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Open Features: Dewsbury Moslems

... For 30 years, while Britain struggled with policies promoting integration, multi-culturalism against Sir Enoch Powell’s sombre warnings of “rivers of blood”, Hussain continued to work night shifts in the mill. Now he is part of a dwindling band of Asian textile workers. Dewsbury has changed. The Moslem community has changed. It is stronger, wealthier, more ordered and much more devout. The biggest church in town is a mosque...

Award winning journalist Richard Donkin takes a close look at race relations in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, the town in which he was born and grew up. This article first appeared in the Financial Times some years ago.

Richard is the author of the best-selling and critically-acclaimed book Blood, Sweat and Tears http://www.amazon.co.uk/Blood-Sweat-Tears-Evolution-Work/dp/1587991446/sr=8-1/qid=1159608608/ref=sr_1_1/026-3844856-9529255?ie=UTF8&s=books

He regularly writes a column about fishing for the Financial Times. Please do visit his Web sites

Mohammed Hussain, his face creased in pain, struggling to express his thoughts, said: “Tell me, how is it that a man and a woman, they get married, have children, then they divorce and she marries another man and he has sexual intercourse with the children? How can that happen?”

Hussain is a good Moslem. He wants to protect his children from immoral white society. He knows about English society because it has been explained by his priest, a wise man whom he consults about everything. Hussain came to England by steam packet from Mirpur in Pakistan in 1961. With nothing more than his uncle's address on a piece of paper and a few possessions, he found his way to Dewsbury in the West Riding of Yorkshire and the promise of work in the textile mills.

It was a dirty town then, the sort typified in L.S. Lowry's paintings. The grandeur of its Victorian buildings was masked by the soot which spewed from scores of chimneys. For Hussain it was a new world. “There were only 10 houses owned by Asians when I arrived,' he says, 'and in every house there were 10 or 15 people. Everyone was very kind. I remember a woman came up to me in the street and kissed my hand. She said I was the first coloured person she had ever met.”

There was little understanding between the communities. Moslems were as averse to the drinking of alcohol and the Yorkshire love of pork products as the natives were to the habits of the poor Asian immigrants. With no access to halal butchers, Moslem households would keep chickens in their cellars for fresh meat. The men wore perfumed coconut oil in their hair and painted their homes bright colours. These differences, the seeds of racism, germinated for a while and bred a resistance to Asian culture that still exists among many whites. But Asian food, the Asian work ethic and an in-bred Yorkshire respect for religion provided positive links.

For 30 years, while Britain struggled with policies promoting integration, multi-culturalism against Sir Enoch Powell’s sombre warnings of “rivers of blood”, Hussain continued to work night shifts in the mill. Now he is part of a dwindling band of Asian textile workers. Dewsbury has changed. The Moslem community has changed. It is stronger, wealthier, more ordered and much more devout. The biggest church in town is a mosque.

Tucked away behind rows of terraced houses in Savile Town, a few hundred yards from the centre of Dewsbury, the Markazi mosque is an unimposing building. The minaret, as minarets go, is modest and almost redundant. It carries a green light to signal sunset and an end to the fast during Ramadan, but there is no call to prayer. The local authority will not allow it. An adjoining school takes in 300 boarders from all over the world. They come for seven years to learn Arabic and to recite the Koran from beginning to end. Then they leave to carry the mission overseas.

Some 5,000 Asians strong, the Savile Town community has become one of the most orthodox centres of Moslem learning outside the east. It has the largest purpose-built mosque in Europe. Built in 1980 for a modest £500,000, partly from donations from Saudi Arabia, the Markazi mosque has attracted little attention from the surrounding community. Jamaat Tablighi ul Islam, the missionary organisation centred upon the mosque, is reformist in nature. It was founded by Maulana Muhammad Ilyas in Dehli during the 1930s and seems to apply a particularly pious code.

In 1985, the last time coachloads of worshippers converged on Dewsbury for a world Moslem convention, the event passed largely unnoticed by the rest of the town. Next year, the convention is to be held again and 30,000 to 40,000 are expected, a sizeable addition to Dewsbury's population of 51,000. 'All those people, and not a ha'peth of bother,' said an officer responsible for policing the event.

This deeply religious Moslem brotherhood has flowered alongside the Rugby League and Tetley Bitter culture in what was traditionally one of the grimiest centres of northern industry. Dewsbury's wealth was founded on shoddy - coarse woollen cloth made from ground-down rags. A century ago its blankets were sold around the world.

The townspeople are as warm as the products they made: honest, proud, candid. There was unrest here from 19th century Chartists, but there was also a deep civic pride and thrift, old values that are returning with the new money that is creating offices out of empty warehouses. While parts of south-east Britain are sinking under litter, graffiti and a crumbling infrastructure, Dewsbury has a new face - a pedestrian scheme to complement the Victorian Town Hall.

Tourists come to Dewsbury market now. The tripe lady, with comic postcard cheeks and betraying no fear of bovine encephalitis, said:'You can have pig bag, wessand, thick seam, honeycomb, cow heel, elder or dark pat. We used to call that last one black tripe but we didn't want any colour discrimination.'

However, more than 30 years since the first Asian set foot in Dewsbury there remains a gulf of understanding. The older generation whites still speak of 'darkies' or 'Pakis' while young progressives hesitantly talk of ethnic minorities, only referring to racism in hushed or oblique words for fear of offending anyone. Yet there is some common ground. There was also shared hardship. In 1979, like the rest of Britain, Dewsbury was in the grip of the worst recession since the 1930s. It hit the textile industry badly and the heavy woollen business, once the bedrock of this West Yorkshire mill town, was all but wiped out. For the Asian workers who had emigrated to Dewsbury in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the closures were devastating. Many of them had been drawn by the promise of work when the mills went on to 24-hour working at the time Harold Macmillan was telling everyone they had never had it so good.

