Monday, February 07, 2005

Bad news from Bangladesh

+ As long as there are Bangla Bhais, Ahmadiyya book bans, mysterious arms shipments in Chittagong, and unsolved bomb blasts, the newspapers of the world will continue to report bad news about Bangladesh. The government is now on the warpath -- attacking the Times, sending intelligence officials to find out who spoke to reporters, threatening to shut down websites like Drishtipat.org, and blaming expatriate Bangladeshis. Previously, another Times reporter was in Dhaka and was tailed by Detective Branch the whole time she was there. Later she told a seminar in New York that not even in disputed Kashmir had she seen these censorship tactics. +

Bad news from Bangladesh
Naeem Mohaiemen

Once again, bad news about Bangladesh is in the foreign media. Eliza Griswold's New York Times report "Bangladesh: The Next Islamist Revolution?" has Dhaka's chattering classes up in arms. To be fair to the Times, there was a positive story about Bangladesh a month back. "Surviving to Export Another Day" was an article about how Bangladesh was coping well with the end of MFA quotas in garments export. That glowing article (accompanied by photos of working women, none wearing hijab) came out in the weekday Business Section, which actually has a higher readership than the weekend magazine where Griswold's article came out. But because of the government's furious reaction, the negative "Islamist Revolution" story will get far more publicity.

What about Bangladeshi expatriates? Shouldn't they play some role in publicizing good news about Bangladesh? This is a fair argument and one I faced repeatedly last year. Through most of 2004, I was in Bangladesh, first working on my film Muslims or Heretics? and then screening it at various venues. The film is a documentary on persecution of Ahmadiyya Muslims, and ended with an appeal to withdraw the government ban on Ahmadiyya books. In the course of the year, the film was screened at British Council, Russian Cultural Center, BRAC Center, Goethe Center, Chittagong Press Club, Prabarthana, and many villages in Bangladesh.

One of the people I met during the screenings was musician Maqsud, who famously said, "Ami BNP ba AL er dalal na, Ami Bangladesh'er dalal. (I'm not a stooge for either BNP or AL, I'm a stooge for Bangladesh)." At my film screening, his first question was, "I don't understand you expatriates. Isn't there anything good in Bangladesh for you to make films about?" Maqsud's question gave me pause. Later we had a long discussion during an interview for his website. My response at that time is relevant again in the current context.

Expatriates would love to publicize good news about Bangladesh. Good news about Bangladesh also helps us -- whether in business, socially, or on an emotional level. The problem is that our governments (both AL and BNP) create a constant flow of bad news.

One personal anecdote will illustrate the point. About a year back, I met Linda Duchin of New Yorker Films. "Oh, you're from Bangladesh!" she said, "You know, we have the most wonderful film about your capital!" What she referred to as "your capital" was the Sangsad Bhaban, and the film in question was Nathaniel Kahn's documentary about Louis Kahn, My Architect. According to Linda, the film was getting a lot of buzz and an Oscar nomination was certain.

A few days later, I was walking in Soho, and was struck by a familiar image in unexpected surroundings. Among the posters for Prada, Apple iPod and Jay-Z, was the familiar Sangsad Bhaban, with a skinny Bangali kid staring up at it. My Architect had just been released in New York's art-house theaters, and the posters were everywhere. I was euphoric, excited and above all, proud. By then I had seen the film and was convinced that, finally, this film would show something positive about Bangladesh. People started approaching me at parties to ask, "Have you seen My Architect?" Not floods, cyclones, fundamentalism, or grinding poverty -- finally a positive story! I talked to Linda about the possibility of inviting Nathaniel to come to Dhaka to screen the film. Other opportunities popped up at the same time. The Metropolitan Museum of Art was building a "Timeline of Art History." I pushed for inclusion of Shishir Bhattacharya and they accepted. George Harrison's estate was belatedly talking about reissuing Concert for Bangladesh. For a moment, expatriate Bengalis seemed able to leverage diaspora connections to promote Bangladesh's image.

With visions of a glorious screening of My Architect (maybe inside the Sangsad Bhaban?), I headed to India to complete a film project. We were filming Rumble In Mumbai a documentary about globalization for Free Speech TV. Halfway through the Mumbai shoot, I talked to my producer: "Look, we can't just be interviewing Indians. We need some Bangladeshis. Farhad Mazhar is very prominent in this movement, I'm going to Dhaka to interview him." I also thought I would use this opportunity to set up a screening of My Architect -- perhaps the government could be convinced to "officially" invite him.

I arrived in Dhaka and interviewed Mazhar, and then began research into a screening inside the Parliament building. Suddenly, bad news intruded and pushed my plans aside. To everyone's surprise, the government announced a ban on Ahmadiyya books in response to street protests by radical Islamists. Civil society was thrown into uproar, Jamaat e Islami and its allies openly rejoiced and an emboldened Khatme Nabuwot began attacking Ahmadiyya mosques. I had ties to the community (one of my St. Joseph classmates was Ahmadiyya) and was immediately drawn into the issue. Human rights has always been my first priority, so I had no choice but to start shooting interviews -- with the intention of making a short film. Propelled by events and a sense of looming crisis, I finished the film quickly. In the process, I saw that inside this crisis lay larger issues of religion and state. What sort of country would we have? One where religion was a private matter, or one where the government interfered in religious beliefs?

What about screening My Architect and spreading good news about Bangladesh? All those positive, idealistic projects fell by the wayside -- a victim of the cloud of bad news that the government had created with the book ban. My final words to Maqsud were, "Look we expatriates are the first to shout about good news from Bangladesh. But the problem is, there is too much bad news coming out, and too many things to be fixed, so we never get a chance to talk about the good news." Talking to a government employee at the BRAC screening, I added, "The Ahmadiya issue can be solved in one day. All the government has to do is withdraw the book ban. If my film becomes useless tomorrow because the ban has been removed, I'll happily go back to my original project about My Architect."

I said similar things at all my film screenings last year. At that time I felt optimistic that the government would do the sensible thing. But a year later, the government has taken very few positive steps. Although police were sent to protect the Dhaka Ahmadiyya Mosque, the government ban on books is still in place. Only the lawsuit filed with the High Court has temporarily blocked the ban.

As long as there are Bangla Bhais, Ahmadiyya book bans, mysterious arms shipments in Chittagong, and unsolved bomb blasts, the newspapers of the world will continue to report bad news about Bangladesh. The government is now on the warpath -- attacking the Times, sending intelligence officials to find out who spoke to reporters, threatening to shut down websites like Drishtipat.org, and blaming expatriate Bangladeshis. Previously, another Times reporter was in Dhaka and was tailed by Detective Branch the whole time she was there. Later she told a seminar in New York that not even in disputed Kashmir had she seen these censorship tactics. When Monica Ali's Brick Lane was the top seller in England, the Bangladesh Embassy only saw "journalist" on her visa application and refused her entry -- creating another media storm. The more the government tries to crush journalists, the more the world pays attention. Because of all this muzzling of press, Committee to Protect Journalists called Bangladesh the "most dangerous place for journalists." Instead of wasting resources trying to squash reports about Bangladesh, why not try to solve the problems these reporters have discovered?

Don't waste time looking for "conspiracies." Start creating some good news -- expatriates will be the first to publicize it. It's that simple.

Naeem Mohaiemen's new project is Disappeared in America, a film about detention of American Muslim men after 9/11, which premieres at Queens Museum of Art on February 27, 2005.