In Little Pakistan, Independence Day Reveals Tensions

Little Pakistan runs along Coney Island Ave in Brooklyn. (Jeevika Verma)

New York City’s largest Pakistani neighborhood, unofficially called “Little Pakistan,” lies in the heart of Brooklyn and spreads into Flatbush and Midwood. Delis and shops on Coney Island Avenue — Little Pakistan's backbone — boast names like Punjab Grocery and Lahore Chilli, display banners touting 100% halal food, and sell authentic imported goods from South Asia. Pakistani immigrants have run many of these businesses since they started settling in the neighborhood in the 1980s, when there were a little over 25,000 Pakistanis living in the United States. 

For most of these businesses, one day each year triples profits and brings in thousands of people: August 14, or Pakistan Independence Day. Local merchants started hosting the Brooklyn Mela, the community’s annual Pakistan Independence Day celebration, in 1990. In 1994, a public vote ousted the original merchants as leaders of the parade, so they broke off and formed the Pakistani American Merchants Association (PAMA). PAMA runs the parade today and has been since 1995. As of 2015, 519,000 Pakistanis were living in the U.S., with 102,000 living in New York metropolitan area. At the parade, Pakistani flags fly high next to American ones, celebrating the heritage of both homelands. 

But underneath this celebration, a rivalry bubbles once more — just as it did back in 1994. Older generations of merchants and organizers, often with more conservative values, have been fighting with younger generations, who are generally more progressive, over decisions such as having more women in leadership positions. There are even rumors that there will be two melas this year due to these differences. 

Last year, the Brooklyn Mela was canceled for the first time in almost three decades. Neighborhood organizations who wanted a bigger part in community leadership applied for permits from the Mayor’s office for the same date and time as PAMA’s mela. The New York City Mayor’s office released a letter that asked the groups to figure out who owned the mela. Without a consensus, the office decided that no one would get to organize it. 

This year, according to a giant poster displayed on Coney Island Avenue and Foster Street, the mela is back, slated for Sunday, August 19. Zainab Iqbal, a young Pakistani American journalist who covered community tensions last year and posted the update, told me that the residents were disheartened at its cancellation last year. For many, the mela is a very important day of celebration and unity.

The Brooklyn Mela is separate from the Pakistan Day Parade in Manhattan, which has faced its own share of troubles. In 2000, a group of Pakistani Army marchers at the Manhattan parade disappeared the next day, intent on staying in North America. In 2007, much like the Brooklyn Mela, the Manhattan Parade faced power struggles. 

A flyer for the 2019 Pakistan Independence mela in Brooklyn. (Jeevika Verma)

This year, the Manhattan Pakistan Day Parade took place Sunday, August 4, two weeks before the Mela. Though it brings in stars such as singer Ali Zafar, many still consider the Brooklyn Mela, with its food stalls and pop-up shops, much more interactive. It's also much larger because it’s closer to where Pakistani communities live.

“The Pakistani American Merchants Association was able to get the permit as it always does,” said Muhammad Rana, a friend and liaison for PAMA. “The whole community is very happy to see the advertisements and to see that the Mela is coming together again.”

Rana said that the groups at the Brooklyn Mela had no choice but to stop fighting for ownership. “They saw that fighting didn’t work last year so now they have to work together,” he said. According to many, the infighting is a backward form of thinking, exported from South Asia, where there is room to create divisions — and something that does not have to exist in communities across the world in Brooklyn. 

Shahid Khan also believes that the Mela is back. Khan is a prominent community organizer and member of Brooklyn’s Community Board 14, which represents parts of Flatbush and Midwood. He sent me a video of the press conference where PAMA leaders announced this year’s Mela. 

“We all sat down…all the groups together…a few weeks ago,” Khan said. “We told the competing group they were creating a divide, and we asked them to step back from the organizing committee.”

Indeed, things in Little Pakistan are looking up. Younger and older generations are getting along better. In February, community leaders helped co-name the intersection of Coney Island Avenue and Foster Street Muhammad Ali Jinnah Way by lobbying for the name change from their local Community Board. Jinnah was the founder of Pakistan and the renaming was something the community had wanted for years. 

(Wikimedia)

Waqil Ahmed, founder of the neighborhood’s Pakistani American Youth Organization (PAYO), played a leading role in creating Jinnah Way. “Everyone showed up to celebrate that day,” he said. “It really brought the community together.”

According to Ahmed, co-naming also helped bridge the generation gap. The community felt unsafe after 9/11, and Ahmed explained that the change signified a feeling of safety and acceptance within New York City, something older generations had been fighting to have for years. “To see us as youth win this big step for the entire community…it must have melted the elders’ hearts,” Ahmed said.

Kashif Hussain, another young organizer who ran for district leader last year and was just appointed a deputy public advocate for the city, is more even-handed about progress — or the lack thereof.

“Although I feel joyful that this important cultural festival is happening, I think there could be improvements,” he said. “It could have been even better if we proactively reached out and were welcoming of all merchants. Those who were [competing] last year is not part of the Mela this year.” The fact that Mela organizers were not being inclusive left Hussain uncomfortable. 

Mela leadership practices are also questionable. Hussain said that PAMA is supposed to hold elections for group members every two years. “But not every member or merchant gets to vote — it’s a selection, not an election,” he added. 

Hussain wants organizers to reach out to him for support and resources. “But I can't help them if they don’t want to help themselves.” 

While I’m on the phone with Hussain, a colleague interrupts him. 

“There are going to be two melas this year,” I hear the colleague say.

“What?” Hussain yells back.

“Yes. Another mela in September! Here on Coney Island Avenue.”

“Well, there you go,” Hussain told me over the phone. “Breaking news!”

Hussain explained that the dissenting group of merchants, led by Nasir Awan, were not allowed much leadership in PAMA. The group has announced its own mela on Sunday, September 21. This actually happened before, in 2017, he said.

“They don’t want to sit down and talk about it and they’re unwilling to celebrate together,” Awan, leader of the rival group, later told me. “They should give the partnership to other merchants and there should be equal rights.” 

Awan, who is the chairman of the Allama Iqbal Community Center, does not like the imbalanced leadership within PAMA. For him, it’s more important that all merchants are allowed a say in ownership and organization of the Mela. But Awan is part of a co-existing merchants organization — the Coney Island Merchant’s Association — because the other merchants won’t include him. It’s a power struggle that has gone on for decades. 

Khan and Rana were unaware of this second mela when I spoke to them, but with the melas going from zero to two in one year, I ask Hussain whether this latest development will affect turnout.

“When I was a kid and growing up you could not even walk from Newkirk to Avenue H...it was so packed with people,” he told me. Hussain moved to the neighborhood over 20 years ago. “There used to be tens of thousands…and now we barely see 3,000 folks.”

The Mela, started by the very businesses and leaders who make Little Pakistan what it is — a sanctuary and home away from home for Pakistani immigrants — is caught in the crossfires of changing times.

Jeevika Verma is a poet and writer from India, currently based in New York as a journalist.

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