Category Archives: Culture

A Mela in Gazipur

I don’t think I’ll ever get used to starting the week on Sundays. Finals begin tomorrow and  hopefully all the buzz and excitement will overshadow my departure. I don’t like saying goodbyes.

One of the professors at IUB invited me to visit his families home in Gazipur district yesterday. It was about 35 km outside of Dhaka. Once we turned off the main road there were rice fields and the first miniature forest I had seen in Bangladesh.

We made the journey to celebrate the inauguration of his wives hair salon for “gents.” It stuck me as being odd to open such a business out in sub-urban (not suburbia) Dhaka. I’m sure that my friend and his wife did their market research. She already has two other successful clothing shops in the area. As in many Asian countries, Bangladeshi men take a lot of pride in the way their hair is styled. Most barber shops tend to be very basic, some with  just  a chair and mirror set up by the side of the road or in the middle of a field on market day. This one looked European and had all of the amenities that gringos are used to.

As the sun went down the crowd began to gather and entered a large tent set up for the occasion. The Imam arrived and led a short Mela chanting blessings from the Koran for the new enterprise. Hundreds of cardboard snack boxes were given out to family, friends and well wishers.  There were even a few local politicians in the crowd. According to my friend the event was a huge success.

“A Guest is Like Morning Dew”

I borrowed the above proverb from an email that Kathy Ward sent my way a couple of days ago. Although the words are probably translated from an ancient African language I couldn’t help but laugh to myself. No doubt, the Bangladeshis have an equally poetic way of  expressing such a sentiment. Well I suppose there are proverbs and then there is life. Kathy knows first hand about the real Bangladesh. She has lived and worked here for several years and her best advice was “always to take things with a grain of salt.”

Now that it’s beginning to sink in that I’ll be returning to the States in a few days my mind is going into overdrive. There is still much so process from the past nine months. Time has flown by so quickly (except the last few weeks). More about that later. I need to get back to reviewing my student’s homework while the electricity is still on.

Pohela Boishakh- Bangla New Year

Ramna Park, Dhaka

Last week Bangladesh celebrated their New Year. The historical importance of Pohela Boishakh in the Bangladeshi context began in 1965. In an attempt to suppress Bengali culture, the Pakistani Government had banned poems written by Rabindranath Tagore, the most famous poet and writer in Bengali literature. Protesting this move, Chhayanat opened their Pohela Boishakh celebrations at Ramna Park with Tagore’s song welcoming the month. The day continued to be celebrated in East Pakistan as a symbol of Bengali culture. After 1972 it became a national festival, a symbol of the Bangladesh nationalist movement.

Shooting Pohela Boishakh

Sometimes it’s an advantage to be a foreigner. I had left my press pass at home but the SWAT team like special forces assigned to the event (center) let me use the platform to video tape from. A few years back there was a bomb blast in Ramna Park during Pohela Boishakh so security was heightened.

Bangla Brazil

One of the many Brazilian flags on the walls of Dhaka

I noticed it as soon as I arrived here. Brazilian flags painted on the walls in various neighborhoods around Dhaka. It struck me since I lived in Rio for two years. Here in Bangladesh people love Brazilian football with Argentina as a distant second. It’s not only Dhaka. Ronaldo is a hero all over the world. Now I know that Brazil and Bangladesh have certain differences. Brazil after all is the largest Catholic country in the world but yet the people in both places exude a certain enthusiasm and energy. Maybe it’s the climate?

The World’s Happiest People?

Street vendor, Old Dhaka

I will  leave you for a short break with a collaborate post. A local correspondent for the BBC radio here in Dhaka told me about a recent poll that claims Bangladeshis are the happiest people in the world. How on earth could that be? We have all heard the numbers and become desensitized by now. Most people surviving on a dollar a day. A country plagued by environmental disasters, lack of infrastructure, health and education, the list goes on.

I decided to ask some friends and colleagues, all from Bangladesh, what they thought the reasons were for this self contentment.  As far as I know people here aren’t taking Prozac.  Interesting also that no one mentioned the influence  of religion.

Taking tea

“People here value strong family ties – kids live with their parents until they are married, and are expected to take care of their parents when they get old. You won’t see too many nursing homes here, although the trend is emerging.”

“With life being harder here, there are lower expectations. People ask for less because they know they can’t afford it. I think the relative hardships one faces here, in terms of poverty, natural calamities, etc, has led to a greater appreciation of the smaller joys in life. A while back, we had two flash floods occurring in the same year, one after the other. People living in the slums near Gulshan- an upper class neighborhood- were reduced to squatting in makeshift tarpaulin tents on the pavements near our home. You would expect these people, who had literally lost their homes and much of their belongings, to be miserable. Every evening, on my way back from work, though, I’d be the one grumbling about the rising floodwater’s lapping at the tires of our car, while the squatters took time to live, laugh and enjoy. As the sun went down, the oil lamps came on, and the rickshaw wallahs would line up their vehicles and join their families. Someone would play the flute, children would sing and dance; and everyone would celebrate just being alive. It looked like something out of a Dickens novel. They certainly taught me a thing or two about human resilience.”

– Sabrina Ahmed, Journalist, Writer and University Faculty Member

“I think people in Bangladesh are the happiest because of the family bonding that we share, we take care of one another, it doesn’t matter whether we are 13 or 30 we live together with our family. The girls only leave when they are married. Another thing is, it takes very little to make us happy and our food is the best in the whole world.”

