Where Sandals Fear to Tread

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The invitation said `informal’, but I had put on my Friday best. After all, the party was at the French Ambassador’s residence. I had even swapped my bicycle for my 1982 reconditioned Toyota Starlet. It had a fresh coat of paint and looked quite respectable. Road 99, Gulshan, was chock ‘a block. Cars with flags, cars with yellow number plates, cars with flag-poles, cars with drivers. Mine fell at the bottom of the chain, a black number plate, flag/flag-pole less, driver less, private car. Not much better than my bicycle in terms of hierarchy. Since all the other cars were chauffer driven, I had to park my car right at the end of the road, near the lake, and walk
back to the fairy lights. The drivers did look at one another as I walked up the long road. What was a non-chauffer driven person doing at the residence of the French Ambassador?
Not shaken by any of this, I strode up to the brightly lit gate. After all I did have an official invitation. To my horror, I realised that I had left my invitation in the car. The Frenchman at the gate asked me who I was, and I suggested that I go back to the car to get the invitation, but luckily his Bangladeshi colleague recognised me and tried to usher me in. By then, however, the damage had been done.
The Frenchman’s gaze had gone all the way down to my naked toe-nails. Sandals! No longer did he need to know who I was. I obviously didn’t belong there. The Bangladeshi tried to protest, but with a furtive glance, the Frenchman made eye contact with the extremities of my feet. Oh, said the Bangladeshi. There was no need for further conversation.
The glitterati walked past me as they stepped out of their chauffer driven cars. Peering ghostlike through their air condition cooled spectacles which had misted up in the humid monsoon air, they casually shook my hand with one hand as they wiped their glasses with the other. Some did ask why I was walking the wrong way. That I was being turned away because my attire wasn’t considered suitable for such an august occasion seemed quite a reasonable explanation. Some did pat me on the back in a fatherly sort of way for some recent award I had won. Mustafa Zaman Abbasi, the director general of Shilpakala Academy, kindly offered me a pair of shoes to wear. He didn’t live too far away, and had plenty of spare pairs. He seemed hurt at his generous offer being spurned.
The drivers nodded knowingly as I entered my reconditioned car. This was Gulshan. National costumes could hardly be suitable clothing for a party here, and a diplomat’s party at that! So what if my dress code was known to those inviting me. It was after all, the French National Day, and my principled stand of wearing non-western clothes had broken their boundaries of tolerance.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka. 14th July 2002.

Going Boldly Where No Man Has Been Before

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May 8th 2001. 9:49 AM. Zia International Airport. Domestic Terminal:
The water resources minister strides boldly through the security
gate. Not perhaps `to go boldly where no man has gone before’, but in
a manner in which no person is meant to go. Six people, including
police officers follow him dutifully. Like traditional spouses, three
strides behind. One carries an umbrella, one a briefcase, Razzak is
unhampered by baggage. The security officer at the gate, Azhar,
salutes nervously as he walks past, making no attempt to do the
customary body check. Next in line, as I am being frisked, I ask him
if MPs are checked. He nods affirmatively, though an elderly woman
passenger, hearing my question quickly comes up and says, “No, they
never check MPs.” Azhar is silent, but Hasib Khan, the security
officer comes up and politely explains that they have instructions
not to do a body check on MPs. “We do check the baggage though.” On
further discussions he does admit that this is contrary to security
regulations, but is a general practice with VIPs. “We have no written
orders, but do have verbal instructions. However, we do check
everyone for British Airways flights, as they don’t accept this
practice.”
Airlines and airports have their own security requirements, and
though their insurance companies might not allow for this deference
to the mushrooming VIP pool, I suppose they may modify their rules to
suit their requirements. As an ordinary passenger however, I have the
right to feel safe in the airplane I board, and it is part of the
services I pay for. That feeling requires me to know that EVERY
person who has boarded the plane has been checked by the security.
When MPs are known to have bomb manufacturing setups in their homes,
and others are seen publicly with gun toting hoodlums, my security
checked flight no longer feels so safe. On a conspiracy theory mood,
I would have suspected British Airways to have cooked up a devious
plot to increase sales. I suspect it has a simpler basis. That
elected representatives of the people, consider the people who voted
them in, to be have lesser rights. In a country where sons of
ministers can murder with impunity and journalists are open targets
for lawmakers, this is a mild example. The fact that there was no one
at the airport who felt they should protest, and that this letter was
refused publication in a newspaper supposedly concerned about such
issues, are signs of a deeper malaise.
Maybe if British Airways was made the election commissioner?
Shahidul Alam

Mrs. Packletide's Tiger

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Loona Bimberton had recently been carried eleven miles in an aeroplane by an Algerian aviator, and talked of nothing else; only a personally procured tiger-skin and a heavy harvest of press photographs could successfully counter that sort of thing. Mrs. Packletide had offered a thousand rupees for the opportunity of shooting a tiger without over-much risk or exertion. However, when the opportunity came, she accidentally shot the goat, and the tiger died of fright, and she had to settle with Miss Mebin so that her version of the story would be the one to circulate.

