Blackburn by Avaes Mohammad
I was born and raised in Blackburn. Though set in deepest Lancashire, growing up in the city felt like a mini-India or Pakistan at times, divorced from the rest of Britain by place, race and time. I lived amongst a mainly Muslim Gujarati community, all my local streets were inhabited by South Asian families. Even in the early 1980s there were three main mosques in our area alone, split along lines of ideology as well as national, sometimes regional, South Asian identities. All meat was halal and every grocer sold the curry essentials. The bygone days that teachers would reminisce over in school, where doors were left open and children would be free to safely walk in and out of homes, was still a lived reality in our area. As a result, by the time I was five I was fluent in English, Gujerati and Urdu, as well as my own mother-tongue, Kutchi.
At school I would learn of the town’s proud industrial heritage; a time when every home was a mini-factory. I would return home to live that reality too as my mother sewed cloth and my father and I would cut the threads, delivered and collected by wealthier immigrants with more business sense. We would go to school during the day, attend mosque to learn the Qur’an in the evening, and play the South Asian street game, Galli-Danda - a kind of cricket but with sticks - in-between. My parents were wise to ensure my primary education was delivered at an all-white school on the other side of town, otherwise my only interaction with White England would have been at the hands of the National Front who would pass by occasionally to touch up their graffiti and steal our toys.
Integration and the far right were the major challenges facing the working class Muslim community in Blackburn, at least while I was growing up. Integration and the far right, with, I must add, dashes of poverty. Naturally, my experiences of growing up are inextricably linked to the history of the area. A former mill-town, Blackburn sits nestled between solid Lancastrian hills, visible demarcations defining natural limits. It became one of the world’s first industrialised towns, off the back of its thriving textile manufacturing industry, a proud trailblazer and boom-town of the industrial revolution. Since the mid-twentieth century however, it has suffered greatly, like many other northern England post-industrial towns, with issues of deindustrialisation, unemployment, poor housing and poverty. There was another feature which would, inevitably, exert upon the town yet another dimension of transformation. From as early as the 1950s, Blackburn began experiencing steady migration from a significant number of mainly Muslim migrants from India and Pakistan. The large majority of this migration originated specifically from the Bharuch or Surat areas of Gujarat in India and the Mirpur region of Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Both are rural areas of the Subcontinent and, in some ways, share similarities with the general landscape of East Lancashire: Mirpur has hills of its own and Gujarat had a thriving textile industry, which the one in Blackburn would have sought inspiration from during the period of the Raj.
The steady stream of migration has now become a notable feature of the town. Today, Blackburn hosts the highest proportion of Muslims in the UK outside London. The 2001 census showed that 25 per cent of the town’s approximately 100,000 inhabitants were Muslim – the national average is only three percent. The population has now risen to an estimated 44,000 Muslims – an impressive figure but one with a few social consequences. Not surprisingly, Blackburn has attracted growing media interest over the years.