Concealed Behind The Henna Patterns

It was but a weird feeling.

It was not because I am a male and she was a female; or because I felt attracted to her; neither was it because of the charismatic manner in which she spoke but refused to look at me in the eye.

But talking to Rina Afsara was a very weird feeling indeed. I was floundered by her beauty and the youthful maturity in her speech. And as she lifted up her dupatta from her kameez to modestly cover up her hair when we conversed, I imagined the terrible realities that awaited her.

Rina’s immediate maternal aunt was my mom’s best friend, and together with the lady, my mom had set up a good marriage for the 13 year old girl. The girl’s age was questioned by the bride’s family; but as soon as the 30 year old man had had a look at the girl and spoken to her, he had acceded to the marriage. And besides, child marriages are nothing new in this part of the world. The girl’s family, who lived in a remote village in a small district of northern Bangladesh, had stopped her schooling recently after the local goons started following her to school. In short, everyone was happy; the bridegroom’s family was happy to have found a young, charismatic, conservative bride; while the bride and her family were happy to have thrown off the goons from their trail. My mom on the other hand was happy to have arranged a marriage for a damsel in distress.

But there was something in all this happiness that I could not concur with. True the girl was in danger. Village goons are a particularly problematic part of the sub-continental society, and especially so for families in the remote areas with unmarried, young and beautiful females. And I also acknowledged that those who understood the ground realities in this situation, despite the pompous speeches given by our politicians and feminists about how Bangladesh has successfully eliminated a lot of gaps between males and females through free education for girls, economic empowerment etc, would have proposed an immediate action to save the girl’s life from destruction. But was it okay to marry off such a young girl, who had yet to see the world around her apart from her childhood fantasies and television channels? Was it okay to allow Rina to be in the hands of a man more than twice her senior, at a time when she had yet to cross her teenage whims, in a city where she did not have the comfort of her community and the entourage of her family and friends?

But I also considered my mom’s stance on the issue. “She needs to save her life and honor for heaven’s sake,” she had told me when I asked her how she would have felt if either she or the daughter she had never given birth to were in Rina’s position. “But she is just a child!” I protested to her. “Rina agreed to it. She knows this would save her life,” my protests were numbed by her bland logic.

In fact, I am sure that anyone from South Asia who knows the terrible realities and limitations of the society here would have said the same thing. But what my mom and Rina’s family were doing was definitely going to rob Rina of both her childhood and her future life. Her dreams, perhaps of becoming a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer or even a woman’s rights activist would forever go unfulfilled. Instead she will have to lead a life of dependence and ignorance, and will have to occupy a place in this universe in which she will eventually be left with counting the days to her demise only.
At a family dinner the night before the wedding, I told my mom what I had in my mind.

“I am going to call the police. What you are doing is illegal,” I told her.

According to Bangladeshi law, no girl or boy can be married before they reach the age of 18. Cases of the police and district courts handing out jail and monetary sentences to the organizers and families of such illegal marriages have been frequent.

My mom scowled at me. My father stopped mixing his rice abruptly.

“WHAT?” It was my younger brother who asked.

“This is wrong,” I pointed out to my mom. “You can’t do something illegal and so immoral and get away with it. You are going to destroy the promising life the girl deserves to have.”

“So now you are going to teach ME morality? Oho no,” my mother broke into a sardonic smile. “It’s actually the air of Dhaka that has destroyed your perspectives. You see freely-roaming women wearing the shortest skirts and high heels in this city and you think that’s all about this country?”

“You can’t do this. The police will make a scene and the newspapers will report the incident.” I have done something like this before already and wasn’t afraid of repeating it. When an officer at a government ministry asked me for bribe for the release of a document, I called up newspaper reporters I was in contact with who then arrived and made a scene that culminated in the corrupt officer’s eventual dismissal from office. In this occasion I was hopeful that my mom would realize that the event would tarnish the reputation of her friend’s husband, i.e. Rina’s uncle, who was a prominent politician in the city.

“Okay let’s see you do this. Rina Afsara will be lifted from oil and thrown into the fire. If you achieve what you want to do, due to her broken marriage she will never be able to find a suitor again, and will probably commit suicide if not kidnapped by her many admirers.” With that my mom decided to end the discourse. She went back to her olive-dal and mixed them up with her rice.

The stillness of the pre-winter season permeated through our open dining room. In a way the silence seemed to underscore my helplessness.

The next day, I witnessed Rina Afsara escorted into the marriage stage by her female cousins. She sat with her bridegroom and when the mullah asked for her consent in the marriage, she loudly articulated ‘kobul’ in the traditional style. After the people around her had left, I went to her. I noticed a happy tear glisten down her beautiful, childish cheeks as she looked sideways at me and smiled. I opened her fists to see the henna patterns on her palm.

Through the intricately woven designs, the henna foreshadowed Rina Afsara’s upcoming life of illiteracy and inferiority. Soon the concreteness of urban Dhaka would engulf her sorrows and broken dreams, and none of the occupants of the city except me would play witness to the well-deserved life she had let gone because of her social constraints.

I will be able to go forward to touch my dreams, get an excellent education and eventually accomplish my lofty ambitions of touching the sky. But what will Rina Afsara, who deserved nothing less than me, be able to achieve?

That night I realized how privileged I was; and how important it was to dismantle unjust social norms.

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Tweets from Projonmo Square—-four hours in the Tahrir of Dhaka, amidst a people’s revolution

Projonmo Square, around 150,000 protesters have been demonstrating here since February 6th without any recess.

Just walked into the #Shahbagh Square; people from all walks of life have gathered here since the past three days to stage their protest.

I was absolutely flabbergasted, overwhelmed and shocked by the huge crowd that lay ahead of me. Within a minute after I had entered, I was looking at virtually thousands of faces; faces emanating a jubilant feature you normally associate with patriotism and a vision for a better world.

Yet in those faces which had come from all sorts of diverse social backgrounds—-I saw a welcome to anyone willing to join them in this fight to serve the history. I had a momentary glimpse into the future of all ordinary, middle-class, patriotic Bangladeshis like me. I saw an insight into the glorious future that awaited my country, and the huge role that I can play in order to become a part of its history.

What a crowd! #Shahbagh, the Tahrir of Dhaka

Trust me when I say this: never before in my life have I felt a love for my country so subtle yet so overwhelming. At that point in time, even if someone had told me that my country required me to jump in the deepest crevices of the Atlantic Ocean, I would have taken the leap valiantly. It was a feeling that transcends almost all other subtleties in the universe. It was a discovery. A new discovery of patriotism.

Candle-light protests at night

Wherever I look, I find hope. Hope for a country where its nascent generations are as patriotic as the one that liberated it from the hyenas who once upon a time enslaved the masses.

For forty 42 years our land has waited; waited patiently for a blood and passion.

In 1971, in one of the bloodiest civil wars in history, Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan at a cost of 30 million lives and the rape of around 2 million women (In fact, the war is described as one of the few in history where the Pakistani army used rape of Bengali women as a powerful tactic to not only intimidate the people, but also to subsequently create a society filled with bitter truths.). During the war, a group of Bengalis and Biharis (immigrants from Pakistan into Bangladesh), in an attempt to please their Pakistani masters, collaborated with the Pakistani Army and participated in the mass genocide and rape undertaken by the military regime. The main Bangladeshi political party that betrayed their own people to form a paramilitary group with the army was the Islamist party Jamaat-e-Islami and its student wing Shibir.

The people’s revolution on the second day.

