a woman's war, photography, research

in memoriam: Fauzilla Tunnesa Bulu

Fauzilla Tunnesa Bulu, known to many as Bulu Khala, was born in 1919 in then-India. Fifty-two-years old when the Liberation War broke out, she is the oldest woman included in “A Woman’s War” from any country thus far.  Bulu Khala was a key driving force throughout the Liberation War, working to maintain the Kuchbihar refugee camp, as well as recruit and prepare mukti bahini (Bangladeshi guerrilla fighters) for battle. Last week, at the age of 93, living in rural Rangpur with her children and their families, Bulu Khala passed away.

When I met Bulu Khala in June 2011 at her home in Rangpur, in far northwest Bangladesh, she could barely speak – her family and friends provided much of this information on her behalf.  Though she found it difficult to move without assistance, just before we were leaving, she took my hand, kissed it, and quietly said I love you.  She then took my face and kissed it three times. Right, left, forehead. I love you.

She had barely known me for an hour.  I’ll never forget it.

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a woman's war, photography, research

a woman’s war: Bangladesh

An updated version of “A Woman’s War: Bangladesh.”  As featured on FotoVisura and as FotoVisura’s Photo of the Day.

A Woman’s War

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the birth of Bangladesh, a nation that emerged from a bloody fight for independence from Pakistan. The story of Bangladesh’s liberation struggle is one that is well told and well remembered by the nation; the official narratives are retold and exchanged often – and often by heart.  Stories of the origins of the movement, of its key players and events, of its Freedom Fighters, or mukti juddha, who came together to fight for Bangladeshi independence and emerged victorious in December 1971 after nine months of intense guerrilla warfare, are recounted in schoolbooks and events across the country, month after month, year after year. Continue reading

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commentary, research

the legacy of women in the liberation war, 40 years on

Tarfia Faizullah, a fellow Fulbrighter and beautiful poet who was based in Bangladesh for the past year, is working on a long-term project on women who were raped during the Liberation War.  Out of her project has emerged a series of poems, which she has so wonderfully agreed to share here today.

Following the end of Bangladesh’s Liberation War on 16 December 1971, forty years ago today, all women who were raped were given the honorific term birangona by the first president of Bangladesh, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.  The term, which is often translated to war heroine, was meant to pay respect to the women for their sacrifices during wartime.  Yet it soon became a mark of shame, with many of the women rejected by their families and ostracized by their communities upon their learning of the assault; rape was, and largely still is, seen as an enormous source of shame in Bangladesh for the assaulted woman. Continue reading

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commentary

on being sick abroad

I’m a strong believer in the power of sleep and ibuprofen.  Headache?  Head to bed early and pop a couple pills.  Back pain?  Same deal.  Fever?  Again, early night and two tablets.

But after my latest fever stint hadn’t disappeared after five days of first rearing its ill-timed head – Eid break, with lots of work on the to-do list – every nurse I had called back home had switched from that rest-and-ibuprofen tune to one of getting myself to a doc, pronto.

And after a slew of tests and a few days of waiting, back came a positive typhoid test and a doctor’s order to be admitted to the hospital – immediately – for a hefty dose of intravenously-administered antibiotics.

Typhoid.  One of the many vaccines I had gotten sometime in the past few years, part of the laughably long list for which the Resident Nurse at Somerville’s Harvard Vanguard had called me a pin cushion.  And one that is – take note travelers – only 50 to 80 percent effective.  Meaning not very.  And especially not during South Asia’s monsoon season, when the prevalence of diseases like dengue and malaria and hepatitis and, you guessed it, typhoid tend to spike.

So after nearly two weeks of trying to navigate this whole sick abroad thing, here’s a few notes that I’ve collected on the experience thus far, for any expats or long-term travelers or others who might just be interested in knowing what negotiating healthcare abroad is like.

A quick disclaimer – I am not a professional or expert on any of these things (you knew that!), and these are just a few of my own personal recommendations, things I would have found helpful in knowing a couple weeks ago.  Hope you find them to be so, too.

