ShahidulNews

(Moved to http://www.shahidulnews.com)

Re-visiting

rahnuma ahmed

Thirtyfive years later

“Thirtyfive years? You will be meeting her after thirtyfive years?”

No contact in between?

Well, I would reply, we escaped from Pakistan in 1972. There were no official contacts between the two countries for many years so there was no question of any letter-writing, but in the late 1970’s, one of my father’s colleagues at Radio Bangladesh had gone to Pakistan, to attend a seminar. I remember asking my father hesitantly, can your colleague take a letter from me for Imdad uncle’s daughter? My father had said, `For Naghma? Well, I’ll ask him, but go ahead. I’m sure, he can.’ He had brought back a letter from Naghma. I remember that I had read it over and over again.

When we met last October, after thirty-five long years, she reminded me that I had also sent a maroon cotton sari with my letter. With her letter had come a set of studded buttons, a Sindhi piece of jewellery that village women wore. That I remember clearly. I had worn it for many years.

In the late 1980s, I had received a phone call. The caller said he was Naghma’s husband, he was in Dhaka for a conference. It was over, could we meet up? I dragged Shahidul over to where Haseeb was, we spent what remained of the day together. I wanted to know all about Naghma, we had a meal, we showed him parts of Dhaka. I remember he had said, y’know Dhaka’s quite funny, such stark differences right next to each other, next to a two-storied house you get a scraggly plot, and then suddenly you see a pretty posh building, and then again, right next to it, a government office. I remember looking at Dhaka anew, through his eyes. I remember looking at Haseeb, again and again, wanting to find bits of Naghma in him. I missed her. His presence made it acute.

After that, no contact. Four years earlier, we were in touch again. A spurt of e-mails, followed by another long silence, broken last year by a letter. She had been invited to a conference in Dhaka at the end of October, would I be in Dhaka then? We frantically wrote to each other. Until the last minute. Until she caught her flight to Dhaka.

I walked into the hotel lobby and asked for her at the reception but before the person behind the counter could reply, a man walked up to me and said, “Are you Rahnuma?” I nodded, and he said, “There’s Naghma.” I turned to see a woman in a white kameez and churidar, seated in a sofa facing the high glass walls. Her back was turned to me. She was looking at the fountain outside.

No words can describe what I felt in that first exchange of glances. Tahseen gave us a minute or two before joining us. Naghma introduced us to each other, he was also from Pakistan, he was here for the same conference. An old friend of her and her husband. Tahseen said I needed no introduction. Naghma had never tired of talking about me in the thirty-or-so odd years he knew her. He teased us as we sat facing each other. As we calmly spoke to each other. We had been misty-eyed, but only for fleeting moments. “If I had been in your place,” said Tahseen, “I would have wept my heart out, I would have been rolling on the floor of the hotel lobby by now.” We laughed.

Later, one evening when we were having dinner together, Tahseen spoke of his visit to his ancestral village in East Punjab, India, a few years ago. He spoke of how he had navigated his Indian friend who was driving the car right down to the village, of how he had known of each turn to the doorstep of their paternal home from stories that his mother had repeatedly told him. Stories of sorrow, and loss and longing. It was the first time since 1947 that anyone from Tahseen’s family had been to the village. But older people, he said, had known who he was. We shared in his amazement when he said, you know, I didn’t have to introduce myself, they knew right away, they said you are so-and-so’s puttar, right?

He quietly added, the whole village had turned out and wept.

In 1972, I did not look back

Afsan Chowdhury had insisted that the experiences of those of us who had been in Pakistan during 1971, was also part of the history of muktijuddho. I had contributed a piece to his edited four-volume Bangladesh 1971. This is what I had written about leaving Naghma, about leaving Pakistan. `I do not remember exactly how I came to discover that we were leaving, that we were escaping, that it would happen not in the distant future, but soon. Very soon. I was told of the exact date at the very last moment. My parents had strictly forbidden us, we were not to tell anyone, we must keep our mouths tightly sealed, it was not safe. But how could I not tell my dearest friend Naghma? Her father, like my dad, also worked in Radio Pakistan, they were Punjabis, they also lived in Garden Road officer’s colony. In my circle of friends spreading from colony to school and back, Naghma was the only one who strongly supported Bangladesh’s struggle for liberation. She was the only Pakistani with whom I could share tales of atrocities being committed by the Pakistani army, with whom I could share stories of West Pakistan’s exploitation of its eastern wing.

When I told her of our family’s plans to escape, I remember that I had shut the door tightly, that I had sat down next to her, that I had whispered in her ear, “We are leaving…”

I remember she had wept. I remember I hadn’t.

I was leaving Pakistan for my own country. I remember feeling proud. We were going to be free of Pakistan. I did not look back.’

Last October, when we met after thirty-five years, Naghma reminded me of that evening. She reminded me that I had turned the bedroom lights off and on before leaving. Their house had been right behind ours. It had been our pre-arranged signal. She had waited for that last sign.

Pakistan now

After her conference was over, she came and stayed with me for a night before leaving for Islamabad. We talked about politics. Continuously. Just like the old days.

We talked about Musharraf in Pakistan. About the military-backed caretaker government in Bangladesh. She repeatedly spoke of the institutionalisation of the military. It was this that had warped all possible democratic hope for Pakistan. For the majority peoples of Pakistan. For a long time to come. Being a client state of the US never helped democratic longings, she said.

