From A to Z - what to love about Bangladesh
Because Bangladesh is a great & special place. Reasons why, from A to Z:
(Thanks to the input of two Bangladeshi readers, I’ve added a few details to the B and P parts to make clear that neither was Lalon Fakir the father of baul nor Shahidul Alam the father of Bangla photography. But they did/do a good job in spreading and cultivating them!)
There are few better ways to discover a place than through its popular art. In Bangladesh, some of the nicest artistic stuff is very accessible. It’s on display on the country’s roads, where rickshaws, autos and trucks are decorated in a beautiful manner. The bottom picture shows something else: a sculptor making traditional Hindu figurines in a small village outside Faridpur in central Bangladesh.
Baul is a musical tradition that can be found in both India and Bangladesh. The music, which is played by a group of singers/musicians called fakirs, is fascinating and deeply spiritual. Lalon Fakir, a mystic who lived in the 19th century and called himself a fakir, is the most important player of baul (although the musical genre was there before his days). Lalon Fakir’s teachings transcend traditional Hinduism and Islam, which makes him an important figure for people regardless of religious belonging.
Bangladesh has made a quite impressive journey during the past decades. Life definitely remains simple, even rough, for many people in the country, but the change from before is big. In ten years time, between 2000 and 2010, poverty levels went from 49% to 32%. Education has improved a lot, and there are more children than ever before in school. Life expectancy has jumped as well: from 59 years in 1990 to 69 years in 2010. Bangladeshis now live four years longer than Indians across the border, who are twice as rich. Much of this is courtesy to Bangladesh’s civil society, which is innovative, hardworking and does much of what the state is neither able nor willing to do.
So many things can be said about the Bangladeshi capital. It’s crowded, polluted, noisy and impossible to get around. It’s growing super fast and receives lots of rural work migrants each day. But it’s also a fascinating place. The streets are never-ending, the alleyways lead to curious places, the markets are filled with anything and everything. And it’s inhabited by some of the most friendly, helpful and generous capital-dwellers I’ve ever come across. Somehow, there is as much love as there is non-stop activity.
With a population of over 160 million, sharing a small geographical space which lacks in infrastructure and facilities, Bangladesh is a place where opportunities are created by people themselves rather than made available by others. Finding ways to do that requires a lot of inventiveness and imagination, and creating things with very few resources.
Fanciful, kitschy visuals
Mosques, popstars, holy people, colorful portraits. You will not be bored.
Bangladeshi girls – like girls everywhere – deal with a whole different kind of social pressure than boys do. They are often married off early and face more restrictions than their brothers and male friends. Much of public space remains male-dominated territory, and men in general have much more power and influence than women. But things are changing. Much of Bangladesh’s development has been female-driven, and women are increasingly influencing decision-making, both inside and outside the family. The country’s schools now have more girls than boys – a reverse of earlier patterns. These are the girls of the future.
Houses made from stone
In pastel colors.
Intense. I guess there’s simply no other way for a country that’s the most crowded in the world (barring city-states like Singapore, Hong Kong and Monaco). The top photo shows the view from the window of a young guy who lives in one of Dhaka’s most cramped neighborhoods, a “camp” for refugees who fled India during partition back in 1948. His room is a small space, right on top of another room where his mum, dad, sister and brother sleep. Being the oldest in the family and working, he’s lucky to have a room for himself. Facing their home across a narrow alleyway is another set of small rooms, belonging to another family. Right next to them, two other families. The alley in between functions as kitchen, hallway and extra storage for them to share. The second photo is from a market in central Khulna; the bottom three are from the streets of Dhaka.
Jessore took the “J” for two reasons. First, it’s the first town you arrive to when traversing the India-Bangladesh border. It makes a nice place to say hello to, especially if you’re staying at the place that makes the second reason: Banchte Shekha, an NGO working for rural women and run a lovely guesthouse on the outskirts of the city.
