Pakistan League Banquet, NYC 1952

Pakistan League Banquet, NYC 1952


We need your help to identify the men, women, and children who appear in the photograph. Move your mouse over the image to view a numbered version. Click to view a larger image, which you can magnify to examine the photo in detail in a separate window.

In October 1952, The Pakistan League of America, an organization whose membership consisted predominantly of former seamen from East Bengal, along with their African American and Puerto Rican wives and their children, held a banquet at their Lower East Side clubhouse to honor a local Congressman. This photograph of the event has been provided by Laily Chowdry, the daughter of the Pakistan League’s president, Ibrahim Chowdry (number 78 in the photo).

If you recognize any of your relations or family friends, please send a comment using the comment box at the bottom of the page. Please include the identifying number for the person(s), their name(s), your connection to the person(s) you are identifying, and whatever information, stories, or memories you would like to share. If you would like others in the community to be able to contact you, please include an email address at the end of your post, where you can be reached. The (perhaps ambitious) goal is to identify everyone in the photograph.

The Bengali Lower East Side

The Bengali Lower East Side

AliCymbala_PakLgChildren300

In November 2013, I spoke to Amina Ali Cymbala, whose father Mohamed Ali, was one of a group of Bengali ex-seamen who settled on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and married within the Puerto Rican community there. Part of our conversation follows below. She also shared the photo here to the left, which shows a number of the children of the Pakistan League of America at a league event in the late 1950s. If you recognize anyone in the photo, please comment at the bottom of this page.

Vivek Bald: In my research, there were a lot of arrows pointing to the Lower East Side, and a cluster of South Asian ex-seamen who had settled there, going back to the 1920s. So I’m curious to hear from you about your father’s and mother’s stories – and their respective families’ stories – and also just hear your memories of who all was on the lower east side and where they were – your memories of those families.

Amina Ali Cymbala: My father was a chef at Hotel Pierre years ago. This was back in the ‘60s. There was a special restaurant in the Hotel Pierre in Manhattan that was just Indian food and all the waiters and chefs, everybody would dress up in the Indian clothing and all the celebrities would go there because the Hotel Pierre was like the number one hotel that time in the city. I remember, for a magazine, my father was there, you’re too young to remember but there was a gentleman on T.V., on a game show, Password, his name was Bill Cullen, and in the magazine article they use Bill Cullen because he loved eating Indian curry and there was another gentleman in the picture, there was my father, next to Bill Cullen.

And [my father and his friends] would have the best meats and all, on weekends, like you said in your book. On Sundays my father would be cooking even though my mother learned how to make curry, my father on Sundays – because he brought home some of the meat they didn’t use at the hotel. He would bring home the best beef, the best chicken and we would have the curry that he cooked and it was a big thrill because this is the big chef from the Hotel Pierre cooking. And he was part of that union. When he retired, he was part of that union. Whatever the local is for the hotel workers union.

I remember when we were little – like now my nieces and nephews call me Aunt Amina. In those days you never used the name. You would just say Chacha [for all your father’s friends] – my Chacha, my Chacha. So I really don’t remember many of the names. But I can email you all the names and the wives and the children [that I grew up with], because I grew up with all the children where the wives were Puerto Rican and the husbands were from [East] Pakistan and they had children. I grew up with girls named Ayuba and Fatima and Seena and Evelyn and who else did I grow up with… I can’t remember but the father was Abdul Aziz, I remember Mauklis Miah, Riaj Miah – there are so many names in my album that my mother saved – I have pictures and it’s just so great.

A lot of them when I grew up, they were all living on the Lower East Side, these were the kids I grew up with and we were within walking distance of the Pakistan League of America. And those card games … it’s so funny because my father, I mean they’re supposed to be religious, right, but they would play card games. He would go there Saturday and that’s where my father would drink. He wouldn’t drink in the house. They’d bring those card games over there Saturday night, my mother knew, they would get together and whatever they played, poker or whatever they played. But that was at the League. Just like Knights of Columbus. It was the same type of thing, their little social club. And the New Year’s Eve I remember, oh was so much fun and the parties there, I mean it was a big deal, there were like hundreds of people. It was very big, this Pakistan League of America. I remember there was a top floor and down, the first floor, there was a big kitchen. I still … I can see it now.

