Bengali Harlem: Author documents a lost history of immigration in America

Friday, February 15, 2013 - 9:22am

(CNN) -- In the next few weeks, Fatima Shaik, an African-American, Christian woman, will travel "home" from New York to Kolkata, India.

It will be a journey steeped in a history that has remained unknown until the publication last month of a revelatory book by Vivek Bald. And it will be a journey of contemplation as Shaik, 60, meets for the first time ancestors with whom she has little in common.

"I want to go back because I want to find some sort of closure for my family, said Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience.

Fatima Shaik's grandfather settled in New Orleans. She is going to India to see his home.

That Americans like Shaik, who identify as black, are linked by blood to a people on the Indian subcontinent seems, at first, improbable.

South Asian immigration boomed in this country after the passage of landmark immigration legislation in 1965. But long before that, there were smaller waves of new Americans who hailed from India under the British Empire.

The first group, to which Shaik's grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, belonged, consisted of peddlers who came to these shores in the 1890s, according to Bald. They sold embroidered silks and cottons and other "exotic" wares from the East on the boardwalks of Asbury Park and Atlantic City, New Jersey. They eventually made their way south to cities like New Orleans and Atlanta and even farther to Central America.

The second wave came in the 1920s and '30s. They were seamen, some merchant marines.

Most were Muslim men from what was then the Indian province of Bengal and in many ways, they were the opposite of the stereotype of today's well-heeled, highly educated South Asians.

South Asian immigration was illegal then -- the 1917 Immigration Act barred all idiots, imbeciles, criminals and people from the "Asiatic Barred Zone."

The Bengalis got off ships with little to their name.

They were mostly illiterate and worked as cooks, dishwashers, merchants, subway laborers. In New York, they gradually formed a small community of sorts in Spanish Harlem. They occupied apartments and tenement housing on streets in the 100s. They worked hard.

And they did all they could do to become American in a nation of segregation and prejudice.

A huge part of that meant marrying Latino and African-American women -- there were no Bengali women around -- and letting go of the world they left behind.

Unlike other immigrants of the time, they didn't settle in their own enclaves. Rather, they began life anew in established neighborhoods of color: Harlem, West Baltimore and in New Orleans, Treme.

By doing so, they also became a part of black and Latino heritage in America.

Vivek Bald's new book on Bengali migration tells a history that has been largely unknown.

"One of the most important things I took from the research is the fact that in the years of Asian exclusion, African-American and Puerto Rican communities actually gave (the Bengali men) the possibilities and the shelter to rebuild their lives," said Bald, a documentarian who teaches English and digital media at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

"Those communities lived up to the promise of the nation when the nation failed to do so ... because they were equally marginalized and equally deprived of full membership."

Musa married Tennie Ford, a black Catholic woman. They raised their children near New Orleans' Congo Square, where slaves once gathered. Ford took her children to church on Sundays while Musa knelt on a prayer rug and faced Mecca.

Musa died when Ford was pregnant with her son. Ford raised her children with African-American traditions; the ties to Bengal faded.

Shaik was aware of her Indian roots. Her name was the first obvious hint.

When she was little, in the 1950s and '60s, she rushed to the porch when phone books arrived with a thud. Her family was the only Shaik. She longed to find another name that was similar.

In India, the history of Bengali peoples evolved and was documented in print as India gained independence in 1947 and the nation was partitioned. East Bengal became East Pakistan and later, in 1971, Bangladesh.

But the sons of that land who came to America seeking a better life remained invisible. Until Bald began digging around.

Last month, he published "Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America."

The book has generated palpable excitement among the descendants of the Bengali immigrants.

"I just said, 'wow,'" said Nurul Amin, 62, whose father once sold hotdogs from a Harlem pushcart.

"This put a stamp on our world," he said.

Shaik, an author and scholar of the Afro-Creole experience, said she was finally learning her grandfather's history. It dispelled notions of a monolithic black identity and connected her to a faraway land.

'Dishwasher dreams'

California native Vivek Bald grew up with a strong sense of connection to India. He heard stories from his Indian immigrant mother that made a mark when he began making movies about the diaspora.

He'd produced a documentary about taxi drivers and was struck by the class divide in South Asian communities in America. The people who came in the wake of 1965 had taken the reins of community representation. Yet, they had little in common with newer waves of working-class immigrants from Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Bald's research led to his newly published book documenting the first waves of Bengali immigration.

