Bradford, England

Bradford, West Yorkshire, England. Note the large mosque on the hill.

Travelers often strike up conversations with other travelers. In Venice we chatted about the U.S. presidential election with a left leaning American couple who makes (Republican) political ads, in Istanbul’s Sirkeci Railway Terminal about writing for the New York Times with a young woman who used to live in Indonesia and with fellow divers on Flores about teaching English in Korea. But the thing travelers like to talk about most is of course their travels, past, present and future. Many times on this trip we’ve outlined our journey through the Muslim world, what motivated us and what we hope to get out of it. And from Brits, we repeatedly heard in response the same suggestion: that if we want to visit places with large Muslim populations, we should be sure to visit the town of Bradford in West Yorkshire, which is over a quarter South Asian.

They were being neither cute nor facetious, and I had had similar thoughts at many points on our trip: To have as full as possible a perspective on the Muslim experience in the world today, it is important not only to visit historically and majority Muslim countries but to see something of the large Muslim populations in non-Muslim countries. I considered visiting Berlin, with a focus on the local Turkish community, the North African banlieues of Paris, Arab Marseille or the Iraqi and Afghani refugees of Stockholm. When it turned out that one of the best fares for us to get from southern Spain back to India was through England, I decided that Bradford would be our Western European Muslim stop.

We spent three days in Bradford, with a generous host who happened to be a Pamiri from Tajikistan. I cannot say that we walked away with any real understanding of Muslim or South Asian life in England, but some things we heard and patterns we saw are certainly representative of similar immigrant communities all around the world. Through the pictures, some thoughts on Muslim England.

Bradford is not so much a town with a large Muslim population as a town with a large South Asian population, many of whom happen to be Muslim but others of whom are Hindu, which leads one to wonder whether religious identity is even an appropriate prism through which to view the local population. Here, the friendly staff at Lahore restaurant, named after the culture capital of Pakistan.

But there is no doubt that religion is in fact a defining trait for the Muslim residents of Bradford. Without seeking them out, we ran into these two Muslim-oriented businesses–a supermarket and a religious products store. One could imagine similar stores organized by ethnicity rather than religion–say a store selling South Asian food products with a Hindu/Urdu name (rather than an Arabic one), or a store selling products particularly useful to all South Asians.

Similarly, this “Muslim Directory,” which we saw in the Living Islam store, was published according to religion, rather than ethnicity.

The Pakistani Community Centre promotes a campaign for Gaza. I find it somewhat peculiar that the Iranian government is so moved by the Palestinian cause, given general disrespect in Iran for many things Arab; that it moves Pakistanis who are even further geographically removed is a strong statement on the feeling of brotherhood fostered by Islam.

We were also told by a white resident of Bradford working in social services that great differences marked the Hindu Indian community and the Muslim Pakistani and Bengladeshi communities in England–the former has been much more successful in assimilating and achieving professional heights (apparently the Indians and the Chinese exceed the native white population in education rates), while the Muslim South Asians lag behind. We were also told that Bradford residents of Pakistani origin were almost bizarrely traditional, with over 90% of local imams and many marriage partners imported from Pakistan, despite the community’s decades-long presence in England. Is there something about their religious identity or practice that is holding this community behind or preventing better integration?

Two local mosques

Bradford is a university town famous for its School of Social & International Studies, where our host was a student in the Peace Studies program. Note the sign on the door for an Islamic study group.

A couple other funny local quirks. We don’t think these two items have anything to do with the relatively recent (postwar) Muslim South Asian community, but the principal theater in Bradford happens to be named The Alhambra and a local synagogue was of clearly Sephardic design, somewhat reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Cordoba (see post of 09.02.02).

The South Asian community has been in Bradford for decades, and are far from the newcomers. A Polish store (note, not a Catholic store) shows the effect of the enlargement of the European Union in even smaller towns in Western Europe.