I spoke of Bangladesh, of the changes that had taken place, pre- and post- January 11 last year. She replied with foreboding. She could see similarities, she said.

I found it disconcerting. We had left Pakistan. I did not want to turn back.

And then, a few weeks ago, Ikram Sehgal, defence editor of Pakistan, said the same thing while speaking to journalists at Dhaka Reporters’ Unity. He could see “commonalities” between Bangladesh now, and pre-election Pakistan. He termed these “disturbing.” Running the country was not a Captain, a Major, or a Brigadier, or a General’s business. It is not part of their training, he said. Their duty was to protect the sovereignty of a state. To help during times of national crisis. This, he added, could only be for “a short period.” (The New Nation, March 17, 2008).

I become curious. I want to explore “commonalities.” I turn to Ayesha Siddiqa’s Military Inc. Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy (2007). I come across a discussion of Bangladesh. “The military’s role can only be limited to arbitration in cases such as Bangladesh, where the government has systematically encouraged the armed forces to look at other options for their financial survival. One of the reasons for the Bangladeshi military’s abstinence from taking over direct control lies in the source of the armed forces’ financial autonomy. Dhaka’s military depends on UN peacekeeping missions to earn financial benefits, and as a result it has remained out of power since 1990-1.” (p. 50).

I read on. “Over the years, Dhaka’s armed forces have built stakes in the hotel industry, in textile and jute manufacturing, and in education. Bangladeshi civil society is, perhaps naively, not alarmed by such developments.”

Bangladeshi armed forces investing in the hotel industry? How little one knows. I delve and come up with some bits of information. The Radisson Water Garden Hotel is jointly owned by Sena Kalyan Sangstha and Army Welfare Trust. It earned 9.52 million US dollars in the first year of its operation (2006-2007). In the second year, it generated a revenue of 13,377,424 US dollars, earning a gross operating profit of 6,721,356 US dollars. I come across other information. The 2007-2008 earnings were “the highest recorded hotel revenue in the history of Bangladesh.” Ian R Barrow, the General Manager of the hotel, thought it was Radisson’s “location” that was crucial. Being close to Zia International Airport, it had not been much affected by the political turmoil that had swept the nation, that had affected other businesses last year. But then, I thought, businesses close to the seat of power have thrived under any regime.

I return to Ayesha Siddiqa. She thinks if the military’s role in the economy expands, its influence in politics deepens. She thinks we should be alarmed.

I remember 1972. I remember being excited. We were going to be free of Pakistan.

——————–

First published in New Age on 1st April 2008

March 30, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | 2 Comments

Distances

rahnuma ahmed

WHENEVER I approach her, I feel numb. I feel speechless. I want to know who she is. But I don’t know who to ask. How to ask.

This photograph has always haunted me. I don’t remember when I first saw it. Probably in a book of war photographs. And later in the Muktijuddho Jadughar, where I have gone many a times with relatives and friends, visiting from abroad.

‘She was pulled out. Dragged out from the Pakistani army’s bunker,’ said Naibuddin Ahmed, the photographer.
naibuddin-ahmed-woman-in-mymensingh-mw013723-600-px.jpg Woman recovered from Pakistani Army bunker at Mymensingh. 12th December 1971. © Naibuddin Ahmed/Drik/Majority World

I spoke to Naibuddin Ahmed on Sunday night (March 23), over the telephone. ‘Why don’t you come and get a print? It’s only an hour, or a one and a half hour’s drive.’

The next morning Shahidul and I went off to Paril Noadha in Shingair, Manikganj, to Naibuddin bhai’s idyllic home, where he leads a retired life. Thirty-eight years later.

The Pakistani army, he said, had camped at the Bangladesh Agricultural University in Mymensingh. They had captured and occupied Mymensingh on April 19. When the army left in December, when they were forced to flee, people rushed to the BAU campus. Looting began, army bunkers, storeroom, there was looting all around, everywhere. Common people were looting, they were all over the place. ‘I do not know whether it was from rage, or what…,’ he gently added.

That’s when we heard the news, he said. Girls had been discovered in the bunkers, which were next to the university guesthouse. He went on, I went and found her, she was lying like that. People were milling around her, they were in front of her, they were behind her. I asked them to move, I made some space, and then I took photographs. It was the twelfth of December, that was the day Mymensingh became free. The Indian army had entered the town, they had entered the campus, they had taken control.

When I approached her, she seemed to be in a trance. There were others. I heard eight to ten girls had been found in the bunkers, some had already left. I found her alone. She did not respond when we called out. Her hands were raised. She was holding on to the pole behind her. Was that all that was left, nothing else to hold on to?

We returned to Dhaka with the print. Naibuddin bhai’s words kept ringing in my ears. Of course, it was a tamasha, a spectacle, he had said. There were people, both men and women who had come in search of their daughters, and their sisters. But there were onlookers, too. They had stood and stared. They did not share their pain and suffering, their helplessness. They looked on and thought, the military has done it to them. Nothing left. They are finished.

War rape intimidates the enemy, says Sally J Scholz. It demoralises the enemy. It makes women pregnant, and thereby furthers the cause of genocide. It tampers with the identity of the next generation. It breaks up families. It disperses entire populations. It drives a wedge between family members. It extends the oppressor’s dominance into future generations.

