Explore the lives of Bengali and Sylheti-speaking communities 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 Nifa Karim-Uddin, a pharmacist, and her husband Moyen, a GP, who speak fondly of Norfolk as a ‘huge melting pot’ of cultures and histories.
We are Nifa Karim-Uddin and Moyen Uddin, and we are husband and wife. I was born on 21 February 1978, and my husband was born on 12 June 1977. I was born and raised in Portsmouth, and he was born and raised in Sylhet, Bangladesh and Cambridgeshire, UK. My father came to this country in the 50s. He was a businessman who owned his own restaurant. My mother came with my siblings in 1977. I was born in 1978. Our mother looked after the family, while our father kept himself busy helping the newly arrived Bengali community in Portsmouth to find their feet. When my husband first came to this country, he was five or six years old. Moyen’s father came to this country in the 50s-60s, and his mother came in the 70s. At first they lived in Bradford and Birmingham for a while, then they moved to Cambridgeshire. His father worked in this country most of the time, while his mother commuted regularly between the two countries. Both of our parents took responsibility for their village relatives throughout their lives, and Moyen’s father returned to Bangladesh following his retirement. He did not like the lonesome life endured by old people in this country, rather he wanted to live among his many relatives and friends in his native country. As a result, Moyen didn’t get to be with his father much. Moyen’s primary school life was spent in the UK, and his secondary school life was spent in Bangladesh. His parents wanted him to grow up knowing their culture as his own. At the age of sixteen he returned to his siblings here for medical treatment, and spent the rest of his student life here.
One of Moyen’s brothers lived in Norwich, so he used to commute to Norwich often. When Moyen was studying at King’s College London, one of his classmates from the pharmacy course, who was also a friend of mine from Portsmouth, introduced us. We got married when he was in his first year of medical school at UEA. As a result, we moved here to Norwich, settled here, and have built our social identity here for the last eighteen years. It’s nice to be here.
My husband is from a family of seven siblings (two brothers and five sisters), four of them are in Cambridge, one in London, one in Norwich. Moyen is the youngest. His brother used to commute to Norwich in the early 80s, and in later days he had various businesses here; catering, property-business, shops, etc. The restaurant was in Norfolk and it was called ‘Spice of India’, in Aylsham there was ‘Al-Amin’ Groceries or Cash and Carry. His family was one of the earliest well-established Bengali families of Norwich and Norfolk. In such a small community as this, we had a lot of help from his brothers in the beginning. Later, we made many good friends here. Everyone in the Bengali community here is very involved in each other’s lives.
I also come from a family of seven siblings, I am the sixth out of the seven. My siblings and cousins all live in Portsmouth, only I live in Norwich and my younger sister lives in Manchester. Everyone spoke Bangla at home, and English at school. My parents were vigilant about making sure that we didn’t forget our mother tongue. I, however, could not speak Sylheti Bengali as fluently as my other siblings. Later, I learned Sylheti well by speaking with my in-laws. Once in Norwich, I learned pure Bengali by mixing with different people from the Bengali community.
I had been to Bangladesh only once in my life before my marriage to Moyen, when I was eight years old. My father used to travel from this country to Bangladesh, while we used to stay here in the UK. Our education was a priority for both of our parents, so they did not want it disrupted in any way. However, that changed after marriage. I’ve visited to Bangladesh only four times in the eighteen years of my married life. When I first went to Bangladesh at the age of eight, we went together for four weeks. It was the months of July and August, with the scorching heat of monsoon. There were so many mosquitoes in the village, but the lifestyle was thoroughly satisfying. We all lived a secluded life back in Portsmouth, separated from each other and bound by routine but in Bangladesh we were all together in those open-planned mud houses, interacting with extended families in those big courtyards. It was a happy lifestyle. People would come to visit at any time of the day. We did not feel this sense of unity amongst our families in the busy life of England. We met so many aunts, uncles and cousins, what love and care they bestowed upon us! We had a glorious time there, it felt like a real homecoming. They cooked all sorts of food for us. We ate biryani, various types of bharta (mashed vegetables and dried fish), sweet pitha dumplings, etc. There is a significant difference between the rural food of Bangladesh and the Indian food that is served in the UK. In the rural areas of Sylhet, food is cooked with copious amounts of spicy chilli pepper, dry fish is cooked in plenty and various kinds of sour fruits are added to the stews to give a particular tart flavour to the curries.
