Did you get confirmation of the Bangkok-Dhaka flight? If so, forward the info to me. This portion of your trip still makes me nervous. Mom
Mother’s language arrives only when I can connect to a wireless local area network. For a few weeks, Phnom Penh is my local area. Then the local area pivots. To Kampot, to Battambang, to Bangkok I go, mother’s language apprehending me always. Before my flight to Dhaka, I forward my mother the details:
FLIGHT BG 0089
SEAT NO. 12C
DATE 21 JAN
BOARDING TIME 17:40
It is exactly one month before Ekushey February, or International Mother Language Day. While it is a worldwide observance meant to “promote the preservation and protection of all languages used by people of the world,” it stems directly from Bangladeshi history. On this day in 1952, student protestors at Dhaka University were slain as they rallied to promote Bangla to an official state language of the bygone East Pakistan.
In an email, my correspondent Dr. Fakrul Alam reminds me that my stay coincides with Bangladesh’s largest book fair, the month-long Ekushey Boi Mela. Also known as the Book Fair of Immortals of the 21st, the day is dedicated to those who were martyred by the Pakistan Army. I think of how, when flying to the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference each spring—to Chicago, to Boston, to Seattle—I am inevitably seated among other writers. We chat about our lives as writers, about our thoughts on genre, the projects we’re working on, the projects we’re not working on. We muster personal anecdotes about this year’s keynote speaker. At 600 miles per hour, we converge giddily on this conference devoted to the written word.
I wonder if anyone on my flight to Dhaka plans on attending Ekushey Boi Mela. I speak to the man beside me, a contractor from Eastern Europe. “I have directives to build another floor,” he says. He works for his brother-in-law who owns a garment factory. “I have attempted to build,” I had written in the first draft of my aesthetic statement (April 2013), “a narrative about Bangladesh that cannot be found elsewhere.” Two weeks after I submitted my MFA thesis to my mentors, the Savar building collapsed at Rana Plaza, killing 1,130 Bangladeshi garment workers. In Bangladesh, I have attempted to build where there is often collapse.
Green auto-rickshaws with black leather roofs are lined up on the airport’s curb. A driver selects me, clenching my wrist, escorting me to an open cage door. I utter my destination aloud, “Asiatic Society of Bangladesh?” Without affirming whether or not he knows the place, the door clangs shut. Only after he’s accelerated toward the dim megacity, he asks for a snack. “Do you have any chocolate?”
It takes an hour to find the guesthouse. We pass a city sign that forbids public demonstration. There are no words, just a megaphone with a line through it. The driver circles the Shaheed Minar (Martyr Monument) several times. It appears and reappears. Its columns are well-loitered. This is Shaheed Minar at its shabbiest, and it’s not too shabby. In one month, the columns and dais will receive their annual washing.
Bangladesh has an online newspaper you may want to check out: bdnews24.com
It talks of torching of vehicles--not sure if it was bus or train. Bomb threat on a politician's home. Closing of a university because of violence. Please check with… the professor [about] some of these issues in order to ensure your safety.
The Islamic meetings have started (Jan 9-11) and (Jan 16-18). Sounds like this is a religious/congregational meeting, but the number of people is just scary. It is called the Bishwa Ijtema, World or Global Islamic Congregational Meeting.
On my first night, I listen to explosions from my bed. Molotov cocktails screech and burst, landing indiscriminately in vacant bus windows. Elsewhere, groups of protestors lug rubble onto train tracks with hopes of future derailment. Indeed, across the country, men have taken it upon themselves to do the bidding of the opposition leader of the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), Khaleda Zia, imposing a nationwide transportation blockade by firebombing buses, lorries, and boats. Zia is confined to her office with security forces forming a cordon at all exits, insisting that she reverse the hartal.
As far as I can tell, I am the only visiting scholar staying at the Asiatic Society of Bangladesh. In the bathroom, I fill a mint-green bucket full of cold water and drench myself bowl by bowl. I wash and shiver, noticing that a few floors beneath me a group of university students is playing badminton on a dirt court. The rhythm of their play is comforting. I lean my elbows against the marble edge of the iron-barred windows and air-dry. I watch them for at least an hour, listening to the taut plink of the rackets, listening to their taunting and tallying, to alternating hilarity and exasperation as bombs detonate nearby. One of them shouts at the bombers in Bangla. His response is so automated that it must be idiomatic. He cracks his friends up.
I watch as the teams reconstitute, altering the group's chemistry and revealing the most talented player. He is tall and quiet, his name repeatedly called out: Sahib! Sahib! Sahib! Sahib! I am entirely dry and entirely nude when I hear the security guard ascending the stairs. Wrapping the towel around my waist, I feel like I've been a reverse voyeur. I thank the guard for checking in on me and assure him everything is satisfactory, that I’ll be going to bed shortly. Before visiting with Dr. Fakrul Alam, I reread his last email to me.