?The release of the hostages by the military, had all the hallmarks of Mrs. Packletide?s tiger hunt,? said Ching Kiu Rewaja Chairman Rangamati Sthanio Shorkar Porishod, the local government head. Unlike the story by the Indian born writer Saki, there were no press photographs to show here, but radio and television and the carefully fed press releases had been prepared so that the story of the heroic release of the two Danish and one British engineer in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, would circulated unchallenged. There had been a few hiccups, and the two separate government press releases on the same day, explaining the circumstances of the kidnapping, had cast shadows on the otherwise well orchestrated adventure story.

Ching Kiu Rewaja sat in his big government office, surrounded by a large number of people vying for his attention. He gestured grandly for us to sit in a position of honour as tea and biscuits immediately appeared. He was busy signing things and would stop momentarily to look up and apologise to us for keeping us waiting. ?There is a subtle competition here, civil administration, police, and military all wanting credit. And they didn?t want to share the credit, hence this deceit.? However, while the chairman understood the underlying politics, despite his colourful analysis, he didn?t really know. No one besides the kidnappers and the military knew exactly what had happened on that night, or the subsequent morning. Post release, the Danish engineers in distant
Copenhagen, had reconstructed the hours preceding the kidnapping. ?After a seven hour walk through the jungle we were led to a bamboo cottage, during the night. Then the abductors went into the jungle, and after some hours they heard some shootings, and soldiers shouting, ?you have been released by the Bangladeshi Army?.?

The Brigadier General Rabbani, who headed the military in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, did speak to us, and was extremely cordial, but would not give an official answer. Neither his version, nor the extremely vague government press releases, explained how both the military and the abductors arrived at the same remote spot at the same time, particularly when it takes so many hours to get to. How the abductors escaped, when they had the place surrounded, is mysterious, and the fact that no one from either side was the slightest bit hurt in this confrontation is a bit surprising. Given the secrecy surrounding the issue, the rumours have been flying, but certain significant facts do emerge.

  1. The incident (which took place less than 500 metres of the military camp) was not an isolated one. People were advised to keep some money, in case they were stopped by hijackers. This was common knowledge.
  2. In internal discussions, (which the police and military deny), there had been talk of compensation, even for incidents of rape that had been reported.
  3. Though the government claims that they have advised all donors to take police escorts, there appears to be no document in support of this claim.
  4. The early mediators had been suspected of being on the ?take? themselves, and later people were shuffled.
  5. There is resentment in the Chittagong Hill Tracts for some of the ?developments? being planned, particularly the establishment of a 218,000 acre ?reserve forest? which will take over further land from hill people, and the proposed construction of two extra units of the Kaptai Dam.
  6. There is a certain degree of ?tolerance? for the criminal activities that go on in the military protected zones.

While in general people in the government and others who are seen to be recipients of foreign aid clearly want aid to continue, there are hill people who question this development process. ?Who is the development for? If there is no peace then what will it solve? Once development funds were given, crores of taka were given. Bungalows and roads were given, but what did it do for the average person? The roads made it easier for the military, and for bureaucrats to live in, but these did not affect the general people. It might appear that a road will lead to progress, but it has been seen that roads have been used for taking away the forest resources, the trees and the wood, it has made the forests barren, now we even have floods in the hill tracts which we have never had. This increased inflow of people have pushed the people further back. The local people do not get the benefits of this development,? says Prasit Bikash Khisha: Convenor UPDF, who?s party has been accused by some of having orchestrated the kidnapping. An association that UPDF vehemently denies.

Others like engineer Kjeld J Birch, Senior Advisor, CHT Water Supply and Sanitation disagrees with the withdrawal of Danish development aid. ?The hospitality here is very good and kind, so it is difficult to understand that things have to be closed down. I don?t feel unsafe. On a personal level I wouldn?t feel worried. We never used an escort, except when the ambassador was here. Never have I had any untoward experience. Neither my wife. The people we have been in touch with, have been very protective. I think there is an overreaction.? But Birch, who left an attractive job offer in Bhutan to come to one which offered him ?a challenge? and his wife who left a job to accompany him are now both unemployed, so they too have personal interests to protect.

