The Battle for Little Pakistan
How a canceled parade revealed the fault lines in Brooklyn’s Pakistani community
Late this summer, I entered a Pakistani community for the first time in my life to find out why Little Pakistan — Brooklyn, and New York City’s largest Pakistani neighborhood — had failed to host its annual street festival for the first time in 28 years. I assumed that the cancellation was a result of problems outside the neighborhood’s borders — anti-Muslim sentiment, perhaps, fueled in the age of Donald Trump. A naïve assumption; as an Indian, I knew Pakistan as the country on the other side of a hostile border. But when I began to speak with people in Little Pakistan I instead saw something else: the boundaries that mattered here were the internal ones, with antagonists who shared an ancestry and faith lined up against one another.
Known as the “Brooklyn Mela”, the community’s annual street festival was supposed to celebrate Pakistan’s 71st Independence Day on August 19. The word mela translates to “gathering” in Urdu, and for a generation, the Brooklyn Mela signified a day of cultural celebration. Blocking off Coney Island Avenue from Avenue H to Foster Avenue, the Mela has long been a chance for local businesses to show off their products. Thousands of people crammed the streets and businesses tripled their profits for a single day. The participants in the Mela included members of the Pakistani American Merchants Association of Coney Island Avenue, which claims it has been hosting the Mela since 1990.
And that is where the problems began. The merchants association, it turned out, was not the only organization that wanted to host the Mela. In fact, the association was no longer a single entity; in January 2017, a break off group of merchants had created its own association, and it too applied to the city for the permit to host the Mela. But the merchants had competition; a community service group called the Council of Peoples Organization, had also applied.
The city, faced with multiple applications for the same event, rejected them all.
What was happening in Little Pakistan that could end up with the most important gathering of the year, a tradition dating to 1990, canceled?
It turns out, things had been building for a very long time.
If every immigrant community has its unofficial — and often self-proclaimed “mayor” — then in Little Pakistan that distinction belonged to Asghar Choudhri. Choudhri ran the merchants association, which is the neighborhood’s most powerful group, given how many businesses join. Almost three decades ago, Choudhri assumed the role of host of the Brooklyn Mela by forming a rival merchants group and essentially taking over the festival, which had originally been hosted by another merchants group. Choudhri was a singular figure in Little Pakistan. He had arrived from Lahore in 1963 and ran an accounting firm. In time, he became a member of the local community board and with that established himself as the most powerful man in the neighborhood. He was, in a Pakistani context, the strongman, a position he held until his death in 2014, an event marked by a flood of obituaries, including from local politicians.
His death, as is often the case with such leaders, left a vacuum. It did not take long for various groups and their leaders to vie for dominance in Little Pakistan — and with it the distinction of hosting the Mela. By the time the Mela actually got canceled in 2018, at least five non-profit organizations were registered on Coney Island Avenue, each with its own agenda and ambitions.
People were at first reluctant to talk to me in Little Pakistan, which I thought might have something to do with me being Indian. But there were other reasons for that silence. I was attempting to gain trust from a neighborhood where many residents had been driven out by FBI agents knocking on doors after 9/11. Over the years, in order to preserve its image, Little Pakistan had learned to keep a low profile. But with the cancellation of the Mela, its united front was splintering, and I knew the leaders of Little Pakistan would have something to say about this — and about each other.
Bursting the Bubble
After days of silence, Shahid Khan, founder of the National Youth Organization of Pakistan, agreed to meet. A middle-aged man with kind eyes, Khan could easily pass for any of my uncles back in India. As he entered the coffee shop he immediately cracked a joke, in Urdu. “All these jobless people, don’t they have anywhere else to be?”
Khan had himself just woken up, at 2 p.m. Just off Coney Island Avenue, our meeting spot, Milk and Honey Café, was the exact opposite of Little Pakistan. Hardly any South Asians filled up the chairs, perhaps reluctant to pay $6 for a “golden latte,” which is simply the turmeric milk we drink at home. “I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the Pakistani community,” he said, as we sat down with our coffees.
