Published: “Noise Pollution: We have gotten used to it too soon”

For October’s Forum magazine (Volume 5, Issue 10, October 2011), I wrote an essay on the continued problem of noise pollution in Dhaka, and how it is felt in the growing city.

Implementing policies related to noise pollution is complex, as discussed. In 2005, when India’s government restricted the use of firecrackers, loudspeakers and vehicle honking, residents reacted, wondering how they would carry on late night religious and marriage festivals. It is also difficult to impose directives related to noise pollution when the general population may be unaware of what type of pollutant this is, and if it is a pollutant at all. Thus, along with addressing it, educating the masses and especially the causers of excessive honking, for example, becomes crucial for a growing urban city.

To read more, click here. I have also pasted my writing below. And if you are in Dhaka, the Forum magazine can be found in your copy of the Daily Star from October.

Noise Pollution:
We have gotten used to it too soon

OLINDA HASSAN runs a critical eye over the sounds of Dhaka city.

The description of a city that stretches only a few miles in radius, a city that is instantaneously described as one of traffic and crowds houses over 15 million people in one place. Fifteen million people. This is perhaps an understated number considering all of the unaccounted people who live in every bend of the city’s narrow roads, slums and streets. With people comes noise, which if one word is to be used to describe, would be chaos. And chaos runs this town.

During this last humid and rainy Ramadan season, six individuals from Dhaka streets were asked, what noise describes your life in the city? A rickshaw peddler in Mirpur, an older woman selling chai in Gulshan 2, a Dhaka University student, a half naked child in Rayer Bazaar and a well manicured woman at the tailors’ and the tailor himself in Dhanmondi had hurried responses. The rain, the honking, the ringing of rickshaws, children yelling, the thump of rubber shoes against the roads, the motorcycles, bricks grinding against each other in construction sites, voices of mothers, the gas pedal being pressed by drivers; these were some of the similarities found among these six individuals who were all in a rush to get away from their respective street to the next. As the woman at the tailors’ pointed impatiently, she had to run before the traffic swept her, her driver and in turn, her son’s and husband’s and mother-in-law’s day.

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Chaos gives people the city attitude, the description of being a Dhakaite. People of this city breathe, eat, smell and maybe, even adore the chaos that illustrates the scene of the mega capital today. This chaos is also to an effect, noise pollution. And noise pollution is ultimately, human created. The word noise is literally taken from the Latin word nauseas, or, vomiting sensation and sickness, and the concept of ‘noise pollution’ is far used by environmentalists, lobbyists, politicians and transportation specialists to pound on the extreme unease and health hazard that result, due to traffic and poor infrastructure management, for example, in Dhaka. And pounding they do — noise pollution has gotten some popularity as a means of trying to push other anti-traffic laws, being an easily relatable concept for the average city resident.

Taking some of the above descriptions of noise in Dhaka by the six random Dhaka residents: The honking — the most common part of noise pollution in Dhaka, naturally due to the fact that honking is created by vehicles, usually done to warn other cars to maintain road safety. Excessive honking is however the real issue; drivers honk more out of stress and frustration than to warn other drivers of the fact that they are about to pass them on the road, for example (this is not even really possible, since cars are rarely not in traffic and thus, don’t actually have the space to pass each other in Dhaka). The rain — while this is seasonal and albeit uncontrollable by humans in terms of noise, acid rain is increasingly common in Bangladesh, caused by human practices, such as electricity usage and car pollution, which is high in roads where cars must stay stagnant for long periods of time in traffic, and then create certain sound effects in retaliation. The ringing of rickshaws — while attempts have been made to reduce the number of rickshaws, they still prevail, and perhaps this is not the largest issue to traffic control, though the bigger and faster modes of transportation that surround them think so and thus react with honking. It will be difficult to eradicate all of the city’s rickshaws, entailing the removal of a country’s major cultural element, as well as thousands of jobs. Construction — in the middle of the night, my neighbourhood often wake up to the noise of workers piling bricks from a truck that just pulled in, making all the noise as they please for the manual labour, even if it is at 3am. Construction work takes place around the clock, and because its noise can never be independent from its surroundings (traffic, shouts, yelling instructions, music, etc.), they have become one of the more annoying noise pollutants for Dhakaites today.

