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The Extraordinary Expat in Dhaka – PART 3 – “The sense of community in Old Dhaka was strong – and still is.”

Published in The Weekend Independent on 13 January 2012

Feeding the poor - Old Dhaka in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

Susan said that she was unprepared for another aspect of living in Bangladesh: family life.

She said, “I didn’t understand the importance of family in Bangladeshi culture before I came [in 1981].  Some of the very traditional obligations to family were still observed.  Having lived alone… it was an adjustment for me to report where I was going and to ask permission.”

However Susan said that her American father “always asked his parents for permission to go out, even as an adult.  If he was at his mother’s house, he would politely ask her permission as a form of respect.  So with my father as a model, it didn’t seem such a big departure from my own personal experiences.  It’s quite nice to give parents that respect.”

Unlike the majority of Bangladeshi wives, who typically live with their husband’s parents after marriage, Susan said she was never requested to dutifully massage her father-in-law’s feet.  Her mother-in-law, said Susan, “for the most part treated me as a honoured guest.”  What’s more, “Over time, [the Elahi family] came to rely on my tuna casserole after a meaty Eid.  They descended on it the first time I made it – it was great.”

The ever adaptable Susan also makes a pertinent observation that is applicable to any long term relationship.  She said, “The adjustments you make in married life are transferable wherever you live.  If you were a single woman living alone and didn’t go straight from parent to husband, a marriage to anyone, anywhere, is therefore a huge adjustment.  It’s hard to differentiate between the cultural adjustments and those that naturally occur when you enter a married relationship.”

At any rate, Susan said there were few opportunities to seek permission before heading out.

The Elahi's balcony in Old Dhaka. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

“I didn’t get out and about very much, due to the difficulty of travel.  Believe it or not, the traffic jams in Old Dhaka used to be worse than they are today.  If someone needed a lift from Old Dhaka, it was impossible to give them a ride and return home within 24 hours.  Traffic stood at a standstill for two hours straight.  Things move a little now, because trucks are not allowed to use the roads until after 10pm and a number of new roads have been built.”

Susan has noticed that over the years, as traffic in the capital has grown ever more congested, the patience and politeness that used to exist – even in Old Dhaka’s gridlocked streets – has completely disappeared.

“I see a lot of road rage and people are hugely impatient. That’s a difference that’s not for the better.”

However one form of transport Susan constantly availed of in Old Dhaka was the rickshaw, while in the company of her beloved sisters-in-law.

“I often went shopping with my sisters-in-law and I’d listen to them bantering back and forth.  We used to bargain hard in those days.  I learned how to do that, as well as learning Bangla. My youngest sister-in-law was still in high school when I arrived – I was so lucky to have her at home.  She was such a wonderful person and we became really close.  I dragged her everywhere – we were in a rickshaw most days, going out and about.  We also watched “Dallas” in English and what she couldn’t understand, I explained. It was so much fun. I miss her terribly.”

In a short amount of time, Susan and Ehsan lost “the core group of characters in our family.

“My sister-in-law died of cancer five years ago.  She never married and stayed at home to care for her parents.  Then five months after my sister-in-law died, my mother-in law also died of cancer.  A year ago this summer, my father-in-law passed away.  The cause was old age complications, but a great deal of it was a broken heart.

“It’s very tough to cope with the loss,” she said with downcast eyes.

While Susan’s eldest sister-in-law has a young family in Baridhara, her father-in-law’s younger sister and her husband are retired and currently live in the Old Dhaka house, which Susan still regularly visits.  As an artist, it’s also a source of inspiration – her paintings beautifully depict its old world charms.

She said, “After all these years, when I go back to the house on weekends, the shopkeepers say ‘Salaam’ when I pass by.”

Susan said the sense of community in Old Dhaka was strong – and continues to be so.

The children on the rooftop. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

She said, “We had to pass Dhaka University to reach our house and during a period of political turmoil [which frequently emanated from the university] I was coming back with my daughter from playgroup. I understood people saying they were going to set fire to cars.  It was such a worry.  But as my daughter and I made our way through the streets, shopkeepers in the old city waved us in. They were quickly pulling their shutters down but were willing to give us sanctuary because they saw me pass by every day.”

Susan said this was far from being a one-off – both the turmoil and the kindness bestowed to her.

Susan’s admiration for the community she was once a part of is still very much alive.  One of her most lasting impressions took place in the late 1980s, which she describes as “the epitome of the Bangladeshi spirit.”

