Woodrow W. Denham
Dhaka , Bangladesh
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First Impressions of Dhaka
16 October 1996
Dhaka is on an island in the middle of Bangladesh. The eroding and silting braids of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers that form this enormous delta probably change its size and shape now and then, but essentially the island is boot-shaped with its bent-down toe pointing southeast, about 25 miles north to south and perhaps ten miles east to west. Zia International Airport is more-or-less centered at the top of the boot, and the Dhaka business center is about 12 miles to the south in the instep of the boot beside the Buriganga River. The suburbs of Gulshan and Baridhara where the embassy district is located, and Banani where North South University is located, are between the airport and the city center, about four miles south of the airport. Narayanganj, the city that is the center of the world jute trade, is perched at the tip of the boot’s toe.
Banani (emphasize the FIRST syllable) is indeed posh as they say in newspaper reports about the former President of Bangladesh who lives near the university. Kamal Ataturk Avenue runs through Banani from east to west. It has no curbs, is pretty noisy and dusty, and often is very busy with bicycle rickshaws, auto-rickshaws (called baby taxis locally, a.k.a. tuk-tuks in Thailand), cars some of whose drivers have mobile phones, trucks, busses, pedestrians and a few cows - but no dogs, cats, trash, beggars or street people. The avenue has a fairly wild mixture of buildings - several high rises up to seventeen stories tall, some low rises containing shops, some empty lots containing grass and cows. The university occupies three seven-story buildings that began their lives as apartment buildings and are being converted as we speak into university classroom and office buildings.
I’m staying at the modern Far Pavilions Guesthouse about two blocks (so two minutes) away from the campus. It’s a block off the main street in an area that rapidly becomes quite posh. The residential streets are without curbs too, perhaps due to problems of drainage associated with the monsoon rains, and the cow population is significant, but the walled compounds containing private homes, apartment buildings and lush gardens are posh by any standards. Given the high noise level of the main street, it’s amazing how quiet the guesthouse is, and the room, service and food are excellent.
Banani is separated from Gulshan, the next suburb to the east, by a narrow lake, and Gulshan is in turn separated from Baridhara by another narrow lake. The lakes have a lot of water hyacinths in them, but no trash and no odor. Perhaps the monsoon, which just ended, flushed them. The two major business districts in Gulshan, called Gulshan-1 and Gulshan-2, are tiny replicas of Connaught Place in Delhi - large traffic circles with shops surrounding them - and both have good selections of shops. Gulshan Avenue which connects Gulshan-1 and Gulshan-2, and Kamal Ataturk Avenue on which the university is located, offer extraordinary selections of fine restaurants with a wide diversity of South, Southeast, East and Central Asian foods that make even Al-Ain’s restaurants seem expensive. My guesthouse sits directly behind the Shehnai Restaurant that advertises itself as the finest Indian restaurant in Dhaka.
Just down the street from the university, I found a three-level shopping center, eight years old, selling art, picture frames, crafts, fabrics, books, etc. It was funded by Sheikh Zayed, President of the United Arab Emirates, with an arrangement whereby profits from it are used to support needy children (maybe an orphanage) here in Dhaka. I got large-scale maps of the city and the country there. Somehow I just can’t get away from the UAE.
Since the UAE is in the process of deporting about 40,000 Bangladeshis who were in the country illegally, I expected to find a crush of refugees on my plane from Dubai to Dhaka, but it was a non-event. Almost everybody on the plane was a transit passenger from Amsterdam. Only about ten people boarded in Dubai and the plane was not full.
The route was Dubai, Muscat, Udaipur, Bhopal, Calcutta, Dhaka, and had the potential for being highly photogenic. But I had an inside seat and couldn’t reach a window, most of the flight was during the night, and it was cloudy anyway. My new camera slept all the way. I wish I had.
When I landed on Thursday morning, my first sight of Bangladesh was of lots of people stooping beside the taxiway cutting grass for their goats as the KLM 747 lumbered past.
Naser, NSU’s Public Relations Officer, met me at the airport and waited with me for over three hours for my baggage. Zia International Airport can’t handle three 747s landing more-or-less simultaneously, and it seems that Biman, the national airline, keeps all of the baggage handling strictly for itself and refuses to let KLM unload its own baggage. When everything finally emerged in good shape, we went to the guesthouse first, then to the university where Naser handed me over to Shereef and Kaniz. Shereef, my pen pal for the last few months, is headed for a full time lecturer assignment in January and is handing over his role as Special Assistant to the President to Kaniz and me.
Kaniz is a Bangladeshi woman with a PhD Degree in economics from Georgetown who has worked at the World Bank for the last eleven years. At the beginning of September, she returned to live in Dhaka for the first time in sixteen years.
Kaniz is Special Assistant for External Affairs, I for Internal Affairs. She will handle faculty recruitment, collaborative relations with US universities, relations with government ministries, etc. I will handle day-to-day operations of the university’s academic program - scheduling, curriculum development, computing facilities, faculties and institutes, the library, newsletters, etc. The post of VP for Academic Affairs for which I was hired has been abandoned for the nonce.
A few minutes after I got to the campus, still jet lagged and sleep deprived, Shereef and Kaniz took me on a tour of the entire university, meeting about a zillion people whose names I promptly forgot but whose business cards I collected in amazing numbers. They have been stopping at my office to say “Hi” all day. The people are wonderfully friendly and open, which is an enormous relief after my most recent situation in the UAE where the opposite was true.
Ongoing renovation of the buildings means that things are a bit unkempt in a few spots, but that’s a trivial problem. It feels like an urban university campus almost anywhere. I am especially pleased with the computer services I have received. A 486/66 with a 500mb hard drive, attached to the network, was on my desk when I arrived. It had most but not all of MS Office Pro and POPmail on it; I have requested PowerPoint, Publisher and Project and a better email system - I hear they have Eudora somewhere - all of which are in place now or will be by tomorrow, insh’allah.
The workday here is 9-5 Saturday thru Thursday with an hour or more off at lunch. The six-day week is a problem. However, we get 30 days vacation plus twenty “personal days” annually - use ‘em or lose ‘em - so we should be able to get a good many long weekends anyway.
There seems to be a hitch with remittances. I thought I understood from our interview with the President in Boston that arrangements were in place for expat employees to remit 50% of their salaries, but apparently those arrangements still are in the works. I understand there is no problem in taking all of it with you at the end of the contract, but sending it out on a monthly basis is problematic. I’ve made it clear that I must send money out monthly to pay bills in the US, and everybody seems to understand that notion. We’ll just have to wait a while and see what can be arranged with the Central Bank. A normal problem, I hope.
I’ve had lunch and dinner several times in the Sky Room on the 12 th floor of the building next to the one in which my office is located. It’s one of several nearby restaurants with waiters in starched shirts and black ties. It serves Indonesian and Bokharan cuisine to upscale customers - note the mobile phone at the next table. Most meals cost in the vicinity of Tk 150 to Tk 200 ($US 3-5). It’s hard to spend a lot of money here.
On a clear day - most are hazy now - you probably can see forever from the Sky Room. This flatness is on a par with the Mississippi Delta, but it’s the size of Wisconsin and has a population of about 128 million, which is about 50% of the entire US population. So there must be a crowd down there somewhere, but you can’t see them from the Sky Room. It’s all trees down there, with low buildings poking up through them.
I took a walk last night along a couple of streets south of and parallel with Kamal Ataturk Avenue (my guesthouse is to the north). Fruit and veggie markets face not-so-good streets crowded with rickshaws, people and dust that seems to be much worse at night than during the day. Interspersed are nice shops, banks, etc - zoning is not big here. I had a super mocha nut ice cream cone for dinner after the feast I had for lunch.
At breakfast this morning, I met some of my neighbors: a young woman from the UK who works for the World Vision NGO on women’s projects in South and Southeast Asia, here for a ten day visit ending today, and a couple of men from the UK here for 30 days with the World Bank doing an institutional development project with the Ministry of Agriculture. One of the men just came down from a two-year computerization project with customs and immigration in Bhutan.
I went to the US embassy where I registered and got a list of physicians, pharmacist, etc. The list looks OK except for the disclaimer. And the embassy is attractive - red brick with gardens and friendly guards - unlike the grim bunker in Abu Dhabi. Probably says something about the neighborhood in the larger sense.
When I was out with the NSU car and driver, I stopped at the American Club. Nice swimming pool, tennis and squash courts, gardens, restaurant, pub, exercise room, $300 refundable deposit, $20 per month membership, no extra charges for the pool, food is cheap at the restaurant, open long hours every day. Looks like a good place to relax.
Because everything is so inexpensive, we should be able to save a good bit if we can just figure out how to get it out of here. I don’t want the pay problem to mess things up, for this really is a delightfully relaxed and friendly place.
On Saturday and Sunday, I began using PowerPoint to build a presentation concerning the roles of Special Assistants to the President. Everybody was enthralled by what PowerPoint was doing, so the President agreed that we should use it to make a major presentation to the Government’s University Grants Commission when they visit NSU this morning for their first ever inspection tour. We don’t have a scanner to load NSU photos into the slide show, and we don’t have a data projector to show the results on a screen, but as soon as the needs were clear people went off in all directions to get the right stuff. At 0900 this morning we were ready for the UGC, but a few minutes after 0900 we received a notice that the visit was postponed for a week since the mother of someone on the UGC had died.
Since we had rented a projector, we decided to use it with all of the managers, most of whom would not have been invited to the UGC presentation. The session was a great success, with lots of positive feedback and a good many suggestions for improving the product for the UGC showing next week, insh’allah. A busy couple of days, but a good start. The slide show says a lot about NSU past, present and future.
Last night at about 2030, I went to the Sky Room for dinner, partly because of a sudden craving for veggies, partly to avoid going to sleep too early since my jet leg hasn’t faded yet. Sitting there on the 12 th floor overlooking a city of 7 to 8,000,000, I could see a few street lights and building lights here and there, a bit of auto traffic directly below me on Kamal Ataturk Ave, and precisely five neon signs flashing on buildings in the far distance. The absence of unwanted information overload is remarkably refreshing after the vast numbers of intrusive signs and streetlights in American cities and especially in the Gulf. I dare say there is more street lighting on the highway between Al Ain and Abu Dhabi than there is in all of Bangladesh, but down here on the ground the city doesn’t seem dark at all because of shop lights all around, and lanterns hanging under the axles of rickshaws to serve as tail lights.
18 November 1996
The Thursday night crowd in the nearby shopping district called Gulshan-2 reminds me of Thursday and Friday night crowds in the South Asian corner of Al-Ain - standing room only, probably not even enough room to fall over in some places.
About halfway to Gulshan-2, I stopped at an up-scale jute carpet sales shop - export quality, with yuppies in mind. I haven't read anything about decorative jute carpets (NOT doormats!), but their manufacture here is an ancient and large industry. Hand manufacture seems to be rare now, but machine manufacture has been going on since the 1950s.
Machine manufactured jute carpets use a robust backing made of jute (sometimes cotton), and a deep pile of jute with dyed-in designs not unlike those found on wool carpets from Central Asia. The end product is very soft and deep, and the designs are quite attractive. A 9x12 carpet that would look great in our dining room costs $100, and a prayer mat costs $13. The main problem is durability. My informants say they last for about 3 years then fade, loose their loft and are prone to shedding their fibers. The Sheraton Hotel uses them here and there in their lobby and they look fine - maybe they toss 'em out frequently. I'd be happy to have a few to live with here where we could "field test" them for a while. I found a book about the jute industry at the Sheraton, but it said less about carpets than economics and was printed upside down in its cover, so I didn't buy it ... maybe later.
Not far from the carpet shop is another nice shop selling hand made silk fabrics and clothing. It's an "outlet store" for a women's cooperative called Saptagram (seven villages) that now encompasses 1200 villages and whose founder has written an interesting collection of biographical sketches about several of the women in the co-op. The clothes and material are beautiful and the prices seem entirely reasonable - raw silk for about $5 per meter.
I did some pricing of basics in various shops in Gulshan-2, and found a remarkable range of prices for identical objects. One of the UK-produced orange marmalades is a standard item in almost every shop selling western food, and the price for a one-pound jar of it ranges from $1.50 to almost $4, and there seems to be only a limited amount of bargaining in each shop. Half-kilo canned hams from Denmark are readily available and cost somewhere around $3. Shops selling Sony and Panasonic audio and video stuff also vary widely in their prices, as do photo shops that sell film and processing. I found a Sanyo fridge and microwave store where the prices were outrageously high - a waist-high fridge for about $500 and a medium sized microwave oven for about $400. Shop owners say government taxes make the prices outrageous - 100% tax on imports, plus shipping and handling (a.k.a. smuggling, a term which seems to be acceptable, if not Politically Correct, in some shops). Maybe that’s why people traveling to Dhaka try to put refrigerators in their hand carry baggage.
Not surprisingly I found a lot more up-scale restaurants, too, and all of them were really busy with huge parties. These folks save money on kitchen appliances and leave the cooking to the professionals.
Gulshan-1 is another large market area about a mile south of Gulshan-2. Riding a baby taxi there is not fun. It’s really dusty out there at night.
At Gulshan-1 the power was out and most of the shops were illuminated by battery lights, lanterns or candles, and the more up-scale shops were running their own small gas-powered generators. As the power came back on, then went off and came back on again a couple of more times over a period of about half an hour before it finally stabilized, it was obvious that power outages are seen as normal problems and effective workarounds are in place - not exactly uninterruptable power supplies, but they work.
