Saturday, November 15, 2008

Happy Birthday Humayun Ahmed

Today is the birthday of Bangladeshi author Humayun Ahmed. I was first introduced to Mr. Ahmed's work by my friend Jitu who was reading one of the Himu novels.

Himu, my friend explained, is a young man who wanders around wearing a yellow panjabi with no pockets and reading poetry under the tree. My impression was that he is something of a Holden Caufield type character.

I have yet to find Humayun Ahmed novels translated into English, and I'm afraid they're far beyond my elementary Bangla skills. This, I believe, is unfortunate. There is a wealth of Bangla literature out there that is not able to be be enjoyed by Bideshis worldwide.

Happy birthday, Humayun Ahmed. Many happy returns, and let's hope that soon you will be better known across the world.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Author Tahmima Anam on Climate Change

Author Tahmima Anam has an article in Thursday's Guardian in which she describes in her beautiful prose the struggles and perseverance of a people who live on a low lying delta.

The facts about climate change in Bangladesh are indeed grim. The country is a low-lying delta, meaning any slight shift in sea levels will cause the land to be slowly swallowed by the waters of the Bay of Bengal. In the next 50 years, 17% of Bangladesh's landmass is sure to go underwater, causing more than 30 million people to become homeless. Those who live further inland will be only slightly better off: the cyclones and floods that are already a feature of the weather will occur more frequently and with greater ferocity. Geological events stimulated by changes in temperature will mean intense pulses of rainfall followed by periods of drought, and a potential collapse of the monsoon cycle itself. If the sea level rises by 5m (16ft), Dhaka will go under. This is the grim reality that the delegates of the UK/Bangladesh climate change conference, taking place in London next Wednesday, will aim to address. In expectation of the climate change deal that will be struck in Copenhagen next year, it is critical that Bangladesh's concerns are more widely known and understood.

Anam tells the story of the "char-dwellers" - people who live on sand bars that come and go as the river waters ebb and flow. Her tale is a great example not only of the hardships that so many in Bangladesh face, but the strength and hospitality with which they overcome it.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Ramadan Rakeem

Next Monday, Americans will be staying home from work in celebration of Labor Day. In Bangladesh, next Monday will also be a very special day, though for different reasons - it will be the beginning of Ramadan 2008.

Around 90% of the population of Bangladesh are Muslim. So, much like Christmas has become a quasi public holiday season in the US, Islamic holidays have a significant imprint on public life in Bangladesh.

Ramadan is a month long religious observance during which Muslims fast from sun up to sundown. This fasting, called "roja" in Bangla, teaches humility and empathy for the poor and downtrodden. It

At sundown, or "iftar," the fast is broken. Often, the fast will be broken initially with dates and sharbat, a rose water-like drink. Iftar is a time when people come together to share food and conversation, resulting in grand meals of savory snacks.

And throughout Bangladesh, roadsides will be filled with iftar stands selling a variety of delicious foods.

But Ramadan is not all about food (or the lack thereof), it's also a time when Muslims reach out to the poor in their communities by paying "zakat," or alms. Islam requires adherents to give 2.5% of their wealth to the poor every year. Often during Ramadan this charity is distributed.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Bangabandhu Memorial Day

Today is August 15th, and it's the 33rd anniversary of the assassination of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the first President and Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and the father of the nation.

Known as Bangadandhu, or "Friend of Bangladesh," Sheikh Mujibur Rahman is a larger than life figure in history, and is revered in Bangladesh as George Washington is revered here in the United States. In fact, there are many parallels between the American Revolution of 1776 and the Bangladesh Revolution of 1971.

Below is a speech by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman with audio in Bangla, but translated into English for the convenience of us bideshis. This is a good introduction to the events of 1971 and the resulting independence movement. It's also pretty clear why Bangabadhu was such an effective leader.

On this day in 1975, a group of junior military officers staged a coup d'etat and assassinated Sheikh Mujib and his entire family. His only family members that lived were two of his daughters who happened to be visiting Germany at the time. One of those daughters is Sheikh Hasina Wajed, who would become the head of the Awami League political party in Bangladesh and serve as Prime Minister from 1996 to 2001.

