Tuesday, March 4, 2022



(For the full story read The Gainesville Years, 1 through 14)

I came to Bangladesh alone a week ahead of the film crew to do my research and begin writing the shooting script. Now it was time for me to leave—alone. The crew still needed to pick up some shots to complete the story, but I had to get back to the university. The fall term was just a couple weeks away and I needed time to prepare for the two news writing labs I would be teaching.

I had a choice of routes: through Hong Kong or through New Delhi. There were unbelievably good shopping bargains to be had in Hong Kong, I was told, but no matter how good the bargains, I didn’t have the discretionary funds to take advantage of them. However that wasn’t the only reason I chose to return to the States by way of New Delhi.

When I was a young, romantically inclined teenager I came across an issue of the National Geographic Magazine that extolled the wonders of a magnificent building, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was not just the beauty of the structure that struck me, but the story behind it. That building was the Taj Mahal, and the story was about an Indian prince who was so aggrieved by the death of his favorite wife that he built this remarkable, unbelievably beautiful structure as a tribute to her and a testament to his love.

As a teenager I was moved by this tale; as an adult it still held sway over me...but I never dreamed I would one day get the chance to see the exquisite architectural work of art it inspired.   I may never have an opportunity like this again, I told myself.  Putting my financial insecurity temporarily on hold, I decided to layover in New Delhi for a couple days on my way home, and take a side trip to Agra to see this sacred tribute to undying love.

Not widely traveled at this stage of my life, I asked our travel agent to avoid hotels usually frequented by Americans and book me into a place that would give me a real sense of the country. I wanted to “experience” India.  In theory this sounded like a good idea. It never occurred to me that I would be isolating myself; that I would be eliminating any chance for the kind of  camaraderie that often blossoms among tourists from similar cultures traveling abroad--a particularly desirable option for someone traveling alone.

My New Delhi accommodations

In compliance with my request, I was booked into a hotel that catered to Indian salesmen and travelers.  Except for a handful of frugal-minded German tourists and, of course, me, all the guests appeared to be Indian, and all, including the Germans, seemed absorbed in their own itineraries.  If they acknowledged me at all, it was with the clear caveat that I was not to mistake their nod as an invitation for conversation.  While the social aspect of my stay left something to be desired, the accommodations were adequate for my brief visit.

There was one challenge my decision to make this short trip alone created that I had not expected. It is probably no longer true, but 35  years ago there was a prevailing concept in India that all Americans were rich.  A rich American woman traveling alone, which was, of course, how I was perceived, was a magnet for sidewalk venders eager to sell her their little piece of India to take  home. When I attempted to do a little sightseeing on foot they descended on me, all smiles, beseeching me to inspect their wares.  I rejected their offer as graciously as I could, and sometimes this worked.  But sometimes the men would turn hostel, nasty. They seemed to take my rejection personally. So I stopped walking out on my own.

And then there was my cab ride from the airport.  The cab driver was friendly enough—too friendly. Once he realized I was traveling alone, he turned on the charm. At first it seemed like just an over-earnest sales pitch. He wanted me to hire him for the duration my stay. He would be happy to show me around. Something about his effusive manner made me uncomfortable. I thanked him, but declined. That is when he really turned on the charm.

He produced some letters, ostensibly recommendation from satisfied “American Women” who had used his services. The fact that he kept turning around to talk to me while wending his way through the city’s chaotic traffic did little to advance his cause. Nor did his not so subtle flirtatious remarks and suggestive references to the other services he could provide beyond that of tour guide. In hindsight, I doubt he was talking about sexual benefits. He was probably just attempting to be  charming. But at the time it made me very uncomfortable. And the more he talked, the more uncomfortable I became.

The Qutub Minar, a major landmark in New Delhi, 
was built in  1193, and is part of the ancient
capital of the Tuqhlaq Dynasty

I was relieved when we finally reached my hotel, until he insisted on taking my luggage inside.  He stood by me as I checked in.  When he picked up my bags to take them to my room I put my foot down. I had had enough. Finally, safe in my room, I took a deep breath. Then the phone rang. It was my eager cab driver again. He knew I was tired from my trip, so he wanted to reassure me that if  later I regretted being so hasty in turning down his generous offer, not to worry. He would call me in the morning…in case, after thinking it over, I changed my mind. I assured him that I would not change my mind. I had made other plans. Not trusting that this would stop him, and concerned that he knew my room number, I made sure I was up and out of my room early the next morning.

I made arrangements with the hotel to purchase a train ticket for me to Agra.  In the meantime, I wanted to see a bit of New Delhi.  The desk clerk found a driver for me who turned out to be remarkable. It wasn’t just that he provided me with an excellent overview of the city, and seemed very knowledgeable about all of the places he showed me. What I found remarkable was the fact that we were three quarters of the way through our tour, with me chatting away, with him nodding and smiling… before I realized he didn’t understand a word I was saying. When the hotel clerk said this cab driver spoke English…he meant that he could tell me about the sites in English—apparently a script he had memorized. My driver didn’t actually speak or really understand English. But it was a great tour, and he was a pleasant chap.  I laughed at myself for taking so long to catch on, but I thoroughly enjoyed the day.

