A few years ago – the last time I went with my dad to see his beloved West Ham play at Upton Park – we took a walk along Green Street after the game in search of a snack. Where we ended up for food, I can’t remember, but I do remember being fascinated with shop window after shop window displaying glittering, colourful saris and sparkling costume jewellery. I remember adding “try on a sari one day” to my mental bucket list.
It so happens that a good friend is getting married in a 4-day Indian wedding bash on a beach in Kenya next month. Jorge and I need outfits. While I’ve been able to borrow saris from her, I needed a petticoat to go under one of them and Jorge was after a sherwani to wear for the ceremony. So an afternoon on Green Street was in order.
This area shows off London’s amazing diversity at its finest. The area is home to a large Pakistani community which meant a pretty significant proportion of women walking along the street had their heads covered. There’s also huge Indian and Bangladeshi communities here so the crowds were full of vibrant saris too. Probably the next most represented group living in this area is an Afro Caribbean community. We heard Spanish speakers, Eastern European languages, and many others we couldn’t pinpoint.
One of my favourite things about living in London is that you can literally just cross the city and feel like you’re in another country altogether. There are streets around us that feel entirely French. Head to Elephant and Castle and you’ll find tons of Colombian shops and restaurants. Head to Peckham and you’re in mini-Nigeria. The borough of Newham where Green Street is located had the lowest percentage of white British residents of all of London’s boroughs as of 2011, at just 16.7%. Overall, London is about 45% white British and about 3 million of the city’s residents were born abroad.
Our afternoon started not far from Upton Park station when I spotted the Queens Market. There’s nothing like a new market to explore! (Remember Queens Market vendor Nazir, the £1 fish man from X-Factor?) There’s all sorts of treasures there like paw-paw from Pakistan, fresh dates, halal meat, salt fish, human hair wigs, kettles, blingy fake rings and bracelets, mountains of fruit, pig feet, chicken feet, meat hanging from the ceiling buzzing with flies just like the butchers in Colombia minus the dripping blood. There were, of course, some fruits and vegetables I couldn’t identify.
Hands of many different colours reached out to test the texture of fruits, fill flimsy blue market bags with cherries, pile okra, cabbage and moth beans into baskets. People pushed cloth trolleys to carry their shopping. They ran their fingers over sari fabrics, eyed up the best green bananas and scanned cartons of fresh eggs for hairline cracks. There were babies cocooned against chests, children dragging behind holding their mother’s hand so as not to get lost in the shuffle. It was as bustling as any market, full of life and vendors shouting their wares: “so sweet cherries, so sweet cherries!”, “one pound, only one pound!”
Back along Green Street, we walked past shops selling shalwar kameez, Islamic bookshops, doorways with the unmistakable scent of incense wafting out, “magic corn” vendor carts and plenty of signs announcing Ramadan discounts. There were sturdy boxes piled with ginger and garlic, the base of the same food you could smell while walking by the many curry shops and vegetarian restaurants.
We popped into a sari shop and found a petticoat immediately for £5 and then set out to find a men’s shop. Luckily, my friend’s sister met us to give us a bit of guidance on what sort of sherwani to buy (how long? how detailed? how loose is too loose?) for the wedding and which colour the scarves should be that go with it. There are so many options – how overwhelming! I won’t share photos till after the event next month, but we found everything we needed before heading home. Jorge was even approached in a shop by a TV camera and a man with a microphone who wanted him to talk about his experience!
Before we left, we spotted a bright piece of street art, just off of Green Street on Harold Road, that said “Knowledge – a weapon of mass distraction.” My buddy Hachem told me later that the circular graffiti that’s pictured at the middle is one of the styles of Arabic calligraphy called “Ali”. It’s by an artist called Mohammed Ali (aka Aerosol Arabic). He’s been painting since the 1980s, using public walls to translate his faith in Islam into art. It’s hard to tell for sure from researching online, but I believe this one was probably created back in 2009, in which case it’s amazingly well-preserved if it hasn’t been touched up.
And then, we hopped in an Uber back to Chelsea where we ate cheeseburgers and fruit smoothies from Duke of York Square Saturday Market while sitting next to the Saatchi Gallery, watching Wimbledon on the big screen. Here we were surrounded by only white faces of posh people with designer handbags – another world within the same city that we really don’t fit into either. But in London, you can be just about anyone, just about anywhere and somehow you always belong and you never quite belong simultaneously.