Today, Bangladeshis the world over are pausing to remember this great man and his sacrifices that ensured the liberty of his people.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Tareque and Catherine Masud at Cannes 2008

The Daily Star reports today that Tareque and Catherine Masud will attend the Cannes film festival this year.

Filmmakers Tareque Masud and Catherine Masud have been invited to the 61st Cannes Film Festival 2008 (May 15-25) to take part in the 40th anniversary celebrations of the "Directors' Fortnight" section of the festival, says a press release.

Their film Matir Moina premiered at Cannes in 2002. It was the opening film of the Fortnight, and was awarded with the International Critics' Prize as 'Best Film' in the section.


At Cannes Tareque and Catherine Masud will be in talks with several European co-producers and distributors in connection with their current project, a film set against the backdrop of the partition of Bengal in 1947. The French Embassy and the France-Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCIFB) have also extended generous support to make the Masuds' trip to Cannes a success.

A new Masud film!?! This is great news. I'm particularly interested to see their interpretation of the 1947 partition. Many Bangla films center on the 1971 liberation war (and rightly so), but one must look back to the 1947 partition to begin to understand the context of 1971.

I would also encourage bideshis interested in the history of the 1947 partition to watch Deepa Mehta's film Earth. This is a Hindi film and actually takes place in the west (specifically, Lahore). But, while not a film about Bengal, the film does incorporate some important points about communalism and community.

I'm certainly looking forward to a new film by the Masud team. Both Matir Moina and Ontarjatra are excellent. I'm also glad to see that Bangladeshi cinema is getting recognized at such a prestigious festival. Hopefully this will lead to more attention on a sadly overlooked goldmine.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Movie Review: A Fairy Tale (Rupkothar Golpo)

I recently watched a newly acquired copy of A Fairy Tale (Bangla title: Rupkothar Golpo), a film by director Toukir Ahmed.

A Fairy Tale stars Humayun Faridi, Chanchal, Toukir, Shumi, Mamunur Rashid, and Fima, and tells the story of a man experiencing a string of bad luck, who comes to care for a small baby while the mother goes off with a truck driver. The mother is a woman who came to Dhaka in search of her missing husband, only to find herself abandoned to the streets with no way to support herself or her baby.

The film is not your typical American fairy tale, and is certainly not for children. There are no secret princes or fairy godmothers coming to the rescue. Instead, viewers are presented a fairly gritty (though sometimes comical) display of urban reality as two young adults try to find themselves and their place in the world.

The DVD is distributed by the Dhaka company Laser Vision, which means that outside Bangladesh your best bet is to find your nearest Bangladesh imports shop, or look online.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Bangladesh Embassy Open House

This past weekend the Bangladesh Embassy in Washington, D.C. had an open house for people to come and visit and learn more about Bangladesh. We arrived at about noon and found a line of people waiting to get in. We quickly made our way to the theatre in the Embassy to see a performance of Bangladeshi song and dance.

We learned that in the two hours prior to our arrival, almost a thousand people had arrived! The songs were beautifully sung by a group of five women, and dances were performed by two local cultural organizations: Dhrupod and the D.C. branch of Jago Art Center, a Dhaka cultural organization.

The songs and dances were beautiful and well performed, and received much applause from the predominantly American audience. I took photographs, but, unfortunately, I only had my BlackBerry to take photos with and the quality is not very good. I am trying to clean them up and, if I can make any worth viewing, I will post them later.

In addition to the songs and dances, the Embassy had prepared a taste of Bangladeshi cuisine for people to sample, and a table where women could get mehndi on their hands. This was very popular, and for the next few weeks, Washington, D.C. will be full of American women wearing mehndi. There were also a video tour, and exhibits of art and Bangladeshi export items. One of the export items on display was a box of Ispahani tea. This is, let me assure you, my fellow Americans, the best tea. You have to seek out a Bangladesh import store to find it, but it's worth the hunt.