Gulshan-1 contains a huge shopping center, two stories high and quite sprawling, filled with fresh foods markets, many stores selling a broad but incomplete range of canned goods from the USA (S&W and Kroger are big here), many furniture and household goods stores, craft and antique shops, and so on. It's a long way from the Manchester Mall in design, but in many ways the diversity of goods is greater. And I had dinner at a German deli that sells all sorts of lunchmeat, cheese, etc. - just like a real deli.
For a change of pace I visited the Sheraton Hotel on Friday morning, a Western outpost located at the northern edge of the business district, easy to reach and a good base for beginning to walk in more traditional neighborhoods. For breakfast, I had pancakes with 100% pure Vermont maple syrup accompanied by a bottomless cup of delicious Bangladeshi coffee that's a lot like smooth South Indian coffee.
From the hotel, I walked south about 3km along the broad colonial main street in front of Dhaka University (DU) and the high-prestige Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) where I was not allowed on campus because of "unrest" as they euphemistically call it here. I am scheduled to make a presentation to the Bangladesh Computer Society at BUET early in November, so I thought I should check it out in advance. The area is not especially photogenic, although the DU campus is reputed to be beautiful when the students aren’t shooting at each other. But the trip allowed me to practice my navigating skills using the map, a few street signs, and photos on the map that I can show to people to get directions. People were friendly, there were no crowds on Friday morning, and the navigation worked. Next time I'll be a bit more adventuresome and go somewhere where I can see something more interesting.
I finished the day by watching TNT's presentation of Faulkner's "Intruder in the Dust", filmed in Oxford, Mississippi, in the early 1950s. What with Vermont maple syrup for breakfast and the Yoknapatawpha courthouse after dinner, I ended the day feeling slightly disoriented.
Tuesday was a holiday, so I rode a baby taxi to the Farmgate district, about halfway between Banani and the Sheraton, and spent three hours wandering around, trying to get a feel for street life in an inner suburb - still not into the 19th-20th century "British City" of Dhaka and certainly not the pre-British (i.e., Moghul) "Old Dhaka", but a long way from being a posh residential neighborhood.
Airport Road at Farmgate would be about eight lanes wide if anybody knew what a lane was. It's so wide that walking across it through traffic certainly would be fatal, so several pedestrian flyovers provide a nearly viable alternative. But the flyovers are so packed with people and vendors that they are high-risk areas too. Instead of just walking into the impenetrable wall of traffic at street level, the flyovers enable you to fall or be knocked directly into the bowels of what appears to be a permanent traffic jam.
At the east end of the main flyover is a major bus terminal where busses somehow manage to whiz in around the fringes of the traffic jam, horns blasting without pause. Slowing to a crawl but never fully stopping, they disgorge untold numbers of passengers at one end while more pile on at the other, then whiz off on their appointed rounds leaving a dense gray fog behind them with their horns still stuck permanently in the ON position.
At the west end of the main flyover, the stairway pours into a broad avenue lined with magnificent old raintrees arching out to form a tunnel whose porous roof, punctured by sunbeams, closes high above the roadway. A neat park sits behind a handsome brick sidewalk on the north side of the avenue.
The south side of the avenue is something else entirely. A row of shops - many of them Bengali language bookshops - face out onto the sidewalk. But the sidewalk itself has been converted into a rickshaw parking lane that has just enough extra width for a single line of people to walk past the machines. The lane stretches for about half a kilometer with its front end at the foot of the flyover and its back end disappearing in the distant haze. Amazingly, the rickshaws queue up in the parking lane and wait for people to hire them from the front of the queue. I think this is the only place I have ever seen this kind of self discipline practiced in South Asia or the Middle East.
But there is a compelling reason. Just beyond the edge of the sidewalk and parallel with it sits a glorious fresh produce market that also stretches into infinity, with beautiful fruits and veggies arranged as artistically as in Bangkok - and that says a lot. It is two stalls deep, one side facing the rickshaws, the other facing out into the avenue. And out in the street beyond the fruits and veggies is a crowd of people that you wouldn't believe. Middle class, well dressed, very pleasant, but why are there so many millions of them? And where could all of them be going?
Among the diversions in the produce market are a few stands that sell leeches, presumably to suck your blood rather than to serve as lunch. They're alive in sparkling clear water in the local equivalent of Mason jars, their mouths attached firmly to the walls of the jars, their tails waving gracefully below them. Each of the stands had a lot of customers....
The neighborhood hosts a great many beggars and a good many grossly deformed people who are on show as circus freaks. Of the two most memorable for me, one was a two-foot tall adult woman with wierdly arched arms and legs sitting on the sidewalk with a begging bowl, surrounded by a crowd of silent bystanders, while the other was a naked teenage hermaphrodite, maybe unconscious, sprawled on its back on the stairs to the flyover, its legs spread apart, its bizarre genitals on display for all to see, its head lying in the lap of someone holding a begging bowl. I'm told that in Hindu literature, those who are half-male and half-female have special status and powers, and they feature in at least two of Kushwant Singh's novels including his early (1950's) Night Train to Pakistan and his most recent one entitled Delhi.
There is the distinct possibility that Farmgate has the highest concentration of signs, banners, posters, handbills and related items to be found anywhere in the world, and a large percentage of them are for TOEFL classes. That leads me naturally to a piece on education, but I'll save that until later.
Farmgate rickshaws - and all others as well - come in several flavors. Standard passenger bicycle rickshaws carry two people (or as many as five if the passengers are small enough), while cargo bicycle rickshaws carry huge loads of everything from feathers to bags of cement either on flat beds or in boxes like pickup trucks. Now and then, I see a few up-scale motorized bicycle rickshaws that never seem to carry more than two passengers. Then there are the auto-rickshaws called baby taxies that also come in two versions: the two passenger version (five passengers max), and the bus version (normally seats eight, but can be packed with as many as sixteen, some hanging on the back step). Much of the city's smog comes directly out of the backside of those baby taxies. Appalling!
Rickshaw paint jobs are fantastic (to use a locally favored word), ranging from pastoral and seafaring scenes, to Hindu religious themes, to pictures from the 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The colors are straight out of Walt Disney at his most garish, but the end product is a highly colorful and entertaining way to make the 1,000,000 deadly rickshaws in Dhaka into something distinctive and personal.
According to an NSU student who recently did a sociology project on bicycle rickshaw pullers, those in Dhaka earn about Tk1 per km, while those in Chittagong, the major industrial city in southeastern Bangladesh, earn only about Tk0.66 per km. In order to earn a survival wage of Tk 100 per day (about $2.50), they have to carry passengers between 100 and 150 km per day. Adds a little statistical reality to City of Joy, the novel and movie about rickshaw pullers in nearby Calcutta.
Having ridden in rickshaws and baby taxis a good many times now, I think it’s safe for me to generalize about traffic density. In motion (about 20 mph max), baby taxies ordinarily operate about six inches apart in typically heavy traffic. At traffic lights, the normal distance between stopped vehicles waiting for the signal to turn green is approximately half an inch. These folks may not have much to work with, but in their own way they match the Thunderbirds and Blue Angels.
I accompanied the wife and the mother of one of my colleagues to Durga Puja festivities in the Old City.
I'm not up on all 33,000,000 gods in the Hindu pantheon, and I can't find any reference books on the subject here. Durga is a goddess who has ten arms and is depicted, at least at this time of the year, as a radiant figure decorated with gold and flowers. I simply don't know the meaning of the annual puja or festival that culminated on Tuesday, but it consists of many activities, some that I saw but most that I didn't. I'll tell you what I saw; maybe you can find out what it all means and let me know.
Durga Puja festivities seem to center largely on Puja Mandaps, which are stages within pavilions outside temple compounds. The newspaper says there are 130 of them in Dhaka, and each presumably contains a tableau of as many as ten more-or-less human-sized figures of Hindu gods and goddesses including Durga and Ganesh, the jolly elephant god with the shiny pink belly and the joyfully waving trunk.
A small crowd of middle class folks were at the first mandap that we visited, but nothing was happening there so we soon left. Our second stop was at Dhakeswari Temple, the oldest and largest Hindu temple in Dhaka, where we found a puja mela, or religious fair, in progress on the approach to the mandap, with people selling outrageously colorful pictures of Lord Krishna with flute and gopi (milk maiden) for 25 cents, Buddhist noisemakers whose religious significance escapes me but whose sounds are awesome; colorful rubber face masks that would be entirely appropriate for Halloween; pink, orange and yellow sweets that I had a hard time resisting despite my absolute ban on Dhaka street food; and cassettes of Hindi film music that are basically loud regardless of what other virtues they may have. The crowd was full of women and girls in brilliant saris and men in Western shirts and trousers, all very middle class. Again nothing was happening at the mandap, so away we went.
Our final stop was in a middle class residential district deep in the Old City. Part of the Durga Puja celebration is to visit old friends even if you aren't sure where they live. We spent about half an hour searching for an address, which gave me plenty of time to decide never to go into the Old City in a car again. The buildings didn't appear to be especially old, but the streets in that neighborhood have never been widened or straightened since the day they were built a couple of centuries ago when bullock carts were standard equipment. Furthermore, there is a narrow drainage channel on each side of the roadway, which means that if a car deviates more that a few inches from the centerline, it will put its wheels into a channel. Then there is the problem of intersections and turning corners: in most cases, a car - even a small one - simply cannot turn a corner. If the driver wants to go off at a right angle to his current course, he often has to drive out of the old city and re-enter it on a street that goes in the correct direction. The drive was very slow, very quiet, and required much cooperation with other people in the neighborhood.
We finally found the address and left the car and driver to fend for themselves while we walked deep into a block of buildings along a path that was one person wide, until we came to the apartment of my friends' friends. The household consisted of husband and wife in their 40s, he a reporter for a Hindi-language newspaper, she a psychologist who is very active in the women's empowerment movement, their 13 year old daughter who sang a couple of sweet Rabindranath Tagore songs (Rabindra sangeet) while accompanying herself on harmonium, a pair of servant girls, and a grandma. While we were there several more people arrived, and I lost count as the small apartment filled to overflowing.
Shortly after we arrived, the food began to appear - bowls and plates of curries, veggies, breads, condiments, fruits, sweets, and so on. What could I do? I ate a lot, enjoyed myself enormously and had only a mild attack of Dhaka belly that night.
As we were driving back toward Banani just before dark, we saw a couple of trucks carry figures of Durga toward the Buriganga River where the faithful deposit the figures in the water as the final act of Durga Puja. Unfortunately we didn't follow any of the processions to the river ... next year, insh'allah.
25 December 1996
Weather, Politics and Work
Since the last little tropical depression just about washed the country away in November, the weather has been fine - in the 80's, clear except for the smog, a few clouds now and then. This is the best time of the year for seeing the country, but I haven't had time to do that yet.
One of the expressions that I have heard repeatedly since I arrived is "You cannot separate Bengalis from politics". Sheikh Hasina, the new and current Prime Minister, seems to have a lot of support among the middle and upper classes who want economic and political stability and feel that the former PM, Begum Zia, was not going in that direction at all; however, Begum Zia is not done yet and is trying to stir up trouble. Sheikh Hasina certainly has a big job ahead of her, but Begum Zia's incessant pressure on her may make her even more effective than she would have been otherwise.
Perhaps you have heard of Sheikh Hasina's globetrotting. She recently spoke at the annual meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York, then made a keynote speech at the UN's World Food Conference in Rome. Major international political concerns here recently include attracting more foreign investment (the Dhaka stock exchange was on a roller coaster for a week, then crashed rather spectacularly amidst street riots), establishing an effective Ganges River water sharing arrangement with India before the next summer drought begins in April (just concluded a 30-year agreement that was stuck for the last 20 years), buying electrical power from India to jump start the local economy, making delicate arrangements for the proposed trans-Asian highway and railway systems that would connect Singapore and Bangkok, via Myanmar and Bangladesh, to India and then onward through Pakistan and Iran to Turkey and Europe.
Internal developments riding on the crest of Sheikh Hasina's return to power include rapid growth of Grameen Bank, the $2 billion per year micro-lender whose founder, Mohammed Yunus, has been nominated for a Nobel Prize in economics; joint ventures between Grameen Bank, an Internet service provider, and a cellular telephone service provider to establish a nationwide information system that will literally leap right over the utterly devastated infrastructure that currently characterizes the country, and so on. It's an exciting place to be right now, but everyone acknowledges that it can change over night if Begum Zia pushes the wrong button.
The university has leased a brand new apartment for us on the 4th floor of a highrise just a few steps down the street from my office. It appears to be secure (theft is IN here), easy to get out of in case of fire (fire is IN here), nearby (riding in rickshaws during the monsoon probably is NOT good), upstairs over my favorite Thai restaurant. The entire neighborhood is under construction so the atmosphere is a bit heavy, but the apartment should be a good place to live once all the construction ends.