It is therefore difficult to sift the ?truth? from this rubble. But certain changes will have to be in place before development in whoever?s definition can be in place. Information has to flow to the people. A misinformed public will construe the worst, and the rumours currently circulating within the Chittagong Hill Tracts certainly do not favour the government. There has to be a greater degree of transparency in the way things are conducted in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. The military will have to be more accountable to the people in both Bangladesh at large and the hill people in particular. People not affiliated to the government, or not necessarily in full agreement with the peace accord, need to be involved in matters affecting the future of the hill people, and that the zone must no longer be treated as a military zone. Within Bangladesh and within The Chittagong Hill Tracts, a democratic system has to give weight to marginalized communities. If these issues get addressed, maybe the kidnapping will have done more for Bangladesh?s development than the players involved had originally envisaged.

When Dollars Swim Freely

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New Internationalist Magazine Issue 332. March 2001

If the billions of dollars in aid to Bangladesh over the last?three decades had been given directly to the poor, it would?have made a major difference to their lives. As it is, the poor?continue to struggle while the rich flaunt their ever-increasing?wealth. Shahidul Alam visits the homes of people?at opposite ends of this great divide.
The guard at the gate hesitates before questioning me. My white friend walks on. Her right to entry is beyond doubt. A cough by someone nearer the door, and higher up in the chain of command, signals my credentials and the hesitant guard makes a smart salute. I?ve been here before. At the gate of the British High Commission or the office of the UN Development Programme, for example. These are places where the?bideshis(foreigners) and the well-to-do Bangladeshis have ready access. My sloppy clothes and the fact that I did not alight from a fancy Mitsubishi Pajero were enough to give my position away. Besides, I walked differently, made eye contact with those outside the chosen circle, and was clearly not supremely confident of my position.

?
Prince Moosa Bin Shamsher; a self-proclaimed prince, runs construction businesses in the Middle East, and is in the manpower business, recruiting agency for migrant workers. The 'prince' in his Gulshan home in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Part of Migrant soul project, an attempt to understand the dreams and the realities of Bangladeshi migrant people. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Hasib?s palatial home is in Baridhara, a part of town with the most intriguing architecture. Here Tudor houses rub shoulders with Spanish villas, with the occasional Greek columns thrown in. What are missing are the lavish gardens one might expect. Land is expensive here and homes are often built up to the edge of an individual plot and sometimes even beyond it. Only the very special ones have a patch of green, perhaps a swimming pool.
This is a land of tranquillity. No?hartals (general strikes) affect the normal flow of life. The American International School where Hasib?s children study is perhaps more expensive than the average private school in Britain, but does give his heirs the sort of training needed to blend seamlessly into the high-powered positions they will surely come to occupy. The school holidays prioritize Hallowe?en over Eid. No adulteration of ?higher cultures? by local practices is tolerated here. The one discomfort that the inhabitants face are the slums by the edge of the lake, the hungry stares from across the metal fence, the huts between the palaces, that have not yet been cleared out. The dark glass of the Pajero does reduce contact, but even the air-conditioning doesn?t quite clear the smell.
The interior d?cor of Hasib?s home matches the fantasyland exterior. This is a home appropriate to a wealthy media person whose companies receive funding from UN agencies, who is an agent for a prominent US company in the energy sector, and who is well-connected to all the major political parties. Hasib is not a person you would want as an enemy. The presence at this party of the ?lite of the city, the aid givers and takers, and a sprinkling of ?intellectuals? testifies to his acceptance in the circles that matter. Smiling photographs with former leaders Mujib and Ershad, with the US Ambassador and prominent heads of state, adorn his office, though they are appropriately changed to suit the political clime. Ershad at his most powerful visited Hasib?s office, though he was later to comment jokingly in Parliament on Hasib?s smuggling links.
These are well-travelled people, and all that is best in the world outside is present here. Cut-glass chandeliers in abundance. Leather-bound classics neatly arranged in teak shelves. Expensive paintings, mostly by artists who have died, but also by Shahabuddin, the current?enfant terrible, hang in gilded frames.
The well-dressed waiter snakes through the crowd distributing wine, beer and whisky, technically illegal in Muslim Bangladesh. This is a place for men of the world and emancipated women.
Nadia, Hasib?s wife, tosses her hair back in her revealing dress as she laughs with the US Ambassador. She gently acknowledges the minister as he walks by, excusing herself to talk to the editor of the most popular daily. She looks out for the World Bank chief, and relaxes as she spots him out by the swimming pool, talking to the head of the largest NGO. She only wishes she didn?t have to invite the MP who was found making bombs in his house. Such people give others a bad name.
The MP was a minor embarrassment to the ruling political party, especially as it had just embarked on a clean-up campaign. Fourteen-year-old Rimon was at the other end of the spectrum. He was one of several young men arrested when they were trying to make the clean-up campaign look good. They had to plant a knife in his hand in order to make the arrest. He had no previous record and the witnesses all denied in court that they had seen Rimon with weapons, but these were not insuperable problems. The fact that he was a minor was, on the other hand, a technicality that might have proved awkward. Fortunately he was too poor to make an issue out of being under- age or about being kept in jail for two years without a trial.
One could look at it as a democratic process. The system doesn?t really care about class, race or gender. If one has money, one stays out of jail. Without money, one stays in. Rimon?s mother Fatema works seven days a week as a domestic help in the home of a top civil servant. Low-paid and with no benefits, she has had to borrow over 20 times her monthly salary to try to get a fair trial for her son. The process of trying to bribe judges, paying high fees to lawyers and regularly paying the police is something she seems to have accepted. Her biggest sorrow is that the food she buys for her son doesn?t always get through to him, despite the bribes she pays to the wardens. ?I used to serve food in four plates for my children. Now I serve only three. The pain burns within me every day.?
The justice you are likely to get is directly linked to the money you are able to muster. Hasib was suspected of smuggling gold, but no-one made too much of his going scot-free on that count. Now Hasib is into bigger things. An agent for a leading US gas company, his other hat as a major media baron comes in handy. Press releases by the US gas companies appear dressed up as news reports.
He has even ?written? a book. The senior professor and the archeologist who ghost-wrote it do not seem too perturbed by the mismatch between the book?s content and the official author?s credibility as a writer. At the press launch, leading?litt?rateurs talked of the talent of the man, his contribution to society.
Rimon never even went to school. Long before his body had fully matured, he was pulling a rickshaw, helping to support the schooling of his two sisters and younger brother. Ironically, on a per-square-metre basis, his mother Fatema pays more rent for her shack than the standard rental in wealthy Baridhara. In many slums, access to water is a privilege you pay for separately. Sanitation, electricity and other amenities are all extras.
Being important vote banks, slums are controlled by local strongmen with affiliations to the major political parties. Fires rage through them on a regular basis: sceptics claim that this is a convenient way to evict unwanted residents. Sometimes fires precede a sell-out to developers.
At least Fatema has a roof of her own. More vulnerable are the domestic servants who live in their employers? homes. Many of them are children or young women. Murder, rape and inhuman torture are commonly reported. A far greater number go unreported.
Surrounded by her worldly belongings, a woman cooks the family meal. The next day, the water had risen another three feet. Jinjira, Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1988. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

