How Hurricane Sandy affected Bangladesh!

Yeah yeah, you read the title right. Hurricane Sandy may have ransacked the East Coast of the United States, but its effects have been widespread and felt as far away as Bangladesh.

Hurricane Sandy and its devastation

But here in Bangladesh most of the people are actually happy that the United States has had a violent death toll due to a natural catastrophe. And the reasons are as varied as the number of individuals who have given a thought to the issue.

One facebook friend put up this status:

ঘূর্ণি ঝড়ে ইউসএ র অবস্থা দেখে বেশ ভাল লাগছে! প্রাকৃতিক দুর্যোগ মানে নাকি ওরা বাংলাদেশকেই চেনে! জলোচ্ছাসের ঝাপটায় ভেসে গেছে ওদের আধুনিকতার প্রযুক্তি। এই দুর্যোগেও ওদের জনগনকে খারাপ কাজ করা থেকে বিরত থাকতে অনুরোধ করতে হয়। আমরা ওদের চেয়ে অনেক উন্নত জাতি!

which in English translates into:

I am pretty happy to see what’s happening to the US due to the hurricane! And all this time the world thought Bangladesh was the only country most victimized by natural disasters. The cyclone has swept away their ultra-modern technological prowess. But even amidst this disaster I must endeavor them to keep away from the dirtiness of their hearts. If you consider the dirtiness, we as a nation are much better than them!

While the status does echo a public sentiment against the Americans here in the East, it also designates that the East has had its fair share of natural disasters, and thus it is time for America and the West to have them as well. Cyclones are a part of growing up in a delta country like Bangladesh. Although it has been at least five years since the last time we have had a major hurricane or anything in the capital city, the coastal areas are a frequent victim of similar dangerous natural disasters. Every year, the flood water kills dozens of impoverished coastal residents, and erases the livelihood of hundreds who are directly dependant on the natural waters of rivers and lakes for food and living. And thus for us, cyclones have been a part of our growing up process.

Images of the world-famous New York subway completely submerged, cars stuck in deep waters, buildings ransacked all over New Jersey, and people fleeing for their lives——it’s been all over on the newspapers, international media outlets and local news. And thus my mom wasn’t left out of the tide either. She, however, had a different take on the issue. According to her, “It served America right. Such a war-mongering nation. Killing and raping Muslims all over the world. This is only a trailer of God’s wrath for America. Soon the entire film will be showcased.”

While anti-American sentiments have been all the rage in the Islamic world in the post-9/11 era; and have been cemented with the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq; and elevated with the ongoing talks of a new war against Iran, which is treated as an elder brother in the sub-continent because of the fact that Islam was brought to the region by the Persian Sufis and saints; statements such as those from my mother aren’t a very abnormal one. Rather, after the release of Innocence of Muslims in the United States, this rage has been further heightened to new levels (and resulted in a blockade of youtube) and so now the political parties of the sub-continent are also politicizing this popular feeling. A Pakistani railway minister even went as far as announcing a huge monetary reward for the Pakistani Taliban if they successfully executed Sam Bacile, the maker of Innocence of Muslims. In Bangladesh however, since the government firmly follows a neutral diplomacy due to the founding father, Sheikh Mujib’s idea of turning Bangladesh into the Switzerland of the East, although there was a widespread condemnation of the movie, behavior towards America have been quite moderate in comparison to the countries of the Middle-East and other parts of South Asia.

The facebook friend who put up the happy status due to Sandy, however, was not met with assertion from the people on his friends’ list. The Bangladeshi expats in America condemned his views, and one of them even went as far as telling him that ‘life in America was beautiful, but the same could not be said for Bangladesh”. And another asked him to be a human being; after all, despite our racial and religious differences we are all human beings. It is unsure whether the friend had a change in viewpoint about hurricane Sandy and America, but regardless of everything, the issue created quite a public debate in this part of the world.