But first he Khan wanted to know if any other organizations had gotten back to me. When I told him they hadn’t, he said, “yeah, they showed me your emails and texts.” Apparently, none of the others wanted to talk to me. “People were obviously asking each other, ‘Who is this Indian girl going around asking all these questions?’” he said.
“They don’t want to help you and they don’t want your help either,” he continued. “They want to live in their bubble.” And that’s why I was here, I assured him. To learn more about this bubble.
What followed was an hour-long disquisition on the history of the community — how people began immigrating in the 1960s, how fear of the government drove many to leave after 9/11, and how many of those who could not afford to leave were low-wage workers. Then, he began to tell me about himself. He goes to sleep at 5 a.m. after his morning prayers follow long nights of listening to people who come to him with their problems. There’s a playground around the corner that remains unsafe because of the renovation of a nearby building. Kids are having trouble at school. People are fighting each other on the streets. Some parents can’t even find parking. He listens, along with a few friends, and this causes him a lot of “tension.”
He told me how he was tortured for his political activism in Pakistan, and in 2010 came to the United States seeking asylum. His eyes filled with tears as he spoke about his early days in the country. He was poor and lonely and starting a new life among strangers. Finally being welcomed by Little Pakistan, he said, was like coming back home.
Yet, even now, after eight years spent establishing himself — his primary work, he said, is running his nonprofit, National Youth Organization of Pakistan — he sometimes feels like an outcast. “A lot of people here don’t like me,” he said. “They don’t want me talking about the issues in our community.”
Khan told me he recently spoke to members of the Brooklyn Borough Hall about overcrowding in Pakistani households, only to have the members of the community scold him for giving them a bad name. “I work with the Pakistani Christian Association of USA, and some of the Muslim leaders here call me a traitor to the faith,” he said, tearing up again. “They don’t even like that I’m sitting here talking to you, an Indian, right now.”
Khan finds that residents of Little Pakistan have one foot in Brooklyn, and one foot back home. In his experience, affluent and literate Pakistanis often leave Coney Island Avenue for more assimilated neighborhoods around the city, producing a halt in the development of Little Pakistan itself. Those that remain, he added, perpetuate a culture of low-class gossip, and don’t understand the benefits of community work. They prefer just getting on with their days working in gas stations, in construction, or as taxi drivers.
Even though he runs several community programs, he said, some people are unappreciative. In 2013, for instance, he brought “Startalk Urdu” to Brooklyn to encourage Pakistani children brought up in America to reconnect with their language. But some, he added, told him it was a waste of time.
“Most other people are not working like I am,” he said. “My activism is my main, full-time job. For everyone else, community work is just a hobby.”
He implied that the longer I stuck around the more I would see just how insular Little Pakistan really is. Still, he promised to help. “I’m the only one that can get you to speak to everyone you need,” he told me. “Don’t worry. I know they’re not speaking to you now, but I will personally introduce you to them.”
The Women of Little Pakistan
I had heard that Bazah Roohi knew everything and everyone. But I was warned that she was a busy woman on Coney Island Avenue, running her organization, American Council of Minority Women, from the office of her accounting firm, Bibi Jan Tax & Accounting Services.
I first met Roohi, who is known by everyone as “Bibi Jan,” at a charity meat distribution event that her organization was hosting. Six women sat on couches in her small window-less office, discussing what to wear and take to a wedding later that evening, while the smell of slow-roasted meat wafted through all our clothes and pulled in people from the streets.
“We started the event early because the meat donations came in earlier than planned. Look, we’re almost out already,” she said, pointing to the 34 boxes of packaged uncooked halal meat. The event was supposed to go till 5 p.m., but with people stopping by every few minutes to pick up food for their families, by 1 p.m., it didn’t seem like the packages would last much longer.
Each family of three got one package of meat, and a family of six got three. Her band of volunteers signed people in, divided the meat into separate bags, and kept the lines moving. Bibi Jan ran in and out of the office to make phone calls and every time I asked the volunteers questions, they waited till she returned to answer.
When I was finally got her alone the following week, Bibi Jan was feeling sick but had shown up to work anyway. Smiling and eager to show me photos of a back-to-school supplies donation event she’d coordinated the week before, she offered me sweet chai and homecooked biryani before telling me her story.
