Bangladesh: Dhaka Lit Fest & Chittagong for British Council: November 14th - 20th 2016
A profound excursion to Bangladesh, thanks to Dhaka Lit Fest. I had the pleasure to contribute to the festival, which is such an ambitious, brave and necessary venture in contemporary Bangladeshi culture, and do some work for the British Council in Chittagong too. Below there’s an extensive diary of the trip, with a few videos and photos.
Bangladesh Diary: Part One - Chittagong with the British Council
Bookended by two of the longest days of travel in my entire life, this was an amazing week, so full of intense experience and deeply resonant meetings with people in both Dhaka and Chittagong. I spent over twenty hours travelling, trying to sleep, drooling when I did, before arriving in Dhaka. This included 6 hours in Doha, the Qatari airport that resembles some futuristic vision of purgatory but has excellent wifi, so swings and roundabouts. Immediately off the plane, the light quality, the warmth of the air, the body language of the people so markedly new and energising, I was met by Mr.Hakim, a fixer for the Dhaka fest, and the academic and writer Nayanika Mookherjee, who was in Bangladesh for maybe the 20th time, and so just followed them, dumb. Mr.Hakim just washed past security, gently parting seas of people and leading us down a VIP exit, adorned with plastic reliefs of what looked like mythological Bangladeshi scenes. He washed over the visa office queue too, somehow erasing lines of people, leading me by the tricep to get things sorted quickly. I was then introduced to my British Council contact, Abrar Hossain, and Mr.Hakim and Nayanika disappeared.
Abrar set the tone for my entire time in Bangladesh. He was faultlessly hospitable, kind, energetic and had a brilliantly dry sense of humour. He couldn’t have done more for me, and feeling a second wind of slightly muddy enthusiasm I was able to pepper him with questions about Bangladesh and his extraordinary life throughout the day, as we sailed through the airport for my third flight in a row, this time across the country, to Chittagong. I was told the drive would take eight hours, the flight thirty minutes. Naturally the plane was a flimsy thing, but there were apparently famous (sleazy looking) cricketers and Chinese businessman on board too, so I felt somehow reassured (?) Abrar told me all about his life, being educated away from his family, working in business, there being no such thing as an arts professional in Bangladesh and his unbridled joy at working for the British Council. He wouldn’t go five minutes without asking me if I was okay, insisting I must be tired. He was right, but I tried to force that down. A huge part of his job, and all of the British Council staffers dealing with me, was security. I had to have their company and most often a specially assigned security guard during the trip because of the terror attack in Bangladesh that had happened in July of this year. It had stunned the country, and been so brutal, and targeted westerners, that it did mean that unless I wanted recuse myself of council support, I had to stay in the hotel at all times when not doing the activities they had lined up. Abrar made it so that I didn’t mind too much, and we chatted all the way to the hotel, the van slowly ebbing through stacked traffic, famous Bangladeshi congestion, with no lanes and near death at every junction. I took in what I could, literally removed from the people on the packed streets as we veered away from the Bay of Bengal and tropical trees lining the water into the dense urban space. It feels cloy to write about it with emotion but some of the physical suffering that was evident, even from the absurd remove of a van with a guard and a minder and a driver, was difficult to witness without holding my face in my hands. I was quietly feeling sorry for myself, travelling so long, being reminded through travel how fragile, how vulnerable one can feel, half way around the world from those I love, and then I saw people in genuine, permanent physical hardship and I felt emptied out. Abrar kept lifting me with his insistent goodness. I arrived at the hotel, five stars and again beyond what I could expect, said my hellos, my face cracking, and slept for as long as I possibly could.
