HomeSouth Asian AmericanTrailblazing Comedian in Search of Bengali Harlem
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Trailblazing Comedian in Search of Bengali Harlem

Bengali men with their Puerto Rican and African American wives, at a New York City banquet in 1952.

By Raymond Douglas Chong, AsAmNews Staff Writer

(In Search of Bengali Harlem plays at CAAMFest40 Saturday, March 14 at 6:00 p.m. at the Great Star Theater in San Francisco. AsAmNews is proud to present this featured documentary. Tickets can be purchased here. We originally published this article January 2021.)

Aladdin Ullah is living a Bengali American journey, as a trailblazing comedian and a rising playwright on the American cultural mosaic. His new documentary In Search of Bengali Harlem is set to premiere on PBS during the 2021-2022 season. The film uncovers the story of South Asian Muslim men classified as “illegal” by Asian Exclusion laws, but who blended in with an existing community of colors in Harlem and the Lower East Side.

Background

Ullah grew up in Spanish Harlem, aka EL Barrio, a Hispanic community on Manhattan Island during the 1970s. He rejected his Bangladeshi Muslim and South Asian heritages early in life. While living in the neighborhood’s George Washington Carver Houses, he wildly thrived in New York City through hip-hop and graffiti art. Ullah attended public school and graduated from Richman High School.

Aladdin Ullah with Mohima, his mother, and Karim, his older brother, at Spanish Harlem, in 1975

Habib Ullah, his father, and Mohima Ullah, his mother, were part of the diaspora from Bangladesh, a country in South Asia. His father ran Bengal Garden restaurant in Midtown during the late 1940s.  In Spanish Harlem, Bengali men intermarried Puerto Rican and African American women, that resulted in a hued community.  

Hollywood Comedian

Despite the negative stereotypical portrayal by Hollywood of Muslims as terrorists, Ullah trailblazed as a South Asian comedian at comedy clubs across the United States. He appeared on HBO, MTV, BET, PBS, and Comedy Central. 

On film, he acted in American Desi. On television, he acted in Uncle Morty’s Dub Shack. He did several voices in the award-winning animation Sita Sings the Blues

Ullah admires George Carlin and Richard Pryor, the gods of comedy, as his role models. They fought the status quo and challenged the hypocrisy that existed in our world.

He entered the world of film and television in Hollywood that sadly limited roles for South Asians. As a lead, the South Asian male was either a terrorist or a cab driver. Or he was always emasculated when he chased a White woman.

I blame an industry that does not allow us to have a range, a nuance , some layers in characters,” he told AsAmNews. “We have to do it ourselves and not rely on anyone. This is why I turned to writing and producing. I have this problem; it is  called thinking. And I have another problem –  integrity. That is not good if you want to be in Hollywood  for long-term. I prefer to sleep at night doing the right thing.

Dishwasher Dreams Play

With little representation of his Bengali people in the American media, Ullah transitioned from acting to writing. He wrote plays about both Harlem and Bangladesh. With guidance from American playwright David Henry Hwang, Ullah is completing the Master of Fine Arts Playwright Program at Columbia University. He continues to teach special education for a New York City’s public school.

Ullah staged a one-man show, Dishwasher Dreams, about his Bengali father’s life and struggles in Harlem during the 1930s to 1960s.

In it he portrays a stand-up comedian whose big break is auditioning to play a terrorist in a major Hollywood movie As he prepares for his audition, he finds himself thinking about the struggles of his deceased father, who left colonial India for a better life in New York in the 1930s, and about his parents’ futile attempts to raise a good Muslim son in Spanish Harlem in the 1970s. With tabla accompaniment, Dishwasher Dreams takes us on a hilarious and moving journey exploring art, immigration, the Yankees, and the nature of the American dream.

During his growing years at Spanish Harlem, Ullah had very volatile relationships with both father and mother. He felt that he was an orphan for most of my life.  When I got into stand-up comedy, it was me against the world.

He noted that his father, when he owned the Bengal Garden restaurant,  spoke out against what was wrong with the racism and discrimination in restaurant business. In parallel to his father, Ullah entered show business. all alone, with no friends and no family. He is outspoken about the racism and discrimination in Hollywood.

In Search of Bengali Harlem Documentary

Aladdin Ullah in In Search of Bengali Harlem

In post-production, Ullah is finishing his documentary – In Search of Bengali Harlem which is set to air next season on PBS.

“In Search of Bengali Harlem” follows Ullah from the streets of Harlem to the villages of Bangladesh to uncover the pasts of his father, Habib, and mother, Mohima. On the journey, we discover that Habib was part of a hidden history of South Asian Muslim men who were rendered “illegal” by the Asian Exclusion laws of the 20th century, but who quietly disappeared into existing communities of color in Harlem and the Lower East Side. Here, along with their African American and Puerto Rican wives, they created a vibrant multiracial community under the radar of the immigration laws. We also discover, with Aladdin, the struggles that defined Mohima’s childhood in her home village, and her strength and courage as one of the first women to immigrate to the United States from rural Bangladesh.