Bangladeshis love their meat. They really do. If you have a piece of meat, however small it is, you put it in the pot. One dish that usually (but not always) is spared the meat treatment is kichuri: a simple but ingenious dish made from rice and lentils. There are very few things that beat eating (with your hands, there’s no other way) a plate with warm kichuri in the morning, at a small communal table overlooking the street life outside.
Wear it however you want, whenever you want.
Meetings, random ones
If you visit Bangladesh from abroad, there’s a big chance that your typical day will look like this: Get up, put on your sandals, step outside. Within a minute or two, you’ve met someone on the street who wants to talk to you (using Bangla, broken English, perfect English, body language – whatever). Often, this someone is up for helping you out, inviting you over, hearing about your life, sharing stuff about her/his own life. Then, the next person you meet: the same. And then the same. And…
This consumerist idea that things in general have very little value and should be replaced as soon as possible with a new version or better model or different product – if you don’t buy into that (or you have a feeling you shouldn’t buy into that anymore), Bangladesh is the place for you. If you didn’t reflect on your own use of the world’s resources before, you will start to.
Many workplaces in Bangladesh are a bit like that free software: open. Open in the sense that you can pass by, stop for a moment, talk to people and see what they’re doing. Big offices and commercial businesses are different of course, but many small enterprises are in direct connection with the outside (and you can be in connection with them).
Bangladesh has a rich tradition of photography, which in recent years has emerged as one of the most popular visual means of expression in the country. Much of that is the credit of Shahidul Alam who runs a number of projects since the 1990s. Chobi Mela, the first photo festival of its kind in Asia, was first organized in 1999/200; since then, it has been on every other year in Dhaka. This year, the theme was Fragility. The image above shows an outdoors exhibit of B.S. Shivaraju’s photographs of an Indian street performer dressed up as Gandhi.
If Bangladesh has a body, rivers are her veins. Rivers crisscross the country from north to south, and make important routes of connection, traffic and transportation. Most towns and cities, even the smallest villages, have their own quays, launch ghats, to where boats arrive and depart. Passing time at them is great.
If boats are the way to travel on Bangladesh’s rivers, rickshaws are the means to move around its urban streets. The streets of Dhaka and other cities are full with the three-wheeled, man-powered (there are no, or almost no, women drivers) bikes that transport all sorts of people: commuters, school kids, families and office workers. The decorated bikes have a seat in the back for two (or for heavy boxes, bags of rice or bundles with whatever you need to transport); the drivers are impressively strong and hardworking. And fearless – the first requirement for anyone working on Bangladesh’s roads.
The single most useful thing for Bangladeshi winters is the warm scarf. The thin and summery ones are nice too!
The 19th century poet, author and musician Rabindranath Tagore is probably Bangladesh’s #1 national symbol (even though he was born and spent much of his life in the part of the Bengal that today belongs to India). 100 years ago, in 1913, he became the first Asian to win the Nobel Prize for Literature. He is also the only person to have written the national anthem for two countries, both India and Bangladesh. His family was rich and influential and owned houses in many locations, one of them is a beautiful spot called Shelaidaha, in rural Kushtia.
The old railway station in Khulna. Beauty products and a casette tape in a shopwindow in Dhaka. A boy playing an arcade game (which I remember very well from being a kid in the 1990s). A girl walking home in rural Barisal.
As meat-loving as they might be, Bangladeshis also grow fantastic vegetables. Your standard fare in any small eatery is shobji, Bangla for “vegetables”. It’s usually a very simple dish with mixed vegetables and chili cooked in. When good, it’s excellent.
Water, everywhere. And it’s not even the monsoon!
(Hey, X doesn’t count!)
Yoga on the roof
But Y does, and it has to be for yoga. In Bangladesh, there’s no better place for yoga than the rooftops. You’re close to the sky, you’re overlooking the surroundings, you’re in your private space but still part of the city around you.
Bangladesh is intense, but it’s also zen. Zen as in connecting to what is inside, what is unsaid, what is shared. I don’t know how, but there’s something with the energy that lifts you up, grounds you and makes it very hard for you not to keep smiling.
Karim Mostafa took the pictures from Shelaidaha, the one of kichuri and the top civil society one.