Ferrywallahs: Development and Vanishing Trades

You know what’s a great proxy indicator for a nation’s state of Development? Ferrywallahs! Yup, ferrywallahs (also, ‘feriwala’s). In case you don’t know what that is, let me explain.

In Bangladesh and possibly, the rest of the subcontinent, Ferrywallahs are door-to-door salesmen. Or street-peddlers. From what I remember of the 1980s, I can still conjure up a man – visibly hard-up and humbled – ferrying his thousand wares around the serpentine alleys and gulleys of Dhaka. This is the archetypical ferrywallah, ubiquitous, familiar, trustworthy, servile and grateful. The yoke would land on his shoulders from early in the morning. On either end he’d tie a basket or a cloth-bag to place his wares. If he’s not that affluent, he would heave a single, bamboo basket up on to his head and start the rounds. He knew to stick to a fixed route: you see, there was a honor-code dividing up the metropolis into chunks serviced by a specific set of ferrywallahs.

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Young ferrywallah selling bananas. (Photo: Nicholas Rapp)

Walking up and down alleyways lined by unambitious buildings, yelling out a singsong description of his wares, he’d look to windows for a familiar face. And there were plenty. They’d beckon him through the window and ask to see his spoils. He knew the mothers and wives. He knew what color bangles they liked and what their financial dealings were like. He knew exactly when the brat from the blue, tin-shed house would start a tantrum demanding pickles. He knew for whom the young girl from 14/B kept buying stationery and wooden pencils.

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“Feriwala” photo by: Tanveer Hassan Rohan, Flickr used under CC 2.0

There were, of course, types of street-peddlers. The boring, but most awaited, ones peddled gourds, spinach and radishes. The elite ones brought around salt-water sprinkled fish: carps, eels and catfish. Some ferrywallahs sold pink, spherical cotton-candies in glass-boxes. Some had balls of cheese and traditional flat-breads. Glass bangles, hair-ribbons and mirrors were the prime merchandize of others. Some would even drag in enormous, writhing beehives – freshly smoked and plucked from some tree in the southerly mangrove forests.

Whatever he was peddling, the one thing that no ferrywallah ever forgot was the measuring scale. Anything you bought, would be measured in front of your eyes. It would be done with a clan of iron weights, called batkharas. Each weight was a testament to the ferrywallah’s honesty and his compliance with Islamic Law that strictly forbids sellers from tinkering with weights and volumes.

I had some favorites among the ferrywallahs. Some offered triangular, savory pastries in glass boxes and fried-batter strips splattered with sugar, locally known as Kotkoti. The girls’ favorite was the pickle-seller, smelling of tamarind and syrup. My absolute favorite was the cheese-seller, who would invariably cut me a slice of his salted farmers’ cheese. I would sample from multiple balls, before finally delivering a verdict on the purchase.

Over time, regular ferrywallahs would become like extensions of a household – engaged in the affairs of the family, running errands, dropping children to school, sourcing items for the mistress, making demands of snacks or tea and becoming privy to domestic secrets. They’d sometimes take payment in old recyclable paper and weren’t shy to ask for a loan from the mistress / master of the house.

***

Ferrywallahs are by no means a dying breed. But they have certainly evolved. Those who do come around, don’t have time for little packets of pickle or cotton-candy (i.e. items priced as low as 10 cents). The margin just isn’t worth their while anymore. Bangladesh’s per capita income has almost reached US$1000. Now you need higher volume, greater margins to get ferrywallahs out of their homes.

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The modern ‘batkhara’ or weights no longer measure the unimpeachable integrity of the ferrywallahs; instead they are certified by the state’s Standard Testing Agency.

They come with fish, chicken and calculators. Reassuring other patrons over cellphones, they insist that you buy in bulk and do it quickly. Not only do they not need loans from you, they will extend a line of credit to you. The ferrywallah of 2015 doesn’t have time for bargaining or small-talk. He has been well integrated into the rat-race. And it’s the trade that has turned more impersonal. Besides, security guards in urban apartment complexes don’t like allowing ferrywallahs inside the compound. There isn’t enough time or space for him and his baskets.

The economic standing of the ferrywallah has improved – they can afford to hold out for higher profits. They can follow route-maps and schedule visits. And that in its self is a functional indicator of how these people, from the demographic pyramid-base, have experienced economic growth. But what also becomes clear is that street-peddlers’ (and many other lowly professions’) social standing hasn’t come far. The stigma of going door-to-door peddling wares is still strong. Even in the case of an indispensable service.

