In the fall of 2013 I moved to Bangladesh to teach at the Asian University for Women. I had been told about the strikes (hartels) and political problems. Having been in India and other poor parts of the world, I though I understood about the poverty. I’d lived in conflicted Muslim countries. I’d worked for wanky universities. I was tough enough. Or at least arrogant enough to think I was tough enough.
When I arrived at the airport in Dhaka, all seemed fairly normal and in order, except that I had to swat away thousand of mosquitoes and feral cats roamed the airport terminal. As I waited in the immigration line, passport and paperwork in hand, I saw three men in military type uniforms, one of whom was wearing an officious looking beret, cut diagonally through the lines and approach me. They asked for me by name and took my passport. “Come with us.” I did, of course. I wasn’t at all nervous, but I had been flying for many many hours, so I was a bit dazed, anyway. They said they were sent by the university to help me through the airport. This part was actually a bit alarming. I have traveled through a lot of airports, and never needed an escort. I knew there was a strike going on, but I didn’t really understand about such strikes yet.
As we walked through the airport, I felt the eyes of those around me following us. Unlike anything I would experience again in the next couple of years, people generously yielded to us. The officers got my overweight bags on the small plane flight to Chittagong and stayed with me till I left.
The flight to Chittagong took about 45 minutes. When I arrived at baggage claim, I was mobbed by men wanting to take my bags, I panicked a bit as I tried to keep my hands on everything. They trailed me as I left to the front of the airport, only to be put upon now by potential drivers. I was quite overwhelmed, when a man jumped out of the driver’s seat of an ambulance and held up an A4 piece of paper with my first name scrawled across it. He grabbed my bags and thrust them in the back of the ambulance and pushed me in the side door. “Keep down.” The driver and the assistant pulled out of the airport quickly and we were immersed in the densely populated outskirts of the city.
I had been kidnapped was my first thought. Damn. Now I am a person who can react too quickly when I shouldn’t, like when I get pushed at the grocery store, or cut off in traffic, but in really threatening or serious situations, I stay preternaturally calm. I actually thought, really I did, this will make a good story if all goes well. I watched all the traffic around us, which, due to the strike, consisted mostly of tuk tuks, rickshaws and ambulances. And people, and animals live and dead, and garbage – lots of garbage. The streets were lined with fruit, veg and meat stalls, as well as most anything else you might need. Maybe it was just sensory overload that kept me from freaking out.
The phone rang for the assistant and he handed it to me. It was Omar Sharif. Yeah, that’s what I thought, too. Omar is one of the main administrators at the university, it turns out, and he was calling to reassure me that my housing was ready and I would be fed after the meeting at the university. Overnight flight, military escort, kidnapping, bad enough, but now a meeting before my head would hit a pillow.
Things would become somewhat normal in a few days. Ambulances are supposed to have a right of passage through the most violent of strikes, though the truce sometimes fails, and they are often used to transport people from the airport. Inside the campus of the university, spartan and limited as it is, it is hard to remember what is going on in the streets. The violence is sporadic, and we know about it from reports from the head of security and from the news. Our own neighborhood is largely untouched by it. Over time almost anything can become normalized, but a certain level of tension and unease simmers beneath the surface. It remained there for two years, and would betray me under pressure.