Ullah talked about his documentary. Muslim and South Asian families can be difficult when it comes to their lack of support of their loved ones trying to get into show business.

He is frustrated with the injustice and discrimination in Hollywood. So he created a documentary.

“Everyone is scared to tell the truth,” he said. So I wanted to begin my journey of self-discovery ,by talking about where I come from.

He wanted to share the lost stories and the legacy of South Asians. They were the pioneers who sacrificed and struggled so that their children and grandchildren could have productive life of privilege.“ He concludes that “The time Is Now to challenge the status quo. So I am beginning with this documentary  as a step in that direction.”

Interview

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG Share your American journey as a Bengali while growing up in Spanish Harlem.

ALADDIN ULLAH Growing up I considered myself more of an American, a New Yorker. I did feel like a freak growing up as my family was like the “other in our neighborhood.” We were like the Addams family of East Harlem. I made the joke that growing up Muslim Bangladeshi in Spanish Harlem felt like being the only Amish guy at a rap concert. I was bullied and at times I hated it. What it did was build character, grit, and resilience. It helped when I left and pursued a career in show business. That feeling of overcoming adversity is a tool that was helpful when I struggled in the early years of being a broke artist dreaming of being a stand-up comedian. Ultimately, I was grateful for the tough childhood of growing up in Spanish Harlem because it made me stronger and made me who I am today.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG Describe the highlight during your comedy career.

ALADDIN ULLAH Just being onstage in the early years was quite a thrill.  In the early stages performing stand-up comedy is a really tough job. You get booed, your self-esteem is constantly challenged, the craft is a difficult one to master. But once you are able to have the audience laugh as well as feel you have the audience in the palm of your hands, it is the most exhilarating feeling. Also, being away so far from home and performing in front of strangers is a daunting feeling. Being a stand-up comedian is a solitary craft, you write alone you perform alone and mentally it takes its toll on you. So when you can make total strangers laugh and “kill” an audience it is a feeling of accomplishment because each laugh is earned. The show biz aspect of it sucked because it is inhabited by some of the most pretentious, racist people you will ever meet. It can be a tsunami of toxic people, so you have to build a force field to not let those people affect you. You have to stay positive as well as disciplined. You have to be drowning in positivity or else you will suffocate in bullshit.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG What are your precious lessons as a comic on the national stage?

ALADDIN ULLAH Keeping that work ethic consistent.  You cannot rely on last night’s performance. Each show, each audience is different so you cannot just phone it in. Live performance is working without a net and each audience can be radically different from another. So you have to keep that discipline of working hard on your material as well as prepare each set before you take the stage. Preparation is your best friend. You cannot take any audience for granted.  When you perform nationally the material has to be addressed to a broader audience So what might work in New York or Los Angeles might not work in a Midwest or Southern audience. I find that when I speak about universal subjects like my mom, family, school, relationships, love, etc. audience connects because that kind of material everyone relates to. If I talk about the subway, or the Knicks, or lamb curry I can alienate the audience because it can be esoteric. I try to make my material-specific so it can be relatable universally. Not generic, this can be tricky. You do not want to lose your voice you want to keep your voice, your Flava, your essence but you have to taper the material so that no one is saying “I do not get it.” You want the world to get it while staying true to yourself. That is what makes stand-up comedy so difficult. Laughter is involuntary, so once you take the mic you have to just be landing with punchlines while creating a point of view, while telling a story.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG Will you debunk the ugly stereotypes of Muslims and South Asians in the entertainment world?

ALADDIN ULLAH I do not know if I can debunk it totally, but I can try to do my part.  I can try to write stories that show Muslims as well as people of color (the ‘other”) as human.  Sometimes comedy can be the greatest weapon. The unfortunate images on TV and film are created by people who assume this what Muslims are like. They have no clue because most of the creative people writing it are clueless about it. Or what happens especially lately, is they will find a Brown person willing to pander to White folks. Lately, I have been working hard  trying to get stories to the small and big screen as well as making theater that does not show the typical “Muslim is the boogie man formula.” If I can create characters with nuance that can be a start. Creating stories that show working-class folks, who happen to be Muslim seems radical these days, but Muslims are just as human as anybody else. That is what makes us part of the fabric of America. I had like to show audiences that we belong no matter what religion or ethnicity we are. We laugh, we cry, we have a sense of humor that is unique to us. I want to show those layers to audiences and an industry in show biz that have preconceived notions of Muslims and South Asians.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG What inspired you to perform “Dishwasher Dreams”?

