The VIP from Bangladesh

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Comitted to PEOPLE’S RIGHT TO KNOW Vol. 4 Num 53 Sat. July 19, 2003 Literature Travel Writing
Bluffing, bluffing, bluffing….
Shahidul Alam
In this tale of banging around Beijing on a working tour, our ever intrepid photographer/gearhead shows us how fast thinking and native gall can even carry one past the watchful eyes of the Chinese Red Army.
“Kemon achen?” Mr. Li from the Chinese embassy greeted me in near perfect Bangla. I had an invitation to the Middle Kingdom, in Chinese, with a gold stamp and an embossed watermark. I felt important as he ushered me in to the spacious embassy building in Gulshan and offered me tea. Normally, I am not a tea drinker, but this elaborate concoction of herbs and berries steeped in water could hardly be refused. It didn’t look anything like tea anyway, and I didn’t want to appear rude. He brought pictures of China, gave me a video and showed me their photographic collection. However, despite all the fanfare, what he steadfastly refused to do was to issue me a multiple entry visa. I had half hoped this official invitation by the Mayor of Beijing, would make my subsequent trip to Tibet easier. Oh well!My first trip to China had been in 1986. The Indian photographer Raghu Rai and I had been asked to judge the Standard Chartered Photography Contest in Hong Kong. The photographs weren’t that great and we’d gone through them quickly. The organisers were embarrassed. Having gotten us, the judges, over for a week, they now needed to entertain us, and arranged for us to see a dolphin show. Raghu and I both felt a side trip to China would be far more interesting. We had taken the train to Guangzhou, and found to our amazement Hindi music wafting down the aisles. Staid-looking Chinese passengers were glued to the train video, listening to “Ichik dana bichik dana, dana’r upar danaaa”. I did have a three-month solo show at the Nikon Gallery in Richmond with that work, but that had been a long time ago, and I was looking forward to Beijing.
The last time I was in Beijing, a brief fly-in, fly-out, was on my way to Mongolia. My mother had wanted to go to China’s capital city, and with the then Foreign Secretary Farooq Sobhan’s help (he was an ex- bridge partner), amma had been given the red-carpet treatment by our High Commission. So that trip had been more for her than for me, and every time I’d rung up from Ulan Bator to talk to her all I would get was the dial tone: she was away, to the Great Wall, to the Forbidden City, or on some other adventure. So this time around (August of 1999) I was determined to see some of the city for myself.
My old friend, Vincent Menzel, the picture editor of ‘M’ Magazine in the Netherlands, was there, as were Nicole Aeby of Lookat Pictures in Switzerland. Nicole was exactly as I’d imagined Heidi (as in the prototypical Heidi) to be, and I’ve never called her by any other name since. It was wonderful to find Bryn Campbell there. The first book on photography I had ever bought back in London in 1980 had been “World Photography” by Bryn. I had never before met the author of one of my favourite books. He too got a new name on that trip. Our charming hostess Jin Yan, called him “Mr. Campabell,” and the name stuck.
Chinese hospitality made fitting in the judging difficult. We did go to the Great Wall and the Forbidden City and the usual tourist spots. I needed to get my shopping in. Luckily Pathshala (Drik’s photography school in Dhaka) hadn’t been set up then, but still, with all my Drik colleagues to think of, the children of “Out of Focus” program, and the neighbourhood children, I needed to shop smart. Cheap, light, not too fragile, interesting things in batches of fifty was what I was looking for. Fortunately there were plenty to choose from in China. Eventually I opted for the solar-powered singing birds in small ornate cases. They were a great hit, but sadly, my own birds lie broken, one too many visiting child having treated them with too much affection. And then there were the extensive meal breaks. The Chinese meals I had been taught to expect, had a fixed sequence. You started with soup, had a couple of main meals and ended with dessert. I had not been warned about these thirty-course meals. Neither had I been told what sequence to expect. Soup and dessert came somewhere along the middle, and not knowing how many more dishes were awaiting my rapt attention, it was impossible to pace myself. My grandmother had always liked me because I was a big eater, and I hoped my Chinese hosts would have the same response to my overindulgence.
We survived the judging, the food, the trips to the sites, even the generous offers of massage by the stunning women on all the floors of the hotel, or the women pimps in Beijing streets. Even if I say so myself, I, the bearded man in panjabi pajama from Manjala (Chinese name for Bangladesh), was a great hit. Old women stopped me in the streets to stroke my beard, while kids pointed and giggled. And of course I had found my cyber caf?, Spark Ice, near the World Trade Centre. An 8-Remimbee ride by taxi, until I realised a bus was 1/400th the price. Later I discovered they had pre-paid Internet cards which I could use from my laptop in my hotel room and no longer had to run the gauntlet of the Beijing pimps.
