Monday, February 26, 2007

Bangladeshi Food

Another cultural information to offer some insight into what the average Bangladeshi meal consists of. Few things can get between a Bangladeshi and his food – the multiple breakfasts of the Hobbits have nothing on hungry Bengalis that can put away kilograms of rice a day. This outline is for the traditional meal, not the one that half of Bangladeshis have, that being rice twice a day with a bit of fish or veg if they are lucky. The poverty is such that rice is the sole foodstuff for most people.

Breakfast will be a little curried papaya and potato, served up with chapatis (a flatbread), bananas, and an omelette cooked with lots of katcha morich (green chillies). Cha (tea) is a necessary accompaniment, usually incredibly sweet.

Breakfast is taken at sometime between 8 or 9, and almost always exclusively cooked by female household members. Some people I’ve met have genuinely said that they have not had breakfast because their sister did not get up in time: the ability to stick some bread in a toaster is seemingly beyond them.

At about 11, it is tradition to eat again, taking sweet cha (brewed with cinnamon, cloves, milk and bay leaves) with a shingara (a pastry stuffed with potato, chickpeas, peanuts and lentils) and a samosa. In the small restaurants and shacks, piles of shingaras and samosas can be seen growing each morning. They are usually gone by midday.

Lunch is a liberally timed affair. At work I’ve sometimes managed to get them to eat it at 12.30; occasionally it has been as late as 4.30! That day I was pretty furious, and pretty hungry. A huge bowl of rice will appear, and people will fill their plates with the same amount that before I came to Bangladesh I would have served to four people. On top of this is piled a vegetable curry, or a meat/fish dish. It’s all mashed in together with the hand and then scooped up and stuff down the throat. Once the plate is empty, it starts again with more rice and a dahl, a watery soup of lentils and onions and chillies. On the side is usually a plate of lemon and cucumber slices and green chillies. Most Bengalis will eat these chillies raw. I have been training myself to eat them and can now eat a small one or half a big one before it gets too unbearable. Behind the heat there is an incredible flavour: it’s worth trying.

Lunch will sometimes include a very solid mashed potato, a tomato chutney, fish balls, aubergine balls, tomato, coriander and chilli salad or an egg dish.

In the afternoon the fast food places start again and people will eat dahlpuri, a pastry style savoury snack stuffed with lentils or potato, or some onion bahjis, or chanachur, and addictive Bombay Mix style snack.

Dinner can be between 8 and 11, and is either a repeat of lunch, or will be a kebab. Chicken or beef is well cooked over open coals and eaten with a riata (onion, cucumber and yoghurt) and ruti (naan bread). The local kebab place here does a huge chicken kebab, garlic nan and a coke for 110 Taka (about a £1), and is brilliant. I try to go once a week.


I’ve mentioned the RAB briefly before, but these guys really deserve further elaboration. They are only three years old, but already have notched up an impressive 1000 or so extrajudicial killings plus innumerable torturing and beatings. Not only that, they have a penchant for smuggling, corruption and general poor behaviour not befitting their status as Bangladesh’s elite policing force. However, they are immensely cool.

The Rapid Action Battalion was originally to be named the Rapid Action Team, a sort of superhero style naming of a police force (‘who you gonna call’…etc). Wisely they decided that calling out the RAT would not generate the same level of respect and fear, and opted for the more military sounding name. The RAB has a lot of attractions for its members: they get to participate in the best policing events (no directing traffic for them), they get better pay, they get respect and fearful looks from the public, and they get almost blanket judicial impunity.

However, without a doubt, their biggest perk is their uniform. The RAB are the coolest paramilitary/policing unit in the world. Firstly, there are the standard issue black army boots, often highly polished. Tucked into these are black combat trousers, kept up with a utility belt and buckle of which Batman would be proud. Above this is a black shirt, with a RAB silver badge and red lapel badges: some also wear a waistcoat with ‘RAB’ in bright yellow on the back. Black mittens with the fingers cut of is pretty standard, especially in winter, as is an enormous gun (or two) slung nonchalantly across the shoulder or aimed lazily at a passer by.

