Cynthia Cheng finds herself caught up in dramatic protests when she strays from the city’s diplomatic quarter
It started over a beer. I had a brief reunion in Hong Kong with Brett, an old housemate of mine from Canada. We had been discussing travel destinations when Brett suggested we go to Bangladesh to visit a buddy of his. It took me a few seconds to remember where Bangladesh was, and then fewer to say, “Why not?”.
A few weeks later, I booked a flight to Dhaka, packed up all my prized possessions (I was moving to South Korea right after) and headed to the Pearson airport. After three flights, I landed at Shah Jalal International airport.
The euphoria that came with arriving in a new country was replaced with disappointment as I realized my luggage was lost. I lodged a lost luggage request, and watched as they processed my complaint on an old-fashioned typewriter. I doubted the validity of this, but it was the only option.
I met up with Brett, his friend James, and his local driver Pritom, who ushered us through the congested, dusty roads of Dhaka, into the lush neighbourhood of Baridhara. James is a teacher at an international school in Dhaka, granting him the luxury of living in one of the poshest areas among diplomats and ambassadors.
James briefed us on the political situation that was surrounding us. We were deep in the heart of the Shahbag Protests, which demanded a death sentence to several convicted war criminals of the Bangladesh Liberation War, and the ban of Jamaat-e-Islami from future politics. The protests started with a thousand civilians, and expanded to hundreds of thousands of people gathered in a mass uprising. Weekly hartals (strikes) threatened the safety of people outside the diplomatic zone. We were free to roam around Baridhara, but strongly advised not to leave the gated community.
We listened to this advice, and then ignored it. The next day, Brett, Pritom and I headed out to explore Old Dhaka. We strolled around taking in our surroundings. The smell of decomposing meat and garbage, the sounds of locals bartering for fresh produce.
And the stares! A blonde man and a Chinese woman strolling through the markets caused quite a stir. As I scrambled around to buy something to cover my bare arms, I realized I was the only woman in sight. I was in a man’s world now. I exchanged some taka for a shawl and carried on.
I have a slight obsession with people watching in foreign universities, so I suggested we drive to the University of Dhaka. Pritom was a little hesitant but dared not disobey the foreigners.
The rickshaw drivers’ faces had the looks of pure terror. The air was filled with a metallic smell mixed with singed rubber. Smoke was rising above the masses, thickening by the second…
Bangladesh is the eighth densest country on the planet, cramming 160 million people into a country the size of New York State. This doesn’t include the thousands of homeless that roam the streets begging for money. Traffic was horrendous. The excessive honking eventually became white noise, and we crept along, bumper to bumper, stopping just long enough for a beggar to approach the car, threatening to throw a bag of urine at us.
The first glimpse of chaos
As we approached a main intersection, I noticed something was off. The oncoming traffic was moving at lightning speed. Cars, buses, trucks and people were all moving faster than they should be capable of. The rickshaw drivers’ faces had the looks of pure terror. The air was filled with a metallic smell mixed with singed rubber. Smoke was rising above the masses, thickening by the second.
Pritom calmly turned the car around, driving over curbs and gardens and headed back from where we came. Adrenaline coursing through my veins, I managed to utter, “Pritom, what the hell was that?!” He gently answered, “Bus bomb”. Violent and non-violent hartals are generally scheduled days in advance to avoid civilian casualties. This one was an unplanned uprising, and that’s when I knew what we were up against for the next few weeks.
That night, Brett came down with a serious case of Dhaka Belly. I would’ve felt bad if he weren’t whining so incessantly. James and I suited up, left Brett at home writhing in pain, and headed to the Dutch High Commission for one of the more unique Valentine’s Day celebrations I’ve experienced. A night of drinking and dancing with a roomful of diplomats, their beautiful trophy wives, and throngs of eligible gay men. As I wondered aloud if homosexuality was illegal in Bangladesh, a man yelled over the pounding bass “Not if you’re rich!”. He then went back to fondling the two men he was dancing with.
After I had spent a day recovering from a lethal hangover, and Brett finally regained control of his bodily fluids, we decided to embrace the chaos once again. We retraced our steps towards the University of Dhaka.
The traffic was back to normal. Slowly creeping along, we made it to the oldest university in modern Bangladesh. February is National Language Month, during which they celebrate the victory against Pakistan to make Bangali the national language. The entire campus had been transformed into a massive book fair to celebrate national literacy.
After being photographed for a local magazine, and interviewed for the nightly news, it was obvious that they had turned the tables on my people-watching plans. We plodded along the book vendors and curious glances until we took a wrong turn. There was excitement in the air. Chanting, colourful signs and people started congregating. I was surprised at how excited people were about this book fair! As we walked towards the crowd to investigate, I realized this was no book fair. It was a revolution.
Into the eye of the storm
Just around the corner from the University of Dhaka is Shahbag Square. We had accidentally walked into the heart of the very protests we had been warned about. Hundreds of thousands of people gathered together demanding justice. The energy of the movement was enough to make every hair on my body stand on end.
Brett and I took a deep breath and stepped into the sea of protesters, armed with nothing but cameras. For hours, we walked among men, women and children fighting for something they believed in. The whole square was buzzing with free-flowing emotions. Somewhere between observing a silent protest with an elderly man, and getting hypnotized by the music, I lost Brett.
I quickly racked my brain for a contingency plan and I wasn’t too concerned about my safety until I felt somebody grab my arm. Panicked, I turned to face the offender. It was a local man. On his face was a roughly painted Bangladesh flag, and the most genuine smile I have ever seen. He nodded and tugged my arm, suggesting I follow him. Together, we snaked our way through the labyrinth of banners and people and ten minutes later I found myself face to face with Brett. I’ll never forget how such a simple gesture changed my entire perspective of the country.
Dhaka is known as the chaos capital of Asia, and it certainly lived up to its name. But through all the pandemonium and mayhem, there its passion, excitement and genuine desire to be heard. This journey proved once again that Western media is nothing but a fear monger and the only way to know the truth is by experiencing it.
Click any of the images below to open a slideshow. Photos courtesy of Cynthia Cheng and Brett Bracalenti.