The trade is facing serious competition: reinforcing the argument that the ferrywallahs’ service is a vital one. There are now online entrepreneurs promising to save you the trouble of dealing with busy, inconvenient ferrywallahs: just click on the items you want, enter quantities and you can pay cash on delivery. In a world that is increasingly inclined to avoid face-to-face interaction, the online option is gaining in popularity. As market transactions turn more and more impersonal and people increasingly choose to hide behind their screens, small trades like that of the ferrywallahs will be sorely missed. Perhaps it is a longing for a bygone time.

Perhaps it is a hunger for human interactions.

Sustaining Those Who Have Passed On

It’s only intriguing in hindsight: my actions that followed in the months after my father’s death. You know what? Let me tell you the story. August, 2002: it was the day we buried my father – our family’s patriarch – and returned to a house full of hushed mourners and fragrant Biryani.

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Painting: Edvard Munch, Death in the Sickroom

Biryani, for those who have never tasted it, is aromatic spice -infused rice, meat and potatoes, slow-cooked simultaneously in a clay-sealed pot, sprinkled with raisins, sugar-cubes and dried-fruits – a majestic culinary wonder that allegedly inherited from Mongol rulers who cooked carbohydrates and proteins together in mammoth cauldrons for their vast armies.

In our culture, households in mourning turn off their stoves for a week or two …leaving relatives and friends to ensure a steady stream of meals for the family and a constant throng of mourners. As with Mongol armies, a cauldron of Biryani is a convenient, economic and child-friendly option for a grieving mass.

Anyway …sitting in that house full of guilt and small-talk and the fragrance of Biryani – my eyes wandered. And I could not avert my father’s material possessions. A pair of socks (frayed at the heels), the spectacles, the Old Spice aftershave lotion, the medical briefcase, the shoe rack, the income-tax files and a thousand other items lay spread over all about. What a waste – I thought – this archiving, this collecting, this curating, this maintenance! A lifetime of dedication to accumulation of possessions …reduced, by an uninvited death, to a pile of used stuff that needs bagging and storing.

I figure it’s customary in Western cultures to stuff such belongings into a cardboard box, label it ‘dad’ (read: ‘closure’), place it in the garage and move on. Or at least, that’s what I gather from American television. But we hold on. If we can afford to, we hold on to the clothes, the bed, the toiletries, the papers and the utensils. It is perhaps a tacit acknowledgement of, and a resignation to, the fact that the soul has passed on and can now only live on in our hearts and minds. Perhaps, old belongings help make that fragile, ethereal notion more concrete: as though they were evidence that the deceased had, indeed, once existed.

“People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad.” (Marcel Proust)

It was around that time that I heard that a relative was going on a pilgrimage to Makkah (Hajj). Instantly, I remembered that my father had once translated and printed, with his own money, an easy guide to Hajj for Bangla-speakers. I located the stash and quickly delivered two copies to the would-be pilgrims. Giving due credit, I also began to repeat some of his dinner-table anecdotes. The same thing happened when my mother finally decided to part with some belongings: she made sure that they were given to an honest, worthy recipient.  In retrospect, I now see that we were trying to protect / sustain my father’s footprint on this Earth; campaigning against the dirt of Time that threatened to cover it up.

silver-bird-music-boxI think this represents a universal, human desire: to protect the hollow, negative space left by a dear one’s passing: protect it against newcomers who are clearly more relevant, more alive. With every memento, every utensil that we part with – leaving us with less and less tangible reminders – we evaluate and ensure the worthiness of that gift. We make sure that whatever was left behind in this worldly life, is invested in the best possible scheme; perhaps, in an effort to the maximize the true value and utility such things can offer to the universe. It’s a pity then that – knowing a similar fate awaits us – we don’t maximize the value of our belongings while we’re alive.

Arabic Notices on Dhaka Walls: Reinforcing Misconceptions and Uninformed Choice

Adnan R. Amin:

Bangladesh’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, with its advertising agency Grey (Dhaka) has produced a slick video that shows how posting anti-urination messages in Arabic is keeping the roads and walls clean. But how appropriate are such solutions?

