In Ashton, a small town east of Manchester, a family was rifling through cassette tapes of their late father’s naats, when they found a cassette filled with recorded messages which would pass back and forth between two sisters, both of whom left Pakistan to migrate to the UK and Canada respectively. When Wajid Yaseen discovered these tapes, he knew right there and then that he had found something important.
Wajid then started chatting to people in the local community, discovering that many more of these cassettes still sat in people’s wardrobes and attics collecting dust. He saw them not only as innovative means for long-distance communication, but as artefacts, living insights into the history of Britain and Pakistan, and so his oral history project Tape Letters was born.
The project consists of a collection of cassette tapes sent between Britain and Pakistan in the 1960s and 70s, when greetings, family news, gossip, birthday messages, love letters, and everything in between, were recorded and posted across continents. The project collects, transcribes, and archives these tapes alongside the stories surrounding them – they have already been exhibited at Rich Mix, the People’s History Museum, and the Bishopsgate Institute.
The tapes platform Pakistani migrants who came to the UK to take up labour work in historic mill towns, and those who were left homeless after the Mangla dam construction. They occupied a crucial space in the British industrial working class, for whom cross-continental phone calls were too expensive or even impossible in some regions of Pakistan, and travelling between countries with any regularity wasn’t viable. The subsequent solution to cross-country communication was cassette tapes.
Of the cassettes archived so far, most of the messages exchanged were recorded in Potwari, a spoken language which, as the project demonstrates, can only be written with great difficulty via a finely-tuned transliteration system using Urdu. Potwari (also known as Pahari, Pothwari, or Potohari) is a Punjabi language from the Potohar Plateau.
It has been described as vibrant and vicious, candid, comfortably rough at the edges, and it has an emotive quality that just doesn’t translate into the written word. Meanwhile, reading and writing in Urdu was made difficult by limited access to education, particularly for women. The pioneers of tape letters exist at a complex intersection of structural disadvantages from gender, class, nationality, and language. In general, working-class migrants and Pakistanis in the North of England are often deprived of mainstream representation.
Moreover, Potwari speakers in the UK have faced a nexus of discrimination based on race, class, and religion, and the language itself is stereotyped as the preserve of the “lower classes”. When I asked Wajid to describe Potwari, he spoke of it as most would describe a beloved friend, as something to be treasured. He also used a Potwari word which, ironically, I can’t write down nor accurately translate, but is something to the tune of “colourful”.
Wajid says: “I’ve always had the positive view of Potwari compared to Urdu, I was taught Urdu but I could never really express myself through it, I always preferred Potwari. Every time people used Urdu it was in a formal setting that I didn’t feel comfortable with, it always came alongside a slightly snobby personality, so I always loved Potwari. That might have informed my relationship to Tape Letters.
“I’ve grown to like it even more during this project, there are all sorts of things I’ve discovered, such as how robust it is, that it’s a language in its own right not just a dialect of Punjabi, and also trying to understand what a transitional language is, what the others are, that there are similar languages like Hindko […] There are so many more of these languages and dialects just in Pakistan. It’s been about fitting my own language into the context of its history and tradition”.
As a spoken language with no alphabet or formal writing system, Potwari belongs to an increasingly large proportion of world languages that are endangered. For context, only around 4% of the planet’s languages are “official” and protected. Scholars found that in Pakistan there are between 60 – 75 languages, with at least 57 being endangered. Researchers estimated that, as of 2010, there were just under 2.5 million Potwari speakers in Pakistan itself and the number is decreasing due to young people, instead favouring the class mobility associated with Urdu or English.
This became apparent to Wajid during his latest trip to Pakistan to research the project: “The kids were speaking Urdu, there’s a lot of pressure on them to speak Urdu and English due to shifts in their socio-economic backgrounds, and I was refusing to speak to them in Urdu, I was like ‘I’ve come all this way to research Potwari’ but to them, it was kind of funny to hear me speak it”.
In the UK, Potwari is spoken by between 500,000 to 700,000 people, younger generations are still learning to speak it, and there are campaigns for its protection and revival from activists, artists, and academics alike. For example, in the 80s, at community meetings in Glodwick and Rochdale, speeches were made in Potwari.
In the 1990s, activists from the Pakistani Workers Association and Kashmiri Workers Association created the first Potwari-language magazine in Oldham, while in Rochdale the first Potwari novels and poems were written, and in Leeds, local councils held Pahari Awareness Days in 2005. The Tape Letters project is reviving this Potwari pride in the UK.
Forming part of a migrant and colonised demographic already written out of British history, Potwari-speakers also face the threat of their history being erased or ignored simply because their language isn’t meant for the written discipline. Oral histories can capture these stories perfectly.
“This project is raw data, it’s artefacts, that’s the beauty of it. It’s not just people recalling their stories of migrations and diasporic experiences, we have the real evidence from the time, that’s historic evidence. The whole thing is like archaeology” explains Wajid.
The tapes played the role of letters for those who couldn’t write them, and within them lie well-preserved accounts of heartbreak, homesickness, excitement, feuds and scandals, politics, and people falling in love. It’s a Svetlana-Alexievich-esque account of history told by women and children from their own front rooms. The emotional, personal side of migration deserves some attention in a political climate which tends to view migrants, refugees, and asylum seekers as a faceless phenomenon to debate.
Though not for lack of geopolitical grist, when presenting the project to the public Wajid explained that Tape Letters chose to focus more on the relatable, human experiences that exist “behind-the-scenes” of global trends: “The Tape Letters project isn’t primarily aiming to demonstrate the exclusively positive side of migration to the UK, although it goes in some way to ‘humanise’ the migratory experience.”
There is an unexpected parallel between Potwari and oral history, each seen by their respective worlds as somewhat lesser or lower, as informal, colourful, much too grounded in the emotional and irrational. Potwari language and customs are passed through generations by words, memories, songs, and poetry, all of which form the crucial archaeology of oral histories. When orchestrating the project, Wajid makes the most of this:
“This project is all about what happens when the language of a people is not written down. How do we capture that history? Other questions conjured by this project are precisely what an orally transmitted history means for the development of the mind, i.e. how are knowledge and memory transferred if your language isn’t written down?
So, for example, for guys who speak Potwari, their memories are extraordinary, they reflect on the past differently, when things aren’t written and able to recall from in the physical world, it’s all about having really accurate recall in your own brain.”
That spirit continues in exhibiting the oral history project. Without the confinement of their project to a hefty book or something behind a JSTOR paywall, Tape Letters produced dynamic means to exhibit their history through an interactive website, an app, a full digital archive and exhibitions around the country.
“For the Tape Letters project, writing it down has been useful from an archiving perspective, but for actually presenting the exhibitions, we made sure that Potwari took the main stage, and we did that using sonic and visual mediums. It was really cool to see people from all over the country finding some strength and pride in their stories and their language being on display in the world of the arts.”
For now, the focus remains on Potwari, but the scope of unwritten languages leaves a lot to be explored in the history of British Pakistanis alone.
Excerpts from the tapes and interviews can still be heard on the website. The project has recently launched its next phase and the Tape Letters’ researchers are in the process of collecting new cassettes and stories. If you have any tapes or testimonies that you’d like to contribute to the project, you can contact firstname.lastname@example.org.