I'm spending most of my time at work now, but I am trying to make short excursions out into the city several times each week. For example, the American Club is about a mile from the university and I take a rickshaw there for breakfast or dinner now and then - had a super Mexican buffet there a few nights ago. Last night I went to a private showing of a film entitled "Song of Freedom", about the 1971 Bangladesh War of Independence with/from Pakistan - the filmmakers were there as were several of the people who participated in the war and appeared in the film - at an incredibly beautiful home in the diplomatic colony just behind the American Club. On Monday, I went to the Sheraton Hotel for the 6th Annual Bangladesh Computer Show, a micro-version of Dubai's GITEX, and had lunch at a proper 5-star hotel buffet for the first time since I got here. All this amidst unbelievable crowds of people, auto-rickshaws, bicycle rickshaws, busses, smog and so on.
After I had been here for a few days, it became perfectly obvious that I should assume full responsibility for all university information services since there was nobody else who could do it. So I stopped being a Special Assistant to the President and was re-designated as Coordinator of Information Services, a significant step up in ways that are difficult to explain unless you work here. I report directly to the President, and work very closely with a few members of the Board of Governors who are especially interested in computing.
Support for information services is very strong and enthusiastic, and I have been instructed to have my way with it. I have a staff of 12 now, and hope to expand it to about sixteen in the near future. The job includes just about everything: creating and operating training labs for all faculties and students; budget and equipment control for all information services throughout the university (150 faculty and administrators, 1200 students, 90 PCs now, 45 more in the pipeline), automating the library from scratch (should we use LC or Dewey Decimal cataloging?) using UNESCO's widely distributed ISIS library system; making the existing Student Information System and Administrative Information System work properly until we can develop new systems; getting a new PABX system to replace the old one and establishing an email/fax service on it; installing two Internet workstations using services provided by a vendor with a VSAT connection to Singapore; beefing up security for computers throughout the university following a series of thefts; redesigning the 4th Floor of the NSU Administration Building to accommodate the new Office of Information Services; obtaining a UNIX system ASAP (strong competition going on among IBM, Sun and DEC) for training, applications development and the World Wide Web; completing an inventory of all computing hardware and software, etc.
The people are wonderfully frugal - we write on both sides of the paper to save money and sell empty computer boxes to earn it, but then we use the proceeds to buy Pentiums for core faculty and senior administrators with the expectation that top-of-the-line machines will last a long time. An invitation went to Jimmy Carter (too late) asking him to present the keynote speech at our first convocation on 18 December, not as an exercise in conspicuous consumption as it would have been in the UAE, but rather as a way of attracting more international support for NSU. If we had had this kind of enthusiasm, cooperation and common sense in the UAE, we could have done truly incredible things with all of that money.
An art gallery near my office has a painting of rickshaws in the monsoon that I covet - very tall and narrow, small distant rickshaws in the lower right corner, streamers of rain stretching diagonally from heaven to earth, mainly grays with a little color on the rickshaws. It reminds me of an afternoon in Castries, St. Lucia, when we went to a beach bar in a storm and had a long conversation with a young Rasta woman from Jamaica who taught high school math and was very sad.
In fact, this place has a lot in common with the Caribbean. The popularity of Bob Marley's reggae helps, but it’s more than that. The British colonial past, the tree-covered city with lots of coconut palms, the view of America as a kind of goal to which so many people aspire, along with the many Bangla expats who are there already, a strong pride and self-sufficiency in the midst of poverty, an immense number of households headed by single women, the importance of fish and fishing, the jute-based export economy that corresponds to some extent to bananas in St. Lucia and sugar cane in Barbados, the kind of warmth and friendliness that lets you make friends with everyone around you. The smog is terrible on a bad night, politics is a real problem, lawlessness in the least developed areas is appalling, but having said that, it's still easy to see why all three of the State Department folks that I talked with during the summer said they would be pleased to return to Dhaka.
Indian Cultural Festival
During the last two weeks of November, the Indian Embassy sponsored an Indian Cultural Festival in Dhaka - 13 days of non-stop cultural events at auditoria all over the city. The following are notes from some of the performances that I attended:
A) Last night I went to the Shilpakala Academy, Dhaka's answer to Lincoln Center, and attended a tabla performance by Ustad Alla Rhaka and his younger son Faizel Quereshi, combined with a sarangi performance by Ustad Sultan Khan. Alla Rhaka is acknowledged by one and all as the greatest tabla player of the 20th century, and not only is the father of Zakhir Hussain and Faizel Quereshi, but also is the figurative father of using the tabla as a solo instrument rather than using it only to accompany others. Sultan Khan is tied with Ram Narayan for the position of world's best sarangi player ... says something about Alla Rhaka's position in the world of music when one of the world's two best sarangi players does the warm-up for him.
The music was great of course - what else could it be? - but Alla Rhaka himself played the part of grand old man to perfection. He's 77 years old and had to be helped onto the stage platform by three other people. Amidst creaking joints, he settled to the floor behind the drums and began to prepare for the concert, slowly removing his watch, rolling up his sleeves, chatting with his son, being photographed by about 20 young photographers who eventually had to be forcibly driven from the stage so the performance could begin.
He has a marvelous smile, almost child-like, that spreads gently but quickly across his face whenever he does something clever that works - almost like he's surprised that it worked - and the audience responds warmly. The overhead stage lights were too hot, so about an hour into his performance he spread his handkerchief over the top of his bald head to provide some shade and completed the performance that way. His fingers are incredibly supple, and if my calculations are correct, both performers played approximately 6,000 drumbeats per minute at their peak rates, and they sustained that pace for several minutes at a time, modulating the beats to make music, not noise.
Faizel Quereshi is Alla Rhaka's younger son. Faizel's slightly older brother is Zakir Hussain, who many consider to be the finest tablist of the younger generation, but whose proclivity for world music and avant gardism in Indian music are a bit much for me. In Dubai last year, I heard him present a spectacular virtuoso performance that reminded me of James Galway on flute - dazzlingly brilliant but somewhat superficial. Faizel Quereshi, on the other hand, is a much more introspective musician who seems to be fully committed to playing "pure" Hindustani music with the kind of depth and sensitivity that Zakir Hussain lacks. The intricate musical exchanges between him and his father were simply marvelous.
I showed up without a ticket and was given a seat on the front row in the VIP section, escorted there by the director of the show, and seated beside the dignitary who presented the flowers at the end of the performance, one of the film makers who worked behind-the-scenes in 1971 with the cultural troop who performed in the film that I saw in the diplomatic colony a few nights earlier. The upper class folks move in a tight circle here, and as was true in Dubai, are extraordinarily pleased when an outsider like me shows up for a performance. They understand that I can't read Bengali and obtain tickets in the normal way, and make up for it by treating me with remarkable hospitality and courtesy.
B) My musical evening yesterday was very good but not great. The setting was the National Museum Auditorium, and the event was a bharata natyam performance, a South Indian dance drama-cum-pantomime that uses classical music and a limited range of facial expressions, postures and gestures, almost like American Sign Language, to tell stories from the Indian classical literature. This year the Indian Festival includes a multi-night bharata natyam competition for young dancers, and last night's show was one in the series. The young woman in her spectacular gold and peacock green costume was very skillful and the crowd loved her, but she did a kind of "fusion rock / modern jazz / bharata natyam" with all sorts of non-standard postures and movements. Being something of an old fogey, I prefer the "pure" classical form. Nose up, sniff. If I'm gonna gate crash (successfully again), I prefer to crash the real thing.
But my nose (and lungs) got in trouble. Riding home in a baby taxi for 20 minutes in that horrendous smog with a handkerchief serving as a pathetic substitute for an air filter or gas mask just about did me in. Maybe we'll have to reconsider the idea of buying a car here.
C) And finally I heard another flute performance by Hariprasad Chaurasia at the Osmania Auditorium, the city's municipal auditorium that's even nicer than the one at the National Museum. This time, a friend of a friend had an extra pass (no charge for tickets, just a hassle to go across the city during the day to get one) and gave it to me - my seat was in the front row of the first balcony.
Hariprasad was accompanied by four people - the same tabla player and accompanying flutist who appeared with him when I saw him perform in Burlington, VT, late in September, plus two women on tampura, one the standard 4-foot tall base drone, the other a little tiny treble tanpura called something else but doing the same job in the high range - gives a very full drone effect.
The performance last night was far better than others by Hariprasad that I have attended in Burlington and Boston. In Boston several years ago, he was playing with a master class of American performers who really were a long way from being masters, and the result was a disjointed kind of thing.
In Burlington the problem was different. He was playing to an American audience, and Americans just can't wait for the tabla to come in. So the "alap" - the arrhythmic unaccompanied introduction to the raga - was severely truncated to 10 minutes to please a crowd who failed to understand that the alap is where the performer deals with subtleties and nuances. Last night Hariprasad was playing to an audience who really understood what was going on, so he spent an hour and twenty minutes developing the alap of the first raga. I had never before heard an audience go wild during an alap - I guess that idea had never even occurred to me - but it did so several times last night. THEN the tabla player got to do some work.
The tablist was a big, rather simple looking fat faced teenage country boy who kinda dozed thru the alap, but whose technical skills rival Zakir Hussain's and whose ability to communicate with Hariprasad while playing 6000 beats per minute is absolutely phenomenal. Watching and hearing them play together suggests that there must be some kind of concealed hard-wiring between them.
The tabla used in Hariprasad's performance seemed to be a bit different from the ones that Alla Rhaka and Faizel Quareshi used in their solo performances last week. The difference is one of emphasis: the ones last week produced incredibly sharp and distinct sounds just as the one did last night, but the one last night was somehow warmer, mellower, more resonant. But perhaps the difference was in the acoustics ... certainly the venues were quite different.
Hariprasad used both the standard "alto" bansuri and a soprano flute somewhat smaller than a piccolo. The little guy makes lots of noise that would drive our Niftycat right through the ceiling, but very loud, short bursts of those high frequency sounds inside the auditorium yielded an echo that Hariprasad used expertly, with as many as three "rebounds" skipping and cascading around the room before fading out.
His performance was the first time I've experienced the kind of poetic license that great men can take with their ragas. If a mere mortal plays the wrong note, he'll be booed off the stage; if Hariprasad very carefully plays the "wrong" note, it is seen as exploring the outer fringes of creativity and it brings the house down. He did that several times in one piece last night, beginning with an "error" that he held for a few seconds to make it clear that he did it on purpose, then proceeding to play shorter and shorter versions of it that resulted in a strangely beautiful new raga in a "minor key", ending in a standing ovation and an encore, unprecedented in my experiences of Indian classical music performances outside the USA.
Where is the real Bangladesh?
The real Bangladesh is a complex thing. This letter doesn't include the description of my visit to Old Dhaka a few weeks ago. Just after I wrote it, and before I backed it up, somebody stole the hard drive out of my computer. How's that for a taste of the "real Dhaka"?
Nancy Visits Dhaka
[ Nancy flew to Dhaka from Al-Ain for four days at the beginning of December, during the National Day celebrations in the UAE. She got to see the University and meet a lot of people who work here, and experience a bit of life in the suburbs of Dhaka. All things considered, I think she agrees that this is a pretty good place to work and live. Flying on Biman Bangladesh Airlines is another matter - business class is not optional there. ]
Al-Ain, United Arab Emirates
22 December 1996
It would be hard to find two places more different in so many respects. Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries on Earth while the UAE has one of the highest per capita incomes. Bangladesh is one of the wettest places, the UAE one of the driest. Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated, the UAE sparsely populated. Bangladesh contains mostly its own national population while the UAE national population is a distinct minority amidst people from everywhere.
But the commonalties are striking too. Both countries celebrated their 25th anniversary of independence this month, both are Islamic societies, both are predominantly flat, both are considered developing countries albeit very different in their natural resource base. But to go quickly from one to the other, all the time keeping in mind the logistics and practical matters of living and working in each place, is truly daunting.
Although Woody has written a lot about Bangladesh already, I wondered how it would be "on the ground". I started to get a sense of the place while I waited at Abu Dhabi Airport for 9 hours for my Biman (national airline of Bangladesh) flight to arrive. My fellow passengers, workers in the UAE right across the spectrum from laborers to professionals, were to a person loaded down with immense piles of baggage, all securely tied with thick rope. My carry-on and wheelie were effete to say the least! Now I understand that everyone going to Bangladesh brings in as much as they can from the outside world, all secured against theft and tampering. Next trip, I will too. I keep looking at things and wondering if I can fit THAT in my suitcase: vacuum cleaner, clothes rack, pots and pans etc.
Woody had warned me that a powerful tropical cyclone was forming in the Bay of Bengal, and satellite photos on the Internet confirmed it. Our flight thus took a far northerly route up over the Hindu Kush and skimmed along the top of India before heading southeast to Dhaka. On approach from over Calcutta, the river systems were very clear, the Hoogly into Cal, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra in the distance. From the air, it looked a bit like Holland with rice paddies.
Woody and a colleague from the University met me. My first impression was that Dhaka is more a melange of Jogjakarta and perhaps Trinidad than India, which is what I had expected. Woody also keeps remarking on the things that correspond to Java and the Caribbean. Almost immediately, the security issue became apparent with security guards everywhere. Coming from years in the Gulf where public severings really do deter crime, this came as a shock. In this way, Bangladesh is quite different from India, Thailand or Indonesia and it's going to take a bit to change my lifestyle to adapt to this problem.
On the plus side is being in a place where the national population does their own work instead of using foreign workers. And where people driving rickshaws, "baby taxis" or auto-rickshaws and larger vehicles pay attention to one another - now that's a real positive change from the madness and mayhem that passes for driving in the Gulf. The pace also seems more relaxed and the people more open. That was especially true of the students at the University who seemed to interact normally by Western standards; men and women together, lots of evidence of organizations and academic activity. Big difference.
