so EMHAI was born.
“Archives are what a legacy is built on, and these are what my community were missing. I soon realised that the archives are our legacy.”
So far, Ahmed has recorded 112 oral histories, a series of recorded interviews that document and collect memories and personal commentaries of historical significance.
“When we started, it was difficult, it would take weeks and months to get people to agree to an interview. And to explain to them what it would entail and why we’re doing this.”
Ahmed started by interviewing friends and family, and then the project grew through word of mouth and social media, which has meant she can “connect to a wider audience”.
Before the COVID pandemic, Ahmed or one of her 10 volunteers – who are all trained in interview techniques – would usually speak to the contributors in the comfort of their own home.
“We have a whole process. It’s not just walk into someone’s house, do an interview and walk out again. It’s something that you have to have emotional involvement in, you have to be emotionally present,” she explains.
Some interview set-ups can take weeks or months. “There was one time where we were trying to get a photograph from someone. And just to get that photograph, it took us 18 months.”
A template is used to ensure everyone is asked a similar set of questions, with room for individual stories. Each interview takes just more than an hour.
Recurring themes include “everyday” subjects like fashion, work, education, racism, food and faith.
“… It’s about being a person who happens to be Muslim,” she says. “It’s about setting that person, their experience in the context of British history, showing how we live our lives.”
One of those interviewed was 50-year-old Rakin Fetuga, one half of the hip-hop group Mecca2Medina. He says the only part Islam played in his childhood home in London’s Notting Hill during the 1970s, was a picture of Mecca on his living room wall. For him, being Nigerian and British came first; being Muslim came later.
Fetuga believes parents must teach their children history at home rather than relying solely on schools. He cites the stories of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Harriet Tubman, but he also says the history of being African in 1970s’ Britain must also be taught.
“We need to teach our children that when we came here in the 70s on the doors it said ‘no Blacks, no Irish, no dogs’. They need to understand the history because the children growing up today in the classroom, you say something, they’re like ‘That’s racist’. I say to them, ‘Excuse me, you don’t even know what racist is’.”
EMHAI has created three archives including the first British collection of stories and memories of the Black, African and Afro-Caribbean (BAAC) Muslim community in London.
Launched in 2017, Ahmed wanted to “reflect the diversity of the Muslim community” in Britain, and says Black British Muslims are often overlooked within the Muslim community. “The diversity of what Black Muslim means needs to be understood and taught.”
She hopes to create more focussed projects on different communities, like the Somali and Nigerian communities, but does not have the funding for it at the moment.
Ahmed’s work has inspired others to collect and curate their own histories.
“That’s what I really wanted Everyday Muslim to be, to inspire others to do this,” she explains. “Because it’s not just one person’s job, one organisation’s job, it’s definitely a community responsibility. And it’s taken some time to get to a point where people are beginning to realise the value of their stories.”
Not expecting to stay
The EMHAI archives are a collection of video or audio oral history interviews, transcripts, photographs, documents and ephemera and are partially catalogued and archived in locations across the UK, including Bishopsgate Institute and Vestry House Museum.
We Weren’t Expecting to Stay, is another of its collections. This one documents the lives of Britain’s largest Muslim group – south Asians from 1950 to 2015.
Many early migrants believed their time in Britain would be short-lived, with ideals to save money and return “home”. But with more job opportunities and better salaries in the UK, single men soon brought their families to join them.
“Their families joined them and their children were born in the UK, making this their ‘home’. They started to feel more settled and integrated here. They valued the justice system, meritocracy, and equality that the UK offered them,” says Sundas Ali, the co-author of Identity, Belonging & Citizenship in Urban Britain and lecturer in Politics and Sociology at the Oxford University.
In We Weren’t Expecting to Stay, colourful photo galleries capture moments – from births and children’s parties to young men dressed in their finest posing beside famous London landmarks.
Halal chickens and Jewish butchers
Food is a common theme that weaves through the archives, with many mentioning the difficult quest to find halal meat in 1960s’ Britain.
One interviewee remembers receiving parcels of it sent to his west London home from Bradford where there was a more established Muslim community. Another recalls a kind Jewish butcher in east London who allowed Muslims space to slaughter chickens on Sundays.
“Through hearing the stories from the project, I appreciate how we can take everyday decisions or actions for granted, such as buying halal meat,” says Ahmed.
“It also made me realise that if such basic experiences are unknown, then there is a disconnect between generations that results in a loss of connection to their culture and heritage.”
With love, from Walthamstow
Another contributor, Nazeea Elahi, 46, tells how her father’s encounter with a London cabbie led to her family settling in Walthamstow.
Fazal Elahi was 36 when he arrived in London from Pakistan, leaving behind his wife and four children aged below 10.
“[My father] had no fixed address to go to [when he arrived at Heathrow in 1963], all he knew was that he had a cousin living somewhere in Bradford. Having no idea where Bradford was in relation to London, my father went to a taxi driver at [Heathrow] airport and requested to be taken to Bradford.
“The taxi driver laughed and said it was too far and to give him an address in London instead. My father replied that he didn’t know anyone in London.