For forty years, none of those collaborators at the top had been handed down a death sentence. And moreover, they are now occupying powerful and wealthy positions in our society. How ironic for a nation! #Shahbagh

But today after all these 42 years, the soil of our land has once again cried the cry of freedom and justice. And it only took one verdict.

On 5th February, 2013 when Kader Mollah———infamously known as Mirpurer Koshai (the Butcher of Mirpur) for mass-slaughtering around 400 unarmed, innocent Bangladeshis and raping many young women in his area during the war; some with his own hands and others by direct orders to his disciples—-came out of the International Criminal Tribunal with a verdict of guilty and a lifetime imprisonment, the general public became more enraged than ever before to see the criminal’s smiling face and victory sign flashing out of all media outlets.

A huge candle-light vigil, with the map of Bangladesh illuminated in the center.

For 400 murders, a person gets a life sentence? Really?

And so the online community of Bangladesh, extremely angered with the judge not giving a death sentence to the accused, called for peaceful protests and demonstrations in the gigantic crossroads of Shahbagh, a bustling part of Dhaka which is almost always clogged with speedy traffic.

Although initially led by the Bangladeshi Blogger and Facebook Activists’ Group, the protest was soon joined in by thousands of ordinary people from all walks of life who were discontented with the tribunal’s verdict.

It took barely a night for Shahbagh to become the center of the people’s revolution, and to represent a new call for justice and rule of law. Traffic was halted for at least a kilometer all around Shahbagh and security was tightened throughout the area.

But the most important part about the protests was the people’s unity. Students, teachers, clerics, liberals, leftists, right-wings, people regardless of their political and religious affiliations appeared hand in hand to lead a new uprising against the traitors, mass-murderers and rapists of 1971. Everyone promised to keep political speech out of everything, and asserted that the sole purpose of occupying Shahbagh was to ignite the spirit of 1971 into all the people of the country.

A revolution for the people by the people. Fourth consecutive day of the protests

It’s 2013. And our generation has now engulfed into a new war of liberation: ensuring justice for the souls who were murdered, raped and betrayed by these war criminals.

2013, 42 years after 1971, brought on a new war. A war that we, the new generation are entitled to fight.

On the third successive day of the protest, when I joined the crowd and chanted “Ekattorer haatiyaar gorje uthhuk arrekbar” (Let the weapons of 1971 be loaded once again this year) at the top of my voice, I knew that for the first time in my life, our land and our generation had a glorious future.

And I felt confident that this was where I wanted to be. That this was the city, this land of the 160 million and this vibrant vicinity was where I wanted to write the golden pages of my autobiography.

And after that day, time and again, I have strolled all the way from my home in Green Road to Shahbagh Square, recently renamed Projonmo Square (the Generation’s Square) in light of the recent events, simply to chant slogans and be a part of the crowd. I will do it tomorrow again, the day after as well, and also the day after that as long as the revolution exists and our demands for a death sentence for the mass murderers of 1971 are not met.

The entire country has but one verdict: the traitors must all be hanged for their mass-killings and rape during 1971.

I will be there as long as the blood underneath my body is hot and flowing through my veins. As long as my people, my nation does not get the justice it deserves.

I will chant ‘Joy Bangla’ (Long Live Bangladesh!) with my sore throat and never get exhausted because I have a feeling that this was what I always wanted to be a part of.

I will not stop, the blood of 30 million people that courses through me will not cease because I know that we are all united as a nation regardless of our religious or political divisions.

In 2013, although I am not in a battle-field, I am the freedom fighter. The new freedom fighter vying for the long-lost justice.

I might just be a speck of light in the huge crowd of #Shahbagh, but I know I am contributing towards sth far greater than any of us can ever dream about: towards building our great nation….

Joy Bangla!

 

 

 

Ready To Be Raped—The question of womanhood in the subcontinent

A caricature of the Delhi rape case

With the ongoing protest that has spread all over India like wildfire, the issue of the ubiquity of rape in the subcontinent has once again come under the spotlight. The victim this time was a 23-year old paramedic student who was gang-raped by a group of men in a bus; and then brutally disposed off naked along with her boyfriend, who was also badly injured, on the side of a road.

The incident triggered off mass-protests all over India and occupied the headlines of international news-channels for days. Leaving the world shocked at how such brutal animals in the form of human beings could exist, the girl eventually succumbed to a fatal death after days of fighting for her life. However, what is truly different about the event is the importance with which it was perceived by the world.

I am sure that if the victim was not a student with a middle-class background and a powerful education to boot, the case would have disappeared from the people’s minds within a few days. Had the girl been from among the lower or pariah classes in the Indian society, the local news channels would have hardly bothered to report it . At best, the newspapers would have provided a small account of the incident in the most unread section of the paper and the issue would have gone largely unnoticed by the world.

A few years back in the Guwahati region of India, at a mass-demonstration of adivasi(indigenous tribes) students under the banner “All Assam Adivasi Students’ Association”, a local Assamese businessman named Ratul Burman stripped a young female Adivasi student naked in front of the entire world and molested her and several other women in the protest. Although the television news channel CNN-IBN reported the incident and photos of the event were published in most of the major Indian newspapers, the public rage against the man remained selective and short-lived. The indigenous tribes, after all, are still treated as the untouchables of India. And even in a nation which is scheduled to soon become the world’s largest and most powerful democracy, the rights of the people on the other side of the equation of the Indian success remain undermined at the expense of a booming middle income economy.

National outrage all over Delhi following the Delhi rape

Like all other similar incidents, the then Chief Minister of Assam cried the cry of a politician and pledged to make sure that the attacker received a strong judicial punishment so that a signal could be sent off to any potential offenders. But needless to say, like all other cases of violence against women in the sub-continental judicial systems, this one also has yet to see any light.

In Bangladesh and the other parts of the subcontinent, rapes remain a common occurrence. Hardly a day goes by when we don’t have to read on the newspapers about “eve-teasing”, a subcontinental phenomena of sexually discriminating or taunting a young female, or about wives in the rural areas being killed by husbands for dowry. Many families in the lower class backgrounds and in the remote villages see young females as a burden, and often stop their schooling in order to prevent their girls from being subjected to eve-teasing.

In fact around a week after the Delhi outrage, another gang-rape case was discovered in the Tangail region of Bangladesh. This time it was a school girl who was lured into a solitary house in a forest by a woman. The girl was then raped incessantly for three days by four men and was later found unconscious beside the railway in a part known as Madhupur.

In another recent horrifying incident, on December 21, five days after the Delhi rape case, three Bengali settlers in Rangamati gang-raped a fourteen year old Marma(an indigenous tribe of Bangladesh mostly found in hilly areas such as Rangamati) girl and killed her subsequently. This is a case that has largely escaped the Bangladeshi media and was actually brought into light by the blogging world. But there is virtually no difference between this case and the one in Delhi.

DHAKA, The Guardian: Mass demonstrations against rape by local women’s rights groups

Although the aforementioned three rape events hardly generated the outrage that they should have in the subcontinent, they were no different from the one in Delhi. But the difference is the fact that all these rape victims did not have the privilege of being in a happening city like Delhi or Dhaka, and neither did they belong to the educated society where they would have befriended and socialized with people who would have fought for them. Rather they were non-existent except to their own worlds—- they were ‘nobodies’, ‘untouchables’ and ‘adivasis’ who had little say even in their own fates. And since these minorites did not make much difference in the political or economic world, their cases went ignored.

