Len Williams

Freelance Writer

Category: Uncategorized

Ethiopian ethnic: how migrants use culture for commerce

The decision that a lot of migrants make, to use their own ethnicity for the sake of commerce, is very common. I myself have done it – in the past I’ve worked abroad as an English teacher. Some students I had in France expressly chose me as a teacher over, say, Americans, because they thought the British accent was simply more ‘correct’ – my accent literally won me work. Which is odd really – my only real qualification over the competition was the fact I happen to be British. This use of culture as a means of making money is also quite problematic – it depends on reusing other people’s stereotypes (the unfounded French belief that British English is somehow better than American English) as an advantage.

I came away with a very similar impression after I spent an hour or so one Saturday afternoon in the Hamer Ethiopian Restaurant just near Finsbury Park station. I’d been talking to the owner, Hana Teklmariam, and Biruk Teklu another Ethiopian who happened to be in the restaurant and helped interpret my questions. I’d eaten at the restaurant before – it’s one of four or five Ethiopian restaurants in Finsbury Park, serving the capital’s reasonably large community—according to ONS statistics there are around 15,000 Ethiopians in the UK of which 11,000 live in London.

Hana told me that her restaurant is the third in a series of Ethiopian restaurants which have been housed on the site, the first of which was launched about 25 years ago and was, she said, the first Ethiopian restaurant in the UK. The owner of that enterprise apparently emigrated to the US, and Hana eventually took over the business from its second owner after having worked there following her arrival in 2003. Today, she works 24/7 keeping the place going according to Biruk, who informed me “she is a very friendly lady; everyone here loves her”.

Hana is in her forties and was wearing a white headdress and a beige top. Besides being the manager, she’s the head chef and employs another Ethiopian woman to be front of house. After a faltering dialogue with Hana, Biruk, who was wearing jeans and a sports jacket, took me on a tour of the establishment. We had a look in the kitchen where Hana had something bubbling away in a pot, and he showed me some massive piles of cling-filmed injera, a kind of large, slightly sour-tasting pancake which serves as the base of a lot of Ethiopian food.

Injera wrapped in cling film

Injera, ready to be ingested

Besides being a restaurant, Hana’s place also serves as a food store, and she imports spice mixes and other produce from east Africa. Hana told me most of her clientele will be Ethiopians, although they do get customers from other nearby African countries plus, obviously, locals like me. No one was really eating, it was about 4.30pm after all, but there were a handful of men sat alone at the tables, drinking St George, a very good Ethiopian lager.

Curious decor

While Biruk gave me a tour of the premises, we started discussing the way Hana had chosen to decorate her restaurant. Quite strikingly, above the bar on the ground floor were six tableaux depicting various Ethiopian ethnic groups. I find there’s something pretty cringeworthy about ‘exotic’ representations of African tribespeople, but there they were, hung up above the bar, bare breasted women carrying baskets on their heads. And it carried on much the same upstairs too.

Decorations on the bar depicting Ethiopian ethnic groups

Bar decorations painted on dried animal skin

On one wall was a photo of a ‘tribesman’ and on the low communal tables were more photos of men and women in traditional gear. Besides the slightly cringeworthy images of ethnic groups, there was a wall painted with a selection of letters and numbers from the Ge’ez alphabet, an ancient script now only used as a formal language in Ethiopian churches. And there was a photo of the Obelisks of Axum, an Ethiopian national symbol which was finally returned to the country from Italy in 2005 after being plundered on the orders of Mussolini in the 1930s.

Wall with Ge'ez alphabet paintings

The Ge’ez alphabet

The upstairs of the restaurant

The low tables upstairs – note table images and wall decorations

Picture of the obelisks of Axum

Picture of the obelisks of Axum

So, I was quite curious about the way Hana had chosen to decorate her restaurant. Was it not tapping into foreign ideas about what Ethiopia and Ethiopians are like? Surely it was a bit of a simplistic use of imagery? Biruk inadvertently gave me some answers.

