Tag Archives: dhaka

A traveler’s guide to Dhaka, Bangladesh

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Dhaka is so much more than just a city. It is a whirlpool that pulls anything and anyone that comes close to it – sending them around and around like some wildly spinning fairground ride bursting with energy. It is organized chaos – millions of individual pursuits churning together into frenetic collective activity. I cannot guarantee you’ll fall for Dhaka’s many charms, but sooner or later you will start to move to its beat. And when that happens, Dhaka stops being a terrifying ride and starts to become a unique blend of art and intellect, passion and poverty, love and hate.

The charms of Dhaka are not immediately visible to the naked eye – they are dhaka (hidden in Bengali). Not that there are hordes of visitors trying to uncover those charms; this is a city that remains largely untouched by tourists. The city is what it is, a place in perpetual motion, the glorious chaos of which is perhaps best viewed from the back of one of the city’s half-a-million colorful rickshaws. As someone who has called this place his home for some 20 years, here is my list of the essential things-to-do/sights-to-see while in Dhaka.

1. Take a rickshaw through the busy streets

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There are cycle-rickshaws all over Asia, but in Bangladesh they are more colorful, more prevalent and more integral to everyday life than anywhere else. Rickshaws are an art form in their own right. They are plentiful around Dhaka, and the best way to explore the city like a local. They are cheap, fun, environmentally friendly and are often the quickest way to get through the busy streets. And speaking of busy streets, might I add that Dhaka has some of the worst traffic in the world. You may find yourself amongst a standstill – rickshaw drives screaming, buses honking, traffic lights functioning as mere decorations. But this is just part of the city. So sit back and enjoy this organized chaos!

2. Explore Old Dhaka

Dhaka from above

For some, the assault on the senses is too much to handle, but for others, the unrivaled mayhem that is squeezed into the narrow streets of Old Dhaka is simply delightful. No matter where you’ve come from, or what big cities you’ve visited before, Old Dhaka will knock you for six (a cricket reference) with its manic streets and nonstop noise and commotion. Nestled in the cacophony are structures from a bygone era – Ahsan Manjil, home of the Nawabs, and the Lalbag Kella, a Mughal fort. Some of the most amazing food in the city is to be had in hole-in-the-wall stores such as Haji Biryani and Nana Biryani.

3. A boat ride on Buriganga

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Running calmly through the center of Old Dhaka, the Buriganga River (Old Lady Ganga) is the muddy artery of Dhaka and the very lifeblood of the city, and perhaps the nation. To explore it from the deck of a small boat is to see Bangladesh at its most raw and gritty. The panorama of river life is fascinating. Boats of all shape and size compete for space and motion, with children dotting the foreshores, fishing with homemade nets. On the banks of the river is Shadarghat, perhaps one of the busiest loading docks in existence. You can take a rocket (steamboat) to other cities in Bangladesh – Barisal, Comilla and Chandpur to name a few.  As you cross from Dhaka to Old Dhaka to the Buriganga, life speeds up, and then hits the brakes to arrive at a watery sunset.

4. Drink a cha, eat some fuchka

 

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Dhaka runs on cha (or chai). These sweet, milky, hot cups of tea are a Bangladeshi style caffeine fix. Add some street food, and you have got yourself the perfect desi snack. The local street food fare includes fuchka, chatpati, and jhalmuri to name just a few. Head to Dhanmondi Lake or just about any intersection in the city to get your daily dose of some of the best street food you’ll ever taste.

5. Sangsad Bhaban

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The parliament building of Bangladesh is a true architectural masterpiece – the magnum opus of the American architect, Louis Kahn. It blends motifs from ruined monuments and Bangladesh’s topography, with a remarkable use of natural light. The Sangsad Bhaban lies on a vast area in the middle of the city, seemingly floating on a lake, a refuge within the bustling city.

