Taking care of the caretaker

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It was a dramatic ending to Robert Pledge?s presentation. Via Topu and Omi, I?d received the news that the military had been called out. Robert wanted to finish the presentation, but once I?d announced the government?s decision, the auditorium of the Goethe Institut quickly emptied out. This particular Chobi Mela IV presentation had come to an abrupt end. It was 1987 revisited.

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Noor Hossain had painted on his back ?Let Democracy be Freed? and the police had gunned him down on the 10th November 1987. But the people had taken to the streets and while we were scared the military would come out, there was no stopping us. It had taken three more years of street protests, before the general was forced to step down. The people had won. But then it had been a military general who was ruling the country. This was a civilian caretaker government. The general mistrust of a party in power, had resulted in this unique process in Bangladesh where an interim neutral caretaker government headed by a Chief Adviser (generally the most recently retired Chief Justice) and consisting of other neutral but respected members of the public were entrusted with conducting the elections. Why then the military? Yes, the president was a Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP, the largest party in the outgoing coalition government) appointee, there are ten advisors who are meant to be neutral.

A free and fair election hasn?t yielded the electoral democracy we had hoped for. After each term, the people have voted out the party in power, only to be rebuffed by a political system that has never had the interest of the people on their agenda. Still, the elections were held, and despite the fact that there had been one rigged election in 1996 (rejected and held again under a neutral caretaker government), an electoral process of democratisation, was slowly developing.

This time however, the total disregard for the electoral process has created a sham, and the three key people in this electoral process, the president, the chief adviser, and the chief election commissioner (CEC), are colluding against the people. The first two, being represented by the same person, was a BNP appointee. He also happens to be the head of the military. The CEC, now a cartoon character, had also been appointed by the BNP while it was in power. Coupled with a clearly flawed voters list, this has removed any hope of a free and fair election. Can the caretaker government genuinely conduct a fair election? I believe it still can, if given the chance, despite the president?s lack of credibility. But for that to happen, the military, the bureaucracy and the police need to remember that it is with the people that their allegiance lies.

However, it does depend upon the removal of the other obstacles. The election commissioner cannot constitutionally be removed, and his removal is central to the opposition demands. What then can we do? There is only one body higher than the constitution, the people themselves. The advisors need to be empowered if they are to pull off this election. Sandwiched between a partisan executive head and another partisan CEC, the advisers risk becoming irrelevant. The only way this can be checked is if people come out in droves. Not ?hired for the day? supporters but ordinary people committed to civilian rule, and a multi-party system.

It is we the people who need to take to the streets. And it is time we sent out the message to all political parties, that an entire nation cannot be appropriated. They need to be told that we did not liberate our country in vain, and despite the poverty and the hardship that we go through, we will not be cowed down, and will not blindly tow a party line, when the party itself has disengaged from the people. If tomorrow, every woman man and child takes to the street of Bangladesh, there is no power, not the military, not the president, not the advisers, not the CEC, not the BNP and not AL that can stop us.

There is hope yet. The advisers have had the good sense to reverse the home ministry?s unilateral decision to call out the army and the president and chief adviser has been challenged for taking such a step. Whether the advisers can continue to take such bold steps depends on our ability to bolster their nebulous position.

Blockades and hartals do hurt the economy, and ironically, it is the person in the street who is the most vulnerable. But faced with an attempt to take away the only chance she has to exercise her right to elect the government of her choice, she has little option left but to take to the streets. As the world is finding out, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and wherever else there is conflict, a military victory is never a victory. If the anger of the people is to be quelled, then the underlying causes of discontent need to be solved. Flexing the muscles of the military, will only put a lid on the boiling pot, and the longer the lid is pressed down, the bigger will be the eventual explosion. More have died today, and with every death, the flashpoint looms closer.

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Chobi Mela IV has continued despite it all. The dancing in the all night boat party,

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the heated arguments at every meeting point, the mobile exhibitions, all went on despite the turmoil. The presentations on the night of the 11th, with Yumi Goto, showing work by the children from Bandar Aceh, Neo Ntsoma showing her work on youth culture in South Africa, Chris Rainier showing his long term projects on ?Ancient Marks?, and the deeply personal, but very different accounts of Trent Parke

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and Pablo Bartholomew, made one of the most intriguing evenings I can remember. The packed audience that had braved the blockade had perhaps an inkling of what was to come. Morten had a full house for his ?gallery walk? at the Alliance Francaise and Trent?s workshops were packed out. The grand opening was at the National Museum, where we had one fifth of the cabinet opening the show. Kollol gave a passionate rendering of his song ?Boundaries? written especially for the festival. The rickshaw vans designed to take the festival to the public, plied the streets of Old Dhaka, Mirpur and other areas not used to gallery crowds.