1. Have a medically-knowledgable someone you can call back home.  Whether it’s your general practitioner, or your lovely aunt who happens to be the world’s best nurse (thanks, Auntie Mariann!), having someone who knows more about health and sickness than you do is not just reassuring, but can be downright vital in deciding what’s the best course of action to take.  Plus, it just makes you feel better knowing there’s someone on the other side of the line.

2. Go into the doctor sooner rather than later.  Yes, it’s a pain, especially if there’s traffic and it’s inefficient and takes all day.  But having test done and results analyzed will (likely, hopefully) make for a faster diagnosis and less stress for you and all interested parties.  Maybe it’s nothing!  But maybe it’s not.  And for some illnesses, timing really is everything, and the sooner you can catch it the better.

3. Don’t just go to any doctor.  If you’re really sick, it’s worth calling your health care provider from home (or a family member’s, or a friend’s if you’ve given yours up) and seeing if they can refer you to someone in their international network, if they have one.  Otherwise, do some research online or ask around locally before making an appointment with someone.  Not all doctors are created equal, and the right doc can mean the difference between a real diagnosis and an order to just go home and sleep it off.  Which in some cases, you can’t.

4. Come with a copy of what your ‘normal’ blood results are, if possible.  Good for comparison’s sake, as not all reference ranges (the ‘normal values’ you should fall within on diagnostic tests) are the same for all people all the time.  A lot of healthcare providers now have online centers at which you can create an account and track your health history; check and see if yours does, and if they do, set yours up and get tests and vaccine information from as far back as possible uploaded.

5. Get international health insurance.  Just do it.  If you’re abroad in a disease-prone place for long enough, there’s a pretty good chance that you’re going to get sick, and it’s probably going to pay for itself in the end.  So.  Just do it.

6. If you have a bacterial infection, have a test done to see which drugs it is susceptible to.  I think it’s called a ‘panel’, and it’s important in determining what treatment you need.  For example, the South Asian strain of typhoid is resistant to Ciproflaxin (known to most as cipro), the antibiotic of choice prescribed by most doctors back in the US for most all bacteria-related travel ails.  Which means it just wouldn’t work on the strain of the disease here, and so you need a different drug.  Most doctors will automatically test for drug susceptibility when they do your bacterial culture, but it’s worth asking for it just to be sure.

Which brings us to…

7. Ask questions.  And don’t feel dumb or embarrassed for doing so.  For me personally, just being informed makes me feel better, and most doctors will be quite understanding – and even amused – at the string of questions fired off by a wide-eyed foreigner.  They know you’re far from home, they know you’re not used to this, and most likely they know the answer to what you’re wondering about.

And that’s all I can think of for now.  There is far more advice to give, and much of this many would consider excessive, but again, a few extra queries and a bit more info can’t hurt, ya?

Time in the hospital has put me in the market for entertainment – music or emails or  blogs or articles or whathaveyou – so if you have anything good, or have been feeling like writing an email, feel free to send it over my way.  And thanks to everyone who has been checking in from so many miles away, it absolutely brightens days in Room 2435.

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commentary, fun!

unlikely similarities

Upon telling people that I was moving to Dhaka, many replied that I couldn’t have chosen a place less like home.  In some ways, they were right; saying that it’s been a cultural adjustment would be putting it lightly.  Yet at the same time, this city has revealed itself to share many characteristics with something that I found quite familiar.

Namely, Jewish grandmothers.

While imaging a hoard of windbreaker-clad eighty-somethings hurtling their way down a Dhakan alley leads more to images of dissonance than of harmony, over the course of my ten months here I’ve found many areas of overlap.  So here are the top ten – in some sort of order – ways in which Bangladesh is like a Jewish Grandmother.

Top 10 Ways in Which Bangladesh is Like a Jewish Grandmother

10. She never drives within the lanes.  While one might be doing it because of reduced eyesight and/or depth perception and the other because traffic laws hold no sway, both lead to the same white knuckles on dashboards.  Basically, Dhakan traffic is like that of West Palm Beach if it had a population of 17 million and a much less well manicured road network.  Oy is right.