She had been running her small accounting business on Coney Island Avenue for a few years before she realized that Pakistani women had started approaching her to seek relief from domestic violence. Because hers was the only local business with a female name on the store-sign, she said, desperate women had started turning to her for help.
Bibi Jan told me that she already had abundant experience volunteering for organizations that worked for women’s relief. Back in Pakistan, she’d grown up influenced by her mother’s activism. So, she said, when a local woman came to her crying because her husband had beaten up their pregnant daughter, she decided that her community needed her.
“I hate to say this,” Bibi Jan said, “but when we first started, the leaders in the community went to the local community board, complaining that women should be staying home instead of servicing or attending our programs.”
She has been in Little Pakistan 20 years, she said, but still faces competition from men uncomfortable with her influence. “I was so upset when the new district manager of the community board contacted Shahid Khan to ask about me,” she said. “Shahid just joined the community in 2010. I’ve been here so long. Why couldn’t she trust me and approach me herself?”
In fact, when Khan, saw me at the meat distribution event, he was hesitant to step inside Bibi Jan’s office, because he felt uncomfortable around so many women. “You know how it is,” he told me. This was a phrase I was used to hearing back home and would continue to hear over the next few months. He also dismissed the “unorganized” way the meat distribution event was structured.
It turned out that Bibi Jan had taken it upon herself to organize the neighborhood’s second biggest festival after the Mela — the annual women’s festival, called the Chand Raat Mela, literally translated from Urdu to mean “Moon Night Festival” which celebrates the end of Ramadan with food, henna, and clothing stalls along Coney Island Avenue.
“The older men create problems for everyone, and they tried to take Chand Raat away from me,” she said. “But I’m strong. We survived.
“These fights have been going on a long time, but this year really took it too far,” she said of the Brooklyn Mela getting canceled. “Everyone wants to say, ‘I’m better, I’m bigger’ so they can get on stage at the Mela and insult each other.” In fact, Bibi Jan said, the merchants association once invited her to join their organization as a liaison for female merchants. She declined.
“I don’t want to be a part of this dirt,” she said. “I just want to do my own work.”
She wants the Mela to take place next year. She just hopes it gets taken over by an entirely new set of organizers who are “sincere and educated” in their running of the event.
Despite her role and influence in Little Pakistan, Bibi Jan cannot escape the traditional roles and expectations of men and women. When a male head of a family entered the meat distribution event to pick up a package, one of her volunteers yelled across the room, “Let the men go first!” allowing him to the cut the line even if several women were in front of him.
“You know how it is,” a volunteer whispered to me.
A Familiar Name On The Ballot
Amidst the hushed feuding over the Mela, on September 13, the day of New York’s primary election, Coney Island Avenue was crowded with people preparing to cast their votes for Kashif Hussain, a 41-year-old Pakistani-American who was running for district leader.
Hussain was claiming he would make history as the first elected Pakistani-American Democratic district leader in the city. He had spent the summer campaigning in the southern, more immigrant-heavy part of his district. It was a voting group, he told me, that had never been tapped into before.
He had knocked on doors and made his pitch for, among issues, healthcare reform. He was confident that his campaign could unite immigrant communities.
And though he lost narrowly, he was encouraged these communities had turned out to vote. He considered this progress. He was sure that this was a sign Little Pakistan was changing.
“They started looking beyond their petty differences for the first time,” he told me. Hussain, too, has his own organization, the Pakistani American Youth Society. And he too had an opinion about the Mela’s cancellation and who was responsible — the older leaders.
“Unfortunately, because of lack of education and proper training, the Pakistani community has created bad blood among themselves,” he said. “People often organize around caste, hometown, religion, or socio-economic systems here.”
He immigrated to Brooklyn 27 years ago and was very young when the older generation was creating these divisions. “You’ll see an organization take form, but then it breaks into smaller groups,” he said. He hopes that he can help reverse the image of Brooklyn’s South Asian community.