The linkages between the two places are becoming clearer to me too. As Woody noted earlier, right down the street from the University in Dhaka is a shopping plaza funded by the UAE leader Sheikh Zayed to promote cottage industries. But the connections are more profound than that. In the midst of last summer, the UAE decided that it had to regain control over people living within its borders, something that had never happened before. Over several months of "amnesty", all undocumented people were allowed to leave the UAE without penalty and only fully documented people were permitted to stay. Some people without papers had lived here for generations. This exodus had massive effects on the demographic structure of the population. No one knows how many people from throughout Asia left at that time, but the Bangladeshi Embassy claimed that tens of thousands of their undocumented nationals left, with still that number remaining. I have just become attuned to the fact that the large cities of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have huge Bangladeshi communities, remitting much needed money back home. Of course the UAE is no longer seen as a target destination, but a BBC documentary on Bangladeshi emigration shown the week I returned made it clear that the choice of receiving society is ever changing.
My return flight from Dhaka consisted almost wholly of indentured Bangladeshi workers for the UAE. It was evident that many of them were illiterate in any language including Bengali. Guards at the airport had to physically direct them to the appropriate areas. It is also clear now that supplying this labor force is a mutually lucrative business for some Bangladeshis and Emiratis. After the forced exodus of much of the actual workforce here, things such as construction and maintenance almost came to a standstill for months, including the replacement for our office, which was destroyed by fire at the beginning of September. At the Dhaka end, the high-rise buildings in the neighborhood where North South University is located are said to have been built with Gulf money by labor contractors who send the indentured workers to the Gulf and collect a sizable fee from the Gulfies for their efforts.
The Dhaka duty-free was different from any other in memory, featuring goods like Johnson's Baby Shampoo instead of name-brand perfumes and luxury goods. It helps to explain why people arrive with such strange loads of luggage.
The most abiding impression of the differences between the two places came during take-off from Dhaka and approach to the UAE. Dhaka is a pre-industrial city and has a low level of lighting at night. The Airbus I was riding in had a screen up front that showed our altitude, and at only 5000 feet, the lights of this city of seven million people were just dim twinkles. By contrast, when we were more than a hundred miles out from the Oman coast south of Iran, Muscat was clearly defined by lights. As we made landfall at Fujairah on the UAE's Indian Ocean coast, I could clearly see the Buraimi oasis where I live almost a hundred miles away, population 200,000. Not only does Al-Ain generate vastly more light than Dhaka, the zigzag road up Jebel Hafit to the south of the city has the lights left on all the time, prompting local stories of sheikhs who are afraid of the dark. But all this was nothing compared to what was happening down on the Gulf coast with all of the cities emblazoned with lights for the nation’s 25th birthday celebrations. It's a wonder that the pilot could find the runway with all that light. Talk about conspicuous consumption ... Wonder what it will be like a century from now?
11 March 97
I asked the driver of the baby taxi to take me to Lalbag Fort on the very edge of the Old City. About 20 minutes later, after riding the full length of Sonargaon Street which looked fascinating (it seems to have an aquarium bazaar, for example) but doesn't appear in the travel guides, we stopped at the end of a narrow lane jammed with people and the driver pointed - Lalbag Forth down there. It certainly wasn't obvious to me, but who was I to argue?
Since we had passed Dhakeswari Temple just before we stopped, I went back there to see the place that was surrounded by the Puja Mela. With the street fair gone, it was easy to walk right into the temple, a compound a couple of hundred feet on a side with two bright yellow buildings inside - one a garden variety temple to Durga and Siva, the other something like a Buddhist stupa: interesting from the outside, but you can't go inside for there is no entrance. Three men, a woman and a little girl showed me through the temple, stopping at the cells for Durga with ten arms and a radiant face and body, and Siva sitting on the floor represented by a short, erect, stylized black penis. The arcaded central part of the temple is where the big drum sits, and the youngest man beat it furiously with highly flexible but rock hard drumsticks to demonstrate the technique and the sound. In the silence of the temple, it was like a machine gun. The only English that I heard was from the very tall man with the shaved head and white robe - probably the priest - who wished me success in my life as I departed. The place was spotlessly clean, lacking even the foul odor of burning oil that is so common in South Indian temples.
Enough procrastinating. I plunged straight into the ancient, winding, jam packed streets of Old Dhaka. Every time I came to a corner (every 30 to 40 feet), I said "Lalbag Fort?" with a rising inflection, and somebody nearby would smile broadly and point in one direction or the other - not my favorite way to navigate, but it worked.
The pink wall of a 17th century Moghul fort emerged in front of me. The street was straight and pretty wide at that point, with some recent high-rise apartment buildings standing opposite. Inside the wall is a multi-acre compound with a small mosque, tombs, a deep pool whose bottom must be a good many feet below sea level, grand gates, and beautifully landscaped gardens. Unlike our distressing visit to the Taj Mahal in 1990, there were no beggars, no hawkers, no trash - just a beautiful old fort and park with a good many people enjoying the silence and relaxation of a Friday morning.
My Salaam alayacum to a saintly looking schoolteacher in a white toga, sandals and long white beard completely blew his mind. He knew I was an alien and asked me where I was from, whereupon he immediately decided that I was a Muslim from America and was thoroughly confused when I said I was not Muslim.
The slums of Old Dhaka have encroached so completely onto the main gate at the southeastern corner of the compound that you can't enter the compound from that direction. But you can go through the gate from the inside and appreciate the delicate beauty of it while standing with your back to a fairly grim pocket of poverty. The appearance of the gate in earlier centuries is preserved on the Tk100 note, as somebody paused and pointed out to me as I stood there admiring the architecture.
The narrow, unpaved street at the east end of the fort leads deep into the Old City, southeastwards toward the waterfront and the water commerce that made Dhaka the economic and political center of Bengal under the Moghul Empire. I wasn't looking for historic buildings or other points of interest mentioned in the tour guide; rather I was simply trying to get a feel for street life there, to see if I could get through the two-mile long journey without getting lost or mugged or soaked in mud, and mainly to learn how to relate to the street people in preparation for more detailed trips later in the Old City.
Within minutes of entering the area, I attracted a following of teenage boys who served as my escorts, bodyguards and audience for the next three hours. Some dropped out as we went along and others joined, and for the duration I was surrounded by somewhere between 5 and 15 of them, uniformly well dressed, articulate, eager to have their pictures taken, and eager to show me their city. Only one of them was a problem - probably on drugs and certainly trying to get me to give him some - and I ditched him pretty soon by making it clear to the others that he was bothering me. Somebody gently but firmly herded him to the left when I turned right and I never saw him again. Never for a moment did I feel any sense of hostility from anybody that I saw or met, and I never was approached by a single beggar despite the appalling poverty of the area. I suspect that the beggars work the higher income areas where people can spare something - begging from others who have nothing to give simply doesn't work.
Street scenes in the Old City are beyond description for me, but I shall try: A handcart full of wet cowhides vacated by their rightful owners only moments earlier, parked momentarily in front of an entryway decorated with sail-like strips of blue and pink bunting for a wedding later in the day... Tall minarets on mosques so crowded by encroaching slum buildings that I couldn't find any trace of the lower reaches of the mosques... Still-life exhibits of food - coconuts here, bananas there, pineapples or sugarcane elsewhere - each group carefully arranged in three dimensions hanging from strings in front of dark walls so that the filtered sunlight made the fruit shine like stars against the background ... Fabric hawkers with piles of brilliant saris carefully posed in areas of sunshine surrounded by deep shadows so they seemed to have spotlights shining on them... Handcarts full of gray, fuzzy jute twine being carried deep into a go-down (warehouse)... A man totally covered in finely ground white flour who insisted that I take a ghostly photo of him sitting atop his flour mill... Ancient and dilapidated buildings hanging so far out from each side of the narrow lanes that they almost met in the middle... Handicraftsmen turning cow hides into shoes, making perfumes, sewing clothing and crushing canes...
We came to a nondescript lane and turned right, away from the bustle of the city and strangely downhill in a place that is almost perfectly flat. The boys were saying Buriganga! Buriganga! as we turned a final corner and went through a low gate that opened onto a panorama of the Buriganga river. The fleet before me included broad, shallow cargo canoes, great cavernous "riceboats" as they would be called in Thailand here converted to houseboats, a few smallish river freighters, some larger ocean-going freighters and a couple of spiffy tourist ships that looked totally out of place. At the base of the embankment were broad flights of steps (ghats) leading down into the river where great throngs of people bathe each day.
I admired one of the buildings a short way down the river, so the boys took me there - back up to the main street, then into the great courtyard of an ancient caravansarai not on any of my maps. Tiny apartments faced into the yard all around, people were doing laundry and cooking here and there, a teenage girl seemed to think I was hysterically funny until I offered to take her photo whereupon she fled. At the back of the court was a rickshaw repair shop, and beyond that the boys led me into an absolute maze of stairs, walls, twisting lanes and courtyards where great droves of women and children laughed and giggled in embarrassment as we made our progress, and finally through a suite of tiny, smoky rooms forming a "penthouse" atop the back wall for a superb view of the boats and ghats and far off buildings on the opposite side of the Buriganga.
As is true in the Middle East as well, neighborhoods that are dirty on the outside usually are clean on the inside; i.e., since you have no control over public space, you ignore it, but since you have a lot of control over your private space, you keep it immaculately clean. Such was the case in each of the rooms and apartments that the boys led me through on our journey to the Buriganga.
Shortly after I left the caravansarai en route to the Saderghat waterfront further southeast, the boys vanished, and I decided that I was suffering from sensory overload. So only halfway from Lalbag Fort to Saderghat, I hopped another baby taxi and returned to Banani.
The four keys to my success were saying a) "Salaam alayacum" a lot, b) "My name is Woody", c) "I am from America", and D) "Bangladesh is fantastic". I was asked my opinion on that last item several times, and began to parrot it whenever it seemed even vaguely appropriate.
Corruption and Free Speech
As you perhaps know, Bangladesh is the world's favorite destination of international aid, and volunteers abound - the government can't manage their own corrupt economy, but they certainly do know how to manage the begging bowl, and that skill most emphatically is NOT confined to the poor folk. There's at least a good chance that some of the richest people here are the best beggars, and they do it on the international scene.
It's both disconcerting and infuriating to have a street person approach me with a big smile on his face and his hand sticking out, and say to me in perfect English: "Bangladesh is a poor country", as if that somehow explains everything. The same line appears over and over in the newspapers, and they are mining it for all it is worth. Obviously the leaders can get away with saying "Bangladesh is a poor country" whenever they appear on international TV, whereas it would be unseemly for them to go to Rome or New York and say "Bangladesh is a corrupt country", even though the opposition party says it all the time as a criticism of those in power. My guess is that many of the most powerful nationals must have a huge vested interest in keeping this place poor so the donations will keep rolling in.
Being from Mississippi, America's own Bangladesh, I know that poverty and corruption often go hand in hand and that deciding which is cause and which is effect can be very difficult, but in this case I cautiously opt for corruption as the cause and poverty as the result.
The aid agencies and international NGO's cooperate to perfection, stumbling over each other to contribute both money and services. But even though corruption is rampant, so much money flows in that some of it actually manages to trickle down, where one of its primary functions is to support the status quo and postpone the next civil war between the haves and the have-nots. What's in it for the donors? A high standard of living in posh suburbs.
I haven't been here long enough to know what I'm talking about yet, but I have been here long enough to have had many encounters with corruption: for example with bureaucrats, one of whom seems to be withholding my work permit until the university pays his bribe; and with corrupt computer salesmen who submit high bids then immediately after the opening begin to lower their bids with promises of kickbacks in return for a little consideration; and with NSU university officials who have invested so much effort in preventing corruption that they have just about strangled themselves. The last point is perhaps one of the most interesting, for the preventive measures can become so complex and convoluted that the only way you can get anything done is to bypass or short-circuit the counter-measures, and that can easily lead to yet other kinds of corruption, or at least the appearance of corruption which is just as bad. Catch-22.
Although newspaper editorials lay the roots of corruption in the bad old days of Pakistani rule between '47 and '71, that reeks of Mississippians' complaining of outside agitators whenever the Blacks get tired of being kicked around. Again I really don't know what I'm talking about yet, but already it's clear that corruption and its close cousin exploitation have gone on here since the Big Bang. It was rampant during the days of the Raj (not necessarily among the Brits, but certainly among the Bengalis whom the Brits used to do their dirty work), and the Brits and Bengalis under the Raj were just following a long-standing Moghul tradition, and so on ... 'Tis the nature of life and families and zamindars and fatalism and distrust and over-population and floods and the image of limited good in this corner of the world.
This is the only place I've ever lived where one of the most important code words is "transparency". In computer jargon, transparency means that transactions between two programs or whatever are essentially invisible and the user can't see them - they just happen - the "box" is opaque and the transactions that occur inside it are "invisible". Here it means almost exactly the opposite. Specifically, it means that transactions are NOT hidden behind opaque walls - the transactions are entirely visible and it's the "box" in which they occur that is "transparent" - so what you see is what you get and you can't blame anybody for doing deals corruptly. Transparency International (on the WWW), an anti-corruption advisory group cum NGO, etc., has set up shop here as it has elsewhere in the Third World to keep an eye on things and try to help those who really want to end corruption in high places. They have a big job ahead of them.