Moyen’s early experience in Bangladesh was very similar. All his relatives lived together and he used to go to the village school. In the middle of his village, there was a big football field, and a pond where you could dive whenever you wanted – I learned to swim in that pond. As a child, Moyen also learned to swim by floating on a banana raft there. Floods happened every year, so it was essential to learn to swim and almost every house had a pond in front of it. There was no fear of traffic in the village. Village life was rustic but joyful and carefree. Later he moved to the city near the village. Like the cities here, the houses there were not small and overpopulated, where none could play football in the garden. City life was not very different from village life there. Moyen’s father worked hard in the UK so that his family could spend their days in happiness, peace and prosperity in Bangladesh. Moyen’s morning session school started at 7:30am and ended at 1pm, so his afternoon was free for sports. Many of his friends from that school later settled in the UK.
Most of the Bangladeshi community in Norwich are from Sylhet, and they came here mainly for business purposes such as starting catering businesses (restaurant-take away etc.) or retail-goods businesses. In keeping with the needs of the community, their business models have changed over the years. Cash and carry businesses have started. Businessmen’s families have grown, and their relatives have also joined in. I’m not sure how much they appreciate Norwich’s heritage. Many members of the community perform varied social responsibilities, and work for the community, so they may be aware of Norwich’s religious, academic, and educational background. Dragon Hall was the business centre of Norfolk and Norwich in those days, there was commercial contact with Europe and the rest of the world – we have now learnt about these things through the various programs that took place in Dragon Hall. While the Bengali community is generally well aware of Norwich’s cultural and religious heritage, it seems less aware of Norwich’s historical position in trade. On the other hand, people from Greater Norwich may know our Bangladeshi community mainly as restaurateurs, but do not seem to know much about Bangladeshi history and cultural heritage.
The people of Norwich are so friendly, the hospitality of the people where we live and work is overwhelming. We naturally socialise within the community. I can mix with people from other communities while playing professional and social roles, without hindrance of any kind. This is the first time that the people from the Bengali community in Norfolk have been interviewed and recorded, which is unprecedented for us. I don’t think anyone anywhere else in the UK is doing this kind of campaigning and archiving. People of the future will see that Norfolk is not only a historical place, but also a true melting pot, a meeting place of different cultures. It will undoubtedly be useful in future research and audits. We are a minority community in Norfolk; most people in Norfolk encounter us through our involvement in the catering business or the medical profession. Through this oral history project, they will get to know us better, discover our role in society, our heritage, our influence, etc. I think this will help to promote greater human to human goodwill in a multicultural society. If such projects become more widespread, we will also know more about other minority communities. To be honest, we didn’t know much about Dragon Hall or Norfolk’s medieval history when we first arrived. The biggest obstacle to our getting to know this was the lack of time and publicity. We didn’t even know about the National Centre for Writing, because we didn’t notice the impact this organisation has on our community or our lives, and we didn’t see it in the local newspaper or media. Not knowing what happens here or the ways in which the programmes here can cater for our kids or adults is also a hindrance. Through these projects and over the last eighteen years of seeing the cathedrals, the castles and the prisons here, we have come to know medieval Norfolk, National Centre for Writing and Dragon Hall intimately.
