Nurul Giani

Nurul Giani was born in Sylhet in 1946 in what was then East Pakistan and, at the age of 16, applied for a work voucher to come to the UK. He arrived on his own in East London in 1963. 

Nurul Giani was born in a village in Sylhet, East Pakistan in 1946. His family were farmers, working in the rice fields. At the age of 16, when he was working in a primary school, Nurul, on his own initiative, applied to the British Commission in Dhaka for a voucher to come to the UK.  He travelled on his own but had an address in Heneage Street, off Brick Lane where one of his distant relatives lived with other men from Sylhet. People were very helpful, helping Nurul every step of the way from Heathrow to the address he had on a sheet of paper in his pocket.

From then on Nurul worked in the catering and the clothing industries. As he was more literate than some of his fellow Sylhetis  he helped people write letters home and organised trips out to the seaside. He taught in a community school and supported the war effort during the War of Liberation in 1971. After 10 years Nurul went home, for the first time, and got married. He still lives in Spitalfields, just metres away from where he first arrived at Aldgate East tube. He now attends Toynbee Hall’s Surma group for older men of Bangladeshi origin.

Nurul’s story – so joyful and happy to come different place.

I was born in Sylhet in 1946. We’re an agriculture family – at that time the village was not very rich. I used to go to primary school and then to High School. I passed Matric in 1961, like GCSE. I was a teacher in a primary school.

Primary school in Sylhet, Bangladesh 1978. Photo by Eithne Nightingale

Suddenly everybody coming to London. It was a postcard, three pence or two pence. London send me this voucher number. I go to the High Commission in Dhaka. I apply for the passport. It was a little bit hard but it wasn’t very much.

Dhaka, photo by Eithne Nightingale 1978

I came alone. At that time I was 16. I wasn’t thinking I would stay long because I was so joyful and happy to come different place.

I come by KLM, the plane, 26th August 1963. At that time it was East Pakistan. I get off in Heathrow and somebody show me where I go to Aldgate by underground. I can speak a little bit but not very much and a little bit hard to understand. I show a man the address and he show me a black taxi. I didn’t walk because I don’t know how far.

Nurul Giani outside Aldgate East station where he arrived at age 16 with an address in his pocket. Photo by Eithne Nightingale 2013.

The taxi took me to 42 Heneage Street. I told him to knock. Then our relatives take the suitcase. I never see them in Pakistan. They came before in 1960, ’61. They asked me, “Did I pay or not?” I can’t remember the cost. Two shilling and six pence I think. I had ten shilling some relative gave me in Pakistan.

Nurul took a taxi to Heneage Street around the corner. Photo by Eithne Nightingale 2013.

Brick Lane was so nasty. Aldgate was very old buildings. Bombed buildings as well. The car was less than now and it was not much crowded. But the older white people were very helpful. If we didn’t know the street they take us home. Not their home, our home, because we lost. Sometimes they get on the bus or, if not too far, they walk them. They were very, very helpful.

At number 42, I was the youngest one. There were about 10, 12, 15, 20 of us. Two, three, four living in one room. No sitting room and there wasn’t any carpet. Only lino. In the wintertime it was very, very cold. Paraffin heater was smelly, but it make very hot. Every week the white people they supply us paraffin. We go to the Cheshire Street market to buy jumpers.

On Saturday or Friday evening everybody go to the public bath. One was in Aldgate East, another in Cheshire Street, another in York Hall. Three, four of us queue together. The white people gave soap, towel, everything. Some of them was Maltese. Some of our people were working in the boiler.

We cook three, four of us together because all single. All men. At that time a lot of Jewish shops sell live chickens and we can halal them ourselves.

Everybody knows the Jobar Shop. He married a white lady. Mixed marriages at the time was very rare. Some who came from the ship married white ladies. They help us as well. We buy food here because everything is available – rice, a little bit meat, spices. We had only English fish but now we can get our Bangladeshi fish all the time.

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Fish in Bangladesh was not available when Nurul first came. Now it is everywhere. Photo by Eithne Nightingale 1978

Now nephew is running it. They call it Taj Stores.

Nurul Giani outside Taj Stores in Brick Lane today. Photo by Eithne Nightingale 2013.

One of my relative was living in 144 Bethnal Green Road, so after six months I went there. Only two of us were living in one room and we pay rent, maybe £4 or £5. Then I come to 2 Sheba Street and after 27 Princelet Street.

