Bangladesh, Day 4: Passing as Muslim, and my Hindu tribe

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B, her dad, and I hired a car for the day and hit the road. First, we hit the Jatiyo Smriti Shoudho in Savar, a memorial to the hundreds of thousands who died during the liberation war. Then off to nearby Dhamrai to see an artisan workshop creating bronze sculpture using a traditional "lost wax" technique. Finally, a quick stop at the Sat Gumbad mosque, built in 1680, and to the National Assembly building, completed in 1982.

Being in a Muslim-majority nation feels weirdly liberating. As a young brown man with a beard living in post-9/11 America, I fit the rough stereotype of Young Muslim Male. It may not be a problem 99% of the time, but I can't entirely escape a racialized consciousness; there's a reason why my parents ask me to shave my beard, why I'm particularly well-behaved at airports, why seeing trucks or motorcycles carrying American flags makes me worry about my safety. I enjoy the fact that in a majority-Muslim country where I sort of look like everyone else, that sense of racialization disappears entirely. The streets are full of clean-cut bearded guys. I may not pass as a local everyman (I'm presumably being read at first glance as a possibly-Muslim upper-class urbanite), but no one would mistake me as dangerous because I might "look Muslim."

Being in 90%-Muslim Bangladesh has also made me feel very much part of a Hindu tribe (9% of the population). Walking around in Old Dhaka with B and her dad, we met a Hindu storekeeper with family near where B's family lives; the pictures of Hindu gods in the store jumped out at me among all his neighbors' culturally-Muslim paraphernalia. We went on to walk through Dhaka's "Hindu Street," seeing crowds of happy Hindu families celebrating Saraswati Puja. At the Liberation War Museum, we met a helpful museum employee; when we asked for directions to a local temple, it was immediately clear she was Hindu. In Dhamrai, we visited Dhamrai Metal Craft, an artisan workshop creating bronze sculptures via an intricate "lost wax" technique. The Banik family that runs the space are locally-prominent Hindus in a community that was once majority-Hindu, but has gained a large Muslim population since the 1971 war. It felt like we self-censored when discussion turned to local (i.e. Muslim) reactions to Hindu religious figures in the presence of our Muslim driver, not wanting to cause offense.

Within our first few days here, we've had several interactions with other Hindus, and the level of quick intimacy has been surprising. We often jump very quickly to issues of safety in the wake of decades of rising and falling anti-Hindu sentiment. Hindus we've spoken to understand the dangers of anti-minority fundamentalism--both anti-Hindu sentiment in Bangladesh as well as anti-Muslim sentiment in India. I can be as philosophically humanist as I want to, but in a situation where there are only two tribes that matter, and that tribal identity is fixed at birth, and embedded in one's name, family customs, and personal habits, it's hard to opt out.

When strangers find out we're visiting via Kolkata, there have been a few instances when we've been very politely asked what religion we follow. We've never hesitated to answer "Hindu," and the answer's invariably been met with smiles. "Ah, so you must not eat beef" surmised an employee at a small-town restaurant where we'd puzzlingly ordered only fish and vegetable dishes. Another man went out of his way to emphasize that he held no communal (i.e. "racial") sentiments, expressing that we're all Bengali, and that he was happy to live in harmony with his Hindu neighbors. We've had a few long conversations spring up. I realize good feelings on an interpersonal basis are complicated by histories of anti-Hindu discrimination, driving millions of Hindus from the region into India as refugees--and yet Bangladeshis are by far the nicest people we've met on our trip, and it's been a delight sharing moments of friendly exchange across barriers.

Racialized identity is complex. If I'm Muslim-identified living in the US (i.e. "Arab/Muslim/South Asian"), I'm equally happy being Hindu-identified in Bangladesh. After all:

"Marcos is gay in San Francisco, black in South Africa, an Asian in Europe, a Chicano in San Ysidro, an anarchist in Spain, a Palestinian in Israel, a Mayan Indian in the streets of San Cristobal, a Jew in Germany, a Gypsy in Poland, a Mohawk in Quebec, a pacifist in Bosnia, a single woman on the Metro at 10 p.m., a peasant without land, a gang member in the slums, an unemployed worker, an unhappy student and, of course, a Zapatista in the mountains." --Subcomandante Marcos

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It must be a hell of feeling to step into the place where ur ancestors came from. A place that u feel u belong to. You can feel its soul. From reading the poignant story of hindus being driven out of bangladesh to ur fellow feeling with the native hindus, things have come a long way. I get amazed and feel the pain at the same time.


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