The context of war makes it different from peacetime rape. Although there are, often enough, compelling links between the two. The context of war alters perceptions. War turns rape into an act of a state, nation, ethnic group, or people. Atrocities committed by soldiers against unarmed civilians during wartime are always considered to be state acts, the Pakistani state against the Bengali peoples. Rape is an act of violence. It is an act of power and domination, rather than an act of sex. Rape is a demonstration of prowess, of male bonding, especially within the military. War rape, at times, becomes an end in itself. It creates a war within a war, by targeting all women simply because they are women.

Normal lives, distanced lives

‘In Britain, you would never find such violent images in museums, or exhibitions. Generally speaking, no. Never, ever.’ David, my niece Sofia’s Scottish husband, and a journalist, uttered these words slowly and thoughtfully, as we left the Muktijuddho Jadughor. Of course wars were violent affairs, he nodded in agreement, as I went on to ask which particular images had reminded him of Britain’s rules of museum display. Was it the photo of vultures eating human carcass? Was it photographs of dead bodies half afloat in the water? Rayer Bazar intellectual killings? Dead bodies of men, women and children struck down by the December 1970 cyclone? Rape victims of 1971?

I thought of the care with which images are graded in Britain, the consideration that goes into classifying cinemas into those not suited for viewing by children (above 12 years only, 15+ years).

But violence is cloaked in many ways. War machines kill. I thought of the care with which Blair had been sales agent to 72 Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia. Of the appreciation showered on India for its £1-billion order with British Aeropace for Hawk trainer jets. An island of normalcy that outsources violence?

What if violence sown elsewhere manages to come home, to find its way onto TV channels? The chief military spokesman for coalition forces in Iraq Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt had been asked what if one comes across images of Iraqi civilians killed by Americans on TV? ‘Change the channel,’ had been his advice.

Those whose lives are devastated by war struggle to reconstruct a normal life after war. But recreating normal relationships is not easy. Much less so, for women. Marium, the central character in Shaheen Akhtar’s Talaash (novel), had been a rape camp inmate during 1971. After liberation, and many episodes, Momtaz marries her. He is a nouveau riche businessman, and amazingly enough, not at all concerned about Marium’s wartime experience. Momtaz does not worry about fathering children. Let us enjoy life first, he says. But the act of enjoyment is fraught with difficulties. If Momtaz holds her passionately, Marium’s eyes float like a dead fish. She is ready. Too ready. She starts breathing from her mouth. Her heart beats rapidly, like a mouse caught in a rat-trap. In the beginning, Momtaz was not worried. The women in the park would do the same, one hand outstretched to take cash, while the other would part clothes while she lay down. Petting, caressing were not required. The quicker the better, especially before the police appeared. But this is home, not a park. This is a conjugal bed, not one made of grass. Why does Marium behave like a whore? Why does she never say ‘no’? Why does she not take part? Why is she inert? Why does she act surrendered, as if someone was holding a gun to her head, was forcing her to have sex? Momtaz begins drinking heavily. He wants to make his wife sexually active, he gradually turns into a rapist. He is physically abusive. He starts to behave like a member of the Pakistani army. The marriage does not survive.

War fractures the lives of survivors, often in ways that cannot be repaired. War rape creates a war within a war. It can outlive war. Pre-war normalcy often eludes the survivors forever.

Closer to truth. Closer to freedom

Thirty-eight years on and I look at myself. I look at us women. I look at our normal, peacetime lives. And I wonder, if justice had been done, if the war criminals had been tried, if women had returned to their families, to their parents, husbands, lovers, brothers, if they did not have to go to Pakistan, or to brothels, or to Mother Teresa’s in Kolkata, if those pregnant could have their babies if they had wished, would my life, would our lives have been differently normal? If justice had been done, would the rape of hill women have been a necessary part of the military occupation of the Chittagong Hill Tracts? Would the offenders have enjoyed impunity? Would there not have been independent judicial investigations? Would those guilty have gone unpunished? Would the Chittagong Hill Tracts have been militarily occupied at all?

Would we have been closer to freedom?

First published in New Age 26th March 2008

March 25, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | 20 Comments

Venturing Into The Impossible

” Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Sir Arthur C Clarke

“Oh you are going to take pictures? Let me put on my sincere smile. Don’t manage it all the time.” He chuckled, as he stroked his belly. I should have been awed by a man who had propagated the idea of the geostationary satellite. Arthur C Clarke was the author of one of the most significant books on science fiction, and has inspired the names of lost dinosaurs and spacecraft. I had not been sure what to expect. But he quickly put me at ease. “I’ll protect you from Pepsi.” He said, stroking the Chihuahua that curled up on his lap. “He fought a hound.”
arthur-c-clarke-bw-2482.jpg Sir Arthur C Clarke who died early morning on the 19th March 2008 at a hospital in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he had lived since the 1950s. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I turned up at the designated time of 9:00 am at 25 Barnes Place in Colombo 7. I remember peering curiosly at the satellite dish through the bushes. Not too many people had a VSAT in their back garden in those days. Fittingly, it was the year 2001. I was in Colombo conducting a workshop for World Press Photo. I had also hoped to photograph Chandrika for my story “Women Leaders of South Asia”. It was going to be a busy trip. These are the times when you mobilise your friends into action. My friend Nalaka Gunawardene had arranged the appointment with Clarke. Chulie de Silva had finally pegged down an appointment with Chandrika. Sir Clarke was skeptical about my prospects for photographing the president. “Do you think she’ll see you at 4:30?” He said and then went into this funny tale of how Chandrika was always late, and always charming, going into great detail on the vegetarian meal the former president had served that day. The Science Fiction visionary was also good at short term predictions. Soon before the appointment, Chandrika’s secretary called to express her regrets.

