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

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!


what do your days look like in Dhaka?

This, the most frequently asked question I’ve received in the past seven months, is the one that I often feel the most hesitant writing home about.  It’s not because there’s not much to tell about or because I think my projects are particularly dull to others (hope not!), but rather because of a slight aversion that I’ve developed to day-to-day recounting of events from ‘far away’.  Back when I started the first iteration of this blog from Paris in 2008, I made a small pact with myself that I’d try to avoid ‘travel blogging’ as much as possible, convinced that such posts were boring or too self-indulgent, something that would drive friends, family, and readers to the mouse faster than I could finish a whole post.  But after hearing about the wide-spread popularity of my Mama’s blog, and considering how much I often crave to hear little details of friends’ days – of how distance makes knowing even just the mundane seem like little treasures – my opinions are slowly changing.

So I thought it was high time to write a little bit about what I actually do in this water-logged, people-packed, and lovely little nation I now fairly readily call home – or at least part of my conception of what constitutes it.

A quick note before I do – this doesn’t mean that this space will become a diary of sorts, I’m not good at doing what my Mom or other Fulbrighters in the past have done so well, in giving full-on accounts on what days and nights look like over here.  (Seriously, check out this one American in Dhaka’s blog, it’s incredible – a true log of all his daily activities, a treasure trove of memories.  And makes quite a bit of sense coming from him given his research, which chronicled the number of riders and timing of each and every bus route in Dhaka.  No easy task when they look like this.)  But I think I too often write in the abstract, and knowing details of what’s what is not only helpful in stitching together an image of what Bangladesh looks like (at least with the lens through which I see it), but also key in providing background and context for those other, more off-in-space pieces.

Afternoon traffic in Dhaka.

So. What am I working on in Bangladesh?  The first three months, I mainly focused on learning the language – Bangla, or Bengali (the former being the Bangla name, the latter the English translation – think Deutschland and Germany), taking classes five days a week, four hours a day, plus 10 hours of one-on-one with a language partner to practice conversational Bangla each week.  While the classes were only from 9 to 1 each day, between the conversation practice and the homework and the test prep (we had one every Monday!) and the courses, it ended up eating up quite a bit of my days and nights those first three Dhakan months.

But around the second week in I started feeling little ancy (didn’t take long…!) about not making any progress on my research during the classwork.  So, with the help of my affiliate here in Bangladesh, the Power and Participaiton Research Center run by Hossain Zillur Rahman, I found a research assistant to help me begin to sort through the archives at the National Curriculum and Textbook Board, the agency that regulates textbook revision and publication in Bangladesh.  Mizan, my RA (I know, weeeird), would go down to the NCTB three to four times a week to dig through the shelves, identify textbooks of relevance from 1960 to the present, and note the appropriate pages.  I would join two or three days after class to go through those stack of books and photograph large portions of them, as I wasn’t allowed to take any of them from the building.

CNG central.

While it wasn’t a particularly difficult task, it ended up being fairly challenging in some unexpected ways; as classes didn’t end until 1 pm, that meant that I had to grab a quick lunch as soon as it ended, hail down and hop into a CNG (or, cage on wheels, as pictured above), and make the hour-plus trek in post-school traffic (many schools in the city let off around that time, and the route I was taking was always a particularly popular one) down to Motijheel, the part of the city in which NCTB is, to try to squeeze in two and a half hours of work before the institute closed at 5pm.  The NCTB library itself was an interesting workspace – a dusty, ill-kept room – but worth every sneeze.  A treasure trove of information, well-supplied with textbooks from all subjects in the years since the country’s inception (and sometimes, even before that).  It was without an AC, with a fan that worked when the power was on, which was only occasionally.  That also meant we were often sifting through and photographing books by candle/flashlight, as the room was windowless.  And who says archival work is dull?

That portion of the work wrapped up a few weeks after my classes ended, at which point I began the next stage of the project – speaking with policy makers, educators, and historians about the political and educational structures of Bangladesh.  This was less about the main research question itself (how do politics influence education?) and instead more about trying to draw a clear diagram of the inner-workings and mechanisms of the Bangladeshi state.  While there have been a number of previous studies done on educational infrastructure within the country, as a fairly politically volatile state, it is highly subject to swings and shifts in its priorities and policies.  I wanted to get a picture of the institutions themselves and visualize how various agencies fit together, in order to try to isolate precisely at which decision-making levels political dynamics filter into and influence curriculum and textbook development.