6. Festivals

Festivals have always played a significant role in the life of the people of Bangladesh. They are parts and parcels of Bengali culture and tradition, and no matter when you visit Dhaka, there’s indefinitely one to find. Here’s a list of some of the bigger ones:

Colourful Celebration of Poyla Boishakh-Dhaka

  • Pahela Baishakh – The advent of Bengali New Year is celebrated throughout the country. The best place to celebrate is Ramna Park, where perhaps a million people will take part in an exhibition of Bengali culture. Make sure to grab a plate of panta rice with Elish fish while you are there. Pahela Baishakh follows the Bengali calendar and takes place mid-April.
  • Shadhinota Dibosh – The independence day of Bangladesh is March 26. Independent for four decades, the war is still a huge part of society here and the independence day is a show of nationalistic pride. Citizens including government leaders and sociopolitical organizations and freedom fighters place floral wreaths at the National Martyrs Monument at Savar. At night the city is illuminated with lights.
  • Ekushey February – The 21st of February is observed throughout the country to pay homage to the martyrs’ of Language Movement of 1952. It is now regarded as the World Mother Language Day. This is quite a unique occasion – somewhere in between a festival and a mourning day. The Shahid Minar (martyrs monument) is the symbol of sacrifice for Bangla, the mother tongue.
  • Nabanno, Eid, Durga Puja, and others – There’s almost too many to list here, but Nabanno (festival of the new harvest), Eid and Durga Puja just have to mentioned. No matter what your religion, Eid and Puja are cause of celebration in Dhaka.

7. Explore the history

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Bangladesh is probably one of the few nations whose citizens have experienced two independence struggles – from from British colonial rule and then liberation from Pakistan in 1971. Although the war was over four decades ago, its presence is everywhere. It’s hard to open a paper, speak to a writer, or discuss politics without hearing the words “71,” “martyr” or “freedom fighter.” The Liberation War Museum is a fascinating if at times gruesome look at that struggle, with lots of press clippings and other memorabilia from that time. If you’re new to Bangladesh, this is an important starting point for understanding the national obsession.

8. The mosque and the temple

Tara-masjid

Dhaka is dotted with numerous mosques and temples. These are more than just religious institutions, since religion and culture are so intertwined in peoples lives in Bangladesh. Head to the 1,200 year old Dhakeshwari Temple, the center of the Hindu religion in Dhaka and then to the Tara Masjid, the beautiful 18th century mosque adorned with mosaic stars. You don’t have to belong to any particular faith to appreciate the beauty of these structures, and in doing so, you’ll get a glimpse of an integral part of culture and society here.

9. Art, music and literature

An art and dance exhibition of children doing domestic work held at the Bengal Gallery

An art and dance exhibition of children doing domestic work held at the Bengal Gallery

Bangladesh is rich in art, music and literature, and there are few better places to get a taste of the arts than Dhaka. Head to the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts or the Drik Gallery to sample some of the contemporary art, which frequently makes a social commentary. The music scene in Dhaka is HUGE! From the classical works of Rabindranath Tagore and Nazrul Islam, to pop and heavy metal – there’s a concert to go to for everyone. Follow ConcertNews to find the next one.

Bengalis love to read, and there’s no better place to experience this passion for books than Nilkhet. Sandwiched between Dhaka University and New Market, this labyrinth of bookstores will satisfy and enlighten even the best-read visitor. Dhaka also hosts one of the biggest book fairs in the world, the Ekushey Book Fair.

And if you’re in the mood for shopping, you are in luck. Dhaka is one of the shopping hubs of South Asia. Head to New Market, Doyel Chattor, Bashundhara or Chandni Chawk and you will find pretty much anything.

10. Add yours here!

I started to write this thinking I’ll list 10 things. But to pick 10 things to do in this megalopolis that is home to me, is almost impossible. I’ll keep adding recommendations as comments, and I ask my readers to do so too. I don’t expect, or want Dhaka to turn into a tourist destination. But I want it to be appreciated for what it is – a city in perpetual motion, an experience that will side-swipe you with its overwhelming intensity, leaving impressions that will never fade.

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Quest for Justice, 40 years after Independence

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A child protesting in 1971

A child protesting in 1971

Four decades have passed since Bangladesh got her independence. It came at the climax of one of the bloodiest wars of our times. It came at the cost of three million lives, and 20,000 women raped. Independence ushered a new hope for a country in her infancy, one of equality and justice. And thus began our experiment in democracy. We were naïve to think that with the oppressors, the oppression would end. We knew only that we were free at last, that justice and the rule of law will now prevail.

