LONDONERS AT HOME: The Way We Live Now
Anglo-Bangladeshi Londoners -
Dean Cooper and Sameera Asad Cooper
Back (l to r): Dean Cooper, his wife, Sameera Asad Cooper, and her father, Dr Mohammad Asadullah
Front (l to r): Their children, Bay, Cosmo and Hero
Date of photography: 27th December 2017
With around 70% of the UK’s 600,000 Bangladeshis living in the capital, ’British Bengalis’ have been a significant minority in London since the 1970’s. Most second-generation Bengalis have integrated, many have prospered, and the third generation will doubtless make further advances. Bengalis own and manage 90% of the UK’s curry houses, employ over 150,000 people, and add £4.5 billion annually to the UK economy. Unsurprisingly, talented and enterprising Bengalis have risen in prominence, and not just in the curry business; they have become famous names in politics, industry, science, media, culture and sport. Sameera has an English husband, Dean, and is a good example of a modern Bengali - a successful professional, she is also the mother of three delightful children. Having grown up in a medical family in the provinces, Sameera moved to London and fell in love with it. She and Dean still enjoy their metropolitan life so when the discussion turns to Brexit, Sameera observes: “We live in a complex, interconnected world and we must try to understand these complexities. I welcome open borders and the freedom to travel without suspicion.” The Home Office takes a contrary view: the creation of its infamous ‘hostile environment’ for immigration causes endless problems for Bengali restaurateurs, struggling to recruit new culinary talent from the mother country.
The statistics for 2015 show that there are approximately 600,000 Bangladeshis living in the UK and, of these, around 70% live in the capital. Sometimes referred to as ‘British Bengalis’, they have been a significant minority in London since the 1970’s and, unfortunately, they have often been placed amongst those ethnic groups that are perceived as struggling with integration. Several decades later, this label is now being applied to some of the latest immigrants, the Romanians, Bulgarians and Syrians. While many of London’s Bangladeshi settlers continue to live in Tower Hamlets - Brick Lane, the heart of the Bengali community, is now known colloquially as ‘Banglatown’ - growing prosperity has enabled many British Bengalis to disperse to other parts of London, including the boroughs of Westminster, Camden and Newham, taking with them their vibrant markets and the all-important balti and curry houses.
Second-generation, British-born Bangladeshis now occupy numbers of important political, cultural, professional and economic positions; in particular, the NHS relies heavily on the many, well-trained doctors and surgeons who were at one time encouraged to emigrate to Britain. Bangladeshis represent the UK’s largest, non-European ethnic minority but they are also the country’s youngest and fastest growing community. While, overall, they continue to suffer the highest rates of poverty amongst any UK ethnic group, many families have prospered and amassed significant wealth. Most Bangladeshis are Muslims and they cherish and maintain their religion, culture and traditions, yet their youngsters, girls as well as boys, achieve educational standards notably higher than second and third generation immigrants from Pakistan, where a potent cultural conservatism is often strongly in evidence.
It is also interesting to observe that, despite early prejudice to the contrary, second and third generation Bangladeshis intermarry readily with other ethnicities and seem to integrate with greater ease than some other Muslim groups. To explore further the experience of integration, I was delighted to be invited to the north-east London home of the Anglo-Bangladeshi family of Sameera Asad Cooper, her English husband, Dean Cooper, and their children, Cosmo (aged12), Hero (aged 10) and Bay (aged 8). Sameera’s father, Dr Mohammad Asadullah, who still lives in Essex, kindly agreed to take part in the photography and to be interviewed as well.
Although Sameera’s family were Muslim, like most Bengalis, they were very much what we might think of as liberal and secular; while by no means exceptional, they were not perhaps the most typical Bangladeshi family settling in London. Both Dr Mohammad Asadullah and his wife were doctors of medicine, arriving to Britain at a time when there was an acute shortage of medics in our NHS hospitals. While they themselves came from Dhaka, the great majority of Bengali immigrants came from the Sylhet region on the country’s eastern border, a region central to Bangladesh’s economy and politics, and renowned for its food and curry industry. Most could be described as economic migrants in the true sense, usually quite poor, and often illiterate (especially the women); once in London, the only option for them was to accept low-paid, unskilled jobs in small factories and workshops, especially in the ‘rag trade’, though increasingly employment opportunities were offered by the Bangladeshi restaurants that were spreading across London with extraordinary speed. Nowadays, 90% of the balti and curry houses we see are Bangladeshi-owned.
