BANGLADESH: Djinn City by Saad Z. Hossain

A lot of reviews of Saad Z. Hossain’s Djinn City say it resists classification, and I really agree – it’s ostensibly a scifi/fantasty novel, and definitely starts out as one. Indelbed is a young boy in Dhaka, from a prominent family line fallen into poverty, with an alcoholic father and a mother who died in childbirth. His lonely existence is changed when his father falls into a coma that is not what it seems, and Indelbed discovers the magical parallel world of the djinn – ancient, powerful beings with magical powers.

However, this is not a classic “hero’s quest” – the djinn are litigious, vain, and caught up in their own political dramas, and Indelbed ends up abandoned in a dungeon for most of the book. Most of the action shifts to his older cousin Rais, who learns the levers of djinn bureaucracy and status trading, and then works the system to try and find answers about his family, and to stop one bored djinn from unleashing tsunamis to wipe the Bengal Delta clear of humans on a whim.

Don’t let the magical setting fool you, this is pretty heavy stuff – murders, assaults, betrayal, being broken (physically and mentally) to survive, the shock of accidental death, and a deep lore. My one quibble is that is absolutely sets you up for a sequel more than it wraps the plot, but it also means I’ll be looking for the sequel.

Hossain bases much of his writing on djinns, which started as pre-Islamic Arabian myths, then were incorporated and spread through Islam into the stories of countries like Bangladesh. He writes in English, and writes in a way that is accessible to Westerners, but not in a way that exoticizes his own country and culture to pander to that audience. There’s an air of a South Asian Neil Gaiman about his writing.

There’s a great interview with Hossain from last year in Dhaka on djinns, using Asian mythology in his writing instead of the Norse mythology that Western fantasy is based on (see: Tolkein), as well as the writing process, and how humans are barely hanging on.

BANGLADESH: The Clay Bird (2002)

Wow, this is a really really beautiful movie. The Clay Bird (Bengali: Matir Moina) is a 2002 movie set in the months before Operation Searchlight, the Pakistani military operation that would kick off Bangladesh’s independence war in 1971. It was initially banned in Bangladesh, but then only a few months later, allowed in theatres after a big push by Bangladeshi media and public led to a court decision overturning the ban. It was critically very successful, wining awards both at home and abroad.

Anu is a young boy, sent to a madrasa to study by his father, who has recently become much more pious and conservative. Anu’s mother is quietly unhappy in her marriage, and as Anu’s politically liberal uncle gets wrapped up in Bangladesh’s independence movement. The rising tide of politics laps at all their ankles, even at the madrasa, where teachers disagree on the future of Pakistan and the place of Islam in either a united or divided country. Anu befriends an orphan boy, ostracized by his classmates, but can do little to protect him.

Personal tragedy strikes with the death of Anu’s sister, leaving a deep rift between his parents and painful blame over her death. Then, as the killings of Operation Searchlight start, the family splits, each making different choices of what to do. Anu’s uncle is killed fighting, his father left shellshocked in the ruins of his former life, and Anu goes off with his mother as she tries to take control of her future amid the violence.

The family as a whole really is a metaphor for Bangladesh’s society during independence, but also each are truly rounded individuals, trying to navigate an uncertain future. It’s a quietly tragic film, with no real villains, just people caught in the riptide of politics and war – some sinking, some swimming.

BANGLADESH: Shipbreaking

The shipbreaking yards of Chittagong really made the media a few years back – videos and pictures of giant container ships being manually taken apart by workers with no protection at all were everywhere. There’s a lot of news reporting from that time, like this good Vice short from 2013:

I’d also recommend this Dhaka Tribune article “Planning ahead: The ship recycling industry must transition to a more sustainable future” by Afsana Rubaiyat for a good recent overview of the issue from a Bangladeshi perspective.

The industry is still going strong – you can even see the ships individually on Google Maps. While the Bangladesh government has attempted to regulate this industry – banning child labour, stopping ships carrying toxic material, setting safety and work conditions – the informal nature of the industry and high corruption makes these rules extremely difficult to enforce.

It’s also not an industry Bangladesh wants to ban completely, since it desperately needs the metals from the scrap to fuel its massive urban growth, and the industry employs thousands of workers. However, deaths and accidents still happen – the NGO Shipbreaking Platform reports at least 18 serious accidents in the first half of 2022 alone – and these are documented, reported ones.

Interestingly, the Bangladeshi NGOs also recognize the economic importance of shipbreaking to the country – Shipbreaking Platform works for better environmental protection and worker safety, including COVID protection and stopping child labour.

BANGLADESH: Mughlai paratha and sanar toast

More frozen Bangladeshi treats – so far I’ve tried green mango and wood apple bhortas, plus dal puri and shami kebabs. Now for a snack and a dessert!

The Mughal history of this dish is pretty clear – it’s in the name! Mughlai parathas are turnovers with fillings, usually meat, egg, veggies, and spices, and are likely related to Turkish golzeme.

This one is vegetarian, so just egg and veggies, with spices. You can pan-fry or bake, I went for baking the paratha. It’s mildly spicy, very flavourful, and has a really satisfying crunch to it.