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The chief guest, adviser C.M. Shafi Sami, the special guests adviser Sultana Kamal and Robert Pledge, photographers Morten Krogvold and Trent Parke and the scholarship recepient Dolly Akhter all spoke eloquently. Little did the audience know about the drama that had taken place the night before. With the museum functionaries doing their best to keep us from putting up the Contact Press Images show (http://www.chobimela.org/contact_press_images.php), we were under pressure, but working all through the night and sleeping on the museum floor, we managed to put the show up on time.

Last night, the empty streets, looked ominous as I dropped off Chulie, Robert and Yang, and people have been dying in the streets.

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Since then we have had Morten Krogvold?s passionate presentation at the gallery walk at Alliance, Rupert Grey?s clinical dissection of the law and his dry British humour,

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both at the British Council and the Goethe Institut, Saiful Huq Omi?s disturbing but powerful images of political violence, Cristobal Trejo?s poetic rendering of an unseen world, Richard Atrero De Guzman?s honest response to difficult questions about representation and my own presentation on natural disasters and their social impact have all been well attended, despite the tension in the desolate Dhaka streets. The evening presentations close tonight with an insightful film by Indian film maker Joshy Joseph, presentations by Norman Leslie and a behind the scenes look by the photographers at the Drik Photo Department, Md. Main Uddin, Shehab Uddin and Amin, Chandan Robert Rebeiro, Imtiaz Mahabub Mumit and Shumon of Pathshala and Mexican exhibitor Cristobal Trejo. The shows go on as they always do at Drik.

In 1991, a woman with her vote had avenged Noor Hossain’s death.

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A fortnight ago, the city was in flames, and a stubborn chief election commissioner is stoking the flames again. It is a fire he and his allies will be powerless to stop.
Shahidul Alam
Dhaka
Chobi Mela site
Blog by Australian curator Bec Dean
Short video on Chobi Mela IV


I hear the screams

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Even after years of playing Pied Piper with a camera, I am still taken aback by children insisting on being photographed. It was September 1988, and we had had the worst floods in a century. These people at Gaforgaon hadn?t eaten for three days. A torn saree strung across the beams of an abandoned warehouse created the only semblance of a shelter. Their homes had been washed away. Family members had died. Yet the children had surrounded me. They wanted a picture.
It was dark in that damp deserted warehouse, but the broken walls let in wonderful monsoon light, and they jostled for position near the opening. It was as I was pressing the shutter that I realized that the boy in the middle was blind. He had pushed himself into the centre, and though he wasn?t tall he stood straight with a beaming smile.
Blind Boy in Goforgaon
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CARE