National Geographic

At one stage, we were discussing a picture of a bearded Ethiopian man on the wall, topless, with a cloth round his waist and an AK 47 slung over his shoulder. “This man is from the Hamer tribe, they are famous in our country for not wearing clothes. But now, one generation coming to the next, they are now covering up their private parts. But, they are famous for walking around naked all the time” he grinned, “like something in the National Geographic!”

Biruk then went on to tell me about the different ethnicities in Ethiopia, telling me there are over 82 in the country. He said he was from the Amhara ethnic group, who, as I understand, make up the majority of Ethiopians in London (and are the second largest ethnic group in Ethiopia at 27% according to Index Mundi). Hana, however, was from the Hamer ethnic group herself (hence the name of the restaurant), who make up just 0.1% of Ethiopia’s population (according to Wikipedia). Hamer people are, according to Biruk, a nomadic group who live “far, far in the south of Ethiopia”.

A depiction of some Hamer women

A depiction of some Hamer women

What really struck me about Hana’s restaurant was that she was not only using her ethnicity to advertise her restaurant to the wider world, but also within London’s Ethiopian community itself. Coming from a tiny minority within her own country, who are seen as ‘exotic’ and perhaps even a bit backwards by more cosmopolitan Ethiopians (that National Geographic reference), Hana seemed to be using that cultural identity as a means of differentiating the business in a relatively crowded market—there are already a handful of Ethiopian restaurants in Finsbury Park, including a competitor next door and plenty more in nearby Holloway.

Walking a fine line

Before I’d ever heard of the Hamer people, I would quite probably have assumed that Hana’s restaurant was more or less typically Ethiopian, when in fact it was a pretty unrepresentative vision of Ethiopia. And what struck me as particularly interesting was the fact that she’d chosen to emphasise a very specific idea of her own ethnic group to other Ethiopians living abroad; a sort of taste of home yet also a taste of the exotic. A bit like me moving to Madrid and visiting a Scottish restaurant.

In a way, tapping into one’s own cultural symbols—be that the fact I have an English accent or paintings of topless women—is a perfectly reasonable way of differentiating one’s business. But, the risk you run is of being misunderstood, and especially so for anyone who’d never heard of the tiny Hamer ethnic group; only an Ethiopian would know what that word signified.

Towards the end of the tour, Hana told me the restaurant would soon be having a makeover and begin selling a wider range of dishes, including a uniquely Hamer dish (at present, no Hamer food is sold on the menu as “it’s harder for other people to eat”). It’ll be interesting to see what kinds of imagery Hana will use to represent the place after the revamp, how she’ll use those cultural symbols and the kind of story she’ll want to tell about herself and the place she’s from.

Traces of past and present at the Brick Lane Mosque

“When you become an Imam, you have to be seen to be serious when you’re walking down the street” said Yasin. “But, one advantage is I do get discounts on food in the shops along Brick Lane”, he broke into a grin.

We were stood on the first floor of The Brick Lane Jamme Masjid, also known as the Brick Lane Mosque. Both floors are covered in thick blue carpet, woven in Turkey and paid for by the worshippers – for £37,000. The carpet is a recent addition – the previous carpet had become threadbare from repeated kneeling worshippers, who attend five times a day, every day.

Inside the mosque

Inside the mosque

“It’s outrageously expensive to maintain” explained Yasin, who’s in his early 30s. The heating bill during winter alone cripples the committee’s budget, and they can’t improve insulation by replacing the large arched windows which line the walls on three sides of the large square space since the mosque is a listed building. English Heritage stipulates that if the mosque is to replace its windows, it will need to replicate the existing frames, at a cost of about £2,000 apiece.

The problem for the mosque is that the building itself is very old. Perhaps the most evocative symbol of the history of London’s east end, the Georgian building was built in 1743 by French Huguenot weavers who were fleeing religious persecution in their homeland. They opened cloth factories in the surrounding neighbourhoods and opened the church for their community. Over the next 150 years or so it went through the hands of different Christian denominations and associations before being converted into a synagogue in the 19th century by Russian and Eastern European Jews fleeing pogroms.

