Wounded Nation, Still The Dreamer
by Naeem Mohaiemen
[Published in DAILY STAR, January 12, 2007]
"You and I are of that clan
The one that sings in the middle of pain
That painful scream is the only song..
Of this dead century."
[ Humayun Azad, Bangla Bhashar Shothru Mithro, 1999]
Once again. Bangladesh on the front page of the New York Times. But this time, instead of Yunus surrounded by smiles, boys throwing rocks at a lethally over-armed police force. A professor at Cooper Union calls me up and tells me that old communist friends are saying there's "revolution" on the streets. I laugh silently. What are they smoking? "Revolution? No, nothing of that sort, just fratricide," I reply sadly.
From this perch, an exultant Nobel Prize Friday seems quite far away. Back then, after I had sent the umpteenth SMS to various cell phones, one friend fired back, "Basta Ya! What is with this irritating display of nationalism! I thought you were above all this?" It's true, normally I'm quite skeptical of nationalism, and yet the prize announcement had swept away the typical self-restraint.
Why did that victory matter so much for Bangladesh? Why a nationalist project in this century, when these parochial feelings are supposed to be closeted. All sorts of ummah identity are to be the new transnational glue -- South Asian, Subcontinental, Deshi, Asian, Pan-Asian, Muslim, Southern, Third World, pick your kurta. But suddenly back to the national borders. Or is it forward to...?
For my friends who moved beyond borders, it's hard to explain a psyche that still craves national heroes. For decades, Bangladesh has struggled under the weight of the impossible, sky-high expectations created by 1971 and the rise and fall of demi-gods. From the Dhanmondi massacre onwards, the roller coaster ride never ends–– Khondoker's Judas kiss, jail killings, Khaled Mosharraf's musical chairs, Shipai Shipai Bhai Bhai/Officer der Rocktho Chai, the crippled war hero and a secret execution, "I will make politics difficult", Circuit House invasion, Manzur's mysterious "mob" death, Qamrul Hasan's World Shameless, Ghulam Azam's returned passport, and the ongoing dogfight between BNP and AL. The surprises or chomoks are endless, but the game has grown quite tired. Hello? Is anyone still watching? Change the channel please.
Politics is not everything, but this endless battle has poisoned many aspects of Bangladesh's trajectory. Even though the new generation would like to ignore all this, the politics of hartal and confrontation has made it impossible––everyone is hostage to the political turf war. Oh, if only they would settle their accounts inside Parliament––imagine Kahn's masterpiece with a built-in wrestling ring. The victors would get to keep their red passports and Pajeros.
A nation that cannot define itself is forced to swallow others' definitions. Thirty years after Kissinger, every new government still feels the need to say to a foreign magazine interviewer, at least once, "Well, you know we are no longer that bottomless basket, we are self-sufficient in food..." Lazy journalism and media caricature always needs a country to be "Timbuktu" -- a symbol for distance, dystopia, mystery, poverty, or anarchy. In the last few years, Bangladesh also finds itself trapped inside the box of Islam. Fighting a rising militant Islamic threat, the country is now the focus of unwelcome external attention. A steady drumbeat of parachute journalism about "Talibanization." Another zero-zero image game.
There are, predictably, a roll-call of achievements that are ignored -- dramatic increases in food sufficiency, child vaccination rates higher than the US, drop in child mortality, accelerating literacy rate, increase in female education, exploding export sector, literal rags-to-riches garment story, a technologically savvy youth culture, construction boom, digital divide leapfrogging, fiercely free press, empowered women, and the largest number of NGOs and a huge number of successful development, social welfare and grassroots organizing models. But none of these are particularly sexy, or bite-size stories for the world.
This paradoxes makes this nation vulnerable to emotion and wild mood swings. In the midst of a poverty scenario, somehow a global "happiness" survey pronounced Bangladeshis to be the "happiest in the world"! It is in this context that the Yunus Nobel was appropriated and turned into something much more. All the pent up desires for a hero, a cause, a pride flag, were projected onto one institution and moment.
Trying to explain a national pride project (while insisting to my skeptical friends that this is different from jingoism), I went back to my archives and dug out my diary notes written from Dhaka in December 2005. Filming back-to-back rallies by Islamist groups and Secularists, and finding the latter small and outnumbered, I was in a blue mood reflecting the national tenor. The country was reeling from an unbroken chain of political violence, magnified by "suicide bombings" by militant Islamists. Those six months of chaos were considered the gravest threat to Bangladesh's future since 1971 (but soon, there was more to come).
Finally, on a gloomy December 16th, known in more hopeful times as Victory Day, the weekly SHAPTAHIK 2000 mustered up impossible reserves of optimism to bring out their cover story.
A green-red cover..
A cloud cluster of words, tracing the shape of the map.
Among the many words, I could make out the following:
And underneath that long litany, an impossible defiance:
"Standing in the middle of a pile of smoke, we still dream of a prosperous, stable Bangladesh. A country where the Fundamentalists will have no space. Where we can smash their throne of blood to pieces. Bengalis are on a cursed journey, but we still dream among the ashes."
And then the seemingly impossible headline...
THOBU BHALOBASHI BANGLADESH
(AND YET, I STILL LOVE BANGLADESH)
"From a wounded land and people, who won't stop dreaming."