While noise pollution in the developed world can seem like a luxury, in the developing world, it is an unforgiving health and social concern. It is an issue that does not discriminate along age lines or socioeconomic barriers for the residents of Dhaka and other mega cities in South Asia such as Mumbai and Karachi. Premature deafness, high blood pressure, to heart conditions as a result of noise pollution can trigger anyone, from children to the retired, slum dwellers to the upper class. Epidemiological studies have made the link between excessive noise and hearing loss pretty obvious. Excessive noise pollution has proven to lead to high blood pressure, low attentiveness, bad temperament and as a result, increased chances of confrontations — behaviours that are well illustrated in the streets of Dhaka.

Noise pollution is an especially saddening impediment to growth in the cities of developing countries, such as Bangladesh, and also a problem that faces little direct attention from policy makers, even if used to back up other policies. The fact is that noise pollution and the very idea of it is still, in large, subjective. There are few direct ways to, for example, measure a group of residents’ high blood pressure as directly related to the noise pollution of the neighbourhood. Because noise complaints are subjective, you will need to prove that you are experiencing a noise problem, which can get problematic with the plethora of variables working around and against you. For example, hearing loss could be related to other factors such as toxins in the air. While some research has been presented by both domestic and international groups, noise pollution still remains a bit unclear. It is a territory that we are pretty sure exists, but not enough information is given to draw attention to it, let alone do something about it. After all, noise pollution will be put aside on the tables of policy makers when thousands of quantitative data is being presented on other (but related) items such as traffic congestion or gas pollution.

Further, noise pollution poses a more dire threat to developing countries. This factor is especially disturbing because, as many would complain, do we not have enough pollution issues to deal with? Environmental issues in general — manmade and natural — are often acknowledged but touched on the surface because they have yet to become a “serious issue” for policy makers. After all, imposing environmental policies are usually the slowest to prove a direct result, unlike other development policies. Further, environmental policies’ indirect effects on other sides of development, such as economic growth, are still sometimes subjective, hard to prove, and thus all together, set aside.

As economist Anthony Heyes described in the Journal of Regulatory Economics (Volume 36, Number 1, p. 1-28), environmental quality is often overlooked in development. He looked at Taiwan, where its sudden boom has decreased the people’s welfare in the long run, due to the environmental degradation that resulted from obsessive attention to economic growth. This obsession came from the coalition of the government and capitalist who wanted to achieve economic success “at any cost”, resulting in Taiwan’s “growth with pollution”. Taiwan is an example of others in the region, whether formerly a poor or developing one is pressured to keep up and felt the need to only focus on the economic, an obsession that leads to the continued degrading environmental issues, such as noise pollution in Dhaka.

Implementing policies related to noise pollution is complex, as discussed. In 2005, when India’s government restricted the use of firecrackers, loudspeakers and vehicle honking, residents reacted, wondering how they would carry on late night religious and marriage festivals. It is also difficult to impose directives related to noise pollution when the general population may be unaware of what type of pollutant this is, and if it is a pollutant at all. Thus, along with addressing it, educating the masses and especially the causers of excessive honking, for example, becomes crucial for a growing urban city.

This generation growing up in Dhaka has perhaps gotten used to the noise — the ringing of the rickshaws are romanticised as much as the arguments they see taking place on the streets to construction sites that flourish in different corners. The 15 million plus that live in the city may have forgotten or simply have no idea how to separate noises that have polluted their streets. And those who come to Dhaka from the outside need weeks, maybe even months to get used to the sounds. When we first arrived in Dhaka last year for our projects, adjusting to the weather and modes of transportation was one thing, but no one had warned us of getting modified to the sounds of the city. Some found it charming, and now it is hard to describe Dhaka to friends back home without describing the same things that the six Dhakaites asked above about what noise defined their everyday lives. Dhaka, like many other developing, urban cities, is plagued by the piling of environmental problems that are also deeply intertwined with the economic and the political. It has become tricky to separate one from the other, with tribulations like noise becoming a by-product of a plate of troubles that are waiting to be addressed. And this will be difficult to do so unless people are able to recognise that the very noise they grew up with is actually a pollutant.

Olinda Hassan studied Political Science at Wellesley College, USA, and is currently a Fulbright Fellow in Bangladesh, teaching English at RUMC.

back in america.