One of my favorite sites in New Delhi was
the Laxminarayan Temple.

Another view of The Laxminarayan Temple

 Yes, that's me. 36 years ago. And yes, that is a swastika, which long
before Hitler adopted it, was, and coninues to be, a sacred Hindu symbol
denoting luck and good fortune, and honesty, truth and purity.
 One of my favorite stops that afternoon was the Laxminarayan Temple, also known as the Birla Temple, a three-storied structure built in the northern or Nagara style of Hindu temple architecture. The temple is adorned with carvings depicting scenes from Hindu mythology. Construction was begun in 1933 and completed in 1939 when it was, according to my driver, “inaugurated by Mahatma Gandhi.” My driver was very proud that at the time Gandhi stipulated that the Temple would not be restricted to Hindus, and that people from every caste would be allowed inside.

As he showed me around the temple, the young man explained that Hinduism, one of the world's oldest religions, has many forms.  It is an inclusive religion that respects other religions, and over the centuries, as in the case of Buddhism, has sometimes incorporated the wisdom  and moral teachings of other faiths.

The main temple is spread over 7.5 beautifully landscaped acres and houses statues of Lord Narayan and Hindu Goddess Lakshmi. (Thus, the temple's  name.) There are other small shrines dedicated to Lord Shiva, Lord Ganesha and Hanuman. And, to bear out what my guide had told me, there is also a shrine dedicated to Lord Buddha. The left side temple shikhar (dome) houses Devi Durga, the Hindu goddess of Shakti, the power.

Later that afternoon we drove into "Old Delhi" and my driver pointed out the Red Fort.  He told me that they had evening light shows during which the history of the Fort is dramatically told.  There would be an English version presented that night.  When we got back to the hotel I asked the desk clerk to purchase a ticket and arrange for a cab to take me.

The Red Fort is shaped like an octagon, and covers
over 254 acres. It derives its name from the extensive use
of red sandstone on the massive walls that surround the fort.

The cab dropped me off and I began the long walk, past the vendors, towards the entrance.  One after another, the men lining the street with their wares vied for my attention, thrusting their goods in my face...masking their aggression with a smile.  I smiled back, shaking my head, and kept walking.

At some point it must have become apparent that "the rich American Lady"  wasn't going to buy anything, or even stop to inspect their wares. I felt the mood change. The men's gracious facade disappeared.  In its place I sensed a subtle hostility.  I didn't need to understand the language to realize they were talking about me: the unflattering pantomime exaggerating my walk, the sarcastic tone of a comment that triggered laughter.

Once within the  Fort's walls, as the light show began, the discomfort I was feeling outside vanished.
I became completely caught up in the experience.  It was astonishing. The history of the fort unfolded in beautiful, music-accompanied prose.  Colored lights brushed the walls and alcoves,  highlighting the areas that were the historic backdrop for the story being told, and bringing the saga to life. While I have no pictures from the light show, here are some views of the Red Fort.        


When the light show ended I exited with the crowd.  As  instructed by my cab driver, I headed to where he had dropped me off .  He said I would be able to get a cab there to take me back to my hotel.  As soon as I was outside  the discomfort I felt earlier returned. It was dark now. The merchants were gone, but there were still men lingering along the street. I tried to stay close to the group.  It might have been my imagination, or the hour, but I felt as if I was being watched by hostile eyes.

 I finally reached the cab stand and, giving the dispatcher the name of my hotel, requested a cab. He mumbled something I did not understand, and motioned me aside, then quickly ushered the couple who had been behind me into the waiting cab.  I tried again, and again he motioned me aside, admonishing me to be patient as he hustled another group into a waiting cab.  I watched as each couple or group and even a few single men were dispatched; I watched as  the number of waiting cabs dwindled. Finally out of patience…and frankly, more than a little scared as the area emptied and the Fort’s exterior lights were shut off... I demanded that the dispatcher put me in a cab.  He ignored me as he put the last couple into the last waiting cab.

“Are there more cabs coming,” I asked. “No” he replied. I panicked. “How will I get back to my hotel?” “I told you, Lady" he said,"I told before... none of the cabs will take you. Your hotel is too close. You must take that.” He pointed across the street to a bicycle-powered rickshaw.  I know now that I should have matched my request for a cab with some rupees, but I didn't understand Indian economics then.