I can’t find a lot of references for “sanar toast” apart from the company’s own website, so I’m not sure if this is a brand name for this dessert – is it the same as a malai sandwhich?

Regardless, it’s a soft, sweet dessert of fluffy cream of wheat and chhena – cheese curds that can be made into paneer. It’s very dainty and creamy, and these frozen desserts can be quickly microwaved.

BANGLADESH: Walking tour and traffic

I love these casual, no-talking walking tours – it’s immersive, like you’re there yourself. This one is of Dhaka – I’ve also found some cool ones of San Salvador and Tel Aviv.

Of note is just how bonkers the traffic is, and that doesn’t even seem like a bad day! Dhaka has some of the worst traffic congestion in the world – infrastructure is totally overwhelmed, and there’s basically no public transit. There’s a really good documentary about Dhaka’s traffic from 2010, including what it’s like to drive a rickshaw, below.

It hasn’t gotten any better in the last decade – I saw a Bangladeshi news articles from this year lamenting the lack of progress on traffic and the wasted opportunity during the pandemic lockdowns. It’s so bad, in fact, that researchers estimate that 6-10% of Bangladesh’s GDP is lost indirectly to traffic.

Dhaka traffic – Source: Daily Star

BANGLADESH: Natoks

The word “natok” originally meant a traditional stage play in Bengali, but has evolved to mean Bangladeshi tv dramas. They’re shorter than a full movie, usually 45 minutes to an hour, and new ones are often released around holidays, especially Eid. Natoks are usually romantic dramas, often with a musical number or two fit in – some seem pretty schmaltzy, some are more serious, but they tend to be really high production value. There’s a lot available online – the two below have English subtitles. Get the popcorn (or the jhal muri) ready!

You can see the stage play history in the setting and pacing of this Natok. HE SHE (2021) starts with the manager of a resort accidentally walking into the women’s washroom and enraging the resort owner’s daughter, back from studying in Canada. It’s a goofy love triangle (or love square?) full of misunderstandings, and emotionally engaging enough that I feel like the manager made the wrong decision of who to marry – she’s using you, man!

Shishir Bindu Pt. 2 (2020) – It’s a sequel but you can figure it out pretty quickly. This is some big time melodrama – an orphaned girl being married off by her brother, while her true love tries to stop the marriage. There’s also a goofy fight scene to boot!

BANGLADESH: Green mango bhorta and naga pickle

I’m trying another frozen bhorta, this one made with sour green mango. Bhortas (sauteed spiced veggies) are usually a simple comfort food served with rice. The green mango is wonderfully tart and just slightly spicy. It’s good warm but this would make a really nice savoury summer treat served semi-frozen.

I had with it with the hottest damn hot sauce I’ve had in a long time. Bangladeshi cuisine doesn’t go light on the heat to begin with, but these pickled chillies are hot even by Bengali standards. The first ingredient is naga peppers – likely the Naga Morich, which grows in northern Bangladesh. It’s the hottest naturally-growing chili pepper, at over 1 million Scoville units. As a comparison, jalapeno peppers are about 5000 Scoville. To get hotter than the Naga Morich, you need to start specially breeding the peppers or just using capsaicin extract.

Just a little bit on the plate and this is HOT – full face of fire, sweating, feel where it is in your digestive system hot. It’s also a bit smokey and citrusy (so it goes great with the bhorta) but also holy shit this is hot. Absolutely fantastic. I am in love.

BANGLADESH: More snacks

Another haul of Bangladeshi snacks – this time from the little grocery stores along Danforth in Toronto’s Bangladeshi neighbourhood.

Well Food Ovaltine cookies – Extremely crumbly little cookies made with Ovaltine. Ovaltine is a chocolate malt drink mix that’s really popular worldwide – except in North America, where it’s almost unknown. (Malt drinks are also really rare here.) Apart from leaving crumbs all over my desk, these are not too sweet, with a bit of malty bitterness in the aftertaste.

Frutika – Another thick mango nectar drink, like the Frutta one I tried earlier. Not too sweet, and I think this is from a bigger company, because they have a lot of ads, including this absolutely emotionally devastating one (with subtitles). Remember, this is for a tasty little bottle of mango juice:

Banoful Energy Biscuits – These cookies are advertised as giving you energy, but from the ingredients, I think that’s just because of the sugar. Very soft melt in your mouth butter cookies, quite tasty. I really like the texture of these Banoful cookies – the orange ones were my favourite.

Haque Mr. Cookie Butter Coconut – Really airy and flaky cookies, almost like a rice cookies meets a butter cookie. The coconut flavour is really mild, tastes more like vanilla. But a really lovely texture, even if it makes a lot of crumbs!

Pran Jhal MuriJhal muri is a Bengali street food of puffed rice, mixed with chanachur, nuts, and other little treats. This one has peanuts and fried noodles. They’re wasabi flavoured, kind of like wasabi peas, on top of the more classic Bengal spice mix of cinnamon, cumin, turmeric, chillies and mustard oil. Not the flavour combo I was expecting but pretty good, it’s really satisfying to eat by the handful.

