Writing Britain Now: Shahnaz Ahsan
My grandfather, or Nana Bhai as we used to call him, always took great pains to make it clear that he was asked to come to Britain in the late 1950s. Post-war Britain needed the workforce – in factories and mills across the country – and it called upon the former colonies for help. The plea was answered by many ex-colonial subjects from the Indian subcontinent and the West Indies who left behind their homes and families to board ships and aeroplanes that would carry them across the world—to Britain. Britain needed Nana Bhai and thousands of others like him to prop up the economy, to work, to pay taxes, to revive floundering industries. It was a point of pride for Nana Bhai.
This version of migration to Britain is familiar to many families living in Britain today, whose forebearers made similar journeys from across the globe. And yet, it’s a depiction that has been steadily erased by the modern, mainstream narrative of immigration in Britain. Ever since Enoch Powell’s infamous 1969 ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech, in which he warned of the collapse of British society under the strains of immigration, British political parties – mainstream and fringe alike – have vied with one another to be seen as being ‘tough’ on immigration—as though toughness is a virtue, the ultimate litmus test of leadership. When confronted with a precarious economy, the dismantling of domestic industries, international conflict, or any number of other policy issues, the political establishment in Britain has consistently focused on immigration as the distraction, if not the cause.
In recent years, the animosity towards migrants has taken an even more toxic slant: an explicitly ‘hostile environment’ has been lauded as the ultimate deterrent against those who wish to make Britain their home. This kind of language celebrates a new normal, where migrants – particularly those of colour – are not seen as humans, but as a problem. Numbers to minimise, rather than people with hopes, talents, aspirations. Rarely, if ever, are positive migration stories publicly acknowledged. The current Covid-19 crisis has brought into stark relief the dependency of the NHS on healthcare professionals from migrant backgrounds, and yet we have yet to hear politicians openly celebrating migration as an asset to British society—even when migrants are saving lives and giving their own lives on the front line.
When immigration is discussed – or used as political football – in Britain today, it is almost never talked about in the context of empire and colonisation. To begin the conversation on immigration at the point of ‘significant numbers of people coming to Britain today’ is to start halfway through the story.
British people must be brought back to the start of the tale: to when British businesses – and then the government itself, with blessings from the monarchy and the church, invaded nations across the globe. They subjugated the people, stealing resources, land and wealth, and imposed an imperial form of government. By the time these colonies were granted their independence – starting with India in 1947 – Britain had already occupied and looted these lands for centuries. It is a natural consequence of colonisation, then, that the descendants of the colonised may go on to seek economic fortune in the nation that once ruled them: Britain. After all, if those made systemically impoverished by colonialism cannot claim reparations from their former oppressors, surely the very least is that they can claim a home and the possibility of security in the land that caused it all.
This was a belief strongly held by my grandparents. My grandmother, Nanu, would say to her children: When people tell you to go back to where you come from, you say to them: when my people have been in this country for centuries, and we’ve taken everything you have, then maybe we’ll ‘go back’. But when her children tried out these retorts, they fell flat; nobody understood what they were talking about. Britain’s collective amnesia regarding the realities of empire is precisely the reason why it has been unable to have a constructive, honest conversation about immigration, to date.
So, where does the reality of migrant experiences exist in Britain today? Such narratives are rarely found in fiction and are only very recently making it into history books as oral testimonies. These personal histories are familiar to those of migrant background, having been handed down through word of mouth across generations: Nanu and Nana Bhai telling my mother, who told me and my sisters, for us to tell our future children. Preserving these experiences in this way is important; the art of oral storytelling in South Asian cultures is fundamental to our self-understanding. But the result is that while we may know our histories, does anybody else? These accounts and stories are important and deserve to be known and shared with a wider audience. This was my motivation in writing Hashim & Family.
Hashim & Family is a work of fiction that is inspired by the experiences of my own grandparents who migrated from East Pakistan – now Bangladesh – in the early 1960s. The novel spans twenty years and two generations and shows some of the realities of those early migrant experiences: from having to change their names, to dealing with stares every time they went out in public. The characters, Hashim, Rofikul and Munira find ways to cook their own food with limited ingredients and learn how to deal with the inhospitable winters. They experience the fears of finding fireworks and dog shit pushed through their letterbox. They are embraced by the warmth and generosity of fellow immigrants—and even form lasting friendships with their white neighbours.
Nanu always says that when she first arrived in Manchester in the early Sixties her English neighbours were kind. They looked after her children, recommended where she should do her shopping. They would lend her magazines and marvelled at her English. You talk like the Queen, they giggled, when Nanu would say things like I shall, instead of I will. They made her feel welcome. Within a decade, all that had changed, she says. When I asked her why that was, she answered simply: Enoch Powell. After that, they went from feeling welcome, to feeling hated. Immigrants had become the scapegoat. And, in Nanu’s eyes at least, that was when Britain became racist. Within twenty years of Powell’s speech, Nanu would go on to experience the brutal consequences of racism in the most tragic of ways. In 1986 her thirteen-year-old son, Ahmed, was murdered at school in a racist attack by a fellow pupil. The family went on to demand an inquest, not only into Ahmed’s death but into the prevalence of racism in Manchester schools at the time. Unsurprisingly, the inquest revealed the shocking levels of racism that went unchecked within the British education system.
