Friday, February 27, 2009

peanut gallery in the cross fires

According to an AP article, many of the people killed in this past week's paramilitary mutiny have been civilians. Well, when civilians crowd around military tanks and a compound that is being held by mutineers as if it were the 1960's and the Beatles were inside, I think it's fair to say, some of them are going to get taken down.

Again, if it were me, I'd be going the opposite direction. Obviously, the host culture mentality of stand, crowd and stare hasn't quite taken hold of me.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mutiny in Dhaka

Political unrest can be just so... tiring.

Long story short (to the best of my understanding): The boarder guards- aka the BDR- have been upset that they get less benefits/ pay than the primary army. They mutinied in their headquarters in Dhamondi (a neighborhood in Dhaka), killing a general and some other people. (Not to say I don't care who they are, I'm just not sure). There are also reports of violence caused by the BDR in other regions of the country. The new (old and reoccurring but newly reelected?) prime minister offered amnesty to the mutineers if they surrendered, disarmed and disbanded. The mutineers accepted. The actual surrender is in the process as I type.

Now, apparently all this happened in a region near New Market. (Actually, a friend of mine was down there at the time.) I must agree that if I were in a crowded place and their were mortar and gunshots fired, I'd probably be in the picture below.(credits to the Daily Star) Please note, it's mostly women running for their lives.

(My friend was ushered into a jewelry store. Her daughter explained to me today that's because jewelers are armed to deter burglars. I don't know if that works, but it just deterred this potential shopper) My friend (reports her daughter) is perfectly okay. Although she reportedly suggested to a blond in the car that she stick her head out the window to show off their "white people pass" and get out of the area faster. As much as I would not want to stick my head out the window when there is potential gunfire, here in Dhaka flaunting the 'white skin pass' isn't such a half baked idea. Of course, I say this as a brunette who would not be the first candidate to flaunt the "whiteness' of my hair.

It can also be comical-as when one of the mutinying boarder guards stated that one of their complaints was not being sent on peace keeping missions. This from Farid Hossain of the Associated Press
During Wednesday's standoff, one guard in combat dress, his face covered in a yellow handkerchief, emerged from the compound and complained to television reporters that "army troops are sent abroad to work in U.N. peacekeeping missions and they get fat salaries. But they don't take border guard personnel for peacekeeping."
They don't send us to keep the peace! Shoot someone! Great complaint and follow through. (FYI, Bangladeshi is one of the primary suppliers to the UN peacekeeping forces.)

Now, I know I've previously mentioned my white-women in Bangladesh super-power of being able to effortlessly draw a crowd of 30 men in less than a minute. I would like to put this in context. Please ask yourself, "If I were in a country where the political stability is a bit dubious, there has been bullets and mortar-fire and the army has lined the streets with cannons, what would I do?" If you answered anything to the effect of "run like hell in the opposite direction," you'd be with me and the women in the picture above. However, if you're a normal Bangladeshi male, the answer is something like that picture below. (credits again to the Daily Star) Please look closely at the background.

Yes, that's right. Get closer, stand around and wait to see if there will be more live 'entertainment'. I just wish I could find another image that was in the print edition- it really shows the crowd and stare mentality in all its packed, land-covering, oxygen smothering glory.

Life in the diplomatic zone- where I live and work- has been effected in a way I would categorize as more overly cautious to the point of annoyance than anything else. One of the school's buses didn't run yesterday afternoon or this morning because it transports students outside the dipzone. We've had our after school and weekend activities postponed since yesterday. -This includes the middle and high school music concert, the high school play and the middle school boys basketball and girls soccer tournament. Also, the entire middle school had various trips/ activities planned for today. The sixth grade was going to do activities on campus associated with Shaheed day, or mother tongue day. This is a huge day because the War of Liberation (the civil war that separated East and West Pakistan into Bangladesh and Pakistan) was provoked by the insistence that Bangla people abandon their mother tongue and adopt Urdu. The eighth grade was actually going to go downtown to the War Liberation Museum. And the seventh grade (that's my group) has been planning activities to teach English to the orphans at Families for Children (FFC), an organization with whom we have a formal and ongoing relationship. We were going to go to the orphanage, which is also quite an experience for our rather privileged kids. Also, we got some of our passports back from the Indian High Commission where they were being processed for visas. (The Thai Embassy didn't release the passports we have there.) (We have the passports in preparation for the class trips full of camping and outdoor education.) Some parents wanted the passports back for the weekend- just in case.

So- I originally wrote 'minimally effected' - I guess that's more than minimal. But, as far as political unrest goes, I'd classify all that more as disrupting curriculum and being a tad vexing than anything serious. After work today I went out to my balcony, ate tuna salad on a multigrain bagel, some fruit salad and read a little while listening to the birds and admiring my plants. I still plan on popping into our school's mardi gras party tonight to say hi to everyone.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Did I just really...?