We have two sons, one is thirteen and the other is eleven. We share so many fun, cherished memories with them. I remember one time, when the eldest was three years old and the youngest was three months old, we stepped into the kitchen for a moment and the little boy rolled over on the couch onto the carpeted floor. Hearing him cry, we instantly ran and took him in our arms, and the elder one was pretending not to know how it happened at all! In fact, he might have tried to play with his younger brother. Seeing that such an incident could happen in a moment, we decided that we could not afford to let them out of our sight for even a moment. Moyen has happy memories of his elder son, who had difficulty falling asleep. It was Moyen’s responsibility to keep him one day a week when he was a student, as I had to go and do a lot of work. In the afternoon, he would go out for a drive to put the baby to sleep; a ten minute drive on the motorway would make the infant nod off, then he would come back and leave him sleeping in in the car outside the house, put a chair next to him and do his work. Moyen’s father was the sole breadwinner of the family, mothers traditionally took care of the children. As such division of family labour was not possible in our way of life, Moyen had to help me with many tasks so he understands the burden of a mother’s responsibilities. Before we moved to Wroxham, we lived in a small suburb. I used to go out with the boys almost every day in the summer when the weather was good. My four-year-old son had a toy Ferrari car, which he drove. Neighbours would wave when they saw him, and he would drive with one hand and wave with the other like a celebrity. However, following our move to Wroxham, not much has changed. There are many bungalow pattern houses on our street, where many elderly people live. Our community there is very friendly and kind. They love our sons Isaac and Zachary very much. The boys ride bicycles and electric hover boards, and the neighbours ask where they are if they don’t see them for a while.
I am a pharmacist myself, working at the Julian Hospital Mental Health Trust. My husband works as a GP in the Costessey area of Norwich. So much has changed now compared to when we first came to Norwich, and we have changed too. Now, Norfolk society is multicultural. When we first arrived, we were both working as pharmacists at Riverside and Boots, whilst he was a student at UEA. One day when a gentleman came to the Boots pharmacy, I was talking to a colleague about a patient and giving the gentleman a prescription. He wanted to speak to the pharmacist. When I came forward, he said ‘Gosh! You speak really good English for an Indian, don’t you?’ I had never heard such a thing in all my life, even in the twenty-six years of my life in Portsmouth. When I first came to Norwich I was very uncomfortable with things like this. Later I realised that such comments are not indicative of bigotry or discrimination, but only a lack of knowledge regarding we Asians and our ways. They don’t know that Asians can work here as equals and can speak fluent English. Moyen, however, explained patiently to me that the people of Norfolk were in fact very friendly, and that such remarks were not the product of discriminatory minds but rather arose from surprise. Even after moving to Wroxham, we became good friends with a neighbour couple named Barbara and Ed. Once Ed said ‘Your boys speak English very well! Before you moved here, a Dutch family lived there, their children couldn’t speak English so well.’ Barbara, however, was pinching Ed, because comments like that don’t always go down well. But we have a good relationship with them, they take care of our garden in our absence, and we also help them when we get a chance. When a lot of people are invited to the house, they allow us the use of their parking space. This couple is very sweet. In fact, Norwich had previously had mostly native Norwich residents, so their experience of multiculturalism was somewhat limited. They even consider people from Essex as foreigners in Norwich.
We have many relatives from Manchester and Portsmouth who have repeatedly asked us to move out and live there, but we love Norwich and its people, and wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.
Nifa Karim-Uddin (left) was born in Portsmouth in 1978. She lives in Wroxham with her husband, Moyen, and their two sons. She learned pure Bengali by mixing with people from the Bengali community in Norwich. A pharmacist by profession, she works at the Julian Hospital Mental Health Trust.
Moyen Uddin (right) was born in Sylhet, Bangladesh in 1977, and was raised between Sylhet, Bangladesh and Cambridgeshire, UK. He moved to Norwich with his wife, Nifa, and attended medical school at University of East Anglia. He lives with his wife and two children and works as a GP.
Stories From the Quarter is a National Centre for Writing project in partnership with Norfolk Record Office, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund.
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