Originally posted on Alal O Dulal:

Copyright Adnan Karim

Adnan R. Amin for AlalaODulal.org
 A video titled ‘Language Matters’ has been making the rounds in Bangladeshi social-media circles. It explores the utility of Arabic warnings to ward off public urinators. The using of a religious misconception to prevent a social evil is clever. But what if it also reinforces and lends credence to that misconception?

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Midnight’s Evangelists

Adnan R. Amin:

Writing about the anachronistic phenomenon of Bangladeshi televangelists targeting semi-literate, helpless migrant workers.

Originally posted on Alal O Dulal:

"Bangladeshi migrants waiting for a flight home." by stablisation unit/DFID, licensed under CC by 2.0 “Bangladeshi migrants waiting for a flight home.” (photo: stablisation unit/DFID, licensed under CC by 2.0)

Each day, all year round, as Bangladesh goes to sleep – a group of fortunetellers, mystics, and magicians wake up to start casting their spell. You probably have never seen or heard them. Yet they are neither invisible nor quiet. In fact, they actually advertise their messages and locations loud and clear.

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#AskHamas: Hashtag Goes Viral Before the Campaign

Hamas – the Palestinian ‘Islamic’ organization, dubbed a terrorist one by the United States, had been planning a social media campaign. They were evidently planning to target English speakers and get them to engage actual Hamas leaders on Twitter. Hence the hashtag #AskHamas.

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But before the campaign could even begin, the hashtag had been used over 5000 times. It has now gone viral. For all the wrong reasons.

It happened that news outlets picked up on the story last week and Israelis decided to have a little fun. They preempted Hamas and started tweeting with the hashtag. The World joined in minutes later.

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But like with all things involving Palestine and Israel, it heated up. Some of it got very dark and hateful. Sometimes tweets started revealing vicious hatred against the Palestinian people in general.

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Perhaps, this could be a good opportunity to really engage Hamas and give them a good idea of how the world views them. Regardless of the ineptitude, propaganda and marketing ploys, the opening of doors is a rare event in our world and must not be greeted with the hurling of racial slurs and verbal abuse.

India’s Rapists and Saviors

WARNING: “India’s Daughter” the BBC documentary is very hard to watch. Viewer discretion is strongly advised.

In December 2012, an Indian girl was brutally raped and murdered in Delhi. Her male companion was beaten up bad. They had been returning by bus after watching a movie. Six men cornered them during their journey home. Delhi erupted in protests and citizens clashed with the police. Two weeks later, the girl died from internal injuries and trauma. Five men and a boy were arrested a week later and charged with the crime(s). But the protests continued: laws needed revision. Some days ago, Leslee Udwin directed and produced a documentary called “India’s Daughter” for the BBC. It features interviews of one of the accused rapists and is facing a ban from the Indian Government. 

Already assaulted by international and domestic instances of rape and violence, the 2012 rape of ‘Nirbhaya’ (fearless) garnered international criticism and consolidated Delhi’s perception as the ‘Rape Capital‘ of the world. Led by students of the Jawaharlal Nehru College (JNU), protests raged all across India. It was as though a dam had suddenly burst and no longer was it taboo to challenge entrenched structures of patriarchy and violence against women.

It was the waves of month-long protests that caught the intrigue of Leslee Udwin. The Israeli-born, UK-based director-produced decided to make the documentary about this girl, Jyoti Singh, a 23-year old physiotherapy student. The documentary is a bone-chilling story of normalized violence against women. It is a damning account of entitled men who still expect women to endure violence without resistance. It is a heartbreaking narrative of how a kind, bright flame went out before she could spread her light.

It all begins with a narrative of the crime and interviews from Jyoti Singh’s parents. Mukesh, one of the convicted rapists, gets uninterrupted airtime to shed light on a general discomfort of Indian men upon seeing women dressed ‘inappropriately’, being out with ‘strange men’ or late at night. Defense lawyers are allowed to speak in similar veins. Mukesh narrates every detail from the day, including horrific details of the actual crime. At one point he tells Udwin that the victim should not have fought back while she was being raped. He seems surprised that everyone made such a big deal of it; there are so many worse crimes going on, he insists. Plus, hanging rapists may be a bad idea, he suggests. Next, rapists will start killing the girls. It still doesn’t occur to him that effective rape-prevention may even be a likely scenario in India. On the other hand, interwoven into his blood-curling narrative, is Jyoti’s parents talking about their daughter and the unbearable pain of having to cremate her so prematurely. The other minor storylines revolve around the families of the rapists.