This meant many phone calls, office runs, contact snowballing, flakey appointment-makers – and a whole lot more CNG riding.  I got through 200 pages or so of Infinite Jest mostly from within the confines of the green bars of those baby taxis.  That portion of the research is now just beginning to slow down – although, it’s likely that it won’t ever really feel complete.  But that’s actually quite a great feeling (if it wasn’t true, I wouldn’t have any work to do!).

In the belly of the beast.

And I’m now in the planning stages for what is, by far, the most intimidating portion of the research – the school visits.  Meaning heading out to all corners of the country to visit schools and speak with teachers, students, parents, and educational administrators about the ways in which they use textbooks in their classrooms and homes.  While it would be ideal to just take off and show up on school stoops, it’s been far more complicated than I originally imagined, from getting permissions, to arranging transportation, to finding a research assistant/translator who can travel outside of the city for a couple of weeks on end, to structuring the visits themselves.

Not to make it more confusing, but I’m also trying to double up on the site visits, so to speak, to look for women who were involved in the Liberation War in each location that beckons for educational research.  It’s part of a separate, but related project on the Liberation War that I’ve been piddling away at since arriving, slowly gathering information on the role that women who took up arms, or served as spies, nurses, caretakers, and so on, in Bangladesh’s Liberation War of 1971.  Women Warriors, as the project is called, is an oral history and photography project born out of a similar work I did during the VII/Exposure workshop in Hue, Vietnam this past summer, which focused on the post-conflict experiences of women who fought for the North Vietnamese Army in the war against the United States.  The Bangladeshi component of this project proved far more challenging than the work in Hue had been in the beginning; locating women and finding their contact information in Dhaka always felt just a couple degrees out of reach.  But with the help of a few fantastic women from three organizations – Nijera Kori (We Do It Ourselves), Mohila Parishad (Women’s Council), and Naripokkho (Women’s Society) – this incredible network of female Freedom Fighters began to emerge.  Many are still close friends with each other, meeting often to share memories and meals and family.  And a few have been kind enough to share some of their time with me.

Maleka Khan, a social worker who directed centers for women raped during the Liberation War, at her village home.

The next challenge of the project as it is emerging is to find women outside of this circle – and outside of Dhaka.  The women that I’ve spoken with thus far are incredible, with beautifully strong voices, speaking often about the importance of recognizing the plethora of roles women played in the Liberation War, of creating a narrative that extends beyond that of woman as victim, which remains the most common in the country still.  But there are many other lesser known voices of the Liberation War, many belonging to housewives and farmers residing in the rural areas of the country.  Yet much like arranging school visits, finding them has proved startlingly difficult while in Dhaka.  This most likely means that it will simply involve picking up and heading out to villages, to walk around and talk to people about their lives as they were in 1971.  There are all sorts of challenges associated with that, from the cultural taboos surrounding women that fought and families’ subsequent hesitancy to speak about it, to – again – the language barrier that is much higher for me outside of Dhaka city.  But it’s an exciting challenge, and the enthusiasm that I’ve received from those within the city thus far has been incredibly encouraging.

Taken together, this basically means that my days are open to scheduling as I see fit – both a rather overwhelming and simply fantastic prospect.  In a city that can wear you down quite quickly, having the ability to swap a dedicated workday from Wednesday to Saturday, granting yourself some time off in the middle of the week to decompress and re-evaluate, is simply invaluable.  It also means that it’s afforded a flexibility in the work that has allowed it to go off in all sorts of directions, linking with a plethora of people and organizations that I never could have anticipated when writing this proposal.  It’s meant that I’ve seen first hand the importance of long-term, on-the-ground research, the power of actually researching where your research is.  That I now realize how vital learning the language of where you’re working is, even if just at a basic level.  The kindness extended, and especially after individuals find out that I know even just a little conversational Bangla, has been astonishing and heartwarming.

