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

BANGLADESH: Sheikh Hasina

I mentioned yesterday that a lot of credit for Bangladesh’s recent economic and social improvements has been given to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She first served as PM from 1996-2001, and then returned to power in 2009, and is currently on her fourth term. She is the daughter of Bangladesh’s founding father Sheikh Mujib, who was assassinated in a coup shortly after Bangladesh’s independence. Currently, Sheikh Hasina is the longest-serving elected female head of government anywhere in the world.

She has been both praised for stable leadership and improving standards of living and criticized for democratic backsliding – she has been accused of graft and suppressing opposition, particularly Islamist groups. Bangladeshi elections have also been marred by violence, and corruption and political influence run deep. Still, there’s multiparty elections, and a vigorous press. Hasina has also survived assassination attempts, jail, and led the country back to parliamentary democracy after Bangladesh suffered a major constitutional crisis and was under a military caretaker government.

Here’s a good interview with her from DW, the German public broadcaster. It’s not a softball interview either; the narrative she sticks to is one of the larger improvements to social indicators, the rights of women, reduction in poverty, economic growth, while she is challenged on her strong hand on the opposition and on freedom of expression.

As an aside, despite being very male-dominated countries and still all scoring objectively low on gender equality, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India all have a tradition of very powerful female leaders. In Canada, we’ve only had a female Prime Minister for a few short months back in the 90s (and she lost her first election), but South Asia has a long string of electorally successful women.

With Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia as leaders of the Awami League and the Bangladesh National Party, the Prime Ministership has been held by one of these two women since the early 90s (they’ve also both spent time in jail when not in office). Famously, there’s also Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Indira Gandhi of India – though there’s a common element of all these women share: they’re part of larger political family dynasties in each country. That being said, none of them can be called figureheads – they all have the power (and controversy) that comes from real political leadership.

BANGLADESH: A wealthy country?

Slum vs well-off neighbourhood, Dhaka – Source

I grew up with the stereotype of Bangladesh as a terribly poor country – if Bangladesh was in the news, it was either about a natural disaster or sweatshops and terrible working conditions. However, while it still isn’t the richest country, it’s got a growing middle class, an established manufacturing, export and tech sector, and in recent years, a booming economy.

It’s something that’s been noticed by its neighbours. Long considered a poor cousin by India, Indian news has been reporting on a recent IMF report that Bangladesh has overtaken India in nominal GDP per capita. A lot of Bangladesh’s indicators are also passing India’s – economic growth, life expectancy, health outcomes, female workforce participation, access to the internet, poverty, women in parliament, etc. It’s causing a lot of worry in India – not out of any animosity towards Bangladesh, but as a warning sign of India’s own stagnation:

So why is Bangladesh on it’s way up? It’s manufacturing industry for global exports, especially clothing, is booming – fuelled by cheap labour, the same way China was a decade ago. There’s also been a big focus on tech and expanding into high-end manufacturing like pharmaceuticals. There’s still massive problems of corruption, poor infrastructure, inequality, and environmental damage, but the trend has been widely positive.

Political stability is also crucial. A lot of this credit goes to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. I could do a whole other post on her and female political leadership in South Asia (and I will, tomorrow.) But the long and short of it is in a region that has known a lot of political and sectarian strife, Bangladesh is now getting room to breathe and grow, and grow impressively.

BANGLADESH: Independence, borders, and introduction of Islam

A couple interesting videos on Bangladesh to get started – first a look at Bangladesh’s independence in 1971, and how it is an extremely rare case of unilateral secession that was accepted by the wider global community. Independence movements try to secede unilaterally all the time (that is, break away against the wishes of the parent country), but since WWII, that rarely leads to acceptance as your own country by the UN or the wider global community.

India and Bangladesh used to share the messiest and most complicated border, with enclaves, second-level enclaves, and even a third-level enclave (a piece of India, surrounded by a piece of Bangladesh, which is surrounded by a piece of India, which is surrounded by Bangladesh). These borders were cleaned up recently, and but why they happened in the first place, and why it took so long to fix is up to both pre-Raj history, and India’s disputes with countries other than Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is one of the most populous Muslim countries, at around 150 million Muslims (90% of the country’s population, and Bangladesh makes up about 10% of the world’s Muslims). Bengal was a heavily Muslim region long before Partition, and the video below covers the spread of Islam into the subcontinent, the establishment of the Sultanate of Bengal, and Bengal’s incorporation into the Mughal Empire. It’s a good bird’s eye view of pre-British history.