Habib Ullah, Aladdin’s Father

ALADDIN ULLAH A while ago I was kind of burned out from auditioning for stereotypical parts. I was at a crossroads not feeling very inspired. So I went to go see Reuben Santiago Hudson perform Luckawaana Blues, and it was so moving and life-altering. He performed an entire show with multiple characters.  What made his show amazing was what he did with a blues guitarist. It inspired me to tell a story about my experience going to Hollywood chasing my American dream juxtaposed with my father arriving in American during the 1940s to pursue his dream. Like Mr. Hudson, I had a musician, the great Ava Sharma on Tablas accompanying me. So it was a solo show that was paralleling my journey with my dad’s journey. The irony was my entire life I was rebelling against my Muslim Bangladeshi roots.  Despite my rebellion, I realize eventually in Hollywood amongst all these phone show biz people I actually am connected to my father. We are chasing similar dreams.  He had to navigate a world of racists, bigotry, and discrimination long before I was even alive.  My father’s generation had to do all this while being illiterate, yet they were able to be successful and provide for their families so that I have this privilege. Children of immigrants are connected to their parents.  We have taken them for granted.  So I was inspired to tell this story about a boy who felt disconnected from his father yet realized he was here as a result of a boy (my father)  who dreamed about a world past his village in Bangladesh.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG What is your key goal in making  “In Search of Bengali Harlem”?

ALADDIN ULLAH That we should not be ashamed of our immigrant parents. Just because they may have an accent, or wear different clothes or eat with their hands, culturally we belong in America. We have a history; we are just as beautiful as anybody. I wanted to show that the first wave of immigrants that arrived in America should not be forgotten. We should honor their sacrifices for making our lives possible. That first wave of immigrants was like the X-men. They were stronger than any superhero.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG Describe your most memorable moment at Bangladesh during filming of “In Search of Bengali Harlem”.

ALADDIN ULLAH There were so many it is hard to pick one.  The one I think about and the one I have dreams about is how I got to my father’s village. I went during the monsoon weather so the villages in Bangladesh were flooded. I had lots of film equipment. So we could not take our van to the village. So as a director, I had to make the call to take a rowboat with all our equipment to go by water to my father’s village. It was not the safest or the most logical decision, but we had to get there. That ride in that boat was so breathtaking it was the most beautiful experience. It was so quiet, so serene, I felt so connected to my parents. I could almost feel my father’s spirit. My father died many years ago, so I do not think about what happens when one dies. I am not the most religious dude, i do not really have an affinity for all this “spiritual stuff.” All I worship is the New York Knicks, Priyanka Chopra, and lamb curry. So being in that rowboat and feeling the vast land of trees and water made me feel like I was on a spiritual journey. This is how I arrived at my father’s village. We captured it on film, and this is my favorite part of the film. My father arrived in America on a boat and here I am arriving in my father’s village on a boat.  

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG What is your Bangladeshi identity in America.

ALADDIN ULLAH I come from parents who are from a village in Noahkali, Bangladesh. I was born and raised in Spanish Harlem.  I have the best of both worlds. I am a child of both worlds.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG Tell your amazing path in the Playwright Program at Columbia University in Manhattan.

ALADDIN ULLAH Life is unpredictable as evident in my life. So I was doing a solo show (“Dishwasher Dreamers”) two years ago. It was the last day. When you work on a project like a film, TV show, a play, etc. the last day is usually a bittersweet moment because the people who worked with you on a project that means so much to you are now leaving you. So on the last day, Playwright David Henry Hwang attended my show. After the show, he wanted to meet. We had a meeting and he asked if I would be interested in attending the Grad Program at Columbia. I had to laugh at first because the thought of me in an Ivy League school is hilarious. I was not a great student in high school so the thought of being in a school like Columbia was not anywhere on the radar for me. What won me over was the chance to study with the likes of a genius like David as well as other writers like Lynn Nottage and television writer/producer Matt Williams and other professors that would help me master the craft of writing.

RAYMOND DOUGLAS CHONG What is your best advice to the next generation of Muslim and South Asian entertainers in America?

ALADDIN ULLAH Stay true to yourself. Know the craft you want to pursue and work hard to get better.  It is a business so there will be ebbs and flows. As long as you can keep your passion your love for your craft it will get you through the rough days. Surround yourself with people that will inspire and support you. Stay away from toxic people that do not believe in you. The family may be family but sometimes in the pursuit of your dreams you need a force field of supportive positive people- so you may have to even keep family members at bay when pursuing something you dream about. Once you start achieving success it is funny how the same people that discouraged you suddenly are your champions. This is why you just stay the course and keep your head up and keep fighting. Carpe diem. Seize the day.  Live life to the fullest.

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