These past few months have taught me a great deal, about living and operating in an entirely new culture and mentality, about learning how to pick my battles and what is in fact worth fighting for, about planning and organizing my own schedule and deadlines, about not being a student.  Thinking back to September 2010, it never ceases to amaze me that I knew no one in Bangladesh other than a few fellow Americans and a handful of contacts passed along by friends and family.  When my phone got nabbed a few weeks ago, it was saddening not because of the loss of that junky $5 handset, but rather because of the potentially unrecoverable contacts, of all the numbers saved to that little limegreen Samsung.  And something in that frustration was simply wonderful – that there was a community here, in this place that all of a year a go was just be a dot on a map in my mind, for me to fear losing.


Sonargon, Bangladesh.


misnomers, missteps, and meaning

This is the second in a series (see the first below) entitled Rickshaw Musings – little ideas that take shape during the many hours stuck in the traffic here in Dhaka.  On adjusting to the  flow and feel of this city, the challenges it presents and the surprises it holds.  And any other things that may pop up along the way, too.

The other day I was speaking with a Bangladeshi graduate student about the history of the United States when he referred to the U.S. War of Independence as its ‘Liberation War’.  The reference caught me off guard; it has generally been called by the former name back in the States.  Yet walking home later that evening, I paused, realizing that I had been referring to Bangladesh’s war of 1971 as its ‘War of Independence’ rather than the literal translation of Mukti Jhuddho, ‘Liberation War.’  I was making the exact same mistake.  And my misnomer must have sounded just as peculiar in all the conversations I have had since moving to Dhaka.

As an American relatively newly-arrived in Bangladesh, I find myself faced with a whole new set of reference points.  In addition to adjusting to a new routine, a new neighborhood, a new community and new food, I must reconstruct a significant portion of the lens through which I view this new world.

We each have our own personal set of reference points, formed by the experiences that have shaped our minds and outlooks throughout our lives.  This knowledge, commonly referred to one’s referential frame, is vital for effective and efficient communication.  As political scientist Emo Gotsbachner explains, “As most utterances in our ordinary day-to-day conversations are – and have to be – incomplete, allusive or otherwise truncated, whatever speakers leave out as taken for granted has to be added in the minds of receptive listeners.”[i] The events, people, places, and things that compose our referential frames fill in these gaps in all our conversations.

Yet, beyond these individual frames, we are each influenced by larger, shared sets of reference points – ones from the groups to which we belong and by which we have been shaped.  Each school, workplace, or community has its own shared body of knowledge, and in becoming a part of group, we incorporate aspects of its frame into our own.

One of the most important and influential collective frames is formed on the national level.  As Benedict Anderson states, a nation is “an imagined political community,” one that is made cohesive by narratives of its origin and development that instill in its citizenry a unified understanding of themselves, their heritage, and the characteristics that distinguish them from other nations.[ii] These narratives, shaped by shared language, culture, schoolbooks, historical events, key figures, and so on, constitute the referential frame – or national memory – that defines a people.

As a result, each nation’s population views certain events, persons, and movements as key reference points, creating a perspective unique to that community. For example, mention in Bangladesh of the Language Movement[iii] carries a certain significance, whereas in the United States the Boston Tea Party might carry similar importance. Allusion to these events in their respective locales recalls emotions and meanings in ways that likely will not extend beyond national boundaries.

So what happens when you do find yourself in the middle of an entirely new place with a completely new set of reference points?  The national narratives that I carry are, by definition, different from those of Bangladeshi nationals.  We all have similarly disparate reference points, we all make the same cultural faux pas when entering a place where our frames do not quite match – stepping on our own toes in new situations, blushing at our misspeaks.

Yet, as socially painful as these experiences may be, our conversations are, in many ways, all the richer for them. Speaking with an individual who carries a different set of reference points forces us to reconcile these differing narratives and to construct new ones.  We find ourselves adjusting the frames we carry to mesh with new ones, combining diverse sets of knowledge.  Rather than discarding our own known reference points, we find ourselves engaged in a process of absorbing aspects of new frames that we find acceptable, and endeavoring to reconcile the differences that may not be so.

It is precisely these interactions that make the sharing of thoughts and discussions between two people of unlike backgrounds most enthralling.  For if we take the time to explain the significance of our own frames to those who carry different ones, fascinating things can happen. Parallels can be drawn. New ideas realized and innovative possibilities revealed.  Questions and issues suddenly become relevant in other contexts.  And these exchanges can, in turn, take one beyond the confines of one’s own immediate world.