He was childlike in his enthusiasm and insisted that I read the book on Polar bears he had just been given. Then he brought out the email by his friend Swarch the holography expert who had sent him 3D images, “including some nudes” he mischievously added. Then came out the hardback copy of Lionel Went’s book with original prints. The conversation flew in all directions. Blue and green lasers. Stereo images. Aerial photography. His ISDN connection. The Video Live Link which he’d used to communicate with Japan’s head of IT. “Must get Nalaka to get all these photographs scanned by you,” he said as he brought out piles of 35mm Kodachromes. We were like kids in a junk shop. It was hard to imagine that I was with the octogenarian king of Sci Fi as this genial man scurried around his large library. “Don’t go to the swimming club,” he suddenly said out of the blue. “It’s only for the posh. Until recently they didn’t allow natives.” I was flattered by the camaraderie.

arthur-c-clarke-on-computer-02.jpg

Sir Clarke at his computer in the library at his residence at 25 Barnes Place, Colombo 7. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

Nalaka had asked me not to tire him too much, so I didn’t push the picture taking, instead we played that morning. Our workshop was taking place at the Galle Face Hotel. On the last day of the workshop, all I had was a public lecture. The flight was at night, so I had some free time. I had just walked out of the hotel onto the nearby roundabout when this red Mercedes pulled up. Sir Clarke wanted me to go with him to his club. I watched him play a vicious game of table tennis. Then we went back to Barnes Place and of course I took some more pictures. “Glad I won both games,” said a playful Clarke.

clarke-playing-table-tennis-03.jpg

Sir Clarke playing table tennis at his local club in Colombo. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

There were things we never got to talk about. His failed marriage. The Sunday Mirror accusation that he was a paedophile. He was cleared in the formal investigation and The Sunday Mirror later printed a retraction. He was to receive his knighthood from the Prince of Wales during the prince’s visit to Sri Lanka, but Clarke had felt it would be inappropriate given the scandals. He was made a Knight Bachelor later, on May 26, 2000.

Here was a man who had consistently come up with some of the most innovative ideas in modern telecommunications. The technologies he foretold have become integral parts of modern living. His stories have inspired entire generations. In 2001: A Space Odyssey as the supercomputer HAL is being switched off, with his logic completely gone, HAL begins singing the song Daisy Bell. One might see this as speech synthesis, but Clarke saw it as that twilight zone between humans and machine, as the human face of artificial intelligence. Nalaka and I were scared of losing the author’s insight. Despite having written over 100 books, and published over 1000 articles, the anecdotes, the wit, enormous wealth of knowledge, the joy of life of this remarkable man would disappear with him. This was the man who had believed, “The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Despite his youthfulness, he was getting old, and both of us knew the clock was ticking. He had wanted me to scan the photographs. We wanted to peer into his mind, for the stories behind the images.

Last year, while I was in Sri Lanka for another assignment, Nalaka arranged for another photo shoot. A slightly more official one. Pepsi had died. At ninety Clarke could no longer play table tennis. But his mind was as sharp as ever. That was the last photo shoot that Sir Arthur was to feature in.

clark-with-dinosaur-2402-600-px.jpg

Sir Clarke with a dinosaur . Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

clarke-with-globe-2494-600px.jpg

Sir Clarke with globe. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

nehru-jacket-profile-arthur-c-clarke-2431.jpg

Sir Clarke had put on his favourite Nehru jacket for this photograph at his residence at 25 Barnes Place, Colombo 7. Sri Lanka. © 2001. Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

I had asked him for two autographs. One for my friend Maarten of World Press Photo and one for my mother. My regret was not that I didn’t have one for myself, but that like so many unfinished projects, the stories behind those photographs he had wanted me to scan, will never now be told.

But the world will remember his magic.

March 19, 2008 Posted by | My Photo Essays | , , , , , , | 17 Comments

If the heavens were to write back

“John Pilger, my name is Fariha Karim. I think you know my uncle,” my 21 year old niece had blurted out. She was a big fan of the celebrated investigative journalist and had clambered through throngs of people in Trafalgar Square, up the large stone steps leading to the iconic lion statues and climbed her way over the lions, past the organisers to get to the tall Australian.

Most nieces tend to think their uncles are famous. Fariha had seen me on the podium when I’d chaired World Press Photo. She’d been to the award ceremony when I was given the honorary fellowship of the Royal Photographic Society. She’d seen me preside at Chobi Mela. Pictures on the occasional book, the odd Time magazine cover and a few exhibitions had reinforced my image in her eyes. That was enough for my youngest niece to think everyone in the world would know her uncle.

Fariha was thinking of entering journalism. So when she saw this famous journalist at an anti-war demonstration in London in November 2001, protesting against the British-US bombing of Afghanistan, she decided to take full advantage of the situation. As most of Stop the War marches were in those days, it was busy, with numbers of protestors regularly running into tens of thousands. Organisers estimated 100,000 protestors; police shrunk numbers to a conservative 15,000. Speakers included veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, then Labour MP George Galloway. John Pilger was amongst the celebrities. It was a brave attempt by the aspiring journalist, but her uncle failed to make an impression on the big man, and Fariha hastily retreated.

