A different Dhaka

‘There are no terrorists in Bangladesh.’

This was the line spun by Bangladeshi PM Shaikh Hasina until last night, when finally we saw the planned, heavily armed assault that we’d all feared was on the horizon. At 10pm, during the late dinner as people broke their Ramadan fast with iftar, several men claiming allegiance to IS opened fire on Holey Bakery, beginning a siege that lasted for 12 hours.

Holey is a place close to the hearts of many of the privileged Gulshan set – where foreigners and locals alike go for the peace and quiet, and delicious food. In the midst of Dhaka’s often overwhelming jungle of concrete and humanity, it’s a quiet refuge – an open space with shady grass and cool patios overlooking the lake. Over the last two years since it opened, I’ve lost count of the times we’ve gratefully flopped onto the grass with friends and consumed huge piles of sausage rolls, baguettes and key lime tarts, drinking in the smell of baking sourdough. Whenever we had international visitors we would take them there, as proud of Dhaka’s ever-growing cosmopolitanism and entrepreneurship as we were of the beautiful green space. Birthday parties, work dinners: if it was special, it happened here. Holey was a sanctuary.

The people eating dinner last night were all enjoying the same Holey that we did for the two years that we lived in Dhaka, participating in this lovely little pocket of green and comfort at the end of Ramadan. But the attackers cut those people open, shot them down, demanded that they recite the Quran, held them captive over night, refused to give the foreigners food or water. They tore through them and tore through the image of Dhaka’s peace.

It’s hard to know what the goal was – what icon they were attacking and why; what statement they wanted to make. It’s hard to know what to feel in the wake of this news. For those who don’t know the country well, you need to know that it’s a huge shock. This kind of organised, mass violence is not a feature of the landscape: it’s not a world of fanatics, bombings and constant fear. The Bangladesh I know is a mostly peaceful place where millions of people live crammed shoulder to shoulder, many in terrible poverty, but nevertheless manage to coexist with good humour, generosity, tolerance and unfailing optimism. This terror is new, it is horrifying; it is a seismic change in Dhaka’s world.

The number of people – young, disaffected, angry men – who are trying to prove themselves part of the global Islamic fundamentalist movement has been growing. Friends and colleagues have been worriedly speaking of the creeping fear that their secular, literary, scholarly culture is being infiltrated by hate and fanaticism, imported from the middle east. The government must bear some of the blame, for refusing to acknowledge the threat that has reared its head since the first shootings in August last year, for using the deaths of journalists, bloggers, aid workers, atheists, editors, hindus and christians over the last bloody 12 months to score political points against their opponents.

I don’t know the names of all the nine Italians, seven Japanese, three Bangladeshis and one Indian that died at Holey last night. We do know that two of them were young students. Another was Ishrat Akhond, an artist who was known and celebrated for her contribution to Dhaka’s cultural life. They all thought they were somewhere safe, in a city that valued and welcomed them. That safety has been shattered, and with it the world those who live in Dhaka thought they knew.

From so far away, all I can offer is my love to those who have been affected, my love for the country, and my hope that Bangladesh can find resilience and strength of community in the face of this horror. I’ll leave you all with the words of a wise friend of mine, a publisher who has spoken out bravely against this religious violence and attempts to control the voices of Bangladeshis everywhere:

‘During these paralysing moments, all we can do is hold hands and draw strength from one another. Otherwise the next blows that are soon to follow will blow us away in all different directions. We have lost a lot, but cannot afford to lose hope. Regardless.’

desh flower flag

(Beautiful photo thanks to Jess Staskiewicz)


Bideshi is shesh: Time to leave

Development workers, foreigners, expats, immigrants – whatever you want to call us. One of the things were are really good at is leaving, and starting all over again.

I’ve just left Dhaka after my last stint for work, and it’s official: we now no longer live in Bangladesh. Ollie has a new job in Dublin, and we’re headed back to the western world, to start a new life – an old life. Flying out of this crazy city, I’ve been pressing my face to the window and, pen in hand, scribbling my farewells. It feels like I’m lifting off from the moon, and my shuttle is taking me back down to Earth. I’m relieved, yearning to be back where I belong, but heartbroken that it’s over. Most people don’t get to go to the moon more than once.

