Sara Bonfanti: “Back to the navel… down and out in Brent and Southall”

The post goes through the author’s second ethnographic fieldwork in Greater London last February, giving voice to the people met (mostly British South Asians living north and west of the City) and their accounts of the home experience. Keywords: memory and belonging; civic engagement and estrangement.



by Sara Bonfanti


Three months after my first Homing trip to metropolitan London, in search of the south Asian buzz (almost everywhere in odd ratio), there I was again… it was high time to experience the progressive sense of place, now that my embodied memory made some environs home-like to me and that I longed to reap local  narratives on inhabiting such suburbs.

In Brent (a mild super-diverse district, the core of Hindu Asian immigration, with a recent rise in Muslim Asians), my British Sri Lankan friend put me up again for some nights, apologizing for the noise that might disturb me in the wee hours. Upstairs, she has hosted for over a month a young couple from Tamil Nadu, South India, who were still struggling with short term unqualified jobs and seeking for a cheap long term rent. On the fridge shelves in the kitchenette we shared, open jars with chutney smelled rotten, fresh chilies added daily didn’t play the trick; that food ‘still life’ sketched time passing-by as the newly arrived tried to settle in the city, with much aspiration and obvious setbacks.

Ph.1_ The Islamic College in Brent


Callings from the Prophet

Despite my landlady’s warning, daunted with a perceived Islamification of her neighborhood (a faith and an imagined community for which she felt an irrational mistrust), I could not resist the temptation to ring the doorbell of the Islamic College in Willesden. That institute emanated a magnetic attraction, set in a converted building that used to be an Anglican Church: a large red-brick block dating back to the XVIIIc, closed in 1983, gone to auction and then revamped –according to a modernist Islamic architecture- to host the Islamic College, the most accredited venue of Shi’ia scholarship in the UK.

Soaked from tip to toe, with an improvised headscarf over my head, I entered the hall under a Moorish gateway, trying to formulate at best my plea for some research aid. The young man at the reception sat motionless, while a young woman, who was busy hoovering, broke the ice and suggested I could see the librarian on the first floor.


Ph.2_Reading suggestions from the librarian’s personal shelf


Learning about British Islam(s)

Behind his desk, Mr. Hamadi, a middle aged man born in Iran and educated in the US, was more than willing to supply me with as much information as he could: on the institute and the local area, on his life story and homemaking in England. He scooped a list of books indispensable to understand the inner complexity of British Islam, “From Medina to Najaf” ranked first, as soon as I clarified my interests in the Pakistani community and my next transfer to Birmingham. After a long conversation, patronizing that in their venue I needn’t cover my head unless for true religious piety (but I’d better not shake hands as a formula for introduction), Mr. Hamadi exceeded any expectation. With a few phone calls, he recruited for me four possible interviewees, among the cohort of college students and employees. That day, I went back and forth three times to the premise, under the gaze evermore snooping of the receptionists.

Who could ever imagine that a bunch of perfect strangers, diverse in age, gender, background and prospects, whose only bond was attending that Muslim Shi’a college (thus overall evidence of a selected middle class), would eagerly line up to quench the thirst for knowledge of a meek ethnographer coming from Italy and jumbling over the basics of Islam?

Alina and Zinat, in their early twenties, embody the multiple contradictions of being and acting as Muslim women today in the West. It’s about midday, we sit in the refectory and they take out their homemade mid-eastern lunch boxes, yellow peas and bulgur still steaming. Being Al-zuhr Salat time, the two girls take turns: while one converses with me, the other heads for the prayer room to accomplish her ritual duty. The hijab they both wear (flowery the first, black the latter) marks at once their similarity and difference. Alina is born Pakistan, grown up in London where her parents are well-off bankers. The Persian rugs she boasts about in their de-luxe four bedroomed house ignite her fantasy to ‘go back to Iran’: a spiritual homeland she visited as a pilgrim, a home-utopia with no relations to return to. Much bolder Alina is close to Zinat, who claims an Irani ancestry but was born in London and, despite her shy attitude (she even compels me to move to another corner when peers enter the room), is assertive about Britain being her home in all respects. Though reporting occasional stares and remarks on public transport (the niqab she wears looks sterner than her friend’s attire), she wouldn’t see her future in an Arab country, but in a liberal one where she can feel comfortable and safe. The centimeters of fabric rounding up or down these young Muslim women’s guise go topsy-turvy in their aspirations for fitting in society and making themselves at home, in the UK or elsewhere. Paradoxically, the more conspicuous one’s Muslim feminine look, the less riled her feeling at home in London.


Ph.3_Hijab as a consumption item in multipurpose small stores

Not surprisingly, among all those I interviewed through the Islamic college, religious belonging, Muslim identification in fact, stood out as the key issue behind their homing in the UK.