In the rare moments when our hosts had left gaps in our itinerary, we would go walking down the side streets, generally at night. While there were still the Tai Chi people performing to music early in the morning, I missed the bird people I had seen in Guangzhou way back in ’86. They would take their birds avec cage, for a walk in the park in the morning. Later they would take them to the tea stalls, and introduce them to friends over breakfast. I could spend hours photographing those tea stalls.
Meanwhile the floods were raging in Harbin (90 minutes by air from Beijing), and as photojournalists we had to go there. There were a couple of snags. The Chinese government had completely banned foreign media from the flood- affected areas, and I didn’t have my passport. In China you need to show your passport even for domestic flights and mine was at the travel agents awaiting a permit for visiting The Tibetan Autonomous Regions. Bryn “Campabell” sensibly passed on the idea, but Vincent and I decided to have a go, and our newfound Dutch friend Astrid, who worked for UNHCR in Beijing, joined us.
We landed at an airport near Harbin and managed to bluff our way out of it. We did have a contact through the journalists in the local radio station but our lead led to a dead end. So we hired a taxi and decided to try our luck. When the road led to the first of the many Chinese military checkposts, with an immense degree of confidence we asked to immediately be taken to ‘the leader’.
Bureaucracy loves to run along a single, well-grooved channel. And our technique worked like a charm on the intrinsic inertia of the bureaucrat, the fundamental urge of the bureaucrat to do nothing and pass the buck. By letting us through to ‘the leader,’ (saying the ‘great helmsman’ would have been too much, even for the likes of us!) the officers would avoid taking a decision themselves, would neatly avoid either permitting or denying us permission for whatever purpose we had really come for. They were passing the buck and they loved it. So we passed unimpeded, and merrily, through military checkposts, gaining confidence as we progressed. And curiously, as the checkposts became more imposing the farther we went, the more effective was our charade. The very fact that we had progressed that far gave us a degree of credibility that our bureaucrat friends were loathe to question.
Eventually we got to the river itself. The banks had indeed broken and the soldiers were working furiously with typical Chinese efficiency. It was impressive to watch. Still, we needed our ‘leader’ and repeated our plea to the most impressive-looking officer. He clicked his heels smartly and said he would take us to the control tower. Hey, we realized, we were going to get an audience. Quick thinking was necessary, and given our credentials as nationals of sea-level nations, we rightly felt we should present ourselves to ‘the leader’ as ‘flood experts’ from Bangladesh and Holland who had come to evaluate their flood prevention efforts.
The press and media officer came along, and briefed us that the floodwaters had risen 14 metres in the last day. I dared to suggest that perhaps it was 14 centimetres, but the media officer was adamant. 14 metres was what his press briefing said, and that was what it was. It was an awkward moment, but then the leader arrived. An extremely polite gentleman who spoke little and gestured a lot. We were then asked whether we had a vehicle. When we mentioned that we had a taxi waiting, they asked us to let it go. This move had us worried: had they grown wise to our little caper? Not to worry. Soon we discovered that we were no mere mortals, but honest-to-goodness VIPs, and they were going to arrange a limousine for us. But first we had to join them for lunch, no doubt an extravagant Chinese affair. This unexpected turn of events required delicate handling. We had come on a morning flight and needed to catch the afternoon flight back. I had a meeting in Singapore the next afternoon and needed to catch the morning flight the following day. The others had similar plans. Still we couldn’t refuse this hospitality. Eventually, imploring that our work was extremely urgent and we needed to hand in our report within the deadline, we managed to avoid the grand lunch, but they filled our limo with packed lunches and off we went (in a limousine!) to the heart of the flood-affected area.
I couldn’t really get the shots I wanted from the limo, so a speedboat was arranged, and we went down the river. In many ways it was like Bangladesh, with families pooling together to share resources. Animals and people sharing the small bits of dry space. Makeshift tents where people were busy tending goats, cows and chicken. And as ever, children peering into the lens, making sure they utilised every photo op. We even got pictures of a political leader making a speech. With profuse thanks to ‘the leader’ and suitable congratulations for doing an excellent job, we scurried back to the airport, eager to exit before the VIP shine wore off.
A smooth take-off, much laughter on board, then back to Beijing, a flight to Singapore, and work, work, work!
Shahidul Alam heads Drik Picture Gallery in Dhaka.