Through such exposure to new ideas, our archive of reference points widens, and imagining concepts and ideas that we have not even seen yet becomes a greater possibility.  By opening our minds to the concept of alternative perspectives, it becomes easier for us to imagine that such things can and do exist.  It causes us to further question ourselves.  To be able to imagine that the world is larger than we can even imagine.

I know well that my knowledge of and exposure to Bangladeshi culture, life, and history is far more limited than that of a long-time Bangladesh resident.  But I am not looking fill the role of expert here.  Rather, I am seeking a different function – I am an outsider asking questions, raising issues without claiming to answer them, attempting to provoke consideration of matters perhaps previously taken for granted, seen as a normal part of everyday life.  I am looking to explore, to question, to discover things I do not understand and to present possibilities that perhaps were not previously in this frame. And, in return, to perhaps have the same happen to me and my perspective.


[i] Gotsbacher, Emo. “Asserting Interpretive Frames of Political Events: Panel Discussions on Television News.” In Media, Policy and Interaction, eds. Richard Fitzgerald and William Housley.  Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009.

[ii] Anderson, Benedict. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London and New York: Verso, 1991.

[iii] The Bengali Language Movement was the political resistance to the imposition of Urdu as the state language in what was then East Pakistan.  Many trace the roots of the Liberation War of 1971 to this political mobilization.  Read more about the Language Movement here.


a more layered identity

This is the first in a series entitled Rickshaw Musings – little ideas that take shape during the many hours stuck in the traffic here in Dhaka.  On adjusting to the  flow and feel of this city, the challenges it presents and the surprises it holds.  And any other things that may pop up along the way, too.

Cultural sensitivity. It’s a buzz-phrase that looms large in diplomacy land.  As the Fulbright program is, at its core, a cultural ambassadorial problem, sensitivity training is a huge part of the prep we receive before starting our work.  It often bounces around the foreign mind, with little voices repeating again and again the things learned as faux-pas from the numerous guidebooks and State Department briefs emailed out in near monthly intervals.  Never sit with the soles of your feet facing towards someone.  Women must cover their heads when meeting an elder.  Turn off all music when the call to prayer is being sounded.  A thumbs up might not mean what you think it does.

Some of these things are helpful, others, not so much.  Living in Dhaka, cosmopolitan trends have come to overwhelm many traditional ways – I’m currently typing this from a cafe blasting Beyonce to jeans-clad Bangladeshis sipping on cappuccinos.  In an attempt to pack lightly when first coming to Bangladesh, I brought very few “American” clothes, and there were a few more parties than I’d like to admit at the beginning of my time here at which I’d be the only foreigner – and the only one wearing traditional Bangladeshi dress – in attendance.  It was strange, to say the least.  I eventually righted that one, and now usually don half Bangladeshi, half American garb.  Partly because it’s more comfortable to move about in.  Partly because it’s more me.

But the process of coming around to being okay with wearing jeans in public, or walking around unescorted, or even simply voicing a contrary opinion in this country was one that took a while, requiring me to wade into the murky idea of cultural sensitivity.

In the first couple months here, most everything was new.  Things odd or unusual were more often than not explained away as a cultural difference.  Of course, it was a bit more nuanced than that – seeing men peeing or brushing their teeth on the side of the road didn’t so much speak to cultural disparities as it did to economic ones – but when you look at that in broader terms, of the division between public and private life here in Bangladesh, it is something that appears to be far more blurred here than back in the States.

And often, it made sense to trace odd pattens back to a differing way of life.  The lack of please and thank yous in Dhaka?  They’re just not that commonly exchanged here.  The expectation that you would eat everything on your plate?  If you didn’t, it would be seen as a sign that you didn’t enjoy the meal.  The incredible hospitality and graciousness of families?  It is what is expected of everyone, with guests seen as a gift rather than as a burden crashing on the futon.

But interesting or curious differences were accompanied by larger, more troublesome ones; I frequently found myself uncomfortably tolerating situations that I deeply disagreed with.  A rickshawallah asks my male friend for directions, even though I was the one who told him the way to go in the first place?  In this city, it’s the men who are spoken to.  My research assistant instructs me on what we do and do not need for my project, rather than listening to my instructions?  He’s never had a female boss before.   A stranger chooses to plant himself two inches away from me and stare while I’m trying to photograph a nearby building?  Likely, no foreigner he’s ever done that to has ever told him not to.