“I was watching people queuing for water on an Old Dhaka street.  They were standing in a foot of horrible, stagnant floodwater, carrying any sort of jug or bucket they could find. Everyone in that line was smiling, talking; encouraging one another.  It was most incredible.”

She paused for a moment before adding, “Compare that with how people reacted to Hurricane Katrina. They were so stunned by the hardship they just sat down in the dirt and did nothing.”

This article concludes the story of Susan Elahi’s life in Dhaka.

Click here to return to Part 1 – “We came to Dhaka for six months but stayed 30 years:” an extraordinary expat from Kansas

Click here to return to Part 2 – “Dhaka was a completely different place back then.”

The Extraordinary Expat – PART 2: “Dhaka was a completely different place back then.”

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on 30 December 2011

Click here to return to Part 1: “We came to Dhaka for six months but stayed 30 years:” An extraordinary expat from Kansas

Susan and Ehsan's children, Emily and Samia. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

Susan said she arrived in Dhaka “without fully realising that Bangladesh was only nine years old and that the impact of the war was still absolutely devastating.”

On a personal level, Susan said that many businesses owned by the Elahi family – including a large transport company and a joint textile venture – had simply “disappeared overnight,” after being commandeered by the Pakistani army.

She said, “In my entire life, I never understood the kind of abject poverty that existed.  I was absolutely ignorant that leprosy wasn’t extinct. Initially, [living in Dhaka] was just a great adventure.  But then there were times when I cried every day. It took a while for the crying to set in – after my daughter was born [in 1981], I felt the pinch of not having my family around.  The things that were available for babies back home weren’t available here.  I found it a big struggle.”

However she added, “Looking back, in some respects I believe my daughter had a better and more grounded childhood in Dhaka.  We had television for no more than two or three hours a day.  BTV started broadcasting at 5pm and we’d hang on for the 30 minute cartoon show.  On Wednesdays there was an English programme – for a while it was “Night Rider” and then the goofy, embarrassingly terrible US sitcom, ‘Laverne and Shirley.’  Then we had ‘Dallas’!  So my daughter had the most imaginative childhood, because she wasn’t exposed to the influence the media has in terms of branding and imitation, which can have a huge impact on children.”

I asked Susan whether she believes present day Dhaka is better than the one she experienced during previous decades.

She paused thoughtfully before saying, “It depends how you think of the word ‘better.’  We have certain conveniences now – Dhaka was a completely different place back then.”

Susan explained that during her first few years in Dhaka, “There were no big industries.”

As a result, a pervasive black market economy, known as “Business Two” sprang up as a substitute.

Susan said, “Business Two was everywhere.  ‘Business One’ were the original products.  ‘Business Two’ was the fakes.”

She provided a few examples of the “thriving business of adulterating products” and the extremely limited number of products available.

Wedding reception, 1980. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

“You could find L’Oreal shampoo, but there would be something completely different inside the bottle.  Tissue boxes were taken off aeroplanes and then sold in the markets.  Newspaper was stuffed up the bottom half of a tissue box to make it look full.  Occasionally, you could find toilet paper from China.  It was incredible – hot pink and it felt like crepe paper!  There was no bread – just little buns that were dry and crumbly, and made with bad quality flour.  Shortening contained palm oil, so it was bad for your health.  And Old Dhaka was much more polluted back then, as people used any manner of things for cooking and the CNGs [auto-rickshaws] were horrible because the two stroke engines ran on diesel.”

Nowadays Dhaka isn’t short of tasty pizza outlets – but this was another “convenience” absent from Susan’s earlier years.

As she explained, “When I made pizza for our family it was such a… process.  My father-in-law bought a five pound chunk of beef from the butchers that had to be chopped and ground using a hand operated grinder.  I’d run around the shops trying to find yeast.  There was “Dhaka Cheese” and a sort of waxy cheese from Comilla.  But that was it – there were no other choices, ever.  Making a pizza was a two day process.”

“And when I first arrived, fruits and vegetables were seasonal. During the rainy season, there was almost nothing.”

However Susan noticed that “little by little,” more products became available from 1982.

Then, during the summer of 1991, a big – if not historic – change took place when the first supermarket chain, Agora, opened in Bangladesh. It was located just across the street from Susan’s and Ehsan’s current home in Gulshan.  She recounted the profound effect Agora’s opening had on expat Bangladeshis, who she said return in large numbers during the summer months.