But reception of ‘India’s Daughter’ has been mixed. Many have hailed it as a landmark conversation starter. An ice-breaker if you will. The Indian Government tried to get restrict its distribution. The BBC responded by releasing it prematurely. The government has managed to get the video banned and force YouTube to take it down. In fact, Leslee has fled India in fear of arrest.

Leslee Udwin speaks to the press. The ban on her documentary has raised questions about Freedom of Speech.

Leslee Udwin speaks to the press. The ban on her documentary has raised questions about Freedom of Speech. (Photo: Wall Street Journal)

But why is there so much controversy around the documentary? The first clue may lie in the style of storytelling: the documentary is a series of statements, news clippings and subtle reconstruction of actual events. Questions have been edited out – giving it the impression of an organic, overlapping narrative. The story is mostly led by Mukesh (interviewed rapist) – and then followed-up by reactions or commentaries from Jyoti’s parents, friend, Indian and English social-workers or academics. I should not have to elaborate on the political problems of allowing India’s Daughter’s story to be told by her rapist. Piyasree Dasgupta does a good job of point out how, stylistically, the documentary aimed for the sensational instead of aspiring to journalistic integrity in storytelling. Which explains this blogger’s reaction: “Shame on “India”. What a society! What a backward culture! It’s not only the uneducated and criminals, but watching these educated Indians talk about women in their Indian culture is sickening, no respect whatsoever.”

Secondly, the documentary’s oversimplified narrative hinges on ‘monsters’ and ‘victims’. Like with Kony2012, Evil is given a face and it gathers blind hate, devoid of nuanced understanding. That is acceptable for a tabloid, but not a BBC documentary set to be released on International Women’s Day. It fails to explore why the Nirbhaya case jolted India like it did; and what intelligence is to be gleaned from the identities of the rapists? For example, the social impact of having vast slums in the middle of a sprawling, urban metropolises is nowhere explored. Neither investigated is the supposed, social disapproval of ‘women out at night’. How does the ubiquitous portrayal of rape-scenes in Bollywood films affect the psyche of young, semi-literate youth? For a film that purports to tell a bigger story than the crime, the failure to investigate broad themes like the urban-rural divide, micro-aggression across these lines, gender & economic inequality and ghettoization of the poor is at least an oversight.

It is not surprising then – given it is a rapist who channels the narrative – that it emerges is misogynistic, sexist and insensitive. That it is a fringe view is never made clear. In fact, the sexism is further reinforced through the (outrageous and sexist) testimonies of the defense lawyers. There’s no attempt to balance their views. That’s where the third problem lies: it misrepresents India. The documentary is (intentionally or otherwise) transformed into a portrayal of Indian men. In his testimony, Mukesh confesses that most of them were heavily drunk that night and wanted to ‘party’. At one point, he states (presumably in reply to a question) that he hadn’t had sex in five years. The viewer is forced to reflect upon this Indian man’s needs and how he may choose to fulfill them. Such unbalanced reporting is why the world is ready to believe that the Assam Rape Festival is real. The rapists’ lawyers are called upon to speak about women’s rights. Leslee fails to include educated and progressive – or even traditionally-protective – Indian men in the film.

Fourthly, India’s Daughter’ has an interventionist approach where it feels as though an ‘outsider’ (BBC or Leslee herself) is collaborating with Indian urbanites to reflect on the crimes among the slum-dwelling Poor. Of course, it seems to say, the Poor cannot comment on their plight; we shall do it for them. As a result, the economically-disadvantaged characters speak of their pain (be it for the victim or the perpetrators), while activists, judges, academics and development workers are invited to speak about what has been / can be done to arrest this evil. Leslee even appears to lecture Indian PM Narendra Modi to “be a hero globally” and live up to his promises of Gender Equality. All of this takes ‘India’s Daughter’ dangerously close to being dubbed a ‘White Savior’ charity. And then, talking about her work, Leslee Udwin said, “My whole purpose was to give a gift of gratitude to India, to actually praise India, to single India out as a country that was exemplary in its response to this rape […]” Can you imagine her lecturing the leader of the country with the highest rape cases – Barack Obama – like this on the normalized high-school rape epidemic?