Clip on story of the blind child, from keynote presentation on citizen journalism at 50th Anniversary of World Press Photo in Amsterdam.
I?ve never seen the boy again, and today I question the fact that I do not know his name. But he has never left my thoughts and often I have wondered why it was so important for that blind boy to be photographed.
It?s happened elsewhere, in boat crossings at the river bank. In paddy fields heavy with grain, in busy market places. A shangbadik (literally a journalist, but in practice any person with a half decent camera) was hugely in demand. They refused to take the fare from me at the ferry ghat. Opened up their hearts and told me their most personal stories. Confided their secrets, shared their hopes. Never having deserved such treatment it has taken a while for me the photographer, to work out why being photographed meant so much to that blind child.
The stakeholders of Bangladeshi newspapers are the urban elite. Consequently stories from the village are about the exotic and the grotesque. Village people exist only as numbers, generally when plagued by some disaster and only when figures are substantial. A photograph in a newspaper, regardless of how token the gesture, is the only time a villager exists as a person. A picture on a printed page would have lifted that blind boy from his anonymity. That humbling thought stays with me whenever I am feted as a shangbadik in some small village. I receive their gift of trust gently, careful not to break the delicate contents.
It was as a photographer of children that I had begun my career. It was way before 9/11 and one could make appointments with strangers and go to their homes. I took happy pictures of kids, and parents loved them. It was easy money, except when I would photograph the children of poor parents. They loved the pictures but couldn?t afford to pay, so I would quietly leave the pictures behind and pay the studio out of my pocket. Back in Bangladesh, the only way I could make money was as a corporate photographer, but something else was happening. We were in the streets, trying to bring down a general who had usurped power. I didn?t know it then, but I was becoming a documentary photographer. Suddenly taking pictures of children meant more than smiling kids on sheepskin rugs.
As the pressure against the general mounted, I photographed children who joined the processions. The night he stepped down, I photographed a little girl with a bouquet of flowers. She was out with her dad in the middle of the night, celebrating the advent of democracy.
I am back in Kashmir eight months after I had been here photographing the advent of winter. The valleys of this fertile land are green with new crops, but many of the homes Child in Siran Valley rubble
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CONCERN
are still to be rebuilt. As I walked through the rubble, the kids again wanted to be photographed.
NAJMA
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CONCERN
Najma came running, her bright red dress popping out of the green maize fields.Unsure at first, she smiled when I told her she had the same name as my sister.
Zaheera singing nursery rhymes
? Shahidul Alam/Drik/CONCERN
Zaheera, a cute girl with freckles, gathered her friends and sang me nursery songs.
But my thoughts are far away. Despite the laughter and the nursery songs very different sounds enter my consciousness. I remember the children screaming on the night of the 25th March 1971, when I watched in helpless anger as the Pakistani soldiers shot the children trying to escape their flame throwers. The US had sent their seventh fleet to the Bay of Bengal, in support of the genocide. Today, as I remember the Palestinians and the Lebanese that the world is knowingly ignoring, I can hear the bombs raining down on Halba, El Hermel, Tripoli, Baalbeck, Batroun, Jbeil, Jounieh, Zahelh, Beirut, Rachaiya, Saida, Hasbaiya, Nabatiyeh, Marjaayoun,Tyr, Jbeil, Bint Chiyah, Ghaziyeh and Ansar and I hear the screams of the children. Piercing, wailing, angry, helpless, frightened screams.
News filters through of the children killed in the latest bombing. The photographs have kept coming in, horrific, sad, and disturbing. Mutilated bodies, dismembered children, people charred to ashes. But none as vulgar as those of Israeli children signing the rockets. Death warrants for children they?ve never known.
I remember my blind boy in Gaforgaon. The Lebanese and the Palestenians are also people without names. Their pain does not count. Their misery irrelevant, their anger ignored. Sitting in far away lands, immersed in rhetoric of their choosing, conjuring phantom fears necessary to keep them in power, hypocritical superpowers fail to acknowledge the evil of occupation. The ?measured response? to a people?s struggle for freedom will never in their reckoning allow a Lebanese or a Palestinian to be a person.
When greed becomes the only determining factor in world politics. When the demand for power, and oil and land overshadows the need for other people?s survival, I wonder if those screams can be heard. I wonder if those Israeli children will grow up remembering their siblings they condemned. I wonder if through all those screams the war mongers will still be asking ?why do they hate us??
11th August
Siran Valley, North West Frontier Province, Pakistan

Boundaries

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Chobi Mela IV

She packed her load of firewood onto the crowded train in Pangsha. The morning sun peered through the lazy winter haze. The vendors called ?chai garam, boildeem? and the train slowly chugged out of the station, people still clambering on board, or finishing last minute transactions. Some saying farewell. The scene had probably not been very different a hundred years ago. Maybe then, they carried pan in place of firewood, or some other commodity that people at the other end needed. She would come back the same day, bringing back what was needed here. Only today she was a smuggler. The artificial and somewhat random lines drawn by a British lawyer had made her an outlaw. She was crossing boundaries. There were other boundaries to cross. The job a woman was allowed to do, the class signs on the coaches that she could not read but was constantly made aware of. The changing light and the smells as sheet (winter) went into boshonto (spring). The Ashar clouds that the photographers waited for, which seemed to wait until the light was right.
Rickshaw wallas find circuitous routes to take passengers across the VIP road. Their tenuous existence made more difficult by the fact that permits are difficult to get, and the bribes now higher. Hip hop music in trendy discos in Gulshan and Banani with unwritten but clearly defined dress codes make space for the yuppie elite of Dhaka. The Baul Mela in Kushtia draws a somewhat different crowd. Ecstasy and Ganja breaks down some barriers while music creates the bonding. Lalon talks of other boundaries, of body and soul, the bird and the cage.
Photography creates its own compartments. The photojournalist, the fine artist, the well paid celebrity, the bohemian dreamer, the purist, the pragmatist, the classical, the hypermodern, the uncropped image, the setup shot, the Gettys and the Driks. The majority world. The South. The North. The West. The developing world. Red filters, green filters, high pass filters, layers, masks, feathered edges. No photoshop, yes photoshop. Canonites, Nikonites, Leicaphytes, digital, analogue.
The digital divide. The haves, the have nots. Vegetarians, vegans, carnivores. Heterosexuals, metrosexuals, transsexuals, homosexuals. The straight, the kinky. The visionaries, the mercenaries, the crude the erudite, the pensive the flamboyant. Oil, gas, bombs, immigration officials. WTO, subsidies, sperm banks, kings, tyrants, presidents, prime ministers, revolutionaries, terrorists, anarchists, activists, pacifists, the weak, the meek, the strong, the bully. The good the evil. The hawks the doves. The evolutionists, the creationists. The crusaders the Jihadis. The raised fist, the clasped palms. The defiant, the oppressive, the green, the red. The virgin.
Whether cattle are well fed, or children go hungry, whether bombs are valid for defence, or tools of aggression, boundaries ? seen and unseen ? define our modes of conduct, our freedoms, our values, our very ability to recognise the presence of the boundaries that bind us.
Festival Website