These rickshaws are in Dhaka, but they are like the rickshaw I took back to
the hotel that night from the Red Fort

 Defeated, I crossed the street and engaged the rather seedy, underfed young man who was standing next to the rickshaw to take me to my hotel.  We moved at a snail’s pace through the dark streets.  It seemed like an eternity before we reached the hotel, and I was charged double what I had paid  the cab that took me to the Fort.  Still I have no regrets.  For a couple hours that evening I stepped back in time, into another India.   An India that was vibrant, opulent.  Filled with violence, perhaps, but an India where poets were as honored as warriors, and where princes made war, but also created beauty...remnants of which are still with us today.

The main reason I had come to New Delhi was to see the Taj Mahal, but even with the help of the hotel staff, I was unable to purchase the necessary train ticket to Agra. The clerk was apologetic. It was tourist season. There were just no train tickets left in my time frame. I was heartbroken. Then a miracle: The clerk mentioned my plight to a Pakistani couple staying at the hotel who, happily, spoke English. The man was attached to Pakistan's diplomatic service. They too wanted to visit the Taj Mahal and were unable to get train tickets to Agra, so they had arranged to rent a car. And if I wished, I could share it with them.

Next: The Taj Mahal--The final installment of my Bangladesh-New Delhi adventures


Sunday, November 25, 2012



(For the full story read The Gainesville Years, 1 through 13) 

A busy life and a new book have made it difficult for me to keep up this  blog, something I intend to do more faithfully in the coming year. In order to start out fresh, I need to close my Gainesville years, which ended up being primarily about my job in Bangladesh. Once I opened the gate to those memories, the stories poured out. They were so rich I couldn’t seem to close that chapter. But, it is time. Yet I cannot leave Bangladesh without sharing one more memory; one that, even after all these years, is still fresh in my mind. I met a young girl on that trip who touched my heart so deeply I went so far as to speak to Doctor Coddington about the possibility of adopting her.

I can still see her face in my mind’s eye; especially her ever- smiling eyes. Unfortunately, after all these years, no matter how hard I try I cannot seem to recall her name. It remains hidden somewhere in my memory, irretrievable. I will call her Amodita, which means “happiness” in Bengali, for she was truly the happiest child I have ever known. She grew up in abject poverty, yet she was filled with joy, and her curiosity—about all things—was insatiable. Language was no barrier. She always managed to make herself understood, and to understand.

Amodita appeared with some other children our very first day in her village. The others soon lost interest, but not her. She became our shadow. When it came time for us to go, I had become so attached to her that I found it difficult to leave her behind. All I could think of was what a waste her life would be trapped in this poverty, with no chance to get the education that would enable her to blossom.

I became obsessed with the idea of trying to adopt her. But Dr. Coddington, ever the wise soul, made me see that, while well intended, doing this would be an act of selfishness. I had not, he pointed out, given any thought to what impact removing Amodita from her community would have on her. She was bright, yes. But had I considered how traumatic it would be for her to be removed from all she was familiar with and plopped down in the United States, among people who would see her as a foreigner…whose customs and language and values differed so drastically from hers? And had I thought about what her loss would mean to her family? The qualities I saw in Amodita that made me want to rescue her were the very qualities that would enable her to help her family survive, and perhaps even thrive in her native culture.

He made his point. I didn’t pursue the idea any further.

And now:, meet Amodita

Amodita, second from left, with welcoming committee.

Amodita and her radiant smile.

Amodita's energy and enthusiasm were contagious. You could not
look at her without smiling.

Amodta was always filled with questions for Fran and me.

I often think of Amodita and her joyful smile and quick mind and wonder where she is today.  She was just a couple years younger than my daughter, so she would be in her late forties.  I wonder how her life turned out.  Was she able to help her family to a better life?  Did she get a chance to get an education?  Did she marry? Have children?  I also cannot help but wonder what would have happened if I had not let Dr. Coddington dissuade me and had been able to adopt her.  How would that have changed the course of her life?

One thing I do know.  She taught me about happiness--that it doesn't depend on what one has, but on how one chooses to embrace life.  Thank you Amodita.

I made one stop on my way home.  Next, the final post of my Gainesville Years:  A dream fulfilled.   

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


In my last blog I promised more “behind the scenes” stories from Bangladesh.  I was there, if you remember, on leave from the University of Florida to work on a documentary for the Presbyterian Church, U.S.   (For those of you new to my blog, for the full story please read part 1 through 12 of “The Gainesville Years.”) In this posting I would like to tell you about an unexpected treasure we came across when we went to film the harvesting of fish for the two new lakes being built in the refugee camp at Tongee. Our destination was one of the poorest, most densely populated areas of Bangladesh where, I was told, there were some 2400 people to a square mile.

The men and boys from the village check  us out.