Ironically several Bangladeshi Islamist facebook pages run by the Talibanesque factions such as Shibir and Jamaat are calling for the people to force the government to make laws that mandate all women to veil themselves up completely in order to prevent themselves from being raped. Even several other Indian secular groups, in a malicious attempt at gouging public opinion towards their favor, have asked women to firmly practise the art of modesty of clothing in order to prevent cases like these. But all these leftists and right-wingers ignore the reality that to reach a permanent, democratic solution that appeases the majority of the people and keeps the international standards of human rights intact, it is not what a person wears that can change things to the other side of the table. It is rather about the mentality, and also to a very large extent dependent on the laws extant in a country.

Protests in Delhi during the New Year’s Eve

I am definitely not a great fan of the laws of the Islamic Republic of Iran or those of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, but one of the few reasons these two countries have some of the lowest cases of rape is the fact that all rapists are promptly executed by their law. Although this might cause significant headache to the human rights groups which advocate the abolition of capital punishment, maybe the sub-continent should learn from these countries and promulgate a death sentence for rapists. The way to prevent crimes and violence like these from happening everyday is no longer to make people aware; after all, to educate men who think of women as sexual objects to appease their lust is a very pointless thing indeed. Rather, it is through the adoption of a principle code of conduct, through the advancement of new laws like completing the trial within a definite period of time and imposing capital sentences like death by means of which all potential criminals can be warded off and an example of justice created.

Cursed be the land that gave birth to you Bishwajit. Cursed be the existence which scapegoated you. Cursed be the universe that stayed silent at your murder.

I am sure this wasn’t the first time such a barbaric act happened in Bangladesh. I am sure this wasn’t the first time you have been terrified beyond your wits by what is happening outside your comfortable, air-conditioned bedroom; or the first time you were moved by watching the headlines of the Bangladeshi media outlets.

But what I am sure about is the fact that the culprits will get away once again.

A very ‘random’ blockade scene in Bangladesh

On December 9, 2012, Bangladesh had a fierce country-wide blockade imposed by the opposition party of the Parliament, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), along with its alliance Jamaat-e-Islami, Bangladesh’s most powerful Islamic fundamentalist party whose central leaders are all in jail due to war-crimes. The event was as usual as it always is—–opposition activists burned vehicles and tires, engaged themselves in extremely rough scuffles with law enforcers that culminated in many of their activists being taken into police custody, and street-fights broke out between the mercenaries of the opposition and the ruling party’s endorsed thugs from each of their respective student wings. However, the next day all the media outlets flashed only one headline.

On Monday, December 10, 2012, when the rest of the world celebrated the Global Human Rights Day, the front page covers of all newspapers were adorned with a man being hacked to death by none other than the hooligans of the ruling party’s student wing, Bangladesh Chhatra League (BCL). The television news channels had a field day with their camera crews showing BCL activists beating and stabbing a man to death whom they accused of being an opposition goon possessing cocktail bombs; and as all this was happening the police present around the BCL men simply watched silently as the man was being beaten up while the newspaper reporters were watching and filming the scene in action.

The ruling party’s BCL thugs beating the innocent Bishwajit to death

But apparently, the guy in question being hacked to death was not an opposition party goon. Rather, he was a normal tailor who was going to his shop from home to work hard and meet his ends in urban Dhaka.

In cases such as this, the government would deliberately jump to conclusions that the man beaten to death was actually a sponsored mercenary of the opposition who was vandalizing vehicles and looting shops and thus deserved a ‘repercussion’ for his gruesome act. On the other hand the opposition parties, in a desperate attempt to stir up public sentiments in their favor, would seize the opportunity to claim that the man who was demonstrating peacefully against the fascist government was a devoted patriot from their group. But only this time, neither of the parties could play the incident in their favor.

The reason behind this is the fact that the man was a 24-year old Hindu by the name of Bishwajit Das. While the BCL men were killing him, he was heard screaming repeatedly that he couldn’t be an activist from the Islamist opposition because of his religion. And that they could test this physically right at that time if they wanted to. But the more secular BCL group, which was busy with its prey, hardly listened to him.

They left him unconscious while the media-personnel took all they required; and the police, with its sticks and batons to beat up trouble-makers, still stood watching like the rest of the passers-by. Locales from the area rushed the unconscious Bishwajit to the nearest hospital where the doctors immediately pronounced him dead.

All the BCL goons who were involved in the act were pinpointed by the media outlets which carried out an in-depth analysis of each of the murderers. Apparently, all the men involved were top leaders from Jagannath University’s BCL, which is famous for its violence and infighting among different factions and also with rival student wings. Their crime records were already famous all over the country, but this time only were they newly highlighted.

The bigger photo shows the murderers (a red circle and several red dots) at the front row of the ruling party’s subsequent procession; while the smaller one shows one of the killers enjoying the birthday party that took place a few hours after the murder was committed.

More ironically, on the very same day that they killed Bishwajit, the murderers were normal enough to attend the birthday party of the unit President of Jagannath University’s BCL where the media captured them having a great time as if nothing had happened during the day. The next day, the government responded by saying, despite the fact that each of them were incumbent activists of BCL, that the killers had no affiliation whatsoever with the ruling party. And that they were rather pawns planted by the opposition to create anarchy in Dhaka so that it would eventually culminate in a new political disorder to stop the trial of the war-criminals.

In a world which is changing every single day, we modern Bangladeshis are part of a generation which substituted a weird sort of nationalism based on our language, liberation war and ethnic identity to one where every one of us is a global citizen. We are part of a movement of socially-aware citizens of the world who dress up in the same way regardless of whether they are in America, Bangladesh or Lebanon; listen to the same pop music despite barriers in language and culture; and think of the same levels of human rights and freedom of expression all over the globe. An incident like the killing of Bishwajit underscores the extent to which impunity has spread throughout our society. It tells us how we are entering into a world where the government gives pompous talks of protecting civilians and ensuring security, equal opportunities and stability for all but fails to stop its unruly activists from committing murders of innocent civilians in broad daylight. We are rapidly transcending into a new society which stays silent at times of repression and injustice, and shrugs away its shoulders to say that nothing has happened as long as individual interests remain unaffected.

Meanwhile, several Hindu fundamentalist groups of neighboring India have decided to stand up and call the killing of Bishwajit an ethnic cleansing against Hindus in Bangladesh. But unfortunately what these groups fail to realize is that, it was not a Hindu that was killed. It was an innocent human being just like us; a typical, cricket-loving Bangladeshi who worked hard to earn his bread amidst immense hardship but was murdered in front of the entire world.

As long as a revolution built on the strongest principles of justice, equality and human rights is not established; as long as a process that ensures law and order protecting all ordinary citizens from these killers who have been created by political leaders to further agenda through dirty politics is not created, more and more Bishwajits will continue to be scapegoated. Although we do not acknowledge it, the next Bishwajit could very likely be one from among us. We could be the next ordinary citizen of the country to become the victim of Bangladesh’s barbaric politics.

At the time of this writing, at least eight of the killers—including Mahfuzur Rahman Nahid, the BCL leader who led the heinous act—- have been arrested by the police. However, in a society where the people decide to remain silent against barbaric crimes like the killing of Bishwajit, incidents like this will happen. The fact that this happened in the month of December, the month when Bangladesh achieved victory from Pakistan after a bloody liberation war in 1971, directly underscores the extent to which we are far away from the Bangladesh 30 million people gave up their lives for.

Facebook profile of the murderer Nahid; how could this cold-blooded killer be a normal person just like the rest of us?