I suppose in photojournalism circles a few people would know me, but it is rare for a majority world professional to be known in the west. A famous western journalist was a different matter. Pilger was known worldwide. His book Hidden Agenda, was widely read. His films had won awards. His words mattered.

I was therefore taken aback on reading Pilger‘s Guardian piece on Moudud. In marketing terms this was powerful co-branding. This was about as high as it got in journalism. I had tried writing to Pilger before, without success. This time I wrote to the email in his website. I wasn’t surprised by the boiler plate response:

Thank you very much for emailing the John Pilger website. We will
endeavour to respond to your email as quickly as possible.

However, due to the huge volume of emails received it will not always
be possible to reply personally to your mail.


Editor
johnpilger.com

Watch the War on Democarcy trailer: http://warondemocracy.net

—–

From: shahidul@drik.net
Subject: The Prisoner of Dhaka
Date: March 12, 2008 11:08:38 AM GMT+06:00
To: pilgereditor@gmail.com

——

“It is not enough for journalists to see themselves as mere messengers without understanding the hidden agendas of the message and myths that surround it’ – John Pilger

Dear Mr. Pilger,

I have admired your work for many years and use a lot of it when teaching at Pathshala, our small school of photography in Bangladesh. The lead statement in your blog, quoted above, is one that I ardently believe in. I was therefore surprised when Hasna Moudud forwarded me the article “The Prisoner of Dhaka” this morning. I can understand Hasna’s reasons for sending me the article. It is her husband in jail and her attempts to circulate an article which paints Moudud in a good light, may not be journalistically valid but an understandable response from a spouse. However for a journalist who is acclaimed for his investigative prowess, to have so many significant omissions, and a fair number of inaccurate observations, is worrying for the profession.

The arrest of Moudud on the basis of alcohol being found in his house is laughable, and clearly a setup. We have written about it in national Bangla newspapers. The actions of the military government cannot be justified, and we have vehemently protested through our blogs and in local newspaper columns. Unfortunately our words do not reach mainstream media in the west. Yours does. Hence it is important that you voice your opinion against such irregularities, as you have indeed done in this article. But to paint Moudud as a saint, does go against the sentence at the top of this mail. A google search on Moudud Ahmed and chameleon will provide enough links to whet any researcher’s appetite. Sure, not all those links can be trusted and as a journalist you need to dig deeper to get to the facts, but that precisely is what has been carefully omitted in the Guardian article.

file11-r43-fm-8-moudud-with-rowshan.jpg Moudud Ahmed on the dais with Rowshan Ershad wife of autocratic general Hussain Mohammad Ershad at a Jatiya Party Rally in Manik Mia Avenue. In the meeting he strongly criticised the BNP, but promptly joined the party (BNP) when they came back to power. Dhaka. May 1996. © Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

“Although technically you may call it extrajudicial—I will not say killing—but extrajudicial deaths. But these are not killings. According to RAB, they say all those who have been killed so far have been killed or dead on encounter or whatever crossfire, whatever you call it—people are happy.”
—Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Moudud Ahmed, November 2006

I have watched this man wax lyrical about any leader he currently served, only to rapidly change colour and join the winning side when the tables were turned. Moudud and his group of lawyers have abused the legal system wherever possible and under each regime, but for me, one of his ‘lesser’ crimes is perhaps the most blatant. Demanding the clemency of a murderer, because he was a political thug loyal to the party. I do not want to list the misdeeds of Moudud. You are a trained investigative journalist and there is enough evidence out there for you to make your own opinion. Neither do I support the arrest of Moudud on the charges made against him. There are far more sinister charges against the man and it is somewhat pathetic that the government had to resort to this charade to jail him. But to paint one of the most despised men in Bangladeshi politics as a hero, does insult the Bangladeshi public.

While I dislike Moudud for his blatant opportunism, I will defend his rights in this particular arrest. That is because even a lying, conniving opportunist politician deserves what is due in the law. Not because he is a hero. To paint him as such is simply shoddy journalism.

I have tried contacting you in the past, to congratulate you on the excellent journalism that you have consistently been responsible for. Indeed you have been a major inspiration. An article such as this casts doubts on your journalistic rigour and your judgement.

I remain respectfully yours,

Shahidul Alam

http://shahidul.wordpress.com

——

I’ve gotten used to this lack of response. On the rare occasions when I’m asked to submit a piece for some prestigious western publication, if I write a piece that is critical of western journalistic practice, the communication goes blank. They are busy people, and polite rejections are perhaps an expensive option. We however lay great store to these shining examples of free media. “It’s been reported on the BBC” gives a statement a holy aura. The Guardian too is amongst the exalted ones, with Pilger the high priest. It would be so nice though if the heavens were to write back.

March 18, 2008 Posted by | Media issues | 2 Comments

Of pet dogs (and bitches)

rahnuma ahmed

Last year, in June, she had left Dhaka and her pet dogs to take up her new assignment in Baghdad. Patricia Butenis has returned, this time on a private visit, to fetch her dogs, and to visit her old workplaceAmader Shomoy, March 3, 2008  

Political speculation was rife. Was she on a special assignment? Was her visit timed to coincide with the ex-president of Pakistan Wasim Sajjad’s visit to Dhaka? Had Sajjad gone to Geeta Pasi’s home, the US charge d’affaires, where Butenis was staying, to meet with the latter? After all, Butenis had earlier been posted in Pakistan. Was she here to hold meetings with the opposition party leaders of Bangladesh? Or was it secret meetings with top military and civilian officials?