The Jews followed a strikingly similar pattern to the Huguenots – enriching themselves in the East End’s cloth factories before moving north out to the suburbs. By the 1960s the area around Brick Lane had once again evolved dramatically. A nascent Bangladeshi community was, once again working in the East End’s cloth factories and, in 1976 had pooled together to buy the now empty building. “Until then, the community would mainly worship in peoples’ homes, or they’d head out to the Regent’s Park mosque”.

I asked Yasin what the future of the building might be – as London’s Bangladeshis make the gradual migration out to Dagenham and Leyton, might the building be exchanged again? The future he couldn’t tell me, although he knew of mosques further out east where Bangladeshis and their British children and grandchildren had begun worshipping.

Sttreet view of the mosque

Street view of the mosque with minaret

For now, the mosque is still very busy. When I visited on a sunny Saturday afternoon in April, the ground floor was still relatively busy with men sitting around with prayer beads. Like any religious building, the mosque offers more than a place to worship. It also hosts weddings and funeral rites, Arabic and Koranic lessons for children on the 2nd floor after school and provides prayers in three languages – English, Sylheti (a variation of Bengali) and Arabic. There are different imams fluent in each respective language; Yasin was the first native English speaker and was sought out by the mosque because of a growing awareness that many of the younger generations of worshippers could only just about understand their parents’ and grandparents’ Sylheti – let alone Arabic. Besides prayer and learning, the mosque also offers additional services – from mentoring youngsters to providing help with visas and other social matters for new arrivals.

Most worshippers at the mosque originate from Sylhet Division in north east Bangladesh and arrived en masse from the 1950s onwards. However, roots were planted up to a century earlier in East London by lascars, skilled Sylheti seamen who worked on the boats of the British East India Company, many of whom ended up in this part of town at the end of long voyages.

Yasin explained that the mosque is also attended by a handful of Somalians who come for prayers in Arabic. And there’s also a fascinating Italo-Bangladesih delegation too. “They arrived only a few years ago – people originally from Bangladesh but who were living in Italy for many years. As the economy got bad there, they’ve moved on to London to find work”. Yasin explained the weird conundrum this poses – people of the same origin as himself, with a similar culture, yet whom he shares no common language. “We get by in English”. Like everyone.

If the building continues to have a close relationship with new migrants, the traces of its past incarnations are never far behind. On the second floor, a network of stairs and passages leads to a set of classrooms. Framed above the door of one is a stone plaque inscribed with a Hebrew prayer. “We do sometimes get some of the older Jewish community visiting who can remember when this was a synagogue. One of them translated me that prayer in full – though I can’t quite remember what it says”.

The Hebrew Prayer

The Hebrew Prayer

The building will have changed a lot for those Jewish visitors. Since the Muslims moved in, the cavernous body of the building has been stripped, and architects added a floor with a gap in the middle where worshippers can look down. At major festivities such as Eid, the addition of this floor means the building can now seat up to 3,000 people. Most of the time, the first floor accommodates female worshippers who cannot mix in the same space as men. In the past, Yasin explained, the ground floor was covered in a cascade of seats, typical of some synagogues.

Down in the basement, other traces of the building’s past are testament to its particularly Gallic origins. Two huge arched cellars keep the air still and chilled – perfect for storing wine. At Eid in the 21st century, worshippers break the fast in the cellar over a huge feast.

The basement

The basement

Back out on the street, I’m surrounded by today’s ever changing Brick Lane. A couple of hundred yards north, the slightly seedy and identikit Bangladeshi brasseries peter out into a series of ‘vintage’ clothing shops, hip cafes, street food stalls and weird chocolate shops, among other tourist traps (although there’s still a couple of decent Jewish bagel shops hanging on in there). Crowds of presumably bemused central Europeans listen to bearded men wax lyrical about graffiti artists, Chinese tourists swan by in pairs and hustlers try to talk you into a curry with a free naan and a pint of Tiger.

I think about Yasin and his story. He told me about his decision to become and Imam – “I never exactly planned it, but I loved teaching and it somehow just happened”. I think about how he’s aware that when he’s out on the street, he needs to keep up a composed appearance, even though in his private life he doesn’t feel like a very serious person. And then I disappear into the crowd, another visitor to Brick Lane.

© 2017 Len Williams

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