LONDON: When British correspondent Secunder Kermani visited Pakistan and wanted to get a haircut, he headed to Mirpur in Azad Kashmir. Originally from Pakistan but born in London, Kermani’s haircut stood out in Islamabad. A security guard outside his hotel in the capital, asked him if he was from Mirpur. When he replied in the negative, he pointed at Kermani’s head and said, “But your hairstyle – all the Mirpuris have the same one.”
The city of Mirpur is known as Little England, owing to the fact that many inhabitants left for Britain and returned to marry off their children or to build big houses with the money they saved.
Kermani’s hairstyle is called a skin fade – the sides of the head shaved to varying degrees. It gradually gets longer as you go upwards and at the top it’s a normal, longer length. In parts of Britain, the skin fade is extremely common, especially among British Asians.
When Kermani visited Mirpur, at first glance he was disappointed because it looked like most Pakistani cities he had been to. However, a sign advertising Chicken Cottage – a fried chicken brand from Britain, got him excited. Young British Muslims often visit Chicken Cottage as a halal alternative to other fast food chains.
The skin fade was also popular in Mirpur – with every other guy under the age of 40 sporting it. The resemblance between them and British Pakistanis was uncanny.
In the 1960s, thousands of Mirpuris left to work in factories and mills of cities in Britain. According to an estimate, about 70% of all British Pakistanis can trace their origins to the region.
Kermani was taken by his guide, local YouTube star – Arslan Shabir, to what he called Mirpur’s premier barbers. There he met Raja, having his stubble plucked by the barber — both the barber and Raja also sported a skin fade hairstyle. Raja said that while the skin fade may have originated in Britain, it has become identifiably Mirpuri. Raja had never been to England but has relatives in Birmingham.
“Do I look like a Pakistani?” he asked Kermani, showing him selfies on his phone. “Could you tell me apart from any British kid?” seemingly proud to look British.
Mirpur’s decades old connection with Britain makes it unlike any other city in Pakistan. You can see huge villas all over the city. “Where could I get a place like this in the UK?” said Zahoor from Ilford. His palatial creation is completed with terraces and towers.
While many aspire to go to Britain and settle there, many in Mirpur have a complex relation with the country. One customer at the barber’s told Kermani a girl in Leeds claimed she would marry him. She, however, took his savings and disappeared. Another is getting married to his cousin in England.
While Shabir gets along with British Pakistanis, his videos also criticse the way they talk about their Pakistani cousins or the look down upon them. “Where do they think their parents come from?” he said indignantly. “The same place as us.”
At the barber’s as Kermani’s turn came, the barber told him he was the first to offer skin fades in Mirpur. “The other day,” he boasted, “a British customer was so impressed he offered me a job… in London.”