She said, “In strong British accents, the expats were saying, ‘Oh my gawd!’ They were even taking photographs of the store!  They didn’t believe they’d see it in their lifetimes.”

Thanks to the likes of Agora and the surge of imports in general, Susan said, “There are now many foods we can virtually have 12 months of year.”

The Elahi's town house. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

Now let us turn to a pressing question: is the extraordinary expat fluent in Bangla?

“I’ve been told I am,” she replied modestly.

“When I first arrived, if my husband and father-in-law went out to visit offices or do various jobs, I was left in a household of non-English speakers. [Learning Bangla] was something to do.”

And she certainly put a great deal of effort into learning.  Initially, Susan learnt the Old City dialect – “Certain words are totally Dhakaite,” she said.

She added, “There were no Bangla tutors at that time, so I was totally self-taught.  I had labels stuck on everything and I learned how to say, ‘Eta ki?’ [What is this?”].  I constantly had a notebook in my hand.  In Bangla, I asked people to repeat what they’d said and then I carefully wrote down a phonetic version.”

During a particular conversation that took place “four or five years” after she began learning Bangla, Susan was suddenly struck by the realisation that she’d achieved fluency.

“I said ‘volcanic eruption’ in Bangla.  It was a huge mouthful and a totally useless thing to know how to say – it just came up in conversation.  I was stunned!”

I asked Susan whether her Bangla skills are a frequent source of surprise to Bangladeshis, who may reasonably assume she’s yet another foreigner “just off the plane.”

Susan said, “Occasionally, someone will ask me – very, very slowly – ‘Do you speak Bangla?

Her reply?

“What would you like me to say? What is it you want to hear?”

“That’s fun,” she giggled.

However Susan certainly isn’t resting on her Bangla language skill laurels.

The family's 200-year old entrance. Photo courtesy of Susan Elahi

“After all these years, I’m sorry to say that I can write the grocery list but am hard pressed to write a proper letter.  But I can read.  I have difficulty reading newspapers because ‘high Bangla’ [formal Bangla] is used.  Being self taught, most of what I can say is highly colloquial. It gets me through though – I can read medicine labels.  But even now, I still see things I don’t understand. I still feel as if I’m learning.”

But it’s not only the enormous practical advantages she values about knowing Bangla – such as feeling safe in the knowledge that she can call someone for help.

She said, “People are so pleased if you can speak even a little Bangla.  You’ll notice a change in demeanour and a new sense of respect.  In Bangladesh, if you know even a bit of the language, it opens up the most incredible doors.  I think language is the most important commodity we have.”

However Susan also “kind of misses not understanding [Bangla] when in big crowds.  Before, I could block it out – it was white noise.  Now I hear snippets of conversations from all around… it’s is a distraction.”

I was curious as to whether Susan feels irritated when she encounters whiney foreign expats.  Her response was delightfully unsurprising.

“There’s no one who will defend this country more than I when [foreigners] start complaining.”

She added, “I think of the hardships we endured when I first came.  There really was nothing.  I think in many other places in the world; those who live there appreciate what it has to offer – such as the museums of Paris.  Bangladesh is a place that you love in spite of the challenges involved in living here.  And once you start focusing on the downsides, it’s very easy to overlook the improvements.”

Susan has taught art to elementary students at the American International School for the past 21 years, while Ehsan is deeply involved in business, managing several garment factories and properties.

The couple are clearly content and happy – could there possibly be plans to leave Dhaka someday?

“Well… I don’t know,” Susan says slowly.  It seems as though she hasn’t spent much time contemplating it.

“I have a great group of friends, both Bangladeshi and foreign – I’m very blessed in that way.  And I enjoy the support of family that many expats don’t have.  And as Dhaka… barrels ahead into the 21st century, there aren’t many differences between the life I’d have in the States and what I have here.”

Yet it’s the differences she encountered in the past that she treasures above all else.

“As hard as it was at times, I feel very lucky to have been a part of the Old Dhaka community and to have experienced the real Bangladesh.  Nothing was prettied up and put on display for the foreigners.  I saw the good and the bad and how people actually lived. This was a rare gift and a unique experience.  It’s been very much an adventure.”

Click here to read Part 3: “The sense of community in Old Dhaka was strong – and still is.”

Click here to return to Part 1: “We came to Dhaka for six months but stayed 30 years:” An extraordinary expat from Kansas