“He asked the driver if he knew a house in London where Pakistani people were living, if so could he drop him there. The taxi driver took him to a house near Queens Road, Walthamstow. That was how my family ended up living in Walthamstow instead of Bradford.”
Mariya bint Rehan, 34, whose parents came from Pakistan’s Punjab region, offers a sensory description of her own childhood memories working in her father’s corner shop. She remembers “a lukewarm strawberry Yazoo straight off the cash and carry floor at the end of a gruelling wait, the sweet smell of cardboard which flooded the shop and the lost taste of a Snickers bar from the 90s”.
Rehan, a writer and illustrator, says the corner shop allowed her father to buy their first family home in Walthamstow, and send his four children to university, forging professions in publishing, law and philanthropy.
After selling his corner shop he went on to own several small businesses including a small property company. While her mother taught English in female prisons and now owns her own haberdashery in north London.
Open all hours corner shops like the one Rehan’s father ran were often used as comedy material for racist “jokes”. But Rehan says she wants to redefine the stereotype, telling EMHAI: “I … want to reclaim the reductive stereotype of the ‘Indian’ corner shop, and its subsequent reinterpretation as noble, ingratiating support characters in someone else’s story.
“I want to replace it with my dad and his resolve in creating a better life for my siblings and I. I’m pleased to say my spine now unfurls in pride over the memories of being the daughter of a remarkable corner shop owner.”
But racist jokes were not all people of Rehan’s father’s generation – and earlier arrivals – had to worry about.
‘Throwing matches’ at women’s hair
Ansari describes how there was an “anti-immigrant sentiment that started to spread among layers of white society, as did racism towards minority ethnic communities, reaching a crescendo in Enoch Powell’s ‘River of Blood’ speech in 1968 in reaction to the arrival of South Asians from East Africa”.
“Residentially concentrated and segregated, South Asian Muslim communities suffered the full force of racism. They were blamed for not integrating into British norms and values,” he adds.
In the 1950s and 60s, Muslims in Britain were largely identified in ethnic rather than religious terms – as Pakistanis, Arabs, Yemenis and Somalis. They experienced systematic marginalisation and rejection in employment, housing and education primarily on grounds of their ethnic heritage, Ansari explains.
This led to “skinhead ‘P***-bashing’ but also violent attacks on mosques. In the changing context of the following decades, the focus of racism shifted and it is arguable that the foundations of today’s Islamophobia were being laid in those decades”.
Navid Akhtar, 54, the founder of Alchemiya, a Muslim content streaming service and a contributor to the archive, recalls his own experiences with racism growing up in 1970s’ Britain.
“To be called a P*** or to be even to be spat on, things like that, you just took it in your stride after a while, you found ways around.
“I can literally remember people spitting on my mother and as well as feeling the emotions of just confusion and anger there was always relief because at the same time hearing that there were people who, because they knew women had oil in their hair, they were literally throwing matches onto their heads.”
Akhtar’s account offers a glimpse into intergenerational conversations that took place as each generation sought to make its own way and formed alternative identities to those who came before.
“My parents were Pakistani [from Kashmir], that was their main identity, they brought that here [to the UK],” says Akhtar, who was born in Paddington where he spent the first few years of his life.
“I often found myself saying to my father you can’t grow Pakistani mangoes in Northern Europe, which is what you’re trying to do.”
Busses, beer and boiled eggs
Others recall less harrowing experiences.
Ghulam Haider, 87, arrived on a scholarship in 1957 to pursue his MSc in engineering at Imperial College in London. He returned to Gujranwala in Pakistan’s Punjab province after graduation and worked for Pakistan Petroleum before returning to the UK in 1962 to continue his career in civil engineering, building roads and bridges.
He remembers staying at a hotel in London’s Russell Square when he first arrived, and receiving an alternative education from his English mentor at the time. “He showed me how to ride a bus … He also took me to a pub and said ‘you don’t have to order beer … you can order orange juice’.”
On learning that Haider did not eat bacon, he advised him to “stick to boiled eggs”.
“And that’s what I did,” Haider recalls. “For a long time, everywhere I used to just order boiled eggs.”
Haider has lived a comfortable life in the UK, but his was far from the experience of many.
Fatimah Amer, a historical researcher focusing on social and minority histories in the UK, says her father, who had graduated top of his class at Cairo University and worked in different government departments, moved to London from Egypt in 1970 “in the hope of pursuing his studies”.
But “soon the burden of rent and bills took its toll” so he started looking for a job.
“At a time when prejudice and discrimination was still rife his qualifications and experience meant nothing in the UK and he resorted to searching for employment amidst the small Egyptian community,” Amer explains.
He found work in the catering industry, initially in the first-class restaurant carriage on British Rail – where he met Amer’s mother – and later in five-star hotels on London’s Park Lane.
“In the midst of trying to build a life here in England my father says he never stopped dreaming of one day going back into education, the reason he came to England in the first place,” she says.
“In 1993, he received the master’s degree he had come to England for, 23 years after he first arrived.”