Juggling, juggling, juggling

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The Daily Star
Volume 4 Number 25
Sat. June 21, 2003

Literature

Travel Writing

Juggling, juggling, juggling…

Shahidul Alam

And while last week Fakrul Alam went on vacation to Indonesia, this week another, and very different, Bangladeshi (a photographer/gearhead in loosekurtapyjamas) flings himself headlong into Singapore to arrange a photography exhibition. With very different results.

 

I was getting closer to my usual time of arriving forty minutes before departure. The Singapore Airline guy had warned me to arrive three hours early. "The new computers…" he went on. I assured him I had flown several times since the new computers had been introduced at Zia. I had been there on day one, when these glistening new machines had led to long queues as confused immigration officers tapped in a letter at a time and constantly consulted more computer-savvy colleagues about the entry of some insignificant data.

Usually it was the migrant workers who were on the defensive, being made to feel worthless as they struggled with immigration forms. The roles had now been reversed. The workers seemed to enjoy waiting in line while their tormentors fumed in silence at the wonders of technology.

The flight was uneventful, except for the problems of trying to find a safe parking place for my six-foot print. Eventually the air hostess took my print away, leaving me nervously peering through the alleyway hoping she didn't fold it up to fit the container!

As we disembarked, we were greeted by another marvel of science. Another queue developed as the infrared cameras, revealed your body warmth. Posterised colours showed the relative warmth of every part of your upper anatomy as you walked by. It was live television!

It took people a while to work out who those people with strange colours were, but once it dawned, then it was movie time. Many years ago, on a cold day in London, I had noticed the coldness of the tip of my nose, and the near frost on my beard. I had always been curious about how the hairs on my chest would appear in infra red which the Singapore climate was far more suitable for observing.

Lance and Gim Lay ambled in. Gim Lay was a gallery official and had to make an appearance for her visiting artist, so she didn't have a choice, but I felt sorry for Lance, having to wake up at the ridiculous hours that Singapore Airlines arrives at, just because he's a friend.

After a very short pit stop at Teek's spacious studio, it was down to the gallery of the Singapore History Museum. We had agreed to give the show a 'raw' look. So construction scaffolding, helmets, sandbags, bricks, warning tape and cones had all been set up. Canvas strips hung on the scaffolding were to be our exhibition panels. By now I had been nearly eight hours without Internet and was getting withdrawal symptoms. Lance hurriedly inserted the appropriate IP numbers and I was online. Singaporean broadband was considerably different from Dhaka 'broadband' and I quickly went through my backlog of mail. Most of it was junk of course. After deleting the 101 tips for enlarging my privates, making 50,000 dollars a week offers plus the few Nigerian scams, I settled down to the urgent mail. Deadlines were looming. Salgado's images needed to be sourced, the workshop in Prague needed to be settled, and there were Pathshala exam sheets to be marked! I tried to get as much done using the museum connection. Even with these fast speeds, paying 15 Taka a minute at the hotel, took a bit of getting used to. The 15 Taka an hour Dhaka cyber cafés didn't seem so bad after all!

An army of volunteers had arrived, and I was expected to direct them about the setting up of the exhibition. It is difficult to appear intelligent when a horde of excited youngsters wait for each word to drop, especially when you don't have a clue as to where you are going. Still, the experience of having done this many times before did help, and with my eager volunteers, we were slowly getting the exhibition in shape. Gim Lin stormed in and out, pressing a row of panic buttons. The mounters were having problems with the inkjet prints. The precise positioning of my large prints needed my immediate attention. The television interview needed to be scheduled in, and what could I not eat?

Meanwhile I had other concerns. I had been surreptiously relieved of my Nokia Communicator the week before in a tram in Brussels, and being the techie freak that I was, not having a PDA phone was almost as bad as not being online 24 hours. So friends had been mobilised to research the PDA phone scene. What was available, where could we get it, who would give the best discount and who was going to accompany me to ensure I didn't get ripped off. I also needed a local person who would get the account on my behalf, as the phone company needed a local address.

Meanwhile Chor Lin, the director of the museum, came in for a courtesy visit. Her husband Peter Schoppert had masterminded the "Day in the Life of" series books for the Asean region, and we had many common friends. Raghu Rai in particular had been a frequent visitor while his books were being printed in Singapore. The technicians interjected in between: What did I need for my presentation? What program was I going to use? It all seemed so serious!

I managed to ring Justin. The last time we had met was when he had come over to Pathshala with David Wells for the workshop that led the lead story on Aramco magazine. Since then I had seen his Dhaka pictures in Time magazine, and I remember that ex-minister Abdul Mannan, during an earlier flight to Dhaka from Kuala Lumpur, had waxed lyrical on his slide show on Bangladesh. Justin was off the next morning to Shanghai, so that night was our only chance to meet. Eddie dropped me there and after a few mobile calls (how did we manage in the Dark Ages before mobiles?) Justin appeared at the other end of the park and directed us to the flat. The flat was a spacious house in Newton Circus and couldn't have been more ideally placed. Kaychin, Darren and Nick appeared bringing along P and P, who had set up the new photographic school Objectives and we all went to the food stalls. The food at Newton Circus was always nice and Justin knew where the best sting ray, guava juice and satay were to be found. Leaving Justin to pack for Shanghai, we went back to the museum, where I showed Darren the Chobi Mela II catalogue. They had been there throughout the circus that we had with customs and hadn't had a chance to see the shows that the customs had blocked, so the catalogue was the first chance they had to see the Malaysia and Salgado shows. We trundled home at around 3 a.m. to Tuck's Geylang Road studio, ready to drop.

