A Bangladesh diary: Part One - in Chittagong with the British Council

For the full diary of the trip please visit www.stevenjfowler.com/bangladesh

November 15th

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.

November 16th

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 the actual act of going to the university - 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.