In this regard as in so many others, Bangladesh is radically different from the Gulf where corruption is famous for occurring on a sheikhly scale but is virtually nonexistent at the level of us mere mortals where it would be a beheadable offense.
But I'm not complaining - just telling it more or less like it is - and I'm free to do that here. In fact, freedom of speech is revered at least as much here as it is in North America. If I wrote an email message like this one from the Gulf, I could expect to be caught by the censors with unknown but ghastly consequences, whereas my saying it here in the midst of party politics gone wild - even saying it loudly and in public - probably would not even be noticed, and if it were most people would simply think I was really getting into the spirit of the place, congratulate me for jumping right in, and invite me to join their political party.
Going directly from the Gulf to Bangladesh can really jerk your head around. But all things considered, this is by far the better place in most respects, and I'm having a great time here - except for that corrupt clerk who won't give me my work permit.
First Trip Out Of Dhaka
David Goalstone and I used an NSU van and driver to get out of Dhaka for the first time ever. We left here at 08:45, returned at 15:30, drove less than 50 km northwest of the city in that time, and had what was for me a very distressing experience. We must have seen several million people absolutely busting their asses today - some of the hardest working people I have ever seen in my entire life - yet they are living in abject poverty. Not like Mississippi where the welfare mentality and welfare structures leave poor people sitting around waiting for government handouts. There is no way you can blame the victims for this one. These people are by any standard, reasonable or unreasonable, doing more than their fair share and they still can't get far enough ahead to do anything more than barely survive.
We spent about half an hour at a glorious monument to the War of '71 that must have cost about a zillion dollars to build and essentially glorifies the ruling elite. Complete with a troop of soldiers rehearsing a ceremony for tomorrow, wearing glorious uniforms, playing a glorious 4-bugle fanfare, looking like the best fed and best exercised examples of South Asian manhood that you could imagine.
Then we spent about two hours in Dhamrai, a small preindustrial city that we found when I told the driver - for no reason in particular - to turn off the highway and on to one of the many indistinguishable roads running out through the rice fields. The main road through Dhamrai is for pedestrians and bicycle rickshaws only - vehicles including busses stop at the edge of town.
Today was market day, and the market was a couple of kilometers long. I walked the full length of it in both directions and not a single person asked me for baksheesh - all of them were much too busy working to waste their time panhandling the way they do in Dhaka. This is NOT "hard time" since the monsoon ended only a few months ago, and the market was bursting with fine foods far more artistically arranged that what we saw in South India... a gaggle of wild pigs being herded right down the main street... a large Hindu ceremony in preparation... a lot of fine old architecture left behind by the Raj now in an advanced stage of decay - must have been a beautiful city 50 to 75 years ago.
The city is a major producer of brass and pottery. We met a man from one of the great sprawling "factories" who took us deep into the bowels of the work shops - well over a hundred craftsmen making the products, and even more operating the foundries, kilns, etc. required to "finish" the items crafted in the earlier phases. Then to the shop in a grand but decomposing building that somehow reminded me of Soufrierre, St. Lucia, not because of architectural similarities, but because time simply had stopped in both of them.
I bought a lot of stuff at the factory - a beautiful "bell metal" serving bowl that rings like a bell almost forever when you tap it with another piece of metal, eight massive brass goblets that we can use as water glasses when we have guests for dinner, an old bowl/pitcher/vase that had blackened with age or maybe smoke but was upgraded with beautiful "incisions" in the black surface (can't describe this one very well), and a water pitcher that was designed for rinsing yourself in the toilet but has very attractive lines and excellent balance so I'll use it to water plants. Out of character for me to buy a bunch of things like that, but I had to do it.
To get into the factory, we had to walk by and through sprawling rice drying floors where this year's crop is being processed. The problem with the rice is that the country had a bumper crop this year, so the market is glutted and the farmers can't get enough money to recover their production costs: catch-22 - not enough rice and the consumers starve, enough rice and the farmers starve. But the cement drying floors covering more than an acre each were filled with unhusked rice and the people raking it into windrows to facilitate bagging probably were thinking less about their empty pockets than about their potentially full bellies.
The highway that we followed from and to Dhaka was raised high above the fields and everything else on a great causeway to keep it from going under water when the floods hit - like elevated highways in the Mississippi Delta, but much higher. The traffic jams were monumental and the drivers utterly mindless. It is inconceivable to me that some of those vehicles EVER were new. The cargo trucks were either empty and going so fast that they were out of control, or grotesquely overloaded and for that reason unstoppable. I have been appalled at the large number and great severity of the accidents reported in the newspapers; now I am astonished that the numbers and severity are so low.
Summer is Acomin' in
The Ides of March is approaching rapidly and the hot, dry season definitely is here. Humidity remains moderate, but afternoon high temperatures exceed 95F every day, and the smog has sort of leveled off at the maximum for the season (and the maximum for Planet Earth) and won't decline until the monsoon begins in June.
The government's new 20-year treaty with India to supply water to Bangladesh during the dry season was touted as the great political coup of the cool season. But when the hot season got here and somebody finally took a few minutes to read the small print, they discovered that the average daily flow of water would be REDUCED under the new treaty. This year Bangladesh is getting about 50% less water from the Ganges than it did during the two decades preceding the treaty. Sheik Hasina seems to have well and truly shot herself in both feet this time.
The country's electrical power system operates on natural gas obtained from huge reserves in eastern Bangladesh. But for many reasons - technical, political, financial, managerial, etc. - the country's electrical supply is falling further and further behind the demand, with illegal connections to the power grid siphoning off something over 20% of all power produced here. Many of the newly established textile factories are shutting down and going out of business because they can't get enough electricity to stay in operation. Load shedding has become a way of life as the hot season has gotten underway and demand for air conditioning has increased. Now the university and our apartment building are without electrical power for 1 to 3 hours daily, and it will get a lot worse before the monsoon begins and cools things off a bit. And since the nation's water supply has diminished sharply, it isn't surprising that the water supply in our apartment failed for part or all of every day this week.
In large part because of the horrendously convoluted management and accounting system used at NSU, ostensibly to prevent corruption, it is extraordinarily difficult to get things done here. Most people, most of the time, simply assume that things won't happen in response to their requests, so they make requests then don't follow up, and the result is a vicious circle in which nothing happens. That's not my style - I do follow up and I do get things done, but the battles can take forever and the likelihood of burnout is high, both with regard to services to be provided by my own staff and those provided by other departments in and out of the university. The university installed a TV in our apartment on 15 January; five weeks later, I finally managed to get them to attach it to a cable system so we could use it - doesn’t work to hook it to the burglar bars. I began asking for air conditioners the day we moved into the apartment and have been assured repeatedly that they are "on the way"; two days ago I pushed real hard and discovered that they still hadn't been approved, much less ordered - no malice, but they just didn't quite get around to it. But since we don't have much electricity, it may not matter anyway. They were installed on 10 March.
The Board of Governors approved the purchase of two new servers for the computer system on 22 December but because of graduation, Christmas, New Years, Ramadan, the 25th Anniversary of the War of Liberation, etc., the order didn't go out until mid January; then the vendor sent the order to Singapore where the machines were to be assembled - they got the order just in time for Chinese New Year - and the servers still haven't arrived. Things really do happen here, but every time it takes us 12 weeks to do something that requires a week or less in Europe and America, Bangladesh falls further and further behind.
Bangladesh was established as an independent country in 1971 after two centuries of abuse by England and 25 years of abuse by Pakistan, and had the misfortune of being born poor at the peak of the Cold War (unlike the UAE which was born very rich at exactly the same time). It opted for a Marxist-style planned economy, and getting away from that experiment that demonstrably failed is one of the major objectives of the current government. But with counter-productive politics-as-usual continuing apace, it isn't clear that real changes are occurring at all, or that any that are occurring are moving fast enough to make any difference. Even the World Bank is threatening to stop its loan payments to Bangladesh if something doesn’t happen soon.
Last month, the World Micro-Credit Summit Conference was held in Washington, DC. The stars of the show were Sheik Hasina our globetrotting Prime Minister, and Professor Mohammed Yunus, the Bangladeshi economist who created Grameen Bank a bit over 20 years ago to provide micro-loans to the poor of Bangladesh so that they could work themselves out of poverty (grameen is the Bangla word for “village”). The micro-credit movement has caught on around the world now, and a plan is afoot to spend $21 billion over the next few years in an attempt to use tiny loans to massively reduce the world’s poverty. Grameen Bank serves as the background for my trip out of the city on Saturday.
Three Economics Department faculty members took a group of about 10 students to a village about 40km north of the city. We left NSU at 0630, went to the Grameen Bank HQ and picked up one of the PR people, and left the city at about 0730. At about 0830, our convoy of three NSU vans arrived at a small building beside the highway where Grameen Bank has its Gazipur District headquarters, in the area in which the village is located, then on to the village at 0900. At about noon, we left the village and went to the "country home" of one of the wealthy students where we had lunch on the verandah and a discussion of the days events, then returned to NSU, arriving at about 1700.
The village is a kind of Grameen "model town", definitely not the poorest of the poor - a lot nicer than most all-black Mississippi Delta plantation villages of the 1950's - but nevertheless rural, agricultural, traditional, etc. When we left the main highway, we drove for a couple of kilometers along a road that was LITERALLY a yellow brick one-lane highway that was in better condition than the main highway. The countryside is flat to very gently rolling - not as flat as the Mississippi Delta - and is ever so slightly terraced everywhere. Interspersed among the terraced fields are upwardly projecting "islands" of land, maybe two meters high, that are occupied by single farmsteads or compounds. Each "island" is a couple of hundred meters from its nearest neighbor, and the slight rise under each compound keeps its feet out of the water during the monsoon when presumably everything else is flooded. Each "island" has a fringe of trees and at least one large stand of bamboo that is used for making everything from furniture to kitchen implements to parts of the houses. I was told that the village consisted of about 500 households in this very scattered settlement pattern - must cover a couple of square miles.
Most fields were dry and cracked at this time of the year, but short rice stubble indicated precisely what grew in all of them. In a few places we saw rice spread out on drying floors, but most of this season's harvest already is in storage. The rice straw is now in huge haystacks dotted all over the countryside - several at each farmstead - and the cows seemed quite content. Some of the fields have been planted again and are being watered from deep wells, but this is not the right time of the year to see endless expanses of green.
The farmsteads are connected with each other by trails atop narrow "causeways" that function to terrace the fields, the surfaces of which are as much as a meter above the surrounding paddy fields. The result is a kind of patchwork quilt effect with the trails functioning as the "seams" between patches. The layout is kind of haphazard - not a regular grid - but they permit easy travel in any direction from anywhere even during the monsoon.
We went to the village to attend a local meeting of the Grameen Bank borrowers group, about 25 women from nearby farms whose incomes when they became Grameen borrowers were very low. The women students were assigned the task of interviewing several of the women borrowers, but the men students had a different assignment to be completed at bank headquarters so they kind of went along for the ride. Since the men weren't expected to attend the meeting, they took me and my camera on an extended tour of the nearby farmsteads.
Each farmstead consists of three to five buildings facing into a common courtyard. There are NO walls surrounding the compounds as I have come to expect in the Middle East and Southeast Asia, and even in Dhaka. The buildings are built on even higher ground atop the "islands" so they are even better protected from flood waters. Typically they have two stories and are surprisingly substantial, being made of mud brick covered with mud plaster. The over-hanging thatched roofs apparently provide enough protection from the rains so that they don't dissolve every year. Each building has a "front porch" facing the courtyard, and the overhanging roof is supported by poles whose bases are planted firmly in the ground.
I was especially impressed by the very sophisticated wood-fired cooking stoves embedded in the courtyards - very carefully sculptured mud structures sunk into the ground, lined with ceramic tiles, their tops providing excellent support for the big aluminum pots used for cooking, their sides providing easy access for inserting fuel. But it isn't clear to me how they work during heavy rains - looks to me like they would fill with water with no way for it to drain away. Maybe my photos will solve this puzzle for me.
I'm sure the people in that village have been exposed to innumerable visitors brought by Grameen Bank, but they remained very friendly and hospitable rather that being hostile to yet another load of "tourists". The young men took me into several homes, told the residents who and what I was, explained things to me, and in general served as excellent guides. It is always amazing to me just how colorful the women's clothing is, not only in that village but everywhere in Bangladesh, and the extent to which the women allowed me to photograph them should have resulted in many very colorful shots.
At one of the last houses on my tour, Shahida, a beautiful little girl about 10 years old, was at first very shy about my photographing her, but when her father, brothers, cousins, etc., finally got her to relax a bit, she became my best model and most enthusiastic guide. With flashing eyes and brilliant white teeth shining against her very dark skin, she grabbed my hand and towed me around the countryside visiting various houses that I hadn't been to earlier. And she was something of an ethnographer too - showed me pigeon houses I hadn't seen before, convinced several mothers with babies to come outside and have their pictures taken, took me to a house with a small herd of cattle instead of the single cows at the other houses, did an impromptu whirling dervish kind of dance for me in one of the courtyards, and generally had a wonderful time.