 

 

Bangladesh ranked 11th happiest country

A facebook friend recently put up this extremely inspiring and well-put status:

 

Determination – The young women who starts at daybreak to reach the garments factory where she works to support her family.

 

Resilience – The young boy who starts selling newspaper at the stroke of dawn to pay for the medical expenses of his ailing mother.

 

Vision – The City Corporation worker who does odd jobs all day long so that he can build a better future for his son.

 

Indulgence – The pampered ‘Daddy’s Princess’ whose biggest worry is to look better than her friend.

Wasted – The arrogant rich brat whose life revolves from one hangout to the next.
Misguided – The self-made millionaire who is leaving all the wealth to his children but precious few values.
Stories of inspiration and moral decay running parallel in this city of ours.

Bangladesh, the 11th Happiest Country in the World; ahead of Pakistan, India and even the USA in happiness

For those of us who were brought up and have lived in new Dhaka during the economic boon, parallelism and contradictions in our society have been integral parts of our lives. In a country the size of Scotland, but a population of at least 160 million people, we live in a vastly unequal culture and society. According to Al-Jazeera English, 30 million people in Bangladesh make up the middle-income bracket, a number higher than those of the wealthier European states of Norway and Sweden, yet the country remains largely an underdeveloped state. Roughly 30% of the population live under the international poverty line, with around 3.5 million of them being children according to the UN, while 38% of the overall populace remains illiterate.
Life here is undoubtedly difficult for most of us. But although ‘living’ is the only keyword, we believe in little pleasures and happiness. With the traditional subcontinental familial and religious values we are desperately conservative about our culture and customs. And this is why despite all our hurdles everyday Bangladesh has been placed 11th out of 151 countries in the World’s Happiest Countries list by the Happy Planet Index 2012.
In sharp contrast to this placement is a list compiled by another survey of the World’s Most Unlivable Cities. Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, ranks first on that list because of widespread social inequality, lack of resources, a faltering justice system and political turbulence. But as it turns out none of those materialistic values impede a nation that wants to be happy. The happiness index was based on three criteria: life-expectancy, well-being and ecological footprint. Costa Rica has been declared number one, followed by Vietnam and Colombia. The countries which have hit the bottom of the list constitute mainly the sub-Saharan ones.
What is more important on this list is the fact that materialistic values do not always constitute a happy nation. Spiritual and mental satisfaction, socialism and family-life are also imperative to be happy; and as the countless homeless people all across Bangladesh demonstrate through this list, a nation can still be happy despite being terribly bereft of resources. This aspect of happiness is strongly ingrained in the Bengali culture, in the Bangladeshi experience where familial and religious duties–regardless of which religion or ethnicity you belong to—- are integral constituents.
After all, where in the world will you find a nation that is terribly in love with its language? That has given up and will always be ready to give up lives when its language or land is denigrated and oppressed? Where in the world will you find a nation where secularism and equality of all religions is so much appreciated, where all religions, ethnicities and tribes live and socialize with each other harmoniously? Where will you find a country that is immersed in its music, folklore and traditional dance? Where will you find a nation that stays
awake all night to see its national cricket team win or lose matches and then celebrate any win or a good fight as if they have won the entire World Cup?
There are definitely a good many reasons that make Bangladesh different from the rest of the world. It is true that we are an underdeveloped, extremely unequal and exploited nation but even amidst our poisonous capitalistic system, we are a happy species.

Innocence of Muslims—what the world refuses to see

In 1953 when the United States, realizing the modern Persian nation’s enormous geopolitical and natural wealth, overthrew the democratic government of Iran in a coup’d’etat to install the more favorable Shah as the autocrat of the ancient nation, the phenomenon gave rise to a new form of Islamic society that is largely founded on the principles of anti-American sentiments. While the despotic Shah of Iran ruled with an iron-fist and mutilated, tortured and killed all his opposition in countless concentration cells all over Iran, it was America towards whom countries of the Islamic World lay the blame on.

As the previously democratic Iran became increasingly hostile to the Americans under the Shah rule it was this belligerence, this failure of the American foreign policy that culminated in the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the religious leader who, after he was banished by the Shah due to his more radical

Ayatollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran

views, led the popular uprising in Iran in the year 1979. While the Islamic Revolution ousted the Shah, forcing him to flee to Cairo and then to his patron—-the United States—–following the uprising, Khomeini took the helm and turned Iran into an Islamic Republic alienated from both its neighbors and the West.

In the same year, a group of Islamic fundamentalist students stormed into the US embassy of Tehran and gave rise to the event the entire world knows as the Iranian hostage crisis, where the students held 52 US officials hostage for a total of 444 days, although females and African-Americans were all released within the first month. Having only a taciturn approval from Khomeini, the reasoning of the students behind the attack was that the embassy was conspiring again to overthrow the new regime. Jimmy Carter, the then president of the United States, later on received a Nobel Prize for Peace for the rescue mission, where he successfully rescued the Americans without having the US army invade Iran. Ever since that event, the US have had no diplomatic ties with Iran whatsoever, and have sheltered all political prisoners of the Shah’s regime whom the nascent Islamic Republic had tried to prosecute.

It was this incident that the events unfolding in the Islamic world in recent days brought to my mind over the amateur youtube clip ‘Innocence of Muslims’. While the media outlets are busy showing the world a few thousand Middle-Easterners, North Africans, South-East Asians and South Asians chanting renowned slogans like ‘Death to America’ and burning US and Israeli flags, what the world does not see about the incident are the reasons behind the hostility the people of Islamic nations feel towards the US.

These protests against the United States are definitely not just over the film ‘Innocence of Muslims’, as the media outlets have been doing their best to portray. Rather, they are the result of years of injustice and oppression caused by the rulers of the most powerful nation on earth. For decades, the US have supported the dictatorial and monarchal regimes of almost all of these countries. They have counted on all these autocratic rulers starting from the Saudi King to the pharaoh of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, to suppress all forms of dissent and crush down anything that interferes with American or Israeli interests in the region. Even seeking reconciliations with the anti-American Libyan dictator Gaddafi before his fall, America provided all forms of military and intelligence support to the dictators while in return the rulers successfully stepped down on all forms of dissent and demonstrations.

But it was with the Arab Spring that America was forced to realize that people in all these countries cannot be suppressed any more. As American allies fell down in one uprising after another, people simply needed a trigger to protest and demonstrate against the ‘bully of the earth’. And it was this trigger of the gun that the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ provided.

While questions as to who funded the $100 000 for the making of the amateur film by the Egyptian-American film-maker remained largely enigmatic, with several fingers being pointed at both the state of Israel—-which is renowned for spreading anti-Islamic and anti-Arab propaganda all over the world—— and Christian fundamentalist groups in the US, last Friday after the end of the regular noon prayers the Muslim World erupted in a blaze of fire and revolt as people engaged in violent protestations in front of the US embassies in the region. Most of these protesters, make no mistake, have hardly watched the 13-minute long youtube trailer but with the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the ongoing rhetoric going on about an invasion of Iran, people do not need to think twice about how malicious Americans are when it comes to the Muslim World. While the vast resources of the oil-rich Islamic countries are maintained and consumed largely by countries like America, the rulers and politicians of these states sit on their oil-money and make people believe anything about Israel and the United States. But what amazed most of these people is America’s disregard for removing the film from youtube under the pretext of  ‘freedom and liberty of expression’ guaranteed by the United States constitution to every single American citizen. If America really wanted to ensure freedom of speech and thought, it could start out by stopping its witch-hunt against Wikileaks and Julian Assange.