For forty years, Bangladesh as a nation has failed to try the Razakars – the pro-Pakistani Bengalis who committed some of the gravest atrocities during the 9-month liberation war. The Razakars supported the Pakistani army, and helped them infiltrate the country. Their leaders were absolved after the war, and have been prominent opposition figures. They were free, had full citizenship and had their own political party with seats in the parliament. These are the men who supported the killing and rape of Bangladeshis; religion is more important to them than nation. And it is in their freedom that Bangladesh has failed to respect the sacrifice of so many.

"Ar kono dabi nai, Razakarder fashi chai."

“Ar kono dabi nai, Razakarder fashi chai.”

In 2010, the Bangladeshi government set up a tribunal to prosecute those accused of committing war crimes during the 1971 war of independence. Three years later, on the 5th of February 2013, the tribunal has handed down a life sentence to Abdul Quader Molla, assistant secretary-general of the Jamaat-e-Islami, which supported the cause of undivided Pakistan in 1971. Nine other top Jamaat leaders, including its former chief Ghulam Azam and current chief Motiur Rehman Nizami, are also standing trial in the two war crimes tribunals for alleged crimes against humanity.

Shahabag - the new Tahrir Square

Shahbagh – the new Tahrir Square

This war trails have reopened old wounds among Bangladeshis. The youth of Bangladesh have rekindled the spirit of 1971, and have gathered on the streets of Dhaka, to demand capital punishments of war criminals and an end to religion-based politics. Hundreds of thousands of people are gathered in Dhaka’s Shahbagh intersection, in the biggest public gathering since 1971. This is neither about politics nor religion. This is about national pride and justice. The protesters have been in the streets for four days now and have vowed to stay until their demands are met. People around the country are boycotting businesses, social and cultural organizations that are owned by Jamaat leaders. In the words of the prominent author, Muhammad Zafar Iqbal, “The year 2013 has turned into 1971 and those of you who did not see 1971 are now witnessing it this year.”

The youth of Bangladesh is not trying to overthrow a regime. This is not our Arab Spring, but the parallels are striking. Shahbag is our Tahrir Square. Social media is our means of organization. The time is now to end what we started in 1971.

As a Bangladeshi in expatriation, this is my tribute to the protesters all across my country.

Slavery, the modern kind

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I’ve always wondered how the working class in Dhaka, Bangladesh remained to stay afloat economically. In an ever-growing city of over 12 million people, dwindling resources and limited opportunities, I wondered how society with all is castes functioned. Having been born and raised in a family that should be considered to be in the upper echelon of the social hierarchy, I found it impossible to relate to the millions who found themselves in much less privileged circumstances. More importantly, I was encouraged to ignore this disparity and to turn a blind eye to the issues of poverty and social inequality. These were mere statistics, headlines and scenes of heartbreak on the news, flashes outside the window as my car speeds past the streets of Dhaka. This all changed when curiosity got the best of me and I decided to investigate. I didn’t have to look too far; I found a story of social injustice right next door from me.

Sex workers in a brothel in Dhaka

Sex workers in a brothel in Dhaka

Hotel Nirmahal always seemed shady to me – the kind of place that can’t provide a good night’s sleep, or where you end up losing your valuables from the locker. And from the many young women loitering in front of it, doused in makeup and provocatively dressed, I assumed it was a hub for prostitution. My suspicion was confirmed when I did some investigation of my own and for the first time the poverty-led injustices in my home city were brought to my attention. I found out that some of the girls working in the disguised brothel were as young as twelve. I found it hard to believe that this was a conscious decision on their part – to have left toys and chosen a path of prostitution. I knew of the masses of people living below the poverty line, of the cycle of poverty that forced people to think about where their next meal is going to come from. What I did not know was the victimization of so many in the form of forced prostitution and human trafficking.  Suddenly, human suffering was not just intertwined with poverty, but a subset of a whole range of social injustices that I was unaware of previously.