Not many newspapers had reported the pet dog story. US embassy sources had stressed that it was strictly a private visit, that she was not here on any special assignment, that her itinerary had not been made public out of security considerations. That she would return directly to Baghdad.

I read and re-read the newspaper reports. Butenis, it seems, had attended both private and official programmes. She had gone to a dinner given in her honour by the Canadian high commissioner. She had gone to a US embassy organised lunch at Dhaka’s Westin hotel. She had gone to the UNDP-organised ‘Celebrating the Halfway Mark of Voter Registration’ programme, attended by top Election Commission officials, senior-most military and civilian officers, political party leaders, heads of diplomatic corps, and foreign diplomats. I read the newspaper reports carefully. Renata Dessallien, the UNDP resident representative, had profusely thanked both the Election Commission and the army for the progress made. Bangladesh, she had said, was on its way to rescuing democracy, to putting it back on track. The UNDP would advise other countries to follow Bangladesh’s example, to make a similar ‘golden voter list,’ complete with voter photographs and national ID cards. Interesting. I returned to tracking Butenis, and found that she had also attended a meeting with US embassy officials in Dhaka. She had spoken of her seven-month-long experiences as the deputy chief of the Baghdad mission. 

But it was the pet dog story that intrigued me. I carefully went through some more newspapers. According to a high-up government source, before leaving Dhaka middle of last year Butenis had said she was leaving her ‘pet dogs’ behind. She would return to fetch them after she had settled down in Baghdad. Could this be the reason for her visit? The reporter didn’t seem convinced (Shamokal, March 2, 2008).  

It seemed trivial, but I was piqued. One dog? Or two? Some reports had said ekta kukur (Jaijaidin, March 3, 2008). Others did not mention numbers. They used kukur, which is a collective noun. It could well mean several. A couple of other reports, these were later ones, made specific mention of two, duti posha kukur (Amader Shomoy, Jaijaidin).   

Were they she-dogs? Or, he-dogs? Maybe one of each? I remembered Butenis had been a strong advocate of gender equality. I remembered the introductory words of her 2007 International Women’s Day speech, ‘As we celebrate International Women’s Day this month, I hope everyone will take the time to recognise that women are uniquely valuable and productive members of our society…’ I remembered her condemnation of economic discrimination against women, her stand against women’s trafficking, against domestic violence. But then I thought, surely this was stretching it too far? One may well be pro-women, but does that necessarily mean, one of each, in selecting pet dogs? And of course, pet-lovers have to take other things into account (whether they want their pets to have puppies, or get them neutered, a whole load of things).   

I was also worried over my choice of words. The female of the canine species? Terribly outdated. She-dogs? Clumsy. And then I remembered, the word ‘bitch’ is thought to be less offensive nowadays. I remembered that earlier meanings of malicious, spiteful, domineering have given way to feminist attempts to appropriate the word. Such as Bitch magazine (1996), billed as a feminist response to pop culture. I remembered third wave feminist attempts to inscribe new meanings. Bitch, as in women who are strong-minded. Assertive. In total control.  

But I speak of she-dogs. Not women.

Loving dogs

 

I grew up watching Lassie, an American TV serial in the mid- to late-sixties. Lassie, a Yorkshire collie, had seemed incredibly beautiful. Very dignified. Almost human.

It was later, much later that I tried to develop a critical appreciation of modern pet-hood as a western cultural phenomenon. As a kinship phenomenon. I thought of what Marc Shell, an anthropologist, had said. Pets in the west give their owners, ‘pleasure, companionship, and protection, or the feeling of being secure.’ Shell was writing of the mid-1980s. But was it always like this in western culture? From time immemorial? Jenkins says, no. Lassie, says Jenkins, was a creation of 19th-century bourgeois imagination, of those who viewed the onset of modernity with a sense of nostalgic loss. As old social commitments gave way to ‘alienated and individualistic urban life,’ a dog became a ‘man’s best friend.’ Eric Knight’s Lassie, says Jenkins, stands at the nexus of two new ideas. Children, no longer sources of productive labour, are re-imagined as sacred and innocent. As repositories of parental affection. Dogs are also re-imagined. They are no longer domesticated animals valued for their productive labour, or their exchange prices. They are transformed into pets. Into repositories of sentimental value. 

I am still curious. Of course, I have nothing against pets, I have nothing against dogs, but I feel there is more to know. What about today, the 21st century? The love for pets, for dogs seems to have grown more intense, deeper. I want to know what western scholars, those who examine their own social and cultural practices, think. I want to know how intense love and murderous rage can coexist in the modern subject. 

