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 The film weaves together interviews, archival footage, family photographs, and historical documents with an original soundtrack by celebrated jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, combining the sounds of Bengali folk music, Blues, Jazz, and Bomba.

PLEASE DONATE: In Search of Bengali Harlem is a 2019 recipient of the Center for Asian American Media’s (CAAM) Documentary Fund and a 2020 recipient of the Ford Foundation’s JustFilms grant. CAAM has licensed the film for a national broadcast on PBS. We are close to finishing a fine cut of the documentary but are still seeking completion funds, including individual donations. If you would like to do help, you can make a tax-deductible donation, through our non-profit fiscal sponsor, The Independent Filmmaker Project (IFP).

13 thoughts on “The Documentary: “In Search of Bengali Harlem”

  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!

    1. 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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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

  7. 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.

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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