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Where Sandals Still Fear to Tread

Dear Mr. Kees,

Thank you for taking the time and the trouble to respond to my mail. Mine was a principled stand, and frankly not one I had expected the ambassador to respond to directly. I was pleasantly surprised that you did. In a similar case in 2002 (I have enclosed my description), where the dress code had not been specified, my national dress which I always wear, was not found respectable enough for an ambassador’s residence.

In that case the deputy ambassador had written to say that an exception could have been made in my case. I do not want to be an exception. If my national dress is not acceptable in a formal event in my own nation as a general rule, then I do not want to be part of it.

You correctly describe a ‘lounge suit’ as being internationally recognized as a ‘dark suit and a tie’. Indeed that is how I too interpreted it, and that was the reason for my objection. I find many Bangladeshi men proudly adhering to the same dress code you describe. Unsuitable though it might be for a Bangladeshi climate, I have no objections to the dress itself. It is the brown saheb’s aspirations for whiteness (luckily Europe is no longer exclusively white) that I find somewhat pathetic.

It is not for me to be judgmental about their aspirations. But I am free to make my own choices of attire. I am proud to be a Bangladeshi and proud to wear its national dress. This is what I wore when I met Queen Beatrix in Amsterdam, and what I wore when I met your current prime minister and the two previous ones. It is also what I wore when I sat next to the princess at dinner. I suspect I would have been warmer in a suit and a tie in each of those occasions, but my choice of attire was a conscious one.

I find it disconcerting that the same dress code is unacceptable in my own country barring ambassadorial pardon. However, I thank you again for inviting me, and though I regretfully decline, I would welcome the opportunity to invite you and Mrs. Vonhoff to ours. You would be free to wear a lounge suit should you want to.

Warmest regards to you both,

Shahidul Alam

April 21, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Boishakh for Poonam

She wakes up at five o’clock, washes utensils, cleans clothes, sweeps the floor and then gets ready for school. At school she has very few people to talk to and is often found sitting in a corner or being made fun of. If she is lucky, on some days her mother will come to pick her up. Otherwise she will have to crawl on her knees, as the wheelchair given to her by the government is broken.

Poonam is, however, determined to study and is learning to stand up on crutches given to her by a non-governmental hospital. If her family can manage $100 for an artificial leg implant in New Delhi, then she may even stand up on her own some day.

Amit Bhargava, India

When Amit’s picture was first published in the print version of the New Internationalist, several people wanted to help. Some wanted to send money. But helping was not such an easy matter. Amit had taken the original photograph over five years ago and did not have a specific address. Dhaka was over a thousand miles away. Luckily my friend professor Yogendra Yadav mentioned that he was from a nearby village. That was the encouragement I needed, and I decided to try and find Poonam. I headed out from Delhi in search of Yogendra’s activist friend Comrade Dalit Singh. Picking up Comrade Singh and his friend en-route, we continued to the village where we thought she might be. Activist networks can be fairly efficient, and Comrade Singh had done his homework. Through a schoolmaster who knew someone, who knew someone else. we eventually found her.

Things had changed over the last five years. Poonam’s father had died, but her mother had taken on extra work to make sure Poonam continued her study. She was in class nine (lower 5th in the old JMB system). She loved Amit’s photograph, even though all I had with me was a tatty photocopy. And she wanted the implant. My broken Hindi was being stretched, but we made friends.

Leaving money for the family with Comrade Singh, I went to the nearest major hospital. It was one that Yogendra’s family had setup and his sister was a doctor there. Explaining Poonam’s story, I went back to Delhi to meet Yogendra. Our friend Harsh Sethi the editor of Seminar magazine was also there. Harsh was somewhat of an expert on polio, and explained what the options were. I thought we’d solved Poonam’s problems.

Much had happened in between, and I hadn’t checked up on Poonam until recently, when I found out that they had miscalculated, and the money I had given was not nearly enough. Too embarrassed to ask me for more they had decided to try and raise the rest of the money themselves. I realised how my city life had alienated me from rural culture. I had forgotten how difficult it was to ask for more.

Today is ‘Pohela Boishakh’ the first day of the Bangla year 1413. I went out today to photograph the boishakhi storm, and gathered my first hailstones.

This is the month when farmers will harvest their new grain. This is the month when Chakma women in the Chittagong Hill Tracts will throw water at the men they would like to marry. (

I hope it is a good year for Poonam.