The slums are the entry points for the millions who converge upon the metropolis from the villages in search of work. In the countryside the divide between rich and poor is similarly reinforced by foreign money.
Wasim Ali, a wealthy shrimp farmer in Khulna, goes around in a gunboat warding off and occasionally killing trespassers. His guard points out the shrimps, saying ?dollars swim in the water?. The World Bank assists Wasim and others in setting up shrimp-processing units and Japan buys much of the shrimp.
This was once an agrarian family. They are now forced into shrimp cultivation by the big landowners. There is no land left for grazing. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Lokhi Pal?s family, who used to grow paddy, were forced into selling their land to Wasim once the entire area became salinated due to the new embankments that had been built. ?We had cows and a vegetable patch,? she told me. ?All we needed to buy was oil and clothes.? Now they go during?hat (the weekly market day) to a neighbouring village to stock up on food and basic supplies once a week. The family eats well for the first three days then hangs on till the next hat day. Still attached to their cow, they send it off to a nearby village to graze but have to pay for the privilege.
Back in the city Fatema worries about her son?s health, about the money she will somehow have to repay. She worries most that unless she finds some way to get her son out of prison he will soon end up embittered. Then when he does come out he could be forced to do the kind of thing for which he could be arrested again. Right now, however, she longs to have an extra mouth to feed. For Hasib and Wasim, of course, the dollars continue to swim freely.
——————————————————-
The feature is based on facts, but the names have been altered.

New Internationalist Magazine Issue 332, March 2001.
The issue was co-edited by Shahidul Alam and the NI editorial team.

A State of Danger

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The material that follows has been provided by the?New Internationalist



A STATE OF DANGER

This is?Shahidul Alam’s inside story, in words and pictures, of the intense struggle against repression which has been raging in Bangladesh, unnoticed by the Western media. Resistance work there is dangerous – photographers and journalists are regularly attacked and arrested.



In the beginning there was light. One of the climactic moments from Begum Khaleda Zia’s victorious election campaign in 1991. Hope burgeons as Bangladesh launches into a rare free and fair election. The latest in a series of military-backed dictators, Hussain Mohammad Ershad, had finally been ousted two months before following an intensive three-year campaign for democracy.

But the optimism is short-lived. Demonstrators take to the streets when the Government allies with the fundamentalist Jamaat-e-Islam, whose leaders aided the Pakistani Army’s genocide of Bangladeshis in 1971. Under the watchful eye of authority, children of that war’s martyrs demand the trial of the war criminals.