Rumor has it, however, that the film-producer is a rogue Coptic Egyptian-American, named Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, who had powerful backers from Israel and Christian fundamentalist groups in California, including the famed American pastor Terry Jones who received worldwide recognition after beginning the rite of burning copies of Qur’an to commemorate 9/11 every year. Coptic Christians in Egypt have always been among the most discriminated minority groups during the dictatorial era. But during the Arab Spring, both Coptic members and Muslims showed their love for Egypt by uniting under one banner in Tahrir Square, where Christians and Muslims guarded each other against sniper attacks by the regime during each other’s prayer times. The actors and other film-crew of the movie however claim that they were duped. The director had allegedly fooled them into thinking that this was a movie about an ancient Egyptian hero and all their dialogues had been dubbed in his studio in English and Arabic to its current form.

Bangladeshi Islamist parties burn US and Israeli flags over the anti-Islam film released in the US. The country’s Prime Minister violently condemned the film’s release on Sunday, and vowed not to allow it to propagate within Bangladeshi territories.

There is no denying that what ensued in Benghazi, Khartoum, Sana’a and Cairo after news of the film reached the mainstream media is as reprehensible as the film itself. But the big question is, what sort of bigotry and intolerance inspires people to make films like these? And by allowing these films to propagate while American drones assassinate countless civilians and alleged militants in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Afghanistan in the name of ‘War on Terror’ and ‘establishing peace’, what better reaction do the Americans expect than crazies invading their embassies and killing their diplomats?

It is futile for America to hope to build bridges with these extremely volatile, pivotal parts of the world simply by sending donations and interest-free loans of worth billions of dollars; NATO air-strikes to kill off murderous dictators like Gaddafi; or by sending its Secretary of State or the President himself to deliver pompous speeches at schools and universities. While American funded Israeli air-strikes murder innocent Palestinians in their beds and their drones kill peace-loving Muslims continuously in eight different Islamic nations, the United States should do best to ensconce and inure themselves to more of such violent demonstrations in the foreseeable future if more triggers like that of Innocence of Muslims are pulled.

Bangladeshis demonstrate and chant anti-American slogans in front of the National Mosque of Dhaka after the Friday prayers

As an ending note I should add a recent quote I heard on the Al-Jazeera documentary Permission to Engage, which traced the rehabilitation of an Iraq war veteran of the United States army who tried to commit suicide after his unit slaughtered cars full of innocent civilians, including two children whom the personnel rescued alive from the remnants of the dead bodies left behind from the attack. It is simply one tiny example of how American foreign policy has affected the countries of the Muslim world, thus alienating and antagonizing America in this region.

“I went to Iraq to free the good Iraqis from the bad Iraqis. I wanted to kill as many terrorists as possible. But when I went there I found that there were no real terrorists. We were the ones terrorizing the people there continuously. Every single day. Every week. In every weather.”

———Permission to Engage. Watch the entire documentary here.

Moonlight’s Story

The Story Behind this Short-Story:

My mom acquired Rahima a few months back to work for her as a domestic worker. Although it is clear that Rahima is definitely younger than me, even at this age she is already a single mother of a 2-year old toddler. Her husband left her and their daughter to remarry and never returned to her, leaving her with no male guardian since her father has been dead from a long time back. Her story epitomizes that of many young females in Bangladesh. Although my story is entirely fictitious, it was inspired out of the many Rahimas living and mixing with the crowd freely, keeping their stories to themselves and constantly struggling with life.

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Moonlight’s Story

 

The virgin sun of the morning rose up majestically, turning the sky into an endearing shade of an aesthetic yellow hue. Symbolizing freshness and tranquility, the sun was also serenaded by a gust of refreshing, celestial breeze blowing directly from the heavens. The city’s occupants, oblivious to the morning preparations of the sun, were still engulfed by their slumbers where they dreamt of happiness and ambitions at this particular hour of the day. The birds, however, were already awake, breathing their share of the wind that had been bequeathed by the Heavens themselves.

As the sun fretted over its newly achieved aura, inside one of the many slums of Dhaka a shabby bamboo hovel was stirring up slowly. The sun, seizing its opportunity, penetrated through the countless cracks of the shack and used its rays to illuminate the different corners of the humble hut. Sporadically, as the rays shone upon them, the rats and roaches began to move out and dispersed themselves off to their darker hide-outs.

Other than the parasites, the hut also housed an eighteen year old single mother and her two year old daughter. The mother was named Khadija, after the Prophet’s beloved wife, while the daughter was called Fatima, after the Prophet’s daughter. The two of them were sleeping peacefully, dreaming their dreams of happiness, of finding love, shelter and all the other necessities of worldly life.

As the chirping grew louder with an increased frequency, Khadija woke up with a start. Affronted by the glistening sun’s rays entering into the hut, she gasped for breathe.

It’s late again, she muttered as she got up and rushed outside.

Getting an ablution, she entered back into the hovel and unfurled her prayer-mat in front of the dawn’s silky rays.

Every prayer of hers since the last two years has been but towards one objective.

Please, my Lord. Let me and my daughter live the day as we had lived the day before. Let us survive through the next day without losing each other’s company. Do not separate us until you command death for one of us.

By the time Khadija’s prayers are done, Fatima wakes up routinely to greet her mom with a pair of morose eyes. The two of them then bathe using the waters from the tube-well before getting properly dressed. Powder-puffed with the cheapest talc, Fatima escorts her mom as the two come out of Korail slum to enter into the streets of Gulshan.

Mother and daughter are greeted by the glitz of Gulshan—the towering skyscrapers and the huge number of BMWs on the roads that symbolize prosperity in this God-forsaken country—-as they walk down the pavements that support the wealthiest tax-payers of the nation. They need to enter Khadija’s work-place soon; otherwise her mistress will not fail to reprimand her.

It was a beautiful summer Friday afternoon. The decorations were complete and the village elders were all set. The noon prayers had been accomplished and as soon as the bridegroom arrived the marriage ceremony was commenced by the local Kazi. Dressed in her impeccable best, and with henna painted over her brown face, hands and feet, the 14 year old bride was married off by her poverty-stricken parents at a meager dowry. Yet, everyone was happy, even the young bride who had resigned to Fate and was still too young tobe able to gather what was happening to her. 

The mother and daughter sat down in the kitchen and Khadija began to roll out the dough in order to start making chapattis for the family she worked for. It was still very early morning, but soon everyone would be up awake and breakfast should be available on the table.

It was on the wedding night that the couple consummated their marriage in accordance with the tradition. The girl felt safe in her husband’s arms; arms that were at least ten years older; and the man found that the girl could be trusted to serve his naiveties. So he took her off to the capital city where he worked as a day-laborer. They lived in an overcrowded slum by the side of Buriganga, and while the man toiled hard throughout the day the girl maintained his house and kept whatever frugal possessions they had abreast. A year passed by in bliss, and happiness. Albeit, a short-lived happiness.

“What’s taking you so long?” the mistress asked Khadija referring to the chapattis, and then “You,” pointing at Fatima, “How many times do I have to bloody tell you not to sit against my newly-painted wall? Get off and go to the balcony.”

To which Fatima silently obliged.

The job is a blessing, Khadija thought. How else could I have earned 2500 taka working throughout the day! We would have starved to death without the job. 

But mistress wanted everything picture perfect. And fast. Mighty fast. Punctuality was on the top of her agenda.

And so Khadija worked faster to appease the mistress.