Sameera herself has an open, welcoming personality and she radiates confidence; she has an obvious sense of style; and she speaks with astonishing clarity. I asked her to tell me something about herself. “Milan, I am technically a first-generation, UK Bangladeshi, but only just! I was actually born in Bangladesh, in Dhaka, the capital, in 1972, but after only 28 days, my parents left the ‘mother country’ for good and brought me with them to settle in Britain.” 1972 was a significant year in Bangladeshi history: following the War of Independence, or Liberation War, the country (then called 'East Pakistan') split away from the larger West Pakistan and became the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. The Provisional Government of Bangladesh was formed on 17 April 1971, and the majority of states in membership of the United Nations recognised Bangladesh as a sovereign nation in 1972.
“During the War of Independence, my parents were living and working in Saudi Arabia, together with my elder sister - they were practising there as medical doctors - and the storm of violence that rained down back home had a deep and serious effect on them, becoming the determining factor in their decision to settle in Britain. After our arrival here, we moved several times, mostly in the south of England, as my parents pursued posts in provincial hospitals, so I had to change my infants’ school a number of times. But then, when I was 6, my father got a significant appointment in a hospital in Durham, so our family moved north. My mother secured an appointment too, as a Community Paediatrician, but she always found the time to take an active interest in my and my sister’s education. I went to a primary school in Durham, progressing at 11 to what was a Church of England foundation, the Durham High School for Girls. My parents were fluent English speakers, they had very much of an international outlook on the world, and thus they integrated quite easily into the local neighbourhood favoured by other professionals. Durham was certainly not a provincial backwater: it boasted an ancient monastic, ecclesiastical tradition and a magnificent cathedral; it was home to the third-oldest university in England, after Oxford and Cambridge; and it consequently attracted many foreign students. But Milan, to be honest, I have to admit that although I was not the only Bengali in the whole of my school, there were not a great many other Asians, certainly no more than one per class - this was itself unusual for the time and probably because many Asian doctors sent their daughters to this all-girls private school - a good education was what my parents and their peers prioritised. Anyway, I was bright, keen and a fast learner and I did love my school.”
I asked Sameera if she had ever experienced any discrimination, for having darker skin, for being an obvious and exotic outsider: “No,” she replied, “I really don’t remember any incidence of my suffering discrimination.” At this point, her father, Dr Asadullah, adds: “Yes, at that time, though we were amongst the few dark-skinned familes in the place, my wife and I were professionals and as doctors, we enjoyed the respect extended to that profession. With a laugh, he recalls one memorable event: “My wife always wore the traditional sari and I do remember that once, when she was at the optician’s and had to repeat the letters on the eye test chart, they asked her if she was able to read! As she was an experienced doctor, this was somewhat surprising, and while we found the incident amusing, it did annoy my wife quite a lot; she would mention it every so often over the years, so she must have been offended.” It is true that many people in Britain assumed that women from the Indian sub-continent were illiterate and, though some of them were, a great many were not.
Six year later, during 1988, the family moved again, this time it was back down south, to the outskirts of London. As was still quite common in those days, after some years spent in hospital-based medicine, Dr Asadullah and his wife decided to join a GP practice, where for 25 years, until their retirement, they loyally attended to hundreds if not thousands of patients. Dr Asadullah interjects: “I remember those years with great fondness. Just by surveying our waiting room, we saw how the population of London was gradually changing as the years went by, becoming more and more diverse. We never felt that we were in a foreign country; we always saw ourselves as an integral part of society here. As well as our work, we had a great social life; we made lots of friends and, not surprisingly, some of them were Bengali medics too, including old friends from Dhaka Medical College.”
Sameera continued: “Arriving to London felt like a huge cultural change; in a single journey, I had travelled the road from Durham right into the Metropolis! Milan, I immediately felt that I belonged here. As soon as we’d settled in, we started to take full advantage of being in London. And even as a young girl, I was allowed to enjoy my independence: I travelled by Tube; I travelled on the buses; I explored London as much as I could; and I found it all very exciting. I really loved London, and its diversity, but I also loved the pace of life in London - so much goes on, both day and night.”
Sameera continued her education at a rather special school, The City of London School for Girls, an institution founded on the sound principles of a broad and liberal education, with an appropriate emphasis on academic achievement. She did well, but instead of pursuing a career in Medicine, a common occurrence amongst the children of doctors, Sameera felt more of a leaning towards the creative arts than the physical sciences and these inclinations were to shape significantly her future working life.