More than 15,000 women and children are smuggled out of Bangladesh every year1, and many thousands more smuggled from rural villages to big cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong. I was unable to find an estimate of how many girls are smuggled within the borders of the country since trafficking is traditionally defined as taking someone (by force or deception) across an international border2 and those who are trafficked within their own national borders are more often than not, unrepresented and undocumented.  Most of these girls, some as young as ten, are forced into prostitution or to serve rich families as maids (which often times includes regular beatings and other forms of physical and emotional torture).  The majority of the women are trafficked to India, Pakistan and the Middle East, with the promise of a job, money for their family, a better life. They are brought to Dhaka with the promise of employment in the booming garments industry, commonly by a distant relative who receives a cut from brothel owners. The girls are soon aware of their fate, but without money, an education or any means of contacting the authorities they have but no choice than to give in to the systematic physical and psychological torture that goes on within the walls of countless brothels around the world.  Thus begins their life as modern slaves, stripped of identity and humanity, joining thousands others who have met a similar fate. As the journal Foreign Affairs observed: “Whatever the exact number is, it seems almost certain that the modern global slave trade is larger in absolute terms than the Atlantic slave trade in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was.3

Bobi

Bobi says she has been given Oradexon (a drug usually used to fatten cattle) by her madam as soon as she arrived at the brothel.

An article in the Bangladeshi constitution reads, “State shall endeavor to prevent gambling and prostitution“, although the government legalized prostitution in 2000 as a means of regulating brothels and the sex trade. In a country where almost 90% of the population is conservative Muslim, prostitution is a taboo issue, bringing into question the number of girls who are forced into prostitution as opposed to those who have gone into the field by choice. Government corruption greatly facilitates the process of trafficking, and in a country that is only behind India and China in the extent of poverty, victimization of poor, uneducated girls is a common practice. It is an issue that is mentioned a lot in the news, talked about by the denizen, but hardly ever appears on the table of legislators. More effort goes into figuring out how many girls are victimized, than that goes into understanding the root causes of the problem and in combating the issue. What is required is a coordinated effort on behalf of the government, NGOs and the general population in educating girls both in the rural and urban settings, making people aware of the burgeoning human trafficking industry, while at the same time creating opportunities for women that will effectively allow them to escape the cycle of poverty.

This is the part of the paper where I stop informing you of all-too-well-known facts and tell you what you can do to combat the issue. If you have made it to this point of the paper, I urge you to read this last paragraph and take the recommend steps that demand just a couple of minutes or hours of your time, but will make a significant difference in a girl’s life somewhere. The change is inevitable and the transformation of women from beasts of burden and sexual playthings into full-fledged human beings2 is evident. The question is, will you be part of this historical movement, or a bystander.

  1. Learn about, donate to or volunteer at one of the following organizations that specialize in supporting women:
    1. Equality Now – Equality Now works to end violence and discrimination against women and girls around the world.
    2. Grameen Bank – Grameen Bank pioneered microfinance in Bangladesh and has now branched into an array of development programs.
    3. Shared Hope International – Shared Hope International fights sex trafficking around the world.
    4. Vital Voices – Vital Voices Global Partnership supports women’s rights in many countries and has been particularly active in fighting trafficking.
  2. Sign the petition urging the House of Representatives, the United States Senate, and President Obama to support U.S. ratification of the Treaty for the Rights of Women, officially known as the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The petition can be signed here: http://tinyurl.com/cedawnow
  3. Go to http://www.globalgiving.org or http://www.kiva.org and open an account. These are people-to-people (P2P) microlending sites that will link you directly to a grassroots project to which you can donate money for education, health, disaster relief, etc.  A lot of the microloans are made out to women, thus promoting economic sustenance and prevents them from being forced into prostitution.

References

  1. Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation – Bangladesh. Uri.edu. Retrieved 2010-06-19.
  2. Kristof, Nicholas D.; WuDunn, Sheryl (2009-08-22). Half the Sky
  3. Foreign Affairs – November/December 2006 – The New Global Slave Trade – Ethan B. Kapstein