This month: CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC

This month I’m going to be learning about my third French African country – the Central African Republic. So, before I start this month, what do I know off the top of my head about CAR?

Well, like Togo and Gabon, I know it faces a lot of the same history and problems as other French African countries – poor but resource-rich, a former French colony that’s officially sovereign, but still under French influence as part of La Françafrique. The use of the CFA Franc, preferential trade deals with France, and France’s political and military involvement is a pretty common factor for all these countries.

As for the specifics, the only real bit of history I’ve heard of is at one point CAR had a dictator, Jean-Bédel Bokassa, who routinely shows up in listicles of “craziest dictators“. I know he declared CAR the Central African Empire and held such a lavish and wasteful Napoleonic coronation that it emptied out the country’s coffers.

I don’t know much more than that on his rule, or what CAR’s political path has been since then, though I know there’s been serious conflict in the country in recent decades. I’m sure CAR also isn’t immune to instability and conflict in neighbouring countries, especially Chad, Sudan / South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

I read an Economist article a few weeks ago that mentioned in passing that CAR has gone all-in lately on crypto, though the main subject was El Salvador’s crypto crash, so it’s probably not going too well.

But I also don’t want to focus just on doom and gloom – I’m interested in learning more about CAR as a whole. Music, art, literature, history, architecture, religion, the landscape, the cuisine (is more like Gabon’s central African cuisine, or is it more influenced by the Sahel?) Who are the thinkers, innovators, and dissenters? What’s daily life like? How dominant is French vs other languages? What’s big for pop culture?

As an aside – I really like the design of the flag. Simple, visually engaging, and distinctive – it incorporates the “red/green/yellow + star” motif that’s iconic to African flags while not being visually confusing. (As opposed to Chad to the north, which has an identical flag to a totally unrelated European country.)

I also have a feeling that finding topics specific to CAR may be tricky, since the demonym is just “Central African”, or “centrafricain” in French – wider regional stuff comes up instead.

What did I learn: BANGLADESH

Sylhet – Source

When I started this month, I knew a bit about Bangladesh – the bare details of Partition and Independence, that it’s a Muslim nation with a Mughal past, that Bengali is the easternmost Indo-European language, plus a vague idea about the cuisine (turns out, it is very spicy), but not much on culture, politics, or media. I was also going on a lot of assumptions. Some were right – the overcrowding and traffic is extremely bad, and the problems poor workers face, especially in the shipbreaking industry, are still very real.

However, Bangladesh is also such a dynamic country – there’s been serious economic growth in the last decade, a tech sector brimming with innovation, and political stability under powerful female leaders (who do, admittedly, throw each other in jail with a lot of regularity).

But what runs through so much of what I learned about this month is Bangladesh’s birth in 1971. While Bengali culture has a long, rich history, Bangladesh itself is a very young country. Partition created a split Bengal, with Bengali Muslims ending up tied much more closely to Muslims in Karachi rather than Hindus in Calcutta, their former neighbours. The dysfunction of two Pakistans collapsed in the face Bengali nationalism, and the bloody 1971 Independence War has left a long legacy. The war still shapes Bangladesh’s politics and culture, in films like The Clay Bird and Bapjaner Bioscope, in cricket, and in navigating its fluctuating relationships with Pakistan and India.

But there’s also a lot of really good media overall – DJ sets, upbeat music jams, Dhallywood songs, innovative fiction like Djinn City, cheesy fun natoks, beautiful architecture and landscapes, and deep love of Tintin, of all things. I regret not getting deeper into more classical Bengali art and culture this month, including indigenous Bangladeshi culture, and I totally missed touching on a lot of pre-Partition history and culture, especially Tagore’s works. I also still have no idea about the rules of cricket.

What blew me away this month was the food – it’s so good. In Canada, the dominant South Asian food is Punjabi, and it’s great, but we’ve been sleeping on Bengali cuisine. I had great meals from Bangladeshi restaurants in both Montreal and Toronto, and got to try everything from proper chai, shemai, all kinds of snacks (1,2), stuffed parathas and puri, fluffy desserts, savoury spiced drinks with green mango or yoghurt, Bengali biryani, wood apples, bhortas, how mustard oil fires up chicken, and the hottest damn peppers on the market. There’s such variety, and such wonderful use of complex spice mixtures – and when they say spicy, they mean spicy. I’d argue this may have been one of the best months for food so far, up there with Thailand and Trinidad and Tobago.

BANGLADESH: Dhaka Sessions @ The Bookworm / Indigenous Bangladeshis

That interesting interview with author Saad Z. Hossain from an earlier post was part of a the Dhaka Sessions, a series of interviews and performances at The Bookworm, a really cool little indie bookshop in Dhaka.

Some neat examples include a performance by the Farooque Bhai Project, a pop-funk-hip hop band started by a group of Bangladeshi students at university in Toronto. Really fun, bouncy jams:

Or a Miftah Zaman‘s beautiful mix of Bengali folk mixed with warm acoustic guitar – his music makes me feel like relaxing in a hammock on a summer afternoon.

And F-Minor, Bangladesh’s first female indigenous band – the members are Marma and Garo, and mix their own musical traditions with Bengali folk and guitar.

Bangladesh has struggled with even identifying and recognizing indigenous peoples – many non-Bengali groups, mainly along the borders with Myanmar and Assam, were classified in 2011 as “ethnic minorities” with the government insisting there were “no indigenous people” in Bangladesh.

The difference between “indigenous” and “minority” is actually significant. In any country, indigenous means the group was there first, and other ethnic groups have moved in around / over them, while ethnic minorities are just that, someone belonging to an ethnic group that is not the majority in a country. Indigenous people have claims for self-determination and protection of language, land, and culture.

That language seems to be shifting, with Bangladeshi press praising F-Minor’s success in sharing “indigenous cultural traditions”. The band also takes a broader feminist lens:

As the first female indigenous band of the country, F Minor’s songs strongly emphasises on women rights and women’s independence. “We are not working for the indigenous or tribal people only, we are working for women’s rights, women’s recognition as well,” shares lead vocal Pinky. “We want to talk about women’s lives, their struggles, their achievements through our music.”

Daily Star, “F Minor: Winning hearts through diversity and rhythm

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, Porvoo 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!