How I found you is that I was trying to research myself. Because my kids – I’m a good Latin dancer and my kids only think I can do Salsa and I said you don’t understand, when I was little, I used to dance Bengali dances. They said no and this is why I went on the Internet [to search for proof]. Because, as a child, there was a dance instructor [in New York] – Siraj Choudhary. I’m not sure of the spelling of his name but he was my dance teacher. He was not married, he did not have any children, and my father, every Sunday – I didn’t want to do these dances but you know when you’re eight and nine years old, you do what you’re told. And since my father wanted me to represent the Pakistan League of America, I used to go to Siraj Choudhary’s house with these other children. He used to teach us these dances and I performed with other children in Washington D.C. and Philadelphia. And there are films in the archives somewhere.

So these dances were filmed and when they would have their monthly meetings at the Pakistan League of America, they would show the films and I was 8-9 years old and the screener would say, “Presenting Amina Ali” and I got so excited because I was in a movie. And this is what I’m trying to locate – these films must be somewhere. When the Pakistan League of America disbanded, somebody must have these films and that’s all I remember. I remember going to Washington D.C. to this big auditorium and the same thing in Philadelphia, representing the Pakistan League of America along with other kids. That’s why I was searching on the Internet, and there I go, and there I see Pakistan League of America, I see my father’s picture. I said, “What is this!” And then I found out about your book.

Vivek Bald – What year would that have been, when you were 8 or 9?

Amina Ali Cymbala – Let’s see, I was 8 or 9, I was born in 1949, so I’m thinking 1957, 1958. Once I hit 10, I don’t think I did it anymore. It disbanded. Those two performances I remember. We went for the weekend. We went on a Friday and Saturday we finished rehearsing and the performances were on a Saturday. Then we came home on Sunday. Very exciting but I didn’t pay attention because this was something my father wanted me to do. I really didn’t want to do it but I did it. This was part of the heritage: we had to do the dances.

Aladdin Ullah’s “Dishwasher Dreams”

Aladdin_IndioCapeCodIn his one-man show “Dishwasher Dreams,” actor and writer Aladdin Ullah draws on the story of his father, Habib (pictured in the suit and fedora in the upper corner of this page), a steamship worker from the region of Noahkali, East Bengal, who jumped ship and made his way to New York’s Lower East Side in the 1920s, settled in Harlem in the 1930s, worked for years as a dishwasher and line-cook in downtown restaurants, and for a time in the late 1940s ran one of the city’s earliest Indian restaurants just off Broadway in Manhattan’s theater district.

In his performance, Aladdin explores his father’s life and experiences in Spanish Harlem in the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, as well as his own childhood in the 1970s and 80s, growing up with his family in East Harlem’s Washington Carver projects as his father’s generation of uptown Bengali immigrants died away and vanished from memory.

LISTEN: Aladdin talks about his father’s life and his own journey on NPR’s The Story

READ Aarti Virani’s article about Aladdin and his one-man show on the Wall Steet Journal‘s India Realtime.

Donate/Book a performance: “Dishwasher Dreams” was developed under the name “Indio” through the Joseph Papp Public Theaters’ Emerging Writers’ Program in 2010-11. Ullah is currently raising funds to produce the one-man show Off Broadway in New York City. Please help bring this important work to the public by making donation to the performance’s production fund or hosting a performance of “Dishwasher Dreams” in your city or on your campus. Contact: funnyaladdin[at]gmail[dot]com.

“Searching for a Name” by Fatima Shaik

A guest post from Fatima Shaik, a New Orleans writer whose grandfather Shaik Mohamed Musa was one of the group of “Oriental goods” traders who came from Hooghly, West Bengal to the U.S. South in the 1890s. (Read more about Fatima at the end of the post.)

The New Orleans telephone book annually hit our wide, wooden front porch with a thud in the 1950s and 60s. Every year, I rushed to bring the book inside and look for our last name. The result was always the same – only one Shaik family lived in the city and we were further isolated by my father’s first name, Mohamed.

