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     Volume 4 Issue 2 | July 2, 2004 |


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Finding Old
in the New

Iffat Nawaz

Sometimes a woman has to spend a few thousands, travel half way around the world, walk miles and burn in the scorching sun to realise a truth that was in front of her all along .

A recent trip to New Orleans, Louisiana brought out these feelings in me, as we wasted film after film taking pictures and the buckles of our shoes gave up on us walking through every block of French history. It was during the 100th snap- shot of a hanging veranda when I recognised I had seen this somewhere before. Similar architecture, two-storey structure raised on low brick piers. Side-gabled or hipped roof, covered two-storey galleries framed by columns supporting entablature, asymmetrical arrangement of facade openings, some more insignificant than others, simple two or one stories with metal railings and long wooden windows. It dawned on me, New Orleans or, as they call it, the “Big and Easy” which pulls in millions from its tourism market, is so terribly similar to our Dhaka's old town or as we call it "puran Dhaka”.

Maybe it is just my ignorance of architecture which made me compare the two, but a feeling is a feeling, so my mind couldn't help but compare and contrast. The narrow streets, the style of homes, the revolving fans and the humidity in the air, I could just close my eyes and feel at home, felt like I was roaming through the streets of Wari or Gandaria, even the unique smell was present, the smell of garbage, sweat, urine and something delicious and fried, the difference was, here it was fried calamari which added the deep-fried aroma while in Gandaria it was daal puri and alur chop, the mouth-watering yet non-glamorous delicacies of puran Dhaka. I so badly wondered why I was here being beaten by wanna-be French mosquitoes and getting an unnecessary tan while I could do the same in the streets of Lokkhibazar, finding similarly intricate homes with open courtyards surrounded by red brick walls and banana trees, ingredients for a perfectly authentic picture.

Sitting near the port of Mississippi River I thought about Buri Ganga, right near Faridabad, a part of old town which is unpopular to locals, forget about marketing it for tourism. I closed my eyes and imagined, couldn't old town Dhaka become similar to New Orleans? With some history and some authenticity, the old houses which stand in the streets of puran Dhaka, can't they be a subject of a perfect photograph?

Can't we attract tourists around the world during Durga Pooja to come and experience the ever-so original festivities, tasting thousands of kinds of sweets and hearing the constant beat of Dhaka? Can't we make a bigger facade around Poush Sankranti inviting the whole world to experience the art created by Bangali children to adults, a wild game on open roof tops with a kite covered sky? Can't we promote Bakhorkhani and Nehari the way New Orleans markets Jambalaya?

I was crossing a long line of hungry tourists, who waited for an empty table at a historic restaurant of New Orleans. The specialty of this particular eatery was that it lacked electricity and burned candles in each table, it created an ancient environment, and the only modern touch at this place was the ATM machine and perhaps the brands of alcohol. I smiled to myself thinking about the constant electricity-failures in old town Dhaka, how one country's annoyance can be another country's fantasy…

Walking through the streets, we saw through the windows of the exclusive and pricey restaurants, and outside where homeless men and women huddled waiting for a posh shoe to polish so they could make a dollar or two, to buy food or drugs. I thought about Dhaka once again…

While I was bargaining away at the French market -- a total Gausia market style vendor's haven--I met a man from Jaipur. Sweating in unbearable heat, selling t-shirts and hand bags, when we got to talking he told me about how he is currently the oldest vendor at this French market. He has been handling this shop for last 19 years, packing up at the end of the day and setting up the next, money for his two sons’ education who are both in medical school.

I asked him why he doesn't go back to India. Now that he has spent his good years here maybe he can spend the better years back home. He gave me a blank look and said nothing.

It is easier to be slaves in another country when none of your own kinds are watching. It is much easier to be of service to foreigners in a foreign land and not your own, and it's much easier to obliterate history with sallow arrogance than make money off of it, holding all the essential ingredients to attract tourism and misusing every bit of it. I guess our Old town Dhaka will never be like New Orleans. Using our past and our failures we will continue to beg foreign organisations and developed countries for aid, we won't use our history, our old town as a pride and welcome the world with Bangali hospitality. We would rather receive without providing service, we would rather destroy than preserve. And just like me right now, we would rather complain than take action.

To contact this writer please email nituta@hotmail.com

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