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‘India’s Daughter’ is a victim’s story, narrated mostly by her rapist. (Photo: rte.ie)

The heartbreaking case of Nirbhaya has sparked important conversations in India. There have been articles, reports, plays and even fashion photography that centers on her. India has tried to spell out its problems in many different ways. However, in the end, it is important to let India sort out its problems. No amount of shaming or guilt-trips will cure what is clearly a global, socio-economic malady. I say this because I think India has been shamed by ‘India’s Daughter’. Indian men have been shamed. Women too.

It could be that global knowledge of a rape culture is seen as more mortifying than actual instances of rape. Or it could be that a civilization with strong social institutions was humiliated for failure to protect its own. Perhaps it is a matter of national pride and the documentary’s narrative is perceived as no less than an affront, an insult to Indian culture. It is not possible for an outsider like me to understand the nature of their offense. But so inflamed is the situation that, after the release of the documentary, two alleged rapists have been beaten to death by mobs. In one case, a mob breached the walls of a prison, snatched the alleged rapist, beat him to death and hung him from a clocktower in front of thousands of flashing cameras.

In the end, ‘India’s Daughter’ has mostly exploited the cliched narrative of primitive Indian men and subjugated, objectified women to spin a riveting story out of a tragic crime. To do this, Leslee Udwin even allegedly misrepresented her intentions: she committed to filming a non-commercial documentary, but later sold it to BBC; she also hid some footage from the jail authorities, which later surfaced in the the film. In that sense, the documentary is an exploitation, a rape of India as well.

***

There’s a part in the documentary where a friend narrates a story from Jyoti’s (Nirbhaya’s) life. One day, at the mall, a 10-year old street urchin snatched her purse and dashed. A policeman caught him and was giving him a beating, when Jyoti intervened. Later she asked the boy why he had done what he had done. He replied that he, too, should have the right to nice clothes or to a hamburger. Moved, the girl bought him all the things he wanted and made the boy promise he would never try this again. It is ironic that the film-makers still failed to see the act in light of the Gandhian precept of “Hate the Crime, Not the Criminal”. But Jyoti – a daughter of India – had grown up with it. She could see beyond the behavior and into the intention. In Hindi / Bengali, ‘Jyoti’ means a ray of light, a beam. On her way out, this girl has lit a flame that will be difficult to put out. Her flame will burn and one day, the fire will purify age-old, ossified structures of discrimination and violence. I hope that, in death, she will become India’s savior.

Constructing Islamophobia: The Hate Preacher

Let this post be an example of how snippets of seemingly-innocuous details quoted by the Media add to rising suspicion and hatred of Muslims in the West.

The Daily Telegraph alleged earlier today that a cross-Government working group on anti-Muslim hatred contained radicals or former radicals. The group, it was stated, is “pressing to lift bans on foreign hate preachers from entering Britain, including Zakir Naik, who has stated that “every Muslim should be a terrorist”.”

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That is one, evil preacher-dude, right? Who, in his right mind, says something like that? Unequivocally, I advocate that hate preachers be excommunicated, especially ones calling Muslims to terrorism. But here’s the thing. As a Bangladeshi Muslim, I have seen the lecture in question. In fact, it’s on YouTube (see transcription below).

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(Preacher) Zakir Naik’s talk: complete sentences vs. phrase quoted by The Daily Telegraph

Aware of the common media trickery of cherry-picking phrases, Naik goes on to add, “I am aware that ‘terrorist’ – more commonly – is used for a person who terrorizes an innocent person. In this context, no Muslim should even terrorize a single human being.”

While there are controversies surrounding Naik’s views, they are theological, not political, in nature. He certainly isn’t advocating Terrorism in this particular case. Yet, anyone who hasn’t seen the video, would take The Telegraph’s summation of Zakir Naik at face value. And why not? What does the Telegraph have to gain by smearing a lisping, Muslim preacher?

Let me repeat that question for you: What does the Telegraph have to gain by smearing a lisping, Muslim preacher?

Dhaka Days: Life During Hartals

Hartal ● /ˈhɑː.tɑːl/ ● a strike action involving a total shutdown of workplaces, offices, shops, courts of law, usually as a form of civil disobedience.

Downtown Dhaka on a Hartal day (photo: Rajib Dhar, Dhaka Tribune)

Downtown Dhaka on a Hartal day (photo: Rajib Dhar, Dhaka Tribune)

Today – like most of 2015 – is a hartal in Bangladesh. A ‘hartal’ means a day of ‘political protest’ through a shutdown of transportation & markets; a willful hampering of school, work, shopping and eating out (which is 84% of all we do) in order to drive home a political point. Hartals are usually called by political opposition parties, who enforce it through processions, vandalism, arson and clashes with the police. You may choose to defy a hartal, but be prepared for a Molotov cocktail or two to land on your back. Hurled by underpaid street-children, these are the  newest additions to the arsenal of hooligans.

