The Price of Social Distancing

Rahnuma forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

Workers sleeping in shipbreaking yard in Rahman Yard in Chittagong. Photo: Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
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Bangladesh in the Brazilian Amazon

By Gabriel Elizondo in Americas

Wed, 2012-01-11 03:55.
In the northwest Brazilian Amazon town of Brasileia, population 20,238, there are almost 1,200 Haitians.
They often mill around during the day, clustered in groups in the shade trying to keep cool from the steamy heat, waiting for weeks for their work documents to be processed so they can get a job in another part of Brazil.
But on Tuesday it was the two other guys sitting alone who caught my attention. They could have been Bolivian perhaps, or even Brazilian. But I knew they weren?t.
?We are from Bangladesh,? AHM Sultan Ahmed, 36, tells me with a smile when I approach and ask to talk with them.
His friend, Abdul Awal, and my photojournalist, Maria Elena Romero, and I, all sit together on the grass and begin to chat.

Abdul Malek is going to work in Tripoli in Libya. The day before his departure the family camps outside the airport. At night they pray for his safe travel. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1996. Photo: ? Shahidul Alam/Drik

They are from Dhaka, and arrived in Brasileia the night before. They slept on the ground in the main plaza, having nowhere else to go. For obvious reasons, they look tired, but still muster the energy to smile wide and often.
Why did you come to Brazil?
?I heard Brazil?s economy is growing, and that here is good for us and good jobs,? Ahmed says. ?Soon we can hopefully get our papers and find a job. I am happy?
?I think there is a lot of work in South America now, and a lot of people from my country are wanting to come here now,? he continues.
Neither has been to Brazil before, nor speak a word of Portuguese.
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Beri Bandh 2: Sadek City Model Town

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The accident had changed things, and rather than see it as an impediment, I decided to make it a feature of my work. So on the 2nd Monday having been to the hospital for my regular physiotherapy, I revisited the scene. Walking down the narrow alleyways in between the line rooms in Sadek City Model Town (I have no idea who Sadek is), I met up with some women and two girls (around 8-10). They wanted pictures taken, and wanted to art direct the photos. So I was rapidly being given instructions, which changed as every new person joined what had become a rapidly growing crowd.

Photo studios are generally adorned with pin up of popular movie stars. Often clients request to be photographed as their favourite star. The studio generally has a full complement of props, from exotic locations to motorbikes, even a set of smart clothes. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

The act of taking pictures wasn?t so easy. With my right hand having low mobility, I had only taken my compact, and was taking pictures with my left hand. That?s when you realise that cameras are not designed for left handed people. Still, with a small camera you can improvise. Soon they decided they needed prints, so the two girls dragged me down to the local studio. It was a longish walk and I had wanted to stop several times to take pictures, but only managed a few times. The two girls were tough task masters. The guy in the studio was asleep, and a bit grumpy for being woken up. But he didn?t make prints himself. He would gather the images and send it off to a nearby lab, so we returned empty handed. I promised I?d bring prints back the following Monday.
The two girls decided they would be art directors for the day and took me around. At one point we went to the local photo lab to get prints made, but they didn?t have their own printing machine. We took the scenic route back via the back gate of the local mazaar (shrine), across the reclaimed land, under a low gate into the back end of their line room. This was a picture in a neighbour?s kitchen. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