Here's an old TV advert for Ispahani. Don't worry about the translation. All you need to know is, this tea rules.

The Bangladesh Embassy's open house was a smashing success, and special thanks and congratulations to Ambassador H.E. M. Humayun Kabir for putting together such a great introduction to Bangladesh. I think most people arrived at the open house not really knowing very much about Bangladesh, but they left having had a glimpse of the beauty of a really great nation and culture.

Let's hope the success of this event leads the embassy to hold more cultural programs to help build stronger ties between our two countries.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Hard Working Poor

Talking about Bangladesh without talking about poverty is nearly impossible. In fact, it would be irresponsible to a certain degree. But too often we talk about poverty, especially in the west, in terms of personal responsibility and consequences. "If you don't work hard, you'll be poor. If you do work hard, you can be whatever you want." Unfortunately, these tales in the west are not true in America, and are even less true in Bangladesh.

The following is a great video that was put together that looks at how hardworking the poor in Bangladesh really are.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Bangladesh 3-0 Against Ireland

Bangladesh swept Ireland this week in ODI cricket, sealing the deal at Saturday's final match with a win by 79 runs. At the end of the day, Bangladesh were 293/7 with Tamim Iqbal scoring 129 for his maiden century in one day cricket that included 15 fours and a six and making him Man-of-the-Match.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Bangladesh Clinch Series Against Ireland

Bangladesh won the second game against Ireland yesterday by 84 runs, clinching the 3-game series and putting them in the perfect place to sweep the series.

Bangladesh defeated Ireland by 84 runs in the second one-day international in Mirpur on Thursday to take an unassailable 2-0 lead in the best-of-three series. The series win, albeit against non Test-playing opposition, should have put smiles on the faces of Bangladesh's passionate fans given the losing streak their side was on. Mohammad Ashraful has been under immense pressure and his scores would have alleviated some of that. Ireland, after a good run in the ICC Intercontinental Cup, have struggled against the hosts. Their main contributions have come from the lower order - namely Alex Cusack and Andre Botha - and the top order is a worry. Their bowling has been workmanlike, with no bowler really bothering Bangladesh.

The final game of the series is on Saturday, and Tigers fans around the world will be cheering.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Bangladeshi Cinema

With such a remarkable literary culture, it's no wonder that Bangladesh is also home to excellent cinema. For Americans, the most accessible film is probably Tareque Masud's 2002 Matir Moyna, or "Clay Bird."

Matir Moyna won a number of awards at film festivals across the globe including the prestigious International Critics' Prize for Best Film at Cannes.

The film is accessible to us bideshis in no small part because it's been released by Milstone Films in North America, making it available from Amazon, Netflix, and local retailers and rental shops.

This clip is especially interesting, I think, because it well expresses a struggle, certainly within Bangladesh, but I believe within religion itself (and no, not just Islam - American Christianity certainly has it's struggles). The clip features a song in Bangla, but it's subtitled for us bideshis. This is also a great example of traditional Baul music.

But Matir Moyna is not the only Bangladeshi film that I would recommend.

Jesus '71 is an intense look at the 1971 war of independence, as is noted author Humayun Ahmed's Shymol Chhaya, also known as "The Land of Peace."

Of course, no introduction to Bangla cinema would be complete without mention of Satyajit Ray, the lengendary filmmaker whose influence can be seen in the works of Werner Herzog, The Simpsons, Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, and contemprary cult filmmaker Wes Anderson. Ray's films are largely available from services such as Netflix.

Sadly, most Americans are completely unaware of the great cinema available from Bangladesh. Partly this is due to the giant Bollywood industry that overshadows Bangla films, partly it's due to a lack of physical accessibility. Other than Matir Moyna or Satyajit Ray DVDs, one has to seek out a Bangladeshi video store to get copies of Bangladeshi movies, and even then you're hard pressed to find copies with English subtitles.

