INTERVIEW: Poet and Activist Sadaf Saaz

05 Jul 2015

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— Syed Latif Hossain
— Syed Latif Hossain

“We need to engage in literature, stories, debate and ideas that ignite our imagination and inspire us to reimagine our lives and the world.” - Sadaf Saaz

SADAF Saaz, 46, is a Bangladeshi poet, activist and entrepreneur. Her book of poems Sari Reams touches upon various aspects of Bangladeshi life. She is actively involved with Naripokkho, a women’s rights organisation which has been working, among other things, on the rehabilitation of rape survivors from the 1971 Bangladesh war. Also, Saaz is co-director and producer of the literature festival, Hay Festival Dhaka. Here, she speaks to Books&Authors about the role culture can play in a country like Bangladesh, especially in the context of the painful memory of the Bangladesh war, and the recent spate of killings of bloggers in the country.

What was the idea behind bringing the Hay festival to Dhaka?

A few years ago, I was part of a writers’ group writing in English. Bangladesh also has a huge literary tradition; there are a lot of great Bangla poets and novelists. But we were so cut off from the rest of the world that if somebody wrote an epic book in Bangla, or even in English, nobody would know because there was little exposure, a lack of good modern translations, and not much opportunity to go beyond the Bangla-speaking world. And also, if we wrote in English, why shouldn’t we get the same opportunities to publish as writers in UK, USA [and] India?

The only possible access was contacting an Indian publisher but that had its problems because we were then pigeonholed with “what should come out of Bangladesh”. So the idea was to be plugged into the global literary scene, creating a platform for our Bangla writing through translations, and also our English writers. Also, we wanted our young people to be exposed to the best writers and thinkers of the world. Sometimes a book, or even a sentence can change the way you look at life. We have a huge young population. In this day and age, when Star TV is so dominant and the education system so archaic, we need to engage in literature, stories, debate and ideas that ignite our imagination and inspire us to reimagine our lives and the world.

Do you have many Bangla sessions at the festival?

Yes, a large number. We started with a one-day pilot in 2011 that was primarily an English literary festival with some Bangla. But from the second year we made a huge leap. We held it in Bangla Academy which is the heart of Bangla literature in Bangladesh, and had three days with multiple sessions simultaneously. And our Bangla sessions haven’t just been about our literary heritage. We’ve had our great poets reciting, [there have been] performances based on oral epic poems, to Bangla rap, as well as pushing the boundaries of contemporary Bangla writing. And then, while Bangladesh was formed for, among other reasons, the right to live and work in one’s own language, we also have many other languages, such as Chakma and other tribal languages. So it’s been about celebrating those as well.

Do you see culture serving as a balm, as a way of getting over a collective trauma, such as the memory of atrocities that occurred during the 1971 war? Also, what role can it play in combating extremism of the kind that seems to have surged in the country of late?

Culture is a way of using creative expression to come to terms with things we’ve been through, personally and as a nation. Can it encompass activism? It can, but there’s a balance between propaganda and the power of giving space for people to present layers which reflect the human condition. But when you address them through a novel, a play, song or a poem you can bring out the reasons why people do things. Not to justify things, but to put forth a fabric, a canvas, which tries to make sense of what has happened — to explore human nature, relationships, what motivates people, their fears, joys, insecurities — the multiple dimensions of the human mind, and society.

Political activism through creative expression can elicit an empathetic connection; for example Komola Collective’s play on Birangonas [Birangona: Women of War], which my company Jatrik produced in Bangladesh. These women know that maybe their perpetrators will never be put to trial and they will never get ‘justice’. But they strongly wish that their stories don’t die with them and the world gets to know what happened to them. The story about Birangonas is the, often unacknowledged, mass rape that happened in 1971. People talk about Congo and Bosnia, but they really don’t know what happened in Bangladesh. Now, I can write an article on it and say “400,000 women…” But what does that mean to anybody? We’ve all become desensitised to statistics.

You were at the Lahore Literature Festival this year and the last. What kind of response did you get from Pakistanis on the subject?

I was on a very intense panel this year, which became a microcosm of Pakistan in my mind. I was not just preaching to the converted. There were many in the audience ready to challenge what I had to say. When I was in Cambridge, in the early ’90s, I remember bringing up the issue of 1971 and even supposedly liberal, privileged Pakistanis were denying that this happened and were very dismissive and arrogant. The previous year, at the festival, I had read out a poem of mine from Sari Reams on Birangonas, based on the true testimonies of women I talked to. There were uncomfortable ruffles in the audience but there was pin-drop silence, and afterwards young people came up to me and [said that they] were very moved by the poem.

But this time we were talking about it, not through poetry, but by having a discussion. So I was not sure of the reaction, because when you’re listening to a poem you can easily be moved. It would be difficult not to be even though you might think that’s only one point of view.

At the discussion, a heckler stood up and said, “This is rubbish, it is Indian propaganda.” There was a lot of commotion. A lot of people said, “Shame on you,” to him, and he left. I kept calm and carried on. But because of that I had a lot of people, both men and women, standing up and apologising, to Bangladesh, to Bangladeshi women, to me for what happened in ’71. And then [human rights lawyer] Hina Jilani, who had been campaigning for stopping the atrocities during the war, said, “Look, who are we kidding. Hardly anybody stood up then. We knew about it and we were silent.” So some people agreed with that, and others said, “We didn’t know. We weren’t told this by the government.” Two young girls came up to me after the session and said, “Thank you for this session. We were ashamed that we didn’t know enough to make a comment.”

