There were serious gaps in dispatch I which need to be filled in. Such as Sabeen, like an apple savvy Ma Kali hovering over me to make sure that I called Evelien immediately to call off Dar Es Salaam. Skype on the hotel wifi was a bit of a joke, but Evelien’s voice did echo through the ether. Tongue out, sabre ready, Sabeen was poised to strike and I wasted no time in sending of a plaintive plea to Evelien to forgive me my sins. Her response was immediate. “We would rather you live”. The death tolls were knolling! Any attempt by Nalaka and I to move towards the issues we had sneaked out of the meeting room to discuss were totally swept aside by the hordes of people gathering round. The hotel lobby had become a control centre. Doctors, travel agents, airline desks, World Press were all being hotwired. Transatlantic messages flowed in interspersed with local flavour. Manori came over with her own private collection of angiogram videos. Suvendu wanted scans of my report for his dad in the US. Mowli, my niece called from London, Rahnuma was on chat. Chulie came in with a long face and a detailed survey of cardiologists in Colombo. Nalaka and I did manage to get a few words across, but Manju was there with her FK problems. While budget lines were being fixed and participants finalized for 2007, I signed the FK papers. It felt more like signing a last will.
The Palm Strip lounge in Colombo had little to do with palms. Stuck in a corner next to the self service canteen, it was an easy lounge to miss. Having made my way back all the way from the gate, past all the other lounges, I settled into Palm Strip hoping against hope for a wifi connection. I was lucky to find a power outlet. There was one terminal with Internet but a six year old girl and her mum had set up residence around it, and it was only my ‘gate is closing’ timing that allowed me contact with the keyboard. I sent off my fond farewells in time to rush back to the gate.
The woman in the Dubai counter stopped to take stock of my passport. She was slow anyway, but a six layer passport with no empty pages was not something she dealt with everyday and time seemed to stand still in the Dubai Emirates counter. My Dhaka-Dubai-London-Biarritz-London-Dubai-Colombo-Dubai route was perhaps not the most straightforward one, but all I wanted was to change the remaining Dubai-Dar Es Salaam-Dubai-Colombo-Dubai-Dhaka segment to Dubai-Dhaka. That seemed simple enough. A small conference gathered around my ticket and my passport. A break of sequence was apparently mortal sin in the airline industry, but there was a way, apparently. If I were to buy a new Dubai-Dhaka ticket, retaining the existing ones and use them later, exactly in their original sequence, then apparently I could avoid losing money on them altogether. Reorganising meetings around that altered schedule to utilize such air travel calisthenics might have proved difficult, but they were only trying to help. Through security, past the Ferraris on sale to counter twenty I went, only to be told that I was totally in the wrong place. It was Skywards at gate 8 that I wanted. The attendants at the lucky Chinese numbered gate were helpful too. All I had to do was to go back to where I came from where the commercial desk would issue me a new ticket. By now the security people were getting suspicious of this bearded guy who had gone backwards and forwards through their gate four times in one hour. They didn’t realize our future destiny was also entwined. The commercial desk rebooked the flight, but surprise surprise, I had to go back to the original counter to get the ticket issued! The woman with time on her hands was dealing with passengers at her own pace, and spotting the first class counter empty, I chasséd across to the woman there. She smiled and with a sidelong glance at my wad of passports, quietly went through the pile of stapled tickets. “Why have you done all this?” she asked. As I went through the entire history, she sighed and took me back to the commercial counter. But this encounter was different. She managed to cancel the Dubai-Dar Es Salaam flight, and issued me a Dubai-Dhaka ticket, without revoking the sectors in between. While the new tickets were being issued, she asked me where I was from. Zareen Ahmed had two kids and lived with her family in Sharjah. Her parents lived in Gulshan in Dhaka. I now had a friend in Dubai airport. I did have to go back to her counter, but in the end, armed with my new ticket, I was ready to face my security friends for yet another trip past the metal detector.
