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     Volume 4 Issue 51 | June 17, 2005 |

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In Retrospect

Coming to Washington

Reminiscences of the Seventies

Azizul Jalil

There were only a handful of Bangladeshis in Washington Metropolitan area in 1972-80, all first generation arrivals. They were serving in international organisations and professions like teaching engineering, medicine, accountancy and in the Voice of America (VOA), totaling about forty or so and their families. Bangladesh Embassy officials and staff are not counted here, though they were very much part of the social scene. It was a small community of people, who, in the euphoria of the post-independence period, were trying to find their identity both home and abroad.

A Bangladesh Association was soon formed for cultural activities and commemorating the Ekushey February, Independence and Victory days. There was only one such association in the early days. It took ten years or more to duplicate and in some cities, triplicate the same. There were regular "dal-bhat' invitations in private homes; some sort of an excuse for a weekly gathering was the norm. If not, people, as they were young themselves with small children, would venture out of Washington for picnic or otherwise. It did not seem so tiring those days. There were plenty of personal energy and the energy used in cars e.g. gasoline cost only about thirty cents or less per gallon. Often the gas stations would give gifts of tumblers or the like as an incentive to buy more than eight gallons at one time.

Most of the early Bangladeshis in Washington were educated professionals, many of whom knew each other from the college or university days, through service careers or through the network of family relationships. It was like an extended family and people would usually share each other's joys and sorrows. Discussions would centre on news of Bangladesh, then mostly a series of political and economic misfortunes. It seemed the country was rudderless and groping for a viable form of governance. This affected the morale of the community in Washington. A stream of important persons coming from Dhaka would give accounts of the difficulties back home and share the frustration of the Diaspora.

Bangladeshis in Washington did not have deep divisions amongst them at that time. Divisiveness was a phenomenon of the late eighties and nineties. While people abroad were critical of events back home, they all wished the country well. Most Bangladeshis tried to explain away the country's difficulties as teething troubles of a young and inexperienced nation. They believed that time and practice of democracy would solve many problems. In front of people from other countries, no Bangladeshi would speak ill of the government or their country, out of patriotism or good judgment. In fact, they would make voluntary efforts to show the best face of the nation and make it known to those who never heard about it or its geographical location. For example, in our local elementary school on the international day in June 1972, we put up a stall with the Bangladesh flag and displayed pictures, paintings and a few cottage industry products. On another occasions, various embassies in Washington put up a fashion show from various countries. Bangladeshi women took part with a stall for typical Bangali food and displayed Jamdani and other sarees. Regrettably, two and a half decades later, the situation is different. The 'probashis' are as divided as the nation back home, lacking in political cohesion and idealism.

Many of us lived in Bethesda, one of the suburbs of Washington. Those working in the World Bank would carpool, four of us going to office together. The discussion during the forty-five minute ride each way was wide-ranging. It was a kind of Bangali "Adda on Wheels". Sometimes a guest/visitor from Bangladesh coming to Washington DC would ride with us, bringing variety and insight to the group. Our children, then school going, went to public schools in the Montgomery County, which were free. Both for them and us, there were tennis, basketball and other game facilities near our homes in the schools and County parks. The children have now grown up and have their own families and homes but they still maintain their childhood friendships.

In Bethesda and nearby areas, we led an almost idyllic life. While the men were gone for the day to work and the children safely in the schools, spouses would have a merry time having tea, shopping and often lunch. Being fortunate, many had the benefit of domestic help brought over from Bangladesh and were not as hard pressed with their household responsibilities. Many evenings, people would visit each other, play cards or table tennis and spend time together. During weekends and holidays, packing children and food in cars, three/four couples would arrange to go for day trips or overnight stays for sightseeing. They would go to the Shenandoah Valley, ancient Luray Caverns, Ocean City beaches, Dupont Gardens near Philadelphia, historic Gettysburg and the like. The next day, there would often be a follow-up session recounting the stories and jokes of yesterday and of yester years.

On a typical snowy day, when we were snowbound at home, with offices closed and roads impassable by car, men and women would put on their high snow boots and walk to each other's houses. They would end up in one house with a warm fireplace crackling with wood-fire. The hostess would then get busy serving hot muri or piyaju, chira bhaja and dal puri and drinks of all kinds. With schools closed, children would go sliding on the snow in the yard or make snowman. They would also have a great time indoors with their board games or TV shows. In most social gathering of the Bangladeshis, there would be recitations and singing. Bangalis were argumentative and too political, but they were also artistically inclined. It was difficult to imagine a group of Bangalis where a few did not have the gift of music and other talents.

As early arrivals in Washington from a small newly independent country, we were fortunate to have had the opportunity to show the Bangladesh flag and make the country known, establish ourselves and raise our children in a green and friendly environment.

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