“Now that I ran for office, I think the city is looking at our community in a completely different way,” he said. “This is preliminary, but we might open up a new case and claim that the next generation wants to start hosting events like the Mela.”
Hussain told me he believed that in the next five years young activists will phase the old guard out.
“I see the old guys carry out smearing campaigns against us, but it doesn’t stop our progress,” he said, speaking highly of his own nonprofit’s work. “When I was running for district leader, I knocked on every organization’s door. Yet many used our differences against me.
“But our model is a revolutionary model, and the older leaders see us as a threat. This platform actually helped a person like me run for office. That’s how strong our impact is.”
The Stories That Don’t Match Up
But Hussain’s is not the only youth-oriented organization in Little Pakistan. There is also Waqil Ahmed’s Pakistani American Youth Organization which claims to serve a similar purpose.
It took weeks of persuasion to convince Ahmed to speak with me. We met at his electronics store on Coney Island Avenue, which he runs on the ground level, on top of his youth organization’s office in the basement. “It’s my vision,” Ahmed said, claiming that Hussain’s organization had actually stolen his organization’s purpose of setting up a community center for the young. “Their organizers used to work with me. I told them not to open a separate thing. But they wanted to be the boss.”
Ahmed, who arrived here 20 years ago and is 32 years old, recalled his difficult childhood as the motivating force behind his organization’s birth. “I moved here as a child. Back then, there were a lot of gangs on the streets. I used to be in one too, I stood right there,” he said, pointing to the intersection of Foster Avenue and Coney Island Avenue through the store window. “It was awful. We wouldn’t even fight other communities, just fight each other regarding who got to stand where.”
After the police broke up the gangs in 2006, he said, he found a mentor in a Pakistani officer who helped him think about community work. “I’m sad. I have a guilty conscience for being in the gangs. So I wanted to help the youth on the streets get off drugs,” he said, claiming to never have done any drugs himself. Years after the gangs broke up, Ahmed was minding his own business when his brother got into a petty fight at his store with customers from the opposing gang. “I didn’t want us to go back to our old ways,” Ahmed said. “That’s when I decided to start taking community work seriously.”
On the afternoon I interviewed Ahmed, his store bell chimed periodically. While he tended to customers wanting to send money orders or purchase low-end electronics, he showed me fliers of youth programs that his organization had led over the years.
“What is community work? If you need shelter, where are you supposed to go?” he said. “Providing a shelter is personal to me. I have kids coming in every day, and I leave the doors open for them until late at night.”
Ahmed claimed that he had begun his work with Bibi Jan herself, helping with her street fair. But after he asked her for assistance in setting up his own organization, he said, she misled him about filing his registration paperwork, causing him to take a delay.
“I don’t know why she didn’t file the papers for me,” he said. “She left me hanging for months, but I wasn’t upset. She just gave me a boost to get this work done on my own.”
For her part, Bibi Jan denied Ahmed’s accusation. She said he had never approached her about the registration paperwork in that way.
Ahmed also insisted he wanted no part in taking over the Mela. At least at first. “I think by now there are four or five groups, maybe more, fighting for the Mela, and they’re not upset the Mela is cancelled,” he said. “They’re just happy that no one won. I’m not trying to hijack it though, I want something new. I want my own Mela.”
Indeed, this past August, Ahmed led his own small Independence Day celebration on Coney Island Avenue in front of the Pakistani American Youth Organization office, drawing over a hundred members of the community, as well as the local congresswoman Yvette Clarke.
“I didn’t want to fight anyone, but I’m really hurt that the Brooklyn Mela didn’t happen this year,” he said, claiming the cancellation hurt his business and the community’s morale. “I’m going to work with some other merchants on Coney Island Avenue to create a merchants organization just for younger merchants, and we’ll host our own big Mela. That should work.”
And so…The Fight Goes On
Muhammad Rana, a contractor who moved to Little Pakistan in 1986, has seen the Brooklyn Mela change over the years. Although not an official member of the merchants association, Rana is an experienced neutral observer who witnessed the birth of the merchants association, as well as its split in 2017. And he has seen the divide worsen since.
