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that Yunus (Jonah) got out of the whale, the day that Yusuf (Joseph) had his accusations in Egypt rescinded and also significant days for Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus).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.


Tim said...

70% of Bangladeshi men have sex with other men? Are you sure about that? Sounds a little high to me, what's the source?


Mikey said...

Great post--very informative and nice pictures too. I can't say I believe those statistics either.

And what do we mean by sex, exactly, too?

Layad said...

Hi. I just came back from a visit to Bangladesh and we were able to witness some events of the Ashura Festival. I was looking for more infos about it and I found your blog.

Your blog has all the info I wanted so I hope you don't mind that I linked you in mine.

Thanks! More power.

Maria said...

They remain on their normal life and continue what they believe.Be strong people of bangladesh.

maria[big suit]