A dying body attracts vultures

Ziauddin Sardar in riot-torn Oldham finds no scent of curry, no sound of Bollywood, no evidence of e

It is 10.50 on Friday morning and I am the only Asian in Oldham town centre. Regulars begin to gather in small groups waiting for the Weatherspoon pub to open. Old men in shirtsleeves mingle with heavily tattooed younger men and skinheads. Within half an hour, the pub is full. Chairs are rearranged as small cliques form themselves. I try to be inconspicuous sitting quietly in a corner, playing spot the Asians so notable by their absence. I can feel many eyes on me, clocking my presence and noting that I am an outsider.

The whole of Oldham feels as if it is trapped in an old Hammer horror movie. There seems to be an ever-present sense of menace - and not even the smallest hint of a general election. There are no billboards, no posters, and no one out campaigning. The shoppers seem muted and listless. What I knew of Oldham before I arrived had been gleaned from Newsnight and its reports on the area's estates that are on a downward spiral of degradation. I never saw an Asian face in any of them.

It is hard to believe this is an area of "high Asian immigration". The Asian areas of Westwood and Glodwick are quite unlike any I have ever seen. There is no smell of "curry" in the air, no sounds of Bollywood hits in the background. The stench around the area is the universal stink of abject poverty. It is what gives the Asian faces of Oldham that stark look of helplessness and total alienation.

In Glodwick Road, I spot three young men outside an "Indian take-away". Ghazanfar Ali has a business studies background but no job. Imran Mohammad is a fitness instructor with no one to instruct. Majid Khan worked as a shop assistant, but the shop has closed. They have given up the idea of ever working again. "We are the undergrowth, the weeds," says Ali. "When Gordon Brown talks of opportunity for all, we are not included in the all," he says. "But at least they left us alone," Mohammad joins in, "now they want to pour pesticide on us."

The three begin to get excited, and I find myself surrounded by a small crowd. They start to shout at me simultaneously. "If there is an election on, why aren't they coming here to kiss our babies?" "Why can't the police do something about the National Front thugs?" "Tell William Hague we are not foreigners. We was born here."

This England, this Asian Oldham, has no time for politicians, police or people of the press. Everyone has a story to tell about the police. How they failed to turn up after repeated and desperate calls. How they always arrest the Asians and do nothing about the skinheads. In the recent case of a white pensioner beaten up by Asian youths, even the victim's family doubted that the motive was anti-white racism. Yet the police insisted it was.

"We are being painted as racists," says Mohammad Latif, an unemployed IT worker. "But who are the real racists? The white youth who abuse our chil- dren? The police who do nothing about it? The politicians who go on about asylum-seekers and floods of immigrants?"

Have you turned this area into a no-go area for whites, I ask the gathered crowd. At that very moment, a heavily pregnant white woman pulls up in a car right beside us. Majid Khan calls out to her: "OK, love. Do you feel threatened?" She laughs. "Should I be?" "Other people can come here," says Khan, "but we can't go to other areas."

Iqbal "Zebra", who drives a taxi, suggests I go with him to the Breeze Hill High School on Roxbury Avenue. For the past week, National Front members and sympathisers have been causing trouble at the school. "The police know what's happening but they have done nothing," says Iqbal. I arrive in the middle of a stand-off. A mob of white youths is standing in front of the school and shouting racist abuse at the emerging Asian children. Two Asian pupils tell me they have just taken their exams. Suddenly, bricks and stones start flying. Squads of police arrive and I see them arrest four Asian youths. But no white youth is arrested.

It is 10.30 on Saturday morning and children are being ushered into religious classes in Bradford's Lamb Lane. The area has a very strong Islamic identity. The newly built Jamiat Tabligh ul Islam Mosque - an unimaginative conservative building of Yorkshire grey stone with a stuck-on dome of black granite - at the city end of the road, sets the scene for what follows. A mosque every furlong, Koranic schools, shops selling religious books and devotional trinkets, travel agents advertising flights to Mecca. The smell in the air is of itar, the oil-based Indian perfume used by devotional Muslim men. The background vibrations are of Koranic recitation. The atmosphere is relaxed and upwardly mobile.

Mohammad Malik has just opened his shop. A sticker on the door suggests that he is a Conservative supporter. Inside Haji and Sons Cloth House, surrounded by yards and yards of colourful fabric, I ask Malik about the situation in Oldham.

"We have to look after our own interests," he says. Just a few years ago, Lamb Lane was famous for prostitution. "There must have been around 200 prostitutes in the less than two miles that make up Lamb Lane," he says. The community got together to do something about it, Malik explains. They organised themselves and started a campaign to drive the prostitutes out of the area. "It is only when we began to take action that the police began to take notice of our plight," he says. "That's just what the people in Oldham have to do. They have to stand up and fight for their cause." The Conservatives, says Malik, would provide Asian communities with just such an opportunity. "They understand tradition, appreciate religious values, and are tough on law and order."