Despatch III to follow.
Press Release: For Immediate Release
Dateline: 19th June 2006
5:00 PM Pentagon
President George W Bush in an unprecedented and open discussion with
journalists, announced the appointment of Rahnuma Ahmed as the new PR
chief for the Pentagon.
“Given her marvelous track record and her ability to manufacture stories
out of thin air, we feel Prof. Ahmed will be the perfect vehicle for the
‘information’ we need to convey to the world, where the US is
misunderstood. With her wonderful ability to bring to life stories that
would be untenable in most media and public scrutiny, she has
demonstrated her ability to win the ‘hearts and minds’ of the part of
the world that still does not recognize our values.”
Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice cooed over the new appointment.
“This is the best thing that has happened at the Pentagon for a long
time” she said, adding “With Ahmed on the team, we would never have lost
Vietnam.” Later Senator Russ Feingold was on CSPAN confirming the
Contrary to the aggressive propaganda campaign by Rahnuma Ahmed, I would
like to state that I am alive and well and in no signs of being
imminently embalmed, buried or cremated. The greatest difficulty I
currently face is to resist the excellent profiteroles in Dubai Lounge.
The trip has not been uneventful. Having used up Nalaka’s monthly pay by
phoning the UK and sampling all the variations of ‘your custom is
valuable to us… all operators are busy now…and other endearments, I
was informed that taking the Dhaka flight instead of the Dar Es Salaam
flight from Dubai, would involve all my intermediary tickets becoming
void. Being the kind considerate individual that he was, the UK person,
suggested that I try convincing the airport staff that they should
understand my plight. The implication was that short of feigning death,
there was no real chance that I would be allowed to deviate from the
holy emirates scriptures. Rahnuma’s campaign was kicking in however, and
distraught calls from Mowli in London, and chat messages from Rahnuma in
Dhaka punctuated our attempts at international aerial understanding.
Having been told in previous days how our gender balance was necessary
for the empowerment of the gentle sex, I came across the combined
husbandry of the entire female team in the meeting. Chulie and Brishti
joined in for good measure. I was not to walk, blink or whisper (they
did permit breathing) for the rest of eternity. And if I was ever in
doubt of the outcome of the slightest deviation of this generous and
permissive freedom that I had been offered, then my life would certainly
not have been worth living.
Packing provided the first taste of the excitement to come. Sabeen and
Chulie in their Biarritz berets and bandanas, Indian waistcoats, Nepali
hats, and “Edit Naked” T shirts. Chuli twirled in her waistcoat, saying
“I’m too fat”. Suvendu called at regular intervals to add sound effect,
and Sabeen picked up my repaired suitcase, to ensure there would be no
hitch in this perfectly planned repatriation. The Dhanmondi jailers
awaited in glee. Supreeta had brought in my medicine, and Mazhar had
waited in the corridor to ensure that I didn’t slip past without it, but
the medical records and the medicine had been packed away in our
The drama continued at Colombo airport. As predicted, the initial head
shaking (which can mean no or yes or impossible depending upon the needs
of the moment), the rolling of the eyes, the gathering of the clan and
the excited chatter as we all waited for the outcome of this monumentous
decision, eventually led to me being asked to join another queue. This
was obviously the queue for multiple offenders and special scrutiny
awaited all in the line. Consequently the advantage of my first ever
arrival at an airport within the stipulated time, rapidly disappeared
and the ‘final call’ at the gate approached ever more rapidly.
Eventually I was given a booking, and my luggage boarded with the
explicit instructions that I sort things out in Dubai.
Dubai airport 08:15 17th June 2006
Part II to follow:
He looked worried as most passengers would do, waiting for luggage that should have arrived. It had been a while since EK005 from Dubai had landed at Heathrow terminal 3. Belt 2 was almost empty. They announced that one lot of bags was yet to arrive. There was hope yet.
