New book details saga of early South Asian immigrants to US

Immigrants in US

A new book reconstructing the forgotten history of early South Asian migration to the US, in particular that of Muslims from what is now Bangladesh, has hit the stands, capturing a unique narrative of inter-marriage and inter-ethnic community making in America.

The book titled "Bengali Harlem and the Lost Histories of South Asian America" by MIT Assistant Professor Vivek Bald, provides details of early immigrants from South Asia.

The genesis of "Bengali Harlem," published this month by Harvard University Press, comes in good measure from conversations Bald had with Alaudin Ullah, a New York-based actor and playwright.

Hearing about the Ullah family's odyssey sparked Bald's curiosity.

"I wanted to see if Alaudin's father (Habib Ullah) was just one anomalous person or part of a much larger history that we had completely overlooked," Bald said.

Ullah, a Muslim from East Bengal which is now Bangladesh, left a ship in Boston in 1920s and found his way to New York. He settled in East Harlem, and by the 1940s he was running a popular restaurant, the Bengal Garden, in Manhattan's Theatre District.

Like Ullah, other South Asian Muslims from present-day Bangladesh, India and Pakistan settled in the United States at the same time, often marrying into African-American and Puerto Rican families. Today, many African-Americans, and Americans of Puerto Rican descent, have South Asian ancestors.

"I wanted to make clear the depth and the persistence of the South Asian presence in the US and specifically the South Asian Muslim presence in the US, at a time when Muslims are being portrayed as newcomers, enemies and outsiders," Bald said.

He hopes that through the book and documentary, the children and grandchildren of those immigrants will come forward to tell their stories.

Bald suspects there was more Bengali Muslim immigration to Detroit, among other places, than he has yet been able to document.

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