We’re listening to Patti Smith’s song, “1959”, as I drive Minal to school this frosty morning. Because of the song, our conversation moves toward student activism.
Minal: I predict there won’t be war in one century.
Me: Why do you say that?
Minal: Because there are so many children in this world who don’t believe in war, Ammi!
Me: So, will you be around?
Minal: I don’t think so…
A lion at Houston’s Chinese Cultural Center’s Year of the Horse celebration.
My piece, Bangladesh’s Unresolved History of Independence, and video just appeared in Creative Time Reports.
The temperature is freezing cold as I wander through the roundabout near George Washington University in search of Thai food. As I walk on Pennsylvania Avenue, I walk past a restaurant called Mehran, where I stop to take a peek. The neon lights and the smell of spice draws me in. Inside, I find a buffet meal – an authentic Pakistani restaurant. I abandon my plans for Thai food and settle in for fresh daal, vegetables and karhi along with a crisp naan.
In my two-year residency at the University of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts, I have the opportunity to work on a subject, What Is Home?, and explore material that has been at the heart of my writing and artistic practice for quite some time. This fall, I was invited to present at TEDxHouston, a perfect place to share some thoughts that have cropped up for me during my residency.
As part of the Eid celebration, Minal decides to learn the skill of applying mehndi / henna on her own feet and her friend’s palm.
Today’s the strike down for Coming Through the Gap on a Mountain on an Elephant, a production curated by Robert Pruitt. For the group show, I burned copies of visas, created a string of cardamom, cinnamon and bay leaves, and used candles and a yoga mat. The final installation was called Reclaiming Home, my way of finding peace at a time when place of birth determines what visas are obtained or denied.
Clump of burned visas with shadows of a spice string.
A view of the larger installation.
Paratha and sugar / cheeni – Minal’s comfort food.
Minal and I experience a five-time security checking in Istanbul airport before we board our flight to Houston. Nonetheless, we are grateful that Turkish Airlines is now flying directly from Houston to Istanbul and it’s a flight we’ll be taking many times over the coming years – especially since we’ve discovered a new friend, Tuna, who runs a bed and breakfast while her sister operates Kulindag, a yoga center.
Even though the city continues to experience violence – especially after yesterday’s bomb-blast that killed at least seven people including young children in Lyari – there is a frenzy in the air; tomorrow could be Eid-ul-Fitr. We head out to Uzma Arcade to purchase bangles for Minal so she can have the “Eid experience.”
Long rows of women sitting in folding chairs hunch over their client women’s palms and feet, applying mehndi-henna. Rim Jhim, the choori-shop we choose, is packed with women matching bangles with their clothes. We find the right colors for Minal and she gets the full experience as the shopkeeper pushing the bangles past her fingers. When we were her age, our family often waited till night time once Eid was announced before we went bangle-shopping
At night, we hear a ripple of gunshots – Eid has been announced and firing of guns is the way many people around the city are celebrating the end of Ramzaan.
Minal creating art with found objects. Above: a toothpick to create a design in her ice-cream; below: flowers in a dried leaf.
Today’s a packed day: in the afternoon, a group of artists gather in the house, and I share updates about Bangladesh as well as details about VBB’s Borderlines project. At night, with friends, we head over to Ocean Mall, where Mideast Hospital once was, and there’s a celebration to welcome the end of the month of Ramzaan. The seven-level building contains clothing stores, movie theaters, and a food mall, but we leave the space with a joint opinion that the architects overlooked an integral element of the building: the sound is horrible, leaving our ears pounding from noise that bounced around the building.
I’m reminded once again of how much I prefer open-markets where the sea-air acts as a coolant, and noise control occurs naturally through wind and open space.
We take a spontaneous trip to the beach. Rainwater clogs the streets, but once we reach Hawksbay, we are rewarded by an empty beach. The high-tide from the day before has washed up plastic, bottles and other trash. Alongside the trash, amidst piles of stones, are sea-shells that look like pearls.
Monsoon rains descend today. All plans get cancelled, and we stay at home to enjoy alloo-puri – with electricity, to my surprise. But at night, the lights fade away for a few hours. This summer, “load-shedding” has been considerably less. One of our friends who manages Karachi’s controversial electricity service tells me that KESC has instituted a new policy: neighborhoods where residents pay bills receive non-stop power, while low-income neighborhoods where electricity is being stolen and/or not being paid for are experiencing the daily burden of 5-6 hours without electricity.
