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From fighter to writer?

April 13, 2020
Outside the Riviera Amusement on Lozells Road – 1991

I’ve probably lost more fights than I won, but along the way I’ve broken a couple of noses and in return I’ve got a fractured skull for it….but the important thing is that “I stood and fought”.

I was born in May 1970 in Bangladesh and I was one years’ old during the Liberation War. It would appear that the fighting spirit of the Mukti Bahini (freedom fighter) has been imbued up on me…I’ve had fights and arguments in Bangladesh and the UK.  I came to the UK at the age of six in 1976 and lived in Lozells in Birmingham through some of its most violent periods.

Violence was never far away, on reflection it started at home when corporal punishment was meted out on a regular basis. Raising seven children in one household had its challenges.  Being a naughty child meant that I was often punished, my mum use to instruct me to get a singla (branch) from the garden, which was used as a weapon of choice. My father was more brutal, a belt or his knuckles would do the trick. I recall one beating over the head with a belt buckle, which left me bleeding.

Growing up in the eighties meant regular racist abuse and violence. It was a period when ‘Paki bashing’ was a pastime for racist thugs and I had my fair share. I was aged 11 years old when a group of us went blackberry picking in Burberry Park after school. We were chased by four adult skin heads. We all ran for our lives and I hid in a bush to escape. I was found and a skin head smashed an egg on my head and he said, ‘I’m saving this for the other one’ and ran off. These were usual occurrences and we lived in fear. Nursery road divided Lozells and Newtown. If you crossed Nursery road and went into Newtown, there was a good chance that you would be chased and beaten. So we avoided it as much as we could. I had a cousin who lived in Newtown and whenever we visited, it was with trepidation. My cousin had a lot of fights for simply trying to get home.

In our early teens, during the eighties, the threat came from African Caribbean boys. They would stop us and ‘tax’ us. In the nineties the threat came from Pakistani boys. 

Being of Bangladeshi heritage means that we are the smaller of the south Asian communities and viewed as the poor cousins. The family unit joined our fathers in the seventies and eighties, which placed us at a disadvantage from the Indian and Pakistani community who joined them almost immediately after post war Britain. This meant we were slower to integrate and learn the language. My older brother was inspired by Bruce Lee, I would see him practice his moves in the living room. He wasn’t the only one, many Bangladeshi young men joined Kung Fu clubs to learn to defend themselves. My cousin was a regular at Laugar Kung Fu and I joined him for a couple of weeks. But the weekly fees of £3.50 was far too much to spend on one child, so I had to drop out.

However, this did not deter me from learning to fight. I was part of a group of Bangla boys that played football and sports on the streets and the local parks. We also took part in ‘kusthi’ (wrestling), we were the teenage equivalent of young bulls testing our strength and techniques. I wasn’t the strongest, but I was tenacious and I learned a few techniques that allowed me to beat bigger and stronger opponents. At the age of 19, I joined a gym and did weight training and buffed up a bit, I realised that I was considerably strong for my size. We still took part in Kusthi and it was a good way to develop my skills further. I was considered to be amongst one of the toughest by my peers.

Fights were a common feature growing up in the eighties. My cousin had a fierce reputation as he was able to continue his Kung Fu training and used it to good effect if he was messed with. I recall him knocking guys out with one punch. By this time, we were able to hold our own with the skin heads, especially as the area that we lived in had ‘white flight’ from the mid 80’s as there were less of them. We had a few skirmishes with African Caribbean boys. 

BYF trip to Spain – 1998

From an early age I realised one of the ways to avoid fights was by making as many friends as possible…your friends don’t usually beat you up. That continues to play out. The real threat came from the Pakistani boys, they would seek you out and beat and mug you. The situation in Lozells wasn’t as bad as neighbouring Aston. Lozells is a much smaller neighbourhood and has a tighter knit community with friendship from all racial backgrounds built up from going to the same schools. The Bangladeshi boys were often beaten and mugged in Aston.

By the age of 21, I owned an amusement arcade called Riviera in Lozells in partnership with a friend.  This proved to be the most violent period of my life.  It was also when I realised that I could do anything that I put my mind to. I recall sitting in Burberry Park and visualising that I would own the Riviera. And I made it happen.

When I finally took it on, I employed my childhood friend to help me run the place. He was an old hand at this, as he had worked in several amusement arcades and he was there to lend his experience. The funny thing is, by the end of the week he would regularly gamble his wages away on fruit machines….as they say, ‘the house always wins’.

