A Bangladeshi poet, Farhad Mazhar, not known in Pakistan as he became famous after 1971, wrote this poem, “Burqa.” I heard this poem from an old man I met in Springfield, Virginia, last week.
“What is your judgment, O Lord? … Think it over, not bad – this idea of mine … the imbecile walks with a black blindfold in the streets, not a burqa in sight, but people easily see, who is the lecher and who is the faithful.”
“An interesting idea,” I thought as I listened to the poem. Equally interesting was my meeting with this old man. As I was coming out of my car near the Tavern, he approached me and said in Bengali:
“Tumi kar shuntan re (whose child are you)?”
Surprised by this sudden breeze from a distant past, I looked at the old man and asked: “Ami (me)?”
“Hey, tumi (yes, you),” he said.
I told him I too, was an old man, like him. No more a child.
“Still, you are somebody’s child,” he insisted.
“We came from this soil, will go back to it,” I replied, half-jokingly. “That’s makes us children of this soil, does it not?”
I was not ready for what followed. He held my hand and took me to a half-empty flower shop.
“Bosho (sit down),” he said, with tears in his eyes.
I sat on an empty chair. He went inside and brought a small but beautiful hookah.
“Smoke,” he said.
“I do not,” I replied.
He pushed the hookah aside, once again disappeared behind the curtains and in 10 minutes came with a teapot and two cups. I could smell the cardamom from some distance. He put the cups and a packet of ginger cookies on the table and poured the cardamom-scented tea into the cups.
I did not ask who he was, why he brought me to this shop and why he had tears in his eyes.
We sat like two old friends who do not always have to talk to communicate.
After a while, he spoke again, this time in English: “So what do you do?”
“I write,” I said.
“What?” he asked.
“Whatever I can,” I said.
“Oh, one of those,” he said and sighed.
I looked at him and then asked: “How did you know I spoke Bengali?”
He said he saw me at a Bangladeshi pizza shop last week and noticed that I was nodding my head while listening to the Bangladesh’s national anthem.
I laughed and said: “Don’t we need a formal introduction?”
He smiled, stretched his hand and said: “Moni Mian.”
I also offered the nickname my friends in Dhaka gave me so many years ago: “Anu.”
“Oh, everything is topsy-turvy,” he said in Bengali. “A non-Bengali has a Bengali nickname and Bengalis call themselves Tom, Liz and Ronnie.”
“Who does?” I asked.
“My children do,” he said, adding: “But that’s not why I brought you here. I heard you were a journalist so I wanted to know what’s wrong with us Muslims.”
“Well, I am not the right person for this. I do not know enough about Islam or Muslims to discuss them,” I said.
“This is the problem with you Pakistanis. As soon as you see a Bengali, you get ready to lecture him on Islam. I already know enough about Islam. I do not need to learn it from you,” he said.
So I asked him why he brought me to his shop.
“For a little political discussion, ‘gup-shup,’ as you say in Urdu,” he said.
Then he explained that he participated in Bangladesh’s liberation movement and had no sympathy for the Islamists. “And yet, I am disgusted with what’s happening in Egypt.”
He paused, refilled his cup with tea and said: “Why couldn’t the liberals wait? (Mohammed) Morsi had already completed his first year. The next elections were due in three years.”
“Wait, we cannot,” I said.
“Very unfortunate,” he said, “this will lead to more instability and perhaps another military rule.”
“Luckily, we escaped this cycle in Pakistan this year,” I said. “An elected government completed its tenure and handed over power to another.”
“Don’t be a smug,” he retorted, “I know Pakistan’s political history well.”
He paused again, took a few sips and added: “But how can I say that? We are having problems in Bangladesh too.”
Instead of telling me what those problems were, he asked: “Do you know Farhad Mazhar?”
I said I did not.
“He is a Bangladeshi poet (born 1947), who was a communist and perhaps still is. But he opposes Haseena Wajid’s efforts to curb Islamic religious parties,” he said.
“He should not,” I said. “Religion should be separated from politics in the Muslim world as well.”
“It should but Mazhar feels that Haseena Wajid’s actions will re-introduce Islam into Bangladeshi politics, not banish it,” the old man said.
He stopped abruptly. Went inside, brought a book, poured some more tea into my cup, and started reading another of Farhad Mazhar’s poems:
“Bangla is not yours, Lord, I adore it so much, O Lord, I adore my Bangla language! I devour it greedily as if it were the fruit of heaven. Are you envious? I am happy that Bangla is not a divine language.”
A strange man, he was. He did not complete the poem either. Instead, he started humming a song: “Ami oi noeone noen dia … (I cannot look away after looking into her eyes, no I cannot.”
His eyes filled with tears again. This time I asked why.
(To be concluded…)