My Bradford Experience

Bradford Experience from Sheherzad Kaleem on Vimeo.

In all the years I spent living in Pakistan and the US, I never once faced the question of identity before. It was only after arriving in the UK that I somehow started to feel the need to defend my ethnicity and my religion. A sort of self-defence mechanism kicked into action and my own passive aggressiveness in the face of these prejudices surprised me and made me realize that something was amiss and had to be investigated.

The history and experiences of Pakistanis in the UK are quite unique. This has to do with the class of Pakistanis that immigrated to the UK and the circumstances under which they migrated. Across the UK, dense pockets of Pakistanis exist, some with more notorious reputations than others. One such city is Bradford, famous for the Bradford riots of 2001 besides its textiles mills, curries and south asian clothing stores. I decided that if I had to understand the origin of this discrimination against Pakistanis, then I would have to take a trip out to Bradford to figure out where everything went wrong.

With that in mind, I drove out to Bradford on a recce trip last weekend.

After four hours of driving through intense rain and snow, I got to Bradford. Mr. Chris Johnson, my contact at the Bradford Youth Development Partnership (BYDP) took me on a grand tour of the city in his large, red van. We drove through the streets where the infamous riots took place, saw many derelict buildings that are now a permanent feature of the Bradford landscape, and experienced the beauty of the glorious mills that have now been converted into luxury flats and NHS offices. I also walked through the slum areas of Bradford, where cramped, back-to-back houses are common.

The streets of Bradford were reminiscent of Pakistan- shalwar kameez clad men and women walking on the streets, even in the snow. A huge Junaid Jamshed outlet store strategically situated on a busy street corner. Akber’s, Mumtaz, Anam’s, famous south asian restaurants, packed with eager foodies, boasted long queues outside. It was quite extra ordinary for me to see these scenes outside Pakistan. I mean, I had seen this on a small scale in London, but Bradford was a different scenario completely. I saw white people there as well, I should add, but in their own areas. That fact that the two communities are geographically segregated, is not lost on you when you are in Bradford.

The racial divide in Bradford is real and it exists in actual physical boundaries that separate the whites and the non-whites. Children from residential areas that are purely white, go to white only schools. Similarly, children living in areas that are predominantly Asian, go to largely Asian schools. The local government has made no attempt to bridge the two communities.

Despite growing side by side, the whites and South Asians have remained separate from each other. They are guided by mistrust and prejudice and have little respect for the other. A young British woman of Pakistani origin, that I spoke to, mentioned how she doesn’t dare venture into the white only areas of Bradford because she feels threatened by the white folks there. A college going girl of Bangladeshi descent expressed how people still holler out racial abuse at her in the city centre when she goes there with her friends. A white woman who does community work with some of the Bradford youth shared how some non-white people yell obscene things at her. The stories are endless.

Though the racial tension exists, it is not exactly as the media makes it out to be. The real issue, according to people I spoke to, is that the government has neglected the youth of Bradford – be it white or South asian. This has added to the festering bitterness and angst. The youth, paralysed by a lack of opportunities, indulges in anti-social behaviour and rowdiness. The media then exploits these stories and makes monsters out of some. In the case of Bradford, the media has been largely responsible for creating paranoia and hysteria in the minds of the whites against the Asian community, especially, the Pakistanis.

The Pakistani youth are targeted, admitted a white British resident of Bradford. He said that his son, who is about 20, walks around with a chip on his shoulder, just like some of the Pakistani lads, but added that no news report would use discriminatory language (as happens with boys of Pakistani/Muslim heritage) against his son if he were to commit a crime.

This is the same distasteful discrimination that defined the reporting of the Bradford riots of 2011 as well. After watching the Channel 4 drama ‘Bradford Riots’ a few days ago, I started going through newspaper archives from those days. I was startled to see mainstream newspapers and news websites, not just the tabloids, being so one-sided and sensational in their reporting.

The thing is that in any area where poverty is rife and where unemployment ravages people, such tensions would continue to grow. The on going spending cuts, courtesy of the Tory government, are affecting the young even more negatively. Educational opportunities and subsequently jobs, are limited and the youth feel disenfranchised from their communities. It’s not just the South Asian youth, but also the white that are facing this bleak future. Yet, in the grand plans of developing a Big Society, these small people that hold the future of Britain in their hands, are being ignored.

It’s coming to the tenth anniversary of the Bradford riots and unfortunately, not a lot has changed. With less and less money going into youth programmes, it won’t be surprising if we continue to witness the disenfranchised youth acting out in one way or another in the future.

Slaves of the Lake on the Community Channel website

My film ‘Slaves of the Lake‘, is finally done and available for viewing on the Community Channel website. It will be broadcast on television on the Community Channel (Sky 539, Virgin Media 233 and Freeview 87) at the end of March.
For everyone living outside the UK, please do try and see my film while it is available on the website. Thank you.