***

I am out for a walk.

Office timings are lax these days. My afternoon is free. The traffic is light by Dhaka standards; this only happens during the Eids. Commuters are cramming into rusty, Red buses. Pedestrians are walking along briskly – as if in a hurry to get away from an invisible attacker, but reluctant to reveal their fear.

My neighborhood is relatively relaxed and shielded from the violence: there are too many corporate headquarters, MNCs, newspaper editors and diplomats in the area. It’s the poor, slum-dwellers from across the lake who really suffer during the shutdowns. Up ahead, a van belonging to a food catering service is being turned into an ambulance. The technicians have never attempted this modification before. Ambulances are exempted from hartals and are often forced to serve as expensive taxis.

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Turning vans into ambulances makes a lot of business sense during long bouts of shutdowns.

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Bangladeshis are adept at turning threats into opportunities.

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A green traffic signal frees his captive donors and this man steps aside for a smoke break.

Things seem almost normal. Most shops – having endured over a month of shutdowns – have now lifted their shutters. Business had been hurting. Prices are higher now, which is strange considering a hartal typically causes a build-up of goods, which should in turn lower prices.

School children are out too. They’re walking home in groups of four or five – their faces tense. University students are different. They just got wiiiings. In front of BRAC, they’ve taken to sharing snacks and notes, while some others huddle together to delve into their respective phones. Very few will go home before dark. It’s difficult to surrender a long-overdue, hard-fought Freedom from the tyranny of conservative, curfew-wielding parents.

An elderly man takes a break from begging and enjoys a relaxed smoke. Begging in Dhaka’s upscale residential areas is not entirely a bad profession. Despite the ‘Beggar-Free Zone’ road-signs, there are dozens of them chipping away at the bubble of air-conditioned cars that transport the Wealthy. There are urban legends about beggars who have erected 4-storey buildings with their earnings. I once met such a man, whose son was close to finishing medical school. Once the son became a doctor, the man had said, the father would have no need to beg anymore. Thank Allah for sacrificing parents!

***

It’s well past noon. I am hungry. I enter a “bhaat er hotel” – literally meaning a ‘rice hotel’ – a traditional wayside food-joints. These restaurants are the staple when it comes to working men’s lunches. They are typically cheap (lunch with rice, chicken curry / fish, lentil soup @ USD 1.5) shabby, ill-lit, carelessly-serviced and seldom empty. Housed in tin-sheds or thatched-cottages, these Hotels are different from your everyday restaurants. Here’s how:

  1. You can walk in and sit at any table with empty chairs i.e. the tables cannot be booked. This means that capacity is fully utilized and that beggars, cops, executives, mosque-volunteers and development workers often end up at the same table.
  2. There’s an auto-order feature where waiters – usually boys of 10-14 years of age – will set down a plate of rice, a fixed platter of veggies / mashes and an elementary salad in front of you. You are free to eat from it.
  3. If you choose not to eat from it, they will take it back. Interestingly, this is not the case in India, where food served (i.e. touched) cannot be returned. Many suggest it may be because people of upper castes consider it a sin to eat of food touched by lower castes.
  4. Water is free. Its sources are dubious.
  5. Once you’ve run out of curry / vegetables, they will give you some more for free. This is known as ‘thhora’ (a little bit) or ‘jhol’ (gravy).
  6. These hotels almost never overcharge or have hidden costs. Tipping is optional, but rewarding.

As I sit at my table, enjoying my hot chicken curry, fragments of conversation come floating. Two men are discussing a wedding feast. I gather one is the elder brother of the groom and lives in the nearby slum. The other is a professional baburchi (chef / cook).

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Inside the Rice Hotel: the two men on the left are planning the wedding.

It is an afternoon wedding, which means, people will eat more. The groom’s brother wants both chicken and beef on the menu – but can’t come to terms with the costs. But in a Bangladeshi wedding, the feast is everything. It must be scrumptious and available in gluttonous quantities. It’s a matter of honor. So the brother readies himself for the blow and starts to list down the ingredients. The chef takes a deep breath and lets out a tirade: onions, chili, garlic, ginger, cardamom, cinnamon, coriander, khoya / mawa, raisins, saffron, sour yogurt …it goes on for 10 minutes. With each item, he quotes the amount needed for 150 people.  