9. She’ll talk about what’s for dinner while you’re eating lunch.  More for the love of food than for the necessity of planning what’s next, meals are a hallowed time not to be taken lightly.  And that’s meant in an emotional and nutritional sense.  Luckily, the brick-like feeling in your stomach after the meal is generally justified by the deliciousness of what just caused it.

8. You’re wearing that!?  Anything too low, or too short, or too tight will likely draw a few choice words or looks designed to dissuade you from walking out the door in your ensemble of choice.  Looking for something more fitting?  Try something a little less so.

7. She will talk you off your rocker.  Here it’s called adda, there it’s called playing mahjongg at the club with the girls.  Both roughly translate to an hours-long chat about anything and everything.  Cha (tea) and shinghara accompany the former while coffee and rugulah might go along with the latter, but – as is generally the case – food plays a starring role in each.

6. She has an opinion on everything.  And will not hesitate to make it known, often more loudly and more frequently than you’d prefer.  From commenting on how you’re still not married yet to letting you know just how under-rested you look, she’ll be sure to fill you in on what’s filling her thoughts.  Smiles and nods, kids.

5. She likes her clothes shiny and bright.  From magenta tops with sequined necklines to shoes that glint in the sun with silver and gold accents, she’s bound to have something shiny and blingy somewhere in her outfit.  Well, probably in many places.

4. She constantly warns you about potential impending sicknesses.  While antibacterial handwash hasn’t made it big in D-town yet, worries about maladies certainly have.  Changing seasons loom large on both collective minds, and warnings about taking a jacket along to protect you against the vicious changing seasons translates well between Bangla and Bubby.  And if you do happen to catch the sniffles?  For whatever’s ailing you she’ll always have a fix, whether it be chicken noodle soup or frying garlic in sesame oil and then rubbing it all over your chest (bonus points if you can match those remedies to their respective owners).

3. She has a penchant for tacky decoration.  I’m just going to say: there are entire markets dedicated to fake flowers here.  Imagine the look on the Hadassah gals’ faces.

2. She won’t stop feeding you.  If you sit down at her table, don’t even bother declining the plate of afternoon sweets she offers; it’ll be in front of you in 30 seconds no matter what you say.  You’re completely stuffed from the meal you just finished 30 minutes ago?  Well surely you have some room for this large bowl of fruit and some of that brisket in the fridge.  The words not and hungry are simply not available in the same option together.  Kapiche?

And the number one reason?

1. She loves her family.  If you couldn’t figure as much from the plethora of photos of relatives adorning her home, then it will be immediately evident as soon as she starts chatting you up.  The conversation, no matter where it starts, will most likely turn to her kin – often even beating out foodspeak – and she’ll beam with pride as she tells you where her grandkid goes to school or shows you a picture of her doctor son.  And most importantly, she’ll treat you like family, too, whether you share her DNA or not.  The bear hugs and hospitality extend well beyond blood relations, and she’ll be more than happy to welcome you into her larger clan.  As long as you eat this plate of sweets first.

So the next time G-Ma calls and tells you about her plans with the gals for the weekend, be sure to let her know she has roughly 160 million potential friends in what she might consider to be the least likely of places.  Miss you, Grandma!

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research

women warriors: muktir gan

The orange light bounces off the harmonium cover as it falls to the ground next to the instrument.  Dalia pulls up a stool next to Shaheen, who now sits cross legged in front of the harmonium on the ground.  They exchange a few words in Bangla, interspersing laughs with lyrics and remembrances, recalling song titles with memories from days of 1971 along the Indian border.

These two women, Dalia Nausheen and Shaheen Samad, both were part of the singing troupe who traveled around to Freedom Fighter and refugee camps in India, singing songs of freedom, or muktir gaan, for the women and men training for the war, providing medical and logistical support, and sheltering themselves and their families.

I recently spoke to them both about their experiences serving in the musical troupe, and at the end of the conversation they offered to sing a few songs that they carried with them during those nine months of war.  Above, you find a short clip of one of the songs, Janater Sangram Cholbe Cholbe, by Sikander Abu Zafar.  They were as articulate as their voices are stunning – as soon as I have some of the transcript transcribed, I’ll be sure to share some of the conversation here.  For now, a little portrait of Dalia from before the song session.

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