In his exploration of the diaspora, he met actor and stand-up comic Aladdin Ullah, 44, one of the sons of Habib Ullah, who'd arrived by ship from what is now Bangladesh in the 1920s. Bald was fascinated with Ullah's story. He'd never imagined such a history.

"This was a population who came to the United States at a time when this country had erected quite draconian race-based immigration laws," Bald said. "They came during that time but were able to build networks in order to access jobs all over the United States.

"The story," said Bald, "was so completely different than what I had heard about South Asian immigration in the United States."

Their memories had survived in the African-American and Latino families into which they married.

Bald began researching their history. It took him nine years to meticulously comb through marriage and death records, other court documents, newspaper stories and archival treasures.

He is now in the process of making a documentary film.

The project became a series of astonishments for Bald.

"I think the revelations I had along the way is how resourceful both of these groups of men were in dealing with a home country that was under the rule of the British and on the other hand, another country that was closing its doors to them and passing increasingly more restrictive and racist immigration laws," Bald said.

Aladdin Ullah, whose one-man act "Dishwasher Dreams" explores his father's experiences, imagined how difficult life must have been for the Bengalis.

"These were illiterate men who came to America with hopes of a better life. That's like me going to Sweden to start a Mexican restaurant," he said.

"They learned the American hustle, not the American Dream."

Ullah was young when his father died.

"I rejected my culture. I was a hip-hop kid, a kid from Harlem. I listen to rap. I didn't have any connection to Bengalis."

But it was an acting role that led Ullah to reconsider his father's identity.

He was preparing to play the part of a stereotypical Middle Eastern prince in a Hollywood movie. "Death to America," he shouted at the mirror, practicing his line.

He reflected on his father. He was not a king; he was a dishwasher.

"I felt my father's presence in that hotel room."

Ullah wanted to know more.

 

Banglarican

Habib Ullah and Ibrahim Chowdry likely arrived in New York City some time in the 1920s.

Chowdry had been a student leader back home in East Bengal and fled after British authorities were alerted to his activities. He rose to prominence in New York as a Bengali community leader.

Habib Ullah came from Noakhali in what is now Bangladesh and settled in Harlem.

Ullah left East Bengal's rural Noakhali district at the young age of 14, traveled to Calcutta and found a job on an outgoing ship.

Bald's book documents Ullah's arrival in Boston, where he either jumped ship or fell ill. His son, Habib Ullah Jr., always thought his father had gotten lost.

Either way, he ended up in New York, married a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Echevarria, and moved to East Harlem.

South Asian immigrants today tend to be a more insulated community. Many parents urge their children to marry other "desis," people of the Indian diaspora.

But back then, it was different. The Bengali Muslim men knew they had to do all they could to make it in America.

Echevarria died in 1952 and left her husband to raise the children. Ullah Jr. remembers his sister being sent off to his aunt's house in New Jersey. He did the rest of his growing up with his father in an apartment on East 102nd Street.

His father worked as a cook at the Silver Palms restaurant on Sixth Avenue and 44th Street. He left the house at the crack of dawn for the subway ride. He came home tired, took a nap and then cooked dinner. Rice and curry. Later he and Chowdry opened their own restaurant, The Bengal Garden.

Occasionally they'd head down to the Indian seamen's club in the Lower East Side and after 1947, to the Pakistan League of America, an organization Chowdry and Ullah co-founded.

Ullah Jr. called his father's friends "Chacha," the Bengali Muslim word for uncle. Some of them changed their Bengali names to Charlie and Harry and in the case of Ibrahim -- Abraham.

Ullah Jr. even asked his father once to teach him Bengali. The answer was no.

"He wanted me to be an American boy," Ullah Jr. said, trying to mimic a Bengali accent.

He remembered his father asking a literate friend to pen letters in Bengali to his mother and brother back in Noakhali.

"He would bring them home and I would address them and send them out," he said.

Ullah Jr. grew up playing on the rooftops and hanging out on the streets.

The Puerto Ricans embraced each other, the blacks high-fived. And the Bengalis? They asked: "How was school?"

Ullah Jr. grew up speaking English and Spanish. The Bengali or Bangla side of him diminished but never went away.

"I'm a Banglarican," said Ullah Jr. of his identity. "We assimilated into the neighborhood. I'm immersed in both cultures."

In the late 1960s, his father, then ailing from asthma, returned to Noakhali to remarry. He returned with Moheama, a traditional Bengali woman who was much younger than her husband. Aladdin Ullah is her son.

Ullah Jr. wishes he had accompanied his father on that long trek home. He is 70 now and doesn't think he will ever step foot on his father's homeland.

