These vintage cassette tapes hold intimate British-Pakistani oral histories
A pre-cursor the humble voice note, migrants who were new to Britain sent tape letters back home to stay in touch with loved ones.
27 Oct 2020
Digital age communication consists of rapid-fire, often thoughtless exchanges that place quantity over quality. We no longer have to stop to dip our quill in the ink. That pause as we push our typewriter back into its starting position, allowing our cramping fingers to regain strength before we ramble on, has ceased.
Before those taunting “blue ticks” let us know if our messages have been read, older generations before us had to source innovative methods to keep in contact with their families and friends when visits were no longer an option. Pakistani migrants who came to Britain between 1960-1980 would use cassette tapes to record oral letters for their loved ones abroad. An early iteration of the voice note.
Wajid Yaseen, the director of Modus Arts, is the brains behind the oral history project Tape Letters which aims to translate, archive, and exhibit the cassette tapes that these migrants used to send letters. Wajid was reminded of his personal relationship with this practice years after the passing of his father. He was rifling through the attic in his Manchester-based family home to find tape recordings of his father’s naats, a form of a devotional hymn, hoping that the familiar sounds of his father’s voice would bring him comfort. Instead, he discovered one of the tape letters that his family would send to relatives in Pakistan.
“I had these cassettes in my hand and I was like, I remember this. I remember being roped into doing this when I was a kid. Having to say hello to some auntie or uncle in Pakistan, really reluctantly,” explains Wajid. “I realised when I had this cassette in my hand, I had something pretty special, you know? I essentially was holding a sort of historical artefact. A piece of British heritage, actually” he adds.
Realising that his family couldn’t be the only ones communicating in this way, Wajid launched the Tape Letters pilot project locally, where he sourced 20 cassette tapes and interviewed 40 people on their use of this practice. He is now undergoing a national effort to source more tapes and speak to their owners. Most of the initial tapes were recorded in Pothwari, an oral dialect most closely aligned with Urdu but often cited as being more candid. This Punjabi language, from the Potohar Plateau, is difficult to write and requires a complex transliteration process using Urdu, which is how Wajid’s team translated these stories into English.
Thanks to the efforts of this translation process, and the fact that they have been made accessible to a wider audience, more people are learning about the day-to-day realities of migrant life. In 1961, the estimated population of Pakistanis in Britain was 24,900. After five years, this increased to 119,700. Many Pakistanis, particularly from Mirpur, began to migrate to the UK in the 1960s as a result of the Mangla Dam construction, which led to over 400 villages becoming submerged and over 100,000 people displaced. Young men who were workers (and their families) were attracted to Britain by the employment opportunities in industrial regions, namely textile industries in Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Manchester and engineering factories in the Midlands, as well as growing industrial estates in towns like Luton and Slough.
“Usually the reason for cassette use was tied to socio-economic backgrounds and essentially, to education,” notes Wajid. International calling costs were high in Britain which meant that calls were often cut short: “We had some phones around in the 70s but to give you an idea, it cost something like £3 a minute to call Pakistan. In the 70s, my dad bought his first home for around £400 in Ashton, so it gives you an idea of how incredibly expensive it was,” he says. It was also unlikely that their family in Pakistan had a telephone in their home, or even nearby. Some of the interviewees cite two hour walks to other towns that their family would have to embark on if they needed access to a public telephone. With these calls, privacy was not an option but tape letters offered the prospect of a whole world of intimate conversation that didn’t have to fall on unintended ears.
“Believe me, I miss my brothers and sisters too much that my eyesight has gone weak due to crying too much, and I am very upset because of this separation between us. Allah The Almighty has created this poor heart that is really broken.”
These are the anguished words of Zareena Darr, one of the women who featured in the pilot project. She migrated to Canada and used tape letters to keep in touch with her sister who chose to move to Britain. Both sisters had not received an education, which left them unable to write to each other, so tape letters became indispensable. Zareena’s cassette tapes document her loneliness as she struggles to navigate her new life in a foreign land.“This loneliness is killing me,” she says in Pothwari.
The loneliness migrants would face was often twofold – there was the loss of the family unit or support system, paired with language difficulties that made it difficult to form new bonds. “I had sorrow in my heart and used to feel that I didn’t know anything and that I was alone and abroad,” explains Zareena. “The kids were young, and their language was English. There weren’t that many people from our community that we could talk to – I was alone and dejected.” This is perhaps what makes the Tape Letters project so captivating; it platforms individuals that are often omitted from history because if they aren’t able to write, then their experiences are rarely captured for future generations.
Zareena describes the “heartache” she felt at not being able to read or write: “It was really difficult for me to accept because although I had the desire to study, I couldn’t. I struggled to accept it, but started messaging on cassettes to my sister,” she says. “I used to tell her about myself, if someone died, if someone was getting married, or feelings about our parents because they felt alone too. It was because I could communicate in this way that I felt happy.”
This is one of many reasons migrants wanted their children to grow up in Britain. They were often beckoned by the alluring promise of a better education. Karamat Iqbal was 12 years old when his parents sent him to live with family in Britain from Kashmir. “They thought I would have a better life here,” says Karamat, who has now lived in the UK for 50 years.