BANGLADESH: Streetviews

There’s really good streetview coverage on Bangladesh – I went down an absolute rabbit hole poking around, there’s religious and historic sites, weird borders, stunning natural beauty and massive urban sprawl. Here’s some neat ones I liked:

In Sylhet, up in the far northeast of Bangladesh, is the Tomb of Shah Jalal. Shah Jalal was a Sufi saint and leader involved in the both the Islamic conquest of Sylhet from Hindu rulers around 1300 and the spread of Islam to the population. Ibn Battutah sought him out on his travels, and found Shah Jalal in his later years living as an ascetic.

This Shaikh was one of the great saints and one of the unique personages. He had to his credit miracles (karamat) as well as great deeds, and he was a man of hoary age.He owned a cow with whose milk he broke his fast. He stood performing prayers throughout the night, and he was thin, tall and scanty-bearded. The inhabitants of these mountains had embraced Islam at his hands, and for this reason he stayed amidst them.

From Ibn Battutah’s Account of his Meeting with Shah Jalal of Sylhet

Much more recently, Bangladesh and India finally settled their really wonky borders, transferring dozens of enclaves (including second- and even third-order ones) in 2015. Only one enclave still exists, a community called Dahagram–Angarpota, that’s a small piece of Bangladesh surrounded by India. This enclave is in spitting distance of Bangladesh, and it connected by the Tin Bigha Corridor, stretch of road that’s less than 200 metres long. The land belongs to India, but is leased to Bangladesh – but there’s still border control, and it was only in 2011 that the corridor was opened for 24 hours a day. Previously, it was only open 12 hours a day, which caused understandable hardship on residents, since there were no hospitals in the enclave at the time.

On the other side of the country, down in Chittagong, there’s what looks like a possible standoff between the Google Car and security staff at the gates of a shipbreaking yard. Note the “no child labour” sign on the gate.

A dizzying drone shot of a hazy morning in Dhaka – look at that urban density!

And more serenely, a floating night market pier in the Meghna River delta. Look around behind you for a bonus beautiful sunset.

Our in the far east of Bangladesh is the Kaptai Lake – in contrast to the massive urban density, this area is remote, sparsely populated, and largely only accessible by boat. There’s stunning natural sites, including the Shuvolong waterfall.

Back in Dhaka, I was looking through the planes at the Bangladesh Air Force Museum, and this old DC-3 caught my eye – I love these old planes. They were introduced in the 1930s, and were built until the 50s, but they’re such successful planes that many are still in active use today (like for cargo flights in the Canadian Arctic). This specific DC-3 was a gift to Bangladesh from India. It had been used to drop paratroopers during the 1971 Independence War and is one of the founding planes of the Bangladesh Air Force.

And tucked away on a side street, the oldest surviving mosque in Dhaka – the Binat Bibi Mosque, built in 1454. It’s pre-Muhgal, erected during the Bengal Sultanate. There’s an inscription dedicating the mosque to Bakht Binat, the daughter of Marhamat – it’s unclear if she funded it or if it was dedicated in her memory, but it’s likely she was part of a local wealthy family.

The streetview is from 2013, and the mosque has been in pretty poor shape, despite it’s historic value. Since then there’s been some renovations and restorations, including a beautiful new minaret. It’s hard to see updated photos, but hopefully they’ve restored and kept the two starry domes.

BANGLADESH: The easternmost Indo-European language

Bengali is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. If you go by total speakers, it’s the 7th most spoken, and if you only look at native speakers, it’s the 5th most spoken language (and has way more native speakers than widespread languages like French). Speakers are almost all concentrated in Bengal, both on the Indian and Bangladeshi side, and the fight to make Bengali an official language beside Urdu was a big spur in that Bengali nationalism that led to the eventual breakup of the two Pakistans in 1971.

Bengali is the easternmost Indo-European language (or depending how you cut it, Assamese is, but the point stands). I love the evolution of languages, it’s like the evolution of species, and the spread of the Indo-European family always blows my mind. English and Bengali both descended the same Proto-Indo-European language spoken only about 5000 years ago in the Eurasian steppe – as well as almost every other language spoken between the North Sea and the Bay of Bengal.

It’s also hard to wrap my head around the fact that Bengali is more closely related to English than it is to Burmese, spoken right next door in Myanmar. (And likewise, that Swedish is more closely related to Bengali than it is to Finnish). Here’s a really interesting video on the Indo-European language family, and how people reconstruct Proto-Indo-European:

Bengali has a reputation as a poetic and “sweet” sounding language. There’s actually a lot of linguistic work that goes into why people perceive languages as sweet or harsh – it’s called sound symbolism – but this Indian video gives a good look at what about Bengali makes people perceive it as sounding sweet.

There’s also some fun slang in Bengali – this article on “The funky side of Bangla” from the Dhaka Tribune gives a primer on slang used in Bangladesh. I really like these ones:

  • Fatafati – awesome!
  • Toofan – lit. “tempest”, but means you’re totally supportive of something
  • Chokh palti – turncoat
  • Osthir – lit. “restless” but is used for positive things the same way “sick” is