Bangladesh: The Land of Bengalis

There’s a certain hesitation that follows the dreaded question, “Where are you from?” Am I from Dallas, where I live? Or am I from Bangladesh, the country I was born? Usually it’s clear which answer the speaker is looking for. If they’re seeing my non-European features, they want where those come from; if they’re hearing my unaccented English, they want where that comes from. Rarely can I give one answer without giving the other, because they have both shaped me. But to answer where I gain my identity, the essence of myself, I will always have to say that I am from the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. And after many years, I have learned to say it with pride.

To the rest of the world, Bangladesh is an obscure, small, third-world developing country, often confused as a part of India, teeming with people, poverty, and pollution. Rarely is it ever in the news other than as a cautionary tale of some accident or political calamity, and its culture is stereotyped and appropriated into meaninglessness. But to me, Bangladesh is eight-story buildings, squeezed together to save space, and rooftop gardens, situated in the sky because there’s no other room.

It’s creating something out of nothing, watching my mother pay street beggars even when she should have no cash left. It’s public transportation and hanging out clothes to dry, yelling out to friends from other buildings across bustling streets. It’s family above everything, cousins and grandmothers and uncles all living in the same building. It’s sisterhood, staying up late painting henna designs on hands, a chain of people grooming long, black hair and exchanging self-made clothes, the sound of laughter and swish of skirts.

It’s six seasons a year, from heat to monsoons and fruit to blankets. It’s gathering around T.V.s in the streets, watching the soccer world tournament together in the early hours before dawn. It’s weddings and birthdays filled with dancing, food, and happiness. It’s the sound of the azan, the Muslim call to prayer, floating on the breeze at sunset and strolling through the University of Dhaka eating roasted nuts. It’s blood and sacrifice and guts and glory, the red sun rising on a green flag, the resilience of a people and a nation. It’s home.

The only question scarier than “Where are you from?” is the one that inevitably follows it: “What’s that like?” And unlike the earlier question, I rarely know what they’re searching for in the answer.

The truth is that Bangladesh is not a large country, or a wealthy one. It has its share, and perhaps more of it, of misfortune and trial, poverty and vice. But before 1971, it only existed as East Pakistan. Following an announcement from the prime minister of Pakistan Khwaja Nazimuddin in 1948 that “Urdu, and only Urdu, would be the language of Pakistan,” Slowly but surely, the roots of an uprising grew as the Bengalis rejected this new form of colonialism. Six years later, on February 21, 1954, the University of Dhaka hosted a student-led protest defying the language law. Police were summoned, and the grounds of the campus were stained red as multiple students died.

By February 23, citizens erected Shaheed Minar, a martyr’s memorial, for the student leaders and children who had given their lives for their tongue. Though it was later torn down by the Pakistani government, by 1963 it was a concrete structure. And thus February 21 is now International Mother Language Day, in honor of the only people who have had to fight for theirs.

Over the course of 1971, the Bengalis fought as untrained and unequipped farmers against their own government. Village after village was terrorized, filled with rape and murder in a genocide carried out by the Pakistani military as their men died under fire.

But the spirit of the Bengalis prevailed, and in December they won their independence. Though hundreds of thousands of its people never came home, Bangladesh, the land of the Bengalis, was no longer only a dream.

So that is where I come from. I come from courage in the face of death and unimaginable sacrifices borne without complaint. Like the ones of my grandmother, who lost a brother in that war and worked tirelessly all her life to create and support her family. Like the ones of my mother and my aunt, who give everything they have to their children. Like the ones I see reflected in the dark eyes and weary lines on the faces of strangers. So no, I don’t come from a third world country in the middle of nowhere, and I long to tell my sisters that they have nothing to be ashamed of, even as they bleach their skin and practice American accents. Because we come from Bangladesh, whose national animal is a tiger, the people who built something from nothing.