Currently sittin at the airport in Baltimore, waiting for two of my best friends from college to pick me up. It has been over a year since I saw them, a year in which I spent in the urban cities of South Asia. I have been in the U.S. for over a week now, first in Boston and then last night in Providence. People keep asking me if I am culture shocked. I am not sure that I am- sometimes I am taken aback that I am back to the place that I have missed, every now and then. Most times, I feel as though I had never left in the first place. It may be because after leaving Bangladesh on September 17th, I spent a week in Jubail, Saudi Arabia and then a few days in the cold London, U.K. before landing in the States, giving me ample time to slowly experience the West. I had my first Starbucks in London (soy milk latte, I have missed you) and my immigration was completed in Dublin, Ireland where the American officer wished me a safe journey home.

On the red line, a random train stop in Boston.

The steamed broccolli in my pasta on Sunday morning at Mike’s  Davis Square did me in. It was Octoberfest in Cambridge and while I ate with my cousin, people were drinking beer and cider in the daytime streets, and bad music played on. Halloween decorations were slowly coming to the storefront, and sweet potatoe fries were being given in clean white paper cones nearby. Having broccolli, after so long, in an otherwise ordinary Italian cafe brought me to the realization that I am indeed back. They were fresh, cut perfectly, and not overcooked, and tasted like something just good.

Movement, from being able to walk in walkable side roads of Cambridge and taking the subway on my own accord led me to use the subway abundently and sometimes, unneccessarily this week.

And then you miss things you never cared about before. Having a thankgsgiving sandwich last night at Providence made me love the taste of turkey and stuffing and cranberry sauce, though I never cared for any of it while growing up in Arizona. I was excited by the grass, though I always preferred to sit in benches. Wooden floors, even though we had carpet growing up. Things like that.

Meeting friends. Seeing familiar sights.Wearing the once familiar clothes. Being cold outside. Taking hot showers that for some reason just feels clean here. Visiting Wellesley College as an alumnae and walking across the campus that was my home for four years was uncomfortable, and yet a sense of closoure was there. It sometimes is like I have been here all along.

And here, as I wait for my friends whom I am eagerly waiting to see in D.C. will be the continued icing of this short trip home.

the thanksgiving sandwich with turkey, stuffing, cheese, cranberry sauce, lettuce, tomatoes, and onions with a side of potato salad in Providence, RI

Rajuk tops in HSC Results: Ranked first in Bangladesh

Rajuk Uttara Model College (RUMC) just placed first in the national HSC results! They scored 94.64 points in Dhaka Board, and 891 students scored GPA of 5 in their exams (e.g. perfect score). Last year, they were ranked at 4th position.

The news comes just a few months after scoring 1st place in SSC results.

Like last time, the courtyard was packed with students and news vans, even though results were not given out yet. Confident students surrounded the are and parents filled up too, waiting for the celebration. It was a great scene to see when I was done with the day and having an air of excitement once again. It was refreshing to also see the months of the stress on the students’ faces slowly disappear. It would be an understatement to say that RUMC’s students are really some of the most hardworking group of youth I have seen in a long time.

Taking a moment: it’s raining in Bangladesh.

Its been raining randomly during the day for a couple of weeks now. Sometimes it rains in the morning when you wake up to see your room still in the dark. You step out to get a rickshaw, having to tip toe your way as you circulate mud puddles. You have to carefully place the blue plastic blankets the rickshawalla will give you to cover yourself, if you choose though really they do nothing to prevent the vengeful rain. You forget to not wear white today and there goes the just ironed, perfectly tailored tunic of yours.

Sometimes it’s late at night when simultaneously electricity would go out and you would be forced to stand in the veranda overlooking the view of the city from the third floor. From that view you will see random pockets in empty, half built apartment buildings in Baridhara where temporary tenants rush to use their scraps of tin to hold the water from gushing into their makeshift beds. They do this while managing their already wet lungi wrapped haphazardly across their thin hips and a half burnt, 2 taka cigarette.

