Vol. 5 Num 854 Thu. October 19, 2006  

Young Turks on the dark side of the moon

"I'm not actually from India, you know," said Samad.
Poppy Burt-Jones looked surprised and disappointed. "You're not?"
"No. I'm from Bangladesh."
"Previously Pakistan. Previous to that, Bengal."
"Oh, right. Same sort of ball-park, then."
"Just about the same stadium, yes."
[White Teeth, Zadie Smith]

The American mediascape is agog about Google's $1.65 billion acquisition of this week. The central "wow" factor is the insanely high valuation for a company that is only a year old, representing a return to the "irrational exuberance" of the first Internet mania (from which I carry battle scars). Much has been made about "Web 2.0," which is supposed to represent the new model of Internet startups -- steady leadership, bottom line focused, and no more crazy parties. Whether that's true or not remains to be seen, but the zero-to-hero trajectory of YouTube has everyone using cliches like "paradigm shift" once again.

Discussing YouTube on San Francisco radio, I focused on the third co-founder of the company -- 27 year-old Jawed Karim, a graduate student who made a fortune as the third-highest equity holder. He also generated instant clout with his track record (he was an early member of PayPal, which was bought by eBay). The youth factor is also an immense lure for an age-obsessed media cycle. More important for my own intervention purposes are Jawed's Bangladeshi-German roots. DNA is not destiny (far from it) and nurture is the real determinant, but you can still spin this as a story of another Bengali doing quirky, unconventional projects.

While the US media is ga-ga over YouTube (the New York Times lead Business story -- with photo -- was about Jawed), there has been little coverage of the story in Dhaka. No doubt that will change in the next few days, but it's interesting to note a seven-day lag on this story with a Bangladesh link in the Bangladeshi media, long after the CNN canines have chewed the story dry.

In a comparable high profile story involving an Indian, the Indian and Indian-American press runs at light speed to cover it. Kiran Desai winning the Booker, DJ Rekha's album release, Raju Narisetti becoming Deputy Editor of Wall Street Journal, Gautam Malkani's Hounslow rudeboys in Londonstani, Jagdish Bhagwati's nomination for Nobel Prize, Rana Dasgupta's shimmering ephemera in Tokyo Cancelled, Indra Nooyi becoming CEO of Pepsi, Shashi Tharoor's nomination for UN Secretary General, Jhumpa Lahiri's Pulitzer, Fareed Zakaria's tenure as Newsweek International editor, Sabeer Bhatia's founding of Hotmail, Rajat Gupta's time as head of McKinsey -- every single one of these stories has been celebrated (often to excess) in the Indian press.

This can even lead to over-extending, as with front page stories celebrating Norah Jones' multi-Grammy sweep (her father is Ravi Shankar), even though Jones herself does not (publicly) claim a primarily South Asian identity. The NRI bloc has been so critical in molding India's global image, even crusty citizenship laws have been changed to create a new category of PIO (Persons of Indian Origin) passports. An excess of "India Shining" may lead to nausea in the audience, and the intersection with Indian superpower designs are a potential danger. But on a simpler level, the focus on diaspora accomplishes a limited goal of instilling optimism.

By contrast, the Bangla media are slow on the uptake to talk about the widespread younger diaspora. Deeder Zaman (Asian Dub Foundation), Akram Khan (Sacred Monsters), Moushumi Khan (Muslim Bar Association of NY), Farook Shamsher (Joi), Aziz Huq (former clerk for US Supreme Court), Sham Miah (Vol de Nuit), Sam Zaman (State of Bengal), Abeer Hoque (Olive Witch), Aladdin Ullah (Port Authority Throw Down), Shazna Nessa (Milky), Monami Maulik (DRUM), Fariba Alam (Bangla East Side), Shireen Pasha (Roti Eaters), Monica Ali (Alentejo Blues), Chaumtoli Huq (Taxi Workers' Alliance), Dishad Husain (Viva Liberty), Ivan Jaigirdar (3rd I), and many others are not covered comprehensively or quickly.

When the voracious Chernobyl virus invaded the Internet, a young student of BUET programmed an anti-virus in 24 hours. If he had been an Indian student of IIT, the Consulate would have ensured that he was on CNN by live satellite link within hours. But I had to wait two years until the BUET wunderkind came to graduate school in the US to meet him. Living inside the New York media frenzy, I look at the wall-to-wall coverage of Indians in the media and think that Bengalis are the little engine that could travel really far -- if only the Bangla press would wake up.

I am always wary of excessive nationalism because it can quickly lead to chauvinism and exclusion. We only need consider our horrendous record in Chittagong Hill Tracts to see the dark side of nationalism. There is also a deep contradiction in gaining domestic applause after validation from a Western power structure. But at the current crisis crossroads, we could do with an injection of optimism and inspiration from unconventional locations. A decade ago, Mahfuz Anam gave a heartfelt lecture at Columbia University about the Bangla diaspora. But The Daily Star and others have been slow to follow the lead of those words.

Media profiles do not have to focus only on middle class professionals, or the sons and daughters of "established" people back home (the latter would only re-inscribe hierarchies and local elites). There are many other stories to track down -- the near monopoly of Bengalis in Brooklyn's brownstone renovation business, the Bengali head cheese buyer at Balducci's, the huge bloc of Bengalis in the pugnacious taxi drivers' union, the Sylheti clan's dominance of "Indian" restaurants in London and New York, the packed-to-the-gills Belgian bar-restaurant and trendy East Village hotspots, the new young Bengali activists in New York's immigrant rights battle, and the men who commandeered a signature campaign for International Mother Tongue Day.

We can also attempt, emotionally and politically, to embrace a pan-Bengali identity and take the success stories of West Bengalis as part of our mosaic. The network can extend to projects that have a Bangla link, such as My Architect (we failed to build on the buzz around that film's Oscar nomination), and Telling Nicholas (HBO documentary about 9/11 that features a Bengali family).

Current politics is a death-bound roller coaster, and the passengers can't disembark. People are always banging on about the resulting short supply of optimism. Dr. Yunus's Nobel Prize will bring a new rush of energy into the national psyche. Many more role models are also needed. The stories are there, inside and outside the borders -- vested with the tireless activists, Young Turks, and culture agitators.

Naeem Mohaiemen is a film-maker and a media-activist.