Anti-American memes on social networks are as popular as anti-Muslim ones

America got what it deserved– that isn’t actually the dominant opinion here, but a lot of loud voices like to draw attention to America’s brutalities in Iraq, Japan, Pakistan, Somalia, Palestine, Vietnam and Afghanistan; and many even went as far as reminding the people of Abeer al Janabi, a 14 year old Iraqi girl who was gang-raped by US soldiers in front of her family and later on murdered and burned along with the family in their home. Several people have also recalled the Afghan girl who was mass-raped by US marines to such an extent that her genitals had become mutilated beyond repair, and the doctors could simply watch while she bled to death.

The public at the end of the day is torn between being humane and vengeful when it comes to America. An idea that is increasingly becoming evident in the progressive circles of modern-day’s politically-conscious Bangladeshi citizens.

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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.

The girl who was in love with the mountains

Of all the things Zainab wanted to achieve, mountain-climbing was the most important and perhaps the most idiotic dream a 12 year old could have. It was not only because of her abject poverty—a state from which people like her will never be able to escape—but also because she belonged to the dominated sex in a male-chauvinist society. Yet at English class when Mr. Kumar asked all his students to write a 300 word essay on ‘Reaching my Dreams’ the eccentric girl felt no hesitation in talking about an imaginary expedition to a hill-top.

Living in a lowland village where television had not as yet set its foot at that time, Zainab was unaccustomed to having seen any mountains in her short life. Ironically she did not even know the proper difference between a hill and a mountain despite her regular attendance at the Geography class. And yes sir, it was far superior from her knowledge that the world’s highest peak was located in one of her neighboring countries and also the fact that the river she used for drinking, bathing and playing actually originated from that mountain. These were things that her geography teacher had not as yet covered and so Zainab eagerly anticipated the time when she will be told more about her love in the aforementioned class.

So how do you think a girl who has never seen mountains or even read about them actually became infatuated with such an existence? It was her brother. Her dear brother, the most precious person in her life after her father, was a soldier in the army and also the one paying for all her tuition fees and petty yearnings. He was the one who had seen mountains and trained among them in extremely hostile conditions. The name of the place was Boderbon, no Bonderban. Gosh! She could not even spell or pronounce it properly. According to her brother the place was more than a week’s journey from her home. But once you reached there it was bound to feel the most heavenly place on earth. It was like you are the most special and the only one living in this universe. Nothing else mattered. Everything was for you to use and command.

But the English master Mr. Kumar was up to no such romanticism. He taught his students with iron-clad rules——both in terms of grammar and the students’ behavior——and always believed in grounding up facts. For him therefore, ‘Reaching my Dreams’ was supposed to be an essay about what you wanted to do in the world of pragmatism. Whether you wanted to be a doctor or an engineer. Or a policeman or simply a house-keeper. And outrageous as it was, mountain-climbing could never be a factually-grounded student’s dream. And never so in the case of a girl born in the cradles of the destitute.

And hence, slapped with an F in the English essay with a detention to boot during the tiffin break, Zainab was unable to enjoy the hide-and-seek matches during the break period today.

The village she lived in was located in the outskirts of a district that had never seen urban life in its entire existence. The only buildings composed of cement were made by the government in ‘a plot to bring the people under a legal system’ as described by the leader of the village council. As for the government, no one was really bothered about them. From the building bearing a huge ‘Department of Agriculture’ placard, men in clean and expensive English clothes occasionally came to the fields owned by Zainab’s father and the other locals. They called themselves the ‘agriculture scientists’, although what the profession meant or demanded was a huge point of entertaining political debate in the road-side tea-stalls and shops for the illiterate villagers who remained sitting there most of the time engaging themselves in every single conversation they could get hold of. The so-called agriculture scientists inspected the crops and the fertilizers and advised the farmers on the what-to-dos and how-to-dos for maximum output. Although most of the locals eyed these English-dressed Bengali people with skepticism fully encouraged by the village leaders and clerics, Zainab’s father knew better the value of education. Although a complete illiterate himself he had educated his only son till the 12th grade—one of the very few young people in that particular village to have achieved such a feat. And so it was with great pride when he had enrolled that worthy son of his at the Bangladesh Army to serve the country. The entire village had proclaimed him to be a model father of a model son, and such was his value in the rural community that he was always the center of attraction at every single village occasion.