Shahidul Alam

Dhaka. Pohela Boishakh 1413

April 14, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Colliding with the State

Lisa Botos from Time Magazine in Hong Kong, had done most of the hard work. Permissions had been obtained and the protocol arrangements had been made. The shoot was on. Having gone through the security hoop at the prime minister’s secretariat, I had settled in at the waiting room along with my colleagues photographer Aminuzzaman from Drik and writer Alex Perry and editor William Green from Time. That was when the trouble started. Officials rushed to usher me out of my seat. I was wondering what other security alert I had triggered off. My faux pas was somewhat more embarrassing. I had been sitting on the prime minister’s chair.

I had only been allocated a few minutes for the cover shoot, which went well despite one of my lamps blowing on me, but luckily the prime minister had agreed to our suggestion that we follow her on her trip to Pabna. I scurried to change gear for the outdoor shoot. Emptying memory cards, handing over existing images to Amin to take to the library, a quick visit to the loo, were all things that needed to get done, except that I was told “hurry, she is on her way to the helicopter.” Dumping equipment into my camera bag, handing over my laptop to Amin, I stuck my digital wallet into the pile and made a dash for it. The loo would have to wait. That was when a strong arm jutted out in the corridor. The security guard had prevented me from running into the prime minister! Alex calmly asked me if I had run into other heads of state before. “Only once” I had said, as I had nearly bumped into Mahathir while running up the stairs at the Mandarin Oriental in Kuala Lumpur. But that was a long time ago.

It was a long and eventful day and one I must write about, but for the moment you’ll need to settle for the cover image of the current Time Magazine (10th April 2006 issue) and Alex’s writeup.

April 5, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Battuta Was Here



Vol. 5 Num 655 Sat. April 01, 2006
Travel Writing
“Battuta was here”
Shahidul AlamPhotographs by Shahidul Alam and article by Tim McIntosh-Smith in following URL:

Shams al-Din Abu Abdallah Muhammad ibn Abdallah ibn Muhammad ibn Ibrahim ibn Yusuf al-Lawati al-Tanji Ibn Battuta was more commonly known as Ibne Battuta. Born into a family of Islamic judges in the Moroccan town of Tangier, he developed a thirst for travel after going to Makkah on pilgrimage in 1325 at the age of 21. He travelled extensively, going to Anatolia, East Africa, Central Asia, China, up the Volga, down the Niger, even in the tiny Indian Ocean sultanate of the Maldives. He kept meticulous records of what he saw, what he heard and the people he met. 29 years later, he went back home and wrote about his experiences with the help of Ibn Juzay, a young scholar. He was little known when he died in 1368 as his rihlah was not respected as a scholarly piece of work. The work is now seen to be one of the finest travelogues ever written.He was the greatest gossip columnist of them all. But Ibn Battuta’s stories were not restricted to the salacious titbits of scandal in court.. They dealt often with the complexities of governance, the battle strategies of the monarchs and his respect for the strong women rulers he had come across. While this wandering minstrel had traversed the entire Islamic world, it was in India that he set roots, at least as much as a traveller ever does. A fifth of his epic travelogue dealt with Delhi. “On the day of the new moon of the holy month of Muharram, the first day of the year 734, we came to the river of Sind.” India was on the other side. In Delhi he was welcomed by the Sultan, who symbolically offered him the city, and at a more tangible level, a salary of 12,000 dinars.

Professor Narayani Gupta was a Bangali, and after instructing me to help her student Anita get a visa to Bangladesh, she proceeded to drag us both off to lunch. Over bhelpuri she provided a string of names, rang people and gave me insider tips. S. K. Bali was the archaeologist I was to meet. Ranji was the world expert on Tugluqabad. Roshan would know good vantage points for photography. Having decided I simply did not have the competence to navigate my way round Delhi, let alone discover traces of a man based on a seven-hundred-year-old document, she charged the hapless student with being my chaperon for the rest of the day.

Anita was non-fussy, interested and sensible. She started by making sure we had umbrellas. Then we planned our journey. Having the luxury of a local guide, I decided to try the most difficult to find places first. Finding Qutb Minar would hardly be a problem. The professor had given directions for Vijay Mandal. She knew the back route. It was lucky we had her directions. Though the Vijay Mandal must have been the most imposing structure in the neighbourhood when it had been built, seven hundred years later, the grounds it overlooked had been taken over by developers and it was only when we stumbled on to the inevitable cricket pitch that we found the remains of the Octagonal citadel and the vestiges of the hall of the thousand columns.

The cave Battuta had withdrawn into, having left his worldly belongings to become a follower of an ascetic, was going to be much more difficult. Luckily, the professor had arranged for a more knowledgeable person to verify my map. A wall was in a wrong place, the distances were way off, and the position of the railway line had to be changed. Our guide redrew the map and told us where to look, but even he hadn’t heard of this unmarked cave where Battuta had spent five months. This was genuine Sherlock Holmes stuff.