The next morning the museum had geared up for action and every visitor was being asked to fill in a SARS form. Had you had any fever? Which countries had you visited. Any other symptoms? Who should we contact in case of trouble? A big A4 sheet every day for all gallery staff and visitors. More awaited. Chor Lin took us out for dinner in the evening, and the other speakers and the moderator were all there. As we walked towards the entrance of the restaurant and riverside point, a woman approached us with a thermometer in hand. Held rapier like, this tiny but evil looking device was clearly something she would relish inserting into some unsuspecting orifice. Gingerly we suggested we would sit outside in the patio. We didn't really need the airconditioned interiors and we were not going to have the buffet anyway. They agreed to make room for us by the river bank, but the rapier had not been sheathed. Gloved fingers tugged at my ear as it was brutally inserted inside. Chor Lin was delighted. This was a photo op! Being a photographer I could hardly say no. I was the only one with a camera, so I had to face the indignity of having my own camera used for immortalising on celluloid my ear-pulling session. The photographer was fussy. We had to stand in front of the aquarium, and crouch a bit so he would have the right composition. Not too much movement, as it was a slow shutter speed, and could the tester crouch too? At least my mother had not raised me for nothing. My one offering to humanity could be the pleasure I had given to so many Singaporeans as they chuckled to this spectacle. Oh how I waited for their turn!

It was refreshing to see so many photographers working into the early hours, as we mounted, trimmed, adjusted, hung the photographs. It reminded me of the early days of the Bangladesh Photographic Society. It felt so long ago.

Thursday was the big day. The opening was in the afternoon, and we still had plenty to do. Sandwiched between interviews, captions, a final edit and lighting adjustments took up most of the next day. Still no PDA phone. What was I going to do? Eddie suggested secondhand phones. Singaporeans apparently change phones every 2-3 months. A six-month-old phone was passé. So we should have been able to find a very good deal on a decent six-month-old set. The press had done their job, and friends whom I hadn't been able to contact, came over as they had seen me on TV. I had to sneak off to the computer several times as MC was breathing down my neck: were my exam papers marked yet? Some of the photographers had brought in their portfolios in between. Would I have time to review them please? It was going to be another long night. The next morning Nick and I went for a recce to Bugis. The salesman was quick to spot the techie freak and impressed me with the virtues of the operating system of the OX2. The Nokia and the Ericsson didn't stand a chance, and he was going to give me a special deal! I did have the judgement to take the time to consult my friends, and do some further research. Ed had mentioned scouting the Saturday papers where the best deals were to be found. But the salesman had done his job, and I was well and truly hooked.

Choy had asked us to arrive early to the auditorium to plan the presentation, and I arrived a bit late: There had been so many phones on offer at Bugis!

But everything went fine, all according to plan. And on the plane back home, I slept the sleep of the dead.

Shahidul Alam heads Drik Picture Gallery in Dhaka.   

From Seventh Fleet to Seventh Cavalry

Mowli. Until recently, she didn't know her original name was Mukti. Too dangerous a name to use in 1971. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

25th March 1971. My eldest niece had just been born the day before. It was a premature birth. Amma had found a Mariam flower and the flower had bloomed, heralding the birth. She had stayed behind at the clinic. We had felt something was afoot, and Babu Bhai and I went out to try and get mother and child back from Dr. Firoza Begum’s clinic in Dhanmondi. Our home might not have been safer, but at least we’d be together. Friends were building roadblocks in the streets by then, and let us through reluctantly, warning us that we had little time.
We went along the narrow road by Ramna Police station to Wireless Mor, it being too dangerous to go along the main road. I climbed over the barbed wires on the boundary walls to get to my sister’s flat, but my brother in law felt it was too dangerous to go out, so I turned back. By then the tanks were on the streets.
I had fallen asleep, but woke up to the sound of gunfire. The wide red arcs of tracer bullets had lit up the sky. The only tall building nearby was the Hotel Intercontinental, where the meetings between Mujib and Bhutto had taken place, and where the foreign journalists were staying. The slum next to the Sakura Hotel and the nearby\ newspaper office were ablaze. We could hear the screams. Those who were able to escape the fire, ran into the machine gun fire waiting outside.
Abba (my father), Babu Bhai and I watched in silence. We had argued with Abba about Pakistan, but he had been victimised as a Muslim in pre-partition India, and would not support what he saw as the break up of the nation. That night he finally broke our silence by saying, “now there is no going back.”
We heard the gunshots all night, and there was a curfew the following day. Eventually when there was a small break in the curfew the day after, Abba went to get supplies, and Babu Bhai and I got my sister and her daughter to Nasheman, in Eskaton where we lived. We called her Mukti, meaning `freedom’. But relatives warned us that it was too dangerous to use that name, even if it was a nick name to be used only amongst ourselves. So Mukti became Mowli, and even after independence, the name stuck.
Twenty five years later in 1996, I tried to put together a collection of images of ’71 for our 1996 calendar. I am reminded of the introduction:
Drik calendar 1996, commemorating 25th anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh

