Hanna-Mariam Chowdhury observes the changing fortunes of South Asian Muslims in East London.
East Ham’s Green Street strikes today’s casual shopper as a colourful array of goods ranging from Arab-inspired scents sold by Sunna Musk to sleek, modest fashionwear from Islamic lifestyle stores such Blackstone.
But it wasn’t always like this. When South Asian Muslims first arrived in this area in the 1970s, they were denied many opportunities – including the opportunity to relax and go shopping whenever they felt like it.
In those days a walk in the street was often far from therapeutic.
“I remember walking near Sydney Street in Whitechapel. I was about eight years old and two big English men yelled “PAKI!” at me,” recalls Rena Begum (43). “It has remained with me to this day, especially as it was aimed so aggressively at a child who was so enthusiastic to have arrived in a new country.”
Nowadays South Asian Muslims are far less likely to encounter such harassment while exercising their right to retail therapy. Instead, a range of shops and businesses now caters for the Muslim consumer.
These include lifestyle store Blackstone which was established in Whitechapel – next door to the East London mosque, not far from Sydney Street – in 2010. The store offers “exclusive fashion brands including Aab, Silk Route, Lawung, sought after Islamic ceramics, nasheeds and books for children and adults.” These goods are available to Muslims and non-Muslims alike.
A staff member who wishes to remain anonymous, described how much she enjoys serving a diverse range of customers: “I have had people from France, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia and others from as far away as America and Indonesia.
“It’s really nice to see people well acquainted with our brand,” she concluded.
It’s really nice to hear that, apart from a tiny minority, shouts of ‘PAKI!’ have been largely consigned to the waste bins of history.