“Bangladesh is a poor country hit by cyclones … It’s a part of India, isn’t it?”. “Oh wait, is this not the place where super cheap clothes are produced? They had this terrible factory collapse…”.
I can’t remember how many times people in Europe confronted me with such short-sighted questions. These stereotypes came time and again, unfortunately very often. We have, everyone has, a problem to look beyond known fields. On the top of that, reporters need to create easy labels and headlines for fast journalism consumption. And let’s assume it: there is an insane superiority complex in our part of the world, a post-colonial odor.
“No, please open your eyes, Bangladesh is a sovereign nation of 160 million souls.” Almost angry sometimes, I used to try to make a point in favor of the forgotten land. I thought by giving this number —four times the population of Spain, a fourth of the people who live in about 50 countries in Europe— some of my interlocutors would realize the magnitude of a place which is extremely alien for most of the Spaniards and Europeans. Very few would give actually the right answer if asked about Bangladesh’s capital city.
But then, unfortunately, as my eight years of experience as a reporter in South Asia have proven: numbers are not everything and you need in fact big ones on this side of the Earth to make audiences in Rome, New York or Madrid understand the seriousness of the dramas, no matter we talk about terrorism, natural disasters or man-made conflicts. The color of the skin is also proportionally related to the importance we attach to things. White skin, very important; dark skin, lesser important. The talk at a news desk can sometimes go this way: “10 people killed in a trawler capsize? That’s nothing. Wait a bit, maybe when the toll reaches 20.”
Life can be so cheap. Trending topics and hash-tags, so unfair.
Even though numbers may be often big, in the end, if topics are treated without trespassing the surface tragedies become just statistics. How much of our reporting is improvable or essentially dispensable? You need a human side of the story to turn eyes around. And then the question raises again. Who is there, in the case of Bangladesh, to do reporting that can attract the interest globally? No doubt there are courageous and brilliant reporters in this land and some others from abroad who have given us valuable accounts, but Bangladesh is after all probably the most unfairly covered country in the world in terms of density of international news versus population. It always struck me this unexplainable lack of interest, particularly because I have been based in both India and Pakistan, which get far more attention from the international audiences maybe because of their bigger geostrategic relevance.
I started visiting Bangladesh in the end of 2013, a few months after the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex in the outskirts of Dhaka that killed around 1,130 garment workers and triggered a catharsis for security reforms in the industry. The country was going through a turbulent moment, with trials of top Islamist leaders related to war crimes committed during the war for independence in 1971; there were massive gatherings at the Shahbagh junction in support of the steady execution of this process to seal a national wound, and from time to time violent protests erupted in the streets in reaction. I came back again in 2014 when a deep political crisis was brewing. By the end of that year I had already decided, for personal reasons, to set my base for an indefinite period in Dhaka.
Today I am saying goodbye. By the time of my departure, I have spent around 19 months living here, constantly trying to grasp Bangladesh. I learnt a bit its melodic Bangla, visited religious and secular festivals, ate uncountable chingris, had as many teas as conversations were started, watched the unending melodramatic movies and felt the passion for cricket: the only thing capable to vacate people from streets in this densely populated country, more powerful than any political strike. I had the glory of being a famous Ittadi actor for a day and a football star for a brief moment. And when everybody complained about Dhaka being included in the list of the most inhabitable cities in the world, I managed to find some love for it. I found it staring at its skyline from the rooftops, the kite fights, enjoying party nights and the refreshing monsoon storms. I will certainly miss plenty of moments, despite the craziness of the traffic jams and the extreme images sometimes seen.
It was not always easy, to be fair, especially during the last months in which jihadists monopolized our conversations, liberties were cut down and fears and concerns invaded large sections of the population. But it was such a gratifying experience. I would sign up again for it. Bangladesh, Dhaka are already a part of me that I will proudly remember and show to others. It remains to be seen whether my Quixotic goal of putting Bangladesh in the map of my fellow Spanish citizens, in the eyes of the Spanish speaking community was managed. I swear I tried my best to go beyond statistics, official versions and stereotypes, but I can’t deny I was also too often guilty of these sins. I would be happy if somebody somewhere in the world remembered the struggle of an activist who dreamed of words that are not harmful anymore. I would be glad if somebody thousands of kilometers away from here was moved by the story of a girl who surfed for freedom or that one of a poor student who crossed daily the river to graduate and make people from a backward island proud.
And yes, no doubt this is a country of cyclones, industrial disasters, security challenges and political feuds. But this is also a country of a fascinating development story against all odds, of green oceans of paddy fields and astonishing rivers, where the sun raises majestic and there are six seasons. This is the home of the Bengal Tiger and the longest uninterrupted beach in the world, the place where you can find the biggest mangrove forest and the only language with a Literature Nobel Prize in South Asia. This is the country of 160 millions souls. They are certainly much more than just a number. Don’t forget this. Don’t forget them.
A selection of my work about Bangladesh in Spanish can be found here