Outside, a small procession is broken up by the armed police in combat gear. Some small explosions are heard. Two, three men rush inside the hotel – slightly out of breath. They seem to know the owner …so, it’s all okay. In the midst of this commotion, the wedding plan goes on. The chef has now moved on to sweets and is mounting a crazy, new list of ingredients.

***

My day ends at my in-laws’ place. Mother-in-law is cooking for me. As we wait for dinner, she also tells us stories: stories of her childhood, her village and her relatives. In course of time, a sturdy, mighty grandfather-figure comes up …

Circa 1975: it happened one day that a rumor spread across the village that a singular of wild boars had come out of the jungle. Wild boars could be potentially dangerous. So, shutters dropped and doors locked. Immediately, this elderly man chopped down a bamboo from his front-yard and sat down to fashion it into a spear.

The women implored him to come back indoors. But their pleas fell on deaf ears. “Am I not a human being? Why should I retreat in my own turf? You think I can’t defend our home?” he thundered. Sure enough, the singular of boars began to infiltrate the boundaries of the kitchen garden. The patriarch took up his makeshift spear and began to fend them off. At one stage, one boar charged. At the end, one animal lay wounded, the others having fled. The man lived to tell the tale. Till this day, his can’t straighten his fingers, all of which were broken during the scuffle.

But it’s not with a sense of trauma or regret that he tells his tale; but with pride and righteousness. His logic is simple: if a boar comes into your home, you fight. You don’t break down and question why God sent this misery your way. This, to me, seems to embody the indomitable, Bangladeshi strand of Resilience. Try and outlaw me in posh neighborhoods, but I’ll find a way to send my son to medical school. Restrict my van on the roads and I’ll turn a profit by making it into an ambulance. Throw Molotov cocktails my way, but I’ll put up the best wedding feast this side of town. This side of the Bangladeshi doesn’t let up. He doesn’t mope ‘Oh God! Why me?’ …he takes the boar by the horn and throws his punches.

Sometimes, it works. And that’s Life.

Constructing Islamophobia: The #Ushergate Incident

These days, if you’re a journalist or a reporter …reporting the news is just not good enough. You need ‘news that sells’. So, sometimes you have to invent angles and embellish details.

That’s precisely what Channel 4’s Cathy Newman did.

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“Whaaaaat? Embellish details?? Me?”

Covering UK’s ‘Visit My Mosque’ Day, Ms. Newman attempted to go into a mosque and was ‘ushered out’ of the facility. Shocked, she did what any of us would do: take to social media for a good, ol’ rant.

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cathy1Her tweets were retweeted hundreds of times. News outlets picked up the story. And let’s not forget Ms. Newman alone has around 80K followers, all of whom saw exactly how suspicious these mosques were …denying entry and ushering out a journalist of such high standing. ‘Visit My Mosque Day was such a fail!’ some commented. Some probably wondered what these mosques were hiding and why Muslims were so rude, uncivilized and barbaric even.

But then, a CCTV footage surfaced.

She hadn’t been ushered out at all (perhaps, she misremembered?)

Of course, Mrs Newman had arrived at the wrong location as she attempted to take part in Visit My Mosque day. Rather than being hurried to the door, she had simply been pointed in the right direction by Muslims and left to make her own way out. That is hardly ushering. And saying that isn’t splitting hairs.

Mrs Newman last night apologized for causing any ‘misunderstanding’ over the visit. It comes a little too late for the Islamic centre at the centre of the claims, which has received a torrent of online abuse and two telephone death threats.

I wonder if an apology suffices for turning a helpful direction into ‘ushering out’. Any decent human being would think twice before posting tweets with incendiary intentions. A reporter – whose very profession is supposed to be verifying and establishing the Truth –  would’ve done well to remember that. In the end, all Visit My Mosque related stories are now linked to Ms. Newman (Google ‘Visit My Mosque’ and see how many links are really about Cathy Newman and her moronic gaffe). She has successfully stolen the story and made it about her.

The #VisitMyMosque campaign, organized by the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB), is part of a 2015 effort to reach out to the public and relieve heightened tensions between communities. Members of the Muslim community “may be on hand to answer questions about Muslims and Islam where this is possible,” the MCB said.