Village women take a moment from their unending
 daily chores to watch  some of our filming.
The were no major cities in the area, just one small crowded village after another where daily life was a perpetual struggle for survival.   It was hard to reconcile what I found there with the knowledge that this region had once been the heart of a thriving kingdom.  And yet, for a brief time, beginning in the late 1500’s, what we know today as Bangladesh basked in a Golden Age.   Known then as Bengal, it was a province of the mighty Mughal Empire. Under the Mughal viceroys art and literature flourished, overland trade was expanded, and ships came from all over the world to engage in commerce with Bengal’s merchants.  In those days Bengal was the wealthiest area on the subcontinent.   Its lush beauty was renowned, prompting European geographers to refer to the mouth of the Ganges as “Paradise.”  I was reminded of that Golden Era when my crew and I came across a sight that seemed so incongruous in that village dotted countryside…a well preserved structure that looked like a grand palace.
The Sultan's Palace
And that is precisely what it once was.  As the story goes, sometime during the region’s Golden Age, before the Portuguese, Dutch, and French discovered the area...before the British turned their ventures in commerce into colonization… a wealthy sultan built this palace to house his many wives.  To ensure his wives complete privacy when they partook of their ablutions—in other words, when they bathed—he built them a private lake adjacent to the palace. 
During the Sultan’s reign it would have cost you your life if you were found anywhere near his lake.  Knowing that made me wonder what the good Sultan  would make of the fact that today his lake provides sustenance for hundreds of villagers in the area and—because of what was going on in Tongee—would  soon be doing the same for refugees hundreds of miles away for many years to come. 
Fishing in the Sultan's Lake

But then I suppose what happened to his lake would not bother him nearly as much as what has happened to the beautiful,  thriving countryside Bengal was  when he built his castle.
Another story I would like to share with you is about a secret baptism my crew and I attended in the dark of night during a visit to a Muslim region deep in the center of the country.   We had gone to the area to film scenes for a segment about how rice plants were being grown for replanting at the refugee camp at Tongee.
It was late afternoon when we arrived at the rice growing cooperative that had been set up by Christian missionaries.  I could sense a certain tension in the air.  People were hurrying about.  Hushed conversations stopped abruptly when someone new approached.  A woman called our translator aside and whispered something to  her.  The translator relayed the message: we were being invited to a special service... around midnight.  To understand the importance and timing of the service, you need to know something about the co-op and the people who work in  it.

Hunger was an ongoing problem in this area of Bangladesh.  One of the main reasons was the area's culture, which was built around small family farms.   Because Bangladesh had no mechanism to get crops to market, the farmers only grew enough food to feed their own families.  In times past, before the population burgeoned, this culture worked well, but not now...not in today's densely populated region filled with landless people with no reliable sources for food. 

The missionaries' project had succeeded in making great inroads in solving this ongoing problem of hunger. Using the latest agricultural technology, the cooperative was able to grow multiple crops of rice a year, providing both food and work for the area's landless people.
But in aiming for the highest yield for their crops, the missionaries crashed head-on into a major taboo:  Since women have a more gentle touch than men, they are better at transplanting the delicate rice plants, so the missionaries sought out women for the task. 

Rice  co-op workers in the field.           

They also wanted to help the countless number of  widows produced by the country's devastating war for independence.  The problem was that in the Muslim culture women are not permitted to work except for their husbands or fathers. If they do not have a husband or a father to protect and provide for them their only religiously-sanctioned option for survival is to beg.

This option did not sit well with many of these women, so they chose to go against religious law, and at considerable risk to their standing in their community, work for the cooperative. Allowing this put  the  Missionaries at odds with the Muslim leaders in the community. 
To compound the problem, many of these women, happy to be given this opportunity to survive with dignity, looked upon the religion of these missionaries as more suited to their needs than their own Muslim faith.  But to convert could mean a death sentence for them.  Baptisms had to be done in secret.  And that is how my crew and I came to be guests (without cameras of course) at a secret midnight baptism, complete with look-outs and guards to warn of interlopers. 

 It was an intense, unforgettable experience.  I only hope the daring women who took this step that night found sufficient solace in their new faith to warrant the ongoing danger in which they had put themselves.

Sunday, February 5, 2012


Happy Birthday Bangladesh –  Musings On The Nation's 40th Anniversary
I have been sharing with you some of my experiences and impressions during the month I spent in Bangladesh some thirty-six years ago, but I have only briefly touched on the historical context in which those experiences took shape.  This is the perfect time to correct that oversight because this month Bangladesh celebrates its 40th anniversary as a sovereign nation.  

The country was barely  three years old when I arrived there in 1975 to work on a documentary.  Signs of the high price Bangladesh had paid for its independence were everywhere.  I saw it in the gaunt, weary faces of the refugees at Tongee; in the rampant poverty and the war-scarred, deserted buildings strewn throughout the countryside; in the inordinate number of widows and orphans we found everywhere we went.  But it was not until I watched and read the BBC retrospective last week on the birth of Bangladesh that I fully grasped the scope of the tragedy that occurred when the breach between East and West Pakistan  erupted into war, and the two disparate areas, forcibly bonded into a single nation for political and religious reasons, were torn apart. Given our nation's current relationship with Pakistan, I think it is instructive to look back at what happened in that region 40 years ago, and the role our nation played (or didn't play) in this shameful piece of history.