Humayun’s Tomb was easy enough to find, but the real journey started afterwards. A seven-hundred-year-old unmarked grotto where an unknown ascetic had lived didn’t appear in any tour book and none of the well-versed guides had ever heard of such a place.

But we did have a rectified map, and we managed to find the strip in between the police station and the electricity depot, where our path was to begin. Luckily, we were befriended by the khadem of a nearby mazar. Walking through the bramble, looking for more familiar sites for orientation, we came across two newly whitewashed graves. The dried well at the back was also of great significance, the caretaker assured me. I was more interested in the steps leading down to a chamber beneath the graves. The motif above the stairs, nearly obliterated by repeated coats of paint, was the same as in the Qutb. The oral history that the caretakers had preserved gave an accurate enough description of the holy man Battuta had become a follower of. The architecture, even after seven hundred years, was as the traveller had described. We had found the Battuta’s lair.

Anita needed to get on with her work. Having made sure I knew enough to get back home, she left me with my new discoveries. I decided to ride my luck. Battuta had described his home as having been near the Palam Gate from where he regularly would go to the mosque. Palam was near the airport, and no one had ever heard of Palam Gate. Perhaps this was the beginning of the road to Palam. We needed something that would make the jigsaw fit. If indeed he had walked into the Qutb from the south entrance, into the Quwwat al-lslam mosque, then his home must have been somewhere near the Mehroli bus stand. Not quite the beginning of the road to Palam, but near enough to attribute the difference to some historical artefact.

The road to Palam went parallel to the old city wall. I walked past the makeshift tents of the poor and the barren meadow to climb the stony structure. The open landscape was a surprise. I could see Qutb far in the horizon, a lonely blimp against the Delhi outline. I would need to get a better view. Fat Indians with caddies in tow strolled over the gentle dunes. The clubhouse at the edge of the green had large glass walls. From here the tent dwellers could look without touching. Theirs were the green shrubs by the highway. Open to the sky. No walls, no rules. No water, no lights. “A loo with a view.”

It was inconsiderate of the traveller not to have provided post codes in his 700-year-old document. While some of the old monuments remained, much of the rest of Delhi had changed beyond recognition. Trying to retrace the steps of this intrepid explorer was not going to be easy. He was an excellent chronicler, though, and the details that he had penned gave the wispy hints I could still use as a clue. The shopkeepers pointed to the dusty staircase at the back of Mehroli bus stand. This dingy pathway in between the sweetmeat shop and the butcher’s had obviously not been used for years. My darkroom training hadn’t prepared me to for this ascent. I could sense the dust from the soft, furry fluff underneath my footsteps. I could smell the soot swirling up as I stamped on the thick carpet of sediment as I warily climbed up. The dust might not have been 700 years old, but it had certainly collected over a very long time. There was light at the very top, though, and when I did arrive at the rooftop I was dazzled by even the hazy Delhi winter light. Memories of bunking classes to go to the matinee at Balaka cinema hall flashed through my mind. We would stand blinking for a few minutes before New Market was visible across the road. When my eyes settled here, the sight was somewhat more majestic. Across the rooftops, above the dense patch of trees and the decaying ruins of monuments, rose the splendid Qutb Minar. Delhi on Viagra.

Down below was Mehroli bus stand. The narrow streets of Mehroli, the busy market place, the hawkers on the footpaths uncharacteristically making way for the Tata buses that burst into the main road expecting the traffic and pedestrians to melt away on their arrival. Behind the stands was an old housing estate. I walked past the church with the Arabic inscriptions, past the houses with the sewing machines, and a small outdoor garage. A cybercafe offered Internet connectivity for 15 Rupees an hour. A cow stood in the middle of the road, and people walked round. The narrow path at the back of the church sloped up towards the hillock in the royal park. Well before I reached the rose garden a couple huddled around a fire made out of old cartons. The green spotlights on the Qutb and the warm light of the fire meeting in the foggy darkness of the cold Delhi air. It was through here that Battuta would have made his way to the Quwwat al-lslam mosque. The next day, I sought out the Southern Entrance to the mosque. Light streamed into the portal through the honeycomb-like lattice of stone screens. The stone bench along the perimeter of the portal was pitted but smooth. Burnished by centuries of backsides that must have rested on this bench, it was soft to the touch despite the scarred stone.

As I rested against the cool walls, I could imagine one famous posterior belonging to a traveller who had penned his thoughts seven hundred years ago. Missing was the graffiti, “Battuta was here!”

Shahidul Alam is a photographer, and director of Drik Picture Gallery, Dhaka.

April 1, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | Leave a comment