Published on October 16th, 2020 | by Aftab Rahman2
‘COFFEE HOUSER SEI ADDATA’ – THE ITALIAN BANGLADESHIS HAVE ARRIVED
Those of you that have a Bangla heritage may know this famous Bangla song by Manna Dey called ‘Coffee Houser sei addata’. It’s a melancholy song of friends that used to meet up in a coffee house in their youth and now, through the gaze of an older self, one of them reflects how some of his friends have sadly come to pass. Those of you familiar with Bollywood songs may know that Manna Dey and Kishor Kumar gave voice to Sholay’s iconic song, Yeh Dosti. I could continue about the role of Bengalis in Bollywood; however, the subject of my blog is closer to home.
I sit at Aroma Coffee Shop on the Lozells road (Dipu Bhai, one of the owners is pictured left), and reflect on how the area has continued to change over the decades: with each wave of migration a new flavour is added to the landscape. Memories of my father come flooding back, when he used to take me to cafés in the 1980’s. One of the cafés I think was called Zindagi on Barker Street in Lozells; he gave me 10p to have a go at the fruit machines and I won £1.00. These places were often run by Bangladeshi men and their white girlfriends or wives in some instances. They doubled as a place to play cards and sometimes gamble after hours. They also provided a vital place for people to socialise, share information and support each other with finding employment.
In the mid-eighties my friends and I used to go to a place on Lozells Road called the Plaza, which was run by a Bangladeshi man known as ‘Blackie’. We used to play pool until our money ran out whilst older Bangladeshi and Pakistani men played cards and gambled. It was a smoke-filled affair and a cheap place for local neighbourhood kids to hang out. The area had several cafés back then and most of them were owned by Greek Cypriots and they had exotic names such as Acapulco, Riviera, Rendezvous etc. Some of them served food whilst most didn’t, and they made their money through pinball, games such as Pacman and Phoenix were very popular; some had pool tables and fruit machines. They were often edgy places with young men hanging around smoking cigarettes and occasionally spliffs if they could get away with it. Such was my fascination with cafés, that I ended up owning one, then called the Riviera. The place was the main feature of my last blog, ‘From Fighter to Writer?’. Towards the mid-nineties these places were being phased out by the government as gambling licenses for them were restricted for pubs and clubs.
We witnessed a new wave of coffee shops with the arrival of the Somalians in the early 2000’s, as they revived parts of Stratford Road which had been derelict for decades. In the next decade we saw a growth in coffee shops on the Villa Road from the Eritrean community, another area that was in need of revival. One of the first places to open was Champions Coffee Shop run by Beruke, and we have aptly named it Rasta Coffee. The place started with an internet café as well, but that has been phased out as demand no longer exists. It is a popular café now serving the best coffee in the city. Beruke takes pride in roasting his organic Ethiopian beans on site. He does a take away ground coffee service and my office and home never goes without. His place is like stepping into Africa, with African cable channels playing music on a large screen TV. There are growing numbers of cafés nearby and he complains that the trade is being saturated.
I was with Idrish last week and I told him about Aroma Cafe and how much I liked the place. With Idrish, there’s always a story; he tells me they are all from Shariat Pur near Forid Pur, where he is from in Bangladesh. He adds there was a very active student leader that became an ambassador in Italy, and leading up to the world cup hosted in Italy 1990 he asked the Italian officials for Visas for his fellow countrymen. He was given 20,000 Visas and he went back to Shariat Pur and spoke to many of the young men and encouraged them to travel to Italy. Many of them took up the offer and went to Rome and settled in the Vittoria Emanuel area. As it happened, some years ago we booked an Air B ‘n B in that area and it was like from home from home. We went to the local fresh food markets and half the stalls were run by Bangladeshi people selling various vegetables from Bangladesh as well as Italian fresh veg, fruit and fish. Idrish tells me that the area is the headquarters, similar to our Brick Lane in London, that’s where they go to on arrival and they support each other with accommodation and employment.
Over the last five years we have seen the settlement of Italian Bangladeshi migrants in Lozells and nearby areas. When you ask why they have arrived? they always say because of the education and being able to raise their children in an Islamic custom. They are also a lifeline to the many Bangladeshi restaurants that continually face staff shortages, as the established Bangladeshi community are opting for a professional career.
The patterns of migration appear to be similar for new arrivals across the world, settling into the poorest neighbourhoods and creating a new flavour to an area. We are so much richer for it as a community, to be able to sample a glimpse of a new culture adds something to a place, making it like new, without adjusting the built environment. Places like Lozells, Handsworth, Aston, Smallheath and other similar areas have the ability to absorb new arrivals and allow them to flourish and prosper. So, if you’re looking for authentic Bangladeshi street food and proper coffee that is reasonably priced then look no further than Aroma Cafe on Lozells Road. My favourite is the Bangla Nasta and Deshi tea. Maybe I’ll see you there!