Colliding with the State

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Lisa Botos from the Time Magazine office in Hong Kong, had done most of the hard work. Permissions had been obtained and the protocol arrangements had been made. The shoot was on. Having gone through the security hoop at the prime minister?s secretariat, I had settled in at the waiting room along with my colleagues photographer Aminuzzaman from Drik and writer Alex Perry and William Green from Time. That was when the trouble started. Officials rushed to usher me out of my seat. I was wondering what other security alert I had triggered off. My faux pas was somewhat more embarrassing. I had been sitting on the prime minister?s chair.
I had only been allocated a few minutes for the cover shoot, which went well despite one of my lamps blowing on me, but luckily the prime minister had agreed to our suggestion that we follow her on her trip to Pabna. I scurried to change gear for the outdoor shoot. Emptying memory cards, handing over existing images to to take to the library, a quick visit to the loo, were all things that needed to get done, except that I was told ?hurry, she is on her way to the helicopter.? Dumping equipment into my camera bag, handing over my laptop to, I stuck my digital wallet into the pile and made a dash for it. The loo would have to wait. That was when a strong arm jutted out in the corridor. The security guard had prevented me from running into the prime minister! Alex calmly asked me if I had run into other heads of state before. ?Only once? I had said, as I had nearly bumped into Mahathir while running up the stairs at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur. But that was a long time ago.
It was a long and eventful day and one I must write about, but for the moment you?ll need to settle for the cover image of the current Time Magazine (10th April 2006 issue) and Alex?s writeup.

Having the Eye

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Preface to Drik Calendar 2006

It was a stinker of a letter. Written to an organisation I knew little about. I was angered that World Press Photo (WPP) had little to do with the world and was largely about European and North American photography. Though it featured work from all over the globe, the jury, the photographers who entered the contest and the winners were largely white western males. So in my letter I had suggested that they rename themselves Western Press Photography. The phone call was a surprise. We didn’t get too many overseas calls in those days. The managing director of WPP Marloes Krijnen, politely pointed out that they too had written me a letter, still on its way, which was dated prior to my letter, and hence had not been written in response to my tirade. They had just asked me to be a member of the international jury. My letter had also mentioned that I considered WPP to be a very important contest despite its shortcomings, and should the opportunity arise, I would be interested in hosting the show in Bangladesh . This led to the second part of the conversation. While the exhibition is generally booked way in advance, there had been a cancellation, and should we want it, the show could be made available in three weeks.

Having recovered from the initial excitement of being asked to be on the jury of what is considered the pinnacle of press photography, I tried to compose myself and considered the options. I needed time, and asked Marloes whether she could call back in a couple of hours. The exhibition could only be shown in its entirety, and we had faced considerable problems with our own exhibitions. The major galleries were either state-owned or belonged to foreign cultural centres not prepared to question the government, or be controversial in any way. Our work had always been critical of the government and the elite, the donor community, the patriarchal system and of the self appointed protectors of religious and family values. We didn’t know of a single gallery that would guarantee that no censorship would take place, except for our own gallery. There was just one small problem. Our gallery hadn’t yet been built. We had drawn up the architectural plans for it though, and part of the superstructure was in place, but still no gallery. I was stalling.

Rafique Azam was then not the superstar that he is now. This was his first project, and we had wanted to give these young architects a free hand to interpret our ideas. I rang him up and asked him if he could build us a gallery in seventeen days! Rafique didn’t react as badly as one might have expected. He knew I was crazy enough to have meant it and having told me how ridiculous the idea was, settled down and gave me a list of all the things he would need to make it happen. He needed to work round the clock, a fair bit of money, some of it the following morning, and full freedom. There could be no slip ups in the supply chain. It was going to be a race to the finish as it was.

Osman Chowdhury was a client, but it was as a friend that I rang him up. There was no way he could organise the sort of money we needed at such short notice from his company, but he was able to promise a sum that we could get started with. And he could provide it the next morning.

Marloes rang as she had promised, and I said we would be happy to host the exhibition, in our own gallery. There the polite conversation ended. But that was also the beginning of a wonderful relationship between our two organisations, World Press Photo and Drik. A relationship that has blossomed over the years.

