Chapter 36 – My Appearance on Bangladeshi Television
When I went to Bangladesh back in February of 2013, it hadn’t exactly been the best time to visit. Well, lemme clarify that a little – if what you’re looking for is a traditional American style vacation to a foreign country where you’re in some pampered beachside resort and your idea of interaction with the local population is telling the waiter he’d put too much salt on the rim of the glass housing your margarita, then it’s never a good time for you to visit Bangladesh. I personally went to the tract of land sandwiched between India and Burma seeking chaos. I wanted to experience humanity in its rawest form. I went to Bangladesh looking for a reality drastically different than the phony-ass plastic one I’d known all these years in America. And what I ended up getting turned out to be more than I’d bargained for.
My plane touched down at Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka at a peak of civil unrest. Around the country, people had been shooting each other, tossing Molotov cocktails at the police and setting vehicles ablaze in the middle of the street over war crimes committed by members of the Jamaat-e-Islami Pakistan faction that’d been opposed to Bangladeshi independence when they decided to break away from the mother country back in 1971. The charges brought against these men whose atrocities had sat on the back burner over the past forty years were those of genocide, rape, abduction, confinement, religious persecution, abatement and several others.
Despite the violence that’d broken out in some areas, in the capital city the movement to bring these men to justice came to a relatively peaceful head in a neighborhood known as Shahbag, drawing crowds as large as a hundred-thousand. The peculiar thing about the Shahbag protests had been how the majority of those occupying the area and demanding death penalties to men who are now nothing but frail old geezers were not even close to having been born when all this shit went down.
One afternoon, I and a Canadian guy I’d met at the hostel decided to head over to Shahbag to see what all the fuss was about. After taking a ride down in an auto rickshaw, we found the perimeter of the protests to be heavily guarded by police officers in riot gear. Beyond them, the streets had been flooded with college students and teenagers all clapping in unison.
“Joy Bangla!” they’d yell over and over while cheering wildly.
“Joy Bangla,” which means “may Bangladesh be victorious,” had been the slogan shouted by the liberation army when fighting the Pakistanis back in 1971.
Although my buddy had been from Calgary, he too was a brown guy and blended right in. His name was Nabeel and he was a Muslim whose family roots reached back to northern India. I, on the other hand, seemed as blatantly out of place at the Shahbag protests as a turd floating around in a swimming pool. Because of this, many college students who probably hadn’t had too much exposure to white guys in their day flocked to me to practice their English and to discuss the event.
I asked pretty much everyone I encountered why they thought that, after all these years, the Jamaat-e-Islami war criminals should be brought to justice now. And they unilaterally replied, “Because they must pay for what they’ve done to my country. Over a million people were killed and over a hundred thousand raped. To make sure it never happens again, we must hang them all.”
“I get it. That war sounds like it was awful. But you weren’t even born yet. And after all these years, why do you care so much right now – at this very moment – that these men get hanged? Like, if you knew who these guys were all along and didn’t bother to put them on trial beforehand, are you sure this is really about justice right now? Um, what am I trying to say here…are you sure these five or six guys or whatever – guilty as they may be – are not being represented by the current government as the figureheads of a common enemy to unify Bangladeshi youth in their favor?”
“Because sir,” my concerns were ignored, “everybody knows what these men did to Bangladesh and they must be hanged.”
In return, they often asked me for my opinion on the movement and, although I had my suspicions of what was going on around me, I just agreed with whatever they said as to avoid having their clearly present anger towards the Pakistanis displaced upon me. This strategy proved to be effective on the individual level as well as when the local media channels got wind there was a white boy in the crowd and started sticking microphones, tape recorders and television cameras in my face to hear what I had to say on the subject.
“And do you think it is right we should hang the Jamaat-e-Islami war criminals of 1971?” a reporter from BanglaVision had asked of me.
I looked at the crowd of people circled around, awaiting my response. In the very same way that Mel Gibson had in the movie Braveheart before the big fight, I stuck my fist in the air and yelled the most appropriate battle cry I could think of.
The crowd went ape-shit and I took the opportunity to step away from all the cameras before they could ask me any follow-up questions and find out how big of a fraud I was and add me to their list of people they wanted to hang.
Some photos from the Shabagh Protests…