So far, pretty normal for a militarised police force. But what makes the RAB different is their head gear. They must wear black bandannas, of the sort with a flap hanging down the back of the head and over the neck. It looks like a bunch of rappers coming out Harlem. They also almost universally wear wrap-around sunglasses (black, or course). In all, they look like some bizarre cross between Italian police men, a 1980s US rap group and Bengalis. They never cease to be entertaining (unless they are ‘crossfiring’ you – a euphemism for killing you and getting away with it), and are rarely not posing. My local RAB hang about the corner of the field, sitting on 1970s style white motorbikes, at all times of the day (I think even when they are off duty). Others cruise (and they really do) about the city on bikes or in pick-ups, generally loving the fact that they are RAB.

If you ever have trouble, you just need to find a RAB and you know that the perpetrator will get crossfired if you need or desire it. I was sorely tempted when 12 eight-year-old street kids mugged me last weekend. A friend – Kathy – had secured some boursin for me from her visiting boyfriend and so I went to the only bakery I know that makes baguettes and spent a whole 40 Taka on one. This makes it a very expensive piece of bread. I had previously been pestered by some kids, and managed to strike a deal that I would take a photo of them in exchange for them buggering off and pursuing a bedeshi who actually had money. Yet a few minutes later, this time laden down with this prized baguette, they were back, surrounded me and grabbed my arms and were generally being annoying, until one little hand slipped into the bag and broke of most of the baguette and disappeared with shrieks of glee down the road, pursued by former comrades and now would be usurpers of the bread.

It is at times like this – when you feel violated, vulnerable and afraid of going out at night carrying expensive bread – that a quick call to the RAB, a whispered request and a promise of new sunglasses beckons satisfying revenge. I can hear the crossfire now…

I should point out that in seriousness, the problems the street kids face are multiple and terrible, and that the reality is that a little bread is the least we can do. The major problem is twofold. Firstly, as volunteers it is genuinely difficult to spare money from our allowance to make such gestures. If some people do this, all bedeshis become a target, which could endanger some people (unlikely, but possible). Secondly, most of the kids that are begging are being run by some local strongman (a real life Fagin – Dickens would have relished Dhaka), and money given goes to these people, not the children that collect it. The British High Commission makes contributions to charities working with street children, and some VSO partners are also involved in this. This is the better way to address the issue: ultimately if kids do not generate donations they would not be needed and could get to school instead (which in Bangladesh is more than a feasible alternative, at least up to the age of 11).

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Bangladesh's Chief Rugby Advisor

I managed to acquire a new role yesterday as the chief coach, adviser and pundit to the nascent Bangladesh Rugby Association. A couple of days ago they advertised in a newspaper that the inaugural matches were being launched. Despite five months here I still naively thought that these would be properly organised teams playing real rugby. How wrong I was.

I turned up at the venue to see the Paltan maiden, a bit of dirt occasionally interrupted with grass, and decorated with glass, litter and stray dogs. However, someone had diligently marked out white lines and flags, with rickety posts in place and what must be the only four post protectors on the subcontinent.

I managed to find some of the organisers, one of whom kept asking me of the rules (and later turned out to be the referee!), and after spending 15 minutes stressing that ‘no I was not a professional player and I had not played at the world cup’ to numerous attendees, I saw the teams arrive. To a man they were all five foot six, with a frame more associated with a half-starved jockey than a rugby player. The four teams all had kit however, so there is a little bit of money around this.

The matches started and were incredibly funny. Firstly, the referee blew up for anything resembling a tackle, immediately awarding a penalty. Sometimes scrums would take place, usually for the cameras, with no real reason and certainly not for knock-ons which seem to be within the rules in Bangladesh. Whilst this was all going on I was continuously questioned by different journalists – why are you here, what do you think of the ground, what is the best type of pitch to play on, are these players good, which world cup did you play in – and so on. One of them was asking about the Haka, saying he had seen half of it but got too scared and turned the TV off! Bengalis are a sensitive lot.

I then turned from audience to TV pundit, and was asked first by Channel One (the main private channel) what I though of the game, and the possibilities of rugby in Bangladesh. I then worked my way down the touchline offering Austin Healey-style soundbites to all the crews. I know some people saw my interview on Channel One last night. This morning’s Bangla daily has a quote with the story, saying ‘a non-professional rugby player from England’ and that I think ‘clay or grass that is at one inch high is the best surface’. I am pretty certain that I said clay was not ideal and that I had no idea what length the best grass should be.

However, I may now have secured a coaching role as the referee wants help to know the rules, and the teams all need a lot of work. They seemed quite keen to have this so I will see if I can work out a way of doing it. But unfortunately there will still not be much chance of a game in the near future.