I was then taken round and introduced to the other families, and eventually, they found a kitchen where they could pose as they wanted. The girl cooking was even younger than them, and the two art directors quickly took control. The shaft of light and the smoke were just lucky ingredients. Slowly the residents of Sadek City Model Town opened up to me. Some were still suspicious. Was I going to report to the government? Would this result in another eviction? What was I going to do with these pictures? But soon we were friends. A little baby that came to me, refused to go back to her mother. I was now a family member! The houses (8 foot by 8 foot rooms) cost 1100 Taka a month to rent. Per square foot, that was almost twice as expensive as our flat in Dhanmondi! And that was excluding gas. They spent 30 Taka a day on firewood, so it effectively cost 2000 Taka per month (about 20 Euros) a month for that one room. They did have electricity (sometimes), and there was a nearby tubewell where they could bathe and draw water from. The common loos did have long queues, but were considered adequate. This was a transit point they explained to me. The place where people stayed when they first came to the city. Once they found better work, they would move on. To brick houses, with piped gas. The tin roofs meant the rooms were like ovens in the summer and a freezer in winter.
There were two storied houses too. The upper floor had a thin concrete floor, to ensure the floor didn?t leak. I was surprised that a bamboo walled structure could have a concrete floor, but it seemed to work. Narrow wooden stairs led to the upper floor. It was a tinder box anyway and with these narrow exits, there would be no escaping if there was a fire.
They had arrived from all over the country, though many were from Barisal, a coastal region in the South. The men would ride rickshaw vans or work as day labourers upon arrival. ?All you needed was a basket and a spade. If you worked flat out from 8 in the morning to sunset, you could earn 200 Taka (about two Euros) a day. You wouldn?t get work every day, but enough days in a month to pay for the rent and food.?
Yet another barber shop. I was intrigued by the fact that this doubled as the place where the barber reared his homing pigeons. There were several houses and the pigeons flitted in and out. It didn?t seem to bother the customer. He just wanted his shave. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

On the way back, I came across the barber shop. One of many I?d seen that day. It didn?t look too interesting at first, until I saw the pigeons flying. They were flying, eating, shitting, without the slightest trace of concern, or fear. This was obviously their home, and the clients who came in to barber were the intruders. The barber had gone off leaving the client in the chair, and the pigeons were just getting on with their lives. The barber?s younger brother was there and explained that earlier there were more birds, including parrots. But it had become too much of a hassle, so now the barber only kept pigeons.
I had started later than I had hoped, and being a bright sunny day, I was in the glaring sun much of the time. I had to be careful with my framing in this very hard light. So I did most of my work indoors, or in the narrow corridors where the was little direct sunlight. Ideally I would have waited for the lovely afternoon light that accompanies winter, but my pains were beginning to take toll.
Kali is considered the goddess of time and change. Although sometimes presented as dark and violent, her earliest incarnation as a figure of annihilation still has some influence. Various Shakta Hindu cosmologies, as well as Shakta Tantric beliefs, worship her as the ultimate reality or Brahman. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World/PAPA

As I headed back I went through Rayerbazaar, and the people I had photographed last week all flocked. I managed to avoid tea, but was given a cup of fresh cow?s milk. One doesn?t usually get fresh milk these days, so this was a treat. The conversation veered to the local mafia and what some of the locals were getting up to. I left promising to bring back some prints next Monday. I realized, I would need to make a LOT of prints for that day. I then came up with the sugar cane juice man from last week and he squeezed two special glasses for me. As I was buying some water chestnuts, a guy passing by, told me of the Kali (Hindu Goddess) puja that was taking place nearby. I followed the directions to a narrow alleyway, where the Goddess was in all her splendour in a raised platform at the end. The singing, dancing and firecrackers just added to the atmosphere.

A Tribute to Our Forgotten Sisters

Majeda, Jarina, Farida and Many other Garment Workers

Bodies of child garment workers who died in a fire in a factory in Mirpur. Dhaka. 1990. ??Azizur Rahim Peu/Drik/Majority World

By Saydia Gulrukh

Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York City, March 25, 1911
Whoever saw the hellish fire at 33 Washington Place,
A terrible tragedy, something quite new,
Can never forget it, And everyone knows many lives were lost.
They were incinerated, In a factory 10 stories high.
There were horrible screams from the onlookers,
Those who were burned alive
And those who choked in the smoke.
(Yehuda Horvitz wrote and sung this song to the tune of a Jewish prayer to commemorate?the deaths of Jewish women in the Triangle Fire)