I think I just had my strangest moment in teaching: I, the Jew, stood frozen in front of my class, which is composed of students representing a cornucopia of world religions, but is primarily Hindus and Muslims. The whole class had just cheerfully and in unison yelled out, "the resurrection of Jesus Christ!"

And I had to say out loud- "This is so weird." I had to give a little giggle at the utter absurdity of it all. And then I looked over at my own lone Catholic student. He was totally in his element and was radiating happiness, finally knowing all the answers in French class. He glowed, "This is just like Sunday school!" And in fact, it did seem that way- minus the fact that there were only a spattering of Christians or quasi-Christians in the Hindu/ Muslim mix and it was being lead by me, the Jew.

How did I get to this point of multi-religious students expressing a seemingly overwhelming enthusiasm for the resurrection of Jesus Christ?

First of all, my French class had earned a party. I'm not one of those teachers that just hand out parties willy-nilly. You have to work for it in my class. And each student had taken on the challenge of speaking only in French for an entire class period (and the additional challenge of wearing an absolutely ridiculous hat. The two options are: 1)shaped like the Eiffel Tower and says "Super Français" or 2) a satin black top hat with a silver map of Africa that says "Super Africain". It is amazing what you can have made here in Dhaka.) So they earned their party and I promised to bring the pizza. (I am not above bribing my students with food to encourage their use of the French language.) Then the before mentioned Catholic boy said, "Hey, it's almost Mardi Gras! Can we have a Mardi Gras party?!" And I gave in to the facts. I'm supposed to teach culture with the language and the unit we had just finished was all about fĂȘtes and they had earned a party. And what was so seemingly innocent and didactically sound slowly turned into the episode mentioned above.

You see, I still can't just have a party. I need the students to be exposed to the underlying ideas of the cultural celebration. I'm so appalled when, as in previous years, students who claimed to be Christians couldn't tell me why they celebrated Christmas. (Language curricula tend encompass holiday units.) In fact, one self-identifying christian student didn't even know it had anything to do with Christ. (Santa was the big man of the moment in his mind.) So much of what is taught- to me at least- seems to be the superficial outward acts and paraphernalia associated with any given religious holiday- the candles or trees or sacrifice or food or presents- and lost is the reason and beliefs that inspired the Holy Day.

So before I would allow the reveling to commence, I needed the students to be able to give one sentence definitions for such words as Lent, Ash Wednesday, Fat Tuesday and Easter. I wanted them to know that this is indeed a Catholic holiday, which is attached to the lunar calendar because it is based on Jesus, who was indeed a practicing Jew and thus following the lunar based Jewish Holy Days. I wanted them to at least start to put it together. And I told them what I find to be so fundamentally true- to understand a people, you must speak their language; to understand a language you must, in essence, speak their culture; and the fundamental basis of so many cultures is religion. So, here I found myself, the Jew, teaching Catholicism, in Bangladesh, the Muslim country.

Of course, I couldn't just tell the students everything. I wanted them to engage. Thus I put my key terms on the board, and started reviewing for our favorite game that involves competition, speed, fast thinking and putting ideas together- and requires two fly swatters. (Really, don't ask.) And to prepare for the game we were reviewing the terms in unison- and that's how I managed to have "the resurrection of Jesus Christ" ring throughout my classroom carried on my student's enthusiastic voices.

I have to admit, though, I have been thinking quite a bit about how fluid culture is. I think about this a lot as a Jew, a member the people who are notorious for clinging to their own identity and culture and refusing, as a group, to adopt other culture's celebrations. We have refused to integrate and dilute, disperse and dissipate. I watch in amazement how Christian/ Catholic holidays are readily adapted by the world- Saint Valentine is world renowned, Mardi Gras (and closely linked to it, Carnival) are widely feted with much spirit (internal and distilled) and I've personally seen the Christmas done up by Buddhists in Thailand and now, in Communist China. And the cultural fluidity comes back into Christianity from Pagan rituals lending some of the most recognizable symbols- the Christmas tree is much more iconic than the original manger birth scene. Ask someone to draw an image of Easter and you'll most likely get a fertility celebration decked with cute bunnies and painted eggs in lieu of the resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But I guess this is what happens when a Jew goes to teach French language and culture (and thus Catholicism). The instruction is founded in a deep need to scrap away the superficial, dig into the origin and meaning and remember and recognize the roots of the traditions.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Balcony flowers

Here's a picture I took of flowers on my balcony. Just thought I'd share. Now I need to write a test- which is not quite as fun as looking at pictures of pretty flowers. Surprisingly.

