The families who migrated to the UK and Canada in the 1980s and 1990s sent messages to their loved ones in Pakistan on cassette tape. The Tape Letters Project is aimed at preserving those voices.
In a tearful voice, Zareena Darr narrates what life was like in 1978 in Toronto, Canada. “Anyone who suddenly moves from one country to another feels alone, especially if they don’t know the language,” she says in Pothwari, her native language.
Pothwari is an oral-only dialect spoken mainly in the Pothohar Plateau of North-Eastern Pakistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab provinces of Pakistan.
“There weren’t that many people from our community that we could talk to. I was alone and dejected,” she says.
A native of Gujar Khan in Punjab, Darr got married and moved to Toronto in her late 20s. As she couldn’t read or write, Darr describes how she recorded “messages” on cassette tapes and sent them to her sister – who like her, was illiterate and after marriage, had migrated to Manchester, United Kingdom.
“I used to tell her about myself and [news] if someone died or got married. I felt happy because I could communicate in this way, but there was a lot of heartache within me about not being able to read or write.”
In this way, Darr and her sister, Halima Jabeen communicated with each other for nearly a decade – recording their monologues on cassette tapes and sending them via post or handing them to a travelling relative.
Several years later, Jabeen’s son and founder of Modus Arts, a collective for sound artists, Wajid Yaseen stumbled upon one such tape in his family home. As a child, he was often asked to record a greeting on the cassette tape for his relatives in Pakistan. “When I recalled that my family did this, I was curious to find out if other families used this unconventional way of communication too,” Yaseen tells TRT World.
Sure enough, many British-Pakistani families did.
Migration to the UK
Owing to labour shortages, a steady stream of Pakistani immigrants found employment in UK’s steel and textile industries from 1950 onwards. With limited access to formal education, many were unable to read or write when they migrated to the UK.
The Mirpur district of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, in particular, saw an exodus; construction of the Mangal Dam in the 1960s displaced thousands of Pakistanis. As the community migrated to the UK, they brought with them two languages – written (Urdu) and oral (Pothwari).
As there was no written language, letters back home were not possible. Telephone calls to Pakistan were exorbitant and telephone devices were still rare. On the other hand, voice messages on cassette tapes were an easy, reusable, portable and affordable solution.
However, as telecom networks advanced in Pakistan and became cheaper in the UK, people abandoned cassette tapes and adapted to newer technologies.
The Tape Letters project
To search for other cassette tapes, Yaseen launched ‘The Tape Letters’ project in 2018. The oral history pilot seeks to find tapes and document the experiences of Pakistani immigrants who settled in Britain between the 1960s and 1980s. Over the past three years, the project found 45 cassettes tapes with messages recorded not only in Pothwari, but also Urdu, Punjabi and Pashto.
“We have found all sorts of amazing, extraordinary stories,” Yaseen says. “The intensely private nature of the tapes, like listening to a tearful mother’s message to her daughter who is thousands of miles away...leaves a heart-rending impact on the listener.”
The original cassette tapes and interviews with those who remember the practice are housed at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. With the pandemic, the project has moved to online exhibitions where participants can browse through a virtual archive gallery.
“Families were able to hear the voices and messages of loved ones with repeated listens, without the pressures of time and cost,” Yaseen explains. This mode of communication played a significant role in the Pothwari-speaking British-Pakistani households, sparking excitement around the event itself – ‘Let’s do a cassette and send it along.’
“These ‘tape letters’ offer a snapshot of life,” Yaseen says.
While the tape letters capture the voices of British-Pakistanis, the universality of human stories are at the centre of the project. During research, the team discovered that this practice existed in the British-Bangladeshi community as well.
“Everything from domestic chit-chat to deeply personal messages of love, to reflections on how it felt to migrate and leave family members.”
Testimonies of love and loss
As cassettes could be recorded in their homes, some also contained private messages. Like the tape letters between two teenage lovers, Asim and Asma Mirza. A resident of Bradford, Asim was to wed Asma from Gujar Khan, Pakistan. As it was an arranged marriage, Asma couldn’t talk freely in the presence of family members.
“We were getting married, and I wanted to know a little more about her. I didn’t get a chance while I was in Pakistan,” Asim explains. “So, I just started recording [myself speaking] and in between, I used to record one or two songs to complete the cassette.”
They sent tapes to each other every two weeks and over the course of three years, fell in love through tape letters.
“I used to wait for the postman wondering when he would turn up and hand it to me. And when he did come, I’d open it and just listen to it straight away. Those feelings…I cannot describe them,” Asma says nostalgically.
Diagnosed with blood cancer, Bradford-based Kammar Mirza’s mother had sent her a tape from Pakistan. “The doctors said that she won’t live for long. I was in my ninth month of pregnancy, so I couldn’t go,” Mirza says.
“My mum sent me a voice recording saying that she had prayed for me. ‘May God bless you with a son.’”
When her newborn was four weeks old, Mirza’s mother went into a coma and died after Mirza reached Pakistan.
The project has highlighted how language transforms and drifts. “It has also revealed the ingenious ways in which people adapt technology to suit their needs wherever they are, and wherever they’re from,” Yaseen adds.
As for Zareena Darr and Halima Jabeen, they have migrated to WhatsApp and as Yaseen jokingly says, now use “Star Trek-like touchscreen devices” to keep in touch.