Salim and Hassan were my next two interlocutors. Salim is a British Indian man in his sixties. Born in Kolkata, he has spent all his adult life in London, without ever questioning feeling at home, both here and there. Now retired, he enjoys advancing his knowledge of Arabic and reading the Prophet’s writings. There he stands, with a copy of the Hadith’s folded in his hand. When he talks about ‘home-politics’, he draws a comparison between the Subcontinent and the UK: considering India’s timely ostracism towards Muslims, he admits that the UK Government Policy does accommodate Islam, in spite of frictions in everyday social relations. Since personally he’s never had problems with being a Muslim in London, he concludes, to his own surprise, that after all Britain is the home he would never leave, and India the home he will never return to.

Hassan’s history is quite different, yet it resonates with Salim’s accounts. A Pakistani born just turned forty, who benefitted of a high skilled immigration visa (he and his wife, self-arranged married, earned each a PhD in Britain, in Business Law and Education), Hassan’s attachment to the UK as a devout Muslim is indisputable. On one side “Islam teaches you to be loyal to the country you live in”, on the other “home is the perfect place to have your rights”. While he insists on giving his young kids a good home education and a global exposure, he reports how he called in the forensic police to solve a mysterious xenophobic attack. In fact, a Polish neighbor roguishly kept on spitting on Hassan’s motorbike parked in front of his terraced house in Hounslow: CCTV cameras reveled the misdeed, whatever reason behind such offence is still pending in the Court. In/tolerance in the neighborhoods may take many shades, diversity and respect are more complex than preached.


Ph.4_Graffiti in Brent: diversity building(s) for social cohesion?



Changing clothes and confident dressing

Not being Brent an enclave, but a plural and dynamic district, the day after, I popped into the local public library, and found a garrulous British Indian woman, who was entertaining young kids with a whooping narrative performance. By the time mothers came to pick up their young ones, I had arranged an appointment with that master teller. The unpretentious book reader came to our meeting late and transfigured. Taken off her plain grey uniform, she was wearing a shiny pink saris, hardly covered with a blouse to fight off the cold wind, and had loosened her long black and white locks upon her shoulders; meticulous make up, tiny facial beads and a red bindi on her forehead revealed her next commitment. Janna was on her way to the nearby Hindu Temple, where celebrations were held for Maha Shiva Ratri, the Day of Lord Shiva, worshipped for drinking a most powerful poison (which turned his skin blue) and thus saving humankind from sure death. Janna partakes in the sizeable Gujrati community that moved to London after India’s Independence, and she recounts her home shifts with a literary flair. From the shock of using her first WC toilet at age eight, when her parents took her to a UK flat from their village hut covered with cow poo. Through the years spent in Ontario, Canada with her husband (an Indian twice migrant from Kenya) where they suffered racial abuse. To their return back to London, where she raised two sons and is now a young, part time working grandmother, whose dining table in Kingsbury draws the cameo of a (post)migrant family home well loved.


Ph.5_ Relics of Commonwealth Style Hostelling

As days went by, following a friend’s recommendation for decent Indian food, I ended up having dinner at YMCA, the Indian Youth Hostel in central London, whose décor and management smell stale and twirl back to its heyday in the Sixties. Over a homely rice curry, long term guests, mostly (under)graduates from south Asia who are struggling to remain in the country, lower their voice when they advise each other cheaper accommodation in Newham, Tower Hamlets or the ultimate London’s ‘Little India’.


Ph.6_ The Color(s) of Change. Shopping low cost in Little India


Southall 3.0

Southall is just a train ride away. Daily commuting on Tata connections, I go back strolling along the Green and the Broadway, and I stop by where I anticipate local people are engaged in continuous homemaking. It’s a leap of faith, but I’ve learnt that, in the Sikhi ethos, volunteering for the community is a principle effectively led into practice. The last time I was here, I felt the overwhelming majority of Sikhism in the area; now, I could appreciate the social diversification of its locals and working class throbs. Shopping in Iceland, the lowest-cost supermarket in the UK, I mingled with customers diverse in looks, idioms and food picks, but joint under the Union Jack thru their little purchasing power. Moreover, I realized the inner change of the Sikh population that historically built the place, keeping in tension betterment and reproduction of one’s home. My visits began and ended at the Dominion Library Centre, between parochialism and cosmopolitanism: one morning senior citizens (formerly twice migrants from East Africa) came together to share their memories; one afternoon young people (irrespective of background) crafted art installations to celebrate the New Year in the Chinese calendar. Within a mile radium, I stroke up spellbinding conversations with three resident Sikh men deeply involved in the district’s local policy. Their civic engagement follows from their life histories: personal and community homemaking are deeply entwined.


Ph.7_Gurdwara in Havelock: the persisting bliss of Southall’s ‘Golden Temple’


Singhs’ narratives

Tej greets me in the back office of the Indian Workers’ Association, the longest running and most inclusive Trade Union in Southall. He looks youthful in spite of his sixty plus years of age, most of which lived in London; his short hair well parted on his head, I gulp when he explains to me that, at the time he moved to the UK, the turban was not a convenient icon to walk around in. Times have changed, but he has remained clean-shaven. Since he retired from his factory job, he ran for and was elected Councillor for Ealing. As a Deputy Mayor, he’s overly critic with the housing emergency in the area: overcrowding and rent exploitation affect the latest wave of ‘freshies’, young males and females who keep coming from India to Southall, gullible that their papers will be checked soon and third sector jobs ‘come easy like picking cherries’.