The afternoon is the best. Kids rush out  in my school in the middle of a lesson during fifth period into the long patios that circle every floor, facing an open courtyard. They face the wind they miss in their stuffy classrooms with fifty others, uniformed, hair tied, shoes neat, clean. Even the teachers, the masters of model behavior are temporarily distracted. I am asked to go to the roof with one of them even, where just before it gets to be a real storm I get to see the entire cityscape of Uttara about to be cleansed of its pollution for the day. In that roof there are rows and rows of vegetables planed carefully by the students- tomatoes, baby bitter-melons, okras, chilli peppers, as well as jars of pickled olives and green mangoes. Neat laminated rectangles are attached to these terracotta pots where neat handwritings pop up from the stark whiteness of the papers.

Many kids don’t remember to bring their umbrellas on purpose. There is a particular liking here in Bangladesh for getting wet in the rain. Commercials for local mobile networks on the television will always include the scene of a wet rice paddy or a busy side street in the city drenched in rain with people running gleefully. At the same time the aging aunty living in your building will tell you to be careful, don’t get wet, cover your head, you will get sick. But she too probably loved and still wishes to be young again and in the rain when it used to be appropriate, half listening to her mother say the same.

American Culture Lesson: Magazine photos and observations in an 8th grade Bangla Medium Class

For my weekly Class VIII Bangla Medium of 50 students, I decided to put their critical thinking and creative side to work by posing a particularly out -of- the- box activity for them. This involved cutting out random photos/ads/pictures from an American magazine (I used Cosmopolitan March 2011, for example) and passing them around to groups in class (ideally groups of 4-5 would work, though in my class they were larger due to the volume of students and the lack of space). The groups were asked to work together and analyze what the photos meant in terms of the American culture as we know it, and write their responses accordingly in limited words.

Organization of the Activity: Method, tools, and how it was conducted.

My collection of photos included: two cutouts of women in Vera Wang bridal gowns, a picture of a mixed-ethnic girl eating a vegiterian pizza from the health section of the magazine, a photo of fried chicken and salad served in colorful platters from the recipe section, a few fashion cutouts of women posed in different clothes, a photo of celebrities clumped together, a photo of a white female and a black male model, of several wo nklmen dressed in jeans and a white t-shirt from the “trends” section, an ice-cream sundae article that describes “America, Italian, and Turkish” toppings, etc. to name a few.

The questions I asked them to consider were: 1) What does the photo in front of you tell you about the American culture?, and 2) How does the topic of the photo differ from your culture and lifestyle in Bangladesh?. My helping questions were the typical that I alway use: Who, What, When, Where, How, Why. My students have gotten used to hearing these types of questions to first help identify what is actually happening in a given scenario (I have used the 5Ws/ 1H for readings and lectures before or whenever a chance is posed).
Before the groups started to do this, I showed them two enlarged photos from my collection to give a sample of what I am looking for. For example, I used a photo of an open market in Atlanta and talked about the difference in prices, what kinds of vegitables were being sold, what kind of people were selling and buying, and how the market looked compared to those in Dhaka.

Each student was given a pice of paper to write their responses. The space was limited however so that the students were forced to put their thoughts down in just a few sentences, forcing them to be direct (I did this by cutting a 8 x 11 white paper into four sections).

When there was about 7 minutes left in class, I switched photos between groups and asked them to do the same but just write me one sentence about what they found most interesting.

Responses from students while working in the classroom:

In an ideal situation I would have liked the groups to be mixed but in a classroom with barely any space to move and with only 40 minutes to work with and where genders were physically divided, this was almost impossible.
First, the students laughed at some of the photos. Then they became very serious and started to quickly talk about the pictures. I had to go around the class to each group and help them understand the activity and what I was looking for. I also had to emphasize that there was no right or wrong answer, which is always a bit shocking for the students. Some groups did not like their photo which they openly exclaimed, especially the male students.

The positive reaction was that everyone was amused and thus, interested. It was rare to find, if at all, any student in the group no engaged in trying to understand what the photo stated. The photos were from magazines and random on purpose- they demanded an explanation and they proved their “authenticity” by coming from an “American source”. And because there was no concrete answer to the activity, and it was not based on prior knowledge and such, they had to talk to each other in order to analyze.

Written responses: Sample

Photo: A black male model with a white model whose arms are around him, dressed in neon colors from the “fashion” section.

“In the picture there is a married couple. One of them is black in color and one of them is white in color. They are standing together. This picture says about America that, in America people of different races, tribes, and color marry each other. But in Bangladesh it is not so. In Bangladesh they make differences between the people who are white and who are black in color. Those who are white in color don’t want to marry those who are black in color.”

