x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Little Britain in Urdu

Feature Seventy per cent of Pakistani immigrants living in Britain come from one city, Mirpur. M pays a visit and uncovers the cultural strains that exist between those who left and those who remain, tensions that have evolved over the decades into a love-hate relationship with the UK.

Hanging out at the Overload Club in Mirpur. The local teenagers enjoyed the World Cup but none of them cheered on England.
Hanging out at the Overload Club in Mirpur. The local teenagers enjoyed the World Cup but none of them cheered on England.

Seventy per cent of Pakistani immigrants living in Britain come from one city, Mirpur. Adnan Khan pays a visit and uncovers the cultural strains that exist between those who left and those who remain, tensions that have evolved over the decades into a love-hate relationship with the UK. The Overload Club at the Regency Hotel has the kind of mood lighting you would expect in a high-end establishment - subtle, almost aromatic, filling spaces with a flair for the dramatic. It's obvious whoever designed it thought things through deeply. The club's decor is well thought out, with a snaking bar at one end and a giant screen television at the other. Filling the space in-between are cosy booths with red leather seats occupied by the kind of clientele you would expect to see in a posh European bar - clean-cut, gel-sculpted young people sporting all the usual brand names.

The smoke from their shishas fills the club in thick, surging curls, lending the place an almost subversive air. The young men crowd around the tables in secretive huddles, talking about girls and mobile phones and the next time someone's parents will be out of town so they can throw a house party. One of them, sporting a tan beret tilted to one side, is glued to his mobile phone, his thumbs darting over the keys in a mechanical blur.

You could rip the scene out of its surroundings and transplant it to one of a thousand different European cities and it would blend in beautifully. But the odd thing is, this is about as far from Europe as you can get. Outside the Regency Hotel, the dusty streets buzz with brightly coloured lorries and buses, their drivers honking horns randomly in the searing summer heat. A donkey cart rolls past the neat row of Toyota Corollas in the hotel's car park and, in the distance, the sound of the muezzin floats in over the frenetic rumblings of what is, in the end, a typical Pakistani city.

In so many ways, Mirpur is like any other place in Pakistan - congested and chaotic, unpredictable and slightly unhinged. It has one unique distinction, however; it provides the largest flow of immigrants to Britain of any city in Pakistan, possibly the world. In Britain, Mirpuris make up more than 70 per cent of the Pakistani community; in Mirpur, according to locals, more than 90 per cent of the people have a British connection - a cousin, an uncle, someone in the family who has made the transcontinental journey to the prosperous land.

The effects run through every aspect of society, from the advertising boards for the Mumtaz Restaurant in Bradford, West Yorkshire, to the ubiquitous money changers displaying giant pound signs on their shop fronts to the numerous travel agents luring Britain-bound clients with discounted fares to London, Manchester or Leeds. Mirpur's reputation as Pakistan's Little Britain is not misplaced. It's the details that stand out: the Heinz Ketchup and the Worcester Sauce on sale at the local supermarket, the neatly arrayed, ready-plucked chickens at the butcher's shop (that they're dead is in itself a departure from the typical Pakistani butcher who will normally dispatch a chicken in front of you), and the licence plates on buses and private cars, designed to mimic British licence plates, complete with the European Union's yellow circle of stars on blue background.

The accumulation of details gives Mirpur a distinctive feel. "You can see the influence of Britain in the people as well, in the way they dress, the way they talk, even in the way they walk." says Khalil ur Rehman Chaudhury, the owner of a local bakery and Mirpur's unofficial expert on the history of its changing fortunes, The changes have been recent, Khalil says, building up only over the past few decades of migration. But the groundwork for Mirpur's transition was laid more than 150 years ago, in 1858, when Britain ruled the subcontinent. The British planned to build a dam on the Jhelum River, the building of which would have forced the displacement of tens of thousands of people.

"At the time, the Maharaja of Kashmir agreed to let the British build the dam," says Khalil, "but only with the guarantee that the displaced people would be given one piece of land equal to the land that would be flooded. He wanted his people to move together to the new place so they would keep their culture and family ties. The British refused, saying they did not have a piece of land that size available."

The plan collapsed. One hundred years later it was resurrected, this time with the help of the World Bank, the British, and a conglomerate of US construction firms. But instead of relocating the people somewhere in Pakistan, a plan was devised to provide them with monetary compensation and a chance to migrate to Britain. Thousands took up the offer. "The first group went in 1958," says Khalil. "The second in 1962. In both cases, the head of the household went first, bringing over his family once he had a chance to see what life was like there. That trend has continued to this day."

Now, according to Nawaz Khan Tanoli, an immigration consultant in Mirpur, hundreds of Mirpuris apply for British visas through his office every month. "On average, 30 of them receive their visa. So that's 30 new immigrants a month from this office alone." And there are dozens of other immigration offices scattered around the city, catering to the demands fostered by the large Mirpuri communities in British cities such as Bradford - now called Britain's Little Pakistan - where the former Maharaja's vision to keep his people together has come to fruition.

"I Want You," one sign at an immigration consultant reads in big block letters, exhorting Mirpuris to come and study in Britain. For a young person walking down the street, it's hard to escape the overarching message: Britain is the place to be. But for some people, things have gone too far. "There's a trend developing here," says Chaudhury Shehzad, a 28-year-old businessman who regularly visits Britain. "Children are being told by their parents that their future is in Britain. 'We're going to marry you off to a Brit,' they say, or they tell them they'll be going to the UK to join the rest of the family. So this kid doesn't study, he doesn't work, he just sits around waiting to go to Britain. Other young people are so obsessed with getting there that they spend all their days, and their money, running around trying to get a visa."