I returned to the Grameen Bank meeting just as it ended. The group of women included some who had just paid off their previous micro-loans (most of them equivalent to far less than $100), and some had just received new loans to build their own micro-businesses, or buy a tiny plot of land to raise food or a cow or some chickens to produce something that they can sell to support themselves and their families. Although Grameen doesn't pretend to be perfect, the system generally works. Over a million people - almost all of them women - have been helped to emerge from the greatest depths of poverty by Grameen.
Nevertheless, some women default on their loans, and these were the ones that the women students went to interview. Why did some women fail? Requirements too strict? Opposition from a husband who sees Grameen and his wife's increasing independence as a threat? Fate - the cow died, the flood washed away her house? Failure of Grameen and the other borrowers to provide the kind of structural and emotional support that she needed? Personal failure - profligate, can't follow instructions?
Whatever the problems, at the debriefing and lunch session later the poor fellow who came along as our guide from the bank was not pleased with being pushed to the wall by young women students from NSU - wealthy, articulate, well educated, from the best Bangladeshi homes - who were asking some very hard questions about his bank. Clearly he is accustomed to escorting fully sympathetic expats who say "Oooh, Ahhhh" a lot but don't really know what they are talking about. Our students knew exactly what they were talking about when they pointed out similarities between the servitude imposed by the bank and that imposed by conservative Moslem families, and wanted good explanations rather than platitudes concerning specific policies that have downsides as well as upsides. The tour guide was very glad when the afternoon ended. Now we're waiting for the reports that the women are preparing, and expect them to be very interesting.
Late Breaking News
I just got my work permit, five months after I arrived here. And I'm lucky. It has taken some people as long as two years to get theirs, three of whom recently resigned a few days before theirs came through. Did my barrage of email messages to the Prime Minister's office help? Or will I be deported if anybody ever reads them?
Kaniz has resigned effective 31 March. She arrived on 1 September and has burned out already - angry that Banglas and non-Banglas are paid on different scales (my salary is four times hers mostly because of my nationality), can’t do anything but push papers around, her management suggestions get nowhere - so she’s accepted an offer from the Commonwealth Secretariat in London. The Founder-President briefly attended her going away party, and if looks could kill both of them would be dead by now. Khalas.
Dhaka Daily Star
5 June 1997
Editors of the leading English language newspapers in Dhaka have a responsibility to use the English language accurately. They could take a significant step in that direction by avoiding Orwellian “newspeak” which undermines the integrity of the language and ultimately destroys the integrity of the people who use it.
According to Dhaka’s newspapers, almost all street crime in Bangladesh is committed by “miscreants”. My thesaurus defines miscreant as “villain” and shows the following synonyms for it: rogue, knave, lowlife, ruffian, reprobate, rascal, scamp, scoundrel. In other words, a miscreant is not a nice person and you probably would not want your daughter to marry one. Yet the negative connotations of the term are weak.
How then do newspapers justify using “miscreant” as a cover term for people who murder their own wives and children and anybody else who offends them, armed robbers who stop busses and destroy the savings - and perhaps the lives - of dozens of innocent passengers, barbaric bands of savages who gang rape teenage girls just for the fun of it, arsonists who set fires that burn down hundreds of impoverished homes and kill unknown numbers of women and children, perverted boys who throw acid in the faces of girls who reject their “love”, and so-called students who wantonly kill and destroy on university campuses and in the process paralyze the nation’s educational institutions?
By calling these people “miscreants”, newspapers imply that the crimes they commit are trivial, and that the people who commit them are nothing more than naughty children who should have their hands spanked if anybody catches them, but that catching them probably is not worth the bother.
My thesaurus says that a murderer is a killer, butcher, assassin, slayer; it does NOT say that a murderer is a miscreant.
My thesaurus says that people who commit armed robberies are thieves, bandits or marauders; it does NOT say that gangs of armed robbers are miscreants.
My thesaurus says that a rapist is an abuser, exploiter, attacker, defiler, despoiler or ravager; it does NOT say that gang rape is committed by naughty children.
My thesaurus says that criminal gangs who devastate universities and disrupt normal social processes are terrorists, NOT miscreants.
When newspapers refuse to call a spade a spade, the problem is much worse than a conspiracy of silence about rampant street crime in Bangladesh. By saying that vicious criminals are miscreants, editors make them appear to be inconsequential nuisances and tacitly condone the impotence of the police and judiciary in their dealings with these evil people who are doing so much to destroy your country.
Another Modest Proposal
Dhaka Daily Star
2 August 1997
Bangladesh is a poor country (BIAPC). Everybody tells me that, sometimes as often as three or four times a day. And each time it is presented to me as an explanation. Street crime occurs because BIAPC. Since BIAPC, corruption is rampant. The educational system is atrocious since BIAPC. Because BIAPC, power outages happen all the time in rural areas where newspapers have few reporters.
Two days after I arrived in Dhaka, a well-dressed young man approached me in front of the university, a smile on his face and his hand extended, saying BIAPC in fluent English almost as if he were chanting a mantra. Newspaper accounts of travels and speeches by VIPs indicate that BIAPC is commonly proclaimed before TV cameras and donor agencies around the world.
I have some problems with this argument.
First, when I read that adequate medical services are not available to huge numbers of Americans, I am tempted to follow the Bangla model and say that America is a poor country (AIAPC), but obviously that doesn’t work. When I hear that American students score very poorly on international science examinations, I say AIAPC and realize that I sound quite foolish. When I hear that drug abuse continues to be an enormous problem in America, I say AIAPC and am shocked by how stupid that sounds. I could say that America has inadequate medical services, poor educational systems and drug abuse because America is a rich country, but that doesn’t make much sense either, does it? Maybe money isn’t the problem.
Second, I grew up in the State of Mississippi, which is America’s own domestic version of Bangladesh. Unlike much of America, Mississippi really is poor as American states go, but nothing like Bangladesh. Mississippians too have a long history of saying Mississippi is a poor state (MIAPS) whenever somebody points to their corruption, their terrible health and education systems, and their appalling treatment of minorities. And Mississippians have said MIAPS for decades to squeeze money from the national government - just give us a few billion dollars and we’ll fix the educational system; give us more billions and we’ll provide better health care, etc.
And do you know what has happened to Mississippi as MIAPS has been repeated over and over, and as federal aid has flowed into the state for decades on end? Nothing much. In fact, similarities between Mississippi and Bangladesh are pretty interesting, except that the per capita amount of aid that Mississippi has received from donors is much greater than the per capita amount that has flowed to Bangladesh. Yet the results are about the same: nothing much has happened.
I’m neither an economist nor a mathematician, but I have enough common sense to know that if problems are due to BIAPC and MIAPS, and donors pump billions of dollars into hundreds or thousands of programs of every conceivable design in both regions for decades on end and nothing happens, then something is wrong somewhere, and the most likely flaw is in the diagnosis.
Of course donors can argue that the diagnosis is basically right (BIAPC is the cause of all of the problems) but that the donors just haven’t quite figured out how to treat it yet. Give them a few more decades and a few more billions of dollars and many more millions of lives to experiment with, and they’ll fix it. As Bob Marley said, “Every little thing is gonna be all right”. Bob didn’t believe that and I don’t either.
My modest (perhaps obvious) proposal is that the diagnosis is fundamentally wrong, and that the causal arrow points in exactly the opposite direction. BIAPC does not explain why Bangladesh has poor health and education services and appalling crime rates. Rather the fact that Bangladesh has poor health and education services and appalling crime rates may explain why Bangladesh is a poor country.
How can BIAPC explain so much neglect and abuse of girls and women that millions of females who should be alive in Bangladesh today have simply vanished without a trace, as if females are being systematically exterminated here? Why would anybody argue that BIAPC produces corruption without arguing even more strongly that corruption produces BIAPC, or that BIAPC produces ignorance without insisting even more firmly that ignorance produces BIAPC? If Bangladesh truly is a poor country, why does my living and working in the Banani-Gulshan-Bharidara area place me amidst the kind of wealth that I experienced daily when I worked in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates?
My modest proposal is that people should stop citing BIAPC as a cause, and instead should treat it as an effect.
My modest proposal is that when you hear a politician, friend or journalist use BIAPC to explain corruption or ignorance or illness, you should ask why you are being asked to disregard your own common sense understanding of what makes life so awful in Bangladesh and in my home state of Mississippi, where some leaders are beginning to admit that corruption in their own political parties produces MIAPS, that their own defective health care policies cause MIAPS, that their own misguided educational policies and incompetent managers will continue to yield MIAPS regardless of how much money is pumped into the state by donor agencies, and that more money will never solve the problems until the powerful people of Mississippi, of all political parties, stop misusing it the moment it reaches the state.
I understand that going before national and international television cameras and saying something like “Bangladesh is a corrupt country” or “Mississippi is a corrupt state” may not win as many votes for the party in power as saying BIAPC or MIAPS, but I modestly propose that somebody try it just to see what would happen. The clean air would be refreshing and the results could be surprisingly positive.
20 September 1997
Since I arrived in Bangladesh, I have talked with a lot of expatriates who came here as genuine liberals but fairly quickly became either conservatives or cynics. The switch is interesting, as are the differences between conservatives and cynics.
Liberals typically arrive full of good will and idealism for the people of Bangladesh, especially the poor who obviously need their help. Many are cultural relativists who believe that the people of each culture have a right to their own values and beliefs. They view themselves as cautious helpers who are ready to teach new skills and introduce new ideas, but only in ways that are compatible with local traditions. Some arrive with intellectual “filters” in place that enable them to see the problems of Bangladesh as nothing more than ordinary human problems writ large, worse than some but not different in kind. They often find themselves receiving good incomes, living in nice houses with six or seven servants, sending their children to good schools, and feeling guilty about the advantages they have when compared with most Bangladeshis.
Liberals are fundamentally different from cultural imperialists who arrive in Bangladesh believing that their own ways are the only right ways and that the only good “native” is fully sanitized, Anglicized, Baptized and Capitalized. Cultural imperialists are not an extinct species by any means, but they are slightly less numerous now than they were under the Raj.
What makes liberals change their philosophies after they get here? There are many factors, and I shall mention only a few. One of the most painful realizations among expats is that natural disasters, which they thought were responsible for so much of the poverty here, are far less devastating than human disasters. Human disasters may be inflicted by corrupt politicians and business elites who skim their shares off the top of everything, by “miscreants” who extort, maim, rape and kill indiscriminately, by government functionaries who extract bribes for providing services that their employers already pay them to provide, by incompetent managers in dysfunctional bureaucracies who seem to have black thumbs that kill every project they touch, by attitudes and values that are fundamentally incompatible with the kinds of social, political, economic and cultural development that has occurred in the West, and so on.
As liberals begin to see that their efforts will have little beneficial effect on the masses at whom their efforts are aimed, as their filters crumble and they begin to see the problems of Bangladesh as symptoms of a civilization that may be sliding toward extinction, many withdraw in shock and change their attitudes to fit their new perceptions.
One option is to become a conservative, maybe even a reactionary, who runs frantically about the grounds of his Club, flapping his arms and squawking “Law and order! Law and order!” to the sympathetic amusement of everyone there. When that fails - as it must - he may say “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, and imitates the elites, giving as little as possible while taking as much as he can get from a system that has run amok. If he works at an embassy for example, he quickly learns which art shops in Gulshan-2 sell bits and pieces of Bangladesh’s cultural heritage, buys a couple of treasures every month, and ships them home illegally in the diplomatic pouch, each time rationalizing his behavior as the lesser of two evils.
Another option is to respond cynically. Consider a simple hypothetical case:
The director of a foreign organization has a piece of equipment that he wants to use occasionally but does not need for his everyday operations, so he gives the machine to a reputable local organization, installs it free of charge to the recipient but at considerable cost to his own organization, and offers to train their staff to use it effectively. The recipient agrees to make everything work properly, use the machine regularly to improve its own services, and make it available now and then to the donor whenever the donor needs to use it. No problem.
A couple of months after the transfer, the recipient still has done nothing about making the system operational, training their staff or supporting the donor as agreed.
Initially the donor responds as a liberal. He offers additional assistance to the recipient, encourages them to comply with their part of the agreement, again offers to train their staff, and in general is supportive and understanding of local traditions that are not noted for being highly effective and efficient by Western standards.
Perhaps the liberal approach would work eventually, but the hypothetical director gets impatient after nothing happens in another couple of months and for a while considers taking a conservative position reminiscent of the Raj. He could insist that the recipient comply with the agreement, take legal action against them if they refuse, perhaps remove the item that it installed and give it to a more worthy recipient even though that option would be very expensive, and in general throw its weight around on the grounds that the recipient made an agreement and broke it. But the director realizes that this approach probably wouldn’t work and would create a lot of conflict, so he abandons it.
Instead he becomes a cynic who sits back in his swivel chair, smiles patronizingly, and says, “What did I expect? We gave them a valuable piece of equipment, we installed it for them, we offered to train their staff, and nothing happened. They really are nice people, but you can’t trust them and they’re incompetent. Why am I trying to help them when it never works? As a young development worker, I was taught to keep my expectations very low, and once again my trainers were right. You just can’t help people who don’t want to be helped.”
So long as the hypothetical director remains a cynical liberal, he probably will not join in the plunder of the country the way a born-again conservative or reactionary might do it. In fact, as he experiences more and more examples of this kind of behavior, he may become a more realistic development worker. He loses some of his cultural relativism, and says to himself that his job is not just to transfer knowledge, technology and money, but also to change attitudes and values.