To work, or some vague version of that where I get to do something I would’ve paid to do. I was being taken now by Nahin Idris at the British Council who was Abrar’s equal in being faultlessly generous, assured and with a grand sense of humour. I was being escorted to the International Islamic University of Chittagong to give a talk to students there, on an all male campus, just outside of the city, and then a seminar with lecturers at the Uni. I was a little intimidated, but really keen to do this of course. On our way I had the intense sensation that this was the kind of experience that I simply could not have fashioned myself had I wanted to, and for that fact, was remarkable and to be appreciated. I was told upon arrival, students staring at me, pleasantly, and surrounded by armed campus security, that there would be 250 students. By the time of the talk, in an enormous theatre, it was more like 500, I was told. I have no idea how many young Bangladeshi students were in the room by the end.
I was introduced generously by Nahin, by the associated chancellor of the University and then by a short recitation from the Quran. Then a microphone was in my hand and I had an hour. A banner was hung behind me, filling the stage, entitled Adventures in Modern Poetry. I spoke freely, knowing notes would be the death of rapport, and told the audience how I ended up in poetry, randomly, later in life, after a car crash and the demise of my martial arts career, and then, without theory, leaving behind the normal stuff I blather about which positions my poetry as an act of refraction and reflection rather than a theological origination (which dominates most poetry), I talked about sound poetry, asemic writing, Oulipo and constraint. I just talked about method. And I took the mick out of myself. And I talked about the Bengali poets friends in London had given me years ago, Rabindranath Tagore of course, but Kazi Nazrul Islam too, whom I’d been reading a little for awhile. And I talked about the Bangla language’s modern moment, movement and poets, and the gorgeous script of the language itself. I honestly thought they were bored, but once we opened up for questions it appeared the opposite. I was met with some amazing, progressive, funny exchanges, everything from why people don’t like poetry anymore to whether I support Donald Trump. Suffice to say my answers endeared myself to them even more. When Nahin then, perhaps naively, said to wrap up how about we join Steven on stage for a picture, the rush caused a small security scare. I was leg bumped, jostled and crowded like Rod Stewart or Burt Reynolds. I must have taken 50 selfies before the crowd was yelled back and lined up for the group photo you can see below. They crowd, so full of warm enthusiasm followed me all the way to the chancellor’s office, being pushed back constantly by security. A new experience for me, rare does that happen on the streets of London for a poet.
After a lunch with Uni bigwigs I then had the equally unenviable task of leading a seminar with lecturers and professors at the institution. We were in a green room, like an empty swimming pool and when I asked them what they taught, they said a range of things, some professors of sharia law, some lecturing in physics. Once again it felt prudent to shift the onus a little and we just ended up having a brilliant, funny, lively chat for a few hours. We talked poetry and a few of my thoughts but I also got them to educate me in the Bangladeshi tradition of recitation, of poetry competitions, of poetry and song in the Bangla style and about their own disciplines. They were so generous, it was joyous and eminently friendly, casual even, and I’ve stayed in touch with many of them via email. Even they lined up for selfies, with the head of the law department having particular good selfie technique.
On the way back Nahin, in his beautifully understated way, said he thought we had made a real difference. The positive reception, the warmth, its level and depth, had even surprised him. I felt slightly giddy, having met so many people so quickly, having spoken so much, but I felt like it was a day I’d not soon forget. And what an extraordinary job the British Council has done here in Bangladesh, Nahin, Abrar, and Kendall Robbins, who had in fact been integral in convincing me to go to Chittagong at all and who corresponded with me eloquently before my journey about life in Bangladesh, Daisy Leitch who helped suggest me for this work - all of them and their colleagues, often unsung heroes of building, behind the scenes, genuine transformation in people’s opinions and even lives. Opening people to possibility. This is the work that doesn’t get press, because it’s benign in its decency and constancy. Nahin told me even later that some from the University had contacted him after we had left to say my buffoonery had changed their entire opinion of British people. While I’m sure that was overstated, the work the BC did in introducing me to that place, those wonderful people, by allowing me access, by sharing with me their subtle expertise and thorough enthusiasm, well we did something valuable, in real space, with real people. I owe them all a debt of gratitude at the British Council in Bangladesh, and not the first time people from the BC have helped me in this way it must be said.
