Migration on tape
The TAPE LETTERS project shines light on the practice of recording and sending messages on cassette tape as a mode of communication by Pakistanis who migrated and settled in the UK between 1960-1980. Drawing directly both from first-hand interviews and from the informal and intimate conversations on the cassettes themselves, the project seeks to unearth, archive and re/present a portrait of this method of communication, as practiced mainly by Potwari-speaking members of the British-Pakistani community, commenting on their experiences of migration and identity, commenting on the unorthodox use of cassette tape technology, and commenting on the language used in the recordings.
"Yeah, I was five years old when I come here, in England. So, I can remember the recordings - I was quite young. I'd say the recordings went on till early eighties… mid-seventies. Obviously then the telephone was more, but I can remember the recordings because they used to make me stand there and say "talk to your aunty in Pakistan and say this, and such aunty and such uncle”, and I used to be shy to talk but they used to make me talk - I remember that much. And the idea was that, you know, they can all sit over in Pakistan and listen to our conversation. Vice versa they send they'd send us a cassette, and we’d all sit around a table, and we’d listen to their conversation, because telephone was very rare. You know TV in a house was rare never mind a telephone so, it was... you know it was just a thing that... somebody was going Pakistan, there’d be excitement "let’s do a cassette!” and send it in, and it reach within a day or two, and they can listen to our conversation or anything we want to tell them, messages, it was a easy way to communicate, I think at that time. My brother would do it, older brother and my father would do it. When we knew that they going to get the recorder out, we used to run and hide somewhere and they find us and then make us talk. One or two times they pressed record and we didn’t know that they're recording, and they’d ask what do you think about Pakistan and this and that, then you realise what they're doing. When they'd ask you, we used to run a mile, me and my brother used to run a mile, we didn’t want to talk"
"I used to wait for his cassette, and I used to wait for the postman wondering when he would turn up and when he would give me the cassette. So, I was waiting and waiting then then postman came and he’d have like a registry, it’s like a big parcel, So, I opened and I just listened to it straight away, and it was just the feeling, it’s just, ummm... I can't, I can't describe those feelings... it was like I am listening to him for the first time, it’s like I am listening what is in his heart for the first time, and what he thinks about me. It was just an amazing feeling, I can't describe right now what I felt when I listened to his cassette first time. So, I thought that there is somebody else who loves me that much. It’s just I couldn't believe that there is person who loves me that much. So, this was his first cassette, So, this thing didn't stop there and it just going on and on and on, for I think, for a year, two years or three years, I don't know, I am not sure for how long, but it continued for so many years this cassette thing"
My heart, my liver, my soul, my love, my home, my life, my first and last wish dear Asma, Assalam-o-Alaikum
Today is Sunday and the date is the first of September nineteen ninety-six (1/9/1996), and the time is one o five in the afternoon. (1:05pm)
So the first thing is that love, I apologise to you. I got your cassette really late - you posted it on fifteenth and I received it on the twenty-ninth because there was a postal-strike…it’s why I got your cassette two weeks later than I expected and I was so worried about it - too much my love. I was so worried, but dad called me on Friday and he told me that Atif will not arrive today instead he will come the following week. There is no fault of mine or yours in this okay. It’s the fault of the post.
So, what about you love, how are you? How lucky is Atif by the way! He gets to stay in Pakistan for another week - I wish the same had happened with me. Seems Atif will return to me around the same time when you will get this cassette. How is your dad, and how’s my dad? How is grandmother, grandfather, mum, Sidra and Saqib? Give my salaam to everyone, okay. What else love, about you, I miss you so much…I really miss you….I’m just waiting for dad to come back and talk to me and I might even make plans to come to Pakistan for a visit OK come there for a week. I’ll deliver this thing to him and will see what happens next okay? Let me listen to some of your talks and then I will talk alright?
Hello love, I’m…sorry…listening back, I always seem to be telling you off about something in the first half, I am sorry okay, not again. I apologise, and I hope that you will forgive me - you have forgiven me right? To cool you down a little bit, I am going to record you a song okay? I am recording it in the first half because I have to talk alright? Okay? I hope that you will like the song and you won’t mind. Here you go it’s the voice of Kumar Sanu, I hope you will like it okay?
"It used to snow a lot back then. Lots of snow and fog. Sometimes there’d be so much fog that you couldn’t see anyone through it. That was the time I got asthma, because the climate was so different from what I was used to. I still have asthma, but I didn’t have it in Pakistan before I arrived here. My children used to be young and small - in prams and in a big house - we didn’t have telephones at that time, and there were no washing machines in the home and I had to go far to do the laundry - it was difficult. Once there was so much fog that I took the wrong path and lost my way home. It was late in the evening so I asked a young boy, “Son, I need to go to Waterloo Street…270 Waterloo Street. He said “Aunty, I’ll take you to your home”. I just couldn’t see my way and it was getting late. There used to be so much fog back then."
"I personally never sent a tape. I used to only write letters. I never actually recorded a tape directly myself, but my children used to record and send tapes. When I went to Pakistan, my daughter Asiah recorded a tape for her grandparents and her uncle. She recorded her messages and gave me the cassette to pass on to them, and they listened to it there in Pakistan. They then recorded their reply and told me to play this to my children. I brought that cassette back (to the UK) and all the children listened to it. I recorded the conversation of my grandparents, and I told them that I am going back so you they should send the message to their son. I gave you those recordings - they have their voices on them."