It didn’t take long for the news to spread. Mr. Gajentaan, the Dutch ambassador was a friend who had a strong interest in the arts, and had arranged photo exhibitions in his home in the past. Excitedly he rang me and wanted to come straight over. WPP coming to Bangladesh was big news, and he wanted to be part of the action. He was calm enough when we told him about our plans to have it in three weeks and in our own gallery. It was when we told him he was standing inside the gallery that he flipped. There was no gallery. ?Do you realise this is the most prestigious photo exhibition in the world?? he asked. Yes, we knew. And we would have a good show. A much shaken ambassador went back to Gulshan. To be fair, he didn’t call World Press to tell them that the gallery was only being built.

There was more to the story. It was 1993 and the Awami League and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party were fighting each other in the streets, locked in a bitter battle for power. This we felt, could be a chance to unite these warring factions. We knew there was no chance of getting the two leaders of the parties at the same table, but the deputy leader of the BNP was Dr. Badruddoza Chowdhury, a student of my father, and we could probably approach Abdus Samad Azad through a personal friend Kaiser Chowdhury who was then the chief whip of the Awami League. Having been so critical of World Press Photo in my letter to them a week earlier, I was now extolling its virtues to two of the most powerful politicians in the country. Kaiser and my mum did the original groundwork, and I put in a good pitch about how this would demonstrate to the nation that they were forward looking political parties, and how much media coverage the event would have. It worked, and they agreed to jointly open the show. Now I had another tool to play with. While local media didn’t really know much about World Press, the fact that these two sworn enemies were going to open a show together was big news, and we managed to get the media excited. Mahfuz Anam of The Daily Star, the biggest English daily, agreed to do a whole media campaign around the event, and the bits were beginning to fall into place. At the packed press conference on the veranda of my parents’ home (Drik rents the upper floors), we were stalling for time, to let the paint dry in the gallery upstairs!

?rp?d Gerecsey the curator (who later went on to become managing director of WPP) and Bart Nieuwenhuijs, the board member who had come to setup the show, huddled with my colleagues and spoke in agitated whispers. Who was going to bell the cat? Eventually it was Bart who came up to me. They wanted to put in nails on the freshly painted walls! We did put in those nails, and the show was a spectacular success. The two deputy leaders cut the ribbon together, and confessed that they enjoyed sharing a cup of coffee, despite their political differences. The media went gaga. WPP and Drik had together pulled it off.

Since then, the two organisations have continued to work together at many levels. An impromptu seminar for press photographers followed. We arranged for the show to go to Kathmandu and Kolkata. Rabeya Sarkar Rima of the Out of Focus group became the first Asian child jury member. I remember telling Marc Proust when he came to curate yet another WPP exhibition in our gallery, that Nurul Islam, the young man who sold us flowers in Monipuri Para, had also been a former child jury member. We had the WPP retrospective exhibition at the National Museum at the first Chobi Mela, the festival of photography that we launched.

We collaborated on many other things. We started nominating young Asian photographers for the Masterclass, and one year, two photographers from Pathshala, our school of photography, GMB Akash from Bangladesh and Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi from Zimbabwe were amongst the twelve talented photographers in this international pool. Pathshala itself relied heavily on WPP for its existence. With no state or other external funding, it was always going to be difficult to setup and maintain a school of photography in our region. We utilised the first WPP seminar programme to launch the school, and the tutors and the workshops that WPP provided became important anchors for what has now become a degree programme. WPP even provided a grant which was a big help in those early days. Since then we have collaborated on training Asian and African photographers in regional programmes organised in Jakarta and Kenya , and been involved in longer term educational projects in Sri Lanka and Tanzania . I myself worked in the jury another three times, once as chair, and I have spoken at several WPP events.

Interestingly, it was the very issues I had raised in that original letter which the two organisations have worked together to try and solve, and both WPP and Drik are very different organisations today.

It is to celebrate that friendship, on the 50th Anniversary of World Press Photo, that we put together this calendar. The images are by the majority world participants of WPP seminars and their tutors, some of the finest photographers around. It is a protest against the continued use of exclusively white western male photographers to document the majority world that developmental agencies and western media have made their standard practice. It is a direct answer to the superior race argument that they continue to use to justify their actions and to dismiss our work when they say ?they don’t have the eye?.