At United Travel, at the other end of Lamb Lane, Raja Hamid Rashid could not disagree more. Rashid is a strong Labour supporter. "There is only one main cause of the riots in Oldham," he says. "It is the Conservatives. The poverty in Oldham is not a product of the past couple of years. It is a result of over a decade of Thatcher rule, of neglect of inner-city areas, specifically with large Asian populations." The Tories, he adds, have a habit of inciting racist fires at every election. "There is a tradition going back to Enoch Powell and his 'rivers of blood' speech. The National Front first targeted Oldham after John Townend's 'mongrel race' comment. Before that, hardly anyone was conscious of Oldham's existence," says Rashid.

Bradford's Asian areas could not be further removed from those of Oldham. While Oldham seems uniformly deprived and populated by the unemployed working classes, Bradford's Lamb Lane, Oak Lane and Barker End Road bristle with life and energy. There is evidence everywhere of an eclectic mix of races as well as classes.

Meriam Ahmad is an education co-ordinator for Bradford education authority. You need to understand two things about Oldham, she tells me, adjusting her headscarf. "Oldham is primarily an issue of poverty and social exclusion, not of race. And my generation of Asians are not meek and humble. That's one bit of our parents' tradition we have surely rejected. So you are asking for trouble if you allow National Front thugs into acutely deprived Asian areas." The Conservative rhetoric of recent weeks, from "foreign land" to "mongrel race", is evidence that the Tories are callously manipulating race for short-term ends. "That's why the young Asian vote in Brad- ford is predominantly Labour," she says.

It is 5.30 in the evening and Manchester's Wilmslow Road, aka "the curry mile", is in full swing. The smell of spices is offset by the smell of sweetmeats. There are bright colours everywhere - but the strongest colour is the intense yellow of pure 22-carat gold, shimmering behind display windows of a string of jewellery shops. At Royal Naz Indian Restaurant, which looks from the outside like an amusement arcade, the award-winning chef Azra Parveen Fazal is harbouring a muted resentment against Robin Cook.

A charming woman, Parveen is very proud of her achievement. She has won several local, regional and national awards for her "curry dishes". Trophies and certificates adorn the bar of the restaurant. She is not very forthcoming in English. So I switch to Urdu and she bursts into animated exchange.

By declaring "chicken tikka masala" a national dish, Cook has insulted the Asians, she says. The masala in chicken tikka, which should actually have no masala, consists of nothing more than cream, milk, tomato puree, curry powder and red colour. The traditional Asian masala, in contrast, contains fresh coriander, red and green chilli, turmeric, and a host of other freshly ground spices. "If they can't even tell the difference between an authentic dish and a shoddy fake, how are they going to appreciate the vast diversity of the Asian community?" A Labour supporter, Parveen is now thinking of voting Conservative.

Across the road at Star Jewellers, the proprietor, Khalid, echoes Parveen's thoughts. "I am fed up of being seen in faceless, monolithic terms," he says. "We don't want to be seen as Labour supporters, or Conservative supporters, or Liberal Democrat supporters. Each Asian community has its own problems as well as its own strengths. The problem in Oldham is how to get out of the poverty trap. Our problem in Rusholme is how to preserve our prosperity. And you can't solve either of these problems by making race the main issue."

"It's the politicians," he says. "They have made Asians into a problem. Labour's Terrorism Act has turned all Muslims into potential terrorists; Hague's rhetoric has made us all foreigners. The asylum bill encourages the whites to see all Asians as suspect scroungers." Race will be a problem for the white community, Khalid says, until they learn really to appreciate Asian food. "Only when they learn to differentiate between Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi food, Moghal, Punjabi, and South Indian dishes, and realise that rogan gosht is much more than a curry, will they be able to understand the astonishing variety of Asian life in Britain."

It is 11.10 on Sunday morning and there is a deathly silence in the Westwood area of Oldham. The Bangladeshi community here was spared the ferocity of the Saturday-night riot that took place in the Pakistani area of Glodwick. The Bengal Food Store, beside the Oldham Jamia Mosque (a converted house) and the office of the British Bengali Community Council, is open. The store-owner, Mr Younus, offers me a rough-and-ready paan: betel nuts wrapped in a betel leaf. The police say they were totally taken by surprise by last night's riots, I open the conversation. "When you are invisible," Younus replies, "nothing you do can be seen." Oldham was on the verge of eruption for weeks. The only surprise was that no one saw it. Younus thinks for a moment. "A dying body attracts vultures. But someone with even a little life would try and fight them off."

Ziauddin Sardar, writer and broadcaster, describes himself as a ‘critical polymath’. He is the author of over 40 books, including the highly acclaimed ‘Desperately Seeking Paradise’. He is Visiting Professor, School of Arts, the City University, London and editor of ‘Futures’, the monthly journal of planning, policy and futures studies.

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2001 issue of the New Statesman, A dying body attracts vultures