UKRAINE: Tanks in Chernobyl

Chernobyl today – Source

We’re all pretty familiar with the Chernobyl disaster (I’d recommend Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy for a good book on it, or even the well-researched HBO drama from a few years ago), but it was back in the news recently for being caught up in the Russian invasion. Russian convoys kicked up nuclear dust in the Red Forest and there were rumours of Russian soldiers digging positions without even using protective equipment. The plant is now back in Ukrainian hands, and media has been allowed in:

However, there’s an interesting story that doesn’t frequently get told – that among the abandoned vehicles and buildings are several WWII Soviet tanks, rusting away and too radioactive to move. They were part of a plan to blow a hole into the plant to drain the water before a steam explosion happened – a plan that never went through, and instead divers, miners, and plant workers drained the tank manually.

For a longer, more comprehensive history of Chernobyl, Plainly Difficult did an excellent documentary into the disaster itself:

UKRAINE: Kievan Rus and St. Olga of Kyiv

Like many pieces of history right now, there’s a deep divide over who it truly “belongs to”. The Kievan Rus are claimed as foundational nations by Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, and is part of competing narratives over Ukraine and an independant nation vs. a “brotherly nation”/subset of Russia, as the Kievan Rus were based in Kyiv, and originated Russian royal families. However, the Kievan Rus’ foundational dynasty were originally Varangian – Swedish vikings that had traded, raided, and settled down the rivers into Eastern Europe, and they largely held a loose confederation of land, not a single unified empire.

One of the best stories of the Kievan Rus is the tale of St. Olga of Kyiv – a woman who was probably sainted to stop her from murdering more people (this actually happened a lot in the late viking era). Her story is likely largely embellished in the historical record, but boy it is a hell of a tale. This is where the reference of “sending pigeons” from Ukrainian stand-up comes from – to destroy an enemy city by requesting a bird from the rafters of each house of the city as her wedding gift, then tying burning cloth to all the birds and letting them fly back to the thatched roofs. The whole great gory story is here, worthy of an action movie:

UKRAINE: Jewish Chernobyl

The ruins of Chernobyl’s synagogue – Source: Pierpaolo Mittica

The town of Chernobyl didn’t just spring out of nowhere on April 26, 1986 – it was a long-standing town in northern Ukraine. Chernobyl the town is about 15km south of the power plant (most plant workers lived in Pripyat, the company town built around the reactor). The town has a deep Jewish history, and has been a site of Hasidic pilgrimage for decades – there still is the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty today.

The Jewish community in Chernobyl, like other Jewish communities in what was the Pale of Settlement, faced pogroms and violence through the centuries. The majority of the Jewish population was murdered during the Holocaust. After the war, the surviving Ukrainian Jews faced the repression of organized religion in the Soviet Union, and many left for Israel or North America. Those who emigrated over the years still feel deep ties to the region, like the Twersky family of Chernobyl Hasidic lineage (warning: Holocaust footage):

When the nuclear disaster happened in 1986, the town of Chernobyl was evacuated and abandoned, with the Ukrainian and Jewish populations scattering across the Soviet Union. Most of the USSR’s Jewish population would later emigrate to Israel, the US, and Canada at the end of the Cold War, though there still is a solid Jewish population in Ukraine today, including Ukrainian President Zelenskyy.

Ukraine still remains an important site of pilgrimage for Hasidic Jews, including the Chernobyl dynasty’s tombs (as well as the location of many family graves). For a personal account of reconnecting with Chernobyl, I’d recommend the article “Why Chernobyl’s Jewish History Still Matters — 31 Years After The Accident” by Anna Khandros, plus Pierpaolo Mittica’s photoessay “Chernobyl before Chernobyl: The Hasidic Jews’ Pilgrimage“.

If you’re interested in learning about other Jewish communities in the former USSR, I covered the Bukharan Jewish community in Uzbekistan last year.

This month: UKRAINE

This month is the first month I’m choosing the country deliberately, instead of at random. This month, I’ll be learning more about Ukraine. With the Russian invasion in February and the war still ongoing, Ukraine is already very much in the news. I’m hoping to get beyond the headlines and learn more about the country’s culture and history this month.

So, what do I already know about Ukraine?