The same concern for keeping the district home-like is shared by Jawal and Naginder: one in his late eighty, the other in his early forty; two different ways of wearing the dastar (turban) and of doing seva, offering one’s service to community benefit.


Ph_8 The Missionary Sikh Resource Centre: targeting third generations?

Jawal was recruited from Panjab to work as a teacher in Southall when the suburb rose, in the early Sixties, in order to cater for the learning needs of the offspring of Panjabi Heathrow officers. His wife passed away, one of his son moved to the US, the sage old man still spends the afternoon in the Sikh Resource Centre, waiting for kids to pop in and eager to teach them Gurmukhi (the script of the Sikh holy text). Education is the refrain he repeats over and over again, rocking on his chair and stroking his white beard: “good homes provide good education, good education fosters good homes”.  According to him, most first gen. immigrants in Southall managed to give quality schooling to their children, now esteemed professionals. Yet, grandchildren often miss out retrieving the legacy of their ancestors’ homeland. Jawal snoozes off downstairs the premise; upstairs a kundalini yoga session takes place: gora (white, converted) Sikh teachers fight off the color line in the name of bodily wellbeing.

Blue turbaned Najinder runs up the stairs in frenzy, his mobile keeps ringing, but, as soon as we get down to debate, he’s impossible to halt. He drifts me to the meeting room in the Park avenue Gurdwara, close to the station, less pompous than the one in Havelock but crowded at all times. Born in Wolverhampton, he moved to Southall as a teenager, when he started “feeling the energy coming from the marches in London” condemning the Sikh Massacre in 1984. (He openly refers to Khalistan, though his patriotism is more about justice and retaliation, Panjabi separatism is a political fiction hard to support). Social activism in the diaspora does not take him to India, but projects him on online platforms demanding for the release of political prisoners. As a Committee member of the local Gurdwara Initiative, he’s passionate about all services that the Sikh establishment has provided for their people, and evermore for everyone resident in town (such as a Khalsa Primary School with a Sikhi curriculum and an intercultural centre Mael Gael open to all).

His quick comments on Southall as a resident by choice are eye-opening: “What does it feel like living here? It’s multicultural and it’s Sikhi, in a word it just feels normal. (….) Southall is my home, is our home. Little India, they say. No, India is our spiritual land. However, since my generation, Britain is our homeland”.


Kaurs’ side narratives?

I rather had enough of all these masculine tales, as inspiring as they could be. South Asian women were visible on the street, in the markets, in the temples, but I hadn’t been able to find a good female interlocutor yet. The chance came when I walked in the headquarters of Des Pardes, the first and most popular Panjabi (Indian) Weekly Newspaper in Britain and Europe.


Ph.9_Office work among Des Pardes Publishing Awards.

Tinted windows protect Rana and Sampreet, an administrative clerk and a journalist at desk, British Indian ladies in their late thirties, stark and uptight, from being gazed upon from outside. They look out through the glass every now and then, while I keep asking questions sat on a worn black sofa, under a spinning fan and a myriad of prizes and plaques hanged on the wall that the newspaper won over the years. Established in 1965 by late Tarsem Singh Purewal, Home Abroad is now the most widely circulated Weekly representing the Punjabi speaking community across the globe. The two employees present me with the journal’s latest issue, as usual displaying the portrait of a Panjabi woman, heavily photo-shopped so that her real face evanesces into a vague feminine allure. The tabloid is entirely written in Panjabi; one rubric only appears in English: matrimonial adverts. Most sound like this: “Parents invite Alliance for unmarried daughter 45/5’-6”, Plastic Surgeon, US citizen working in California. Tall, clean-shaven Sikh gentleman of any profession preferably local or relocatable. E-mail biodata and recent photograph to”. For the Panjabi community to thrive, Panjabi language might be a comfort reading, yet English is evermore the vehicular idiom apt to maintain the diaspora active in establishing new alliances worldwide.


Ph.10_Ealing Women’s Expectations. National Asian Wedding Show in Heathrow

Next door to Des Pardes, I found a hairdresser and beauty parlor. Shattered after the day I climbed up the staircase and thought of asking for a mehndi, a henna tattoo I enjoy being done to wash away my fatigue. I shadowed a couple of ladies already queuing in a long line. Sadly, though, it’s Friday afternoon and all beauticians’ schedules are chock-full: the National Asian Wedding Show is on the next day at Heathrow Airport, and half of Southall spinsters seem to have taken an appointment in order to turn up at the event as the best-looking bride-to-be. That night I step off Tata link with a hand note in my pocket that an amiable cashier in Superdrug suggested: the address of the coolest beauty salon in Birmingham, next stop on my British south Asian fieldtrail… (to be continued…)