In many ways, the Triangle Shirtwaist Company was just another sweatshop factory?in the heart of Manhattan. It was located on the top three floors of the ten-story Asch Building just at the end of Washington Square. All that characterizes a sweatshop ? low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions ? was part of its factory policy. Most of the several hundred Triangle employees were young women.? Many among them were recently-arrived Italian or Jewish immigrants.
On March 25, 1911, as the hours of the clock approached the closing time, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building. Flames leapt from discarded rags between the first and second rows of cutting tables.? The fire spread everywhere, as several men continued to fling water at the fire.? In the thickening smoke, a shipping clerk dragged a hose in the stairwell into the rapidly heating room, but nothing came out.? Terrified and screaming girls tried to climb down the narrow fire escape.? Some girls trapped on the ninth floor jumped through the window (Leon Stein, Out of the Sweat Shop, 1977). By the time the fire was over, 146 women garment worker had died. The next two days were marked with the horror and grief of families and comrades desperately trying to identify their dear ones from the bodies burned to bare bones.
In 1909, when women garment workers started to organize and called for a strike demanding better pay, safe working environment, Triangle Shirtwaist was one of the factories which agreed to only a partial settlement. One of the demands that was not met in this settlement was the demand for adequate fire escapes (Meredith Tax, The Uprising Thirty Thousands, 1994). These deaths, horrifyingly cruel, agitated the members of International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Many thousands joined the funeral procession, they mourned the lives lost, and demanded the safety for workers.
Two weeks after the fire, a grand jury indicted Triangle Shirtwaist owners Isaac Harris and Max Blanck on charges of manslaughter. Three years after the fire, on March 11, 1914, twenty-three individual civil suits against the owner of the Asch Building were settled.? The average recovery was $75 per life lost. Calls for justice continued to grow,?thirty-six new laws reforming the state labor code were enacted between 1911 and 1914, those who survived the fire were left to live, and relive, those agonizing moments.
Garib and Garib Sweater Factory, Gazipur, February 25, 2010
21 killed at Garib and Garib Factory, Gazipur, 2010
62 killed at KTS Garments, Chittagong, 2006
23 killed at Shan Knitting, Narayanganj, 2005
23 killed at Chowdhury Knitwear, Narsingdi, 2004
23 killed at Macro Sweater, Dhaka, 2000
12 killed at Globe Knitting, Dhaka, 2000
24 killed at Shanghai Apparels, Dhaka, 1997
20 killed at Jahanara Fashion, Narayanganj, 1997
22 killed at Lusaka Garments, Dhaka, 1996
32 killed at Saraka Garments, Dhaka, 1990
(Source: The Daily Star, March 1, 2010)
It was a little after 9 o?clock at night, workers were finishing their shift. Some were still working, Abdul Mannan of the Garib and Garib factory?s sampling section was among them. He was working on the second floor when he first saw the flame and breathed smoke. It was coming from the first floor. A short circuit had occurred near a large stock of flammable acrylic sweaters, which produced thick and extremely toxic smoke and quickly transformed the factory into a ?gas chamber? (, Feb26, 2010). Zarina, Farida, Majeda, Sahara, Majida, Rahima, Shantana, Momtaz, Rasheda, Shahinur, Rawshan, Jahanar, Rina and Sufia were on the sixth floor as the monstrous fire swallowed the building.? The main power was immediately turned off. In the pitch dark, workers, both men and women, ran up stairs to escape, but blazing fires and toxic smoke followed them.

21 workers including 15 women were killed in the fire incident at Garib & Garib Sweater Factory in Bhogra, Gazipur on Thursday night. The fire brigade authorities formed a three-member committee, headed by its deputy director (administration and finance), to find out the cause of the fire. However, they suspect the fire might have originated from a short-circuit. Dhaka, Bangladesh. February 26, 2010. Yasin Abdullah/DrikNews

Within half an hour, ambulances and firefighters had circled the building, they started their rescue mission but came across dead bodies only: Kashem, Badal, Alamgir, Mainul and Pradeep, bodies which lay haphazardly in the stairway, there were many others. The events that followed were rather routine. After hours of effort, the fire-fighters tamed the unruly fire.? The Fire Brigade authorities, BGMEA and the government formed three different probe committees to investigate the cause of fire (Daily Star, Feb 27, 2010). In a ?sympathetic? gesture, the authority bore the cost of the burials and kept the factory closed for four days to mourn the deceased workers.? The BGMEA ?expressed sorrow at the death of the workers and announced Tk 2 lakh as compensation for each worker? (New Age, Feb 26, 2010). Labor organizations and left-alliances protested, demanding better compensation, and immediate punishment of those responsible.? They continue to protest, to hold meetings in Muktangon, in Shahid Minar, in Gazipur too, protests which barely manage to prevent us from forgetting about them. Perhaps through taming the fire, the fire-fighters had also tamed the sparks of our anger, anger at the deaths, anger at exploitative and unjust practices in the garments industry.