Nurul Giani outside where he used to live in Sheba Street Photo by Eithne Nightingale 2013.

Now I am in Spitalfields 33 years. We make it Bangla Town. Our community got everything, our Mosque as well.

Nurul Giani in Bangla Town today. Photo by Eithne Nightingale 2013.

I was always worried about how could I get work. They took me to the labour office and I fill the form up a little bit. They surprised because at that time people wasn’t very much educated and they said, “You have to go as a boy for an electrician.” “Okay, if you find something then it’s okay.” Then suddenly I find a job as a canteen boy in Oxford Circus. One of my relative was working in the hotel. After that I find another job, J. Lyons & Co as a counter boy. I start with £7, then as a waiter, because they know I can speak English a little bit, progressing all the time. Then it changed as a club, not too late. The manager said it would be more money, about £13, £14, £15. 1976, ’78 I work in the Jewish quilting factory. Jewish people had clothing factories and all kinds of business. Then everywhere was leather. And now everything is gone to the foreign countries and a lot of people unemployed. Yeah, it was Jewish only, only Jewish factories.

It was a lot of racism at that time. Enoch Powell, he was the leader. If the skinhead see one or two of us going alone, they call us Paki, they hit us. That’s why we scared. That’s why three, four or five of us go and come from work together. They punch me. I didn’t fall down.

Saturday, Sunday we went to Naz cinema in Brick Lane and another one was Commercial Street, Paliseum cinema. At that time was very old Indian films like Mother India, Mughal-E-Azam.

Poster for Mother India, V&A Collections

Sometimes I went to the seaside – Southend, Ramsgate, Margate with friends, four or five of us by train. I take them because they didn’t know underground. London zoo and Madame Tussauds as well. Later I took my wife and children.

I was helping people, as well, fill up a form or write a letter but never take any money. Free, okay. At that time the only correspondence was letters. We couldn’t telephone in Bangladesh. Everybody send money to our families, £5, £6, £3, to buy land for paddy fields, rice fields. They were poor.

Taslim Ali bought three, four storeys building and made a mosque In Stepney. Sometimes, like Eid, we’d go. We can’t put our cap on the head, otherwise the skinhead fight with us. About 30 years ago Taslim Ali moved from there to East London. We call it East London Mosque. Three, four thousand people can pray together. Not only Bangladeshi, not only from Pakistan, from everywhere.

In 1971 the fighting started with Pakistan. Our area was little bit safe but in the other places they kill a lot of people. I was collecting money, blankets and every Sunday, Saturday we went to Hyde Park. Mr Abu Sayeed and Mr. Peter Shore our MP, he was also helping. When we independent in 1971 I make a Bangladesh passport.

After ten years I went home to see my family and also to marry. Everybody come to see me. In 1973, I make British passport and about 1978 I brought my son here with my wife. I got more children born here.

I like social work. When I was a boy I collect bamboo from every house for the primary school, I was a teacher here in the community school from 1992 until about two or three years ago. And I was a school governor in Canon Barnett for 20 years. In Bangladesh, we help poor people – orphans who, haven’t got enough money and are good student.

My father died and mother is alive but she is about 90 years old so sometimes I go to see her. My brothers cultivate the land. We’ve got jackfruit, coconut, pineapple, banana and mango trees. So many fruit – blackberries, lychees, melon. Vegetables as well – potatoes, tomato, beans, cabbage, cauliflower, carrot. Everything we’ve got ourselves. Now they got machines. Nobody else came, ‘til now, only myself.

Sylhet, Bangladesh. Photo by Eithne Nightingale 2013.

A lot of our people are now rich, got colour television, freezer, fridge. All over the world our people are working and sending money, making nice houses, buildings, hotel and hospitals.

Where I am living, the Spitalfields Market is nice because they refurbished it. Before all night it was noisy [laughs]. These are the green chillies (on Nurul’s balcony in his flat in Spitalfields market). We get the seed from Bangladesh. That’s why they are very hot. Very small but very, very hot. Too hot [laughs]. If you eat it, you will cry. In the wintertime I take them home, inside [laughs]. I like gardening. When I go to school in the evening time, morning time, I used to do it. That’s why I do here as well. My wife, she also like it.

Refurbished Spitalfields Market where Nurul Giani now lives. Photo by Eithne Nightingale 2013.


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