Guest Post: A Passage to Bangladesh, Dhaka Day 5 (by Matt Faherty)

[Editor’s note: I’ve skipped a few days of Dhaka to hurry things along and get us to Calcutta, since, in real time and space, Matt has by now traipsed all the way across India, and I’m having a hard time keeping up. For background read this. Dhaka Day 1, Dhaka Day 2.]

Dhaka Day 5 – Freedom Fighters and a Retrospective

My flight to Kolkata [Calcutta] is scheduled for 5:30 PM today, so I’m in a somewhat awkward position as far as travel is concerned. Between an expected hour-long ride to the airport, and the million things which can go wrong in a city I don’t know, I planned on leaving my hotel at 1 PM. This left me about four hours to spend after I woke up and ate breakfast. That’s too long to sit in my hotel and surf the internet, but not long enough for the in-depth travelling I prefer. So I decided to walk down a major side street near my hotel which I had yet to explore, and then make a third attempt to find the nearby Bangladesh Liberation Museum.

The walk was largely uneventful. I found that I had gotten used to, though not quite comfortable with, the hectic streets of Dhaka. At this point I am adept at crossing the street (always walk slowly so the incoming vehicles have time to brake before they hit you), and navigating through the crowded sidewalk without getting pushed into a tepid road-side stream.

I passed by a walled off complex with a sign over its gates reading, Notr Dame University (not a typo). I don’t think it has any connection to the famous American university,* but to its credit, Notre Dame had planted trees all along its walls with beautiful pink flowers, which did much to bring color to universally brown Dhaka.

I also spotted the Bangladeshi National Bank, which despite literally printing money, looked like a filthy, thirty year old office building badly in need of refurbishment.

After walking around some back alleys for ten minutes, I finally resorted to use a rickshaw to find the Liberation Museum, even though I knew I was close. Again using my best Bangladeshi accent, I said, “muktijuddah” (which I think means “freedom fighter”) to a rickshaw driver. He had no idea what I was talking about. Fortunately, the second driver did. Five minutes later we arrived at a quaint courtyard tucked into the side of a small back road. I paid the driver 20 taka, and by the look in his eyes I knew it was too much, but I decided not to quibble over 7 cents.

The Liberation War Museum, Dhaka (Wikipedia)

The Bangladesh Liberation Museum was surprisingly good. Though small, it packed a lot of documents and photographs from the early colonial era up until Bangladesh’s independent in 1971. I was surprised to learn that the local Bangladeshi military attempted a revolt again the British during World War I, armed with weapons smuggled from Germany. Of course, the revolt was crushed.

The museum really played up the brutality of the Pakistani occupation. The quick version according to the museum: Shortly after India achieved independence, Pakistan was formed out of the majority Muslim regions flanking India on either side. This created a weirdly-shaped country with two roughly equal population centers separated by 2,000 miles of another country’s territory. West Pakistan (i.e. modern Pakistan) took the dominant political and economic role and used its power to suppress the rights of individuals in East Pakistan (modern Bangladesh). Sporadic revolts broke out over the next few decades, and the West Pakistani government failed adequately to address various famines and floods which had plagued East Pakistan. In one of the pettiest acts of oppression I’ve heard of, West Pakistan rejected a formal request by East Pakistan to institute Bengali as an official state language. Protests were held in Dhaka, and West Pakistani forces killed an unspecified number of East Pakistanis while trying to stop the protests. These individuals became known as the Language Reform Martyrs.

In 1971, a full-fledged revolution began, and a government of Bangladesh was declared by a group of exiles in India, with Bangadandu** as their head even though he was arrested and awaiting a show trial. 80,000 West Pakistani soldiers were sent to combat a guerrilla insurgency of an unspecified number of Bangladeshi freedom fighters. The Bangladeshi long-term strategy was to buy time until they could curry enough foreign support to force Weste Pakistan to backdown via diplomatic channels. Given the socialist leanings of the Bangladeshi leadership, their strongest support came from the USSR and India, both of which provided money, weapons, and logistical assistance. President Nixon and the U.S. were mostly silent, and recently declassified documents show that Nixon didn’t want to alienate Pakistan, which acted as a buffer against Soviet-aligned India. However, a few US Senators and a high ranking member of the State Department did speak out despite Nixon’s silence.***

After the war had raged on for a few months, West Pakistan initiated Operation Searchlight (OS). OS was a genocidal attempt to crush Bangladeshi morale and root out the rebellion’s ringleaders. Mass executions were held in parts of Dhaka and other major cities, with special attention being directed towards intellectuals and educated Bangladeshis. Oddly, the museum didn’t have a figure for the number of civilian deaths caused by OS. However, the museum reported that 98 million Bangladeshis fled to Indian refugee camps during the war, thereby constituting one of the largest human exoduses in history.