From the very beginning, the partitioning by the British of the Punjab and Bengal regions of India into the  single nation of West and East Pakistan was ill-conceived.  The logic for the creation of Pakistan, from the British perspective, was this:  It was clear that Hindus and Muslims would never get along,  so the only way to insure the successful transition of India to an independent, self-governing part of the Empire was to partition the overwhelmingly Muslim areas of the country into a separate nation 

The fact that Punjab and Bengal were on opposite sides of India was dismissed, as was the dissimilarity between the two areas.  Bengal, which became East Pakistan, was an agricultural area where the predominate language was Bangla; Punjab, which became West Pakistan, was industrialized, urban and more sophisticated politically, and Urdu was the predominant language. 

Bangladesh, formerly East Pakistan, is primarily an agrarian society, and was
easily manipulated and controlled by  the more industrialized West Pakistan.

It is not surprising, therefore, that West Pakistan was quickly able to amass the majority of the political power in the new nation.  And since East Pakistan had to depend on West Pakistan to process its major crop, jute, it did not take West Pakistan long to gain control of East Pakistan's agricultural output.  As one man told me during my visit, West Pakistan used East Pakistan as its bread basket and, in his words, “raped the region of its resources.” As a result, West Pakistan grew richer while East Pakistan grew poorer.
There were other problems.  When a massive typhoon struck East Pakistan,  West Pakistan turned a blind eye to the devastated area's pleas for help.  But the real breach erupted over language. When the Pakistan government decreed that Urdu would become the national language for all Pakistan and forbade the use of Bangla, the Bangla-speaking Bengalis decided they had had enough.  It was time for them to assert their cultural identity. Their efforts to reinstate the Bangla language soon erupted into a full blown battle for self-governance. 
When an election in 1971 ended up favoring East Pakistan, Pakistan’s President postponed opening the National Assembly.  Riots and strikes broke out in East Pakistan, and the area unilaterally proclaimed itself an independent state. West Pakistan responded by sending troops to quell the rebellion.  

At a meeting of the military top brass, General Agha Mohammed Yahya Khan set the tone of the campaign. "Kill three million of them and the rest will eat out of our hands," he told the group. On March 25th, 1971, the Pakistan army, with the support of political and religious militias, unleashed Operation Searchlight  on East Pakistan. Bengali members of the military services were disarmed and killed and students and the intelligentsia systematically liquidated.  Able-bodied Bengali males were  picked up and gunned down. In the six months that followed General Yahay Khan's goal was reached, at least according to Bangladeshi authorities who say that during the one-sided war three million people were killed.  (The Pakistanis contest that number, placing the figure at closer to 200,000.)

In December of 2002 the George Washington University's National Security Archive published a collection of declassified documents between US embassy officials, United States Information Service centers in Dhaka and India, and officials in Washington DC.  Those documents reveal that US officials working in diplomatic institutions within Bangladesh called the events they were witnessing or had knowledge of  selective genocide  The Blood Telegram   In spite of this, President Nixon refused to interfere with what he said was an internal Pakistan matter.  
This was not a war of soldiers fighting soldiers or armed rebels.  This was a war against an unarmed civilian population.  Students, professionals and intellectuals were the first victims. Defenseless women were tortured, raped and killed.  The exact number is subject to debate, but Bangladeshi sources site a figure of 200,000 women raped, giving birth to thousands of war babies. The Pakistan Army kept Bengali women as sex-slaves inside the Dhaka Cantonment. Many of the girls were captured from Dhaka University and private homes.  As I learned when I was there, even though they were victims, the raped young women who managed to survive became outcasts from society and often their own families.  In the Muslim culture, they were considered unclean, and therefore unsuitable for marriage.  And 40 years ago marriage was essential for a woman's survival in Bangladesh.
According to a Time magazine report  August 2nd, 1971, "The Hindus, who account for three-fourths of the refugees and a majority of the dead, have borne the brunt of the Pakistani military's hatred." But all the violence against the Bengalis were not committed by the West Pakistan military.  There was extensive  sectarian violence perpetrated against Bengali minorities by Hindu-hating Bengali nationalists. One of the saddest stories I came across during my trip bore witness to this.

I was on my way to Tongee with Dr. Coddington when we passed an obviously once grand building in ruins.   I asked Dr. Coddington what it was. He said it has been the home and hospital of a much beloved Hindu doctor who used to serve the area—Hindus and Muslims alike.  One night, during the madness of the war, Dr. Coddington said, a gang of Bengali Muslims attacked the building and brutally slaughtered the doctor, his family, and the hospital staff.  The irony  of this tragedy is that in feeding their irrational hatred of Hindus, these men deprived themselves and all the other people in the area of a  caring, compassionate doctor and the only medical care available in the region.  