“…The boy is wearing a jacket and T-shirt, like the Bangladeshi boys wear. The girl is wearing a frock. But the Bangladeshi girls don’t wear that kind of dresses. It also indicates about American culture. The boys and girls can meet and talk to each other freely in front of everyone. But in Bangladesh it is not acceptable.

Other sample responses:

“The American fashion is more artificial than Bangladesh.”

“Bangladeshi ice cream is very good but not as costly. It is also not as good to look at. They are made of unhealthy things.”

“The famous Bangladeshi ice cream is kulfi. It’s only 2 taka. It’s made from milk. It’s very different from the picture of the ice cream in the picture because kulfi is very cheap and it’s not delicious at all.”

“In American almost everyone likes pets. Well, sometimes they take it in fashion. They carry pets in their bags. And like every schools and houses they keep pets. But in Bangladesh we usually don’t see that because they don’t really like pets. They are ignored.”

“There is a funny thing in USA that they carry pets in their bags.”

“In this picture we can see some models of different countries wearing dresses of American style.” (The photo showed American models of different races featuring a skirt trend)

“This photo is about the wedding ceremony of America. In this picture we can see a bride wearing white wedding gown. She is looking happy and holding some flowers. There are some differences between Bangladesh and American wedding dresses. In Bangladesh, usually the bride wears colorful sharis. They wear heavy ornaments but in America, the bride wears a simple dress without heavy ornaments or makeup.”

“Bangladeshi celebrities don’t care about their health but the celebrities of USA care about teir health. They have a balances diet.”

“There is a girl who s eating pizza. She is wearing a red-white T-shirt. he looks so good. But her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin color is also common in Bangladesh. What she eats, this is a pizza. It also common in Bangladesh. But American people eat this food much more. Her nail polish is looking good.”

About the same photo another girl writes: “The girl is looking horrible. Her hair style is so common in Bangladesh. Her skin is rough (the model had freckles). The pizza is not looking tastey (the pizza had broccoli and mushrooms). Her t-shir tis found in the foot path in Bangladesh. Her nail polish is not so bad. But I don’t know how can this type of pizza be good for me? I don’t think this is a good picture.”

“In order to decorate this meat some green vegitables are used.”- referring to the salad on the plate.

Conclusion:
* Encourages dialouge and group work, especially since it is an unknown topic so they are forced to talk. Everyone is in an even field of exepreince.
*Encourages studetns to write directly and concisely instead of writing too much and not getting to the point.
*Students are made to share and develop and opinion, especially since there are no right and wrong answer (this must be emphasized).
* They learn to look at magazine photos and ads in a different, critical way.
*They are forced to think about my past lectures about the United States and put that to use instead of getting information from a book or other written sources.
* Some groups had the same answer among all its members; some are still uncomfortable to have differing opinions.
* Single-sex groups are forced rather than mixing them up which could be a disadvantage for critical thinking in the classroom.
* Time management is always an issue with 50 students with 40 minutes.

Rajuk Uttara Model School Tops Again in SSC Exam Scores.

I am proud to say that Rajuk Uttara Model School has topped the list again in having the highest number of students passing and scoring high in the SSC (Secondary School Certificate) exam this year. As a result, Rajuk has been ranked the best school by the Dhaka Education Board.

RUMS on Thursday, May 12 2011 after 12 pm was a sea of students and parents in the courtyard, cheering and showing the victory signs. There were reporters and press vans from various channels in the city present to record the scene. Among the crowd can be seen teachers who eagerly entered the crowd. Given how rigorous the exams can be, and the time commitment issued to the students (those who took the exams were given days off from school to prepare), this news indeed was one for celebration. About 1.3 million students in Bangladesh took the exam this year that began in February.

I remember right before the students went on vacation to study for the exams, they held a pre-celebration in the auditorium with music, prize giving to teachers, cake cutting, and food (from their local favorite, Best Fried Chicken). I had just started at Rajuk and many of these students did not know me. While most Rajuk students greet me with great enthusiasm and curiosity, these 10th graders’ reaction was a bit more somber- they were clearly distracted about the examination and the hours of rigorous study that was about to fall upon them.