Shahidul Alam

Where Elbows Do The Talking

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It was a mixed week. Sandwiched in between the hartals and the ekushey
barefoot walks and the launch disaster, were news items that led to very
different emotions at Drik. Shoeb Faruquee, the photographer from Chittagong, won the 2nd prize in the Contemporary Issues, Singles,
category of the world’s premier photojournalism contest World Press
Photo. The photograph of the mental patient locked by the legs as in a
medieval stock, is a haunting image that is sure to shake the viewer.
However, the stark black and white image tells a story that is far from
black and white. In a nation with limited resources, medical care for
all is far from reality. Expensive western treatment is beyond the reach
of most, and has often been shown to be flawed. Alternative forms of
treatment is the choice of many. The fact that the boy photographed was
said to have been healed, further complicates the reading of this image.
Shoeb is one of many majority world photographers who have attempted to
understand the complexities of their cultures, which rarely offer
simplistic readings.
It was later in the week, that Azizur Rahim Peu, told me that the
affable contributor to Drik, Mufty Munir, had died after a short illness
at the Holy Family Hospital. I would contact Mufty when I was in
trouble, needing to send pictures to Time, Newsweek or some other
publication. We would work into the night at the AFP bureau, utilising
the time difference, to ensure the pictures made it to the picture desk
in the morning. Occasionally, while hanging out at the Press Club
waiting for breaking news, we would dash off together. Mufty
uncomfortably perched on the back of my bicycle and me puffing away
trying to get to the scene in time.
Wire photography is about speed, and their photographers are known for
being pushy, but this shy, quiet, self effacing photographer made his
way to the top through the quality of his images. We had to push him to
have his first show in 1995, which our photography coordinator Gilles
Saussier and I curated. The show at the Alliance was a huge success, but
Mufty was not impressed by the excitement the show had created. He
simply wanted to get on with his work.
He did have problems with authority, or rather, authority had problems
with him. Despite his shyness, he was a straight talking photographer,
who didn’t hesitate to protest when things weren’t right. Not being the
subservient minion the gatekeepers of our media are accustomed to, he
often got into trouble. But the clarity of his protests played an
important role in establishing photographers’ rights. In the abrasive
world of press photography, where elbows do much of the talking, this
gentle talented practitioner will be dearly missed.
Unknown to the rest of us, the brother of Rob, the gardener at Drik,
died in the launch that sank in the storm at the weekend.

The Land Became The Sea

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As we watch in horror at the scale of the event, several things come to mind. How events a thousand miles away can affect our lives in so many ways. How connected we are in our joys and our sorrow. I realise that Bangladesh was not as badly affected as our neighbours, and that we should take pride in our achievements, but Bangladeshi newspapers today gloated over the victory of the Bangladeshi cricket team over India in their headlines! While I fret over the fact that the media plays on the negative, to downplay a disaster of such proportions in favour of a cricket match said a lot about our sense of proportions. In 1991, when nearly a million people had gathered to demand the trial of a war criminal, the government had chosen to ignore the news and mentioned instead the man of the match in a cricket game in Shunamganj. I had hoped a free media would play a more responsible role.

As I watch BBC and CNN interview British and German tourists, and the director of Oxfam from her office in Oxford, I remember my experiences in the 1991 cyclone where one hundred and twenty thousand people died in Bangladesh. As I stumbled through the debris, trying to get a sense of what had happened on the night of the 29th April 2001, I kept asking “What happened that night?” The aid workers told me of the number of bags of wheat they had distributed. The government officials quoted the figure in dollars that would be needed for reconstruction, the engineers spoke of the force of the wind.

A young woman in Sandweep looked at me and said “The land became a sea, and the sea became a wave”.

I try to imagine the tsunamis hitting the coasts of India, and Sri Lanka and Indonesia, and remember her words. The thousands whose lives have been wrecked by the earthquake do not constitute the ‘experts’ that the media consider worth asking.

Shahidul Alam
27th December 2004
Dhaka

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The mail today brought a copy of ?Amader Kotha?. A publication by the American Center in Dhaka. The lead article in this unsolicited newsletter by Abu Naser was entitled ?An International Election in November: A chance for Bangladesh to learn about democracy?. As I landed at Zia International Airport yesterday, my colleague Tanvir, told me of the gunning down of the opposition MP the day before. At night I stopped the rickshaw to photograph the burning cars in the streets. The violence, the protests, the despair, is all too familiar. We saw it during military rule and during all the subsequent regimes. Abu Naser rightly, points to failures in the democratic process in Bangladesh. But to learn about the democratic process from the US! Perhaps it had to do with Rumsfeld?s claim that their failed cover up of military atrocities was evidence of a healthy democracy. Their previous ?exemplary? election is perhaps better left unmentioned.

I remember the surprise in the media in the UK, aghast at what was being reported from Iraq. It is hardly as if this had not been known before, by anyone who might have cared to listen. I am less surprised, when the confirmed atrocities by US soldiers, is suddenly seen as something done by them out there. No talk of coalition forces this time. No talk of united responsibilities, or united blame. I am not surprised when the assassinations in Palestine resulted in merely the predictable ?condemnation? by the UN and western nations. ?Tut tut, you mustn?t do that you know!?