But back to the war.  West Pakistan  failed to gather international support, and found itself fighting a lone battle with only the United States providing any external help. (The United States and China were the only two Countries that supported West Pakistan.) Still, with little substantive resistance from the defenseless population of East Pakistan it looked as though nothing could stop the aggressors.

As the war continued, eight to ten million Bengali refugees fled  to India. Alarmed by the massive influx of refugees, India decided to enter the war, but it was not until the Pakistani Air Force made a preemptive attack on Indian forces that Indian troops finally crossed the border.  Suddenly the Pakistani army found itself being attacked from the east by the Indian army, the north and east by guerrillas, and from all quarters by East Pakistan's civilian population. Once India entered the war, it was all over in eleven days, and the world's 139th country officially came into existence. It is interesting to note that the only objection came from China...and that while the United States finally recognized the new nation, it was the last country to do so.

Forty years later the scars of that war are still raw.  A few years ago another mass grave was found, rekindling the anger in Bangladesh towards Pakistan and the people in their own country who have failed to  pursue justice for the millions killed and maimed in what most of the world, albeit many with reluctance, admit was a genocide.  

As for our country, forty years ago, fully aware of the genocide that was taking place, our government chose to make an expedient rather than moral decision on what should be done.  It was not the first time, nor the last time we acted in such a manner, but given our complex relation with Pakistan over the past forty years, I wonder if those responsible for that decision would still feel it was justified. My brother says that I am not a realist.  The world just doesn't work the way I would like it to.  He  is probably right.  But I keep hoping that some day this country which I dearly love will grow up, and become the kind of  nation most of its citizens think it is.      
 Next time: Saying Good bye to Bangladesh.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Gainesville Years part 11

Bangladesh – The Untold Stories
(For the full story read The Gainesville Years, 1 through 10)              
We were in Bangladesh to do a documentary for the Presbyterian Church U.S.  The purpose of the documentary was to help raise funds for an ecumenical project being spearheaded by the only Presbyterian missionary in the country.  The story was inspiring:  Thousands of Bengali refugees, victims of the country’s bloody war for independence and the disastrous typhoons that followed, had been dumped in a barren rice field miles from Dhaka without shelter, food or sanitation.  Touched by their plight, this Christian coalition of clergy set into action a program that was transforming the desolate rice field into a viable, self-supporting community complete with housing, and even a stocked lake so the people could feed themselves.  

From desolate rice field to viable community.

But as important and as powerful as this story was, today when I think of the time I spent in Bangladesh what I remember most are the untold stories from that trip, the stories that never made it into the documentary, but changed the way I see the world.  Like the personal story  of  Aasim,  the soft-spoken, dedicated Bengali man who oversaw the construction of the houses for the new community.  For his safety, I am not using his real name, but this is his story.

Aasim at work.

  I met Aasim while I was gathering research for the script.  Though it didn’t seem to slow him down, I noticed that he didn’t have full use of his right arm, and asked Dr. Coddington about it.  “His father tried to kill him,” Dr. Coddington said, “because he became a Christian.”
Aasim was reared as a devout Muslim, but he was a curious young man.  In the course of studying the Koran he came across a prophet named Jesus Christ, not as important as Mohamed, but still a major prophet  for Muslims.  However, whenever Aasim would ask about this Jesus Christ his father would become angry and refuse to discuss the prophet with him.   Aasim’s father’s reaction only intensified the boy’s curiosity.  So when one day Aasim met a Christian missionary he put his questions to the man, who was happy to satisfy that curiosity.   The missionary even offered to help Aasim learn all about the Prophet’s teachings.
Aasim took the missionary up on his offer.  In Aasim’s mind, Dr. Coddington said,  he was not doing anything wrong.  After all, this Jesus was revered by Muslims.  However, what Aasim learned under the tutelage of the missionary resonated with the young man so strongly that in time he decided to become a follower of this prophet...to become a Christian.
Aasim’s father was furious. He decided to kill his infidel son.  He planned to do this during a Muslim holy day celebration. Fortunately for Aasim, an aunt who cared about him overheard his father discussing his plan and warned the young man.  Although Aasim did not want to believe her, he  stayed alert during the festivities.  When his father suddenly lunged at him with a dagger, Aasim was able to thwart a fatal blow, but the blade cut through his raised arm, doing irrevocable damage to critical muscles.  Miraculously (according to Aasim) he managed to escape with his life.
 When I spoke with Aasim about the experience he told me he is sad that he will never be able to return home.  He sorely misses his mother and aunt.  But as I watched the unbounded enthusiasm with which he went about his work, and the way his face lit up when he spoke to me of his “Savior” and the miraculous changes in his life since he has found Christ, it was clear to me that Aasim's newly found faith feeds the man's soul.
I heard a debate the other day on NPR.  The statement posed:  “The world would be better off without religion.”  Arguing in favor of the statement were A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher and professor, and Matthew Chapman, a journalist and screenwriter and the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin.  Arguing against the statement were Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and Dinesh D'Souza, President of Kings College, London.  To hear the debate click the link below.
The debate made me think: Over the years I have had the privilege of working for some remarkable Christian organizations and documenting the accomplishments of numerous exceptional men and women whose work was inspired by their faith. Yet, in spite of  this evidence I wonder if perhaps the world might not be better off without religion.  I respect those who find solace and inspiration in their faith, who believe adhering to their religion makes them better people.  But while I have an unshakable belief in a Divine force I choose to call God, it seems to me that religion has done far more harm than good in this world.
Aasim’s alienation from his family because of his conversion is just one example.  There are more  examples from Bangladesh I will share with you in future postings.  But I need look no further than my own family for examples.  It was religion that caused my father’s family to be banished from Spain...to wander for generations through South and Central America before my great grandmother and grandfather finally settled in Philadelphia.  It was religion that triggered the pogroms that forced my mother’s family to leave Tsarist Russia.  Religion was  the trigger for the bloodbaths in Africa, Ireland, and the Slavic countries, and continues to make the Middle East a bloody, irrational battle ground. 
For all the comfort I have seen people derive from their faith, in spite of the reassuring sense of identity I know it gives many people, and all the good work has been done in the name of religion, even at its best religion still separates people into “them and us.”   And as long as this is a "them and us"  world, compassion will be unsustainable... and lasting peace forever unattainable.