I come across an article by Heidi Nast, a critical animal geographer. Nast speaks of the here-and-now. She says pet animals have emerged in the 1980s, and more so in the 1990s, as ‘highly commodified and valued objects of affection and love.’ This, she says, coincides with the rise of post-industrial spaces, and with intense consumption, in the US, and other western countries (spreading outside the west too, in Hong Kong, China, Mexico, South Korea). She writes, the allure of pet animals resides in part ‘because they can be anything and anyone you want them to be.’ Pets, specially dogs, supersede children as ‘ideal love objects.’ They are more easily mobilised, need less investment, and to quite an extent, can be shaped into whatever you want it to be, a best friend, an occasional companion. Nast speaks of new shared-experience activities that bond pets and their owners (some prefer the word ‘guardians’): dog yoga (or doga), which started in the US, in 2001. And, formal dancing with dogs, this began in Canada and England in the late 1980s. Nast agrees that pet-animal ownership is not radically new. That elites have pampered pet-animals for millennia. But, what is new is the degree of financial, emotional and cultural investment in pet-animals, its geographical scale, and the level of intensity. Things unheard of even twenty years ago.   

Reading Nast I learn that popular support for a national ‘No-Kill’ movement in US pet shelters emerged in the 1990s (where four million animals are annually killed). That the movement aims to stop euthanising adoptable dogs and cats, by spaying and neutering animal-pets, and working towards greater pet health and adoption rates. I learn that these social tendencies have led to a much greater popular interest in animal rights, a much broader popular participation in animal rights activities. And that this broadened interest has used the rights of animals to treat cultural groups with different sensibilities about the animal world, as the ‘other.’ Nast reminds us of Bridget Bardot, ex-actress, later a celebrity animal rights activist, who had spoken hatefully of the savagery of Muslims. Because of their slaughtering practices. All in the name of animal rights.   

Nast does not think that the affection-love with which pet-animals are treated is unproblematic. She thinks that the ‘escalation in human cruelty to, and dominance over, humans’ that the 21st century is witnessing is not un-connected to intense pet-love. She thinks, it derives from, it operates together with ideologies and logics of violence toward humans.  

I return to tracking the former US ambassador Patricia Butenis, but this time in Iraq. Tracking is now virtual, made much easier by the internet and its search engines.

Killing Iraqis

 

Baghdad – Mohammed Hafidh says he refused to accept an envelope filled with $12,500 in cash from Patricia Butenis, deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Baghdad, as compensation for the death of his 10-year-old son, Ali. 

‘I told her that I want the courts to have their say,’ says Mr. Hafidh, whose son was among 17 Iraqi civilians killed in a Sept 16 shooting involving Blackwater USA security guards – private contractors who were escorting a US diplomat at the time.   

Haythem al-Rubaie, who lost his son and wife in the same shooting, says he won’t even meet with Ms. Butenis, who offered cash compensation on Wednesday to seven of the victims’ families, including Hafidh (The Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2007).

I wasn’t sure I had read it right. I rubbed my eyes. Ms Butenis herself going round offering cash compensation? The deputy head of mission herself? And I, in my utter naïveté, had thought suchlike duties were performed by CIA officials. A Washington Post story helped explain matters: the Nisoor Square massacre had sparked outrage in Iraq. The embassy offers were unusual but reflected ‘the diplomatic and political sensitivities raised by the shootings.’ Hmm, I thought, rather quaint language. You wouldn’t think they were talking of massacres.

The Post story provided further information. A State Department official had asked Haitham (name differently spelt) what he thought was fair compensation for his wife and son. He had replied, ‘They are priceless.’ On being pressed, he had said, ‘Like Lockerbie.’ The families of victims of the Pan American bombing over Scotland had reportedly received $8 million dollars in compensation from the Libyan government. He had added, ‘And you would have to deliver the criminals to an Iraqi court just like Libya delivered the criminals to the British.’  

Being appointed the second-in-command of the Baghdad mission was undoubtedly a promotion. But being there sounds rather wretched, what is the English phrase? It’s a dog’s life

War diplomats

 

US diplomats would seem to agree.

‘State Department employees serving in Iraq get their full salary plus 70% differentials for danger and hardship service. Got a family living in, say, western Europe as part of your last assignment? No problem. The State Department says they can stay there in housing provided by the government as you serve in Iraq. Or, if you like, move the family to a U.S. location of your choice with an allowance that comes on top of the other financial incentives. And for those Foreign Service strivers thinking of a posh future post in some place like London, Paris or Madrid, keep in mind that State Department employees who volunteer for Iraq are now guaranteed one of their five top picks for the next assignment following Iraq. And the U.S. embassy and Baghdad definitely wants you to know that Iraq duty will do you well in promotion consideration down the road” (Times, November 5, 2007).

But the perks were not enough. Forty-eight positions remained vacant. Late last year, the State Department was forced to issue a warning to more than 200 officers. Unless they volunteered, they would be forced into ‘compulsory Iraq service.’ Since then, 15 individuals have come forward, but 33 spots still remain vacant. 

I was amused. Not many seem to have been taken in by the US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice’s idea of ‘transformational diplomacy’ (January 18, 2006). ‘We must begin to lay new diplomatic foundations to secure a future of freedom for all people.’

Wanted: dogs of war

The United States has always wished that Bangladesh take part in the Multi-National Force in Baghdad. We have always welcomed Bangladesh’s participation. But, [Butenis] added, the people internal to Bangladesh, the common people of Bangladesh are against the idea. It is a difficult decision for Dhaka. Had Dhaka been asked? Butenis did not give any clear-cut answer (Manab Zamin, March 4, 2008). 

In English, ‘dogs of war’ is an archaic term for soldiers, coined by Shakespeare. ‘Cry ‘Havoc!’, and let slip the dogs of war’ (Julius Caesar, Act III, scene 1, line 270).   

