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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 November 2006, 00:34 GMT
The limits to integration
By Paul Moss
BBC, The World Tonight, Mirpur

Residents of Bradford with Pakistani flag
People in the UK are proud their families originate from Mirpur

In a small village, in the foothills of the Himalayas, a group of men are discussing the challenges faced by Pakistanis when they go and live in the UK.

Should they integrate? How much should they take on the values of their new homeland?

We are several thousand miles from Bradford and Birmingham. But nearly everyone here has a relative in Britain. And the debate there about multiculturalism has clear echoes round this table.

"The people who leave are in the middle," Mowman says. "They cannot become like the British, but they have lost their own culture."

He complains that his cousins in Rotherham are uneducated, and above all, that they have lost the most precious thing they have: a tight family structure.

Mistake

"Here we obey the head of the house. There, they are independent. It does not work."

Tariq feels these differences more acutely than most. He grew up here, in the village of Boha, and went to the UK as a teenager. Now he is back visiting relatives.

Mirpur map

"I used to say I would never have an arranged marriage. But then I grew up and began to think how much my mum and dad had done for me, and I thought they would not make a mistake on this."

What about his own children, now living in Nottingham - would he let them choose their spouses?

Yes, of course, whoever they want.

What if they wanted to marry a non-Muslim, I ask? The very idea makes him look anxious. He says, he would "interrupt" the process.

Around half the Pakistanis living in Britain can trace their origins to this tiny area of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Mirpur District was the site of a huge dam, built in the 1960s, which flooded the surrounding farmland.

A British company involved in the construction, compensated those who lost their homes by arranging permits for them to emigrate to the UK.

Deals negotiated

Since then, hundreds of thousands more have followed. If you want to understand the culture of Pakistanis in Britain, you have to understand Mirpur.

I did not go anywhere I could meet English people
Rashid, speaking in Mirpur after returning from the UK

It is conservative, even by Pakistani standards. Rural life here has not changed much over the years.

And families are not only a source of rigid hierarchies, but also the guiding influence behind everything from marriage to business.

Alliances are built, deals negotiated, all with an eye to how this affects relations between the different households.

Mirpur town
Mirpur retains strong links with the UK

I asked Rashid if he had experienced any difficulty adjusting from this, when he went to work in the Midlands and East London for eight years, selling cosmetics and serving in a restaurants.

"No trouble at all," he said. "It was all a pleasure."

But it turned out that he faced no challenges to his values, because he never mixed with anyone who lacked them.

Cultural difference

Rashid reckoned that 80% of his customers in Britain had been Mirpuris, the rest from other sub-continental backgrounds.

He is a sociable man, lively and entertaining. But he never made a single white, British friend the whole time he was there.

"I regret it," he says, "but there was no chance. I did not go anywhere I could meet English people."

It is one way to avoid the difficulties of confronting cultural difference - to avoid cross-cultural contact altogether.

And it seems to be the route taken by many people of Pakistani origin.

There are statistics which suggest that of all communities, Pakistanis live in the most segregated areas of Britain, and their children attend the most segregated schools.

The British government has dedicated itself to integrating immigrants, providing some kind of shared identity to which everyone can sign up.

If they want to see how great the challenge is, they might start by visiting Mirpur.

The World Tonight is running a series of reports by Paul Moss on Pakistan - from Wednesday, 29 November, at 2200GMT.


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