It was around a year of marriage. Khadija founded out that she had missed her most recent period. Blushed, feeling ashamed and happy at the same time, she confessed her pregnancy at first to her neighbor. But there was something wrong on the middle-aged women’s face. “You don’t know?” she countenanced. “Know what?” Khadija enquired, perplexed. “Your husband fucks whores all the time. He won’t ever father your child.” 

With the morning chores over, Khadija began to do the washing and the cleaning. She mopped the floors religiously, while Fatima stayed silent on the balcony.

She has been trained to stay silent, Khadija pondered and breathed a sigh of relief. A cry-baby was the last thing she could have managed.

“What garbage are you talking about old lady?” Khadija began a storm of assaults at her and breathed out madeup stories about how the lady’s husband sees the girl living in the next quarters and how she was sure that the lady should be managing her own home before destroying another. But deep down inside, a fear lumped down her throat. A fear that was a multipleheaded ferocious monster. A fear that weighed her down and caught her fervently…….

She meandered away with her lunch, so that Fatima could be apportioned enough to fill her hungry stomach. Gulping down the remains in one go with several glasses of water, she again set to work while her daughter resumed her old position in the balcony. By then, the maiden sun had been replaced by a more ferocious one. The glaring Dhaka heat was drowning out all of Khadija’s energy.

………….”Do you or do you not?” she enquired after her husband. “Fuck whores? Of course not; I am your husband, can’t you see? I took a dowry from your father.” But his eyes emitted an indistinguishable glare of pretense which the young bride could easily discern. She called after him as he was leaving for work diffidently, “I am pregnant.” The husband stopped dead in his tracks, rattled at such a sudden news. Without flexing any muscle or turning back he said grimly, “Well, we’ll see about that later on tonight.” He strode away confidently, denying a wife her right to a husband; denying a daughter the right to fatherhood; denying a family the very fabric of society……

The family had completed its dinner. The leftovers were dumped for the servants and drivers. Each took their own share. Khadija had to share her own with Fatima once again. But seeing her child eating voraciously was enough to feed her hungry stomach. After the eating and resting was over, they left for Korail once again. Climbing down the stairs, Khadija felt a strange nausea of pain on her ankles. But she had trained herself to accept, and to survive. It was just a matter of getting used to.

On the pavements, the two walked hand in hand as a yellow taxi cab stopped beside them.

“Hello there, lovely ladies!” the driver of the cab began, “Need a ride? It’s free. Only the older one needs to bounce on my lap. Okay? Agreed?”

“Back off motherfucker,” Khadija shouted back at the top of her voice, “Fuck your own penis if you feel so hungry, you fuckhead.”

With that the mother took up her daughter and ran into a dark alley to take the shortcut into her hut.

It was a serene moonlit night. The drunkards were singing out loud at the top of their voices, while the drug addicts were using needles to get into a daze. As she opened the façade of her hut she found it slightly opened. “Anyone there?” she called in. But there was no answer. “Must be a cat,” she thought.
Closing the doors from the inside, she laid down Fatima and sang her back to sleep. Exhausted, she then laid herself down on the mattress to get some sleep before morning creeps in once again.

Immediately through the moonlit rays entering into the hut she frighteningly discovered that a dark black silhouette was moving squarely across the room. As the figure approached her she could discern that it belonged to a fully-grown man. The man placed a hand on her face and cupped her mouth to drown out her remonstrations. With the other hand he reached beneath her kameez and began to open the knot tying her shalwar.

Forced to fear the worst, inside the dark gloomy hut through which countless rays of the moon were at that time dancing with the love of life, Khadija felt the stranger’s body descend upon her. She prayed to God this wasn’t happening in reality.

But alas, reality happens to be one of the most enigmatic substances of existence.

With the moon’s rays as the only witness over the act, the man entered into Khadija. He did not need to drown out her voice anymore. By that time fear and physical dementia had wired her out and teleported her into her wildest nightmares. It was all done smoothly and quickly, with only a few breathing moans emanating from the man and his victim. No neighbor would ever be able to enunciate that. Wobbly and tired, the man then entered out and panted heavily as he tied back the straps of Khadija’s shalwar and got up to leave.

The eighteen year old, however, lay lifeless on the mattress, with her eyes closed; refusing to believe what had happened to her; hoping time and again she wouldn’t have to bear the fruit of injustice once again.

But injustice, also, happens to be one of the erudite forces governing subsistence.

It will be a new sun tomorrow; a new dawn. And both Khadija and Fatima will have to go on as if nothing had happened under the wistful eyes of the moon that night.

There was nothing that the moon could do, except hoping time and again that injustice would not have to bear a new fruit in their lives because of that fateful event.

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And……….. its Food, Monsoon & Ramadan all at once in Dhaka

It’s raining cats and dogs at around 12:30 in the afternoon

As August opens up and the world settles down to  calculate and fret over its profits and losses for the first seven months of 2012, here in Dhaka Monsoon is blazing with its full force. While it is the Ramadan season, it is also that time of the year when rain is ubiquitous throughout all the regions of Bangladesh, and there has to be a flood or two in this land of rivers so that the residents can at least commemorate the season with the death tolls. If it is sunny and the Dhaka glare is switched on throughout the  day, it has to rain throughout the night and the next day as well. The dark clouds are always looming ahead, and with the state of pavements in this extremely  overcrowded city, puddles and splashes on the roads are anything but a novelty. And add all that to the extremely fast-paced lifestyle that most of us Dhakaites lead, I am sure none of the pedestrians on the streets will be able to boast of a day without having had their expensive shoes mud-ridden and made unusable for the next few days. And if you are, by any chance, a Bata-slipper lover for the daily chores like me, I am afraid your feet will never be able to spend a day without getting themselves devastatingly dirty.

Unless of course if you prefer to spend the days indoors.

But then again, the season is absolutely impresionante (I am working on my Spanish you see?) if you want to curl up with a good book in your room. That’s precisely what I am doing nowadays. You can sit back inside your home and enjoy the sounds of the wind howling and raging a war against the Thai-aluminum glassed windows in your background. And comfortably gulp down all sorts of fiction or something else that is good to read.

The days and nights  are extremely windy. But even with all the monsoon and rain, night-time brings on socialization for the city’s huge and overworked populace. Although all wedding ceremonies are shunned away in this season, being Ramadan & Monsoon at the same time, almost every Thursday—the weekday before Friday, which is the public holiday here———- is celebrated with parties and gatherings of friends and family, and good food is always on the table! But before good food, it is the fruit cocktails and squashes that dominate every home nowadays. And although everyone knows Bangladesh as the land of natural disasters and poverty, food is something that is more or less cheap and abundant everywhere. The lowland delta region is extremely arable and thus able to produce a plethora of different fruits. A day on the streets of Dhaka is enough to substantiate my aforementioned claim because as you read this, the city is repleted with street vendors and stalls selling fresh seasonal fruits(and definitely not the frozen ones) such as mangoes, pineapples, jack-fruits etc. So a cold glass of a fruit splash is offered to every guest coming into a house.

Evening-parties however, bring on different varieties of food. For those of you who don’t know, we Bangladeshis are food-loving  gluttons. Our cuisine is an eclectic concoction of South Asian, Middle-Eastern and British influences. It all has to do with the history here in this part of the world. Traditionally although the Bengali food is mainly rice and fish (with Hilsha being treated as the king of fishes), due to the fact that Bengal was ruled by the Mughals (Muslim Emperors from the Middle-East) and Afghans for a time, and by the British colonialists later on, the food culture is largely diverse and widely reminiscent of our multicultural past. And of course you have all the gourmet Chinese and Mexican restaurants flooding the streets of the major cities as well.