Not that many were surprised at the passing rate and Rajuk placing at the top again. The celebration on Thursday was already in the air well before results were to be announced. Two of my students who were about to take the exam next year came to my room and told me all about how crazy the scene would be yesterday at noon, despite knowing if everyone had passed or not. The supreme confidence exerted my students at Rajuk is perhaps one to admire.

More students pass the SSC exam this year. 

Exam Time at Rajuk Uttara Model School

There are about four hundred students seated to the take the HSC exam, one of the national exams for 12th grades in the central hall on the bottom floor of the school. The hall, usually home to cultural events for students has been transformed into a room of intimidation: rows of wooden chairs and tables, and desks in intervals for proctors and board members to sit and observe late teenagers sweat their way through a live or die exam. None them look up when I enter the room to speak to one of the teachers, their faces showing the strains of studying for months being finally poured out.

The HSC result will determine the students’ ability to succeed in the sense that if they do not do well, their hopes of getting into a national university are slim to none. Getting entrance into the prestigious public institutions such as Dhaka University, Dhaka Medical College, or Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology will all be essentially determined by the HSC exam. Likewise, the fate of the school rests on its students’ scores as well. The more perfect scores, the better the school will be ranked among all. In a country there hierarchy is engrained in the everyday social construct, this becomes particularly important. Rajuk has been ranked at the top as an educational institution based on these results. When I tell someone from Bangladesh that I work at RUMS, they usually respond with raised eyes and by telling me that I work at the best schools in the country.

The exam culture of schools that follow the national curriculum consists of intense memorization, attention to detail, and unorthodox organization. Not only do they have to memorize information (often word for word), but they must be presented clearly and neatly. I have seen some of the best English handwritings at Rajuk, ever. When I write on the board in class I am sometimes embarrassed as my writing (which I have always considered to be pretty good) looks illegible compared to kids ten yours younger than me. In fact in some classes I have to warn before hand that my handwriting may not be clear (to which I get amused smirks and laughs).

RUMS students from all grade levels have also had exams over the last four weeks. These exams included midterms, papers, and lesson exams. I eagerly took about fifty of these English exams with me home to grade. My most important conclusion: I have a new appreciation for all the teachers I have ever had for what they had to go through. I finally understand why it took them so long to turn back midterms and finals. Grading takes a type of effort that I have decided that I do not enjoy- attention to detail, reading sometimes excruciatingly boring paragraphs, trying not cringe at grammar mistakes, and checking final scores, making sure there are no rooms for students to appeal decisions.

Further, there is an indirect grading deflation policy at RUMS- no one is allowed to have full marks. This unwritten policy can be observed in many Bangladeshi schools, especially the competitive selections. For example, in the essay section of the exam, while it says that it is out of ten points, the highest they can get is a seven (which is when it is exceptional). The student may or may not know this. Thus, getting a score in the range of 70s is considered to be good- a score that translates to a ‘C’ in most schools in the United States. You do not ever give full marks- an important rule with ethical bindings for me. So no matter how much these students study and write amazing answers to questions (which were several in this sample case), they will never be rewarded what they probably deserve.

It is hard to compare these systems with those in the West as the implications of results are so varied. Whereas in the United Stats many factors count towards college entrance, in Bangladesh the exam results are exclusive in that category. And yet Bangladeshi students from these national schools who pursue their undergraduates in the United States have an unusually high rate of success in their SATs. Usually, financial considerations are the reasons for declining entrance to American colleges rather than not getting an acceptance. Their SAT scores tend to make up for the lack of sufficient extra curricular activities, for example, which is still an up and coming component in Bangladeshi schools.

Nostalgia…Being Taught to Draw: Classroom Art

 These sample art work from students at Rajuk Uttara Model School (RUMS) illustrate that a common theme to showcase in classroom art work are scenes of the Bangladeshi village. Huts, rice patties, hills, rivers, boats, and figures in traditonal clothing are some of the most common subjects present in art by students from all grade levels. They are usually drawn with crayons or water colors, and are usually very bright and vibrant on paper. The second most popular theme is the revolutionary war of 1971. Abstract art was not included in any of the samples I had a chance to see.


The village theme’s popularity in children’s art is interesting because almost all of the students at RUMS were born and raised in the city. Additionally, increasinly it can be observed that the parents of 1990s children were also raised in Dhaka. Thus one must wonder why villages become a repeated topic in art since the village scene is so different from that of Dhaka city.