For example, when he discovers that the recipient of the gift sees it as a prestigious trophy with which to impress other organizations rather than as a device to enhance the content of their own program, he may decide that he has an obligation to himself, his own organization and the recipient to change the attitudes and values of the recipients so they can use the technology appropriately from a Western perspective. In other words, he realizes that he can be an effective development worker only if the people he tries to help develop a worldview that will enable them to utilize the help effectively. The idea has some merit, but it is political dynamite.
Simply saying that each culture has a right to its own values and walking away from the situation leaves our hypothetical development worker open to charges of being amoral, inept, callous and insincere about helping the people of the host country. But striving to change the worldview of the recipients so that they place the scientific, educational or medical value of the technology above its prestige value leaves our worker open to charges of cultural imperialism that can get him expelled from his host country and fired from his agency. And currently available techniques for changing attitudes and values typically don’t work anyway.
This scenario is hypothetical, but the problems are real.
So long as Bangladeshis are unwilling or unable to change some of their basic attitudes and values in response to constructive suggestions by individual development workers and international aid organizations, the proper roles of many development workers remain unclear and contradictory here. It is irresponsible for them to transfer knowledge, technology and money to recipients who ignore them or use them to maintain the status quo. At the same time, it is politically incorrect and personally hazardous for them to demand that the recipients change their worldviews.
What should development workers and agencies do? Continue to give aid that maintains the status quo, become a new breed of cultural imperialists who demand changes in the local worldview, or go somewhere else with their knowledge, technology and money until people here develop attitudes and values that are preconditions for using the aid effectively? Catch-22, a no-win situation, and the kind of problem that can enrage senators in the United States who diametrically oppose giving foreign aid to places like Bangladesh.
Dhaka Daily Star
22 August 1997
I spent the month of July on holiday at my home in America. While I was there, I showed some of my friends the best of the photographs that I have taken in Bangladesh since I joined the faculty at NSU last October. Their reactions were fascinating.
I am not a professional photographer, but I’m pretty good with a camera, and as a cultural anthropologist I understand how to photograph people and activities in ways that convey a good “feeling” for the lives of the people that I meet in cities, towns, villages and countrysides around the world. I always destroy the photos that I dislike for technical or aesthetic reasons, but over the years I have saved something like 10,000 photographs that I think have some merit both as art and as social science.
Furthermore, in my many years as a photographer, I have regularly shown my work to my friends in America. When they hear that I am on my way home from some exotic place, they just naturally get ready to see some of my new photos. It’s an annual ritual, sort of like giving gifts at Christmas.
The last photographs that affected my friends the way the Bangladesh photos did were those I took in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1990. I worked in the Kingdom for a year before the Gulf War began, and returned to America a few weeks after the war erupted, hence after my friends had become saturated with TV coverage of events in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom.
The Saudi Arabia that I showed to my friends was so different from the Saudi Arabia they saw every night on TV that several of them had a hard time believing that my version of the Kingdom was real. They were accustomed to seeing nothing but endless stretches of empty sand dunes broiling eternally under a terrifying sun. Among other things, I showed them the spectacular Asir Mountains, over 3000 meters high, foggy and green, inhabited by friendly people in colorful clothes living in ancient cities and Bedouin tents, tending their camels and goats and selling gorgeous bottles of golden honey in traditional markets. My friends are intelligent people who have traveled widely, but the contrast between CNN’s Saudi Arabia on the TV screen and my Saudi Arabia on the slide projection screen was astonishing to them.
America’s image of Bangladesh is an image of disasters - cyclones, floods, famines, air pollution, hartals, malnutrition, warfare, VIPs saying “Bangladesh is a poor country” before the UN and the World Bank, and so on. It is the same image of the country that you can see when you watch CNN International, except that CNN International provides much more coverage of Bangladesh than does the domestic version of CNN that is available in America. So if you were to combine all of the pictures of Bangladesh that you see on CNN International during an average month, then delete the least distressing two-thirds of them, you would see what America sees about Bangladesh.
So when I showed my photos from Bangladesh, my friends didn’t see anything they recognized. They had never seen myriads of Bangladeshi women walking to work in brilliantly colored saris. They knew nothing about the glorious splashes of color at the street-side flower markets. To them rickshaws are devices that exploit the poor so they simply could not believe the kaleidoscopic beauty of hundreds of rickshaws packed together beneath the Farmgate fly-over in the late afternoon sun. They saw emerald rice fields and well-kept village homes, women making flour in shafts of intense sunlight deep in Old Dhaka, and carefully arranged foods in vegetable markets ... and they were shocked that they saw something besides squalor.
When I showed them happy children picking flowers, boys walking to mosque, young men paddling boats along the rivers and crowds of people preparing for a wedding feast, somebody got impatient and asked me when I was going to show them the “real” Bangladesh.
But what does the “real” Bangladesh look like?
One of my friends said that I have a rare ability to find beauty even in the midst of a disaster. He argued that I should be pleased to photograph and show that beauty whenever I can, and that people who insist on emphasizing the squalor of Bangladesh are voyeuristic and perverted.
But another friend argued that a collection of beautiful photographs taken at the site of a disaster is so misleading as to be evil. From her perspective, my failure to photograph beggars, cripples, filth and squalor simply invalidates my photography in Bangladesh. She feels that CNN’s disaster photography is so awful - and so true - that I must follow their lead whether I want to or not, else I am guilty of putting a pretty bandage on a filthy wound.
I left America feeling that photography in Bangladesh is a lot more difficult than I would like it to be.
As I was flying back here at the beginning of August, the beauty of the countryside between Calcutta and Dhaka as viewed through the window of the Emirates Airbus was extraordinary, especially the networks of villages sitting on endless strings of interconnected islands in the vast inland monsoonal sea.
And then I reached Kamal Ataturk Avenue and saw a chaotic crush of vehicles parked three abreast in ankle-deep water in front of the University, heard beggars and cripples demanding baksheesh from one and all, ran from screaming filthy busses to avoid being killed by them, and smelled piles of decomposing garbage and excreta beside the street. And then I saw the face of my friend who says I put pretty bandages on filthy wounds, and decided that I would do my best to capture that street on film.
But I cannot. I would be delighted to fly slowly over Bangladesh in a light plane on a bright sunny day to photograph its remarkable beauty. But I simply will not go out into Kamal Ataturk Avenue with my camera and capture that hideous experience on film. It should be erased from the face of the earth instead of being preserved for posterity.
My friends who want to see the bad side of Bangladesh on film will just have to watch it on TV without any help from me. I will show them the beauty of the country and its people, and do everything in my power to make sure those are the images of Bangladesh I remember after I leave.
It’s the Bangladeshi Way
Al Ain, UAE
5 October 1997
My one-year adventure in Bangladesh has ended. I'm glad I did it, I'm pleased with how much I accomplished in a short time under difficult conditions, I'm glad the contract is finished, and I’m delighted that I’m still in one piece since the political situation in Dhaka is getting nastier by the day. I'm back in Al-Ain now.
Nancy's decision to stay in the UAE rather than move to Bangladesh was the determining factor in my decision to leave there, but there were lots of other good reasons to limit that contract to a single year.
The most compelling is that I went there expecting the government of Sheikh Hasina and the Awami League to begin to lead Bangladesh out of the decades of political instability and corruption that they have experienced since independence from the British Empire in 1947, and independence from Pakistan in 1971, and there was a lot of optimism about that possibility when I got there. But there is no sign that that is happening. As the saying goes, "The policemen who were beating up people for Begum Zia's Bangladesh National Party (BNP) last year are beating up people for Sheikh Hasina's Awami League (AL) this year." So even the cast of characters has not changed, just their roles. Zia is doing her best to unseat Hasina now, and the chances are good that the country will be engulfed in something approximating civil war again soon, just as it was in the spring of ’96 when Hasina unseated Zia.
I didn't like the idea of living in the shadow of violence that occurs mainly in downtown Dhaka, far from the university and with none of it directed at me. But when the violence occurs, the entire country shuts down. Since one of the BNP’s primary objectives is to cripple the economy, the hoodlums who support them patrol the streets and beat or shoot anybody who dares to defy their bans on travel. They present themselves as students of Mahatma Gandhi who used nonviolent hartals (work stoppages) against the British early in this century, but everybody understands that the Dhaka goondahs have no philosophical basis for their actions at all. Regardless of whose side they happen to be on this year, they are nothing more nor less that garden-variety hired thugs a.k.a. terrorists who beat and kill for a few pennies a day, but largely just for the fun of it. It’s as close as I ever want to get to experiencing A Clockwork Orange.
But political problems are local as well as global in Dhaka, and in fact they come with whatever job one happens to have. I’ve concluded that it’s OK for Western professors to teach in Dhaka in short bursts, but it most emphatically is not OK for Western managers to work there in long bursts. As a visiting faculty member, you can avoid most of the political stuff that goes on behind the scenes, but as a full time permanent administrator you cannot.
The problems are numerous and diverse. They include family intrigues; exploitation of junior staff; lying as a way of life; inept micromanagement; policies and procedures ostensibly designed to prevent corruption but in fact so convoluted and intractable that they generate both corruption and paralysis; factionalism, paranoia and lack of mutual respect among senior people; resignations by good senior people (typically Bangladeshis) who do not belong to the inner circle and become disillusioned quickly; rampant cynicism about the organization's stated mission of doing good things for the country; a self-destructive image of limited good, etc.
I understand that many of these problems are simply manifestations of “national character” in the ethnographic sense. But just accepting the problematic national character traits as a good cultural relativist would do it is to miss the point. The fact that these problems are typically excused locally by saying they are "the Bangladeshi way", as I heard so frequently from some of my Bangla informants, is precisely the problem.
These problems are the Bangladeshi way, and the Bangladeshi way also includes shitting on the sidewalks, throwing acid in girlfriends' faces, hijacking busses on the Chittagong road, and, at the highest levels, siphoning billions of dollars a year out of the national economy through an incredible diversity of corruptions. "The Bangladeshi way" is a large part of why Bangladesh remains an international basket case or black hole regardless of who's in charge of the country or its institutions, who they hire as managers, how much money is pumped into the place, or how much effort they put into misleading PR about something's being an "American style" institution.
In my opinion, the Bangladeshi way is not a product of poverty as is said so often, but rather is the prime cause of the poverty about which very rich Banglas chant in their favorite mantra that says "Bangladesh is a poor country", a mantra that they use most skillfully to keep the impoverished masses in their places at home, and to keep the Western countries stumbling over each other as they contribute ever more foreign aid to be siphoned off. While I was there, I developed a lot of cynical admiration for this syndrome that I think is one of the great scams of all time.
Another approach to these topics emerges when you ask, “How's the weather in Dhaka?” A retrospective overview of it says a great deal about the entire country. Substitute politics, economy, healthcare, education or any other interesting topic for weather in the following paragraphs, and you’ll get the idea.
When I arrived a year ago, the weather generally was fine and stayed that way for four months until just after I returned from my vacation in mid-February. It was a deceptive beginning that led me to believe the travel guides that invariably say Bangladesh has only two seasons - wet and dry. Like everything else there, the weather is a lot more complicated than that.
Drought dominated the period from mid-February to mid-April, severe water shortages occurred throughout the country, and the not-so-good Ganges water treaty with India was a major focus of attention. For reasons that I don't understand, the dry season is the mosquito season, and they were so dense outside at dusk that I couldn't even breathe without getting them up my nose. Also at the same time, the smog was at its worst, and smog season in Dhaka is the worst in the world. Mid-February to mid-April was horrible.
Nor’westers, which are intense thunderstorms accompanied by high winds and often by hail, hit the country daily from mid-April until mid-June, and the average daily temperature increased steadily to the mid to high 90s. Although the rain brought the temperatures down a bit temporarily and the wind blew most of the smog and mosquitoes away, the storms picked up construction materials and hurled it at people and power lines, and since the power lines were only loosely hung on poles and trees, the live wires fell into pools produced by the torrential rains and electrocuted people. During this period, several people were killed daily in this way. At the same time, the winter snow that collected in the Himalayas melted - usually slowly but often suddenly - and sent raging floods down the Brahmaputra River into Bangladesh.
The monsoon was on from mid-June until the end of September. This is a strong continuous wind blowing into the Bay of Bengal from the Indian Ocean in the southwest, bringing with it an enormous amount of moisture that promptly put vast stretches of the country under water. The temperature and humidity stayed in the 90s throughout the monsoon, and when I returned from my vacation at the beginning of August I found mildew all over my clothes and shoes. It is essential for agriculture in the countryside but wretched for humans in the urban slums of Dhaka.
Tropical depressions, also known as cyclones in this part of the world and hurricanes in America, form in the Bay of Bengal at any time of the year and move inland with devastating effect in Bangladesh and India. This year was a mild one for cyclones with only three major ones hitting Bangladesh, the first in November, the second in May or thereabouts, the third in September. They brought wind and rain to Dhaka and a good many people died in the city when their mud huts collapsed, but they inflicted most of their damage in the coastal areas where thousands of square miles went under several feet of water propelled by high tides and storm surges, and hundreds (maybe thousands) of people and cattle lost their lives. At least Sheikh Hasina has done better than Zia did in warning people of impending storms and evacuating them before they hit.
Power outages, like mosquitoes and smog, really are not weather, but they act that way, and serve to intensify the heat and humidity which are almost unbearable in high rise buildings when the air conditioners fail. These sporadic disasters peaked at several failures daily during the dry season, but were again becoming daily occurrences when I left, and of course continued to wreck havoc with the information technology and the economy as a whole.