– Limana Solaiman, Student

“I have grown up hearing that Bangladeshi people are very easy to satisfy and that is why many think that they are happy people. The poor are happy if they have a roof over their head and three meals a day. They don’t worry about equity or want to fight for their rights. As long their stomach is full they think that life is good.”

“Also due to strong family ties and bonding people find happiness in other people’s happiness and success. For example, even if a person is not very successful but has a cousin who is a prominent person he will be ecstatic about it tell everyone  that he knows that prominent figure. So as they find achievement in other people’s achievements that may also be a reason that Bangladeshi people are so happy. This is my personal view but I always hear people say that the reason we are happy people is because most of us don’t have unending wants and are easily satisfiable.”

– Tabassum Amina, University Faculty Member, Sociologist

“The main reason is poverty. Because of poverty most of the people’s expectations are low. In Bangladesh poverty is responsible for the lack of education. That is  ultimately why our expectation level is low. In Bangladesh, most of the people’s primary concern is only for food and shelter. When that is taken care they  feel happy. You  should also remember that urban and culture is not so strong in Bangladesh.  Rural life is a significant part of Bangladesh. That is why most of the people are free from alienation and fear of isolation. That is why most of the people can be optimistic and are happy with their life.”

– Shoma Afroja, Journalist and TV Anchor

“I can share one experience of mine. It was about a year ago. On the 19th November 2007…. just two days after the SIDR cyclone hit Bangladesh I went to Char Montaj which was devastated, and was shocked to see such a scare from  a natural disaster. I went there to assist with relief activities with the NGO Action Aid. At ten in the morning I found a girl who was barely 17, but already the mother of three kids. She was playing with her three month old child in an open place…no proper shelter… just under a tree…and her other two kids were playing beside her. When  I asked how she was all she said was that “a number of bad things had happened but we were alive….what else can we do?”

“Maybe it’s the climate in this tropical zone. People in the countryside do not have to struggle that much. They do not have big dreams either. Whatever they receive they take it as a bonus.”

-Sifat Azam, University Faculty Member, Development and Environmental Studies

Biswa Ijtema

The world’s second largest Muslim pilgrimage took place in Dhaka last weekend. A congregation of  three million – including over ten thousand foreign devotees from 105 Muslim countries- showed up in the northern part of the city about five miles from where I live. They came by boat, rickshaw, train and bus but mostly by foot. I’m used to crowded cities but nothing prepared me for this. The mood was very social and most of the men welcomed me with “Asalam Walekum” translated as peace be on you.  Besides everyone all coming together to pray, I had the distinct feeling that this was just as much a social gathering.  Giant tents were set up to provide shelter for sleeping at night and protection from the sun during the day. Men stood around gigantic vats of food and bathroom facilities had to be in place. Some people were even camping out in empty concrete slabs of building still under construction.

On the final day of this weekend long gathering I went to shoot some video and fortunately brought two of my students along.  The moment the prayer ended at 1:30 the floodgates opened and everyone made a beeline back to the center of town. It was a mad rush and luckily we were towards the front of the crowd. Try and imagine a sea of a three million people for miles on end. We hitched a ride in a police truck (sincere thanks!!!) that was accompanying some VIP’s. By foot it would have taken five or six hours to reach home. Several trains passed us with what looked like thousands of people piled on the roof. Later in the day over 200 men were injured on one of those trains when passengers saw sparks on the tracks and jumped off as it was moving. Most were taken to a nearby hospital.

Chobi Mela

Rush hour commute (all day) at Farmgate bus terminal, Dhaka

Chobi Mela means Picture Festival and I can’t think of a better place to host such an event as chobi loving Bangladesh. Even compared to New York and Paris, Dhaka has one of the highest ratios of documentary photographers in the world. Much of that should be credited to Shahidul Alam, the founder of Pathshala: The South Asian Institute of Photography and Drik, a  photography agency that distributes the work of “Majority World” photographers many of whom are former Pathshala students.

The festival opened with a live video conference between Noam Chomsky from his office at MIT and the West Bengal writer Mahasweta Devi discussing  “freedom”, the festival’s theme this year. I haven’t seen so many gringos in six months. Yesterday I saw over a dozen exhibits at Shilpakala Academy and plan to  sit in on a few of the screenings and talks this week.

So much has been going on in Dhaka this weekend. Bishwa Ijtema, the world’s second largest Muslim pilgrimage  (after Mecca) is taking place this weekend in the northern part of the city. Three to four million visitors are expected from around the world. I was there yesterday and will post more soon as well as what I saw over at Dhaka University where celebrations took place for the Hindu deity Saraswati, the Goddess of knowledge and learning.

Fair and Lovely (Not)

Where I live in Oregon people go to tanning salons and expose their skins to G-D knows what to get some color. Here in Bangladesh where the average person is darker then President Obama they face the opposite  dilemma. Woman, and to a lesser extent men have been under cultural pressure that is reinforced  by the media and corporations that lighter skin is more attractive. The Anglo-Dutch company Uniliver that manufactures soap and cosmetics with the tagline “Fair and Lovely” say this about their products: “Our brands help people to look good, feel good and get more out of life. Celebrating life for over 40 years in Bangladesh and today, a company bringing world class consumer products to millions of people in the country we are Unilever Bangladesh.” Sound familiar?  It’s a sensitve issue that I brought up in class last week that went over like a lead ballon. I wish someone would start a campaign here in Bangladesh with the slogan: “Brown is Beautiful.”