Little Pakistan’s fight, he told me, isn’t about the Mela anymore. It’s about who truly owns the merchants association. A court hearing to declare ownership was originally set for September 25, but has since been postponed twice, because both sides have yet to reach an agreement. Siding with the original group of merchants, the one that has been led by Jawed Khan since 1990, Rana told me he thinks that all other organizations should simply step aside.
“Last year, the new merchant group submitted false paperwork saying they were the owners, so the city wrongly gave them ownership of the Mela,” he said. He also confirmed that the Council of Peoples Organization was a third-party organization trying to take over the Mela, and had submitted a permit alongside the merchants this year.
“What do they have to do with any of this,” Rana said, claiming that everyone was bothered by the interference. In a similar vein, many leaders like Ahmed and Khan condemned the Council of Peoples Organization for going after Bibi Jan’s festival. Yet, residents of Little Pakistan had only good things to say about the Council of Peoples Organization.
“The morning we arrived here, we walked into a store, and were told to go straight to COPO,” said Aisha Zulfiqar — who arrived in America in 2009 — using the organization’s acronym. “I got into school because of Hasan Raza, a staff member at COPO. The organization carries out great work in the community.”
Admittedly, the organization’s office appears as the one-stop-shop for all immigration, educational and social services in the community. With what seems like a perpetually busy waiting room, it offers multiple daily programs to young children, senior citizens, and students. “We have 50, 60 people coming in every day to attend each of our programs,” said Hasan Raza, Senior Director at the Council of Peoples Organization. “Every other day people bring in a mithai dabba (box of sweets) because they passed a citizenship test.”
Just this month, their first asylum case was approved, Raza told me. In the past, the Council of Peoples Organization’s CEO Mohammed Razvi had been profiled by the New Yorker, for the great work he has done in Little Pakistan. Still, Raza refused to comment on the Mela dispute. And Razvi didn’t respond to multiple requests for an interview.
The Future Of The Mela
Although it’s too late to host a Mela this year, community leaders seem divided on what they want from it in the future. Shahid Khan wants to “wait and watch.” Bibi Jan hopes a whole new organization will take over the Mela. Kashif Hussain and Waqil Ahmed are finding ways to claim the Mela for the younger generation, albeit separately. Meanwhile, the merchants association is still split in two, and according to court records, the Council of Peoples Organization has expressed its desire to claim a share too.
“This is very typical,” said Tahira S. Khan, a Lecturer at Columbia University’s Department of History. “The Mela tells us that the community wanted to gain importance, power, and dominance, but they were struggling, and in that struggle, they lost their baby.”
As long as leadership lies in the hands of the first generation of immigrants, she said, Little Pakistan will continue to live in the confines of competition from back home. “The first generation is holding on to their values. 9/11 has a lot to do with that,” she said. “When you see a threat you either fight or become inward looking.”
Tahira Khan believes that the new generation of Pakistani Americans are going to come out of that rigid mold. “It’s a very complex issue,” she explained. “You have to look at fear of the higher class, fear of the more educated, fear of the young, fear of the system.” The older generation that stayed stuck in its ways, she added, is frightened by the dominance of that which is more modern, educated, and powerful, possibly playing a factor in current feuds.
And while these feuds are a big factor in Little Pakistan at the moment, each organization on Coney Island Avenue insists it wants to help the Pakistani community. They just want to do it their own way. “There is a thin line between competition and rivalry,” Tahira Khan said. “When it becomes a rivalry, no one can predict.”
And Little Pakistan is much bigger than its rivalries. There were evenings I’d walk back to the subway after a day of reporting, devouring a sweet jalebi I’d picked up at a bustling family-restaurant on Coney Island Avenue, and I’d remember how I’d been greeted my first, rainy day in Little Pakistan. A shopkeeper had seen me looking lost, and had offered me free food.
“Take your pick,” he had said, smiling as I chose a piece of mithai from the grand display of sweets. At that moment he reminded me what I have always found to be the warmest South Asian quality: our ability to dissolve differences by welcoming and comforting each other.
You can reach Jeevika Verma at @_jeevika or jeevikav.com.