Local family

Gibraltar and Ceuta

The Rock of Gibraltar

Islands are often conquered by external powers. Two of the first British colonies in the New World were Roanoke and Jamestown, both islands. Europeans first established themselves in West Africa on the island of Goree just off of now Dakar. The African island of Zanzibar was held by the Portuguese and then the Omanis, as were the islands of Pemba and Lamu up the coast. Singapore and Hong Kong are both islands. The appeal of taking an island is obvious–an island is much more easily defended (some even had the advantage of being relatively unpopulated when “found”) but can still serve as a base for restocking ships or for forays into the mainland. On a relatively small piece of land can be built a formidable economic and administrative center. The extent to which one can develop an enduring and distinct social or political culture on an island is quite astonishing–consider that Arab Zanzibar lasted until 1964 and Hong Kong held by the British until 1997. Singapore remains an unchallenged, independent city-state and Taiwan is still controlled by the “Nationalist” Chinese, who have built a thriving, prosperous democracy just miles away from a rival many many many times its size.

And, it doesn’t take an island to accomplish these ends–a peninsula or “near-island” has also been used countless times. Examples include the city of St. Louis in now Senegal, Macau and the city of Bombay.

Our route from Morocco to Spain took us into two of the three odd territories in the region that are still examples of a “foreign” power in control of territory acquired in the colonial era: Spanish Ceuta on the African continent and British Gibraltar on the Iberian peninsula (the third is Spanish Melilla, also attached to Morocco). The colonial histories of Ceuta and Gibraltar go way back–Portugal or Spain has held Ceuta since the early 15th century, and Spain kept Ceuta even after it gave up its colonial control over (other) parts of Morocco, and the British have been in control of Gibraltar since the early 18th century, with its residents overwhelmingly rejecting Spanish sovereignty as recently as 2002–and in each the culture of the controlling power has taken deep root, battling against the geographical and demographic forces that will no doubt, over time, put stress on their statuses. How long will they last?

Some photos to consider the unique socio-political circumstances existing in Gibraltar and Ceuta.

Gibraltar’s Muslim history is recalled in the prominent white mosque built by the Saudis in 1997.

The name Gibraltar comes from Gibr Tariq, meaning Rock of Tariq, the Muslim Berber conqueror of Gibraltar and much of the Iberian Peninsula in the 8th century.

Other street names serve to remind you that you’re on British soil, like this avenue just in from the Spanish frontier.

British-style booths and bobbies, despite the fact that locals actually speak not English, but a language indistinguishable from Spanish.

Moorish-inspired architecture is a reminder that you are not only close to Spain, but the Arab world. Below, the Cathedral of the Holy Trinity.

The Union Jack, flying on the Rock

The geography of Ceuta explains in part how long it has remained in control of a different power than the mainland. The border does not currently lie at the narrowest point, but the isthmus is still marked by medieval walls and moat.

Churches and mosques vie for space.

Ceuta is not only a bit of Spain in Africa but a bit of the European Union in Africa, an entry point for refugees and migrants from all over the continent. In the second picture, Moroccan workers commuting into Ceuta. Just as Moroccans commute to work in relatively wealthier Ceuta, many Spaniards and Gibraltarians living in Spain commute into Gibraltar.

Muslim woman, walking in downtown Ceuta

[Gibraltar and Ceuta are, geographically speaking, examples of near enclaves. For a list of similar places, see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_enclaves_and_exclaves.

We passed near a couple other notable enclaves on our trip: Nahwa, now pay attention, a piece of the UAE inside a piece of Oman inside the UAE–we just *had* to make a detour here when we were in the UAE/Oman in April 2009–and the many enclaves of Central Asia. “Islands” of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan lie in Kyrgyzstan, islands of Kyrgyzstan in Uzbekistan and islands of Tajikistan in Uzbekistan–all this despite the fact that the ethnicities in these countries are totally mixed up anyway (see post of 2009.07.08). The enclaves appeared after the disintegration of the Soviet Union–had the practice of reuniting all ethnic groups with their ethnic name country continued, Central Asian boundaries would have been almost completely redrawn! For more information, see http://enclaves.webs.com/middleeast.htm and http://enclaves.webs.com/centralasia.htm.]