“In Search of Bengali Harlem”

2022, 84 min., Color & b/w
Directed by Vivek Bald & Alaudin Ullah
Produced by Susannah Ludwig
Edited by Beyza Boyacioglu

The documentary film, In Search of Bengali Harlem, will be premiering at CAAMFest in San Francisco on Saturday, May 14, 2022. The film is supported by grants from the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms initiative, the Center for Asian American Media‘s Documentary Fund, the Whiting Foundation and the Paul Robeson Fund for Independent Media.

As a teenager in 1980s Harlem, Alaudin Ullah was swept up in the revolutionary energy of early hip-hop. He rejected his working-class Bangladeshi parents and turned his back on everything South Asian and Muslim. Now, as an actor and playwright contending with the Islamophobia of post-9/11 Hollywood, Alaudin wants to tell his parents’ stories. But he has no idea who they really were, no idea of the lives they led or the struggles they faced as Muslim immigrants of an earlier era. In Search of Bengali Harlem follows Ullah from the streets of New York City to the villages of Bangladesh to uncover the pasts of his father, Habib, and mother, Mohima. Alaudin first discovers that Habib was part of an extraordinary history of mid-20th century Harlem, in which Bengali Muslim men, dodging racist Asian Exclusion laws, married into New York’s African American and Puerto Rican communities – and in which the likes of Malcolm X and Miles Davis shared space and broke bread with immigrants from the subcontinent. Then, after crossing the globe to visit the former homes of his parents, Alaudin unearths unsettling truths about his mother: about the hardships and trauma that she overcame to become one of the first women to migrate to the U.S. from rural Bangladesh. In Search of Bengali Harlem is a transformative journey, not just for Alaudin Ullah, but for our understanding of the complex histories of South Asian and Muslim Americans.

19 Comments

  1. Hi there – I came across your site, and am so glad this project is being undertaken! I’m from the Lower East Side community of Sylheti Bangladeshis, which also began with migrants from the 1930s and incredible stories of individuals who came through Ellis Island, participated in World War II, and people who continue to visit their other families at Christmas. I’d love to learn more about your project and talk further!

    • Dinu – Thank you for getting in touch. One of the primary goals of this website is to locate and record the stories of people connected to these early histories of South Asian migration to the U.S. Email me at vbald [at] mit.edu – it would be great to talk about recording these stories from the Lower East Side. All best, Vivek

  2. Hi Vivek,

    It is SO exciting to hear about the documentary and I cannot wait to read your book. I was in touch with Alauddin back in college (almost 8 years ago!) about this documentary, when I was president of Rutgers Bengali Students Association, I wanted to help him fundraise but was unable to due to being busy with college..it is so wonderful to see this get off the ground! I am friends with Dinu as well through our activist network and we connected on our stories and about ideas of doing something that may reveal the journeys of our forefathers in NYC. My great granduncle was the first Bangladeshi man in NYC, and he and his brothers were part of the group of men you mention in these stories. My other uncle, Mr. Masood Chaudhury passed a way a few years ago, lived in Harlem till his death, and I remember Alauddin telling me all of these stories about him. Like Dinu, I would also like to connect, this is very exciting and I think we have a lot to share!

  3. Very interesting and important work, Vivek. I am supportive of your project and will follow the progress of the film and other archive material on this subject.

  4. Pingback:Bengali Harlem: Author documents a lost history of immigration in America – In America - CNN.com Blogs

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  6. Ayeshah Abdul

    What a wonderful project this is! My father was Indian from the Bombay area and came to the US off a ship. He married my mother who was from the West Indies. I just bought your book and can’t wait to read it.

  7. Sharmadip Basu of U. Mich, Ann Arbor, told me of your project. My Sylheti cousins immigrated to London, but more interestingly, my grandfather attended Pittsburgh U. School of Mining 1909-11 after receiving a scholarship from Chittagong. This was part of an effort by successful “native” scholars and businessmen to build up the ranks of professionals who would take over when the British departed. Yes, Bengalis have a lot to look back on. I’m glad you’re doing this.

  8. Vivek, Bravo! Very keen to see the final work.

    You wrote in the book of the Bengali community’s connection with Malcolm X, I would love to see more about it, particularly that Ibrahim Chowdhury knew him personally?!?
    That’s awesome. Would love to have a screening of it for the grassroots community organisations.

    Naushad
    Melbourne, Aus

  9. THANK YOU so much for doing this great ethnographical work on a overlooked part of US history.

    My family heavily reflects the history you have caputed in your work. My Father’s uncle a British Indian Merchant Mariner jumped ship in Boston Harbor and wound up in NYC in the 1930’s. He then settled and marries a African American and raised a family in Williamsburg BK. My own father and grandfather joined in the 1960’s from East Pakistan. My Father mde the move to Paterson NJ as one of the founding Bengali fathers of that city – A city with a Bangladeshi population number around 30,000 now, as well as elected officials in its government. I myself was born in Paterson and identified more with Latino and Black culture and did not have a strong affinity to South Asia until attending univeristy. I would love to capture my family’s part in your documentary if possible.

  10. This relates up to 95% of what my mother used to always tell me about her grandad. She said he lived in Kolkata but was Bengali and went on a ship to all these different countries as a captain. He came to England, Australia and many other countries i would really love to learn the history of my family.

  11. As a student who had minored in Asian American Studies but was extremely disappointed by the lack of information about the history of Bengalis in America, I am just thrilled to have come across this book because now future generations of students who get a degree or minor in Asian American Studies can reference back to this book for historical facts and stories of seamen, ship-jumpers and courageous men who paved the way for us to have a future in this country.

    I also wanted to add that my husband’s uncle was one of the first Bengalis in America. I just can’t believe the stories about him jumping a ship to enter America were all true! His family has many photos from the 1920s and so many stories about his life in America. I know his family would love to share his stories with you.

  12. one of my friends grandpa or something married a puertorican i think back in the 1950s now it makes sense after reading this book! and then he brought his whole family here. my other friend’s dad married an african american for papers I think and had two daughters with her. I met them they are half black half bengali. then he went back to bangladesh and married a bengali woman and brought her here and had three kids with her (one of which is my friend)

  13. Michael Ali

    Thank you for helping me to learn more about my grandfather, who died before I was born, and the context of his life.

  14. We are looking for our father Wahab Ullah (b. 3/10/22).

    Son of Azi & Haseena Bibi. He married Rena Long (African American) in 1952 in Harlem. We have the marriage license which has a little more detail. The story is they couldn’t get along and that’s all we know. We don’t even have a picture. We have substantiated our Bengali blood via consumer DNA tests. We believe we’ve exhausted all searches on the internet, through public records and the DNA sites. DNA 3rd cousins met on 23&me were able to tell us our shared family is from the Sylhet district.

    Any help or advice is much appreciated. jacobullah@ gmail.com or (443) 622-172one. (Call or Text is preferred)

  15. As a Bengali born and raised in the Bronx and moving to the Lower East Side, I always feel between two cultures and not fully accepted in both. I love that you are going back to your Bangladeshi roots after so living in NYC for so long. I too visit my family in Bangladesh and love to go there and see my cousins.

  16. Can I join a mailing list to know when this documentary will be aired? I am very interested in seeing it. Thank you!!

  17. Hello, I have been following this site for a few years. Is tge documentary going to be released soon?

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