Dr Aminul Hoque MBE is a Lecturer in Education at Goldsmiths and host of a new episode of a BBC 4 series exploring the diverse histories of UK migrant communities.
Born in Bangladesh, Aminul moved to east London with his parents at three years old. Using archived film and his own childhood memories, A Very British History: British-Bangladeshis tells his own story and that of the thousands of Bangladeshi families who settled in the UK from the 1960s.
We asked him about his long-term research on British Bangladeshis, why the programme is timely, and what it was like to take his daughters on their first visit to their grandparents’ village in the region of Sylhet to explore their roots.
Sarah Cox: Your PhD is on third generation British Bangladeshis and in 2015 you published a book on the subject, British-Islamic Identity: Third-generation Bangladeshis from East London. Why and how did this become a BBC documentary?
Aminul Hoque: My PhD was an in-depth ethnographic study of the multifaceted identities of British-born third generation Bangladeshis from east London. Do they see themselves as Bangladeshi, British, Muslim, Londoners, none of these or a fusion of them all? And where do they find a sense of belonging, recognition and acceptance as they struggle against wider structures of systemic and institutional racism, intergenerational conflict and the daily reality of working-class poverty?
Having read my book, the producer of A Very British History wanted to share these ‘hidden’ stories with a mainstream audience, but also focus on the earlier history and settlement of Bangladeshis who have been coming to Britain since the 1960s. From the blatant and violent colour racism of the 1960s-80s to the more institutionalised Islamophobic racism of ‘difference’ in recent times, it became clear that the ugly and dehumanising ghost of discrimination, prejudice and exclusion is a continuous theme.
SC: Why is a series like A Very British History so important and what did you hope to achieve with your episode?
AH: This series deliberately focuses on the many positive and important contributions of migrant communities to the wider socio-cultural scene of British life. My episode tells a very human story of a community that has been here for the past seventy odd years. We learn how Bangladeshis fought in the navy during WWII, helped rebuild post-war Britain through their endeavour in key industries such as car manufacturing, steel, cotton mills and the ‘rag’ trade, introduced us to the famous ‘British’ curry, and made Britain their home.
This is a very important global story of migration and we get to see and hear of the many narratives of dislocation, upheaval, struggle, resistance, sacrifice, hope and triumph. It’s important to normalise and humanise migrant communities in this current populist climate of xenophobia and hate where people, such as myself, have been presented as different, problematic, and blamed for a lot of negative things.
This documentary reminds us that we are a normal, hard-working British community. We have fears, hopes, anxieties just like everyone else. We also drink Costa Coffee, watch Netflix and follow our football team passionately. I love this country. This is my home but I’m also connected spiritually to my motherland. That’s ok – to have multiple homes and multifaceted identities. It is what makes humanity so diverse and interesting.
I didn’t have any clear objectives, but I really wanted to be a part of something that reminds others that it is vital we don’t forget the stories and important narratives of our forefathers, and we should take pride in our heritage and cultural roots. We should protect and retell these stories of struggle and hope. I think the documentary achieves this.
SC: You interviewed your dad about his UK experience. Were any of his stories completely new to you?
AH: The initial discussion with my dad in 2002 was very emotional and so important. It definitely changed my life. He told me stories of his childhood growing up in the lush rice fields of Bagir Ghat (my birth village), eating fresh mangoes and swimming in the Kushiara River, and he also told me his own migration story of coming to Britain in 1963 as a 24-year-old. Coming to a new country and a somewhat hostile and alien environment, young, homesick, cold, scared, isolated, living in unhygienic overcrowded housing conditions, missing ‘home’. I was captivated.
In the documentary, we explore these ‘hidden’ stories of migration further and for the first time he shows me amazing pictures of the 1960s and 70s, and the work voucher that permitted him entry to Britain. He also tells me of his anxiety and fears for his family while he was in London during the 1971 War of Independence in present day Bangladesh. And there is this very moving, sentimental, scene within the documentary where I see my late mother’s first ever passport for the very first time and my own name handwritten within it, permitting us all to join our father in London in 1980.
SC: Why do you think some voices have been relatively unheard or ignored?
AH: Because no one has ever asked, and because these amazing trailblazers and role models have never been given the platform or the voice to tell their stories. As the presenter and host of the documentary, my role was to ask and listen and try and do justice to these very important moments of history that everyone needs to know about. The documentary was both a personal quest for self-recognition and a broader story of a community that is finally becoming visible and been given a voice.
Since the documentary aired, so many people have approached me and thanked me for recognising the history of ‘our’ community and our forefathers and for giving them a voice. It has become the catalyst for constructive intergenerational household conversations. It has made people talk about important issues such as racism, poverty, heritage, family, community, and has installed a sense of Bangladeshi pride among many people. The younger generation, like me, have become interested in the memories of migration and stories of struggle experienced by their forefathers. It’s overwhelming and humbling.
SC: What is it that you hope your three daughters – who you describe as ‘very westernised’ - felt or learned from their first visit to Bangladesh?
AH: The second part of the documentary focuses on the current British-born generation of Bangladeshis and the complexity of identity and ‘home’. Do our westernised British kids have a sense of their roots, ancestry and heritage? Do they have pride in their Bangladeshi identity?
Taking my young girls back to where it all began for me was a very emotional journey. The camera captures their excitement as they explore the village of their ancestors (with their goats – Bob and Harry). Something clearly resonates, as they realise the importance of this space for their own identities. It’s difficult to express with words but there is clearly an emotional, spiritual and cultural connection to their father’s place of birth. The documentary has inspired so many, Bangladeshis and non-Bangladeshis, to plan a visit back to their motherland with their children! I conclude the documentary with the words: “My hope and aspiration is that they will continue to come – our challenge as parents is how we instil that connection with the motherland – where it began for all of us.”
SC: What’s next for your research?
AH: Football and striving for social justice are continuous themes in my life, and this also comes across clearly in the documentary. So my current research explores the memories and experiences of struggle and political resistance of a group of Bangladeshi men in the 1970s and 80s as they used organised football to help combat the everyday reality of racism.
A Very British History: British Bangladeshis, Series 2, Episode 3, airs on Wednesday 26 February, 9pm, BBC4. It previewed on iPlayer earlier this month.