Remaking Destiny

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www.migrantsoul.org

Who am I? Where do I belong? Who determines my future? Society has no answer to these restless questions. Our sense of identity, kinship and community, are at worst shattered by the experience of migration and at best are thrown into uncertainty.
The universal declaration of human rights talks of a world “without distinction of any kind, such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status”. The reality, particularly for the economic migrant, is very different.
Physical, emotional, social and intellectual exclusion reinforce a migrant’s sense of displacement and alienation. The powerful may glide over such barriers, touching down for business, for pleasure or even out of guilt. For those without power, parting is painful, and each barrier crossed, like the ferry ghats of the big rivers, broadens the distance they must travel to return.
Expectations, dreams, duties and needs circumscribe the life of an economic migrant. The single hope, to change one’s destiny, is what ties all migrants together, whether they be the Bangladeshis who work in the forests of Malaysia, the bonded labourers in the sugarcane plantations in India, the construction workers in the Middle East or the hopeful thousands bound for the promised lands of Europe and North America. They see migration not merely as a means to economic freedom, but also as a passport for social mobility. The wealthy can purchase the future they desire. But a migrant who chooses to rewrite an inherited destiny swims against the current and faces the wrath of the gatekeepers who shape that destiny.

Shahidul Alam

Fri Jul 18, 2003

Midwife to a Bloody Birth

Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Portrait of Jahanara Imam at Shahbagh Square, who led the campaign for the trial of war criminals. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World


Keeping the door ajar, so she wouldn’t get accidentally locked out,
Amma stood waving at the doorstep of 1, Birkdale Road, long after the taxi was out of her view. I didn’t bring it up then, but as I headed for Heathrow, I remembered the stories about Jahanara Khala that Amma used to tell us. It was almost exactly nine years earlier, on our arrival in London, that Georgie had given us the news. Khala had been ill for a while, but her death was still sudden, and a blow to us all. This obituary was written for the Guardian. Continue reading “Midwife to a Bloody Birth”

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.   

It's For Your Own Good

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We will kill your children
Destroy your mosques
Grind to dust your citadels
With your oil, we’ll buy you food
Believe you me, it’s for your own good

Regime change, that’s what its about
Jay Garner* instead, what more could you want
You’ll have Big Macs and Coke
As we know you should
Believe you me, its for your own good

Forget your heritage, its so uncool
Face the facts, the US rules
Afghanis blew statues
They were ever so rude
We will raze Baghdad, for your own good

CNN, BBC, they report for our cause
Embedded journalists, they know the laws
Al Jazeera is not cricket
C’mon you dude
You know we care, its for your own good

US contracts, Haliburton rules
Conflict of interest? C’mon you fools
My interest in oil
That’s obscene, that’s lewd
Its Iraqis I care for, its for your own good

It’s freedom I want, get out of my way
A new Middle East map, drawn as I say
Imperialist expansion
Must you be crude
Are you not listening, its for your own good

World opinion, who gives a damn
My latest war cry, Saddam Saddam
United Nations
Step out if you would
Don’t get in the way, its for their own good

US weapons of mass destruction?
Don’t be absurd, we’re a peace-loving nation
Hiroshima Nagasaki
Why do you still brood?
As my God has said, it was for your own good.

I wish you’d believe me. I so wish you would


Shahidul Alam
30th March 2003, Dhaka.