The time line is a bit fuzzy, but somewhere around the end of the nine month war, India officially declared war on Pakistan in response to OS. The Indian army swiftly assaulted both fronts and routed the Pakistani army. The Pakistanis surrendered shortly later and Bangladesh became an independent country.

I would be fascinated to see how Pakistanis view the war. Just from the museum’s presentation, it is difficult to see what Pakistan’s moral justification could have been, aside from an imperial drive for power. One possibility is that they saw the war as “Islam vs. Socialism” with themselves on the Islamic side. The museum noted that within Bangladesh, Pakistan drew most of its support from conservative Islamic elites who even actively collaborated with the Pakistani army during OS. Also, Pakistan and Bangladesh’s initial break from India was led by the conservative Muslim League. On the other hand, this is just speculation; I really don’t know much about Pakistani history (or Pakistan itself).

As I write this in the terminal, I am again amazed at how many mosquitoes there are in this airport. The guy sitting next to me, who has collected a sizable body of mosquito carcasses on the floor beneath him, is Chuck, a North Carolina native currently doing missionary work in India. Chuck is one of three white people I have seen in Bangladesh (one was an Italian on line with me upon entry, the other was a guy in my hotel). Chuck thinks the problem with India is that there are not enough government redistribution programs to take money from the rich and give it to the poor. Five minutes after making that argument, Chuck complained about how all politicians all over the world are corrupt. Apparently, Chuck saw no contradiction between the two claims.

I was initially going to start my retrospective with the question, “Did I enjoy travelling to Bangladesh?” A second later I realized that it was the wrong question to ask. I didn’t really “enjoy” much in Dhaka, in the sense that one enjoys a good meal or movie. I guess I enjoyed the zoo and the botanical gardens when I wasn’t being mobbed for pictures, but aside from that, I enjoyed very little of Dhaka.****

But enjoyment was not the point of coming here. I came to Dhaka to see something I had never seen before, and I most certainly did that. Dhaka is the dirtiest, smelliest, ugliest city I have ever seen (second only to Beijing for title of “most polluted”). On those grounds, coming to Dhaka was a great decision. I will most certainly never forget the sights, sounds, and smells of the capital of Bangladesh.

I’ve already described the places and things I saw at length, but I finally want to hash out what I thought of the people. My general rule of thumb now is “always be polite, but be wary of merchants and only engage non-merchants if you have the energy.” I suppose I can add, “And be wary of merchants pretending to be non-merchants.”

Everyone in Bangladesh really is excruciatingly nice. Even the predatory merchants seem far less cynical than those in Thailand. Their attitudes are not quite, “Let’s take this wealthy foreigner for all he’s worth” but more like, “Look at this amazing, exotic foreigner! Let’s take him for all he’s worth.” Beyond the exploitative merchants, I had a million pleasant encounters with random Bangladeshis. Most just wanted to know where I was from and shake my hand. Some wanted a conversation and even my contact information. Perhaps my best encounters were the instances unsolicited assistance. Nearly every time I tried to get a rickshaw or took-took, a random Bangladeshi would help me talk to the driver and clarify where I wanted to go. Then there was the Muslim man who randomly bought me a hat. Best of all, I cannot thank enough the man and his wife who mediated my dispute with the scamming rickshaw driver.

I’ve struggled to articulate the difference between my “popularity” here and that in China. In both countries I was approached on the street by random people. In both countries I had my picture taken, I was asked where I was from, and everyone lauded America for its wealth and power. But there was a distinct difference between the two.