As for the protests, I have encountered political unrest of one kind [or] the other for most of my life, and feel that you will have to factor in the unpredictable in any visit to our part of the world, although nothing can affect you adversely for long if you are determined to come! And till now, no foreigner has been attacked in our country's long history of unrest!
I arrive at his apartment on campus, drink tea and eat rice desserts. His wife tells me to tell him he should retire and write a novel of his own, but he deflects. “You should send an excerpt for us to publish in Six Seasons Review.” He leaves the room and returns with a literary journal, Bangladesh’s only one in the English language. “I will send something,” I promise. Before leaving, Dr. Alam draws directions to the nearby (on-campus) grave of Kazi Nazrul Islam, the national poet of Bangladesh.
There are flowers on Nazrul’s grave. I stand alone with the “Rebel Poet.” I am perpendicular to him. _|
I can’t say why, but for those first moments, I suspect his grave is empty. I read to him to prove he is there. Opening the only text I have with me (Six Seasons Review, Volume 1, Issue 2), I read Seema Amin’s line over and over: “Everyone on earth blew the whistle / Everyone on earth blew the whistle / Everyone on earth blew the whistle / Everyone on earth blew the whistle.” When traveling alone, it is a guilty pleasure to inflict my out-loud voice on private pockets of public. Near the end of the issue, I encounter an enigmatic poem by Sudeep Sen that reads: “I am hungry… / for a story essaying endlessly—words.”
Of all the questions asked during my thesis defense, Manuel Muñoz’s was most difficult. “Why fiction?” I realized immediately how I had taken genre for granted. Even as I fabricated the answer, I knew that this was my novel’s biggest flaw: it was not yet an essay.
I know I have found Dhaka University's Jagannath Hall because of the preponderance of bindis and monastic robes. A residentially segregated campus, Jagannath Hall houses all minority (non-Muslim) students. Three Hindu students sit on a concrete wall and gesture for me to join them. Vivek, who has just purchased a guitar, asks if I’ll teach him to play something. I’m not sure how he knows I play guitar. I take hold of his index finger and slide it along the fret board while I pluck the ‘E’ string for him. In no time, he’s playing The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army” on his own. I ask if the students if they intend to go to the book fair next week.
Rather than RSVP for himself, one student discusses the possibility that Bangladeshi-American essayist, Avijit Roy, will be in attendance. Roy’s name doesn’t sound familiar to me, but when the student says Mukto-Mono—the name of the secular blog Roy founded in 2000—I become aware of the significance of the student’s comment. After the 2014 book fair, Roy faced death threats; now, this student is speculating about whether or not Roy will return in 2015.
Later that day, I take an auto-rickshaw to Gloria Jean’s Coffee in Gulshan Circle. It is the most reliable local area network I’ve been able to find in the city. I sit among NGO workers and Bangladeshi elite as I read through Roy’s posts on Mukto-Mono. A few months after my trip, the Center For Inquiry publishes an essay in which Roy discusses the Islamic fundamentalist backlash to his book, Biswasher Virus (The Virus of Faith) in an eponymous article:
As soon as the book was released, it rose to the top of the [Ekushey Boi Mela] fair’s best-seller list. At the same time, it hit the cranial nerve of Islamic fundamentalists. The death threats started flowing to my e-mail inbox on a regular basis. I suddenly found myself a target of militant Islamists and terrorists. A well-known extremist by the name of Farabi Shafiur Rahman openly issued death threats to me through his numerous Facebook statuses. In one widely circulated status, Rahman wrote, ‘Avijit Roy lives in America and so, it is not possible to kill him right now. But he will be murdered when he comes back.’
Roy is self-aware of his provocation. For example, he opens the essay with an epigraph from Salman Rushdie, which reads, “Religion, a medieval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms.” Roy explicitly draws upon Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene for metaphorical inspiration. He even goes so far as to compare lines of the Holy Qur’an to the parasite that hijacks a grasshopper’s brain (Spinochordodes tellinii), making it suicidal.
Roy recalls an incident in which the online bookseller, Rokomari.com, withdrew Biswasher Virus from its virtual shelf because the same extremist, Rahman, incited his “Islamist friends” to attack Rokomari's office. Roy defends his prose from this unwarranted commercial withdrawal by stating, “Most of my writings deal with modern science and philosophy and include proper references to journals, newspapers, and academic literature.” He echoes Rushdie’s diction by calling Rahman's influence on Rokomari “medieval.”
At this year’s AWP Conference in Los Angeles, I attended panel F243, “Who Reads Us?”. Deconstructing the panel's title, one panelist dubbed it an existential question, one which we (as writers) must ask ourselves from time to time. My colleague, Nicole Walker, claimed that she renamed her blog "Nikwalk" because she did not want to face professional punity for the original name, which featured the word "butt." "I feared my butt wasn't professional," Walker said. During the Q&A session, my friend Stacy asked the quartet of panelists if they feared they might ever “blog themselves out of an essay.” It was a compelling question, implying 1) how precious, how perishable experiences are to essayists and 2) that the essay has more capital (artistically and professionally) than a blog post.