I land in Karachi by late afternoon and by night, our family is at a dinner at Khalid and Lali Mahmood’s house. Lali, a photographer, wants to learn more about my Bangladesh experience. She’s working with Bengali refugee women in Karachi and is interested in participating in VBB’s Borderlines project.
After dinner, we head over to a friend’s house to listen to a qawwali performed by the Najmuddin Saifuddin qawwal group. The performance ends at three in the morning (sehri time) and we head back to the house, satiated with music.
I end my time in Dhaka with a trip to Shahbag Square, where historical photos of the 1971 Liberation War are being displayed. Since February 2013 when the International Tribunal convicted Abdul Quader Mollah for war crimes, and community members rose up in protest demanding a death sentence for Mollah and others, part of the street has been taken over by activists, who resist police attempts to revert one section of the main road as a space for cars. Now, alongside adda gatherings next to food carts that sell tea and snacks, Dhaka residents use the main road as a place to gather, talk and organize.
Down the street, in the entrance of what used to be a race-course created by the British, and the site where Mujibur-Rahman gave his historic speech in March 1971, a group of artists called the Chobbir Haat have created a public art space where they hold exhibitions, gatherings and art workshops. Over many cups of brown-cha and doodh-cha, artists express interest in participating in VBB’s Borderlines production.
Even though I’ll be leaving tomorrow, I feel certain that this is a city I will visit again—soon.
People viewing street photo exhibition at Shahbag Square.
The Institute of Fine Art at the University of Dhaka is an open space where students sketch, paint and sculpt. Photographer-journalist Zaid Islam, along with filmmaker Shameem Akhtar (who has taken me under her wing for the day) and I wander through sculptures and greenery in search of Nasimul Kabir aka Duke, a lecturer, who Zaid thinks would be helpful in VBB’s Borderlines project. With no electricity in the building, Duke invites us for tea at the open cafeteria, where students eat and drink openly even though it’s ramzaan—action that one cannot see in Pakistan where, during ramzaan, it’s illegal to drink and eat in public.
Afterwards, Shameem attempts to take me to Dhaka’s Old City where she grew up, but we are foiled by a two-hour traffic jam. After a certain point, the driver, who’s fasting, says it’s better turn around. It takes us another two hours to get back to Dhanmondi.
Photographer-journalist Zaid Islam poses in front of a frog sculpture designed by one of the members of Chhobhi Haat.
Khushi arranges for us to visit Savar, the site where the Rana Plaza collapsed back in April. Today marks three months of mourning for more than 1100 lives that were lost when the building crashed. Today, more than 370 are still “missing”, a situation that leaves family members in a space where they cannot fully grieve their losses or receive any kind of compensation.
Rows of men and women push against a fence that lines the flattened plot where the eight-story building collapsed in April this year, while women hold out signs of missing family members. A man slips past the fence and squats on a stone, holding out two images of family members; meanwhile, television cameras document his grief and that of others.
In the evening, in a journey led by Afsan Chowdhury, we make a trek to Geneva Camp, where the Bihari community took refuge in December 1971, once the Pakistan Army was defeated and Bangladesh attained its independence. Here, streets are narrow, and houses – once mud-huts – are now built up into cement homes that have multiple levels of small rooms connected by cement stairs. Residents living in this community only recently acquired the right to vote and to hold Bangladeshi passports—for more than thirty years, they lived without either as they waited for repatriation to Pakistan or to be accepted as citizens in Bangladesh.
We are welcomed by Noor Pappu Islam, whose wife and family serve Iftar to us—because of crazy Dhaka traffic, we are late, and they have already broken their fast. Pappu’s two-year nephew offers me a salaam. “He has been waiting for you all day,” Pappu tells us. We sit on a bed at the topmost level of the house, and Pappu shares his story about his father, who worked as a cobbler all his life until he passed away a few years ago
Pappu, articulate in Urdu, English and Bengali, helps researchers by collecting information. He is working on capturing the untold stories of his community. “I never knew that we had a story to tell until I met Afsan Bhai…” he says.
In the evening, I offer a presentation about VBB to the Britto Arts Trust, and they inform me about their artists collective. After the formal conversation and collection of funds for drinks, a spontaneous party breaks out, and Kakon, a singer and visual artist, leads an improvisational singing session.