One student told me that they are asked to draw “something beautiful” in their art class and that usually resonates the village scene. He explained that the village is more calm, quiet, and shows “natural beauty” that is present in most of Bangladesh but not in the city. Thus, being told to draw something beautiful meant drawing something outside the city.

Another student told me that often art class means drawing what the teacher tells you to, and what the teacher wants to see. These teachers will often assign the drawing of village scenes, and this initial teaching sticks to the children afterwards. In order to get the grade, you have to please the instructor, who has made his or her desire for such themes apparent. These teachers are also more likely to be more connected to the village than their students in Dhaka. This logic follows for art competitions as well where to win, drawing the most splendid scenaries does the trick.

Village scenes represents a certain nostalgia for what is missing in the city- cleaner air, people not in hurry, landscapes void of clumped together buildings, trees without the residue of pollution, and such. These scenes as represented by children of the city in school art classes showcase a divide of the urban and rural. It also works in an interesting way to connectgenerations widely different in history, lifestyle, and mobility.

Asking for directions.

[Conundrums in the day to day public transportation in Dhaka-Part I]

You know the neighborhood, the street number, and the building number of a house you need to go to. You wave down a rickshaw cycling down the street. You tell him these exact numbers and he makes a head nudge before you can even finish towards the back seat. He wants to not convince you, but tell you that he knows what he is doing and to just hop on.

Except that once you are in the vicinity of road 70 when you need to get to 58 (but of course roads around the neighborhood are never designed in linear matter) he doesn’t actually know where to go. He expects you to know though. He does not understand that you are going to a new place even if you live around the area. He will still expect to rip you off on the price at the end though, claiming that you not knowing where you are going deems for a higher rate. And then you have to force him to stop people randomly in the street to ask where my destination could be.

And then the person you ask raises his right arm and points straight. And the next person you ask points straight ahead too making vague eye contact. By the fourth person once you have successfully made a few circles on roads 70, 68, and 74 you realize that your instinct was right- no one knows your destination. Not your rickshawallah, not the cha stand guy, or the guys hanging around the cha stand guy who just want to enjoy the cha and stare at you than to give you directions.

But it’s not that they don’t want to give you directions. They don’t actually have a clue. It’s just that they don’t want to seem like they are incapable and not know their ‘hood. They would rather point you to an unknown world than to have to shake their head and admit defeat.

This is a common problem I run into as I explore my area (the combination of Gulshan, Baridhara, and Banani, hereafter referred to as the ‘tri-state’). This is a personal problem I face in Dhaka since frankly speaking I still don’t know my way around. Whenever my driver/peddler and I ask the victim of my target on the street for directions, my target prefers to point me towards the way I was already going in. After all, probability states that they have a 50/50 chance of being correct- matter of letting me keep moving forward or turn around.

Finding a random location based off of an accurate address (that would normally suffice) is a game in the tri-state. You get on the rickshaw knowing in the back of your head that they probably don’t know where they are going. That is why you allot thirty minutes to go to a place that would more likely take fifteen minutes to go to, plus taking into account human and car traffic. And then you participate in a game of ask and tell- ask other rickshawallahs, guards, cha-wallahs, fruit sellers, children, and suited men briskly walking to their private cars who will only respond if I am the one asking. And eventually, you will get to the right place if probability works in your favor which magically in Dhaka, it usually does.

So, let the game of making it to your destination begin, continue, and never end.

Talking about Religion in the United States in Class X

In teaching in Class X, I decided to revisit the concept of religion in the United States. I wanted to talk about religion because many interesting notions and misconceptions exist in Bangladesh about what is religious freedom in the U.S., especially for Muslims. Before I began the class, I handed everyone a piece of paper and asked the students to write down their thoughts, opinions, or questions as lectured. I gave them the option of writing anonymously if they so desired. I required everyone’s participating in writing as it was a way not only for them to practice writing and expressing opinions, but to also force them to think about topic on their own.

First I started to talk about the “separation of church and state”- one of the most important pillars in the first amendment of the American constitution. I discussed how religious freedom has always been an essential part of the American society. I discussed the fact that there was no official state religion, no religious holidays, and how religion in particular was not welcome in public institutions. I used public schools as my main example to convey how religious could not be placed in public institutions.  I used the example of Rajuk where religious comments and customs related to Islam are often expressed whereas that would not be the case or accepted in American public schools.