I was speaking about this exact issue with Ben, another Fulbrighter (“male friend” from rickshaw above) the other day.  A white blond guy, but one who is fully fluent in Bangla after a year of studying the language in Kolkata, he has a unique perspective on Bangladesh, able to see the country through the eyes of the foreigner but understand it through the ears of a near native.  Speaking about the too-close-for-comfort stares, he said, People know that’s rude.  That it’s not proper to do.  But they do it anyway, and assume that you won’t say anything because you’re not from here.

And after thinking on it for some time, I think it’s the result of what I’d call cultural oversensitivity.  Outsiders in Bangladesh have for so long not said anything – perhaps because we’ve not known how to, perhaps because we saw it as rude to do so – and as a result have built up a culture of responses to foreigners perceived by foreigners as insensitive.  There’s too much keeping mum on each side of the exchange, from Bangladeshis to non-Bangladeshis and vice versa.  When most of the time, just speaking up (pantomiming up works, too) and expressing what you are comfortable with and what you’re not so much will be not only well-received, but also much appreciated by all parties involved.

Granted, I am exceedingly aware of the idea of the Ugly American while I’m here – a stereotype that I do not want reinforce in any way.  But what I realized, a few months into my stay in Bangladesh, was that I was compromising key parts of my own identity in hopes of being more culturally sensitive.  I was keeping quiet on issues that disturbed me deeply, and writing it off as not my place to say anything as an outsider.

I’ve come to see that I need to be more sensitive to my idea of cultural sensitivity.  Which aspects of the way I behave and respond do need to be edited as the result of being in this new place, and which comments and activities are too fundamentally country to my own beliefs that I just can’t let them slide?  How can I be critically, rather than blindly sensitive?

Now, I have new responses to the looks and queries passed to me by strangers.  A long or repeated stare?  Shamosha ache?  Amio manush, na? (Is there a problem?  I am a person, too, no?)  An absurdly high rickshaw quote?  A laugh and then – ami bideshi, kintu ami Dhakay takhi, ami janni eta onek dam.  (I am a foreigner, but I live in Dhaka, I know that is much too expensive.)  The ever common: are you married? Ami ekhane kaj kori.  Ami amar manush. (I work here.  I am my own person.)  Most of the times I chose to speak up relate to situations that challenge my identity as a woman or longer-term resident here.  While I do hope that my new, pithy responses might stick with the person I’m talking to, I think they are often for more for my own peace of mind – for the hope of finding my own place in this strange new one.

As a white blonde(ish) girl in Bangladesh, I am and always will be an outsider to some degree.  But as a person who has chosen to live in this country for a more extended period of time, and someone who is working to learn the language and the ins and outs of this city’s streets, I am trying to reach for a knowledge of this place that extenders more deeply than cultural sensitivity will allow.  For in writing everything off as a cultural difference, I was creating a Bangladesh for myself that was keeping me perpetually a stranger.  I was not finding my own place and defining my own identity in Dhaka, but was instead defaulting to thinking that I had none here.  But by avoiding reducing all difficulties to ‘culture,’ and instead dealing with individuals as precisely that – individuals – I’m gradually finding an understanding that allows for compromises and adjustments that do not require me to lose myself within them.


down, up

After having no internet for a few days, it’s back up (for now!), and that means there’s finally time to share these two videos that have been on line for a while now!

The first, I don’t know quite how to describe other than to say it was one of the most surreal things I’ve ever witnessed, ever.  Captured at Wonderland – Dhaka’s local amusement park – this was the penultimate ride of the day, on a trip taken to celebrate a trio of October 12 birthdays.  In case it isn’t clear in the video, yes, that is Bengali man dancing in a giant mouse mascot costume.  And yes, that is an imam as the only other passenger on the ride.  We’re still searching for the words to describe it.

The second is my flatmate’s new kitten, a very loud and very sleepy little guy.

A new video is exporting as I type, so stay tuned for part three!

fun!, video

concentric circles

This past week was Durga Puja, and a few of us went and checked out the festivities at various times over the weekend (pictures forthcoming).

