The Struggle to Unpack

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The East End Now and Then

Sat 1st March

East London has always been a source of fascination to me. Having once lived in squeaky clean, ostentatious Canary Wharf, I would often marvel at how close by the grubby and vibrant market streets of Whitechapel or Green Street were.  The shoppers and shopkeepers in these colourful districts seemed to be so unassuming, and unashamed about holding on to their Asian roots. I love the east end for this. In a society that is constantly berating its minorities for not integrating or adapting enough to the British ideals of secularism and identity, these Britons were flaunting their rich cultural ethos and loving it.  The flip side of course to the area’s charming chaos is a desperately dire housing situation and social exclusion, not surprisingly leading to higher crime rates and unemployment. While these problems are not unique to areas populated largely by immigrants, they are particularly interesting in this case because of the extraordinary history of east London.  Bernard Kops delivered a touching nostalgia of the days when east London was desperately poor and teeming with ambitious Jewish immigrants. When visiting the area now, he feels “a sense of sadness at the one or two synagogues that are tiny, hardly ever open” – yet adds – “I feel much more at home with the Bangladeshi’s.”  

The discussion that followed between Bernard Kops, Monica Ali and Oona King was rich in anecdotal comparisons of the political, economic and generational experiences that Jews and Muslims have shared in this region. What was absent was any discussion of the perceived threat that alienated immigrants can have on society at large – or the political tensions that sometimes exist between these two communities. How incredibly refreshing it is to learn that religious differences truly mean nothing when you are new to a country. The struggle to mentally unpack is the same for everyone.

Shenaz Kermalli works for Al Jazeera English

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