Further, I wrote down the pledge of allegiance on the board and asked the students to respond to its words. They were immediate to see that the sentence “one nation under God” could be potentially contradictory to the ideals of “separation of church and state”.  Some students argued that it did not matter if God was mentioned or not because the pledge was a long standing cultural component. Others thought that the contradiction should be taken care of and changed. One student wrote in response, “Everyone believes in God, but in a different way. So there is no problem in saying God. If you think it gets mixed with your government or state, then be it. Take that as a culture. If you don’t, forget it”.

I also talked about Islam in the United States, using 9/11, as well as the mosque building controversy last summer in Ground Zero. Mentioning how Islam continues to be the fastest growing religion in the country, especially among women raised some eyebrows. I talked about my personal experience of not ever getting discriminated as a Muslim woman in America, about my parents who have indeed faced discrimination, to other anecdotes. Students listened with much attention at this moment but many were still not convinced that various opinions exist in the United States.

I asked the students if they thought that the government had some responsibility in bettering the image of Muslims in the United States, or do American Muslims have the responsibility? One student said that it had to be both, or none. Many said that the government did have a responsibility as there would never be an understanding otherwise, and the government existed to serve the people which included Muslims. One student wrote, “I mean, if the Muslims are downtrodden and discriminated only because they are Muslim, the government should do something; even if the “separation of church and state” is followed. I mean, every individual has the right to religion, and these rights cannot be violated. If these rights are violates, shouldn’t the U/S/ government do something?”

I asked the students then to discuss if this idea of “separation of church and state” would be possible in Bangladesh? Is separating religion from the government important? One student wrote in their response that there was no use of separating church and state when “there is hardly any fighting among the people of different religions staying in Bangladesh”. Another student wrote, “Bangladesh is better off being a Muslim state. People of all religions are welcome here and nobody is offending them. Nobody is putting a stop to anyone in observing their religious rituals”. Some students vocalized that it would be ideal to have religion separated from the government but that would only be possible in a democratic country.

As the class was winding down, I could sense that there was some tension in the class. The word “controversy” and “taboo” were used often in the responses to talk about the class in general. Many students were uncomfortable with the idea of religious freedom in America as they were convinced that all Muslims are treated unfairly in the country. I tried to emphasize that making generalizations about a diverse country like America is dangerous.

In turn, I also faced many questions. One student asked if I actually knew anything about Islam, which I was taken aback by as a fellow Muslim. One student asked, “If someone kills another because of religious reasons, would the American law not be able to say anything because it was done on religious bounds and there is religious freedom?” I thought that this was a fascinating question in looking at the separation of church and state. I responded that no matter what, murder took precedence in this case as a punishable crime. I asked if he had agreed and how he would feel if the same scenario took place in Bangladesh and he agreed with my answer.

Another student asked, “if let’s say Afghani refugees went to America and for jihad they started killing people. Would that again be not punishable because it is for religious purposes?” I responded by asking what he meant by Jihad in his question, and he responded that it meant defending the religion. I then asked, if I was defending Islam in front of the class, am I not performing jihad according to his definition? He responded that supposedly, and I told him that such things do not need to be violent, and any violence should be taken note of in a civil society.

As the class winded down, many students were reacting to the different ideas of religion as raised. Few students told me that it was not right that people did not believe in God. One student said that people in Bangladesh sincerely believed in God and so it was not possible to separate Islam from governance. Many also could not separate the political from the religious for Bangladesh. One student wrote that it is “impossible” to separate religion from the state in Bangladesh “because the opposition party would protest, and take all measures against the decision or even they would bring up the no-confidence vote and the whole country will be in support”. Students seem to be very aware that the state is too connected to Islam in their country that imposing different ideas could potentially be precarious.

Some students stayed after the class to talk to me. They came to apologize of they had offended me which was a bit surprising as the thought never occurred to me. As they walked with me outside of the class they said that religion is a taboo topic to discuss in school but were glad that I had brought it up because they have never had a venue to discuss such issues. I continued to receive apologies for some of the tension. I was not sure how to react to everything that had happened but I think that I may have gained some success if the forty minutes talking about religion in America instigated conversations outside of the classroom.