<%-- Page Title--%> Nothing If Not Serious <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 137 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

January 9, 2004

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Saddam Hussein?

Shawkat Hussain

The encounter between Saddam Hussein and the American soldier who caught him was a great historical moment. What precisely were the words and the language -- used by the US soldier and what precisely was Saddam's reply when the two met? It is not likely that when Saddam Hussein was caught cowering at the bottom of a spider hole, the young American commando who was the first to greet him said something in Arabic. Maybe something like: "Anta Saddam Hussein? Or Man Anta?" which roughly translates into "Are you Saddam Hussein?" and "Who the hell are you?" Although it is common courtesy for a visitor to use the language of the host country, the conqueror rarely uses the language of the conquered.

The global spread of English is not an accident. It is not because English is a very flexible language that can be learnt easily by non-native learners, or because it can easily assimilate words and expressions from other languages (as it has over the years) that English has come to its current position of preeminence. The British Empire had a lot to do with it, and when the Empire fell, the British Council continued the job (and continues to do so) of spreading English. It is interesting that the fall of the British Empire coincided with the rise of the American Empire. The combined political, military and economic might of Britain and America (with Canada and Australia in tow) continues to ensure that English remain the number one language of the world.

When we meet bideshis in Bangladesh we seldom expect them to speak to us in Bangla, even if they don't come as conquerors. But there are conquests and there are conquests. If your first language happens to be English and you have all that power behind you (political, economic and military), you can easily get by in Bangladesh without bothering to learn any Bangla, unless you are working in a village. By and large, English-speaking expatriates make little effort to learn Bangla. And, by and large, most of us speak a little English.

The US Ambassador to Bangladesh really does not require any Bangla to perform his duties here. But surely he has come to realize how wonderful it is to speak a few words of Bangla on appropriate occasions, and just how much goodwill he can create with his New York-accented Bangla. At a function at the Ambassador's residence some weeks back, Ambassador Harry K Thomas Jr welcomed his audience in Bangla, and the audience erupted in huge applause. The Ambassador's performance was almost as good as the music of Jazzisimo, a jazz group who were playing that night. In terms of GQ or Goodwill Quotient it was probably higher than the music. The Ambassador said something about bangla bhasha, bhalobasha, and about New York being the place where he had his basha. Bangladeshis are so tickled when bideshis make an effort to speak our language.

I was witness to two great performances by the Ambassador of the People's Republic of Korea, Mr Kyu-hyung Lee, both occasions celebrating the 30th anniversary of diplomatic ties between Bangladesh and Korea. The suave Ambassador strode to the podium and said: "Assalamualaikum, apnara ajkey sandhay kemon acchen?" and the audience responded with a thunderous "bhalo achi." He said a few more words I think, but I was so overwhelmed by the excitement of the moment that I cannot remember what those words were. At one point, when the stage was dark, a beautifully sung line from a well-known Lalon song thrilled the audience, and when the spotlight fell on Ambassador Lee, the audience once again broke into applause. The Ambassador was singing Lalon! A single line cemented three decades of friendship between the two nations.

The best linguistic performance was however delivered by the Ambassador of the People's Republic of China, Mr Chai Xi. It is reported that he has been in Bangladesh for about two months, and in the first dinner that he hosted in his official residence on December 25, he invited a few university professors and their spouses. Most of the university professors were his Bengali teachers when he was here 28 years ago as a student. Ami athash bochor agey chhatra hishabey eshechilam Bangladeshey, ekhon ami chin desher dutabash hishabey eshechi. Twenty-eight years ago Ambassador Xi had come to Bangladesh as a student to learn Bangla, and now he was here as an ambassador. He told his guests that he decided to host his first dinner in honour of his Bangla teachers. Throughout the evening he spoke in flawless Bangla, gave an informal pre-dinner speech in immaculate Bangla, and even sang a couple of lines from his favourite Rabindra sangeet. He made his teachers feel proud of what they had accomplished, and he gave a strong indication of the diplomatic triumphs to be achieved in the coming years. There was one new word that he learned that evening. "Upacharrjo" shobdota ami to agey shunini. Ami to Vice-Chancellor-ee jantam. He didn't know that Upacharrjo was the Bangla word for Vice-Chancellor. There were a couple of other Chinese gentlemen present whose Bangla was also excellent. I am sure that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh and the Leader of the Opposition will be overjoyed with the Chinese Ambassador.

I have no knowledge about the Bangla language competence of other Ambassadors and dignitaries posted in Bangladesh. On the basis of what I know I would give Ambassador Xi 10, on a scale of 10, Ambassador Lee, a little less, with bonus points for effort and charm. Ambassador Thomas Jr can surely score more if the New York accent interferes a little less. We are so thrilled when our bideshi friends speak to us in Bangla. I wonder what language Saddam Hussein used when he said that he was willing to negotiate the language of the conqueror or his own? (bangla_deshi@hotmail.com)


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