I had some dangerous skirmishes with African Caribbean men, one of them named Mad Doc who was a tormentor of mine. He said he wanted protection money from me and would come and collect it on Saturday. I made sure my friends were around that day and he walked away. He caught me on my own once and asked for protection money again, this time I pressed a panic alarm button and he left. On another occasion he was with his friend and when he asked for money, I told him ‘he  would have to walk over my dead body to take my money’…..his response was “nah man’s being cheeky” and he pulled out a knife from his back pocket and waved it at me.  As it happened I had a bigger knife under the counter from the famous ‘suree’ factory (crocodile works) and waved it at him. He ran out and from across the road through glass milk bottles at us. A year later, I learned that he was stabbed to death by a Rasta…I guess if you live by the sword, you die by the sword.

The fight of my life was at Riviera. A group of Bangladeshi boys from Aston came in and said that one of them had beaten up Spade’s brother. Spade was a Pakistani gangster from Aston and had seven brothers who were as bad as he was. Spade was one of the gang leaders from Aston and they used to operate out of Moonlight video shop. The rumour was that they were into all sorts of illegal activities. I got a call from one them and they said ‘we are coming to get you’, I asked two of my friends who lived in Aston with some standing in the community to go and speak to them to see if they could calm them down.

Tensions had been simmering for a while between Bangladeshi and Pakistani men. On that day, we had 30-40 Bangladeshi boys and men in the Riviera all tooled up and ready to fight. One of the guys said, “the Mukti Bahini gave their lives, I will do the same”. The two friends returned, whilst I was outside Riviera and I asked ‘what did they say?’ One of them replied ‘they are not listening’. I was wondering what that meant….before long I saw a dozen or so Pakistani boys and men tooled up with sticks and metal bars running towards us. One of my friends advised us to get inside. Whilst inside they were breaking the windows, I went out with a hockey stick and hit someone, but it broke. I came back in and found a cricket bat and went out again…shouting ‘agou be’ (let’s go), I thought people would follow me out to fight.  I faced Spade and he attacked me with a bar, I blocked it with my elbow and pinned him against the window and hit him in the face with the cricket bat twice and broke his nose in two places. I didn’t realize that I had left my back exposed and I was being hit over the head; when I was being hit over the head, only one of my friends actually came out to fight. By this time, they had almost beaten me to the ground and I had blood pouring all over my head. They left me to bleed and ran off…I was very angry with everyone, because they didn’t come out to fight. Some people are better talkers than fighters.

I was taken to the hospital in an ambulance and when I got there, they did an x-ray and realised that my skull was fractured and I needed three and four stitches. The doctor that was doing the stitching said, I’ve never done this before’ – that didn’t fill me with confidence.  After being stitched up, I was taken to a bed to rest. Every now and then I was waken up by a  nurse to take my blood pressure. I lay there the next morning, thinking ‘this is not worth my life’. I sold the Riviera and never went back to it. Instead I went to College and studied…I guess you could say that the hit to the head knocked some sense into me. Sadly that was not my last fight, there were a few more along the way but that’s for another day.

I continued into University and qualified as a youth worker. I loved being a youth worker and did my job with love and passion. At the age of 24, I set up the Bangladeshi Youth Forum (BYF) to campaign for resources for our community. For the first four years I was the Chair and I worked around the clock. This was my transition from fighter to activist. Some people described me as an ‘angry young man’, I would correct them and say ‘I am a passionate young man’. Fast forward 25 years and I remain passionate and continue to fight using different tactics.  Sometimes, I am unable to master my emotions and I take people on in public spaces and I feel angry with myself for it.  However, if I said nothing, the moment would have been missed.  I often contemplate for long periods about my action and if it was the right thing to do? The fighter in me will not allow me to say nothing ‘speaking truth to power’ has become one of my trademarks. 

During the last three decades I have learned to build organisations and write bids to sustain them.  Ten years ago, I set up Legacy WM and have developed it into a leading charity in the West Midlands.  The charity was started really to document the heritage of Bangladeshi pioneers that have settled in Birmingham. I wrote ‘Bangla Food Journeys’….it was at that point that the fighter became a writer…but I have only managed to acknowledge it a decade later. Having left school with no qualifications leaves a scar on you regardless of what you accomplish. I have set myself a goal to undertake a PhD before the day is done…maybe at that point I will truly believe the ‘fighter became a writer’. 

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2 Comments
  1. That is a journey. Beautifully written, never a victim.

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