“I’ve had all the opportunities, which I wouldn’t have had – education, employment, all my achievements, jobs I’ve done. People I’ve met, the woman I married, the children [I’ve] had. So I’m very grateful to my parents for sending me here,” he explains. Karamat’s father would write letters to him but they also used cassette tapes for less formal conversation, which allowed his mother, who was illiterate, to speak to her son. Karamat’s tapes, also recorded in Pothwari, are currently undergoing rigorous translation for the upcoming exhibition but the messages can be loosely translated.
Whilst Karamat’s father could write to him, he felt that his mother “was dependent on [his father], to read the letter for her, and when the letter was written, she would probably tell him what to say, but he would write the letter. But when tape letters came along, now she had complete access to listening to, or being the recipient of my tape letter.” It was common for female literacy rates to be lower than male literacy rates at this time. In 1961, 26.9% of male adults were literate whereas only 8.2% of female adults were. As literacy rates improved with time there was a consistent gender gap, with 35.1% male literacy compared to 16% female literacy in 1981.
In one tape, Karamat, who was in his thirties at the time, is being praised after paying for his parents to do Hajj, an annual Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, Saudi Arabia: “I am very happy with my child. My kids have sent their mother and father on Hajj” Karamat’s father says, as his mother chimes in with comments of agreement, their voices both nasal and crackling as the cassette plays on. “May Allah send him on Hajj in his lifetime too. God, grant him happiness and take his worries away”. The gratitude Karamat’s parents show in this tape has socio-economic significance; making sacrifices to offer their son a better education also provided them, in turn, with opportunities they may not have had, such as travelling and financial security.
“I might be crying throughout this cassette but please don’t you worry OK”
As well as sharing the minute details of their everyday lives, Karamat’s father used cassettes to parent his son from a different continent. “He was giving me advice on how I should conduct myself,” says Karamat. His father would try to instil a moral compass in him, encouraging him to help out other Pakistanis in Britain for free if they approached him. This advice continued as Karamat progressed into adulthood.
“Tell Karamat to keep in touch with Tazeem, they are alone and Tazeem is younger than him,” says Karamat’s father, likely addressing a third party family member who would transport the tape and gifts, and pass this message on. “If you don’t have money to pay for a taxi I will send you a money order. You have already spent a lot of money already and been generous. I’m very happy with you”.
Heartbreakingly, those closest to migrants became apparitions kept alive in voice alone. “You know, as a child, you may remember an imaginary friend, but mine was my father,” says Karamat. He adds: “Whenever I was doing something, I’d think ‘oh, you know, if he was here, he wouldn’t approve and we’d have an argument’. And this is what I would say, and this is what he would say. I would always get my own way. Imaginary conversations are much easier than real ones”.
It wasn’t just familial bonds that were strengthened over tape, people also fell in love. Asma and Asim Mirza, a married couple now living in England, spent the early years of their engagement in different countries, exchanging cassettes every two weeks for three years. Their marriage was arranged so they had only spent a limited amount of time together and used tape letters to get to know each other more. “She couldn’t really express her feelings when we tried to talk on the phone, so all of a sudden it just came into my head, one day, we had a tape recorder at home, I thought you know what, I’m going to start recording, it might make things a little bit easier,” explains Asim.
“You know, as a child, you may remember an imaginary friend, but mine was my father”
The intimacy on the cassette tapes is palpable, on one tape Asim says: “Now I am sitting at work… looking at your pictures. I sleep after giving you the goodnight kiss at night, all your photos. How many pictures [are] there in my room? One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight pictures are there in my room”. Due to the personal nature of the tapes, Asim recalls speaking quietly to ensure his brothers and sisters weren’t “earwigging” outside his door. This method allowed the couple to ensure that their communications were private, which made the method more appealing than letter writing.
An added benefit was actually hearing the voice of a loved one, if they were laughing or crying, the tone of what they were saying. It made for more personal exchanges. In one of her tapes to Asim, Asma says: “I might be crying throughout this cassette but please don’t you worry OK. Please, give me the right to cry as much as I want. I don’t have anything except these tears, sweetheart”, the tape clicks and Asma pauses, overwhelmed with emotion. Her voice is soft and vulnerable. As she stops between sentences to accommodate her tears, all that can be heard is the loud hum of white noise.
This open and candid dialogue helped to build the foundations that their marriage now rests on. “Asim and Asma had one suitcase each full of cassettes from the other. They would listen back all the time – they were so bloody in love with each other” explains Wajid. The couple’s recordings, often interlaced with songs to fill out the 90-minute cassette, demonstrate romance and sexuality in a way that is often omitted from the mainstream discourse surrounding Asian communities and the notion of arranged marriage, which is often depicted in a negative light. The couple discusses physical intimacy at length, fantasising about how they will eventually consummate their marriage and how their bodies will experience each other for the first time. As the cassette tapes progress, so too does the couple’s level of comfort with being vulnerable.
Despite the fact that the project centres the community, Wajid is conscious about not trying to capture a British-Pakistani voice – instead, the project captures the universality of human experiences. “We’ve made a careful, considered choice about the kind of stories we let out because we think they’re universal,” he tells me.
Now more than ever, we can all relate to feeling isolated, to missing our parents and siblings and clinging tightly to our communication mechanisms. But what we can try to take away from this project is the knowledge that emotional closeness does not hinge on proximity or speed. So the next time you’re sitting by your phone, waiting for it to ping with a speedy reply, try to exercise patience. Enjoy the anticipation in between and savour your interactions.