For those willing to do the work, though, there is a great collection of wonderful Bangladeshi cinema waiting for you.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tigers victorious over Ireland!

Bangladesh bested Ireland in the first match of the Ispahani Tea One Day International (ODI) cricket series in Mirpur, Bangladesh.

Shahriar Nafees struck a fluent unbeaten 90 while Mohammad Ashraful signalled his return to form with 64 not out as Bangladesh avenged their 2007 World Cup loss to Ireland with a convincing eight-wicket win in Mirpur. More importantly for Bangladesh, it was their first ODI victory after a run of 14 losses and the under-fire Ashraful's first as captain.

Bangladesh were off to a blazing start with Tamim Iqbal blasting two successive boundaries through the covers off seamer Kevin O'Brien. Nafees, after picking a couple of runs off the first delivery that he faced, cut Dave Langford-Smith past point to get his innings going. Langford-Smith drew first blood for Ireland in the fifth over, as Tamim sliced the ball to Greg Thompson at point. Nafees did not let that affect his intent, striking three fours in a single over bowled by Langford-Smith, who, despite an early wicket, struggled to maintain a consistent line.

This was a much needed win for the Tigers following a disappointing showing against South Africa earlier this month. The two countries return to Shere Bangla National Stadium on Thursday for the second in the three match series.

This victory should come as both a relief for the Tigers as well as a matter of pride. In the 2007 Cricket World Cup, Ireland eliminated Bangladesh in the Super Eights round after a series of impressive Bangladesh victories. Defeating Ireland so soundly yesterday had to feel good.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Save Dhaka's Rickshaws

Via The 3rd World View comes the unfortunate story of a war on rickshaws in Dhaka.

So who would dream of waging war on the humble rickshaw and the colourful men who ply them? Car owners, traffic police and the World Bank, that’s who. The growing gap between the rich and poor in Bangladesh can be reflected in the increasing use of privately owned vehicles:

In 1998 the data showed that Rickshaws took up 38% of road space while transporting 54% of passengers in Dhaka . The private cars on the other hand, took up 34% of road space while only transporting 9% of the population — Voice of

Given the insanity of Dhaka’s roads, where motorised and non-motorised vehicles struggle violently for a place of their own in laneless traffic, it is not surprising that cars, bullied on the road by buses and even the tough, boxy little dodgem car that is the CNG (autorickshaw), make rickshaws the scapegoat for Dhaka’s maddening traffic congestion and accidents.

This is really unfortunate. Living in a major city in the United States, I often think that introducing rickshaw service would be a great part of an urban transportation plan. After all, what is the use of taking a train or a bus or a taxi for a few blocks. Usually, I opt to walk. But sometimes, as when you've just left the grocery store, or it's late in the evening, it would make a lot of sense to take a rickshaw.

But especially in Dhaka, where air pollution threatens the health of the city, it makes no sense to reduce the number of rickshaws. Eliminating old diesel engines is great, and so is moving to CNG. But banning rickshaws makes no sense environmentally.

Nor does a rickshaw ban make sense economically for the city. As Kathryn Hummel points out in her post at PopMatters,

...banning rickshaws would mean the collapse of an important web of culture and economics in Bangladesh. Not just the loss of art and street vibrancy, and an easily available and environmentally friendly form of transport, but the economic ramifications stretch far: not only to the wallahs, but to their families living in rural Bangladesh, to the mechanics and artists who create and fix rickshaws, and the vendors of the cha and food stalls. It is general knowledge amongst local patrons of rickshaws that the average daily earning of the wallah is 200 taka a day, of which about 80 taka goes to the owner of the rickshaw they hire. A report conducted by the WBB (Working for Better Bangladesh) Trust, showed that the Mirpur Road ban resulted in a 32 percent net loss of earnings for the average rickshaw wallah, increased the cost of trips for passengers, as well as time taken to travel.

Rickshaw lanes would be great. But I think that the government should go further, and institute a program to expand owner-operator status to more rickshaw wallahs, ensuring that the men who drive the rickshaws are able to keep more of their income, and not have to pay out what is sometimes a 50 percent or higher fee to a richshaw owner.