Okay- decided to procrastinate just a wee bit more and give you more flowers from my balcony. (Although I prefer the composition of the first photo.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Okay, my plane leaves when? I'm ready!

Okay, completely forget all the sentimentality of yesterday's posting. I'm ready to leave.

Reason being? During my enormously long walk home from work (that consists of walking past three houses and crossing the street), I have -yet again- been the unwilling recipient of unsavory comments.

Okay. I live in Bangladesh, home of 150 million pairs of eyes, all of which relentlessly stock foreigners. Over the past year and a half, I've become accustomed to the staring. (I'm told that it's not rude.) And please let me quote from my imaginary Bangladeshi guide to dealing with foreigners. "Constantly scan area of potential target. White skin and unfamiliar clothing design are clear signs. Start from 20 meters away. Glue eyes on target. Advance. Never release gaze. Do not blink. Once you approach the target, face the target and stand 5-30 centimeters away. Continue staring. If so many Bangladeshis are already encircling the target that you can't see him or her, push in closer and continue staring. If for some unfavorable reason you must continue walking past the target, do not- in any circumstance- remove your eyes from the target. Continue walking or cycling while turning and twisting your upper torso and necl to allow your eyes to keep the target in focus. Do not worry about oncoming traffic or pedestrians. We all understand that imprinting an image of the target into your brain is crucial for survival. I repeat- do not remove you eyes from the target under any circumstances."

I even gotten used to the fact that, when outside the diplomatic neighborhood, my presence can create a roadblock of oblivious starers in 10 seconds or less. My glaringly white skin alone can draw whole rural villages to me in less than a minute. I've even gotten used to men taking pictures of me on their cell phones as I walk by in my normal, boring, and totally covering clothes. I like to do a little self manipulation to make this bearable. I like to tell myself that I take pictures of them (ie all Bangaldeshis because I find them interesting. Thus it suffices to say that they might find me interesting as well. I also conveniently ignore the fact that the picture takers all fit the same age and gender criteria. )

But this- today- is different.

This is the third time in recent weeks that unsavory words have been lobbed at me. I guess the first few times I was slightly annoyed, a little surprised, but otherwise emotionally untouched. I credit this to the fact that the verbal assailants had rather poor English pronunciation skills and I could understand enough to know it was unsavory, but not really get the whole phrase. It was also very passing- a crud afterthought sliding by in mangled English- This bastard today rolled down the window of his black mini-van (yes, you read correctly- mini-van-) slowed down to a near stop, casually slung his forearm and head out the window and- once I glanced his way- ever so slowly, ever so intentionally, ever so clearly- the slimy words, "Can I lick your pussy?" dripped out of his mouth before he raced off.

I wished I had been carrying a giant rock that I could have jettisoned at his obviously malfunctioning brain- precisely because this particular pussy-owner has pretty decent aim and does not care to have her body parts invited for certain activities. I wanted to throw off his words and allow something to smack his face just as he had just done mine. I AM ANGRY! I feel invaded (and overly protective of my crotch at the moment.) Who gave him the right?!

Given the country, I guess words aren't the worst thing to be thrown at a woman- really- there are so many options- bricks, furniture, acid- but I feel that the underlying problem, regardless of the extreme, is the same.

And I'm disgusted! Who gave him the right to verbally assault me?! (Well again, there have been an increased number of muggings in the neighborhood so I guess, words are the least of all evils available.)

I guess these recent incidents of sexual harassment shock me even more because I haven't had to deal with this level of grotesque and unsavory behavior in a relatively long time. Minus one incident last year, I've been assault free for quite some time. Yeah, back in Maryland, there were also guys (idiots) in cars that thought is was cool/ assuming/ acceptable to yell what I'm sure were unsavory comments at me. I say I'm sure- but I didn't actually hear the comments due to the speed of the vehicle. I would just snicker and say to myself, "idiots who don't understand sound and the doppler effect," and keep walking.

I know this all comes back to one of my major themes: Respect for women. Every time I look out into the world, I see more and more disrespect and subjugation, assault and disregard. And for all of you who think there really is 'equality' in the world- or that inequality far removed from you doesn't effect you, I disagree. If you can respect the person who birthed you- or people like her- then there is no hope for world peace.

And back to the smaller world- mine- I'm grossed out! I'm pissed! I'm angry! And what really bothers me is that there is no way to level this back out. As far as I can tell, he has no identity (minus evil driver of black mini-van with Bangladeshi plates) and I have no recurses. And he can just keep on slinging ugly unwanted invitations at women because no one is going to stop him. No one is going to stand up to him. Part of me wishes that I could have flung something at him- but really- what good would that have done. Part of me wishes I could have acted like I didn't hear him and save from giving him any satisfaction from the incident- but the look of shock and disgust on my face were unmaskable. And I cringe to think of what other acts he might go on to commit, having already gains satisfaction from degrading one woman.