Collectively Resisting Our Amnesia
The hundred years which separates these two tragedies in the history of the garments industry, incidents that are strikingly similar, also coincides with the international women?s movement which has turned a hundred year’s old. By placing these two stories side by side, I don?t intend to undermine the struggles and achievements of our movement, to argue that ?nothing has changed.? My interest lies in the differences in our response to the two tragedies.
People gathered in thousands to cordon the dead bodies of Triangle factory workers, to hold the hands of hysterically grieving relatives and friends. The ILGWU proposed an official day of mourning. The grief-stricken city gathered in churches, synagogues, and finally, in the streets. In 1911, the funeral procession turned into an ocean of grief as countless numbers of people joined in, while the dead bodies of Zarina, Majeda and Farida were sent in separate ambulances to their village, and the only people who joined in that final journey, besides their family members, were the police. We do not join in their funeral procession in the thousands, we do not take over the street to mourn the lives of these women who had slaved their youth away for the much celebrated, and steady increase in the nation’s GDP. As I read Yehuda Horvitz songs written to commemorate the lives of the women killed in the Triangle fire, I look for songs sung celebrating the lives lost here. What I find is a statistical rhyme, an incomprehensive list of the numbers of workers killed in garments factory fires in the last decade. The thought of garments factories being ?gas-chambers? horrifies us? as long as the news remains fresh, and soon enough, we manage to find ways of returning to the national narrative, working in the garments sector is a stepping stone to women?s empowerment. Images of blazing fires rapidly disappear, stories of Rasheda, Shahinur, Rawshan choking to death are conveniently forgotten. In 1911, many women in the funeral procession in New York city had carried placards which said ?we mourn our loss; we demand real progress in workers protection.? In 2010, we do not mourn our loss. We read of our loss in the newspapers.
There has been much talk of corporate greed and sweatshops, many editorials have been written protesting the criminal indifference of factory owners. Locally and globally, every year thousands of pages are written analyzing the sweatshop economy and the feminization of the global labor force. Perhaps, it’s time to analyze our deadly indifference. On international women?s day, a true tribute to Rahima, Shantana, Momtaz and many other sisters whose names will soon be lost in the statistical crowd, can be offered by resisting our own collective amnesia.
Saydia Gulrukh is a PhD student at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, USA
and a faculty member of Pathshala, The South Asian Media Academy
Published in New Age, 8 March 2010

Changing their destiny


Letter from Bangladesh

Intro to film: In Search of the Shade of the Banyan Tree ? Shahidul Alam/DrikAV
They all have numbers. Jeans tucked into their high-ankled sneakers. They strut through the airport lounge, moving en masse. We work our way up the corridors leading to the airplane, but many stop just before boarding. The cocky gait has gone. The sad faces look out longingly at the small figures silhouetted on the rooftops. They wave and they wave and they wave. The stewardess has seen it all before and rounds them up, herding them into the aircraft. One by one they disengage themselves, probably realizing for the first time just what they are leaving behind.

Abdul Malek and other migrant workers, waving goodbye to their family just before they board a plane bound for the Middle East, at Zia International airport, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam
Abdul Malek and other migrant workers, waving goodbye to their family just before they board a plane bound for the Middle East, at Zia International airport, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam

Inside the aircraft it is different. They look around at the metallic finish of the interior, try on the headphones and drink lemonade. They have seats together and whisper to each other about each new thing they see. Abdul Malek, sitting opposite me, is in his early twenties. He is from a small village not far from Goalondo. This is his second attempt. He was conned the first time round. This time his family has sold their remaining land as well as the small shop that they part-own. This time, he says, he is going to make it.
A migrant worker's family prays outside Zia International airport the night before he leaves. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1995. Shahidul Alam
A migrant worker's family prays outside Zia International airport the night before he leaves. Dhaka, Bangladesh. 1995. Shahidul Alam