Next: the rice planters and fish gatherers of Bangladesh.


Monday, June 6, 2011




The crew finally arrived in Dacca. Much to my delight, it included another woman—a first (and as it turned out, the last) in all my years of doing this work. Today women can be found in all aspects of film making, but thirty-five years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a woman in a technical crew position state-side, let alone on an overseas assignment. Her name was Fran Tarranella. She was a bright, ambitious twenty-something sound engineer out of Atlanta.

Crew conference before hitting the road..

In retrospect, it is easy to smile at some of the situations Fran—simply by virtue of being a woman—found herself in during that shoot. At the time, however, they didn’t seem all that amusing. Take, for example, the gas station incident our first day on the road.

Unlike documentary makers who have the luxury of spending a year or more finding their story, we were on a tight, fixed budget which dictated that we complete all our shooting in roughly two weeks. So, with a number of locations slated for filming, in the early hours of the morning the day after they arrived, our small crew, which, besides Fran and me, included our producer, Sandy McDonnell , our director, Neil Halslop, and our cinematographer, Mitchell Lipsiner... along with a missionary who would serve as our translator and guide... piled into a car and hit the road.

Years traveling with all-male film crews overseas and in remote areas of the United States where amenities are few and far between, prompted me to develop a well-disciplined bladder, something Fran had not yet done. After about two hours on the road she informed Sandy that she was in need of a rest stop.

We pulled into a gas station and Sandy asked the owner for permission to use the rest room. Permission was granted—until the man, a devout Muslim, realized that the request was for a woman. The offer was immediately rescinded by the angered proprietor, who was offended by the request. From what we could gather from our guide and translator, the owner considered the request an insult since women were unclean. Allowing one to use his “facility” would be a desecration. Her use would somehow contaminate it. No man would ever be able to use it again. Our missionary guide apologized, but said there was no use trying another place. In this Muslim area we would get the same reception everywhere.

In the end, whenever we were on the road, a clump of bushes a respectable distance off the highway had to suffice as a ladies room for Fran and, on occasion, me, whenever we required one.

Then there was the amusing clash of culture Fran unwittingly ran into in a little Hindu village.

Fran carried her recording equipment slung over her shoulder and leaning on her hip, much like the women in the village transported their young children. A man carrying his equipment in such a manner would have attracted little attention, but a woman, wearing pants (permissible when we worked in Hindu communities), with a large machine strapped over her shoulder in that manner—stirred up considerable curiosity and conjecture. Just how much, I discovered as I was prepping some of the village women for some shots we wanted of them going about their daily chores.

In an effort to build rapport with them, I searched for common experiences.  Since child bearing and rearing were the core of village life for women, that is what we discussed. They were delighted to learn that I had children, and that two of my children were sons. In Bangladesh, the more sons a woman has, the higher her status. There was a practical reason for this hierarchy.

 In the villages of Bangladesh, when a woman marries she joins her husband’s family and becomes a virtual slave to her husband and mother-in-law, to whom she must show the greatest respect.  If the woman has only daughters, she never rises from this lowly position. But if she has sons, eventually she  becomes the matriarch in her son’s household. Without sons, if her husband dies, she has no place to go.  Ergo, the more sons, the more security and the more power.