First, I should note that how I was treated specifically has to do with my personal appearance. I am not just a white guy; I am an extremely white guy. I’m 5’11, pale, with blonde hair, blue eyes,***** and a generally Northern European appearence. Nearly every aspect of my appearance makes me extra-exotic to foreigners. I’m taller than everyone, my skin and hair are far lighter, my eyes are completely different, and even my bone structure is totally alien. Adding to all that, I’m twenty two years old. Whatever meager interactions with white people that a small portion of the Bangladeshi and Chinese populations have had, have almost certainly been with older businessmen, not young twenty-somethings.

A mythological creature of extreme whiteness, at least under that ridiculous Holi paint

To summarize, I think Chinese people see me as a celebrity and Bangladeshi people see me as a mythological creature. Chinese people know something about Americans. They don’t know much, but they have an idea of what we are. Not only have they seen us plenty of times on TV and they are totally immersed in our exported culture. China has McDonald’s, American cars, American movies, American music, and countless outposts of American companies. Perhaps even more importantly, going to America is at least a remote option for many Chinese individuals, whether by immigration or for education.

Chinese people know America in the same way I know Brad Pitt. I’ve seen him through media and culture. I know his most important achievements. And I may even know a little about his personal life (he’s a philanthropist and likes architecture). But of course I don’t really know Brad Pitt on a personal level. If I were suddenly to meet him, I couldn’t really have a conversation with him beyond, “you’re a good actor” and “how awesome is it being married to Angelina Jolie.” I wouldn’t ask for his email address or to friend him on Facebook because I am aware that Brad Pitt is a busy human being who can’t talk to every fan he meets. Likewise, Chinese people understand the basic outlines of what America is, even if they don’t understand its complexities.

To Bangladeshi people, America is a mythological place. Sure they’ve seen it in the news (the death of Leonard Nimoy was reported in the newspaper delivered to my hotel), but they don’t have the sort of cultural immersion that a Chinese person can have. Even in Dhaka, the political, cultural, and economic center of Bangladesh, there were only a handful of American fast food restaurants. American movies and music are too luxurious for people who don’t even have computers with which to pirate them. Unlike the major Chinese cities, there is almost no permanent foreign presence in Dhaka.

The Bangladeshi vision of America is more abstract. Upon learning I was from America, Bangladeshi’s would say things like, “America is number one,” “America is most powerful,” and even “American passport is best in the whole world.” And that’s all America is to them. It’s this distant mythical place of untold power and wealth which ever so rarely arrives on Bangladesh’s shores and is pretty much impossible for Bangladeshis to reach. Even Jewel, a middle class guy whomade a living catering-scamming foreigners said that he could never afford to go to America. Of course some Bangladeshis manage to immigrate, but likely only the exceptionally ambitious and relatively wealthy. Sakib said he wanted to move to America when he was older, and he also demonstrated some knowledge of American culture (if Justin Beiber qualifies). But he is only 14 years old, and probably on the wealthier side if he can stroll around a zoo at noon on a Monday. And even with Sakib, I was a treasure to behold. He wanted to befriend a stranger and show him around a zoo or an hour, just because he looked exotic and came from a strange land.

Metaphorically, it would be like my meeting someone from Atlantis. I’ve vaguely heard of the myth of Atlantis, but I only know a handful things about the city. I know it’s in the water and very powerful, or maybe technologically advanced, or maybe magical. If I met an Atlantian, I would have even less to say to him than I did Brad Pitt. I would stare at his strange clothes and hair and ask where he was from. I would be thrilled to spend an hour asking him about his homeland and showing him some local sight in New York. And yeah, I would probably ask for his email address or if I could friend him on Facebook, because it would be too cool to correspond with some guy from Atlantis while he sits in his underwater submarine bedroom or something.

*Editor’s note: There’s no connection to the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana.

**Editor’s note: I’m assuming that this is a nickname for the Awami Party leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

***Editor’s note: For discussion, see Gary Bass, The Blood Telegram: Nixon, Kissinger, and a Forgotten Genocide.

****Editor’s note: Discussed in an entry not posted here, which includes conversations in the zoo with Sakib, a teenager.

*****Editor’s note: Erroneously described as “green” in a previous post.

Postscript, April 13, 2015: A revealing article about political turmoil in Bangladesh.

One thought on “Guest Post: A Passage to Bangladesh, Dhaka Day 5 (by Matt Faherty)

  1. Pingback: Guest Post: A Passage to India, Calcutta Day 1 (by Matt Faherty) | Policy of Truth

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