But, because of the heckler, a lot of other emotions came up as well. Like, “What do you say to the fact that the Mukti Bahini also raped a lot of women?” There was a lot of palpable emotion in the room [and] strong feelings all around.

Three bloggers have been killed this year in Bangladesh. Another blogger was stabbed to death in 2013. Three of those killed were on a ‘hit list’ sent to the interior ministry in 2013. Another blogger on the list has received threats. How can this surge be countered by those in the cultural sphere?

I think creating spaces and platforms for creative expression is extremely important. That’s what we’re trying to do through the literature festival and what I’m trying to do through other events … when you’re doing it in all these different mediums it can be powerful even if it is nuanced as well.

The Shahbag movement, for instance, which happened primarily as a call for justice, was wrongly portrayed as a clash between believers and non-believers. I felt that it was extremely important at the literature festival for us to give a platform to encompass the breadth of our history of spiritual discourse and debate, and our pluralism and stress that, rather than a ‘you’re with us or against us’ binary which is falsely constructed.

We’ve continued to showcase the rich diversity and tolerance we’ve had throughout the centuries, and different spiritual traditions, whether Hinduism, tantric Buddhism, Sufi mystic poetry or Charyapadas, which were written in proto-Bangla and formed the basis of Buddhist texts taken to Tibet with Atish Dipankar. Even in the villages there are so many folk-based anthems people know which are based on our syncretic pluralist tradition, like the humanist philosophy of the Bauls, That’s part of our Bangla culture which is strong and there is no dichotomy with the fact that we are Muslim. Much of the time these conflicts are about people trying to use us to make themselves powerful.

Has the binary itself been addressed?

We’re addressing it in all sorts of ways: History, philosophy, celebrating literature in all its forms — literature in a broader sense. Dr Romila Thapar had a beautiful keynote at the Lahore Literature Festival this year based on the fact that we don’t know our history and other people are making up history and using that to dictate a cultural consciousness. We need to counter it with encouraging expression, where we explore the emotions and conflicts we are facing, the stories that have formed who we are, where we’re going.

Where has this surge of extremism come from? What’s at the root of it?

If you take Bangladesh particularly there are two reasons why it’s rearing its ugly head now. One is that, historically, the Jamaat-i-Islami did not support the independence of Bangladesh, but then they were subsequently allowed to emerge as a political force, and generally accepted as a part of Bangladesh. Now when they feel their survival is threatened, due to the recent war crimes trials they are organising themselves. They seem to believe in an ideology which is contrary to the secular principles on which Bangladesh was formed. They have gained disproportionate political clout as potential kingmakers in a landscape where they are being also used to misbalance the status quo between the two dominant parties.

The other reason is unregulated sources of non-government funding for orphanages, schools and social causes. That’s very pernicious, where, say, petro dollars come in and fund madressahs and what you have then are curriculums which [have] nothing to do with modern Bangladesh. Because they’re preaching that women shouldn’t be allowed to do X, Y and Z, for instance. These are the breeding grounds for the ‘important people’ in the villages who would want a job, say, as an imam. It is the failure of the government to not provide these facilities. Since Liberation for example, the number of primary schools have doubled, yet the number of madressahs have multiplied 20-fold.

When you have an uneducated population with a deep faith and an organised body funded by a foreign country that has an agenda, or a fringe political party being given the opportunity to gain more power, it’s not a conducive situation and it’s a threat to liberalism, and our syncretic heritage.

You know, if you go to the villages and see how ingrained our folk culture and pluralist traditions are, you think this fundamentalism can never take root. But then, things can change quite quickly when you have powerful people trying to manipulate culture. We can see in the Shahbag situation how, suddenly, it was depicted as being an issue of believers versus non-believers, and a small group of people were able to manipulate mass consciousness. And that’s the danger.

Do you see it as connected with events elsewhere in South Asia? Sabeen Mahmud’s murder in Pakistan, the rise of Hindutva voices in India…

I think in all of our countries, there is a danger of people looking for an entity to take things forward, when the current system is ailing with corruption and malaise. It’s easy for well-funded groups to come up, especially if they have an ambitious agenda, and for extremist ideology to influence young people who are impressionable and who want to believe in something to give them a future. And then, of course with what’s happening world over, it can’t not have a connection.

So you’re referring to not just a South Asian but an international connection? What’s happening in the Middle East, or with the self-styled Islamic State?

Yes, ideologically, we’re in a connected world.

What’s the state’s responsibility in all this?

The state needs to not fall into the trap of this binary and has to stand up for justice and take a strong stance against anybody who is taking the law into their hands. It has to make sure that the perpetrators are arrested and tried; that murderers do not get away with impunity. The state needs to protect its citizens, and the right to live in a democratic, secular country — the principles on which Bangladesh was formed. People have already started to self-censor as the state is failing to protect its citizens. It needs to take steps before it is too late, before the fabric of who we are is destroyed.