On Saturday night, we were waiting for a ride from Old Dhaka after the celebrations, talking with one gentleman who had been walking with us and acting a pseudo-guide for a while.  We were standing in a small circle chatting when we noticed a person or two come up behind us.  Five minutes later, this is what the area immediately surrounding our circle looked like.  It felt a bit funny making a video, but it was just too silly and absurd not to document.  I guess we stuck out a little?


first glimpses of Dhaka!

Greetings from Dhaka!!

I just arrived yesterday afternoon, and am busily settling into my new apartment in Baridhara, Dhaka, at the Independent University of Bangladesh.

It’s been a long journey to get here, one that actually began well over a week ago.  While I was supposed to leave on September 16, stormy weather (tornadoes!) rolled into NY right around the time my Boston to Newark flight was scheduled to depart.  In a fantastically dramatic turn of events, I found myself sitting on the runway for three hours, only to eventually hear the captain say that the 3.30 flight would be delayed until 7.20, putting me into Newark well after the 7.40 boarding time for the next leg to Delhi, and that anyone who wanted off needed to deplane in the next ten minutes.  After a quick chat with the gate attendant (Do you think I’ll make my connection? No. Does it cost anything to switch flights?  Nope!), I grabbed my two carry-ons and made my way up the narrow aisle and back through gate, where I found myself walking into the city that I wasn’t expecting to see for quite a while (at least for more than six hours after boarding!).

But no complaints here – I actually wanted a bit more time at home, and the delay allowed me to push back my departure by a week.  And luckily, this time around, I didn’t – rather, couldn’t! – do any packing, as my bags made it onto Delhi way ahead of me.

A week later, I found myself at the airport, doing similar teary goodbyes, sitting at a gate 50 feet down from where I had sat exactly seven days ago.  The trip was long, but nothing exciting, racking up only few delays, including a plane shift on the Newark to Delhi leg due to faulty hydraulics on the plane (yikes!).  But after meeting up with my luggage in Delhi, a quick overnight in the city, and a short flight the next afternoon, I found myself watching the outline of Dhaka emerge below the thick cloud cover hovering over Bangladesh.

So why bother with all the back and forth and cramped legs and long delays?  Besides it being a grand adventure in and of itself, it’s for an independent research project funded by the Fulbright Program, examining how the story of Bangladesh’s independence has morphed in its national curricula since the country’s birth in 1971. But before that even gets underway, there’s three months of Bengali study at the Bengali Language Institute.  I’ll be posting a more in-depth description of the project soon, as it becomes clearer precisely what direction it will take.

So there’s the what and how.  But one question I’ve got again and again as I’ve talked about this trip is – why Bangladesh?

It’s a good question.  Some of the answers I knew while I was applying for this grant, while some I didn’t learn until after I found out I was going.  But essentially, in brief – the research I did for my thesis last year got me interested in South Asian historiography, and how the nations in the subcontinent carve distinct national histories out of a shared past.  And after traveling to Rajasthan, India with Exposure last summer and loving it, I decided I wanted to try and find a way back to the region.

That’s what I knew going in.  But the wonderful surprises?  There’s a thriving photography community in Dhaka, largely a product of a wonderful media academy, Pathshala, and photo agency, Drik, both largely headed up by Shahidul Alam.  Shahidul is also the founder of MajorityWorld, a fantastic initiative that strives to “provide a platform for indigenous photographers, photographic agencies and image collections from the Majority World to gain fair access to global image markets.”  The three organizations support and weave into each other, and the photographers coming into and out of each produce some incredible work.   Another plus?  I’ve heard rumor of a children’s theater troupe in Dhaka, which goes by the name of Tokay Theatre (but no worries Trunk, they’re no match, I’m sure!).  And finally, there’s a wonderful batch of Fulbrighters in the city as well, either doing the same language program or leaping right into their research.

If you happen to be craving more info on Bangladesh, the GlobalPost just produced a five-part in-depth look at Dhaka as the world’s fastest growing megacity.  And for more day-to-day coverage, The Daily Star and The Independent are the major English language papers here.

So there’s the intro post!  This is probably the longest they’ll get – other ones will take the form of photos, little thoughts and musings, and perhaps an occasional more longwinded reflection (like this!).  I’d love it if you subscribed, commented, shared – did whatever you pleased with this site.  As it’s is a space for trying to make sense of this trip, I’d be delighted to have your feedback and insight into just how to do just that.

So nomoskar for now, and as a parting shot, here’s one of my first glimpses of Bangladesh!