Category Archives: Dhaka

Looking Out, Looking In

Baitul Mukarram Mosque, Dhaka

Baitul Mukarram is Dhaka’s largest Mosque. It’s in Gulistan, the crossroads of old and new Dhaka. One of the most intense and chaotic parts of the city. The Mosque covers a very large square block and below it is an electronics and clothing bazaar. This photo was made twenty minutes before the rush to the late afternoon prayer. Shortly after the entire space was covered with men. It’s an unusual view with so few people present, a reflective moment.

This time last year I didn’t have a clue what to expect. The names of cities and towns on the map meant nothing to me.  And of course the most important thing, the people. I’ve been in Bangladesh for nine months and am grateful to all of the people who reached out with their friendship and assistance. There are so many fond memories and much to process.  To see my dedicated website of Bangladesh photographs take a look at the Bangladesh Project.


A Death in Shakhari Bazar

Durga Puja, Shakari Bazar

A few months ago I was video taping some interviews in Shakhari Bazar, the Hindu neighborhood of  Old Dhaka with one of the students from IUB. We talked with two men that made and sold Indian musical instruments. Their shop had been in the same location for over one hundred years and has remained in the family for several generations.

Two weeks ago as I  was walking in Old Dhaka one of the men I had interviewed recognized me and asked if I could make him a copy of the video tape.  It so happened that the other man I filmed had a heart attack and passed away shorty after the interview.

Under the Midday Sun

According to one of my neighbors, the power outages this summer, up to 5 or 6 hours a day, are much worse then previous years. It hit 40c today and many parts of the city are facing water shortages. There isn’t enough electricity to provide adequate pressure.

It’s an ordinary afternoon in Dhaka. I’m on my way across town waiting in traffic. There is a crowd of onlookers blocking traffic. I get out of the CNG to see what is happening. A giant bulldozer is demolishing a row of one story houses.  A man from the crowd approaches me and  says “this is the way our government takes care of us.” He invites me for tea but the heat has zapped all of my remaining energy.

The Biharis

The  Biharis or “Stranded Pakistanis” are the descendants of Muslims from the Bihar province prior to the partition of India in 1947, and then migrated to East Pakistan. They live in what looks like refugee camps in Bangladesh. During the 1971 liberation war most of them remained loyal to Pakistan but now the situation is much more complicated. They are a stateless people stuck between Bangladesh and Pakistan. Below is a clip from the Plan, an NGO about Geneva Camp.

The largest Bihari community in the country is in Dhaka. I went there recently with Stijn Pieters, a Belgium photographer who was working on a project there. Geneva Camp is one square kilometer and home to almost thirty thousand people.  It’s a small city off the grid with it’s own schools  and small cottage industries. Families live in crowded tiny rooms, the great majority of them without running water. There are only fifty public toilets for the entire population. I’ve never seen so many people packed into such a small area. When Stijn gets his website together I’ll post his work and a link on Verve Photo.

Friday the 13th

A Mother watches her child play in a school courtyard

Summer is approaching and the power outages are getting longer. It’s up to about three hours a day and I ‘m sure it’s worse in other parts of the city. People are still shaken and confused from what happened on February 25th. I was supposed to travel over the weekend  to a town in Syhlet near the border but was told that as a foreigner I would need permission from the government since it wouldn’t be safe.

And now today, the largest shopping complex/ office tower in Bangladesh is on fire.  The top floors of this 20 story building are engulfed in flames. Thousands of people in the surrounding neighborhoods  crowd the streets watching the fire on their day off from work. There is a dark cloud of smoke over Dhaka tonight.

Bangladesh Mourns

Memorial to slain military officers outside of my office at IUB

In the two days since I’ve returned to Bangladesh I’ve met with four colleagues from the Independent University of Bangladesh (IUB) who have lost family and friends in the BDR attack inside of a military compound in Dhaka last week. Still completely shaken one of them was on the scene a few days ago with family members searching for the bodies of the missing. Yesterday students made this memorial titled “Heroes Never Die.” How and why can such a thing happen? Many theories are being discussed and some are calling it a planned massacre rather then a mutiny. It clearly wasn’t a random attack.

Military on alert in Dhaka, Feb 26, 2009. Photo © Salman Saeed

For two days last week parts of Dhaka looked like they were under siege. Over 80 army officers were murdered by lower rank BRD border patrol soldiers. Jessica Lim, a photographer friend who was on the scene last week had this to say; “There is something more to be said about the crowd. First of all – since when did people walk towards the sound of gunfire rather than away from it? Sure, they ran when it got too loud, too close. But they ran with smiles and laughter. They ran off till it was quiet, and then regrouped and came forward again. I don’t understand this. Did they not know that people had already been killed by the misfires? Was this a game to them? The worst thing was that I couldn’t tell where the guns were from, or what they were aiming at. I didn’t know where to hide my very not-bulletproof body.”

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


We haven’t had any rain for the past three months and everything is covered with a thick layer of dust. All of the construction in my neighborhood and throughout the city only adds to the debris in the air. It’s still not nearly as bad as Ghana, where many of the roads aren’t paved, and after a day outside one is caked in dust.

The new semester is off to a good start and running. I have 30 students and the classroom is packed. We havn’t had any power outages during class – I take that back, there were two a few hours ago- and the internet speed is showing signs of improvement. I love the fact that during a “typical day” I’ll be out photographing in a Madrassa nearby and half an hour later in the my class teaching students how to use Photoshop or construct a website.

This morning over at Nari Jibon I met Rezwan. We have been online friends for close to a year and I frequently link to his blog from here. He is the South Asia Editor with Global Voices, a citizen journalism news room for voices from the developing world.