Dhaka without the colorful rickshaw culture would hardly be Dhaka. It would be a completely different city. I hope that, with the environmental and economic struggles facing the country and the world today, that such foolish policies as banning rickshaws in Dhaka will find themselves forgotten soon.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Adventures in Bangladeshi Cooking

As I wrote before, the best Bangladeshi food is homecooked. For us bideshis, though, it's not always possible to get an invite to dinner when you're craving a hearty Bangla meal. So, we break out the turmeric and the garam masala and we get our hands a bit dirty.

Yesterday afternoon I spent a couple of hours cooking up a Bangladeshi meal as best I could. While I've improved much over the past couple of years, my plates still leave me longing for the food from Nazma and Dilnasheen's kitchens.

I put together a plate of rice, green beans, lentil, curried beef, and cucumber salad.

Lest anyone mistakenly think my curry powers are more than they are, I must admit that I used a Radhuni packet for the curry sauce. But, this meal turned out to be pretty good. Mustard oil, I am increasingly convinced, is the key. Why Americans don't cook with it is utterly beyond me.

This sort of meal is entirely cookable. If I can do it, so can you. I have yet to find a good Bangladeshi cookbook in English, but if you look online you can find quite a few good recipes. And if you can read Bangla, you'll be set.

While this is a fairly easy meal, some of my other attempts at Bangladeshi cooking have been disasterous. I am assured that shami kabobs (small spicy patties made from meat or fish mixed with lentil) are quick and easy. But I've spent hours, only to end up with a greasy soup of spoiled meat. I once managed to get something resembling a shami kabob to come out of the pan, but it was a far cry from what you'll get in a proper Bangaldeshi kitchen.

My dinner was good, though it still needs a bit of improvement. If I could get some decent Ilish fish, it would make my day. But the food is getting closer, and that's what counts. Perhaps, Mr. Ekram Kabir, someday I will be best radhuni!

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Adventures in Bangladeshi food (খাবার), pt. 1

Bangladesh has great food. There's just no two ways about it. The problem, however, is finding great Bangladeshi food in the United States. It can be done, but it's not easy. The best way, of course, is to get an invitation to someone's house. Bangladeshi food is best homecooked, but as that's not always an option, we're left to look for a good restaurant.

Sadly, many Bangladeshis in the United States operate restaurants that specialize in toned-down, Americanized versions of Indian cuisine. I've asked why this is, and the answer is always the same. With a shrug, the restaurateur will simply tell you, "that's what Americans like. Nobody knows Bengali food."

And so we search on for the restaurant that caters not to bland American palates, but to experienced Bangladeshi ones.

Your easiest bet is in a big city like New York or London, where well established Bangladeshi neighborhoods like Jackson Heights and Brick Lane support a multitude of shops and restaurants that import home to the local Bangladeshi community. One important note - remember that when you're visiting a Bangladeshi restaurant in a Bangladeshi community, you are a guest. Behave like a gracious one.

After careful research, and some asking around, I finally found a good Bangladeshi restaurant near me. It's not actually in the city, but about an hour by train and bus. Not somewhere I can eat every day, but somewhere that's well worth the trip on a Saturday or Sunday.

Today I had a dal gosht with lamb. This is a sort of lentil and lamb curry over rice. It's delicious. Unfortunately, I forgot to specify that I wanted it spicy, so there was no মরিচ(chili) in today's. (Note to fellow bideshis - if you don't demand the heat, you won't get any.)

After lunch, I walked next door to a Bangladeshi grocery where I picked up some essential groceries - chanachur (snack mix), mango bars, curry noodles, mustard oil, chili catsup, and potato crackers.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to make some চা (tea).

Friday, March 14, 2008

Bangladeshi author wins Comonwealth Writer's Prize

Bangladeshi author Tahmima Anam was awarded the Commonwealth Writer's Prize for her novel, A Golden Age, a novel the Christian Science Monitor called "full of beauty", and the Denver Post reviewed as a " vibrant first novel...that is both intimately close to the family and large enough to encompass a revolution", and heralded by The Guardian as "a stunning debut".