Women feel they have most to lose if the Islamic fundamentalists gain ground. On International Women’s Day in 1994 Shamima Nazneed enacts a play by Tagore (Stri’r Potro, ‘The Wife’s Letter’) which shows the oppressive influence of the family.

The Government becomes increasingly repressive and starts to rig by-elections, leading all opposition parties to resign from Parliament. A general election is called and there is a brutal clampdown on dissent. This student is arrested on 31 January 1996 in a police swoop on a mainly Hindu hall of Dhaka University – he screams out to friends from the prison van.

Resistance hits the streets.

The opposition boycott of the election is complete: polling stations stand idle. Yet the Government reports a huge turnout of voters and a landslide victory. The contrast with the last election is painful as heavy security cordons guard Khaleda Zia while she addresses her followers. She is just visible over their shoulders in the centre, aloof and distant heir to an autocratic tradition.

Dhaka Traffic Blues

Politically Correct Eid Greetings

Well, the long holidays are over, and the streets of Dhaka are slowly getting back to their normal frenzy. The horns, the put-put of the baby taxis, the bewildered stare of the taxi driver as he tries to interpret the gyrations of the traffic warden, the gentle smile on the bus driver as he parks the bus in the center lane waiting for the passengers to offload the chicken coops on the rooftop, the suicidal pedestrian who tries to cross the road over to Jahangir Tower in Kawran Bajar, the glee on Asma, the flower girl’s face as she spots me, and skips between two trucks, to my bicycle, knowing she has a sure sale, the babu in the back seat with the newspaper covering his face, the blind beggar coughing through the thick black smoke of the BRTC double-decker are some of the familiar signs that tell me that there is stability in my life and the world has not changed. In this season of greetings, and eco conscious, politically correct messages, I send you a recycled, lead-free wish.

May you find a way to travel
From anywhere to anywhere
In the rush hour
In less than an hour
And when you get there
May you find a parking space
The year has had its usual ups and downs for Drik, but the adrenaline flowing due to the constant crisis management during Chobi Mela has everyone hyped up. The big show on the 10th January looms. The hits in the web site have climbed regularly, and the December total of 105,857 hits is an all time record for us. It’s a credit to you all for having stuck with us for so long.
Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
May the good light be with you.
Shahidul Alam
Wed Jan 3, 2001

Everything Smelled of Money

Aid – Bangladesh / WORLD OF MONEY

Everything smelled of money
In 1994 Shahidul Alam and Drik Picture Library launched a unique initiative which involved training children from poor, working-class families in Dhaka as photojournalists. Their progress since has been remarkable – now 16 years old, the ‘Out of Focus’ children are still learning but have had exhibitions, produced a photographic calendar and are now collaborating on a TV magazine programme for young people. Along the way, however, they have been thrown up against a world of money and opportunity, aid agencies and big business, to which people from their background never normally have access. The NI recorded a conversation about their impressions of this brave new world.

Photo: Abir Abdullah / Drik We remember the time we had to go to some UNICEF meeting or other with Bhai’ya (Shahidul Alam). It was in the Sonargaon Hotel. A huge, fancy affair, where we had trouble walking, where our feet kept slipping on the shiny lobby floor. A different world, the world of the rich. As if that wasn’t enough, Pintu had lost one of his sandals on the way there. We knew we wouldn’t be allowed inside in bare feet, but Bhai’ya told us that there was no need to worry, that everything would be fine. So we walked on that slippery floor and looked everywhere. Everything seemed so grand, everything smelled of money. People throw away so much money! In the middle of the hotel was a swimming pool with almost-naked foreigners in it. We felt too ashamed to look at them.

When you have too much money what else can you do except go to a swimming pool to show off, to say ‘Look at the money I have – I go swimming in a big hotel’s pool.’ The rich and their airs! Coming out with their cars just to show off to us, to the poor, to those of us who don’t have cars. The way they look at us! And their talk: which is better, a white car or a black car? It’s unbelievable, the arrogance!

Photo: Abir Abdullah / Drik When we go somewhere people usually comment ‘Oh you poor deprived children’. Nonsense! If they grab all the opportunities of course we’ll be deprived. First they take everything for themselves, then they coo ‘Oh, you poor deprived child’. If we are not given a chance, how can we make it? Our speech, the way we talk is offensive to the bhadrolok, the upper class. ‘Oooh, your pronunciation,’ they sniff at us, ‘the way your language wanders all over the place.’