Of course, with Russian invasion, we’ve all had a major crash course in Ukraine’s relationships with Russia, Europe, and NATO. We’ve seen the awful bombing, fighting, and war crimes in cities like Kyiv, Mariupol, Kharkiv, the rise of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as a war leader, the bravery and resistance of Ukrainians, and the larger geopolitical ramifications of Russia becoming an international pariah. Here’s a really good primer from early March:

Here in Canada, we are a deeply pro-Ukrainian country, and have been for decades across the political spectrum. Canada actually has the largest Ukrainian population in the world outside of Ukraine itself and Russia (at least before the displacement of millions of Ukrainian refugees into Europe this year).

The Ukrainian connection is most deeply felt in the Canadian prairies, with Ukrainian-Canadians making up 10% of Alberta, 13% of Saskatchewan, and 15% of Manitoba’s population. I grew up in Alberta, and Ukrainian culture is so ingrained there that pierogies are a basic staple food, as common in grocery stores as pasta or sandwiches, and my family in Saskatchewan learned Ukrainian because it helps with work and with community events.

We also have a giant pierogi! – Source

Canada is also one of the few countries that recognize the Holodomor as an official genocide, and our Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland is Ukrainian. She was banned from both the Soviet Union and Russia for her pro-democracy work in Ukraine in the 80s and 90s and her investigations as a journalist into Russian oligarchs after the fall of the USSR. When Russia invaded Ukraine, sentiment ran high here – Canada has supplied weapons, funds, helped gather allies, and …changed the street sign in front of the Russian embassy.

That’ll show Putin!

However, while I’m not going to put the current war or Canada’s connection with Ukraine totally aside this month, I really want to focus on Ukraine as a country itself – I’m planning to lean more into art and culture from Ukraine, including popular culture, film, music, and literature. Pierogies, borscht, and cabbage rolls are already familiar staples, but I also really want to dig deeper into Ukrainian cuisine. And I know Easter has already passed, but I want to take a crack at making pysanky – I’ve always wanted to try.

My current knowledge of Ukrainian history is mainly about the tragedies of the 20th century – dekulakization and Stalin’s Holodomor, the Eastern Front and the Holocaust, and Chernobyl. This month I really want to learn more about the larger story of Ukraine as a nation and the rise of the concept of “Ukrainian” – something that is clearly still contested today.

Addendum: A note on spelling. I’m following the linguistic shift that has happened recently in the West. We now use the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation for names, rather than the Russian. This is shift started around 2019 with a campaign by the Ukrainian government, but really solidified with the Russian invasion this year. While it is definitely political, it also reflects a larger shift of respecting what countries wish to be called – Czechia instead of Czech Republic, Eswatini instead of Swaziland, and Côte d’Ivoire instead of Ivory Coast.

So Kiev is now Kyiv, Lvov is now Lviv, and Zelenskyy is spelled with two Ys (though one Y is also common, but not the Russian ending of “-ski”). There’s a few names that I’m keeping the old Russian spelling, specifically Chernobyl (instead of Chornobyl), since it’s so well known by that name.

ECUADOR: Real life on the Galapagos Islands

Lonesome George in 2006 – Source

The Galapagos Islands are famous for being an incredible untouched wilderness with some of the rarest and most endangered species in the world; species that gave Darwin the insight into developing his theory of evolution. These islands were uninhabited by humans initially and only visited by whalers and explorers until the 19th century, when it was annexed by Ecuador.

The human impact on the Galapagos’ ecosystem has been immense – the introduction of goats (leading to Project Isabela and the use of Judas goats), invasive species and diseases, consumption of tortoises and other wildlife for food, permanent human habitation, the massive tourism industry that has grown over past decades, climate change, and plastic pollution.

Radiolab made an incredible podcast on the reality of the Galapagos – asking how and if conservation can actually work, and if we can ever really return nature to a “primeval” state. They also touch on Lonesome George, goats, Darwin’ finches, but also the politics in Ecuador, including with voters permanently living and working on the Galapagos. Listen here.

For those living on Galapagos, the reality isn’t too rosy either – there’s deep poverty and a sense of being ignored by the central Ecuadorian government, while trying both to support a livelihood and not destroy the wilderness that provides this livelihood.

As for the rare and varied wildlife itself, there’s a lot of classic and current documentaries, with the BBC / David Attenborough ones clearly setting the gold standard for nature docs. However, I wanted to share a REALLY old school one from the 60s, narrated by Prince Phillip, of all people.