The Daily Star reports,

An international judging panel has awarded the 2008 Commonwealth Writers' Prize Best First Book Award for the Europe and South Asia region to A Golden Age (2007, London: John Murray) by Tahmima Anam. The novel, a densely packed, lyrically written narrative set during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence, was praised by the panel as “sensitive and evocative.” Animal's People by Indra Sinha was given the region's Best Book Award. A Golden Age had previously also made the final shortlist of five for the 2007 Guardian's First Book Award.

Anam, on hearing the news, responded to The Guardian newspaper that "Over the years, many of my most cherished authors have been winners of the Commonwealth Prize, and I'm deeply honoured to have been given the chance to be counted among them. I'm particularly proud to be representing my country as the first regional winner from Bangladesh."

At just under 300 pages, Anam's A Golden Age is a quick read. In fact, I think I could have easily inhaled the entire thing in one afternoon. As it was, I read it on the subway to and from work over the course of three days.

A Golden Age is the story of Rehana Haque, a middle class Dhakaite widow who has struggled all her life to provide for her children, Sohail and Maya. Above all, Rehana wants what all mothers want - for her children to be safe and happy.

Sohail and Maya grow into young adulthood along with their country. As Sheikh Mujib is arrested and Gen. Zia declares independence, the liberation war threatens the stability of the Haque family. Rehana faces a choice between what's best for her children and what's best for her country. Or is there a difference?

The character development in this novel is exceptional, and the imagery at times both stark and touchingly beautiful. I closed the book hungry for more, and missing my newly found friends.

Congratulations to Anam on her prize, and let's all hope this will give more attention to the brilliant literary culture in Bangladesh.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Kazi Nazrul Islam - National Poet of Bangladesh

Bangladesh has a vibrant and historied literary culture. The National Poet of Bangladesh is Kazi Nazrul Islam, sometimes referred to as "The Rebel Poet," following the publication of his poem The Rebel, originally published in 1922 and coinciding with the non-cooperation movement against British rule.

This notoriety landed Nazrul in jail for sedition, but that did not break his spirit, and he penned a large number of poems while behind bars. Those poems were banned by the British government.

Nazrul Islam passed away in 1976 at the age of 77, but his spirit lives on through his legacy of beautiful poetry.

For more on the life and works of Nazrul, visit the Kazi Nazrul Islam page maintained by Dr. Mohammad Omar Farooq.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Watson Brothers - Rong

This is the (only?) video by Dhaka band The Watson Brothers. The lineup was Chowdhury F Shakib on vocals, Imran Aziz playing guitar, Farhan Samad Hasan on bass, and Khaled Arafat Kazi on drums.

The video was directed by Hajar Islam who deserves a lot of credit for putting together an excellent video. The action fit perfectly with the music, and I left the video feeling like there was a whole background story to the couple on the roof, and I wanted to know more.

Any idea what they're doing now? It's too bad they're not still writing music because this song is awesome.

Raqibul Hasan gets half century against South Africa

Tigers batsman Raqibul Hasan scored 63 against South Africa in yesterday's ODI at Mirpur. Sadly, the Tigers were overcome in a 7 wicket loss to South Africa.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

A great Bangla song

I ran across this video quite by chance today, but I must have watched it half a dozen times since. If you know the name of the song and what movie it's from, please let me know in the comments. Otherwise, just sit back and enjoy!

Bideshi Golmal is live

Bideshi Golmal is a blog about Bangladesh and Bangladeshi culture by an American who loves Bangladesh. I decided to do this as a way to introduce Americans to the wonderful country of Bangladesh, and to keep a record of Bangladeshi culture that I find online. You can expect:

  • Misspellings

  • Poor grammar

  • Curious commentary

  • A lot of stuff about Bangladesh

Well, that's about it. Please feel free to leave a comment and correct anything I get wrong.