We are poor. But the fact that we have cameras and know how to take photos makes people uncomfortable. And so something simple becomes complicated. People who see us keep asking us ‘Accha, are these the cameras you use?’ But, you see, the camera’s not the point. The point is to take photographs. It doesn’t sit well with a lot of folks that the children of the poor should have cameras. Makes you laugh. Once Bhai’ya took some of our shots to the Lab for printing. The people at the Lab thought that one of the photos was his. ‘Take a look at Shahidul Alam’s work,’ they said. Well, it was actually taken by Iqbal, and when Bhai’ya told them so, they just shut up and wouldn’t say anything more.

Passion for pictures. Rabeya studies negatives while Moli, Iqbal and Shefali look on. Inset are photos of Shahidul Alam with a new group of children from a village in Brahmanbaria – the ‘Out of Focus’ children are helping to teach them photography.
Photo: Shahidul Alam / Drik

Hamida and Rabeya have been abroad. The word has spread. That’s how they are introduced, as having gone abroad. We take photos. That is not our identity however. The point is who has gone abroad.

Yet another way to show off is English. You aren’t anybody if you don’t know English. As if the real thing, the only thing, is not the work itself, but whether you know English. It’s such a fashion to speak it. They say you have to know it, but what do the foreigners know? Shouldn’t all those photographers and all the other visitors who come here know Bangla? Nobody tells them ‘You should know Bangla’.

Through our photographs we want to change things. But lately the going has been tough. With the children of the wealthy it is enough that they take photos, but with us it seems that we have to prove ourselves by learning English too. What will happen to those English-speaking friends who also carry on the struggle? Will they learn our language and join us? Oh come on! Will they not join ranks with us? What then is our language of photography to be?

These comments were made during an informal discussion involving
Faysal Ahmed Dadon, Hamida Akhtar Bristi, Abul Kashem, Refanur Akhtar Moli,
Rabeya Sarker Rima, Sopna Akhtar, Shefali Akhtar Setu and Md Zakir Hossain.
It was recorded/compiled by Manosh Chowdhury and translated by Khademul Islam.

First Published in the New Internationalist Magazine

Ruhul Amin's Story

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The streets of Dhaka looked far from festive last night. The eerie glow of the sodium lamps lit the mounted police and their dogs. There were said to be 5000 in the streets. The barbed wire barricades and the stop searches, put a damper on the marauding young men prowling the streets, but the packed dance floor at the Gulshan Club seemed unaffected by it all. The TSC corner at Dhaka University, on the other hand, was an all male affair. The police presence was not reassuring enough for women to enter the macho fray.
As I opened the greeting cards that wished me well for the new season, I kept remembering how different was Eid for the Afghans from Christmas for the US Marines.
I remembered my delight as a child, when we would look out of the rooftops for the new moon. We would bathe early in the morning and go out with our friends, all decked in our new clothes. Alert to the idea that a few smart salaams could net some extra pocket money.
For Ruhul Amin, in this story by the children of Out of Focus “Season’s Greetings” perhaps has more to do with going back home to the village, than with Christianity or Islam, or the celebration of Bangla or Chinese identity.
“I was born in Mirpur, Dhaka, and I have grown up here. When I was 8 or 9 years old, I went to my village home for the very first time. I loved it there. I met my grandparents from my mother’s and my father’s side, and they were very happy to see me. So I asked my mother, why did you leave everybody here and move to the city?
In the coming days, I wish for you and I, and Ruhul Amin and the children of Out of Focus, less murderous and warmongering leaders.
Shahidul Alam
Tue Jan 1, 2002

