CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC: Emperor Bokassa and the Central African Empire

I had heard about Jean-Bédel Bokassa‘s Napoleonic coronation in 1977 before, but it was always a vague “oh look at this crazy dictator”. But focusing on these extravagances in a vacuum makes takes away the human element – you can laugh at dictators claiming eleven holes in one, or renaming the months after their mother, but this overlooks the real people who had to live under these governments.

Bokassa had served as CAR’s President for about a decade before the coronation – he had fought for France in WWII, and was part of the crop of post-independence leaders supported by France across its former African colonies in the 60s (see La Françafrique).

However, Bokassa went down that well-trod path of dictatorial excess, to the point of declaring himself Emperor and blowing the equivalent of a quarter of CAR’s budget on the coronation to mimic Napoleon. It was partially bankrolled by the French, to keep their trade deals flowing. Here’s a good look from New Africa on Bokassa’s coronation – you can see why many African thinkers see the whole thing as an embarrassment:

The French, however, were not going to prop him up indefinitely – a few years after he declared himself Emperor, the French took part in Operation Barracuda, a coup to remove Bokassa and replace him with the government of David Dacko.

This, however, also kicked off the cycle of coups, rebel insurgencies, and instability that still plague the Central African Republic. This reporting below from France 24’s English channel looks at Bokassa’s rise and fall, and how he’s seen today in CAR. 50 years later, there’s a sense of nostalgia for Bokassa – including by his son, who is now a cabinet minister. Even more striking are Bokassa’s surviving opponents – while they’re still opposed to his rule, they too feel a nostalgia for strongman rule in the face of CAR’s current instability:

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: 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: 1971 by Anam Zakaria

1971 by Anam Zakaria is a book deeply connected to Bangladesh, but the author isn’t Bangladeshi – she’s Pakistani. And that doesn’t mean she’s a neutral observer – this book is about the Bangladesh’s independence from Pakistan in 1971.

This isn’t a classic history book on the war, instead, 1971 is about unpicking the myths, propaganda, and national narratives around the war that have grown up in Bangladesh, Pakistan, and India. All three countries have a piece of the truth and focus on what fits their side of the story the best, but together you can add up a much more chaotic and realistic picture of the war.

Partition not only split Hindus to India and Muslims to Pakistan, but divided Pakistan into two disparate wings – the Urdu-speaking West Pakistan, and the Bengali-speaking East Pakistan (which was already the product of an early partition of Bengal, solidified into Hindu Calcutta and Muslim Dhaka in 1947). Discrimination against Bengali people and language by the rest of Pakistan grew into discontent, then rebellion when the government in Islamabad refused to accept the election results that would but the Bengal-based Awami league into power. Military invention by West Pakistan into the East and the killing of Bengali nationalists and intellectuals in Operation Searchlight erupted into a brutal war, with targeted killings of civilians by both soldiers and neighbours. The war was only settled when India joined in on the side of East Pakistan, which then was able to declare victory and become Bangladesh.

Anam Zakaria travels through all three countries to interview witnesses, survivors, former soldiers, the families of victims, politicians and academics, and young students raised on each country’s narrative of the war. She gives her interviewees the space to tell their truths, but also tries to get under the easy (and contradictory) national histories and share the complex realities of this shared history and how it’s remembered.

In Bangladesh, the story of 1971 is the year of national liberation – Pakistan is the violent oppressor, and the mass killings by the Pakistani army remain as bitter memories. Travel is difficult between Pakistan and Bangladesh, and many Bangladeshis are antagonistic to Zakaria as a Pakistani when first interviewed. However, attitudes towards Pakistan and India aren’t set in stone – depending on the back-and-forth of political parties, sometimes Pakistan is the enemy, sometimes a fellow Muslim nation against India (especially in cricket).

