‘South Asian Safari’ opens English retirees’ minds

by Prashant Rao

Note: This article was originally published by AFP on October 22, 2006. It can be found here.

LEICESTER, England (AFP) – Asaf Hussain takes retirees from the countryside on a cultural “safari” of one of England’s most ethnically-diverse cities — and is finding himself increasingly in demand.

“The 34 people sitting in front of you will tell 34 others, and they’ll have another circle of friends — they’re already trying to book me for another date,” he tells AFP.

Hussain, however, does not run a shop, or a business — his “service” is taking coaches full of English retirees from nearby towns and villages — this weekend it’s Melton Mowbray — on a tour of the central English city of Leicester, which on Saturday hosts the biggest Diwali celebrations outside India.

On what he jokingly dubs a “safari” of the city, he takes them on his days off work to a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple, a Sikh gurudwara, a Jain temple, and lunch at a Bangladeshi restaurant, so they can have direct interaction with ethnic minorities and build relationships.

“It widens their horizons. It’s a multicultural city with different religions and different cultures, and they’re all British,” Hussain told AFP.

“So the British culture is not just comprising of Englishmen,” the lecturer in religion and cultural studies at the University of Leicester said as he swallowed a spoonful of ice cream at “Ashoka” restaurant, on the South Asian-dominated Melton Road.

Leicester has one of the biggest ethnic minority populations in Britain — 36 percent of the city’s residents say they come from a non-white background, compared to less than eight percent throughout the country, according to the last census in 2001.

“Each community wants to stay within its own circle. Now I’m trying to break that barrier and make it inter-cultural — at least know the other culture and come back. You’re not going to lose your culture or your faith,” he said.

Dennis Hurst, on his second “safari”, said it was all about “getting people together, communicating, and bonding.”

Later, in his car as he drives to the Jain temple alongside the coach, the last visit of the day, he said there was a “common misconception that they (immigrants to Britain) are all sponging off the system”.

“But look at them,” he said, gesturing to the nearby shops, many of which he said were run by immigrants, “they have a good work ethic. They don’t rely on the community.”

Inside the Jain temple, Hussain pointed out the ancient architecture on the columns at the centre of the room, carved in India and transported to Leicester.

He contrasted them with the stained-glass displays on the wall, which, he said, were borrowed from Christianity, and invited questions, bringing the day to an end.

“They come with an open mind, I can see,” he said.

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