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Perspective
Bangladesh beyond border

A man's feet must be planted in his country, but his eyes should survey the world.
~ George Santayana ~


I have recently discovered a new way to procrastinate: Google Earth. Thirty minutes, an hour or even three have gone by gazing at Dhaka from outer space. Roads I have traveled a thousand times, places I have been to a hundred times, and monuments I paid scant attention to, all manage to captivate me on Google Earth with new meanings that I had not quite discerned through my own eyes for the first twenty years of my life.



This is typical of the expatriate's love for the 'Desh. For those of us born in the 80's, after the heavy dose of post-independence optimism and nostalgia had worn off, patriotism was something quaint, something our elders gave lip-service to. This made us fit in well with the “global” (read: “Western”) generation-Y-ers who did not care about collective identities and shared Generation-X's resigned attitude towards politics, so neatly summed up by Samuel Johnson: “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” You can't really blame us: we came of age in the 90's, after the Berlin Wall and the Ershad regime fell, and this hardened our attitude towards patriotism. Internationally, realpolitik had shed whatever idealistic garb it had once clumsily worn; domestically, the two contradictory grand narratives of our two major political parties won them votes, but lost them my generation. Cynicism and apathy seemed not just appropriate, but also globally acceptable responses. Pulp Fiction over Guns of Navarone any day! Or - perhaps more to the point - over Jibon Theke Neya.

Then came our time to step out into the world. We discovered that beyond this green delta and that expansive bay lay an entire world. And they were almost as curious about us as we were about them. To this world, being Bangladeshi was our primary identity, whereas once it had meant being a son (within the family), a student (within society), or a potential miscreant (on the street to the police throughout my teenage years). In the arena of the world, it became important to tell people what being Bangladeshi meant and what it did not. Yet, did we know ourselves? Not really. But we were prepared to find the answers.

Suddenly, 21, 71, 26, 52, 16, all these began to carry more significance than two digits could possibly bear. Suddenly, these dates became celebrations, something to look forward to, each unique in its own way. I have gone to the Shaheed Minar only once during my twenty-plus years, then young enough to be hoisted on my uncle's shoulders to look beyond the crowd towards the five white pillars. Yet, not one 21st February has gone by since I left the 'Desh, without me remembering or recounting the events for non-Bangladeshi friends of mine. When someone has commented on my fluency in English, I have always pointed out that it was actually my second language. Things seemingly trivial back home start to mean something abroad. And things that seem important back home (“What village are you from?” is the best example, but probably from a generation back) start seeming trivial. Can you imagine arguing over who failed to bring about shonaar Bangla when next to you a Pakistani is referring to '71 as “Operation Searchlight” or an Indian is calling it the “third Indo-Pak war”? Both times I noisily told them that the “correct” term was “Bangladesh's Liberation War”. We Bangladeshis have a (well-earned) reputation for being noisy; sometimes, it helps us out.

All this is negative definition: defining yourselves against others, seeing what they do and concluding that being Bangladeshi means doing the opposite. The temptation to do this is immense for me: I live with two Americans in a city where I am a visible minority practicing a minority religion. This is mitigated however thanks to humour based on obviously ridiculous national stereotypes that fly around my house 24/7. (And in these times, Americans are more frequently the butt of jokes than we are. Thank you, Mr. President!)

However, in the year 2006 it became that much harder to follow a negative definition of what it means to be Bangladeshi. I mean of course, that crisp October morning (fine, afternoon!) when I woke up to the news of the Nobel Peace Prize, relayed from Dhaka by my parents. I announced it at the top of my lungs to my roommates. After two days straight, they offered me money if I did not use the word “Yunus” in a sentence once every hour. Once out of the country, even the smallest triumphs seem large, and the largest simply overwhelm people. I read an article written by an expatriate Bangladeshi that spoke of the numerous people who had cried when they had learnt the news. This might be the only chance I get, so I'm taking it: thank you, Dr. Yunus!

Increasingly, I have found that this experience was by no means unique to our generation. Every generation has expatriates who have (re-)discovered their patriotism on the shores of other countries and continents. The older expatriates listen to Bangla folk with the zest of neo-folk fans among my generation. They celebrate Pahela Boishakh with an enthusiasm that reticent Dhaka society does not always endorse. They meet you on the street on Eid morning in freezing temperatures and reminisce for hours about the food back home while your toes freeze. And always, always - even in a five-minute conversation over a McDonald's counter in a neighbourhood you will never visit again they ask, “But bhai, which way is the desh headed?” This is not an exaggeration: they always ask.

In the end, being out of the country enables one to see Bangladesh's place in the world: how it fits in and how it compares with other states. The “fundamentalist” threat in an age where religion and violence are increasingly meshing the world over, the TIB reports that speak of the “most corrupt” in a corrupt world, the “failed state” epithet thrown about so liberally in the South Asian media, Kissinger's tired “bottomless basket” cliché, Goldman-Sach's “next biggest thing”, and even the Peace Prize: all these things one learns to see in a global perspective that diminishes that sense of impending doom or glory which always threatens to overwhelm you if you spend your entire time in the 'Desh. Such perspective is hard-won. Yet, even as we become global citizens, we remain in essence children of the golden delta, eyes forever trained on its shores, ears forever listening for the slightest noise of complaint and hearts forever hoping for the best.

By Asif Naser Yusuf
The writer is a student of McGill University, Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
Photo: Munem Wasif

 

 

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