Explore the lives of Bengali and Sylheti-speaking communaties living and working in the Cathedral and King St quarters of Norwich.
There are 14 excerpts in total for you to enjoy. You can download a Stories From the Quarter map here and embark on the walk yourself, or follow along online by listening to the story below. Explore Stories From the Quarter in full here →
Meet Khairul and Shireen Anam, a married couple of 42 years, who pioneered the Pohela Baisakh programme in our city.
We are Khairul Anam and Shireen Anam, married to each other for the last forty-two years. I was born in 1952 and Shireen was born in 1962. We now live in Bury near Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. We used to visit Norwich once a month, even after leaving Norwich in June 2021, but now we come whenever there’s an opportunity.
For the last 10-12 years we have celebrated the Pohela Baisakh programme in Norwich. On the occasion of this cultural programme, we mix with other Bengali families, and arrange pitha mela as well, where people bring various types of pitha dumplings and we eat them together. We were the pioneers of organising these kinds of programmes. In the beginning we were the catalysts who initiated the whole thing, we started by gathering four to five families to celebrate the Baisakh programme in our own house, then it snowballed into something bigger. it became tougher for us to cook and clean after the event due to its increased scale. Subsequently we decided to do the event in a rented hall. That’s how it started.
I arrived in London on 19 June 1994 with my wife and three children, each carrying a suitcase and a handbag. Before that we both had visited here twice, in 1982 and 1984 after our wedding, but I was in the UK in the 1970’s by myself for my professional studies. We were eager for a better education for our children. Upon arrival in June 1994, I left my family in London for a few days to look for accommodation in Aberdeen. Once the accommodation was secured, they joined me there. It was a major job relocation for me, from Bangladesh to the northern areas of the UK. Despite it being the month of June, it was very cold for me there. DfT (Department for Transport) offered me the job, which let us stay together as a family here in the UK. After three years in Aberdeen, we decided to relocate to the south, somewhere warmer. I moved to our office in Orpington, Kent and we lived in Tonbridge then. After two years of living there, we moved to Great Yarmouth, into the Norfolk office of the same Department on promotion. We moved again, so I could work in the Great Yarmouth office, and bought a house in Norwich. We moved to this house on 12 November 1999 and stayed there until 29 June 2021, nearly 22 years in Norwich altogether.
Norwich in those days was a small city, quieter maybe, than now. There weren’t many Asian or affluent people around, the city was not so cosmopolitan, neither was it diversely populated. People were closed off and aloof, and did not appear to talk to foreigners. Their accent was totally alien to us, initially we had some difficulties understanding it. But they were nice people, once we approached them and initiated a conversation they would talk. Then we started seeing lots of people arriving with jobs. There weren’t many houses like now, the city was far less populated. These days we see houses everywhere—even in the middle of a green field. Crime rates were low, insurance premium was low because of less crime, and there were less burglaries or incidents of car theft.
These days we live in Bury, Huntingdon, near our daughter’s place. Our grandson Mikhail is ten, and our granddaughter Zara is five and a half. We have a wonderful time seeing them fighting, running around or causing mischief and it reminds us of our own childhood. We do school runs. At least three days a week they come to visit us and spend time with us. Once they come here, they don’t want to go back home.
Shireen’s is a household of three siblings, and mine of four. I was born in Dhaka, but my father went to work in Chittagong within a year of my being born. My school life, college life, sports, joining Marine Academy, joining Bangladesh Shipping Corporation as a cadet—all happened in Chittagong. I did not like mathematics, but I loved football, cricket, going to camping – everything sports related. In year nine, I learnt a lot of crafts, woodwork, metalwork, electrical jobs skills, etc. at school. As a cadet I sailed around the whole world on my sea voyages. For just over three years I served on two ships only, and went from my first ship to the second in Germany on transfer. Then I came to the UK to get my certificate of competency as an officer of the merchant navy. I came to study in South Shields near Newcastle, and returned to Chittagong from here after sailing on foreign ships for nearly two-and-a-half years. My parents were from Sylhet, but grew up in Chittagong. Shireen was the same, born in Sylhet but brought up in Chittagong.
My parents were ideal parents. My father was a very hard working and honest civil servant and a meteorologist. His fixed salary income was all we had, upon earning it he gave it to my mother and no more was said about it. My mother managed the whole household with that money. She was a quiet sort, soft and loving, never raised her voice. I tried always to be like my father. A very strict man, he was my role model. Unfortunately, none of my parents are alive today.
Shireen’s family background was similar. Her father was also a government officer – police officer, it was a transferrable job. At the age of nine or ten, they started living with their mother. Shireen’s father used to work in Dhaka and its surrounding areas, and in North Bengal. Her parents were very loving parents, they never spoke in anger, the home atmosphere was relaxed. Parents and siblings spent those days of childhood laughing and playing happily. At eight o’clock in the evening, her father would sit them down for dinner and calmly enquire if they had finished their studies for the day. He used to tell Shireen stories of his boarding school, where there was sometimes a shortage of food, and boarders had to eat rice with pineapple. Shireen’s mother, however, was quick to get angry. If Shireen did something mischievous, she would hide behind her father to shelter away from her mother’s fury. Shireen’s mother was a brilliant cook, she also excelled in handicrafts and sewing.