Still, I thumbed through the tissue sheets to find names that sounded similar – Shaak, Shank, and Shakesynder — thinking that perhaps they might be some version of ours in the same way that my father – an unrelenting educator – told me that Boudreaux and Boudreu came from the same Cajun root. But never did I find names that were similar to ours.

Once in the back of the house, I handed the phone book to my father. He mimicked my excitement and disappointment – one Shaik year after year. You would think by then he would have stopped searching.

But his emptiness went far deeper than mine. He was the only son of a Bengali Muslim father who had disappeared. New Orleans, a port city, had a reputation for absent sailor and soldier fathers – and not always for reputable reasons.

Plus, we lived in segregation, which was not so bad inside our quiet Seventh Ward neighborhood just outside the borders of Trémé, where my father grew up. In reality, it was a mixed-race community. But in those years in the South, there were only whites and Negroes. The first, by common definition, had all the good attributes of humankind and the second had all the bad. So we looked all over for positive reinforcement. My father looked to India.

In India, his father owned land, my grandmother said. In India, his father learned business, which made him successful when he landed in New Orleans – owning a furniture store and pieces of property. With a father from India, my grandmother encouraged my father, he could achieve anything.

Occasionally, he got a phone call from an Asian immigrant, new in town, who saw our name and wanted to know who we were. My father would talk candidly to these complete strangers. He told them about his father who died while his mother was pregnant – the reason his family had no way back. He told them that he believed that Shaik Mohamed Musa came from India before Pakistan was carved out. He said that the Hooghly Village was the place of his father’s birth, although nothing could be located but the Hooghly River. He had lost all contact with the other Indian families that he heard lived in New Orleans because after his father died, his mother returned to her family.

And my father always indicated in some way that he was a Negro – by telling the callers the names of the schools where he taught, about his job as an airplane mechanic at Tuskegee during the war, or some other touchstone that would indicate he was not Indian alone. He didn’t want them to be disappointed, as he expected that they would be. How disappointing to them, he thought, that a man whose family had been in New Orleans, on his mother’s side, probably since before the city existed was still not entirely a citizen. He was not happy either that the coda “Negro” so often appeared before his achievements – Negro schoolteacher, Negro pilot, and Negro Ph.D.

Later, even though my mother and I had overheard his telephone conversation, he would recollect it to us, over and over. He’d telephone his sisters, Haleemon and Noyemon, and tell them about the Indian phone call. He was always wistful after those conversations, thinking that there was a vast sea of unknown relatives – people who might fill up a phone book in some other part of the world.

Had he lived to 2013, he would have been pouring over every line in Vivek Bald’s new book – searching for the names of Indian men and finding familiar black families who lived not far from our neighborhood block, discovering the history of the peddlers from the Hooghly region, getting confirmation of his oral history, and more. When my father died in 2006 at the age of 86, he was just learning to use the internet. He searched maps of the Indian continent.

After he died, I began searching too, in earnest, as one suddenly does after realizing just how much is gone. The hookah, the papers my aunt Haleemon kept, and more washed away in hurricane Katrina. But I still have my grandfather’s diamond stickpin and a few photos. And I have family stories. In March, I am going to bring them to India – finally, in some ways, achieving my father’s dream.

Documentarian Kavery Kaul is taking me to India in her next film. We will journey back to the past. She will frame the scenes that my father should have viewed and my grandfather knew. Hopefully, I am a conduit of their spirits. I was born in New Orleans where spirits exist not just in our memories but in our daily lives. So I’m going to call on my father and grandfather to guide me.

And who knows, maybe I’ll hear of a relative and I’ll take out my cell phone and call him out of the blue.

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For more information about the upcoming film by Kavery Kaul go to http://hartleyfoundation.org/en/streetcar-to-kolkata

Fatima Shaik is an expert on the Afro-Creole experience in New Orleans and an author of books for adults and children. Her work has appeared in the Southern Review, Callaloo, the New York Times, the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and in the anthologies Breaking Ice, Streetlights and African American Literature. She is currently researching the Société d’Economie, a 19th century benevolent association and traveling to India. She is an assistant professor at Saint Peter’s University. More at: www.fatimashaik.com

The picture accompanying this post shows Fatima’s father Mohamed Shaik on his graduation from Xavier University of Louisiana, the sole Catholic HBCU in the United States.