In the Name of a Prophet

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Detectives at the location of the Makouli shooting, near Avignon.

Gunmen shot and killed at least 17 people last week in France. Apparently, they did this to ‘protect the reputation / honor of the prophet Muhammad’. They did this without regard for common Muslims’ safety or sentiments. They did this without thinking about the likes of Mohamed El Makouli – who was stabbed 17 times and killed today right before his wife in France. The attacker was screaming “I am your god, I am your Islam”. He has now been sent to a psychiatric hospital (how predictable!). The wife managed to escape with her child. However, neither Islam nor Europe seems likely to escape a return to the dark ages.

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“ISLAM MUST DIE” accompanied by a Swastika. Blatant Islamophobia surfaces at the University of Birmingham. (photo: redbrick.me)

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For decades now, ordinary people (Muslims, Christians, all) have suffered the consequences of terrorists’ crimes. Like most others, the Charlie Hebdo ‘terrorists’ sported beards like the prophets and had Arabic names. Only, they failed to follow the teachings of the prophet.

Flashback to the 6th Century A.D. – Ridiculed, hunted, tortured and even exiled during his lifetime – the Prophet responded not with vengeance or hostility. Guided by the God of Abraham or the God of Moses or YHWH or Allah, Muhammad was merciful and gracious. He wrote extensively to his magistracy and representatives to ensure Muslims behaved themselves. At a time when religious groups were at loggerheads and the entire region in flux, he wrote the following about adherents of other religions and detractors: bismillah 1

(In the name of Allah, the most Beneficent and most Merciful)

 “This is a message from Muhammad ibn Abdullah, as a covenant to those who adopt Christianity, near and far, we are with them.

Verily I, the servants, the helpers, and my followers defend them, because Christians are my citizens; and by Allah! I hold out against anything that displeases them. No compulsion is to be on them. Neither are their judges to be removed from their jobs nor their monks from their monasteries. No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses.

Should anyone take any of these, he would spoil God’s covenant and disobey His Prophet. Verily, they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate. No one is to force them to travel or to oblige them to fight.

The Muslims are to fight for them.

If a female Christian is married to a Muslim, it is not to take place without her approval. She is not to be prevented from visiting her church to pray. Their churches are to be respected. They are neither to be prevented from repairing them nor the sacredness of their covenants. No one of the nation (Muslims) is to disobey the covenant till the Last Day (end of the world).”

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A charter of peace, ratified by Prophet Muhammad – copy stored with Monks of Mount Sinai. (Wikipedia)

Slander not the tree, I say, having tasted its rotten fruits. Muhammad – as history will testify – was a kind man who surrendered his will to Allah (SWT). He is as venerated as the other prophets in Islam – Adam, Noah, Moses, Abraham, David, Solomon, Lot, Job, Ishmael, Isaac, John and Jesus. No more, no less. And while Muhammad was not afraid to repel attacks on his community or march on the city of his birth to retake Makka’h – he never willfully spilled the blood of the innocent.

Those are the facts. cave

To borrow from Plato’s Cave Allegory: it is logically and morally wrong to ascribe meaning to a flame, based on the shadows cast by our own hand gestures. It is our hand. We decide what shape it takes. The light is constant. It is not the flame, but we, who cause our own souls to be manifest against the Light when we commit crimes in its name.

Let us discover the true transmissions and teachings of Muhammad and judge him according to those. However, let’s also be warned that when we venerate prophets to the point of worship …it is sacrilege in Islam. When we make up stories of violence and abuse in his name …it is baseless slander. When rogue idiots shoot people – innocent or otherwise – in the name of protecting Muhammad / Islam, it is just gruesome, avoidable murder. Neither Muhammad, nor his Master, asks it of any Muslim.

“It is as though the terrorist themselves are declaring to the Muslim World, “I am your god, I am your Islam”. It’s a big middle finger to all those trying to clutch on to the fundamental teachings of Islam and at the same time, fit into an increasingly radicalized, discriminating world.”

I reject the Terrorists’ creed and their ranks with utmost disgust.

These violent acts tarnish neither the Scripture, nor He who sends it. It says nothing of what Muhammad thought, felt or did. This is freestyle Islam …doing what we want to do for political gains or money or power or thrill – and then demanding that Islam be expanded to accommodate our actions.

Thank God ‘Islam’ is not only a Noun, but also a Verb!