After two years, it was time to go. We’ve learned to deal with the inconveniences and frustrations, and got to the heart of what there is to love here – the vibrancy, the energy, the optimism. We’d seen it through all its blistering seasons and witnessed the floods and harvests. We’d let ourselves be launched into work in that way that only Bangladesh can, sending you hurtling – unexpectedly high, and with no safety features or parachutes. We had made our connections, found a group of people that we could call real friends, knew our way around the streets, knew where to get parsley, had accumulated things in our home that were colourful and beautiful, had acquired pet terrapins – we’d built a little world around us that felt right, felt like home.

But over the months since last July, our roaming has been frozen by the political situation, and normal life, which was never easy, became stale and difficult. We’d stopped taking pictures, stopped searching for new places to explore. Bideshi life shifted – our bikes rusted in garages and too many weekends were spent in our flats, ordering expensive delivered food and looking longingly out the windows.

And with that change, came an even bigger one, a social cost. Our fragile little world has been slowly dismantled by friends’ exits, a brick taken from its foundations with every facebook check-in at Shahjalal airport, every posted photo of the departures hall accompanied by the single word ‘Shesh’. Finished.

Everybody has been feeling it, and not just the bideshis ourselves – my local friends and colleagues have been remarking on the fact that there have been disappearances, less of us on the streets. A particular graph (from The Culture Blend) has taken hold of the imaginations of those left behind by this miniature diaspora – a spiky, chaotic timeline marking the emotions of everyone who lives in an expat bubble and feels these social fluctuations like an earthquake. People mourning the loss of friends have been trying to better understand it – the unpredictable ups and downs that alternately elevate and savage your social life month in and month out.

Expat timeline

Like having your heart put through a blender.

The truth is, with all those departures, and so few people arriving to replace them, something had cracked. No matter what your country of origin is, local or expat, Dhaka life is all about friendships. In a city of wall-to-wall humanity, where there is so little that’s not concrete, cars, or people – millions and millions of people, it’s relationships that are the centre of all our worlds. It’s your source of joy and your source of entertainment. Gossip reigns, everyone knows everything about each other. Far from becoming lost in the crowd, your privacy dissolves into the heat and sweat of all the bodies, and you live your life in a fishbowl. So without friendships, the city is nothing but dust. As we began to see more deshi friends tagged on facebook in snowy European chalets than dodging potholes on the streets of Dhaka, it felt like everything had changed.

So we put out the feelers, found a good opportunity, and we’re out. Quick as that. Down below me, past the wing of the plane, I can see the blazing sun setting over the dusty trees and honking cars.  I feel like I am going ‘home’, to the developed world, but Home has too many meanings now, and I’m not sure which one matters. There is the physical, dirt-and-trees home in Australia, the home where we can speak our language freely and understand the culture, the home where our friends are, the home where our families are, the home where my suitcase is at this very moment… As we leave Bangladesh, we leave behind yet another home and become, once again, the nervous and confused arrivals who need to begin building a new one.

Being bideshi has been exhausting, glorious, frustrating, fascinating, oppressive, colourful, depressing, optimistic, chaotic, enlightening – a thousand adjectives, but all of them hyperbolic. As I descend back to earth, I am forever grateful for having been, briefly, in Bangladesh’s orbit.

I still have so many notes and photos that haven’t made it onto this blog yet. I suspect I could – and will – keep talking about Bangladesh forever. But from now on I will be a bideshi in a different land – still a foreigner, still trying to understand where I have landed and what is going on around me.

The Irish word for foreigner is ‘eachtrannach‘. Said out loud, it sounds curiously like ‘astronaut’. Maybe we do get more than one chance to go to the moon.



52 Portraits: The paan seller

IMG_6434In Old Dhaka, a contemplative street vendor with sad eyes sells tobacco from a hole in the wall. Buy a single cigarette and use his lighter, for only ten taka, or order paan and spices wrapped in in a betel leaf. If you ask, he’ll add in the white chalk paste to give the paan an extra gritty texture.

52 Portraits: A cotton-picking minute

Cotton Picker

In the slums of Tongi, deep in the heart of the garment factory zone just north of Dhaka, where tonnes of clothes are pieced together and exported to the western world, I pop my head into a corrugated iron shed. It’s hot in here, but it looks like a cave of melting snow. In the middle of the piles of white cotton, a woman picks through the waste.

Kawran Bazar

“So do you take a rickshaw to work?”