Bangladesh Diary: Part Two - The Dhaka Lit Fest 2016
November Thursday 17th
Waking up in Chittagong Nahin accompanied me to the airport, catching another car-with-wings flight across Bangladesh to Dhaka, for the primary reason behind my visit, the Dhaka Lit Fest. I watched the streets of Chittagong pass by once again, with lots of time to think on how unique these last few days had been, as it took hours to veer through the crazed traffic. I was to learn quite quickly that Dhaka traffic made Chittagong traffic look positively expansive. We trawled through the city, getting just a taste of the intensity of a metropolis of twenty million, its density and force. The hotel, a compound of sorts, was absurdly nice. Five stars, with huge rooms, free minibars, buffets restaurants always on the go, swimming pools and such. The kind of hotel so nice it makes one feel strange, estranged, always grateful anyway, but aware of the contrast in such luxury from my room to the street. None the less, I was keen to take advantage of the comfort I didn’t choose, to use it to stay unsick, rested and ready to make the most of just a measly few days. An event was due so I had to leave rapidly for the festival itself.
Upon arriving at the festival I was immediately assigned a buddy / shadow / friend / fixer – an absolute mensch of a man, Sifat. Sifat was one of what seemed a hundred young local students who worked with the festival, each one assigned an individual author, looking after them, and not letting them out of their sight it seemed. I've found this at many festivals, the young people who work so hard, keep the momentum going throughout, are some of the nicest people one can meet, and so it proved. I must’ve taken 80 selfies with these amazing folk by the end of the three days, all of them were so funny, so warm-hearted and Sifat and his many friends made the whole thing feel communal, connected and sincere. I was tempted, as in Chittagong, to play practical jokes on him, and hide, but resisted to spare his blushes.
The Dhaka Lit Fest was spread out over the Bangla Academy, a short ride from our hotel, and the grounds were beautiful. Food markets and book stalls strewn over a campus requisitioned for the fest, which had a dozen venues. Over 20000 people came in the end, and over 100 events were ongoing in parallel sessions. It was extensive, and moreover, really so friendly and open. The particular quality of the light, the air, the heat too, the constant energy and exchange, and for me the unique circumstance of being stopped every minute for a selfie, led to a very energising experience. I was always keen to say hello to anyone looking in my general direction, which was normally dozens of people, I remained keen to meet new people. My opening event was nice, wonderful to meet the poet Carles Torner and to have the chance to read my work, a small video from it is attached above. It was a little rushed, and interrupted by announcements, and slightly squished by a poet on the panel who was a little unaware of his own ego, but these things are part of the flow, they are part of the thing I want to overturn in poetry. I was happy to take a back seat and save my thoughts for my final event, which was to be a panel. I was then free to explore to festival and to spend some time in the authors lounge, meeting an immense range of writers and journalists from all over the world.
I had the chance to meet some marvellous people, and I hope, begin some friendships. Simon Broughton, whose work with Songlines magazine and the Rough Guide to music is something I've long followed, was an inspiration. World music is an integral part of my interest and teaching in sound and improvised vocalisation with my own work, and has always been a passion of mine. Such a self-effacing and knowledgeable man, he essentially shaped an entire understanding of this field in the UK and we lost a few hours talking of everything from Ketjak to Romani music. I could’ve picked his brain for much longer. I had the chance too to talk to Tim Cope, and felt really quite humbled by his incredible work as a writer and a guide exploring Mongolia and central asia. In fact I was not truly aware of the scale of Tim’s work before we chatted, and found him to be vastly insightful, modest and kind, always interested in others, always gentle and assured with his words. To then discover he had traversed a huge stretch of the globe on horseback, over three years in the saddle, following the Mongol path from Mongolia to Hungary, it really made me feel I had made a special connection. I cannot recommend his book enough, I read it within a few days on my way home.