Sameera studied for four years at the distinguished University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (UMIST) taking a specialised degree in Clothing Engineering and Management, an unusual course that covered the development of clothing from a technical perspective. The course also contained a strong Fashion component, as well as practical modules that involved real work experience in the industry itself. Sameera graduated at the age of 23 and, following a short internship at a fashion boutique in London, she secured a significant appointment at the fashion designer, Paul Smith, in Nottingham. “So, I moved back up north once more, though not quite so far this time, and at Paul Smith, I took over responsibility for Italian menswear manufacturing. As you could imagine, I had to travel quite a bit, spending a lot of my time in Italy, and that is there I met my husband to be, Dean Cooper - at that time, he was also working for Paul Smith. Two years later, we both decided on a change of jobs and moved back south again, back to London, and here we are still - we’ve continued to live in the area we settled in then.”
On returning to London, Sameera worked on product design for a number of leading fashion houses, while also freelancing for others. As many professional women choose to do, she also took time out to have her three children - she and Dean have a son, Cosmo, who is 12, together with two delightful daughters, Hero, aged 10, and Bay, aged 8. All the children are evidently doing well at their respective schools and Mother is at present actively helping them while they are preparing to take critical entrance examinations. Sameera is also taking time to explore her passion for cooking, specifically the modern reinterpretation of her mother’s traditional Bengali recipes, in the hope that this might in time evolve into a new business. Sameera says: “I have a good foundation in Fashion, and extensive practical experience in the field of product design, so I can always do some freelance work while I am developing the cookery side of things. I see cooking as another side of my creative self.”
This article is primarily about Bangladeshi migration to London but Dean is now very much in the picture, in more ways than one, so I take the liberty of asking him some questions too.
Dean is a senior executive in a major fashion house with a global presence, clearly a very successful man. Nevertheless, he comes across as a gentle, kindly father with an unpretentious, open personality; he is one of the most delightful men I have had the pleasure to interview. “Milan, my background is somewhat less exotic than Sameera’s. I was born in Nottingham, into a completely unexceptional English working-class family but a family with a strong work ethic. I completed my primary and secondary education locally and didn’t feel any need to pursue my schooling any further; instead, I got my first job in the Fashion Sales Department at Paul Smith, in the company’s Nottingham headquarters, and I loved it.”
Dean is one of those people who are splendid examples of how you could, in days gone by, develop a successful professional career without a university education and, happily, without the disadvantage of a millstone of student debt around your neck. With sufficient talent, the right personality, a love of people, hard work and clear vision, Dean has progressed, working over the years for a number of leading fashion brands, including Camper, Burberry, DKNY and Diesel. For a period of time, he also managed his own business. Currently, Dean is Global Commercial Director for a leading fashion house and, though he has to travel extensively, he always looks forward to returning to his home and to the family. “We live in a crazy world these days, but at home, with Sameera and the children, I feel safe. Thankfully, life is good to us.”
Like all immigrants, new settlers can find themselves subject to discrimination and sometimes even physical hostility. Thankfully, Dr Asadullah’s family and, indeed, what is now the Asad Cooper family have never experienced such things. From the very outset, they were able to settle in affluent, middle class areas, where they were mostly surrounded by other professional people and, while xenophobia, just like homophobia, can be found harbouring in all social classes, any such feelings are usually hidden and are rarely given voice in ‘polite society’. By the late 1970’s, parts of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets had become predominantly Bengali. Premises that had, in the past, been mostly occupied by Jewish retailers, gradually metamorphosed into curry houses, sari stores, and Bangladeshi grocers and greengrocers. Most of the new arrivals were poor, spoke little English and were often illiterate in their own tongue; they were thus unable to secure anything other than unskilled or semi-skilled work. As East London had also remained home to a large number of poor white families, whose educational attainments and job expectations were not very different, resentment towards the new arrivals, who were seen as competing for work and housing, became a major problem. This was, after all, the very area where, in the 1930’s, Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts had organised frequent attacks on an earlier wave of immigrants, the Jewish settlers. In Bethnal Green, the anti-immigration British National Party (BNP) were on the march again during the 1970’s and the easily identified Bangladeshis were frequently subject to attack. On 4th May 1978, Altab Ali, a young Bangladeshi textile worker, was murdered by three local teenage boys in Whitechapel. A few days later, over 7,000, mostly Bengali, people demonstrated against the violence that had been inflicted on their community. This was arguably a turning point and this shocking homicide effectively welded the community together and the BNP’s attempted inroads were stopped. In that context, it is therefore particularly shocking to note that following the recent acts of jihadi terrorism in London, and elsewhere in the UK, there has been a marked inflammation of xenophobia, now exacerbated by Brexit - London Muslims, and specifically Bangladeshis, have been subject to several horrendous ‘revenge’ attacks.