“No, I can’t, it’s too far. I work in Kawran Bazar.”

“Kawran Bazar? What are you, a fish seller??”

Often people assume that I work in the posh Gulshan-Banani diplomatic area, because that’s where a lot of the international NGOs are located. Sometimes when I tell them I work in Kawran Bazar, I feel like I may as well have said my office is on the moon.

The biggest wholesale market in Bangladesh, Kawran Bazar is a sprawling network of specialist markets, selling everything from vegetables (under the tarpaulin awnings), to fish (near the lake). Cross the road to the big buckets of ice and you’ll find the chickens and meat; walk around another corner and there’ll be blankets, then lunghis and children’s clothes; explore further and you’ll find the knives and oily rickshaw parts.

Some of the stalls are huge commercial outfits, with truckloads of produce coming in from the rural areas every morning in big jute bags and wicker baskets, while others are tiny, just a small sheet laid out on the ground with a few cucumbers and green chilis for sale, presumably grown on the vendor’s own plot of land. I’m told that almost all the fresh food that comes into Dhaka goes through this bustling hub.

Rising out of this labyrinth of markets is my office. Surrounded by delivery trucks in the morning and gridlocked rickshaws by mid-afternoon, CARE Bangladesh occupies five floors of a tall glass highrise with its head in the smog and its feet covered in slimy cabbage leaves. This is where I work.

Our offices, from the market below.

Our offices, from the market below.

It really is madness – picking your way through baskets of chickens and trying to avoid slipping in the squelching mud and vegetable mulch that covers the roads, on the way up to the front steps. A wonderful kind of madness.

Some of my colleagues do their grocery shopping in the market in the mornings before coming to work, and I guess I could probably take advantage of it more often, but I’ve been warned that it’s hard to tell the quality of the food apart, and it’s common for some farmers and distributors to inject fruit, vegetables and meat with formalin to preserve it during transportation. So I actually haven’t spent a lot of time exploring it all.

Ever since I arrived in March last year I’ve been planning to take some pictures of the place. In December, while showing Ollie’s parents around town, I finally got a chance to do it properly. Here’s a few from that little excursion…

Stepping back in time: Panam/Sonargaon

A few weekends ago we went to Sonargaon, home to the old city of Panam. The historic capital of Bengal, Panam was first the seat of the Hindu Diva Dynasty and in the late 13th century became the Muslim Mughal invaders’ buzzing centre of power: emperors and administrators ruled from here, and boats came from all over Asia, the Middle East and Africa, up the kilometers-wide Meghna river from the Bay of Bengal to trade.

Centuries later, the city saw a revival as the centre of trade in the Bengal region of British-ruled India. Building their stately homes and impressive commercial buildings in a neo-classical imitation of European buildings, 19th century colonials established a main street lined with columns, curlicues, orchards and mosaics.

The town remained occupied until the Indo-Pakistani war of 1965 saw the mostly Hindu population flee to India. It’s now an empty, mossy, crumbling museum of successive histories, jumbled together and loosely protected by the Bangladeshi government.

Hiring a driver and minibus from Dhaka, a group of us explored the abandoned beauty of roofless palaces and rusted locks.

Moving fast and slow: Dhaka’s paradox

As the days get shorter and the nights creep in on the end of the working days, people are rushing home earlier and the traffic is, if possible, getting worse.

A few days ago, it took me literally over an hour just to get out of the carpark at work and onto the road.

Sometimes it can seem interminable, this waiting. It’s not just traffic: wherever you go, there are crowds, queues, delays, the sheer population density of Dhaka pressing in on you, holding you up. The bureaucracy adds another layer to the waiting – in any given situation, there will be paperwork, complexity, like Dhaka itself is a giant human Rube Goldberg machine. Out of necessity, I’ve become incredibly patient – I now have a knack for sitting quietly and waiting that I never thought I’d possess.

But with fresh eyes, the waiting, the stillness, the long, stretched moments of nothing disappear. My lovely ‘in-laws’ have recently ventured to the Desh and are staying with us, and last night we caught their first CNG together. As we waited in traffic, they commented on how busy the city still was late at night, how the pavements and footpaths are teeming with tiny market stalls and pedestrians weave through the traffic – people, people everywhere, going somewhere, doing something. A cliché of bustling.

It’s all part of the paradox of this place: the stillness and the frenzy, moving fast and slow, all at once.