The War We Forgot

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Iqbal had asked me when we first met. ?Bhaiya, where are Barkat and Salaam?s graves?? I didn?t know. He was 10, I was 39. As a 15 year old in 1971, I had felt the warm flush of victory as I held a Pakistani Light Machine Gun in my hand. I hadn?t really won it in battle, but only recovered it from a burning military truck. But the joy was just as much. That was the time when a rickshaw wallah had refused to take my fare, because he had heard me greet a friend with ?Joy Bangla? (freedom for Bengal, the 1971 slogan symbolizing freedom from Pakistani rule). Things had changed, and the promise of our own land had slowly been eroded by politicians and military rulers who had lived off our dreams. Each time we became skeptical, each time we sniffed that something other than ?Shonar Bangla (Golden Bengal)? was in their minds, they led us on with vitriolic rhetoric. Eventually, as on that day in 1994, I too had forgotten. I didn?t know where Salaam and Barkat?s graves were. I had never heard of Dhirendranath Datta. More importantly, I didn?t care. But Iqbal did. Born long after Salaam and Barkat?s bodies had merged with the soil, Iqbal only knew of this great battle that we had fought. Though the heroes had changed depending upon who ruled the country at any particular time. Salaam and Barkat were beyond dispute. They were not a threat to anyone. They didn?t apply for a trade license, or bid for a government tender. It was safe for the history books to remember them. Remembering Hindus or women was a bit more problematic.
My search for these other heroes, the ones with cameras, began in 1994. After Iqbal reminded me that I had forgotten. It was in the Paris office of Sipa that Goksin Sipahioglou, excited at my presence ran down the stairs and brought back with him an armload of slide folders. It took a while for it to sink in. These were the first colour photographs of the Muktijudhdho that I had ever seen. We had heard that some of these photographs had been published. But our only source of news at that time was Shadhin Bangla Radio. It talked of the glory of our freedom fighters, of how they were fearless against enormous odds. Of their glory in battle. M R Akhtar Mukul in ?Chorompotro? was the one voice we longed for. We chuckled as he talked of the plight of the Pakistanis. His wry but animated voice, muffled by the blanket we hid under, and barely audible in the turned down volume of the transistor radio, gave us hope, and kept us going through the dark nine months.
It was Abbas? photographs that Goksin had brought for me. Later that month, in the back garden of a house in Arle, I met Don McCullin. Don was excited about the show I wanted to do, and unhesitatingly agreed to give us pictures. I found Abbas, at a beach near Manila, quite by accident. Both of us had been following the golden late afternoon light in a summer evening in Manila beach. Abbas too was excited. He wanted to be part of the show. Michele Stephenson and I had been in the same jury of World Press Photo on two occasions, and I had plenty of time to tell her about my plans. She invited me to New York and arranged for me to go through the archives of her magazine, Time. It was in the basement of the Time Life Building in the Avenue of the Americas, that I came across the daily bulletins that the reporters had sent in.
Memories flooded through my mind as I remembered those harrowing days and nights. I remembered the screams of people being burned alive as the flame throwers belched fire at the Holiday office near the Hotel Intercontinental.
Most of the people who died were the people who slept in the streets and the slum dwellers around the newspaper office. Those who chose to escape the fire ran into a hail of machinegun bullets. My father, mother, Babu bhai and I, watched quietly from our verandah in Nasheman on New Elephant Road. My dad had suffered from Hindu bhodrolok prejudice in the pre-partition days, and had never supported the break-up of Pakistan. And we would have great fights in the home, the younger ones wanting independence, Dad?s generation feeling things could be patched up. That was the night Dad said it was over. No longer could we ever be one Pakistan.
I excitedly went through the reams of paper. Each scrap of news had a meaning for me. I could relate to these news bulletins. I remembered the horror of those nights. As I thumbed through a tattered red diary, I noticed the skimpy notes of a photojournalist as he traveled through Jessore. I remembered Alan Ginsberg?s poem. It was David Burnett?s diary. Several years later as David and I met in Amsterdam in yet another World Press Jury, I told him where his diary was. In Kuala Lumpur, Dubai, Delhi, and so many other cities have I picked up the scraps of evidence that would help me piece this jigsaw together.
It was in Paris that I spoke excitedly of my plans to Robert Pledge, the president of Contact Press Images. Robert shared my enthusiasm for the project, but I harried him ?with? my feverish frenzy. We couldn?t wait, we had to do it now. That now has taken over six years. But in these years we have made the most amazing discoveries. The stories, the images, the people we have come across, make up the life of this exhibition. It is the war veterans, the men and the women in the villages of Bangladesh, who fought the war, the forgotten heroes with their untold stories, the men and women who were killed and maimed, the women who were raped that this show is dedicated to. It is not a nostalgic trip for us to romanticize upon. It is for Iqbal and his friends to know that Barkat and Salaam, were more than simply names in history books.
Shahidul Alam
November 2000. Dhaka

When The Mind Says Yes

It was in the foothills of the Himalayas that he was born. In a bullock cart amidst a snowstorm. It was in the cold chill of January, in the severest winter in Bangladesh’s memory, that he died. Alone and uncared for, the frail old man shrunken with age, but with a heart as wide as the ocean, and a mind as young as the children that he loved, Golam Kasem, nicknamed Daddy, died at the tender age of 104. The single storied yellow building at 73 Indira Road, with its unkempt garden, was home not only to Bangladesh’s oldest photographer, but also the first Bengali Muslim short story writer.