Weddings, Spring and Yunus' Brother

The last couple of weeks have offered some new insights into the strange social worlds of Bangladesh. I’ve been to a Hindu wedding, I’ve had dinner with Professor Yunus’s brother and seen a wet spring festival. On top of all that, I had to chase a stalker away from VSO.

To start with Yunus: last Thursday I went to dinner at the penthouse, very gay pad of Hero, another volunteer’s NGO’s chairman. This was the same guy that tried to recruit me for the Banglalink mobile phone company TV advert (I was too young for the role). He lives in an incredibly smart apartment, with cushions all over the floor, and flowers and art and uplighters, right in the middle of wealthy central Dhaka. His mother and sisters crowd into the rest of the flat that is not his ‘pad’. A few famous Bangladeshi singers, actors and dancers were there, as well as some people from Britain over to visit. We were all chatting, or looking stunned at a room I had only seen in a Dulux paint catalogue before now, when the next guest arrived.

Bangladesh is a thankfully a place where two types of people get idolised and admired. The first are cricket players, Brazilian footballers and Beckham, and the second are intellectuals. Hence Professor Md. Yunus – 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Winner – has been consistently lauded in Bangladesh since October, when he received this award. He has his own trademarks: slightly long grey hair, a wide, toothy grin and long colourful; waistcoats worn over white Punjabis. Having met the collection of people at this party, this final guest arrived, decked out in the same garb and wearing the same ridiculous smile. Though I would not normally be particularly impressed by ‘celebrity’, it was a little bit a of shock, and it took a moment before someone pointed out this was Yunus’ brother. This was after someone had whispered ‘bugger me, its Yunus’, a little loudly.

The brother is clearly not Nobel potential, spending a long part of the evening watching television. It was like one of those people hired to be at a party as a look-a-like, and a disappointing one at that.

The wedding took place a couple of days earlier, being that of Pullak’s sister. Pullak was one of our language teachers, and also one Bangladesh’s most depressed men. He often would moan about his low wage and how little money he had, which made the lavish 3 lakhs (300,000 Taka or 2,500 pounds) spent on this event seem very out of character. The wedding was a Hindu one, held in a community centre in some subcentre of Dhaka. Only myself and Mikey (a Canadian volunteer) went along, though all VSO people had been invited. This also proved to be a bizarre experience.

Firstly, the hall was sparsely decorated, with lots of tables set out for dinner and two pagoda style seats as the only ornaments besides intrusive fluorescent lighting. Before eating, the groom arrived, looking about as miserable as you possible could on your wedding day. It is custom for Hindus to be solemn on the day, but this was taking it to Shakespearean levels of misery: he scowled his way into the hall and slumped onto the pagoda before sitting there like some sulking teenager as people took pictures and videos. Nothing, however, gets between a Bengali and his/her stomach, and with the appearance of the first plate of food the groom was abandoned to his solemnity as people dashed to spaces on the tables.

Over three sittings, people stuffed as much fried hilsha fish, chicken tandori, goat curry and pilau rice down their throats as possible, before moving on to the sweet orange rice and sweetmeat. And then they left: within ten minutes of each sitting finishing, most had left. For some, the bride had not even arrived! Even when it is a wedding, they come, eat, and go.

The bride did eventually arrive and went upstairs to the mezzanine floor where the second pagoda was sitting, and sat down, at which point some older women began a sort of wailing that sounded similar to a Sioux Indian war cry, but here was to help prepare the bride for the marriage. She also looked pretty miserable, but we were told that they had not met before and so I could sympathise a little. The dowry gifts offered were mainly toiletries and tissue, so if she was hoping for an Ipod she would have been disappointed.

Anyway, it now being 11.15 and the ceremony still not materialising, we excused ourselves from the remaining 40 or so guests (of about 250 who originally arrived). The ceremony apparently took place at about 12.30: with probably three guests left.

Finally, last Tuesday was the first day of spring, at which normally conservative Muslims throw their reservations out the window and done bright orange or yellow saris, marigold flowers and Punjabis and welcome the Hindu god of love and spring. It being spring it also brought the first rains of the year, finally opening up a blue sky other months of dusty, pollution smothered grey. It is a welcome change.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Bangladesh comes together, the flat falls apart

It seems that the state of emergency is going to be in place for some time, possible up to a year, and maybe even beyond that. As someone said to me a couple of days ago: ‘the people are not used to obeying the law, but now they must and it takes getting used to’. Whether that is suitable justification for maintaining the army-backed administration or not is a highly debatable subject amongst Dhakians at the moment.

