“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.
“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.
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 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.
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.