So it seems it's not all tea and crumpets in Pakistan's Little Britain. Locals complain of a growing subculture of young people so obsessed with the idea of being British that they have lost interest in their own culture. "They copy everything the British kids do - the way they dress, the way they talk," says Michelle Najam, a 19-year-old student in Islamabad, who has deep ties to the Mirpuri community. "Everyone wants to be part of the group. But the British kids are very snobby. They look down on anyone who doesn't have a British passport. I once overheard a girl who was visiting Mirpur from Bradford say that she wants nothing to do with 'Paki men'. She wants to marry one of her own - another British passport holder."

The Maharaja must be turning in his grave. Loss of identity, the one thing he wanted to avoid, is is afflicting his people. Parents especially worry about the kind of internal racism Najam has witnessed, parents such as Arif Hussain, a 52-year-old British passport holder, who has moved back to Mirpur after spending most of his life in Luton, 35 miles north of London. "You know, sometimes we can be more prejudiced than the Brits," he says. "Our children are losing their way. Those that have grown up in the UK now have grown-up children. We're into a second generation of Mirpuris who consider Britain their primary culture. Their connection to Pakistan is weak. So naturally there are going to be clashes. Whenever you have two cultures coming together, you're going to have some problems."

Increasingly, parents like Hussain are trying to give their children more of a sense of their Pakistani roots. Private schools in Mirpur now cater to a growing cadre of young, British-born Mirpuris. Ghulam Rasool, a 34-year-old chemistry teacher at The Guidance House School says half of his students are from Britain. "Parents send them here so they can absorb some of their culture," he says. "They finish their high school studies here and then go back to Britain for university.

In his experience, Ghulam admits that there is a significant difference between young people coming from Britain and those who have spent their life in Pakistan. "Respect for elders is the main thing," he says. "Kids here are brought up in their mother's arms. They're taught from a very young age to respect their elders. The culture is different in the UK. But after a year or so here, the kids adjust; you do see a change."

Azar Iqbal, aged 16, knows from experience how difficult that change can be. At 14, his parents decided to send him to Mirpur for his high school studies, determined to instil some Pakistani values in their rebellious teenager. "The first three or four months were really hard," he says. "Everything was harder - the heat, the culture, the school work. Kids in Britain don't take their studies very seriously. They're more concerned with fashion than studying. But, here, everyone is driven. And the workload is much harder."

He also admits to a sense of superiority over his fellow, non-British classmates, at least in the beginning. "They all wanted to be my friend," he says shyly, embarrassed by the confession. "It's the way it works here: if you have a British passport, everyone wants to hang out with you." But over time, things changed. The British and indigenous Pakistanis have come together and mix on equal terms now. The real problem, Iqbal says, is with the kids who only come to Mirpur for their holidays.

These are the true elitists, locals say, the ones who stick to their own and create an atmosphere of division. They even have a name for them: British Born Confused Desis, or BBCDs. When they arrive, Mirpur changes. "There is very little petty crime in Mirpur," saysChaudhury, the bakery owner. "But when the kids come from Britain, they engage in these sorts of things - theft, vandalism - useless little crimes, for fun, for prestige among their friends."

Gulfraz Khan, Mirpur's chief of police, blames the problem on Britain's gang culture. When the kids visit, he says, the gang mentality comes with them. "Sometimes you have cases where a gang vendetta plays out here," he says, adding that there is not enough co-ordination between British and Pakistani police forces to deal with the issue. And the British invasion is already here. "It starts in July," says Mazar Khan, a 55-year-old airport shuttle driver, lounging under the shade of a peepul tree in Mirpur's city centre. "Summer holidays, Christmas, Easter: this is when they come. This is when we make our money." For 35 years, Khan has been shuttling British-Pakistanis from the airport in Islamabad to their erstwhile homes in and around Mirpur.

It's big business: in July and August, he makes the five-hour round trip three or four times a day. "I barely sleep. But the work carries me through the rest of the year, so I have to do it." The same holds true for many other Mirpuris: they tolerate the problems because of the British pounds pouring in. Ifqar Shabir, the administrative manager of the Azad Mega Mart, Mirpur's largest mall, says revenue increases by 60 per cent during their holiday visits. "The last couple of years have been worse, of course," he says, "because of the effects of the global economic crisis."

Still, it's better than not having them at all, most local business owners admit. When the Brits come, their palatial homes, empty for much of the year, fill up. Local labourers - house cleaners, cooks, and drivers - have work. And places such as the Overload Club have a steady stream of customers. In the off-season, it's mostly well-to-do local youths who fill the booths at the club. On any given evening you can find them sucking on shishas and, a couple of weeks ago, you could catch them watching the Fifa World Cup action on the giant TV. Interesting, though, none came for the England matches.

"We get enough of the English when the BBCDs come," says one of them, asking not to be named. "We're all Brazil fans here." Others complain about the British-Mirpuris' tendancy to be "snobby", "disrespectful" and "lacking in Pakistani values". But oddly, all of the young men at the Overload Club could easily fit in to any pub in Britain: they wear the right clothes, have the right hairstyles, and talk the right talk. A few even admit, in whispers, that they've tried, or are trying, to get British visas. It's a love-hate relationship that defies the logic of their criticisms. And maybe - just maybe - there's a BBCD in all of them, waiting to be unleashed.