It would be easy for me to babble on forever about the problems that plague Bangladesh, but I’m tired of doing that. Suffice it to say in conclusion that the place richly deserves its reputation as a basket case. Individually the people are fine. Collectively, their leaders have succeeded in killing what once was a great civilization. It's truly a sad situation - lots of potential to do well, but enormous pressures to fail from both inside and out. I wish them the best, but I'm profoundly pessimistic.
For many years I wanted to work somewhere such as Haiti, Zaire or Bangladesh just to see what those places were like. I've cured myself of that fascination.
Al Ain, UAE
6 October 1997
She’s petite, dark skinned and beautiful, and her name is Roshana.
Roshana is twenty-five years old, single, with a Master’s Degree in economics from prestigious Dhaka University, articulate in English and Bangla, wealthy by local and international standards and in line to inherit even more later, and eager to succeed on the basis of her abilities. Her driving ambition is to attend an American university, get a doctorate in economics or political science, and work for the World Bank.
Shortly after she became my secretary at the university, Roshana told me that her father died when she was a child and her mother now runs the family’s businesses including a chain of service stations and some apartment houses. Over the coming months, she sort of adopted me as a surrogate father, took me home to meet her family in their charming apartment in a posh neighborhood, and introduced me to many aspects of life in Bangladesh that I would not have learned about otherwise.
In addition to her mother’s key role in the family, her father’s brothers have a lot of influence too. At least one of them is wealthy in his own right, being CEO of one of the many garment manufacturers that have moved into Dhaka in recent years. One day she brought me a gift from her uncle, an up-scale plastic bag carrying five T-shirts manufactured for a major American retailer, marked at $9.99 each and packaged for export only. In the realm of its-a-small-world, her uncle’s plant also makes baseball caps for American universities including the University of Mississippi where I did my undergraduate studies.
Aktar, Roshana’s brother, is a couple of years younger than Roshana and is struggling to complete his BA degree in business at Dhaka U. amidst rampant political violence that causes students to take an average of seven years to complete three-year degrees. Using his independent wealth, his family’s valuable connections and the fact that he is male, Aktar and some of his equally advantaged school chums have set up a business targeted at private physicians, selling and servicing precision technical equipment and emergency electrical generators imported from Europe, America and Japan. Since public health care facilities and the national electrical power system have essentially collapsed due to chronic political instability and corruption, Aktar and his young friends are succeeding despite enormous problems involved in doing business in Dhaka.
Roshana is not doing so well. From a Western perspective, she seems to have just about everything a young woman could ask for (except her father), but from her own perspective, there is not much sunshine in her life right now.
In the first place, she is attractive, rich, young and single in an extraordinarily sexist society. Within days of her joining my staff, I began to see young men buzzing around her like bees at a honey jar, not unlike what I would have seen had we been in America. But the Moslem Bangladeshi approach in Dhaka is a fatalistic kind of thing and a bit more direct than I am accustomed to: “Salaam alayacum (peace be upon you). My name is Naser. Will you marry me?” To which she invariably says “No”.
In addition, she is vulnerable to abuse by every male employee who out-ranks her, since Bangladeshis tend to think of an organization in terms of a strict linear chain of command from highest seniority to lowest, not as a branching hierarchy as is more common in the West. And of course many outrank her since she is new at the university and is a junior officer. To the best of my knowledge, nobody has ordered her to bestow any sexual favors, but those to whom she has had the audacity to say “No” derive some satisfaction from harassing her in my absence by ordering her to do things like make coffee or do photocopying which are not parts of her job.
Despite these problems, Roshana wants to stay at the university because it has a reputation for being one of the best places in the country for young women to work. Harassment occurs but by local standards is mild. At least while she works at the university, she is hopeful that she won’t be raped or have acid thrown in her face as happens daily in so many other businesses in Bangladesh.
The problem of Roshana’s marriage or lack thereof is not confined to her dealings with colleagues. Her uncles have been pushing her to marry for some time, and are becoming increasingly insistent. From their conservative Moslem perspective, one’s parents or guardians who are mature enough to take the best interests of the couple into full consideration should arrange the marriage, and should base their decision on factors such as compatible family backgrounds and social standings and the potential for advantageous economic ties between the families, as well as the stated preferences of the couple themselves. Their theory is that people should learn to love who they marry, rather than marry who they love. That was good enough for their generation, and it should be good enough for today.
Although she agrees in principle with the idea of arranged marriage, Roshana lives in a society in which a woman’s dowry is of prime importance to men and their families. Roshana doesn’t like it at all when her uncles invite a young man and his relatives over to interview her, and in the process the young man asks her to stand up and walk around so he can evaluate her anatomy. But she likes it even less when a man approves of her anatomy and offers to marry her, then immediately asks her to buy him a new car. That seems to have happened a lot. Again, she says “No”.
Roshana’s mother and brother are very supportive of her ambition to go to America, attend university and work for the World Bank, and they have the resources required to make it happen. Even her father’s brothers accept the idea so long as she marries a good Bangla boy first. She says “No”, for none of them respect the women they marry, and all of them are after her money. The bottom line is that she refuses to marry any Bangla boy (a Bangla male is a “boy” until he marries and becomes a “man”).
Enter Joe. Joe is a graduate student in computer science at an American university. Because the computer science department at our university couldn’t find enough qualified people with doctorates in computer science to teach in their program, the Chairman of the Computer Science Department sent out an urgent call to various American universities asking advanced Ph. D. students to come to Dhaka for one term as lecturers, to receive modest salaries and valuable teaching experience in the developing world in exchange for rescuing the department and its students from the imminent collapse of the program. Joe accepted, was in Dhaka for an 8-week term, and left a few days ago.
As director of the university’s computer facilities, I was not Joe’s supervisor, but since he used the computer facilities regularly, I became acquainted with him as did several other faculty members. The consensus is that he is a shy, introverted fellow, hard to get to know, apparently very bright but poorly socialized, the kind of person who regularly disappears in a crowd of two.
But for all that, Joe moves fast. Not quite as fast as Bangla men who introduce themselves and propose all in the same breath, but fast nonetheless. Apparently Joe visited my department just after he arrived at the university, instantly was smitten by Roshana’s charms, and embarked upon a program to take those charms home with him. He didn’t exactly succeed, but he sure had a major impact on the world around him.
The series of events, in so far as I can reconstruct it, was pretty simple. It began with his being openly friendly with Roshana shortly after he asked her to set up an email account for him. Apparently it’s OK for a young man to propose in the first paragraph, but acting friendly before marriage is slightly risque, so Joe started off by getting things backwards. But Roshana, being something of a free spirit, thought that was OK.
In addition to friendly exchanges in the office, they had lunch together surreptitiously at local restaurants twice, and shortly before he departed for America at the end of his contract, they went shopping together so she could help him buy things for folks back home. And that’s all.
Except that during the shopping trip, he asked her to marry him. She told him that she really wanted to go to America to study and get a job at the World Bank, and he agreed that that was a fine idea. And she told him that if they had children she would want to raise them as Moslems, and he agreed. So she said “Yes”. Maybe slow by Bangla standards, but astonishingly fast by my standards.
I knew nothing about all of this until the day after Joe left, when I decided to move forward my own departure from the university and announced that plan to my staff. Roshana panicked. It seems that she said “yes” tentatively to Joe, and planned to discuss the matter with me at some length after the dust settled. And here I was leaving while the dust still was swirling. So at that point we started to talk.
Roshana’s question was “Should I marry him?” and that is the question I ask you, for the answer has proved to be highly elusive.
When she confronted me with the problem, I responded as an American and asked a really dumb question: “Do you love him?” She said, ”Of course not. How could I love him? That would be wrong. I’m not even married to him yet.” Having laid that one to rest, we moved on to the real issues.
What do you want out of the marriage, Roshana? “An American visa, a chance to study and get a degree at an American university, a job at the World Bank.” How about children? “No. At least not yet.” But what happens if you have children anyway? “Then it will be God’s will.” But if you have children, that could interfere with your education and career. “God willing, that won’t happen.” But what will happen if it does happen? “I don’t want to think about that.”
What does Joe want out of the marriage? “He says he loves me and wants to take me to America with him.” How can he love you before you are married? “Men are different.”
I’ve known a lot of American men who visited Asia to find wives who would live up to American stereotypes of Asian women - docile, cooperative, erotic, saying “yes darling” to anything the husband wants. Is Joe like that? “Of course not.” How do you know? “He says it’s OK for me to get a doctorate, and Americans don’t lie. Bangla men lie all of the time, but Americans don’t do that. Do they?” Of course American men lie. Maybe even as much as Bangla men. Well maybe not quite that much, but they lie a lot. Why do you think American men don’t lie? “Because American men are good and Bangla men are awful.” No, no, no!
If you marry Joe and go to America, how will your family react? “My uncles will push me out of the family. My mother and brother will still love me, but my uncles will not let me return to the family. And I will lose all of my money.” So marrying Joe will cost you your family and about a quarter of a million dollars? “Yes.” Do you really think a degree from an American university and a job at the World Bank are worth losing your family and all of your money? “No. But I’ve got to get out of here.”
So you’ll give up your family and your money and your country. What will Joe give up to marry you? “Nothing.” Won’t that make the relationship sort of one-sided? You give up everything and he gives up nothing? Isn’t that a problem? “I don’t know. Maybe. But that’s what Bangla women do whenever they marry. At least I’ll be giving up everything for an American instead of a Bangla.”
What about visas and green cards and all of that legal stuff? You can’t just hop on a plane and go to America. The Bangla immigration agents won’t let you board a plane to America unless you have an American visa, and if you somehow got as far as America anyway, immigration agents there would stop you. And if you marry Joe here and apply for a visa, it will take you at least six months and maybe as much as two years to get one. How will you live in the meantime if your uncles kick you out of the family? “I don’t know.”
If you marry him and get a visa and go to America and the marriage fails, what will you do? “That won’t happen, insh’allah.” But what will you do if it happens, especially if it happens after you have children? “I’ll just have to take care of myself, won’t I?” But do you have the knowledge of America and the job skills required to do that? You know that a master’s degree in economics from Dhaka U won’t get you very far in America. You don’t want to get stuck for the rest of your life serving hamburgers at McDonald’s. “But I’ve got to get out of here.” I understand that you want to get out of here, but leaping off a bridge is not a good way to do it, and marrying Joe right now may be a lot like leaping off a bridge.
Why don’t you hunt for a good Bangla boy who is rich enough to have no interest in your money, and who already has a green card and can take you to America with him? There are a lot of them like that, you know. The newspapers in India are full of matrimonial ads. Don’t the Bangla language newspapers publish ads like that here in Dhaka? How about advertising on the Internet? Roshana, there must be some way for you to get out of here without losing everything and taking such a huge risk. You are panicking! Now think of a better way to do it! “I have thought about it for years, and I can’t find a better way. I’m going to marry Joe and go to America.”
Do you have any friends who have done what you are proposing to do? Have you talked with them about this idea? “I don’t have any friends who have married an American and left Bangladesh, but I have a lot of friends who have married Banglas and stayed here. My best friend is married to a doctor who went to university in America and is earning lots of money here, but he makes his wife’s parents pay all of their bills. That’s the way Bangla men act. All of my friends say I should marry Joe and go to America.” In America we say that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t know. Have you heard that one? “No. But Bangla men are devils.”
If you’re going to marry an American, you have to have some kind of balance - you can’t invest your family, you country and your wealth while he invests nothing at all. That means he’ll have nothing to lose if the marriage fails. Furthermore, if you’re going to marry an American, you must have a fallback plan, a “Plan B” that you can use successfully if the marriage fails, because most American marriages fail these days. I’m delighted that you have a good American boyfriend, but good American boyfriends don’t necessarily make good American husbands.
Why don’t you have him “post a bond” - deposit $100,000 in a Swiss bank account in your name only, so he has to invest something in this marriage and so you have a good solid insurance policy to fall back on in case you have to take care of yourself. “But he’s a graduate student and he isn’t rich.” That’s a problem, but if you can give up a quarter of a million dollars and your family and country for him, the least he can do is find a measly $100,000 for you. Your culture is the one that says that marriage is largely an economic arrangement, and that’s an important fact that many American love marriages fail to recognize. I understand your wanting to get away from the bad parts of Bangla marriages, but you must not throw out the good parts, too.
Roshana, I have to go. My plane leaves for Dubai at 10:30 tomorrow morning, and I haven’t finished packing. “I’ve got to get out of here. Can I go with you? Maybe your wife can help me when I am in the UAE.” Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t even have a passport. I’ve asked Dr. Kate to talk with you after I leave. She’s lived in Bangladesh a long time and has known several Bangla women who have married American men and gone away to live. Maybe she can help you.
So the next morning I left Dhaka, and a few days later in Al-Ain I began to receive email messages from Roshana asking for my advice and guidance. I can’t think of anything else to say. In fact, I think the situation is pretty hopeless. I certainly wouldn’t want to be a Bangla woman in Roshana’s position in Dhaka, and I certainly wouldn’t be willing to face the risks posed by her marrying Joe or any other American who pops into the country like a knight on a white horse and offers to rescue her. But I must admit that I simply don’t see any other options open to her.
What would you do?
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