So nice to meet many others from the UK too, the translator and publisher Deborah Smith, whose work from South Korean has brought her greatly deserved success, the novelist Evie Wyld who was really lovely company, the publisher Kelly Falconer, who has championed some brilliant writers from all over Asia, including some of the leading avant-garde poets. I was surrounded by really inspiring people and tried to balance the intense, engaged individual conversations which I am naturally inclined to, with a constant desire to roam, explore, meet new people. After a few more events, with the sun slowly starting to mute and the festival gently quietening, they walkie-talkied for a car and I was driven back to the hotel.
I nipped to the gym, full of slightly strange swarthy men trying to tiger stare me and so gave in to my own fragile ego, bashing a punchbag for an hour, and then headed to the opening night party, held in the hotel, but out on the lawn, with an extraordinary dinner served in a nightlit tent. It was a beautiful setting but I felt talked out from the day, and though I met some fascinating people like the journalist and fiction writer Nadia Kabir Barb, and reconnected with my buds from the british council, I took an early one to rest for a free day following.
This was a really memorable day amongst many. It was a genuine festival day, a day where I was able to just be an audience member, and experience what can be distant when you are performing or presenting, thinking altered by your own responsibilities to the audience. I was able to attend six events back to back. Eating my bodyweight in free pancakes at the fancy hotel breakfast buffet I waddled onto the festival site first for a panel on Indian music with Simon Broughton and Vidya Shah, which was fascinating, and saw Vidya perform her music later in the day, and then to the aptly titled Cosmic Tent, to watch Tim Cope speak. This was a festival highlight for me, I was entranced and wrote texts responding to the hour, as I often do when a talk really takes me, refashioning the language into a poem. Suffice to say the audience loved Tim’s talk and it seemed, as it often does with really insightful speakers, it was a multi-layered experience. One could take the details of Tim’s travels, his achievements, his insight into human nature across the Steppe, his hardship alone (or never alone with his wonderful dog Tigon given to him as a puppy in Kazakhstan.) Fundamentally, what I took was a revelation of human will, of perseverance, through choice – it was an exercise in human strength, quiet, unassuming, without complaint, with utter focus and without existential angst. His was a work, a life, of quiet immensity. It really stayed with me, something in his words and his journey resonated.
I spent much of the day from then on seeking out primarily Bangladeshi themed events. I witnessed a panel about the campaign of rape by the Pakistani army during the Bangladeshi liberation war of 1971 which featured Nayanika Mookherjee, Firdous Azim, Shireen Huq and Sadaf Saaz. The event was about the victims of this campaign and their status as Birangona, or war heroes. Considering the topic, I have not been to more engaged, balanced, intelligent and insightful panel discussion in sometime, the true brutal tragedy of the events of 1971 were revealed with real expertise and positive disagreement, and it was an education for me. One of many events I went to about Bangladeshi history, politics and culture, and this was an ongoing process of education that I tried to constantly engage with when they were in English and not Bangla. I packed a few more events in before the main event, Ahsan Akbar’s packed out discussion with VS Naipaul in the main hall, a particular highlight, knowing Ahsan in London and having heard him speak with such eloquence about the festival and the support of Naipaul to the enterprise.
On the way back to the hotel I fell into conversation with the wonderful Romana Cacchioli, and our initial exchanges led to an hour of intense conversation in the hotel lobby. Her work at PEN and her time working in Anti-Slavery Internationalin Africa in the last decades just scratched the surface of revealing a life dedicated to helping others. She was yet another remarkable human being to listen to and learn from. This was a perfect way to end a wonderful day and once back at the hotel I skipped the fancy dinner to just write and rest.