Having mentioned the UK Referendum of June 2016 and the majority decision to exit from the EU, I took the courage to ask Dr Asadullah what were his feelings about Brexit and how he imagined London would be after the impending ‘divorce’ from Europe. The doctor reflected for a moment and observed: “Milan, I didn’t feel that our exit from the EU is likely to affect me much personally. My own country is part of the Commonwealth and the bonds between the nations of the Commonwealth are still strong and deep. Of course, I do understand that in future, for travelling to Europe, something I do quite often, I might have to have a visa but I don’t see Brexit as the end of the world that so many people seem to fear. I believe that we will continue to coexist with one other, and that we will remain very much a part of Europe, despite the fact that we have departed the EU and the water still separates us. Just consider how many Brits live in Spain and, indeed, in France. They obviously love life in Europe and that feeling is unlikely to change. Britain will remain what it is, Europe will remain what it is, and who knows, in 20 years’ time, we might decide to join again. Overall, I see the British people as extremely tolerant; it is only the few who are not.”
Sameera was keen to share with me her own view of Brexit: “Milan, I feel a real sadness. For me, diversity and living in a vibrant, dynamic, multi-racial, multi-cultural city is very important. I felt that too many citizens, when ticking the ‘Leave’ box on the ballot paper, did not take a sufficiently broad view. Our relationship with the EU is a complex matter and taking the broad view was not only desirable but also essential. We live in a complex, interconnected world and it is important to try to understand these complexities. I welcome open borders and the freedom to travel unimpeded and without suspicion. Recently, I returned from a trip to the US and what was once a relatively painless entry procedure has now become a stressful, hostile and most unpleasant welcome, if you could call it a welcome at all.” I asked if she feared that London would change once we had left the EU and raised the drawbridge to our little island. “No, not really. I don’t think London will change that much. From time immemorial, it has been such a mixed bag, such a melting pot of peoples from all over Europe and the whole, wide world that, regardless of whether the latest newcomers were loved or hated, these settlers became locals themselves as the years passed by; they simply melded into this wonderful city of ours. London has an international outlook and I dearly wish that the same could be said about most of the rest of the country.”
As with all earlier waves of immigration, the majority of second-generation British Bengalis have integrated, many of them have prospered, and the third generation will doubtless make further advances. The Bengalis who own and manage 90% of the UK’s curry houses, and the associated ‘curry industry’, employ over 150,000 people, and add over £4.5 billion to the UK economy every year. In London’s Brick Lane alone, there are almost 60 Bangladeshi-owned curry houses and, like much of the rest of London’s vast catering industry, these are the establishments that will be hardest hit by an increasingly tough, xenophobic, post-Brexit policy on immigration. This policy will obstruct the entry of highly-skilled chefs into the UK and stem the flow of young, hardworking, low-paid restaurant staff, thus slowing down the growth and improvement of this sector of the capital’s vitally important hotel and catering sector.
As might quite reasonably be expected, many talented, enterprising and highly-skilled Bengalis have risen in prominence, not just in the curry business, but have become well-known, occasionally infamous, names in politics, industry, science, media, culture and sports. Amongst the politicians, Lutfur Rahman was the first directly elected mayor of Tower Hamlets, while Rushanara Ali is a prominent Labour Party MP and previously Shadow Minister for International Development. Baroness Uddin was the the first Bangladeshi and Muslim woman to enter the House of Lords, while Dr Muhammad Abdul Bari was Secretary General of the all-influential Muslim Council of Britain, a post now held by another Bengali, Harun Rashid Khan.
In culture, in the field of dance and choreography, Akram Khan is now an artist of international repute, as is the pianist, Zoe Rahman, and the vocalists Suzana Ansar and Sohini Alam. In the media, Lisa Azzis, Nina Hossain, Tasmin Lucia Khan and Syed Ahmed are all well-established, while in sport, professional footballer, Answar Uddin, is a well-known personality, not forgetting the kickboxing champion of Bangladeshi descent, Ruqsana Begum, who carried the Olympic torch in 2012.
There are many others, of course, far too many to mention, but the names of most Bangladeshis will remain unknown, of course, just like the host of successful, hardworking people of every other nationality. They are the Bangladeshis who work in hospitals, as GP’s, surgeons, train drivers, mechanics, chefs, accountants, security guards and many other professions; they are the people who help to make this city of ours function day and night, 24/7. Many of them see themselves as proud Londoners but are so often still perceived as outsiders by the indigenous population; being accepted, being someone who belongs, always takes time, often several generations.
I wish to record my thanks to Sameera and Dean for inviting me into their home, and to them and Dr Asadullah too for allowing me to observe, if but briefly, the lives of a family of successful, well-integrated, cosmopolitan Anglo-Bangladeshis, and for letting me share their love of this great, diverse city of ours. Meeting them all was both an honour and a pleasure.
Text edited: 10th February 2018
Page modified: 17th March 2019