And for all you who had a thought like, "well, big deal, it happens much more frequently (insert place). just shake it off." All I have to say is that social acceptability or frequency doesn't make it right or my anger any less valid.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Leaving behind...

Today I told Morshida that I will be leaving Dhaka in June. I've been dreading this conversation.

For most people I know here, my move is easy. Those to whom I am important with continue to correspond with me via letters, emails, blogs, skype, facebook, etc. At some point in the future we'll probably see each other as we busily bop from place to place, adventure to adventure; visiting, exploring and continuing to be worldly people.

With Morshida, it's different. I find myself at a loss of words- would it suffice to say that when I told her I would be leaving in June I could see her fighting back the tears as they threatened to escape? When I decided to not renew my contract for another year the heaviest thought on my heart was Morshida. But still, we both knew it had to happen.

Morshida. Yes, she makes my life very easy here. She's a dedicated, honest hardworking woman who greets me with a smile every morning before work, rushes her tiny frame around my enormous apartment to complete each task before I can even think it. She prepares my breakfast and packs my lunch. While I'm at work she shops for groceries, carts them to my kitchen, cleans all the scary microbs off the produce and places it in the fridge. She keeps my fridge stocked with homemade apple sauce and pico de gallo. She scrubs the floors and waters the plants. She takes care of arranging the apartment maintenance so I hardly even have to waste a fleeting thought on burnt out light bulbs, leaking pipes, tricky window locks, or moldy walls. She carefully launders my clothes and places them tidily back in my closet- every article pressed, including t-shirts and pajama bottoms. If I ever were the type of person who liked getting served breakfast in bed- I could have it daily, brought to me with a smile. She even makes sure to pick up fragrant flowers with which she decorates my apartment. This is the woman who tended me when I ate out and got so sick that I was in a coma-like sleep for three days. She cleaned up my vomit.

As much as a truly enjoy the pampered princess lifestyle- my sadness of leaving Morshida does not stem from me being demoted from royal to regular citizen. As nice as pampered is- I'm a fully grown woman who can do all of the above for myself. I always knew the lifestyle was temporary.

I worry because I provide over 2/3 of her family's income. And I pay for her children to go to school. I can write her the most beautiful recommendation letter, but that is no guarantee that she'll find stable employment soon. Additionally, I know that Morshida is very emotionally attached to me. I've tried to not cultivate her attachment, knowing that one day I would leave. But it was a futile attempt. By her own admission, I am the nicest employer that she has ever had. She knows that I pay well and, more importantly, I treat her well. She is safe and respected in my home. I will not beat her, yell at her or threaten her- all of which she experiences at home due to her husband. I trust her. I give her the means to earn honest money. Through our conversations, my visits to her and her parents' homes and my knowledge of Bangladeshi culture, I can just start to imagine her world. I know she lives month to month with absolutely no savings or backup plans or, once I leave, job security. Although she has since moved, when I visited her previous home, she, her husband, her two small children and her parents-in-law were all living in a room smaller than any room in my apartment, save for the pantry. That one room housed a bed, a dresser, a chair, a small table and a TV. The cookware was lined up against the wall. The toilet was a communal hole in the ground. (In contrast, my apartment comes with a bathroom with shower and sink plus flushing squat-pot just for her. Her own- and only- private space.) Bangladesh is a country where families must pay impossibly large dowries to sell their daughters off into marriage. It is a country where dejected lovers, husbands, etc can throw acid on women and children to express their discontent. This is not a place of woman's rights or even basic human rights.

Morshida. Her enthusiasm and gratitude for being employed is shown in each and every movement, every word. She tells me frequently that I am such a good employer. Every morning she opens the door for me as a leave and stands there waving as I say good-bye --twice-- once at the door and once at the top of the stairs (a whole 3 meters away from the door)- and wish her a good day. I feel this tradition is slightly silly, but makes her ridiculously happy as she grins widely and waves back. She even suggests that she should come in on her days off. When a huge festival halted all public transportation I had to tell her to stay home in lieu of walking miles to come in to work.

After I told Morshida that I would be leaving in June, she asked me if she could write or call me. I thought this was a great idea- until .5 seconds later when I realized Bangladesh would not send mail to Israel. I told her this. I wonder if refusing to send mail to another country makes any sense to her. We'll try email, but I don't know if she's ever used a computer before. (She said a place nearby in Gulshan 2 would help her) But I'm loathed to think that money that could be spent on food or education or rent would be spent with her pecking her way through composing an email in English.

Five more months until I leave Dhaka. Personally, I wish time could speed up because I'm so excited to be seeing friends in the States and going to Israel. I bet Morshida is praying that time slows down. A few minutes after our conversation, she came to tell me that she already misses me.