Gettinhg ready to record
  I noticed, as we talked, some of the women seemed preoccupied with Fran, who was setting up her equipment for the segment we were about film. Finally one of the women addressed me through our translator. Pointing to Fran she asked if she had children. When I explained that she was not yet married they seemed upset, or perhaps saddened would be a better description. To them, Fran was very old to still be unmarried.  What would she do in her old age with no sons to care for her? Then one of the women pointed to Fran, and said something that made the other women laugh

“What did she say?” I asked.

“Oh,” my translator said, laughing herself, “she has figured out that your friend does have a child. It is that thing she carries on her hip and is always talking to.”

I looked over at Fran. She was doing a sound check, talking into her equipment. She did, indeed, carry her equipment around much like a village woman would carry a child.  She treated her equipment gently, carefully, and did talk into it softly as a mother would talk to a child. In a way, I guess, her equipment was her “child.” At least, that’s how the women in the village saw the situation.

Fran at work

Making friends

Madonna, Bangladesh style

Dinner prepaaration

Bath Time in a Bengali village


Thursday, May 5, 2011



Easter Sunday, 1975 Dhaka, Bangladesh

I bolted upright in my bed. It wasn't a dream. The ear-piercing clamor was real. Had it finally happened—the military coup the missionaries had been talking about in hushed tones the past few days? I checked the clock. Four A.M. A hell of a time for a coup.

When I finally shook the daze of sleep from my head, I realized it wasn't artillery I was hearing; more like someone banging on large, empty metal containers or tin pans. The noise was coming from the courtyard beneath my window.

Cautiously, I pulled the curtain aside. The courtyard was dark, but I could make out the shape of a large truck. There appeared to be some figures in the open bed of the truck. They were furiously beating on what looked like oil drums and over-sized garbage can lids; pummeling them for all they were worth. The clamorous result of their efforts almost drowned out the knocking at my bedroom door.

"Sunny, are you up?"

What a question. I doubted even the dead could have slept through that racket. "Yes," I said.

"Good," the voice on the other side of the door said. "We'll be waiting for you downstairs."

And that was my introduction to the Bengali Easter custom of arousing believers for the Sunrise Service. With an unbridled sense of urgency, young men in old trucks, armed with empty oil barrels, wash basins, metal trays, and any other noisemakers they could find or devise, set out in the wee hours of Easter morning for the homes of the faithful where, with great enthusiasm, they beat and banged their makeshift instruments to call the city's scant Christian population to prayer.

I hurriedly dressed and joined my Baptist missionary hosts and we headed for a lake side park. Easter Sunrise service in Dhaka in 1975 was not compartmentalized by denomination. It was a community affair. Communicants from all the area's Christian churches greeted the holy day together. They gathered in the dark, bringing their chairs, to wait for the sun to rise. They sang together, prayed together, and their priests and pastors shared the holy word with the ecumenical congregation.

The Christian Community gathers, Easter Sunday 1975, Dhaka, Bangladesh

And when the sun had risen, and the service had been completed, the Baptists, Presbyterians, and other denominations proceeded to the Anglican Church for the rest of the Easter day celebration. (The Anglicans, I believe, were the only denomination in the city with their own church.)

Anglican Church, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The women in their colorful saris, the men in their crisp white lungis and shirts, flowed into the sanctuary and seated themselves on woven mats on the floor. Their voices rose in song. The sacred melodies were unfamiliar, the language foreign, but the sense of holiness and celebration was unmistakable.

I have attended other Easter Sunday services, in Washington State and California, where the pageantry and service was more familiar, the language understandable and the fellowship welcoming, but none have moved me more than that Easter Sunday service in 1975 in that austere little church in Bangladesh, amidst that group of strangers whose world I barely understood. Their faith, their passion for their belief was palpable, and it moved me.

I thought about them this Easter Sunday as I read how Christians in some of the Muslim countries in the Middle East chose not to celebrate their most holy holiday this year for fear that their Muslim neighbors would kill them. That small group of Christians in Bangladesh knew that fear. They had felt the wrath of their Muslim neighbors during the revolution, as did the Hindu citizens of Bangladesh. All was calm at the moment, but in such countries, where political instability exists and poverty is rampant, the possibility of mayhem is ever present.

Christian, Jew, Muslim... it is never easy to be a minority, to hold a belief that is out of step with the majority of the people around you. Sadly, it is no different in this country. When things are not going well, it is too easy to target and blame the “other” for our discontent, to make them a scapegoat for our problems. Even good people sometimes fall into that trap.

Let me pose a question. Christian, Jew, Muslim... all believe in one God. All these religions teach that God created all things. Then by what distorted logic can anyone professing to be a Christian, Jew or Moslem, anyone claiming to love God, justify killing, or even hating a fellow human being—another creature lovingly created by God? Just something for you to ponder.