Help yourself to Shik Kabab and Paratha people!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But most importantly, with all the religious salvation and piety involved in this season, the time is also ripe for us Dhakaites to stop fretting around over our extremely busy lifestyles and to start donating  for charity through Zakat.  Around the country scores of people are being deprived of the blessings of life. Countless are starving to death even in this blessed Ramadan season. And it is up to us to share our wealth and privileges with all those who can’t put food to their  mouths neither during  Sehri nor during Iftar.  It is imperative in order for us to be able to create a healthy society that we start coming out of our public and private spheres and start addressing the injustice and poverty that is ubiquitous throughout the many regions of Bangladesh.

The Jeddah Jazz

As the countless Japanese cars snaked through the many flyovers of Jeddah, my Bangladeshi driver cum guide drove his new Sonata with an ease I had never before seen present in any of his counterparts back in Dhaka.

It is around 11 o’clock in the morning. But since the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia sleeps by the day and works at night in order to adapt to the high temperatures throughout the day, the offices and shops were mostly closed.

“There are so many cars here. But the traffic is always on the move. Unlike in Dhaka, where the traffic is mostly gridlocked into a standstill.” I mused more to myself rather than saying anything to him. But immediately, I was forced to regret.

“Huh, Dhaka. What a horrible city filled with the worst of humankind in this world,” came his embittered, callous response. “I would rather drive here in the 44 degrees Celsius desert than go back to that hell-hole of a place.”

With my pride of being me disheveled by one of my very own countrymen, I stopped pondering out loud and looked out through my closed windows to grasp in the concreteness of Jeddah.

But for my driver, silence happened to be one of the lowest issues in his agenda. As he drove past the countless air-conditioned cars and transited from the desert to the roads beside the beach bordering the Red Sea, he pointed to me Egypt.

“There’s Cairo, the land of the pharaohs. Only a few hours from Jeddah by the sea, but possessing none of the wealth and glitter of the city. Full of beggars and pricks, I tell you. And mini-skirted females as well.”

I chuckle and coerce myself against roaring into laughter. I had yet to see a Jeddah female without a veil, and the contrasting sight of Cairo only a few hours away but possessing mini-skirted females made me giggle.

“What happens on the roads at night? I mean if people here sleep during the day to work at night, but still the avenues and flyovers somehow manage to be flooded with luxury cars even at this hour it must be quite gridlocked in the dark.” I enquired after him, trying to make him see that Dhaka wasn’t as bad as he felt.

“At night all those jewelers’ markets open up,” he tells me pointing to the monstrous elegant shopping malls located inside the buzz of Jeddah, “and makes life harder for us drivers. Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter. The traffic jams are always under the control of the police and you never have all those filthy public buses and rickshaws and CNGs loitering around.” Clearly, he had anticipated my lucid trials to uphold Dhaka in his eyes. “Oh and look at that”—- he cuts in all of a sudden.

I grasped in the direction to which he was pointing. And what I beheld made me feel like the smallest being of existence present in this universe.

“Behold: the KingdomTower under construction. The first 1 km long tower in the world. Built by Prince Waleed’s Kingdom Holdings and the Saudi Binladen Group, it will surpass Dubai’s mediocre Burj-al-Khalifa.”

Truly representing the oil wealth of this indolently luxurious Middle-Eastern city, the majestic skyscraper rose up into the sky symbolizing power and riches, and obstructing the views of the horizone. Any outsider who has never paid a visit to Jeddah is bound to think that the city is still sitting in the Middle-Ages. Thanks to all those stereotypes by the Western media. But nothing could be further from the truth. And the gigantic Apple adverts substantiated my aforementioned claim. Although it is true that Jeddah is a remnant of an Arab civilization that has been extant since the 600 AD, the grossly metropolitan city is a violent concoction of Western modernity and Eastern identity.

In a way, it can be justified by the fact that Jeddah sits in between the East and the West.

But then again, I had yet to find all those traditional Middle-Eastern bazaars here that I had seen in ‘World Café Middle-East’ on TLC where they regularly showed Syria, Turkey, Palestine and many other states in this region. Here the bazaars have all been replaced by vast chain super-stores like Bin Dawoud (which of course is the Saudi Binladen Group’s version of Walmart) selling every brand of European chocolates and designer dresses and outfits for both males and females.

As I reached my destination, my driver dropped me off. In the ancient civilizations and the tales from the Arabian Nights I am sure anyone would have referred to Jeddah as an oasis because of the huge amount of life it can support. But due to the heat and the invention of air-conditioners which is ubiquitous everywhere in oil-rich Middle-East, what my eyes were affronted to was definitely not life.

It was buildings and cars everywhere. No sign of life. All locked up in their air-conditioned homes, offices and cars.

But as I strode off, I felt secured to find a middle-aged man sweeping off the grounds in front of an office with his broom.

I chuckled again as I noticed his brown skin.

A Bangladeshi again! I told myself, jubilant. My driver had previously told me that even if you are lost inside one of the worst desert-regions in Saudi Arabia you will surely find a Bangladeshi nearby. Three million expatriate Bangladeshis are living here and toiling under the glaring sun in broad daylight and struggling amidst desert-storms at night, while the Arabs slept soundly inside their air-conditioned rooms during the day and went to the posh shopping malls at night; with their Arab kids being taken care of by the Indonesian servants employed by these families. And in case you didn’t know, most of their expenses are paid by the government as well.

I inquired the Bangladeshi man for my address in Bengali. He smiled and gave me back the directions and then returned piously to his sweeping. I wondered for how long he will have to do that with the afternoon heat switched on with its full blow.

After my chore is done, as I come out of my destination I was greeted by a gust of extremely hot desert wind. My loose trousers and cotton T-shirt gave in to the dust-breeze and fluttered back and forth.

For the first time that day, I saw a Jeddah woman around two yards ahead of me; trying to get into the front-passenger seat of her car before the wind assaulted her.

Never before having seen women here dressing up without the burkha, I was quite taken aback on this particular occasion as the damsel in distress was fighting hard to prevent her veil from being flown off, because I noticed that she is dressed up like any normal European or American women with skin-hugging, above-the-waist T-shirt and jeans beneath her veil.

I chuckled once again. I had no idea what the woman was thinking of me as I had not lowered my gaze—-a custom followed by everyone in this extremely religious part of the world—-but under her niqab I thought I could discern a contempt for me.

By then the horizon had already been darkened by the shroud of darkness, and as the malls and offices began to open up, the streets began to be filed with men and women and cars—–a lot of cars. I noticed more women coming out on the streets dressed in European low-cuts and all forms of Western outfits, some of them having iPod earphones plugged into their ears. A large portion even without the niqab. I noticed men donning the traditional long Middle-Eastern shirt and the turban.

Conflicted with the fact that the Saudis had only recently allowed their women to work outside their homes in gender-segregated offices; the notion that women here aren’t allowed to drive legally; and weird laws that permitted an 80 year old man to marry a 12 year old girl, I got into my car and enquired my verbose driver about the traditional Jeddah culture.

“Jeddah is the Kingdom’s most liberal and modernized city. The Saudi families have big homes equipped with swimming pools, segregated discos and bars—-“

“Bars?” I cut in disbelievingly, knowing that alcohol is banned in Saudi Arabia.

“Alcohol-free bars obviously. The population here is extremely Westernized. Half the women here on the streets wear low-cut European dresses and mini-skirts under their veil.”