My darling, tell me what should I do? I don’t have control of my tears. Are you laughing or crying whilst listening to my voice? I might be crying throughout this cassette but please don’t you worry OK. Please, give me the right that I can cry as much as I want. I don’t have anything except these tears, sweetheart...give me two minutes please. I will carry on recording after I stop crying…
"You know when you come from Pakistan, you leave all your family back home like, you know your parents, your brothers and sisters, and obviously you miss them. I mean we used to write letters as well, but I think you could say things more frequently, and in your own language to your parents and your brothers and sisters. I could tell them how much I missed them. When I came to the UK, I had family here as well - my uncles and aunties, but you know, obviously when you’re away from your mum and dad and your brothers and sisters - when you go away from them, you miss them more. I was missing them so much, and that feeling was like you know, it was very hard. What I’m saying is that I could explain all this to them on cassettes in my own language."
Bismillah ar Raheman ar Raheem, Assalam o Alaikum sister and brother…
Brother, I had a bad dream and it was terrible - I was upset the whole day recalling it. I don’t know why but I dreamt that you were ill, sister Halima and brother Yaseen - I’m talking about the two of you. I had such heartache over it seeing you ill like that, so I told Maryam about the dream, and I told her I didn’t know why it was so bad, but she told me that I’m always thinking too much, and that it will be fine. They’d call us and speak to us if there was anything wrong she said. Also sister, the phone number I took from you wasn’t right – either I took it down wrong or something else happened, but when I dialed the number, the operator spoke and was saying something I didn’t understand. I called brother Zafraan’s family home on the phone, he just wanted to ask if everything was OK. He said he is fine. I also spoke with Abida, Shahida and Zahida. And also Saleema, she was there too, and she was telling me that everything is good at her home in the village...
(pause on the cassette)
… aunties and the others were there too so I felt a little better, but I still wasn’t settled so I dialled your number and talked to you, but just for a while, because those telephone calls are so expensive. The things I want to tell you from the heart have to stay in the heart. I couldn’t tell you everything and I have a lot of things to talk about. I don’t know when I’m going to meet you, and God knows when these locks on the heart will be broken - it looks impossible...
"So she couldn’t really express her feelings so, you know, all of a sudden it just came into my head, you know, into my mind 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 so we can express each other’s feelings you know. Because we’re getting married to each other so I want to know a little bit more. I mean I know, I knew quite a bit in the time I was there, but I didn’t get to know her as much as I wanted to get to know her. So we had a tape recorder at home and I thought, you know, I’ll start recording. So I just started recording my voice to her and in between I used to record one or two songs just to complete the cassette, because it was a 90-minute cassette, 45 minutes each side. So it wasn’t easy talking, you know, it’s like talking to yourself basically. So I used to lock myself in my own bedroom and I used to put like a towel or something underneath the door so nobody can stand outside and listen to my conversation. I used to be on the other side of my bed so, you know, and I used to sort of like talk really slowly, so just in case my brothers or my sisters were earwigging outside."
"My mother sent me a cassette once, but I don’t know where it is now. It was around when she had blood cancer and all of her blood was transfused. The doctors had said that she wouldn't stay alive for long. I was pregnant with Saad at the time, and it was difficult for me to go (to Pakistan) because I was in the ninth month of the pregnancy. My mum sent me a voice recording saying she had prayed for me wishing that God would bless me with a son. That’s why she sent me a cassette. Then my young one was born and he was around four weeks old when my mother went into a coma. They called me over to Pakistan so I went leaving my little one here (in England). My mum died when I reached there. That cassette was here somewhere but I don't know where it is now."
"I bought my own shop on Leeds Road, Bradford...yeah, Leeds Road… I started running my shop there, and slowly you know we age with time. My kids were young, and I tried to get them educated as I didn’t want to involve them in the business. Maybe it was my mistake or whatever but I always wanted them to study, so that they could have a better future.
Everyone wishes that their children should study. Businesses are always running and things never stop, but knowledge is a thing that no one can steal from you. You can give your education to others, and if you do that, it will be everlasting charity, for your whole life. People praise you and wish you well for the whole of your life. Your teacher who educates you, you can’t forget that teacher. You keep praying for him, and then you study more. From the bottom to the top. I dont know how many degrees you have, but you’ve reached a position where today you’re interviewing people. Asking them how they worked, what they did in that year, what did they used to do in their village, in Badhana, in GujarKhan, in Rawalpindi, in Lahore, in Peshawer. I mean you came from London and what did you do in London?
Now, your way of thinking is different. You can say that our children are twenty years ahead of us, because there is a big difference in their education and ours. There is a big difference in our thinking and their thinking."
"I had sorrow in my heart and used to feel that I didn’t know anything, and that I was alone and abroad. The kids were young, and their language was English. There wasn’t that many people from our own community that we could talk to - I was alone and dejected. Anyone who suddenly migrates from one country to another feels alone, especially if they don't know the language. We sisters wanted to communicate but we had problems writing letters. It was really difficult for me to accept was that I was illiterate and couldn’t read and write, because although I had the desire to study, I couldn't. I struggled to accept it, but started messaging on cassettes to my sister. I used to tell her about myself, or if someone died, or 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, but there was a lot of heartache within me about not being able to read or write. There are a lot of things one can't tell anyone in writing. Some things are private, like one's own feelings. It didn't feel right to ask people to write letters on my behalf , even if they were my daughters. Sometimes daughters can be your friends, nevertheless some things stayed in my heart and I used to hide some things from them."