The book fair sprawls across the grounds of Bangla Academy. With nearly 500 publishing houses in attendance, their stalls overstuffed with new releases and backlist stacks, not to mention the makeshift stages constructed for dialogues between important cultural critics and a placid corner memorializing Nazrul, Ekushey Boi Mela makes the AWP book fair feel comparatively sedate. Because of limited space in my backpack (already stuffed with still-unread books I’d purchased in Cambodia, plus the copy of Six Seasons Review), I limit myself to just one purchase. I stumble around the academy like I’m at the State Fair at the Cal Expo, unsure if I’ve already slalomed this aisle of vendors, or this one. I buy my book: Essays on Ekushey, the Language Movement, 1952. Hugging it to my chest, I yield to throngs of ecstatic readers who ripple taka notes in booksellers' faces. Mehul Kamdar, Avijit Roy’s associate at Mukto-Mono, has written that the biggest impediment to free thinking in Bangladesh is the “major problem of illiteracy which makes it easy for fundamentalists from outside the region to spread hatred and false propaganda. When people cannot read critical texts questioning this propaganda,” Kamdar writes, “they are more easily deluded.” While I know illiteracy persists in rural Bangladesh, I can’t help but think that Dhaka’s month-long love affair with literature is at least an urban antidote. Though it does seem problematic that an individual like Rahman can bully a bookseller like Rokomari into preventing the sale of certain critical texts.
Before leaving the country, I stalk the rectangular terminals of Zia International Airport, past small prayer rooms, a coffee stall with a massive decal of a Bengal Tiger, and an unmanned bookstore. I read the backs of the books written in English, including one well-stocked title written by a leading Muslim cleric. At this store, I purchase my last book abroad. Edited by Rifat Munim of The Daily Star, Bangladesh’s largest newspaper, Bangladesh in Wikileaks is a compendium of diplomatic cables articulating U.S. policy toward Bangladesh. The cables “generally expose the rife-strewn local political scene. And quite a good number of them lend valuable insights into our political realities,” Munim writes in the introduction. Here, the editor seems to welcome U.S. perceptions of Bangladesh. I read the “Classified” and “Secret” cables, each by each, nearly finishing by the time my flight lands for the layover in Abu Dhabi. Collected together, the cables start to essay. Following Henry Kissinger’s presumption of Bangladesh as a “basket case” (1971), the diplomats of the cables recycle certain political themes, weaving them throughout these files spanning 2004 to 2010. The tone trends toward paranoia with occasional inflections of condescension.
I return to California just before International Mother Language Day. Not long after, I awake to a text message from my mother who informs me (via a link to an article), on February 26th, freethinking essayist Avijit Roy was hacked to death by meat-cleaver-wielding Islamists at the Ekushey Boi Mela. His wife was hacked too, but survived. I feel an incredible weight of grief as I imagine the book fair attendees dispersing from the meditative Nazrul corner. It is five days after Ekushey February, two days before the end of Ekushey Boi Mela. What bothers me most is that the text message itself feels like a casual way for my mother to say, “I told you so.” I also sense she means, This could have been you.
A few days before Roy was slain, Mukto-Mona suddenly went offline in Bangladesh. The blog hackers and body hackers worked in concert to snuff the writer and his words, knowing them to be effectively coextensive.
I reimagine Stacy’s question—not for AWP, but for the makeshift stages of Ekushey Boi Mela. “Are you ever afraid that you might blog yourselves out of a life?” What if the answer to the question of "Who reads us?" is simply: the people who will murder you.
A few weeks after my trip to Bangladesh, Dr. Alam reminds me to send an excerpt of my novel for consideration for Six Seasons Review, and I oblige. On April 9th, the editor responds with two edits. The first is small. “And secondly," he continues, "the editorial board would like to change the spelling of the [novel’s title] to ‘Assalamu Alaykum.'"
I am not one to resist a hard-working volunteer editor, but this was not some small thing. This was about the title of the novel I had been working on for the past four years. I wrote back:
... As for [Asylum Alaykum] vs. [Assalamu Alaykum], the former spelling reflects the title of my novel. It's a lyric double entendre relating to my protagonist's experience with immigration. He arrives in America as a political asylee/climate refugee and is forced to grapple with his Muslim identity… due to American Islamophobia (which drives him mad).
I never hear back from the editor. Instead, an email from Dr. Alam.
An appeal--please agree to the Arabic spelling for the title. Keep the title for your novel but what we have to worry about in Bangladesh at this point of time is the militancy that can make any change in the Arabic look like an insult. Our publisher, I should add, does not want to get into trouble with fundamentalism. I hope you will understand and allow us this change, although I consider it unfortunate that we have to request you thus.
With all best wishes,
Nazrul once wrote in a quasi-chorus to a poem, “Don’t be afraid, O human soul!” In a third iteration of her question, I imagine Stacy asking, “Are you afraid it will never be sated: your hunger for a story that essays endlessly?” In a fourth, “Are you afraid, at all, of language?”