I am the eldest amongst the siblings. My brother went to the US as a doctor on 1 July 1994, after working as a doctor in Saudi Arabia; the same day, I started working with DfT in the UK. Sadly, he passed away on 20 November 2020, his wife and three sons still live in America. My two sisters and their husbands live in Bangladesh – a big family with children and grandchildren. A deep friendship and profound bond connects us all, and we visit the country at least once a year, sometimes twice. Shireen’s siblings live in Dhaka and her mother lives with her brother.
I lived in Bangladesh for 42 years since I was born, spent two years in Sweden, and before that came to study in the UK for two years. Shireen came with me in 1984, when our son Adil was one-year-old. As I was busy with studies, Shireen had to deal with taking care of our son, by completing housework, shopping, cooking, etc. It was a very difficult time. I passed all exams at the first attempt and finally obtained the UK Certificate of Competency as Captain in 1984. All of this would not have been possible in such a short span of time without Shireen’s full support. When we were on the ship, Shireen used to cook, bake cakes, make tea, coffee, and orange juice for me.
Adil, Rumana and Raeesa are the names of our three children. They were quiet children, we taught them music by hiring a music teacher when they were in their early school days but sadly, they have forgotten much of their music lessons by now. Raeesa can’t speak Bengali fluently, but Adil and Rumana can. They also eat Bangladeshi food, and cook local food. Everyone is a graduate, everyone is working. Adil is an IT Analyst, Rumana is working in Stryker Medical Devices Company, and Raeesa is in London with Johnson & Johnson.
In our eyes, the most beautiful country in the world is definitely our country, Bangladesh. In 1973 I went to South Africa, and stayed there for ten days. It was a beautiful place. Although there were many conflicts between the natives, the people were very friendly there. In South Africa I have seen separate signs on buses for whites and non-whites. Bank counters, hospitals and schools were similarly segregated too. It was a very unfortunate and painful sight of apartheid. I also went to Mauritius, visited Egypt, France, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland and many many more countries. What Shireen enjoyed the most, however, was a holiday trip we took together to Thailand. I have visited many countries as a ship’s officer. After saying goodbye to the sea in 1986, I travelled to different countries by plane on business trips but to date it is the beauty of South Africa which shines brightest in my memory.
I am in touch with many friends from my primary school days, I am also in regular contact with many friends from Chittagong College. Thanks to Facebook and WhatsApp, I have been able to keep in touch with them all. Whenever we go back to Bangladesh, we organise chats and dinners together. I am proud of this circle of old friends. However, since Shireen got married at a young age, she does not have much contact with friends from her youth, these days she has only one friend – it is easy to guess who that friend is!
To commemorate our wedding, Shireen brought her second-best saree from her wedding day, as she could not find the main wedding saree. The wedding saree had to be red. As for the second saree, this pure silk saree is as soft as it is light. A couple of years before the wedding, my ship stopped in Madras (now known as Chennai), and I bought some sarees for the wedding. Shireen has taken care of that same saree for the last 42 years. An auntie of mine, who is the wife of Shireen’s father’s friend, took the initiative when it came to arranging our marriage. We were supposed to meet at a wedding, but didn’t. Later, on a day when Shireen’s parents were not at home, my mother, two aunties and I went to their house on a surprise visit. This was how we were introduced to each other over a cup of tea. The rest was arranged within the family. We signed the marriage agreement on 7 April 1980. After our engagement, I went back to the ship for work and in due course our marriage was arranged on 26 October 1980. After the marriage, my mother gave me a huge prayer mat woven by her own hands on canvas; who knows how many days it took her to weave such a big and lovely prayer mat!
Shireen works here as an interpreter and translator. She gets to hear and learn so many people’s incredible life stories. Her life lessons are tolerance and surrender. My life lesson is to respect people, as respect will always come back to you. Maybe trust also – when dealing with shipping customers, in government work, mutual trust is a big deal. I have encountered so many people, from so many different walks of life, I have learned a lot from that diversity. I qualified for my captain’s certificate in 1984 from South Shields, and subsequently left my job as a ship’s captain when my children started school. I then joined Bangladesh Shipping Corporation as Deputy General Manager. They sent me to Sweden to do MSc in Shipping Management. After returning from Sweden, I became the general manager. After resigning from that job, I joined DfT in the UK as a Ship Surveyor-inspector and Examiner of Nautical officers.
Over the past 28 years, the UK has become more tolerant than ever before. Though I encountered some racist incidents while studying at South Shields, the laws were strict in DfT— peoples’ conduct was excellent. Discrimination hinders the development of a country, and badly damages social harmony. To highlight another significant change, we used to go out for fish and chips or chicken and chips in the 1970’s, now we go for curry.
Shireen says the happiest day of her life was her wedding day. For myself, I would say that day was the day I qualified for my captain’s certificate.
Khairul Anam (pictured left), also known as Shaheen, was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 1952. He was raised in Chittagong, before moving to the UK with his wife and three children in 1994. He lived in Aberdeen and Orpington, before arriving Norwich in 1999, where he worked as a Ship Surveyor for Department for Transport.
Shireen Anam (pictured right), also known as Paru, was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh in 1962. She was raised in Chittagong, before moving to the UK with her husband and three children in 1994. She arrived in Norwich in 1999, and her family became the pioneers of organising Pohela Baisakh programmes in the city. She enjoys baking and spending time with her children and grandchildren.
Stories From the Quarter is a National Centre for Writing project in partnership with Norfolk Record Office, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Discover the stories of Khairul and Shireen Anam, a married couple who travelled the world before settling in Norwich for over twenty years, where they helped to organise the Pohela Baisakh programme.
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