"I have a whole family I have never met, and will never meet," he said. "Now my father has passed away. His brother is gone. The lines of communication are gone."

 

Curry on the stove

Chowdry became a key figure in New York. He lobbied Congress to change naturalization laws of the 1940s, connected with African-American Muslim groups in Harlem as well as Jewish and Christian leaders.

At age 32, he married Catherine, a 17-year-old woman who was born in Cuba to Puerto Rican parents, and had two children, Laily and Noor.

Ibrahim Chowdry became a key figure in New York's Bengali community, sort of a "go to" man.

Both Laily and Noor recalled a father who was busy; that he became the guy to call in the Bengali community. He was always rushing out of the house.

Except one day when Noor Chowdry had gone to the Bronx Zoo and come back with a 15-inch catfish he'd caught in the lake. His father was about to leave the house, but when he saw that fish, he took off his jacket, rolled up his sleeves and got a knife out.

Bengalis are known as fish lovers and Ibrahim Chowdry could not give up the thought of a spicy fish curry.

John Ali Jr. also remembers that Bengali food was the one constant from the homeland.

His father, Mustafa "John" Ali, like Chowdry, also came to play an important role for Bengali men in the industrial towns where he worked, including Chester, Pennsylvania, home to a Ford car factory and the Sun Shipbuilding plant along the Delaware River.

Ali learned English from listening to the radio and helped "anchor the broader network of escaped seamen in a series of key locations," Bald wrote.

John Ali Jr., 83, remembers his father always having a pot of curry and rice on the stove's back burner. Just in case any of the Bengalis stopped by.

Ali Jr., who wrote on the last census that he was a "black Bangladeshi," moved to Atlanta almost three decades ago, where he settled in the mostly black southwest neighborhood of Cascade. He married a black woman, as had his father, and never saw himself as anything else. In his tenure in the Army, he'd always been colored.

In his youth, he read a lot of Indian history, about independence and the infamous, 18th-century Black Hole of Calcutta incident in which prisoners suffocated in a dungeon.

He recalled his father listening to news about India on the radio and translating it for his fellow Bengalis who did not know English.

"I thought I would see Bangladesh one day," he said. But he never did.

His father returned to his hometown of Sylhet in the 1960s after his wife's death. "I was surprised he went back," Ali Jr. said. "He got homesick."

Shortly after, his father died on his way back from Haj, the annual Muslim pilgrimage, in Saudi Arabia.

John Ali Jr. says there was always a pot of curry on the stove when he was growing up in case Bengali visitors showed up.

These days, Ali Jr. sees Bangladeshis running the corner gas station or convenience stores in his neighborhood.

"Salam alaikum," they greet him.

"Alaikum salam," answers Ali.

It's not difficult to see why the Bengalis would assume this black Catholic man is one of their own. But beyond the universal Muslim greeting, Ali can say nothing to them in Bengali.

 

Going home

Fatima Shaik's grandfather's ancestry was a positive for her family who lived under the sting of racism and segregation in New Orleans.

Her family was told they were unworthy and ignorant. But they held onto the memories of Shaik Mohamed Musa, whose family owned land in India, who traveled across the world to come to America, who started a business.

With a father like that, her grandmother encouraged her dad, he could achieve anything.

"My father spoke of his father all his life." Shaik said. "He always spoke about how important India was to him."

Musa left behind a hookah from India, a few papers and jewelry, including a diamond stickpin. Hurricane Katrina washed away much of Shaik's grandfather's belongings. Her father died the following year.

Shaik began searching, "in earnest," she wrote on the Bengali Harlem website, "as one suddenly does after realizing just how much is gone."

She is excited about her journey to Kolkata, specifically to Hooghly, across the Ganges River, to the place from where her grandfather and many of the early "exotic" goods peddlers hailed. Director Kavery Kaul plans to document Shaik's trip in March for an upcoming film, "Streetcar to Calcutta."

"The story of Fatima's grandfather, Shaik Mohamed Musa, belongs to all of us," Kaul said from Kolkata. "It's the history of the Indian diaspora and the making of America, the story of long overlooked links between cultures that looks to the past as it points us ahead to the future of our global society.

"The project takes me back to Kolkata where I was born and it leads Fatima on a journey in search of the name she bears." Kaul said. "Entering a world so different, so far from home, is sure to give her another sense of belonging."

In some ways Shaik feels it will be a journey guided by spirits. She will be taking her grandfather and father to India -- the home that one knew and the other always dreamed of knowing.

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