Daddy looking out of his window at 73, Indira Road. Dhaka. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Daddy looking out of his window at 73, Indira Road. Dhaka. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Born on the 5th November 1894, Daddy lost his mother shortly after birth. Brought up by his aunt, the young man took up photography the way many young men take up many things, to impress a young girl. She had promised to cook for him if he could develop a film that others had failed with. Kasem embarked with the same trait for disciplined research, that he maintained till his death. He went round the studios of Mednapur to find out the method that would win him his meal. He never talked of what the meal was like, but did describe how he used a hardner to prevent the emulsion from peeling off. Saving his bus fare to school to buy a brownie camera, he began taking photographs of the things he loved most, animals, flowers and children. And importantly, he preserved those negatives. In his archives, amidst old paper sachets marked in his neat handwriting are glass plates dating back to 1918. The harbour in Calcutta, early steam engines, the Gurkha regiment in shorts, and many many portraits. Period pieces lit in that soft natural light that early studios used.
Ship at port. 1925.
Ship at port. 1925. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Steam engine. B2 glass negative. Date unknown. Golam Kasem
Steam engine. B2 glass negative. Date unknown. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Grainless negatives of people, generally in studied poses. His spontaneous pictures were those of animals and children, and amongst them are some gems. “Her first dance” is a delicate photograph of a child amidst a twirl, centre stage with her family as an audience. Strong portraits of his friend a teacher and the calm portrait of his grandmother belie the fact that he was an amateur, who took photographs for fun. He sold his first photograph at the age of 98, for Drik’s 1991 calendar.
First picture sold by Daddy. Intro for Drik 1991 calendar. Golam Kasem. 35mm negative. Date unknown.
First picture sold by Daddy. Intro for Drik 1991 calendar. 35mm negative. Date unknown. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World.

Boat. 120 negative. Date unknown. Golam Kasem.
Boat. 120 negative. Date unknown. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

The founder of the Camera Recreation Club, Daddy arranged regular meetings at his house in Indira Road where the club was housed. Regular visitors included poet Sufia Kamal, painter Qamrul Hassan and photographer Manzoor Alam Beg. His letters were hand-written, each one numbered, and the envelopes often made of recycled newspapers or book wrappings. Competitions at the Camera Recreation Club were unusual events. Photographers who would abstain from many local competitions would submit those small 4″ x 5″ prints. And they were proud of the simple prizes they sometimes won. The prize giving was always accompanied by a cultural programme. And Daddy would always sing.
A house wife. 1927. B2 Glass negative. Golam Kasem
A house wife. 1927. B2 Glass negative. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

My colleague. Dhaka 1935. B2 glass negative. Golam Kasem
My colleague. Dhaka 1935. B2 glass negative. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

The room next to his bedroom was his darkroom. A red plastic bowl stuck under a light bulb, his safe light. He mixed his own chemicals from old tins of chemicals. Often I would get a SOS. The same neat handwriting, asking for potassium ferricyanide or some other chemical that he needed for his latest experiment. Photography was his passion. Once at a meeting at the Bangladesh Photographic Society (BPS), where he had been presented a new camera, Daddy spoke of how the camera he had been given would be much more than a machine to him. He talked of how he kept his camera next to his pillow when he went to sleep. How, when he was sad, he would speak to it, and that it would talk back and comfort him. Unimpressed by the modern motor driven models, his preference was for a simple manual SLR, “preferably not too heavy” he would add with a mischievous smile. That is not to say he was shy of technology. I remember him holding up his thick glasses to read his first Email from his grandson in Canada. He asked me to come back the next day, and as I parked my bicycle by his rose garden, he was ready with his answer, again written in his neat handwriting. He was fascinated by Email and used it regularly, and curious about how the message would get through the ether.
My grandmother. Dhaka 1935. Golam Kasem.
My grandmother. Dhaka 1935. Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Sky and water. 1923, Midnapore. 4 x 5 sheet film. Golam Kasem
Sky and water. 1923, Midnapore. 4 x 5 sheet film. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

He was fiercely independent. He cooked his own meals, fed his dog and his cats and did his own shopping. Until recently, he would even go on his own to a house down the road and guide himself up the stairs to meet a lady friend whom he occasionally visited. Rarely would he talk of himself and it was only in passing conversation with the late Mr Nasiruddin that I discovered that Daddy was the first Bengali Muslim short story writer. He used to write regularly for Shawgat, and continued to write, both technical articles on photography for the BPS newsletter, and short stories for general publication. His last manuscript, a simple manual on photography, sadly lies in my hands, unpublished. He had dearly wanted it printed before he died. The proofing was complete, the photographs selected, but ‘matters of consequence’ allowed other projects to take precedence. His last note, urging me on with the publication, will forever haunt me.
Two girls. Midnapore 1926. B2 glass negative. Golam Kasem
Two girls. Midnapore 1926. B2 glass negative. ? Golam Kasem/Drik/Majority World

Always articulate, on his 100th birthday, at the opening of a joint photographic exhibition by him and the other photographic guru Manzoor Alam Beg at the Drik Gallery, he talked eloquently of how photography was the way for people of the world to make friends, to break barriers, to discover one another. Later as the chief guest at the opening of the 1996 World Press Photo, he talked of his own struggle to overcome the limitations of an ageing body. “My body says no, but my mind says you must, and in the end it is the mind that wins.” On Friday the 9th January 1998, the body finally said no and the mind took wings.
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