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Family Relies on Values Even as Traditions Fade

Last in a series of occasional articles

November 18, 2005|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

Leeds, England — Mohsin Zulfiqar has a shock of white hair, a white bushy mustache and an intellectual air that bring to mind an Indian Einstein -- though not as absent-minded, he jokes.

His wife, Khawar, small and aristocratic in her bearing, is the image of her grandmother, whose full-length portrait hangs in the Zulfiqars' sitting room. But instead of a sari, Khawar is found in thoroughly modern slacks and sweaters on workdays.

Their son, Raza Ali, has a James Dean quality, all coiled rebellion and alienation. A faux diamond in his ear lends a touch of bling, and he listens to hip-hop music, with its vulgar honesty, four-letter words and political awareness.

Daughter Munizeh exudes calm, but her demure exterior masks a passion for Bollywood dancing. She shocked her progressive-minded parents by declaring her intention to marry a cousin from India. (Everyone assumes it is an arranged marriage, she complains, when it was just the opposite.)

A normal family: four lives under one roof, intertwined, but each an individual. Immigrants from South Asia, Mohsin and Khawar have created a space for themselves and their children to develop and to find identities in a country and on a continent that are, and are not quite, their own.

Their secret: No matter what goes on outside their front door, respect, love and trust are what they give to, and expect of, one another.

Like other members of Britain's growing Muslim community, the Indian-born Mohsin left his home -- in Pakistan's teeming, chaotic city of Karachi -- to seek a better life in the green folds and murky weather of England.

In his case, the English north, then the bustling home of manufacturing and textiles, beckoned. He came to get a doctorate in Nottingham and ended up staying, first in Manchester, now in Leeds, where he is a manager in the city's school system.

"If not for my dad," Raza Ali says, "we would be a typical Asian family." The 22-year-old leans back in an armchair in the sitting room, decorated with bric-a-brac showing the family's wide-ranging interests: decorated wooden spoons from Russia, framed pieces of Egyptian papyrus, a small bust of Vladimir Lenin and a painting of a 19th century ancestor who served as a provincial governor in India.

"My dad came for education. He came as a student. But a lot of people were from very poor, uneducated backgrounds, so when they came here they went straight into jobs ... straight to the mills," Raza Ali says. "For these people, integration, they did not have a lot of it, and their children, my generation, cannot integrate with people from other cultures as well as me and my sister."

After 34 years here, Mohsin, a few weeks short of his 58th birthday, has done well. He drives a BMW. He lives a comfortable suburban life in the affluent Roundhay section of Leeds. And he is a respected activist, professionally and voluntarily, constantly at meetings against racism and poverty and working in behalf of minorities, no matter their ethnicity or religion.

Mohsin, who loves the freedom-inspiring music of Bob Marley, says he is passionate about education, for all children, black or white. But his experiences show that it is a hard road up for non-English in British society.

"To break into middle-class jobs was a hell of a problem," he says over takeout Indian food in the family's small kitchen. "You really had to prove that you were better than some of your colleagues.... As an Asian, you have to have put more hard work into your job."

But while Mohsin has been waging his war to break through the invisible barriers of British society, he has also been alarmed by the rise of religious fundamentalism in his own community. Three of the four suicide bombers responsible for this summer's London transit bombings lived a short distance away in Leeds.

"Fundamentalism has increased in this country, and many, many other countries," he says.

He recalls visiting a friend whose 3-year-old son was just learning to speak. The man asked the child what he would be when he grew up.

"Mujahed" (holy warrior), the boy said promptly.

"That shows the kind of things that are going on in this city, maybe in other cities as well," Mohsin says. "People are brought up in that kind of ideology."

Khawar is similarly concerned. When she revisits her home in India, she can see how the madrasas -- the Koran schools -- are flourishing, compared with when she was growing up. And she fears that a similar phenomenon has come to Britain.

"When my children were about to go to university, we said to them, 'Keep away from those people. Because once they catch you, they won't let you go. They will brainwash you,' " says the trim, neat Khawar, who is nearly a decade younger than her husband. "It's kind of a cult, and they will take you and your family," she warned.

As a counselor at a mental health center, Khawar says she sees the strain that the children of Asian immigrants go through.

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