The US needs dogs of war. Bangladeshis will not agree to their armed forces joining American-led occupiers in Iraq. Not in their name, no. But there may be other ways. Talk of setting up a Muslim UN peacekeeping force has been gently circulating for the last couple of years. At some stage, that will probably be voiced as a compromise solution. Everybody will heave a sigh of relief. US forces will hunker down in US mega-bases in Iraq, they will lead safe lives of occupation. Less body bags to be shipped home, while UN peacekeepers from moderate Muslim countries like Bangladesh maintain peace above ground.

If it so happens, they will be the dogs of war in an imperial occupation that has ravaged the cradle of civilisation.

First published in New Age 17th March 2008

March 17, 2008 Posted by | Rahnuma Ahmed | 4 Comments

A Rare Treat

Zainul Abedin, S. M. Sultan, Shahabuddin, Manzoor Alam Beg, the list goes on. What a delightful treat. What a rare opportunity for Bangladeshis to see original works of art by these legendary artists all under one roof. Drik and the Prince Claus Fund go back a long way. The Fund has been a long standing patron of Chobi Mela, our festival of photography and Drik is a Network partner of the fund. Both organisations see culture as a catalyst for change. At a time when the world is divided and most western organisations have played safe on controversial issues, the fund has recognised and awarded outspoken artists and has ensured that their voices be heard, through their publications and by supporting and recognising their art. That has been the basis of our solidarity, and Drik has had the honour of participating in many of these projects. The Mondrian Foundation is a new friend. But the Foundation’s attempts to bridge cultural gaps is very much in keeping with Drik’s own ideals. The Netherlands Embassy remains a trusted partner.

mon_0179.jpg International curators at the exhibition “Contemporary Art of Bangladesh” at the Drik Gallery. The show opened 13 March 2008 and includes original artwork from 1948 till 2008 by some of the legends of Bangladeshi Art. © Monirul Alam

This exhibition is very special. Rarely have Bangladeshis had the opportunity of seeing the work of so many outstanding artists under one roof. There are two others at the Asiatic Gallery and at Pathshala. It is a welcome change to see more inclusive exhibitions, where traditional art forms have made way for more contemporary practice. The artists have been very generous with their works, making them available at short notice and without fuss. We value this trust and are grateful for their support. Nisar Hossain admirably steered the process. Combining his passion and his leadership with delicate tact, ensuring that no feathers were ruffled and no feelings hurt. But what a treat they’ve served.

Shahidul Alam

Contemporary Art of Bangladesh

Contemporary art in Bangladesh is a vital activity. Yet its history is short, it started when an art school was set up in Dhaka in 1948 by Zainul Abedin and a few of his colleagues almost immediately after the independence of the Indian sub-continent and creation of the state of Pakistan.

zainul-abedin-low.jpg Zainul Abedin @ Drik Gallery

safiuddin-ahmed-the-cry-1980-low.jpg Safiuddin Ahmed @ Drik Gallery

The Government Institute of Arts, like any other liberal, scientific and technical educational institute of this country, was established along old colonial British models. The obvious initial result was development of art forms resembling British academic tradition. But the more talented among the young graduates soon discovered the twentieth century modern art forms and willingly or unconsciously became part of this new tradition.

sm-sultan-low.jpg S M. Sultan @ Drik Gallery

golam-kashem-daddy-low.jpg Golam Kasem (Daddy) @ Drik Gallery
The artists in Bangladesh could have searched for inspiration in the very rich sculptural tradition of the country which thrived here of many centuries and whose collections are not at all insignificant. It is known that Bengal also has some heritage of drawing, painting and woodcut print making. This tradition is said to date back to the 8th century (Pala dynasty) and continued in some form or other till the 19th century. The Bengal Pata painting and the old (Ramanaya) rolls constitute the painting heritage of Bangladesh. But unfortunately, few examples of such art survive till today and few if any of the modern young artists of Bangladesh have seen them in original or even as good reproduction. For a few senior artists of Bangladesh, Jamini Roy has been a source of inspiration, and through him they have tried to search their own identity and establish a contact with the Bengal folk painting tradition. The revivalist movement of Abanindranath Tagore which has been termed by some as a partial and detour-search for tradition, has never been seriously considered by Bangladeshi artists. Neither the old Indian nor Islamic art had a significant influence upon the contemporary artists of Bangladesh. Only recently some young painters are exploring the possibility of adapting older Indian art techniques and forms.
abir-fire-fighter.jpg Abir Abdullah @ Pathshala

saidul-haque-juise-low.jpg

Saidul Huque Juise @ Asiatic Gallery

The contemporary art of Bangladesh is thus based on the models of twentieth century Western art rather than anything else. Modern art has now attained universality with direct or indirect influence all over the world. The Bengali artist work within that great paradigm and as in any paradigm, so it is also in art there is a great scope for local variation and for development of original schools and of course, of individual style. The art scene in Bangladesh is no exception. The modern artist in Bangladesh has used the styles, techniques and temperament of Western art to express himself, his feelings, his emotion, his environment and his society, Sometimes, as has been noted earlier, a few have also tried the traditional-local and Oriental style, techniques and approaches as alternatives to the Western model. Sometimes there has also been a successful blending of the two.

Professor Nazrul Islam

March 13, 2008 Posted by | Bangladesh | 3 Comments

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 57 other followers