The impact is clearly noticeable, however. I have had yet another experience with the Army, once more not of my own doing. It is almost as though they are following me about. I was at the Stadium Market yesterday with some of my colleagues, trying to find disposable cameras for a project. Underneath Bangabhaban National Stadium are crowded hundreds of small shops and stalls selling anything from batteries to mobile phones, MP3 players to impressively large fridges. Why the national stadium is also the biggest electronics market in the country is not explained, but on a Bangladeshi scale this is not even that odd, and certainly not surprising.

The search for cameras proved fruitless, so we settled for a 500 Taka point and shoot. As we were buying it a huge cry went up from somewhere, and suddenly half the store owners and workers were throwing goods into boxes and slamming down shutters. The guy we were buying from snatched the 500 Taka as his 7 year old staff were pulling shutters, and what had been a typically sedate day suddenly burst into panic. Within seconds the shop was shut and padlocked and the owners had melted into the crowd. The only sound was the crashing of steel doors and the shouting of owners at their boys. The sirens competing with the prayer call for soundspace hinted at what the fuss was about: these usurers (at least of bedeshis) had not been struck by a sudden devout moment, but rather did not want the Army to investigate whether they had any smuggled goods. I think the Army, however, would have an easier job looking for genuine products. It would certainly be quicker.

Not every business is on the list, and so we went into one that was still open to buy film and batteries. It was here that, having handed over a 500 Taka note that the Army turned up. Shopkeepers never have change for a 500 Taka and so send off one of their boys to find change from a neighbour. So I watched my 500 Taka (or rather, VSO’s 500 Taka) disappear and two Army soldiers arrive in its place. Dressed in full kit – helmets, camouflage, rifles – and began poking around the shop, clearing everyone out. The shouting and crashing coming from other parts of bowels of the stadium suggested that those shops not lucky enough to be frequented by a bedeshi at the moment of the Army’s arrival were getting a kicking, mostly of their stock but often to themselves. I was left in the shop, trapped between two (small, but armed) soldiers and all the stock that they wanted to pull off the shelves and ‘investigate’. But I could not leave as I was waiting for my 380 Taka change to arrive. It was rather awkward, having explained why I was not leaving, especially as the boy took ages. Yet because this was for work I needed a receipt, and maintained the farce by asking for one, and the soldiers and I watched the owner writing out the voucher as though this was a totally normal event on a normal day. Like those scenes in Westerns when the fighting in a saloon stops for a moment, I am sure that as I turned the corner, normal practice resumed and the rest of the voucher book ended smashed on the floor along with the other stock.

The law is being enforced on building regulations as well, and thousands of small shacks and shanty houses across the country are being bulldozed. As usual, it is the poor that get affected by this, not the rich. A hut selling cha (tea) is a nuisance for middle class professionals, but it is a lifeblood for the operator. More formal establishments are hit, however. The restaurant that sells what must be the best shinghara and samosa in Dhaka has been closed, the roof ripped off and all the tables, pots and staff removed. The site only had permission for residential, not a café, but until now this was not enforced.

On one hand this sort of action is very good, because the lack of governance and accountability in Bangladesh is startling (the title of most corrupt country in the world since records began does not do it justice, nor does losing the title to Chad this year reflect an improvement: its just that Chad has got much, much worse). The government does need to start to take action to enforce regulations and accountability. However, the vast majority of infringements are made by the urban poor. It is they that squat on government land, and who set up stalls in the street. At the zoo, workers have established their own squat in the grounds. Their injustice is pretty stark: the animals’ conditions are much better than their keepers’. The answer has to be to legitimise illegal squats, accept the reality of the urban poor, and serve them .Of course, with this comes responsibilities, like meeting electricity and water connections to which legal buildings are entitled. And where will the money come from to pay for 6 million water connections in Dhaka? Certainly not from the pockets of the richest who are the real infringers of the law.

Hope has been raised though as 15 former ministers were arrested a few days ago, into investigations of their extreme wealth, and the best friend of the immediate past Prime Minister’s son is on the run. He is worth $85 million, allegedly embezzled. From nothing to this wealth in 5 weeks and his flight to India suggests that the allegations are pretty strong.

