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Bangladeshi boat race takes the UK by storm

A total of 18 teams from around the UK participated in this year’s boat race. Two teams of women also participated.

They live in the United Kingdom, thousands of miles away from home. Some have moved there, some were born there. They may live in a western country, but their roots are back in Bangladesh.

Thus, when occasion calls, these Bangladeshi expatriates in the UK do not miss an opportunity to show off their national heritage and culture. A stark example of this was seen on July 16, at Birmingham’s Edgbaston Reservoir.

Bangladeshi expatriates were seen enthusiastically taking part in the annual Nowka Bais (boat race). Some had brought the Bangladeshi flag with them, in their hands or on a stick. The boats, called dragon boats in the UK, also carried the flag at the helm. Bangladeshis of all ages could be seen cheering on from the shores.

The whole occasion felt like a piece of Bangladesh.

The occasion was attended by the British as well, their cheers mixing in with the crowd’s. Queen Elizabeth II also issued a statement on the occasion. She congratulated the organisers and expressed her interest in learning more about the tradition of boat racing. The event was attended by around 20,000 people.

Besides the boat race, the event also had a procession in the likes of Pohela Boishakh, followed by a cultural show. There were many stalls selling Bangladeshi foods to introduce others to the delight of Bangladeshi cuisine while invoking fond memories for others.

At the event, the correspondent spoke with 11-year-old Mahin, son of Dhaka University Fine Arts graduates Sumita and Zayed. When asked about his thoughts on the boat race, the sixth grader said: “The boats in the boat race are a symbol of independence; they are moving ahead as if to escape from the clutch of the Pakistanis.”

A total of 18 teams from around the UK participated in this year’s boat race. Two teams of women also participated. The Sylhet Sporting Club was the champion of this year’s race. But the race was not about winning, it was about participation.

Each participant expressed their excitement and joy at being able to express solidarity with their culture. Each team had 14-16 participants. Three of the 40-foot long boats had been decorated in myriad colors. A few groups had come together to organise the boat racing event.

The two women teams participated in an exhibition boat race. Dispelling their fear of water, the two teams competed side by side, with their life jackets on and bandannas on their foreheads. The exciting boat race was part of the Birmingham City Council’s South Asian-themed celebration “Utshob.”

This all started in 2007, on the occasion of Oxford’s 1,000 year anniversary. The diverse residents of Oxford decided to celebrate their cultures through cultural celebrations through the year.

When asked for his suggestion for the event, Dr Azizur Rahman, the representative of the Bangladeshi expatriate community, suggested the boat race as a longstanding tradition of Bangladesh. He also proposed importing special boats from Bangladesh for the occasion.

Abdur Rahman, son of Azizur Rahman, told the Bangla Tribune that his father had made the proposal in passing. But he was surprised when the organisers asked him to arrange for three boats to be imported. The task proved to be difficult, but manageable in the end because of the enthusiasm of everyone involved. In the end, the boats were dissembled into parts and flown on a Thai Airways flight to Oxford. At the end of the race, the boats were displayed at the local museum.

Since then, the boat race has become an annual occurrence, gaining popularity with Bangalis and non-Bangalis alike. The number of onlookers and participants keep growing each year. This made it impossible to continue hosting the event in Birmingham. The boat race was put on hold for a year while the organisers looked for a different venue. When Bradford offered to host the event, it was held there for a year, but even that proved inadequate for the space required by the attendees.

Then Birmingham extended an offer, including financial assistance. Birmingham’s rivers and canals proved to be the perfect spot for the event, and it has been held there since 2015. Birmingham is a hub for Bangladeshi expatriates, and its offer of sponsorship sealed the deal.

Zahir Uddin, chairperson of the 2017 boat race, said: “One of the event’s main goals is to make boat racing a popular addition to the sporting and athletic events of the UK, and to establish a local, regional and international organisation dedicated to this sport.”

20 Bangladeshi expatriate families from Italy had come to attend the boat racing event. One of them told the Bangla Tribune: “There are many such events held here throughout the year. But this boat racing is the best event to come to and enjoy with your family.”

Khurshid, another onlooker, told the Bangla Tribune that he had living in the UK for 30 years, but he had never seen such a lively event before. In his opinion, this event perfectly captures Bangladeshi culture and heritage.

Murad Khan, chairperson of “Purbanat,” one of the organisers of the event, said that upholding Bangladeshi culture and showcasing it was one of their goals for this event. They had also organised a procession for that purpose. Boats, palkis, owls, tigers, deer, shapla and other cultural icons were displayed at the procession, along with baul songs and dances by children on the “Purbanat Nowka Bais Heritage Moncho.”

The boat race is only one of the many cultural initiatives undertaken by Bangladeshi expatriates. The Pohela Boishakh procession in London, first held a decade ago, has now been granted the title of the biggest procession in Europe.

It will not be surprising if this boat race takes up another impressive title as a cultural event. This is a perfect example of how Bangladeshi expatriates in the UK are integrating themselves into Western culture, while maintaining their cultural ties and sharing it with those around them.

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