The Documentary: “In Search of Bengali Harlem”

The documentary film, In Search of Bengali Harlem, is currently in post-production, with an anticipated broadcast on PBS in 2021. The film is supported by grants from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative, the Center for Asian American Media‘s Documentary Fund and the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media. You can make a tax-deductible contribution to our production fund, via the Independent Filmmakers Project (NY).

As a youth growing up in Harlem’s Washington Carver Projects in the 1970s and 80s, Alaudin Ullah found himself through hip-hop and graffiti. He turned away from his Bangladeshi Muslim parents and rejected everything South Asian. Now, as an actor facing the most stereotypical South Asian and Muslim roles, he realizes he has nothing but stereotypes about his own father and mother; he knows nothing about who they were and about the lives they led. In Search of Bengali Harlem follows Ullah from the streets of Harlem to the villages of Bangladesh to uncover the pasts of his father, Habib, and mother, Mohima. On the journey, we discover that Habib was part of a hidden history of South Asian Muslim men who were rendered “illegal” by the Asian Exclusion laws of the 20th century, but who quietly disappeared into existing communities of color in Harlem and the Lower East Side. Here, along with their African American and Puerto Rican wives, they created a vibrant multiracial community under the radar of the immigration laws. We also discover, with Alaudin, the the struggles that defined Mohima’s childhood in her home village, and her strength and courage as one of the first women to immigrate to the United States from rural Bangladesh.

In Search of Bengali Harlem unearths a unique, little-known story of twentieth-century Harlem and of Muslim immigration to the United States. Between WWI and the 1940s, hundreds of Muslim ship workers from the region that is now Bangladesh were either left in port or abandoned their ships in New York City. Here they found work as factory laborers, cooks, dishwashers, and street vendors. By the 1930s, a group of these Bengali men had settled in Harlem, married Puerto Rican and African American women and become a small and quietly integrated part of the larger neighborhood. The film weaves together interviews, archival footage, family photographs, and historical documents with an original soundtrack by celebrated jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, combining the sounds of Bengali folk music, Blues, Jazz, and Bomba.

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