As in the case of the others, his had been no ordinary farewell. They had all come from the village to see him off. Last night, as they slept outside the exclusive passenger lounge, they had prayed together. Abdul Malek has few illusions. He realizes that on $110 a month, for 18 months, there is no way he can save enough to replace the money that his family has invested.
A woman bids farewell to her man, leaving for work in the middle east, from across the glass panels of Zia international Airport. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 1995. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
A woman bids farewell to her man, leaving for work in the middle east, from across the glass panels of Zia international Airport. Dhaka. Bangladesh. 1995. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

But he sees it differently. No-one from his village has ever been abroad. His sisters would get married. His mother would have her roof repaired, and he would be able to find work for others from the village. This trip is not for him alone. His whole family, even his whole village, are going to change their destiny.
Bangladeshi migrant workers works in front of the Petronas Tower. Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Bangladeshi migrant workers works in front of the Petronas Tower. Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

That 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, those like Abdul Malek, who work as unskilled labour in the Middle East, or those that go to the promised lands of the US. Not all of them are poor. Many are skilled and well educated. Still, the possibility of changing one’s destiny is the single driving force that pushes people into precarious journeys all across the globe. They see it not merely as a means for economic freedom, but also as a means for social mobility.
In the 25 years since independence the middle class in Bangladesh has prospered, and many of its members have climbed the social ladder. But except for a very few rags-to-riches stories, the poor have been well and truly entrenched in poverty. They see little hope of ever being able to claw their way out of it, except perhaps through the promise of distant lands.
Lokman Hossain works as a cleaner in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "There are Bangladeshi girls from well to do families who study here. We hear them talk to each other in Bangla, but when we try to talk to them, they pretend they don't know the language". Singapore. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
Lokman Hossain works as a cleaner in Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. "There are Bangladeshi girls from well to do families who study here. We hear them talk to each other in Bangla, but when we try to talk to them, they pretend they don't know the language". Singapore. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

So it is that hundreds of workers mill around the Kuwait Embassy in Gulshan, the posh part of Dhaka where the wealthy Bangladeshis and the foreigners live. Kuwait has begun recruiting again after the hiatus caused by the Gulf War, and for the many Bangladeshis who left during the War, and those who have been waiting in the wings, the arduous struggle is beginning. False passports, employment agents, attempts to bribe immigration officials, the long uncertain wait.
Some wait outside the office of ‘Prince Musa’ in Banani. He is king of the agents. His secretary shows me the giant portraits taken with ‘coloured gels’, in an early Hollywood style. She carefully searches for the admiration in my eyes she has known to expect in others. She brings out the press cuttings: the glowing tributes paid by Forbes, the US magazine for and about the wealthy, the stories of his associations with the jet set. She talks of the culture of the man, his sense of style, his private jet, his place in the world of fashion.
Apart from the sensational eight-million-dollar donation to the British Labour Party in 1994 ? which Labour denies, but which the ‘Prince’ insists was accepted ? there are other stories. Some of these I can verify, like the rosewater used for his bath, and the diamond pendants on his shoes (reportedly worth three million dollars). Others, like his friendship with the Sultan of Brunei, the Saudi Royals and leading Western politicians, are attested to by photographs in family albums.
The diamonds on the shoes of 'prince' Moosa Bin Shamsher is said to be worth three million dollars. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The diamonds on the shoes of 'prince' Moosa Bin Shamsher is said to be worth three million dollars. Dhaka. Bangladesh. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

He was once a young man from a small town in Faridpur, not too distant from Abdul Malek’s home or economic position, who made good. Whether the wealth of the ‘Prince’ derives mainly from commissions paid by thousands of Maleks all over Bangladesh or whether, as many assume, it is from lucrative arms deals, the incongruity of it all remains: the fabulously wealthy are earning from the poorest of the poor.
Whereas the ‘Prince’ has emigrated to the city and saves most of his money abroad, Malek and his friends save every penny and send it to the local bank in their village. Malek is different from the many Bengalis who emigrated to the West after World War Two, when immigration was easier and naturalization laws allowed people to settle. Malek, like his friends, has no illusions about ‘settling’ overseas. He knows only too well his status amongst those who know him only as cheap labour. Bangladesh is clearly, irrevocably, his home. He merely wants a better life for himself than the Bangladeshi princes have reserved for him.
First published in the New Internationalist Magazine
Photo feature on migration

Remaking Destiny

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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