I see the fire raging around me and throughout the globe and remember Mahmoud Darwish?s anger.

Shahidul Alam

Dhaka. May 10th 2004

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Write down!

I am an Arab

And my identity card number is fifty thousand

I have eight children

And the ninth will come after a summer

Will you be angry?

Write down!

I am an Arab

Employed with fellow workers at a quarry

I have eight children

I get them bread

Garments and books

from the rocks..

I do not supplicate charity at your doors

Nor do I belittle myself at the footsteps of your chamber

So will you be angry?

Write down!

I am an Arab

I have a name without a title

Patient in a country

Where people are enraged

My roots

Were entrenched before the birth of time

And before the opening of the eras

Before the pines, and the olive trees

And before the grass grew

My father.. descends from the family of the plow

Not from a privileged class

And my grandfather..was a farmer

Neither well-bred, nor well-born!

Teaches me the pride of the sun

Before teaching me how to read

And my house is like a watchman’s hut

Made of branches and cane

Are you satisfied with my status?

I have a name without a title!

Write down!

I am an Arab

You have stolen the orchards of my ancestors

And the land which I cultivated

Along with my children

And you left nothing for us

Except for these rocks..

So will the State take them

As it has been said?!

Therefore!

Write down on the top of the first page:

I do not hate poeple

Nor do I encroach

But if I become hungry

The usurper’s flesh will be my food

Beware..

Beware..

Of my hunger

And my anger!

Mahmoud Darwish ? 1964

An extract from the text of the Berlin Festival Appeal:

“Mahmoud Darwish was one of the best-loved Arab poets of modern times and counts among the most eminent poets in the history of world literature. Thousands flocked to hear his readings, and his volumes of poetry have been published in the hundreds and thousands. Numerous pieces have been translated into more than 30 different languages. His poems have been transformed into folksongs and many of his verses have taken on the character of proverbs.

Darwish‘s poetry draws inspiration from the tradition of ancient Arab poetry and Modernist influences and borrows from the style and language of both the Qur’an and the Bible. Few other poets have displayed such dedication to articulating a vision of a meaningful, real and fair peace between Arabs and Israelis, which furthers a dialogue between two voices and two different outlooks on life, while ensuring that one does not impose its view upon the other.


In the tradition of ancient Arab poetry, the poet assumes the role of spokesperson for his people. And despite Darwish‘s move away from this role since the 1990s, many readers still viewed him as Palestine’s literary ambassador to the last.

Mahmoud Darwish was born in 1941 in the village of Al-Birweh near Acre. In 1948, he fled to Lebanon and returned after the foundation of the state of Israel. He worked as an editor for various political and cultural journals in Haifa. After being imprisoned on numerous occasions, he left Israel in 1970 and went into exile. He has lived in Moscow, Cairo, Beirut, Paris and, most recently, in Amman and Ramallah. In 1987, he was elected to the executive committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and helped draft the Palestinian Declaration of Independence in 1988. He left the organization in 1993 in protest against the signing of the Oslo Accords. He received numerous awards, including the Lannan Prize for Cultural Freedom in 2001 and the Erich Maria Remarque Peace Prize in 2003.

Darwish died on 9 August 2008 following heart surgery. He was buried in the West Bank city of Ramallah and granted a state funeral.”


Gallerie Publishers
208 Om Chambers
Kemps Corner
Mumbai 400036
India
————————————————————————————

Mahmoud Darwish 1942 – 2008

The Prince Claus Fund honours the memory of Mahmoud Darwish, the quintessential poet of Palestine, a man of exemplary courage, warmth and insight. In 2004 the Fund was honoured to name Mahmoud Darwish the Principal Prince Claus Laureate for his unique literary achievements and in recognition of his role as a beacon of the human spirit in the struggle for justice and peace. Mahmoud Darwish transformed his personal experience of the harsh realities of the Palestinian situation into universal expressions of exile, displacement and struggle. He was an outstanding artist. His work transcends time and place, and draws on collective memories of loss, love and longing.
The Board, Director, advisors and staff of the Prince Claus Fund mourn the loss of Mahmoud Darwish. To his family, friends and fellow poets, please accept our deepest condolences.
13th August 2008