Whilst the army-backed government is starting to sort out Bangladesh, for good or for bad, our flat is falling apart. Yesterday the entire light fitting in the kitchen crashed to the floor, leaving live wires floating above our heads and a completely dark kitchen. Also, the cockroaches are back, with at least 15 dead in the last day or two. One was about four inches long, absolutely huge. Our fridge is still has its fever, going from glacial ice sheet to tropical sea but failing to just be a cold fridge and freezer. I still have not decided if I prefer frozen tomatoes or soggy bread.

Saturday, February 03, 2007


After some lapses in interest following the State of Emergency declaration last month, Bangladesh got back to its religiously zealous best on Tuesday with the occasion of the Ashura festival. This was a national holiday so I went up to Mohammadpur to take a look.

Ashura is the 10th morum – a ten day period of morning and reflection - and seemingly the most eventful day in Islamic history. It is the day on which Adam was forgiven for letting Eve get out of control, the day that Nuho (Noah) landed his ark, the day
that Yunus (Jonah) got out of the whale, the day that Yusuf (Joseph) had his accusations in Egypt rescinded and also significant days for Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus). It happens to be the day that the world was created, and also the day on which it will be destroyed.

For the Shia (a minority in Bangladesh), it is also the day that commemorates the death of Iman Hossain. He was killed at Kaballa (now in Iraq) in battle by Shema, a soldier of Yazid’s army. Yazid had taken power to be the Caliph corruptly, and Hossain had gone to war to challenge this. So all in all its an important day.

In Mohammadpur there is an area known as Geneva Camp. This a slum in which the Bihari live. The Bihari are an ethnic group from Pakistan who speak Urdu, not Bengali, and are Shia Muslims. They are technically ‘stranded Pakistanis’, a legacy of the 1971 split. They do not have any state, as they are not considered Bangladeshi and Pakistan will
not take them in. They exist a non-existent state, excluded from the meagre offerings that the Bangladeshi government does give to its poorer citizens, and religiously, ethnically and linguistically marginalised. Geneva Camp is a pitiful place, a tiny world of dark streets and darker houses. It has all the elements of some Dickensian nightmare, hiding within its walls the smell and sight of human misery, and the sorts of disabilities and afflictions not seen in Europe in a hundred years.

But on the day of Ashura, they can take to the streets waving Pakistani and Turkish flags, drumming fast beats and carrying small shrines. Iman Hossain was killed by a sword, so to feel the pain some of the more committed attendees flail themselves with knives attached to the end of a chain. Others breathe fire into the air, and many tie green or red bandanas to their heads emblazoned with verses from the Qu’ran. The whole spectacle is really colourful, noisy and messy: children are given scented water to through about, and seemed mainly to through it at us, leaving us pretty wet. Horses are decorated to look like warrior steeds, whilst other people carry huge feathered contraptions with knives sticking out that they make spin r
ound in the middle of the crowd. The game is duck or get stabbed. Not realising there were real knives on it, someone encouraged by to duck as it came spinning out of control towards where I was standing.

The whole festival went on all day, but a few hours in the streets is more than enough and so we wandered away via the Zia monument, where water and money better spent elsewhere was being wasted on a fountain light show. But it is as close to peace and quiet that can be found in Dhaka.

The next evening (Wednesday) I went along to a cultural event being run by another volunteer’s NGO. This organisation represents Males who have Sex with Males (MSM) – which is reported to be 70% of the male population – and the dances w
ere aimed to express the problems they face, including drug culture, in society. This is not just homosexuals, and many who engage in such activity would be horrified if they were thought to be that. It is partly related to sexual repression of Bangladeshi society and the simple unavailability of women, or so the NGO line goes.

The dancing itself was incredible, especially the professionals who were really very good, and mixed traditional tampla dances with more modern sounds in colourful costumes. It certainly made a real change to see something very different here, even if it seems that any attempt to make not doing drugs look cool fails anywhere in the world: I’m not sure a man dressed in a pink and yellow sari that dances about the problems he has after injecting heroin will make kids stop taking it. But perhaps I would be wrong.

This week I’ll be starting a rickshaw advocacy project, which should hopefully work well and will further my NGO’s aims, and then I’ll be running a session on how to write a CV, particularly focusing on what should not be on them. So work could pick up a bit now.