With that he pushed on the ignition and drove off into the city of lights. By then, night had settled in and Jeddah was fully illuminated.

“If you feel hungry, there’s Al-Baik nearby. I will stop and you can have something inside your stomach.” My driver had somehow understood that I was feeling starved and dehydrated.

“Al-Baik? Is it good?” I asked ostentatiously, knowing about the quality of Al-Baik back in Dhaka.

“It’s the best in the country,” he returned confidently, “much better than KFC.”

So as he led me into a one-storied posh shopping center, I cashed out some money from the ATM booth nearby using my father’s international debit card and strode off into Al-Baik.

Standing in a queue, and worrying over how I will be able to converse in Arabic, I was absolutely ecstatic to find out that even the salesmen here are all Bangladeshis; thus sparing me the trouble of a language barrier.

I sat alone at a nearby table and picked at the delicious-looking chicken drumsticks. My driver was right. Al-Baik produces the best chicken here and their produce is also much better than the sprawling chicken stores back in Dhaka.

I was reminded of a few online articles about how Saudi Arabia is still stuck in the Middle-Ages like Morocco, while its regional enemies sitting in Tehran & Tel-Aviv are enjoying rapid boons and developments in terms of military, science, art and economics.

“What a farce!” I muttered out so loud that the people sitting around began to stare at me disapprovingly.

 

Amidst The Crowd, Thou Shall Be Haunted

Lord, said David, since you do not need us,
why did you create these two worlds?

Reality replied: O prisoner of time,
I was a secret treasure of kindness and generosity,
and I wished this treasure to be known,
so I created a mirror: its shining face, the heart;
its darkened back, the world;
The back would please you if you’ve never seen the face.


Cruel. Unjust. Lifeless. Pitiless. Vindictive. Callous.

I was assaulted by all of the above phrases as I listened to Rasel’s story. His is the story of an average Bangladeshi’s life. The story of hope, nightmares and the struggle to live on. The story of deceit, shattered dreams and spasms of never-ending darkness.

At thirteen years old, Rasel is the only breadwinner of his family of five. With his parents sick and jobless, it has been up to him for quite some time as the eldest son to try and manage some money in order to feed himself and the rest of his folks. On good days he earns around 100 taka ($1.25) by picking up scrap, reusable materials from the streets of Dhaka for sale at the recycling factories. In addition, his younger siblings—Rubina and Rashed—– roam around Dhanmondi Lake and beg from the couples in the open couples’ retreats, thereby adding a meager amount to the household income. Together they add up whatever they can; and spend out of what they have been provided with.

On days at a stretch they go without lunch just so that the entire family can have a moderate dinner at night. Bengali families are always closely-knit, and a person no matter how selfish or jealous a nature he sports, will always have to feed his entire clan before he puts something into his own mouth. Begging and picking up waste materials full-time to maximize the amount of income, Rasel and his siblings are hardly allowed any reprieve from the glaring Dhaka sun. It is evident from each of their brown, tanned skins and malnourished bodies that the only shelter they have been provided is under the scorching tropical daylight.

Ironic really. The wealthy need to visit the sunny beaches and expensive resorts in order to get themselves a boastful tan. But here for Rasel and his siblings, a sun-tan is something that comes with existence.

Has anyone ever produced a mirror out of mud and straw?
Yet cleaned away the mud and straw,
so that a mirror might be revealed.

Until the juice ferments a while in the cask,
it isn’t wine. If you wish your heart to be bright,
you must do a little work.

Rife with endemic starvation and poverty, Rasel’s family represents one of many poor class families struggling hard to find a place in the gold mine of Dhaka. And Rasel is one of the 3 million children in Bangladesh who live under the international poverty line.

“And you don’t attend the charity school nearby?” I ask him all of a sudden amidst our conversation. Somehow I already know the answer.

Rasel grimaces a silly smile.

“I have attended classes up to the third grade in my village school before I came to Dhaka. Why do I need to study when it gives me no food?” Rational, I acknowledge. “And besides, I need to come here in the morning right after the Fajr prayers. Otherwise, I will be unable to collect enough materials for sale.”

As we speak in front of the beautifully sparkling waters before us, the sun begins to ogle with a greater force. Debilitating and reminding us of its strength, it tells us how powerless we are against the Supreme Force that decides our Fateful existence.

“I used to work at a garments factory before. Earning around 1400 taka ($18 approx.) monthly. But I left because of the overwork and really poor conditions.”

I recalled seeing an international news report about T-shirts made by child laborers and exported from Bangladesh that were sold at $20 each in the superstores of North America and Europe.

“So, what do you plan to become? Bangladesh is advancing forward literally by the day. Soon we will become a thriving middle-income country. What do you think about the future?”

My question elicited quite a quotidian response.

“Kono mote khawa dawa koira baichha thaklei hoilo.” I think all I need to do is eat and survive through the day.

Had I asked this same question to another child of the same age but from the privileged, middle-class society that I belong to and whose members I befriend and entertain, I would have been confronted with a very different answer. Perhaps it would have been the dream of becoming a scientist. A doctor. Or even a pilot. If possible an engineer as well.

My King addressed the soul of my flesh:
You return just as you left.
Where are the traces of my gifts?

We know that alchemy transforms copper into gold.
This Sun doesn’t want a crown or robe from God’s grace.
He is a hat to a hundred bald men,
a covering for ten who were naked.

The afternoon Azan suddenly became ubiquitous throughout the vibrant, overpopulated neighborhoods of Dhaka. Here in Dhanmondi, the tall residential skyscrapers loomed ahead of me. In recent years the region has been morphed into a pinnacle of development. Since the country’s Prime Minister has her private residences in this area, it was imperative that the neighborhoods symbolized the making of a modern cosmopolitan city.

But, the truth is, this air of development have hardly touched the lives of people like Rasel and his family. While the country is developing at an unprecedented rate, while increasing numbers of families are sending their children to the local American schools and shipping them off to attend US universities, a huge population still remains underdeveloped. And the numbers of the homeless are exceptionally higher in those areas of the city where most of the people enjoy a per capita income equal to almost that of any normal developed city in the West.

Unequal growth. Something that most development economist and policy-makers in Bangladesh prefer to ignore in order to underscore our rapid rate of economic growth.

“You can pray your namaz, can’t you?” I inquire, having arrived almost to the end of our conversation.

“Yes, I have completed the Arabic Qur’an once!” he says excitedly. Must be an achievement for him.

But his sister Rubina, who has remained silent till then, cuts in all of a sudden.

“But he never prays!”

At this Rasel remonstrates. “I do. But only during the Friday afternoon prayers.”

By then, it has already become too late for me. I take my leave and walk off, breathing the beautiful scent of flowers and food. Entering into Green Road, the attractive stench of spices and barbecue permeated through my nostrils.

“Oh! They have begun to burn the chicken grills and shik kebabs already? Maybe I will get a shwarma for the evening meal.” I ponder to myself.

But then, the terrible, the most horrifying of all truths strike back at me.

Will Rasel and his family be guaranteed a bowl of rice for tonight?

Jesus sat humbly on the back of an ass, my child!
How could a zephyr ride an ass?
Spirit, find your way, in seeking lowness like a stream.
Reason, tread the path of selflessness into eternity.

Remember God so much that you are forgotten.
Let the caller and the called disappear;
Be lost in the Call.

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The poems have been extracted from the Persian Sufi poet Maulana Rumi’s legendary work Be Lost in the Call’