[Twenty five year ago, even longer perhaps, just a camera in hand, they had gone out to bring back a fragment of living history. Today, those photographs join them in protest. Peering through the crisp pages of the newly printed history books, they remind us, “No, that wasn’t the way it was. I know. I bear witness.”
The black and white 120 negatives, carefully wrapped in flimsy polythene, stashed away in a damp gamcha, have almost faded. The emulsion eaten away by fungus, scratched a hundred times in their tortuous journey, yellowed with age, bear little resemblance to the shiny negatives in the modern archives of big name agencies. They too are war weary, bloodied in battle.
So many have sweet talked these negatives away. The government, the intellectuals, the publishers, so many. Some never came back. No one offered a sheet of black and white paper in return. Few gave credits. The ones who risked their lives to preserve the memories of our language movement, have never been remembered in the awards given on the 21st February, language day.
25 years ago, they fought for freedom. They didn’t all carry guns, some made bread, some gave shelter, some took photographs. This is just to remind us, that this Bangladesh belongs to them all.]
Drik Calendar 1996
Today, embedded photojournalists with digital cameras, give us images of yet another aggression. This time, from the other side of the gun. The 50 clause contract that gives them access to imperial military units, like the unwritten rules that allow them access to presidential pools, ensure that `free’ media remains loyal to the warmongers. Will we ever get to see the images taken by the Iraqi photographers? Will their negatives die the same death? Will those images, like the bombed ruins of a magnificent city, be the only tattered remains of an aggression that the world allowed to happen? In ’71, the Seventh Fleet was stationed in the Bay of Bengal. The Mukti’s were not deterred by this show of power. They won us our independence. Today, after 43 more US military interventions across the globe, it is the Seventh Cavalry that bombs Iraq. And our own government, forgetting the lessons of history, forgetting that they tried to kill our unborn nation, turns against the will of its people. Our own police turn against us in our anti war rallies, to protect the biggest aggressor in history. These negatives may not survive, but the collective memory of the people of the world will, and our children will confront us in years to come.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
26th March 2003
* A flower from Arab deserts, used during labour to predict the time of childbirth.
** A working man’s cloth of coarse cotton, used as padding when carrying weight, to carry food, and to wipe away sweat.

A Different World

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??Tsvanirayi Mukhwazi

I took the picture at one of the refugee camps in Tanzania set up by the government. I was trying to show the plight of the children who were lost and never reunited with their families. It was a hot and sunny day and I was a bit tired, having visited several camps in that area. 8 year old Kindaya Chikelema from Burundi stood in front of a notice board. More than 4000 children were lost while fleeing the war in Brurundi and Rwanda. Kindaya was one of the lucky children to be found by his parents after they saw his picture on the notice board at one of the camps.
Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi

A Different World

The many letters mailed all over the world had produced few results and it was ‘door to door’ time. I had placed the loose collection of prints on Dexter Tiranti’s table at the New Internationalist Magazine in Oxford. I remember Dexter’s letter the following year, regretting that he could only use six images from our agency, as the selection already had too much from Bangladesh. That started a long relationship between our organizations and led to my involvement in Southern Exposure, a platform, like Drik, for promoting photographers from the majority world. The Net has helped, but most of our contacts have come from information gleaned on motorbike rides down the back streets of Hanoi, or a meeting in a paddy field outside Beijing, or a visit to a museum in Tehran or similar opportunities for meeting photographers, whom I would not have come across in the mainstream directories. I remember excitedly going through boxes of prints that only fellow photographers or close friends had seen. Of newly found friends telling me of people I must meet. Friends from the Drikpartnership, students, colleagues at other agencies and at World Press Photo. Friends, who like us, have believed in the plurality of image sources and have been active in trying to bring about a change.
The images too have been different. These are not the ‘developmental images’ extolling the virtue of the latest World Bank fix, or the ‘news’ images that choose not to see beyond editorial briefs. The abandon of the flutist in Bangladesh or a ‘sweet fifteen’ dance in Peru, or the careless joy of the children on the branch of a tree in South Africa represent a personal involvement of the photographer, and a relationship with the photographed, often missing in the ‘big stories’ that the major agencies send their photographers to ‘capture’. Little of what you will see here is newsworthy to mainstream media. No hype reaffirms the success of a particular development plan. It is revealing that these majority world photographers have an insight and a sensibility that is strikingly different from that of their big name visitors. It is telling that an altogether different story emerges when a different pair of eyes is behind the lens. In their own back yard, they see a different world.
..
Shahidul Alam
See Full Calendar

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