Nanu was determined that her son’s death would not be in vain. She founded a school in her home village in Bangladesh, sourcing the land, paying for construction, and overseeing the design and building herself. Today the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Memorial High School is one of the top schools in the region. I asked her why she chose to start a project in Bangladesh rather than in Britain. Because I was so angry with Britain, was her response. The country she had made her home had taken away her son. She did not want to focus her energies in such a place. Years passed and Nanu’s remaining children grew up. Grandchildren were born. Britain was – and is – still their home. Nanu decided that it was time to ensure Ahmed’s legacy in this country too. Working with the University of Manchester, Nanu oversaw the creation of a special library collection focused on the study of race, migration and ethnic diversity. The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre is housed in Manchester Central Library and hosts an archive including oral histories and testimonies from migrant communities in Manchester and beyond.
Visiting the archive today, I am conscious of its importance – not only in commemorating a life lost due to racism – but also in ensuring that migrant histories and experiences are preserved, recognised, and validated. These personal accounts form as much a part of British history as the battles we memorised in school, the names of kings and queens, the momentous events of the past, and yet risk being erased from the books. Like so many descendants of migrants, my past has until now been passed down through family anecdotes. Writing Hashim & Family was my way of popularising such experiences through fiction; just as founding the school and archive were Nanu’s way of preserving her experiences and those of so many like her.
An extract from Hashim & Family
After four months Hashim had grown fond of the red brick of the city, the flashes of colour providing welcome respite from the relentless grey of the clouds overhead, the grey fumes of the factories, and the grey of the roads beneath him. And everything seemed greyer still because of the constant rain that never seemed to fall with any conviction, but instead feebly pattered down from the sky. He could get used to the cold, he had decided. But it was the dreariness that weighed him down, the absence of any hint of greenery. Still, though, there were certain elements of daily life that he had warmed to, and the clattering of the milk-cart over the cobbles before sunrise became a familiar background noise as he washed for dawn prayer, splashing icy water into his face. As he spread out his threadbare prayer rug on to the nondescript carpet of the shared bedroom, Hashim felt a sense of comfort enfold him as he murmured the holy words his father had taught him. Some of the other men he lived with also prayed regularly, though most were a little lax, missing a few prayers in the middle of the day by necessity – factory hours were not built around the ever-changing prayer times – but they did not seek to make them up once they were home. Hashim privately tried to compensate for his missed prayers, doubling up the foregone noon and afternoon prayers with the one at sunset. He wasn’t sure if this was a legitimate practice, but he hoped that Allah would be understanding of his predicament.
His new housemates were, for the most part, jovial and welcoming, although he had concluded that Atiq’s apparent surliness was not reserved just for Hashim, but was simply the way Atiq preferred to communicate. Aside from Rofikul and Atiq, there were about eight others, many of whose names and faces all seemed to blur into one generic pool. These housemates worked further out of the city, usually on night shifts, so his path rarely crossed theirs. But among the dozen or so grown men there was a distinct sense of homeliness, for which Hashim was grateful. There was a system, not codified by rules, but one in which everyone seemed to know his part. There were the shoppers who took care of the groceries, and the cooks who ensured there was always a steaming pan of something delicious and filling left on the stove, even for the night workers when they arrived back in the early morning after the milkman had been and gone. The cleanliness left a little to be desired, not due to any lack of individual effort, but simply the result of having almost a dozen adult men living in a space meant for half that number. But still, there was always company and warmth, and despite the shabby decor and the peeling linoleum, Hashim felt settled into his new home.
Work was a different matter. On his first day Hashim had tried to introduce himself to the foreman, a dour-faced man of about fifty whose skin looked as though someone had hewn over it with a rake.
‘Good morning, sir. My name is Hashim.’ He said it exactly as he had rehearsed in front of the cracked mirror in the pantry that morning, razor in hand, with Mamun or Ilyas or one of the other housemates banging on the door yelling for him to get a move on. The foreman had glared at him.
‘And . . .?’
Hashim faltered. ‘Today is my first day . . .’
‘So what, you want a special announcement, do you? ’Ere – Ray!’ He bellowed at Rofikul and motioned for him to come over. ‘This that cousin of yours you was chewing my ear off about?’
Rofikul nodded. ‘Yessir, this is my cousin, Harry – you can call him Harry.’
Hashim shifted his glance from the foreman towards Rofikul and raised an eyebrow. Ray? Harry? What was this, did he now have to change his name too?
‘Right, well, show ’im where ’is overalls are and set to work – you know where he’s meant to be. Jones can give him t’walkaround and then put ’im on the bagging line, would you?’
‘Yessir.’ Rofikul – or Ray as he was now apparently known – nodded and dragged Hashim over to the hooks and benches where other workers were already changing into their overalls.
‘Harry? So I’m Harry now?’
‘You think they can manage Hashim? It’s just easier for them to remember; they won’t say much to you anyway, it’s just in case they need to get your attention for something.’
Hashim said nothing, but his turned back as he changed into the dark work clothes radiated annoyance.
Rofikul watched as Hashim struggled to get the hair net over his slightly large head. ‘Here, let me help you.’
‘How can you let them call you what they want? Why an English name?’
‘Look, Hashim, there are a hundred other things you’ll need to worry about living here. I’m telling you, what people call you is the least of your worries. At least Harry is actually a name. Better than “darkie” or “ey you” or worse. So just shut your mouth and get on with it. Harry.’
And so Harry learned to get on with it.
Shahnaz Ahsan was born and raised in Keighley, West Yorkshire, and is of Bangladeshi heritage. An award-winning writer of short stories, she holds degrees from the University of Oxford, the University of Bradford and the University of Pennsylvania, where she was a Thouron Award scholar. She has lived in London, Philadelphia and Addis Ababa, but her flattened northern vowels remain victorious.
Hashim & Family, her debut novel, is published by John Murray.