The Dewsbury community was peculiar among Britain's Asian groupings in that much of it originated in the Indian province of Gujarat. The Gujaratis have settled mainly in Savile Town, an area of 11 terraced streets within a loop of the River Calder. Some 70 per cent of Saviletown's population today is Gujarati; 30 per cent have Pakistani origins. More important for the development of the Asian community, all were Moslems, though everyone was working so hard in the early days there was little time to follow the strictures that the faith demanded.

“When we first came, most people had no idea at what time they should be praying. We had no priests to advise us. Most of the time was spent working and sleeping,” says Hussain. When the mills began closing, the Asian workers suffered as much as anyone. The option was to sit at home; return to India or Pakistan, as some did; or make it alone. Today the Mercedes and Ford Transit vans outside almost every semi in Headfield Road on the posher side of Savile Town tell a story of economic rejuvenation that has transformed the community, a source of pride among Asian businessmen.

“Do you know that among those 11 streets you will find the homes of 68 garage proprietors. It must qualify for the Guinness Book of Records,” said Solly Adam, the first of them all. Adam was 15 when he came to Dewsbury. Instead of going into the mill he became an apprentice motor mechanic. He bought his first petrol station in 1972. Today he has six garages, a supermarket and a hire-car business. One of his first apprentices now has seven garages, another four.

While others may look after the religious aspirations of the community, Adam concentrates on two other Asian passions, cricket and trading. His success in both has brought him recognition and admiration in a county that puts so much store on business acumen and sporting success. He is an ardent supporter of Yorkshire cricket in spite of the seam of bigotry that runs through the club. “I cannot easily forget the things that Brian Close said,” says Adam. Yorkshire County Cricket Club has never won any awards for the promotion of good race relations, at least not with Close as chairman. Blunt at the best of times, Close made some disastrous comments on television about “bloody Pakistanis” not knowing about cricket in their own country. He spoke of 'our lads' and 'them' in a way that failed to recognise that hundreds of young Asians are Yorkshire-born.

Close apologised, but the damage had been done. Simplistic and offensive as he was, he uttered some truths about the lack of Asians coming forward to the club. It is something that troubles Adam. “To be frank, we haven't got an Asian player who is good enough to go straight through and play county cricket for Yorkshire. The reason is that they all play among themselves. The good players in the Quaid-e-Azam league and the Dewsbury District league should move out and play for the Yorkshire Council or the Bradford league. It is the only way to get recognised.” Adam insists that Asian cricketers are not being refused access to leagues through prejudice. “If it was prejudice I would not have been captain of Batley for six years and Spen Victoria in the Bradford league for the past two years.”

While integration has been limited in Dewsbury, white and Asian communities live in relative harmony; when trouble does occur, it tends to be started by outsiders. It would be ridiculous to suggest that racism does not exist in Dewsbury, but mostly it has been blanketed, over the years, by mutual respect by communities which have agreed to differ. Two young men deposited a pig's head in the doorway of one mosque a few years ago. It lead to an outcry from every quarter.

The last thing on the minds of those supporting the new orthodoxy in Savile Town is multi-culturalism. Asian parents are moving there from as far afield as London to be near to the mosque. The popularity of the immediate vicinity has forced up house prices as Moslems compete, in a material sense, to be closer to Allah than their neighbours. Mohammed Patel, the Mosque administrator, stood at the gates and shook his head. He pointed to terraced houses that would cost about £20,000 elsewhere in town. “If you wanted to buy one of these you would be talking about £60,000 . . . and no back yard.” The next project in the Saviletown community is to build an all-girls school large enough for between 400 and 500 pupils from age 11 up. The existing private school has 132 places and cannot meet demand.

The sight of Asian men wearing their Moslem caps and traditional kurta-pyjamas with white baggy trousers, and of women hidden completely in the billowing black burkha, is perhaps a sign of confidence within an Asian community that no longer feels it must conform with English practices. 'They term us as fundamentalists because we are religious,' said Mohammed Patel. 'Fundamentalism is extremism. We have no such views.'

However, there is another side to the devout community which threatens to disturb the harmony existing at present. Asian women get a raw deal from Islamic orthodoxy. The tension between religious conformity and western liberalism is one of the prime causes of conflict within Moslem families, particularly among the young who did not have the 'benefit' of a wholly Moslem education. One professional Asian woman living in Dewsbury who wished to remain anonymous, said: “The community here is a bit like the British in India at the time of the Raj when they could still be found eating their cucumber sandwiches. People visiting from Pakistan are amazed at what they see. Whereas Pakistan has advanced 10 years, people are still living here in the old ways.”

For women, that means complete subservience to men. “There is a network of men who keep tabs on women going to the shop. If a woman has been spotted going there three times in one day her husband is told and she is punished.” The woman was not against the wearing of the burkha. “For Asian orthodox Moslem women it is a garment of freedom, freedom from sexual innuendo, of unwelcome looks and remarks, freedom to go where you will without worrying about your legs or bosom. But it can also be used in a perverse way to deny women their sexuality if the garment is imposed upon women by husbands or orthodox fathers.”

She felt that the pressure for separatist Moslem girls' schools would continue. “There are thousands of women out there who would like to speak up about their position but are afraid to do so. Some 1,400 years ago Islam set down equality for women, equal before God, equal, but different, and the men have interpreted that according to their own ideology and sexism. It is a closed community and outside influence is definitely seen as not wanted. There is a lot of bigotry. It is going to get worse before it gets better.”


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