When a Pineapple Rolls

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Getting hold of a copy of the banned magazine was difficult, but most of the people who were subscribers seemed to have read the article. As often before, censorship had given the Time Magazine piece a notoriety, and readership appeal, it might not otherwise have had. The ban was short lived, and soon the article had been forgotten.
The Bangladesh government’s treatment of its journalists however had not been so short lived. The Channel 4 journalists were predictably, released well before Christmas. For Saleem Samad, and Priscilla Raj, the situation was considerably different. Tortured and terrorised, they fell victim to a government in permanent fear of being labelled `fundamentalist’. When a pineapple rolls it is the grass that suffers, and post 9/11, it is the small states that have felt the pangs of `terrrorism control’.
The ban of the 28th July 2003 Newsweek issue was based on fears at home. “Repeated bans on international magazines on account of articles on Islam constitute a flagrant violation of the free flow of information,” Reporters Without Borders said in a letter to Bangladeshi information minister Tariqul Islam.
The RSF statement fails to address the wider issue of control on the media. Arranging photo ops, planting questions at press conferences, removing access to the `pool’ for dissenters, spin, corporate control of the media and the newly found ally of embedded journalists are beyond the reach of a government with limited media management skills. Fisk, Chomsky, Pilger, Monbiot et.al. have made valiant attempts to overcome media control in the west. But neither their work, nor the excellent independent analyses that have circulated on the Net, have managed to create a significant challenge to a well-entrenched propaganda machinery. They have largely preached to the converted.
The handling of the Channel 4 incident and the ban on Newsweek by the Bangladesh government were at best clumsy. Buying out the limited copies that are imported for Dhaka’s elite, could have far better stymied the tiny readership to Time and Newsweek in Bangladesh. An “Out of Stock” label has far less glamour than a “Censored” sticker. The harassment of Samad and Raj, was unnecessary. These were ill paid professionals trying to make a living helping foreign journalists.
A flimsy majority that depends upon a small but significant Islamic party, makes things further complicated for the government of Bangladesh. Dissent within has to be managed along with keeping in the good books of powerful states. The earlier Time Magazine article on Al Qaeda links, was tenuous at best, and the Far Eastern Economic Review article on the rise of fundamentalism was shoddy journalism. But when it is so important to say one has been a good boy, any slander, no matter how unbelievable, has to be vehemently denied. Banning the award winning film Matir Moina, (now showing in cinema halls, with only minor amendments) was a knee jerk reaction, symptomatic of a nervous government trying to juggle with appeasement outside and appeasement within.
This is not the first time the Islamic parties (Islami Oikya Jote, IOJ) have played a key role in parliamentary dynamics. Popularity for major parties far exceeds the following of OIJ, a small and disciplined party. Despite their low votes however, they have had a key presence in all governments since the elections in 1991. “We could withdraw from the alliance if the demands are not met,” Mufti Fazlul Huq Amini has threatened at strategic moments, and the government does not want to rock its own boat.
While we may be thankful that the Bangladesh government is not media savvy, the more crude attempts to suppress free journalism doesn’t bode well for media professionals. We have now had three largely free and fair elections, but the elected representatives of the people have hardly behaved in a democratic manner. Each of the three governments have resorted to violent means to ensure loyalty. More recently, warrants of arrests, issued against five editors and one executive editor on defamation charges, within a period of three weeks, represents a shift in strategy. The minister’s statement “Wherever you will find journalists, break their bones,” was really intended for rookies on the streets, and rural journalists. Going for the big boys is a more recent affair.
So how does a nation, scared of big brother, and managing a rickety coalition handle the media? Letting the journalists speak appears to be the most sensible route out. Surely, not all western journalists will be as incompetent as their Times and FEER counterparts. Maybe they themselves, given a more free hand from corporate control, would exercise the journalistic rigour required of them. Strengthening local media would go a long way in providing alternative analysis to western viewpoints. Murdered journalists don’t write too well.
“Not a hair will be touched” the minister had said in 1994, when feminist writer Taslima Nasreen was facing persecution. Not a hair was touched, and Nasreen, still under threat, was provided safe exit to a land of her choosing. In the same July 1994 issue where the NYT covered this story, there was another news, of a US doctor going to work in a bullet-proof vest and being shot in the head. While one tripped over the word fundamentalism in the Nasreen article, religion or fanaticism was never mentioned in the story of the doctor’s death. When journalists regurgitate a state’s values, control is complete. Thankfully, Bangladesh has not reached such levels of state control, and our journalists have not reached such levels of acquiescence.
A responsible media which operates freely, could do wonders for Bangladesh, for its image and its people. But there is a downside to this. A more informed public would be less easily manipulated, corruption would be more difficult, absolute power would be more readily questioned. Government acquiescence in the face of western interests flies against the rhetoric of demands for free press by western states. Secret deals are more easily made in the absence of meddling journalists.
As for terrorism, we would love to see it end. If only the US would stop manufacturing it.
Shahidul Alam
Fri Aug 15, 2003

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.