“I Measure Out Sadness in Coffee Spoons” by S. Nadia Hussain

A guest post from S. Nadia Hussain, about the recent loss of her great uncle, Masud Chowdhury, one of the early members of New York’s Bengali community, who came to the city in 1946. Reposted from the blog Nadia Won’t Shut Up (Read more about Nadia at the end of the post.)

Saturday, January 16, 2010

My great-great grand uncle passed away two weeks ago. He seems like a distant relative and maybe blood wise he may have been, but heart-wise he was like my own grandfather. It’s been hard, after spending a whole day at his funeral service, Muslim prayer service and burial; I was mentally and physically exhausted (especially because I spend most of the day in the car shuttling between Long Island, Manhattan and the middle-of-nowhere, PA…all in all about 10 hours of driving).

My uncle was Masud Chowdhury, one of the first Bangladeshi men to immigrate to New York City, way back in the 40′s. He opened one of the first Bangladeshi restaurants in the city. It didn’t end up lasting, but even in these past few years whenever I would stop by his house, he would cook up a storm for me. It was crazy seeing a man in his 80′s who shuffled when he walked, to grab fresh goat at a local store, and bring it back to his apartment in Harlem just to feed me curry. That’s just how he was, even up till very recently.

He was a POW during WWII for the Indian Army I believe on the Burmese border. He supposedly escaped and lived on eating bugs to survive. I wish someone wrote this man’s stories down. I wish that I did, I wish that I had the time to even do that.

It was difficult to understand him these past few years, mostly because he didn’t have his teeth in. Regardless what I did understand was hilarious, he cursed the Bush government, made jokes (ones that he laughed at harder than anyone else) and never lost his shine. He was so spunky, he was never a cranky old man to me. He always had that New Yorker attitude. After all, he was a New Yorker, Bangladeshi yes, but he spent most of his life in NYC. His life in many ways played along with this history of that city.

New York City lost a son, though he may not have made the front page of the New York Times. Bangladesh lost a son, an ambassador sent so long ago as a young man making his own journey to a strange land, a land that many of his countrymen would not arrive at until almost two generations later. It was he who enabled my own family to immigrate to the United States. My uncles came because of him, my parents came because of him. I am an American because of him.

Most of all however, I lost my Nana. I know that he was in his 80′s, but it doesn’t make the loss any easier. I was glad to see that he had so many that loved him. I saw his love in the tears that fell from the eyes of all those around me during his funeral day. Even those who could only stop in for a moment had eyes reddened by the sorrow of saying goodbye.

I got to visit him one last time, after Thanksgiving this past fall. At least I got to say goodbye. He had lucid moments, but many things that made him my Nana were fading away. During this visit, his personality would suddenly burst through, but then recede back just as quickly into the fog of old age. Right before I left and said my goodbyes, he called out my name and I went to him. It pains me to admit this, but I couldn’t really make out what he told me, but as far as I can recall he told me to stay with him, I think he asked me if I would stay.

I guess I am staying with him, because when you love someone, you never really leave. The grief for them may go away for a little bit at times, but it becomes a part of you. Sometimes when I am quiet my mind just drifts back to him, drifts back to my memories of him.

I guess I should be happy that he is in a better place, but I am selfish. I don’t want these people I love to leave. Old age isn’t an excuse, I know it’s a part of life, but I’m not ready. I didn’t want my grandmother to leave either. I mourn them both, I wish they hadn’t left. I miss them both, all the time…

Bye Nana, I am missing you. I will love you always.

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S. Nadia Hussain is a Bangladeshi American activist, poet, blogger and photographer. She lives in Oakland, CA, and currently works with inner city minority youth in Richmond, CA and refugee and immigrant students in Oakland. She is actively involved with South Asian, Muslim and API organizations. She is also involved in Democratic politics, and is currently on the board of the East Bay Young Democrats and is a founding board member of the Black Young Democrats of the East Bay. She is also the South Asian political Blogger for Hyphen magazine, a national Asian American magazine and blog.