My last day in Bangladesh, feeling time having shot past absurdly fast. I tried to rest as long as possible with a night flight upcoming, but was soon up in the hotel stuffing my chops. Straight off after arriving at the festival, travelling in with my friend Daniel Hahn, a brilliant translator and thinker who travels the world with the ease of diplomat, I asked my friends to take me out of the compound, to see some of the sights of Dhaka. Raihan Mahmud and Shadab Anwar took me out, it being Sifat’s day away. Two amazing dudes, full of humour and great companions, we had a ride around and visited the national museum of Bangladesh amongst other things. A strange and intense mix of war memorial, taxidermy and ancient archaeological history, we had a fine time bopping around the museum, surrounded by stuffed swordfish, pangolins and Bengal tigers next to abstract modern art, next to horrifically graphic pictures from the 1971 war and the crimes committed during that conflict.
Back at the Bangla academy it was time to prep for my event, brilliantly chaired by Anjum Hasan. It was a panel discussion about resistance, and poetry. The title was a little conceptually vague, but we managed through, I enjoyed talking about the range of my work, people were receptive and even took my decries that people must be allowed to hate poetry etc… my normal spiel about uninterrogated myths, notions and metaphysics in poetry making it less than it is, less popular, less interesting, seeming to be of interest to the rather large audience on the lawn. The event was again a bit overshadowed by slight pomposity from other panel members, the loud, dominant ego driven proclamations of poets still abide into the 21st century, but perhaps, to the discerning viewer, this emphasised my points even further.
I made a last tour of the festival, the beautiful Bangladeshi music that followed my event floating over the onset of dusk, the still busy stalls, the activity and bustle of a great three days. I went to closing ceremony and far from being the normal official list of thank yous, it provoked a sense of palpable appreciation in me, offered me time to enjoy the moment as it slipped away. I owe a great deal of thanks to Ahsan Akbar and the other directors of the festival, for allowing me to be part of it. What an achievement on their part, not just another grand literary happening, but literally a political act, one that demanded people refocus their gaze on Bangladesh not because of extremism or intolerance, but precisely because of the secular, intelligent, generous nature of this country, as has been its way since its independence. This festival brought together so many people and so much focus through its size and enterprise to the qualities of Bangladesh which are in fact the norm. Its ambition, and its achievement were remarkable, I was lucky to witness it and be a tiny part of it. The closing ceremony, which had some very earnest and honest, and frankly sincere speeches, was a moment for me to personally pause to consider actually what a thing it all was, just months after the horrible events of July, and just how I had been treated. It felt emotional to be there, to see it unfold as well as was possible.
Flying in the early morning following the day I went to the closing party with my luggage in tow. This was a nice opportunity to say goodbye to people properly, in the same spirit of compressed intensity that such festivals provide, everything at hyperspeed, outside of the usual rhythm of life. Again the setting was lavish, with a magician, naturally, entertaining the authors. At times the vibe got away from me a bit, perhaps I was tired, or that I have no inclination to group smalltalk, but I did find myself politely nodding to some bourgeois private school English literary talk at times, the normal incestuous dinner party stuff of posh young novelists and journalists that sometimes does happen at these festivals, but mostly I was able to evade and find further sources of intelligent inspiration. A lovely chat with Marcia Lynx Qualey and again with my new Bangladeshi friends, and a round of heartfelt farewells led me to the airport. Raihan Mahmud accompanied me, a few of the lovely young Bangladeshis did in fact, even though they didn’t need to, just to say farewell. Raihan and I swapped whatsapp and Instagram and within minutes of leaving his company he was messaging me with video game recommendations. He said he’d pray for me every day because I was so cool. I’m not sure a bigger compliment is possible, in all its complexity.
I faced a brutal journey back home, a 5 hour flight delay from Dhaka making me miss connections and spending nearly a full day on the road, through Qatar, and being awake from nearly 40 hours all told, before I found a bed to sleep in. But I had time to think back, to retrace a mere week and reflect on what a beautiful and profound experience it was in Bangladesh, and to all those I had met, whom, in the spirit of Tom Cope’s words that remembering was giving, I would not forget.