A year in Alum Rock and I sit watching a group of elderly Pakistani-heritage men drink strong tea served continuously from Yasmin ’s tray. Yasmin is a permanent fixture at the Asian Elder’s Centre. Swathed today in paisley-style patterns of blues and pinks, she billows in and out of the kitchen and on Tuesdays can be seen stirring a humongous pot of curry – with meat brought from the butcher by the ever welcoming Parwez – the Director. On the door of his office is sellotaped the handwritten note I copied from Rumi:
Why struggle to open a door between us when the whole wall is an illusion?”
I have enjoyed the conversations I have had with Parwez especially when we have spoken about Islam, Sufism and the poet Rumi – which is a topic where we come together. I am really interested in these spaces – these intercultural meeting points if you like. A teacher (now suspended due to Trojan Horse concerns who helped with initial ideas for our poetry project) had a similar interest in Rumi and had travelled to Konya in Turkey where Rumi’s shrine is located. This was another shared meeting space which was significant to him as a Sufi and for me, as my daughter is called Konya and as I am interested in Rumi. Rumi is also celebrated as a peacemaker and this influenced our conversations and concerns for the wider community and the growing division between Muslims and non-Muslims taking place.
I started penning this reflection on my first year (or 15 months to be precise) of the project at the Asian Elder’s Centre because there is still an atmosphere of otherness to my experience here mainly as I do not speak Mirpuri, Punjabi or read Urdu. If I was working permanently on this project I would submerse myself and attempt to learn one of the languages but for now, I have to step back when people are not speaking English and inhabit the role of the observer. I think about how my parents (who live in a village in Cambridgeshire) would respond to this collection of men in long white shirts over newly ironed suits and an assortment of hats and crocheted caps. When they visit me in Sparkhill (a similarly Pakistani majority area of Birmingham) with its zig-zagged transit van on the pavement signature-style of parking, variations in dress and unfathomable languages echoing out across the street they are baffled, occasionally concerned and continually astonished at this version of England that I inhabit. Living here again, and my work, has made more aware of similarities across cultural and faith groups and of differences and divisions too. I am also growing more conscious of my ‘whiteness’ and what it unconsciously brings to my gaze on the world around me.
While our research has been underway, debates over British values and immigration have heightened and concerns over terrorism and potential radicalisation dominate media coverage of Alum Rock. But there are many Alum Rocks (just as there are many Englands) and although the Pakistani community may appear to be homogenous and identify as Islamic it is characterised by a multiplicity of cultural traditions and adaptations. Family structures interweave – when strangers are introduced it often leads to the establishment of a family connection. Having listened to many life stories in interviews, I gradually realise how the streets around the Alum Rock road are literally embroidered together in ways which are invisible, initially, to the outsider. And yet within families and cultural groups there are threads and strands, links to other places, attachments to different lifestyles, TV soaps and dramas, differing aspirations and attachment to faith, heritage, to Birmingham, music and different dreams too. As a writer I often think of cities and connections in terms of embroidery and tapestry and creative writing as a form of threading together or, sometimes, as a form of unravelling. It is fascinating, therefore, that tapestry, textiles and embroidery now form one of our arts projects and I plan to reflect more on this in my next blog…