But what about a girl’s education? Now that was somewhat of a dilemma for the illiterate father. Although Zainab was being given lessons on the religious doctrines at home by a female teacher and also had been sent to the primary school for learning her letters, he was doubtful whether educating the girl would bear a fruit. It was the soldier brother who had asked his model father to think better. Not only would educating the girl allow her to contribute to the village community in the near future but also make her a good mother and house-wife, and also a good religious devotee. And besides she could even join the Bangladesh Army or the Police to serve her nation. Although the man was not really idealistic about the latter, he eventually gave in and decided that Zainab should continue education, learn about mountains, write essays in English, read history and recite poetry. And so yes, in a way you could blame her father and brother for Zainab’s depravity at the English class.

After the class was over, on this particular Spring afternoon as Zainab came out along with her class compatriots she was surprised to find out a piece of paper lying folded on the bench in front of the headmaster’s office. Actually this was not a single piece of paper. It was a bunch of papers all folded together in an extraordinary fashion to preserve all the pages inside it. For us city-folks, one look at it would suffice to tell us that this was a daily newspaper. But for a 12 year old who had seen cement buildings for the first time only two years back, who had never even seen or heard about televisions or radios, newspapers were definitely something she was unaccustomed to. Her family’s and other neighbor’s only connection to the outside world was through people like her brother, who came home only once or twice a year with tales of unseen forests, religious extremists who made bombs, robbers who had evolved into political leaders and of course, the usual mountain-clad stories which fascinated the young Zainab most.

So the girl, perplexed with the printed pages that bore a strange semblance to her free books, tried to decipher what they said.

This was no ordinary book, as she realized. It was abuzz with tales from around the world. But the first thing she noticed on the top of the first page was the image of a young girl with heavy glasses and clothes as if she was in an extremely cold vicinity, at least much colder than the winters of her village as judged by the heavy clothes she was wearing. In the background of the woman what she saw made her heart skip a beat.

It was a huge land turned ninety degrees or more to one side. The land was covered with a bed of green grass, or perhaps, forest. It was impossible to tell from the distant photograph. The land rose up slanted and at many regions was covered by a prevalent layer of something brilliantly white. Gradually as the land ascended from the ground it emerged into a peak, a peak that seemed to point towards the Creator who had created it with such artistic hands, towards the Architect who had built it with such classic beauty, implicit precision, impeccable appearance and the enormous possibility of touching the sky.

Except that it did touch the sky.

The weird woman was standing atop one of these peaks holding a flag, which unmistakably belonged to her country, and a smile on her face boasted her achievement of having reached the sky.

What lay behind those rotated green fields? The silly girl wondered. Maybe a huge djinn or something?

By then all her class-mates had left her and gone ahead. If she did not catch up with them she will have to walk the three miles to her home all by herself, something she really did not want to do.

But still in deep consternation, she still stared at that image.

As if someone had merely whispered it to her she immediately understood what those rotated lands represented.

Her eyes gleamed with a light of warmth, pride and disbelief as her thoughts were confirmed by the headline below the photograph: “Bangladeshi woman climbs the highest mountain ranges”.


Eyes glistening with a pride and passion more fierce than anyone looking at her at that moment could have discerned, Zainab gently put the newspaper back to its resting place. Unknowingly her hands reached her soft cheeks and quickly rubbed away the tear that had manifested itself all of a sudden. It was as if she was filled with a bliss of the dreams that she saw every night. As if the diaspora of her heart to meet the mountains was not going to go fruitless after all. As if she knew that if this woman could do it, there was no reason why she couldn’t.

Except that the woman had not merely climbed mountains. She told herself. She had touched the sky.

For the first time in her life, Zainab had seen mountains, albeit in the way she least expected.

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This fictional post is dedicated to Wasfia Nazreen, the female Bangladeshi mountain-climber whose achievements make all of us proud. The impetus for this piece was derived from Aminatta Forna‘s brilliant novel Ancestor Stones when one of the characters described her feelings of having seen the sea for the very first time in her life.