Now that we were the only two passengers left, we made eye contact. With a faint nod he registered my recognition, as celebrities often do. He asked me in Urdu, where I was from. Dhaka, I muttered, and we shook hands. He found no need to introduce himself as Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan. I resisted the temptation to ask him about his property in London, or the proposed tryst with Benazir.
This had occurred before, once at terminal 4 when General Ershad, the former president of Bangladesh had arrived. No fanfare, no waiting crowds, people walking by. I wondered how it felt. They both had absolute power when they ruled, and had used it with abandon. I remembered our resistance in the streets, the police brutality, the teargas. Noor Hossain and Milon’s death. Despite all the rhetoric about their closeness to the people, fending for themselves at the airport terminal was probably as near as they ever got to seeing what it was like on the other side.
7th June 2006
Bonna sang beautifully last night at the launch of the new UNESCO office. “megher pore megh jomeche”. A haunting song by Tagore. The lilt in her voice and its delicate quiver, like the changing light in the wet leaves in the rain. The monsoons are here. It is my birthday today, and my treat to myself was to tear myself away from my laptop and take a walk in the rain in the morning, camera in hand. I came across this working mother carrying her child, delivering food to wealthy homes. The land she walked on would fetch well over three million dollars an acre in current market prices. About the cost of the diamonds in Prince Moosa’s shoes.
© Shahidul Alam/Drik
It is also Nasreen’s chollisha (forty days after death, significant to Muslims). Rahnuma and the others have joined her family at the family graveyard at Ghazipur. The sky is still crying.
And then there is happy news. The National Geographic just informed us that Omi (Saiful Huq, my research assistant at Drik and a Pathshala alumni) is one of the four awardees of their All Roads Project. Sucheta Das, who works closely with Drik India won an honourable mention. Omi will be feted in Hollywood and the National Geographic Office in Washington DC. They are both over the moon, as indeed I am, having nominated them. It was Pathshala alumni Neo Ntsoma last year. Pressure is on for the hat-trick. Unless they arrest me for nepotism.
Here is an introduction to the photographers:
Saiful Huq is a thinking photographer. While his power of visualisation has never been in doubt, it is the reason that he photographs that is more compelling. The trappings of conventional photojournalism lay heavy on all of us. The play of light, the use of lines, the geometry of the image are all seductive. But Huq takes us beyond the dynamics of image construction. It is his concerns as an individual that his photographs give us an insight to. The urge to show the helpless victim, the tearjerker image that looms large on billboards, are often the first choice of photojournalists trying to make their mark. That a young photographer has been able to resist those easy options says a lot about Huq.
© Saiful Huq
His is a reflective stance, not a judgemental one. And in showing the plight of victims of meaningless violence, he chooses not to show them as victims, but as people who find themselves in a strange unfamiliar land. One they have never had to deal with before. It is the humanity of his images rather than the power of their construction that is central to his images. The visual strength is a bonus.
It is not often that a woman in a majority world country gets a job in a wire agency. It is even more rare to find a woman who gives it up to take the risk of going freelance. Shortly after winning an award at World Press Photo, when she was riding high, this young woman decided to give up the glamour and the pay, to return to her native Kolkata and try to find her own way to work. No guarantees, no press pass. Just she and her camera. It was a brave decision to take, but I believe the right one. If success can be predicted, then talent, guts, and sensitivity make up the right mix for a photographer to evolve into more than being a chronicler of moments of passing interest.
Sucheta works with an intimacy and an intensity that gets her close to her subjects, but keeps her from getting sentimental. She photographs people when they are most vulnerable, in situations they least want to be known for, but has developed a trust that not only allows her access, but a shared ownership of images that speak of their dignity despite their situation. It is a rare gift, especially in one so young.
Tarubala Bibi, 30, poisoned by drinking arsenic-contaminated water, lies on bed at Chhayghari Pitala village in Baharampur block in Murshidabad, 265 km north of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata May 18, 2005 © Sucheta Das
posted: Dhaka 2nd June 2006