In Pakistan, 1971 is seen as the “dismemberment” of the country, and blame is laid at India. The war is chalked up as an Indian plan to damage Pakistan by fulminating discontent and revolution in Bangladesh. In fact, it’s seen so much through the lens of India’s involvement, that it’s often described as the Third Indo-Pak War. Killings of Bengalis are downplayed, instead the focus is on the killing of Biharis (used as a generic term for pro-Pakistan non-Bengalis) by Bengalis during the war.

India as well sees 1971 as a continuation of its perpetual conflict with Pakistan, and one where India resoundingly defeated Pakistan. Bangladeshis themselves are largely seen as an afterthought, and this friendly but paternalistic attitude continues even today.

Complex histories become simplified for convenience and over the decades to match national narratives, but Zakaria lets her interviewees talk, and carefully draws out the nuance of personal experience. Tales of being saved by neighbours of the ethnic/religious group that was seeking to kill you are common on all sides, as well as the chaos of the fog of war.

It is a really illuminating book about the 1971 war and the massively different memories of it in the three countries. It’s also a really fascinating meta-study into the construction of narratives after a major event, both by people and groups. Humans are hardwired to create a coherent narrative about individual events, and to then defend that narrative, including selecting the pieces of truth that feel more “true” to the story.

BANGLADESH: Podcasts

National Martyrs’ Monument, Dhaka – Source

I got fooled several times looking for interesting podcasts from Bangladesh – there’s a lot of good stuff out there, but while the titles and descriptions are in English, the podcasts themselves are most often in Bengali – you don’t find that out until you’ve already downloaded and started to listen! While English is used in higher education in Bangladesh, despite/because of the colonial history (see French in Algeria), it doesn’t serve as a lingua franca like it does in India, as the vast majority of Bangladesh’s population speaks Bengali. That means a lot of podcasts and interviews with Bangladeshis in English are from outside sources, especially India or Britain.

BBC History Hour: The Birth of Bangladesh – A really useful primer on the creation of Bangladesh, with interviews and archival news clips. This overview covers Partition, the 1970 Pakistan election and the refusal of leaders in West Pakistan to transfer of power to Sheikh Mujib, Operation Searchlight, the Independence War, the effect on civilians (especially women), and India’s intervention on the side of East Pakistan/Bangladesh.

Cricket with an Accent: Mohammad Isam talks about the Bangladesh Cricket Landscape – I still have only the vaguest sense of the rules of cricket, but this interview with a Bangladeshi sports journalist is less on the game itself, and more on Bangladesh’s struggles to build an internationally strong cricket team, and how money and political influence play a big part in professional cricket and sports journalism in the country.

Naan Curry with Sadaf and Archit: How to eat like a Bangladeshi with Dina Begum – Another cross-border interview, this one between Indian and Bangladeshi food experts. They cover the differences between the cuisines of West Bengal (Indian side, around Calcutta) and East Bengal (Bangladesh), as well as Pakistan, and how options for South Asian cuisine are slowly diversifying in Western countries.

Desi Crime Podcast: Hercules: The Vigilante Killer – If you’re a true crime fan, this podcast covers all kinds of stories from across the subcontinent. This episode looks at the case of a vigilante killer in Bangladesh murdering men who had assaulted young women, with a larger discussion on police corruption, the crisis levels of rape in South Asia, the pressures on victims’ families, and the ethics of vigilantes.

Bangladeshi Trailblazers – Interviews with Bangladeshi entrepreneurs, with a focus on young female entrepreneurs. I listened to the episode Finding spaces in Dhaka with Farhia Tabassum, who co-founded the app Chaya, which is like an AirBnB but for photoshoot locations, and then has expanded into rentals for individuals, especially women.

The World: Tintin in Bangladesh – A short, fun podcast with radio personality Zahidul Haque Apu, who during the pandemic started drawing covers for fictional Tintin books set in Bangladesh. While Tintin never visited Bangladesh (he did go to India, Nepal, and China, among others), these are fun what-ifs. The podcast also touches on comics in Bangladesh, where Tintin is particularly beloved, to the point where people assume it’s a local comic (old colonial stereotypes aside). I loved Tintin comics as a kid – these are just great.

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: Masala dudh cha

Spiced milk tea is a staple across the Indian subcontinent – it goes by many names but a common Bengali one is masala dudh cha – “dudh” is Bengali for milk. I found a big bag of Mirzapore black tea from Bangladesh (it’s one of the largest tea producers in the world) – it’s fannings – small pieces, nearly ground up in terms of texture.

I normally take my tea black, so this is a little bit more complicated than filling a mug from the kettle, but it’s still easy. I used this recipe from Bangladeshi Food Recipe – it’s a really lovely spice mix of cardamom, ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, bay leaf, and cloves. It calls for cow milk (as opposed to water buffalo milk – hard to get in Ottawa anyways), and I used about half the sugar.

It turned out quite tasty – I was afraid boiling the tea that long would make it tannic, but there’s no bitterness, just a blend of milk tea and gentle spices in the background. A nice way to start the day!

Of course, while the preparation is different, this drink is basically the same as what we call “chai” or “chai tea” in North America. However, chai/cha is just the word for tea itself in South Asian languages – so there’s always someone who will be pedantic and point out that “chai tea” means “tea tea”. I’d argue that cultural context makes a difference, since if you order a chai here in Canada, you’ll get something very different than ordering a cup of tea.

Almost every language today calls tea some variation of either “tea” or “cha” – there’s a lot of history behind the two words and why each language uses it:

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: Horodecki House

The Horodecki House (also known as the House with Chimaeras or the Gorodetsky House) is an incredibly fanciful building that sits across from the presidential palace in Kyiv. There’s so much going on here with it – to start, it is essentially a Ukrainian response to Gaudi. Art Nouveau, multi-layered and designed, with animals, plants, and other organic elements merging with busy rococo-ish elements.

The history of this building is also incredible – designed in 1902 by Władysław Horodecki, a Polish architect, it was intended to be sold as luxury apartments. Horodecki’s debts led to changes of ownership, including by a sugar factory, and during the Communist era, the building was carved up into smaller communal apartments, used as a refuge for evacuated actors, abandoned during WWII, and used as a medical clinic until 2002. The building had almost split it half at its foundations by that time, and the restorers had to threaten to board the medical clinic in to obtain the space for restoration. It eventually was fully restored to Horodecki’s original plans, and is used today for presidential and official capacities.

It came back into the limelight this spring during the Russian invasion, with Zelenskyy using it as a background in his videos announcing he was staying in Kyiv and calling on Ukrainians to resist.

You can walk through it on streetview, and I’d really recommend taking the time to look at the details – the frogs lining the rooftop parapets, or the flowers and tentacles emerging from ceiling chandeliers.

UKRAINE: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Man with a Movie Camera is a 1929 silent movie from the Soviet Union, following daily life in Kyiv, Odesa, and Moscow. It’s groundbreaking the same way Prokudin-Gorsky’s full-colour photos from 1911 are. The film is cut almost at a modern pace (which audiences at the time found far too fast) with meta shots of the cameraman filming. The director, Dziga Vertov, used or created a huge number of modern camera tricks – fades, wipes, slow-motion, extreme closeups, split screen, freeze frame, stop motion, and far far more. It’s beautiful and hypnotic, and feels like it should be an art-house film in a gallery – it’s hard to digest just how old this movie is due to its modernity.

Vertov’s artistic career continued until the start of the Stalinist era, when the official establishment of socialist realism as an art form pushed all more novel and creative forms of art. Vertov went from one of the Soviet Union’s most celebrated art directors to an editor of newsreels, but did at least avoid the worst of the purges.

The whole movie (about an hour long) is available freely online. Since it was a silent film, there is no soundtrack, so many later ones have been added. I particularly like this version; it adds to the hypnotic artistry.