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“Wind down your window and listen up” – “Ali Baba” talks about life as a Dhaka street kid

Published in The Weekend Independent Magazine on Friday 31 January 2010

Sohel

The two main intersections at Dhaka’s Gulshan 1 and 2 contain a flurry of commerce.  Whilst the surrounding retail stores sell luxury goods and expensive clothes, those commuting through the two “circles” are unlikely to escape a sensory assault from beggars and street hawkers, who are heavily concentrated in the affluent area.  As many as five at a time may approach a vehicle, each relentlessly tapping on the window or CNG grates until the traffic moves on or the passenger gives in – perhaps by buying a bag of popcorn.  The experience can be both unpleasant and intimidating, as the demands are often brazen.  Although a newcomer may feel distressed when confronted by such poverty, many of us – including myself – have become densensitised in order to cope.  Thus it was something of a surprise when, last week, whilst navigating the Gulshan 2 intersection by foot, a plucky little street kid called Sohel attached himself to my arm and utterly charmed me.  A few days later I went back to find him and spent a couple of hours in a café listening to his story.  It’s not atypical of the lives of Dhaka’s 90,000 street kids, nor the estimated 150 million throughout the world, but the dignity and discipline with which Sohel conducts himself is a worthy reminder of the resilience of the human spirit.

Street hawker Sohel has spent the last six years working at the Gulshan 2 intersection and he may very well be Dhaka’s youngest entrepreneur – though it’s impossible to verify, because he isn’t sure whether he is eight, nine or ten years old.  Sohel started out by begging for alms, until one day a man stuffed a bunch of stickers in his hand and said, “Sell these.”  Sohel said that it is “nicer” to have something to sell rather than to beg.  He buys Tk 200 of stickers from a nearby shop and makes a profit of around Tk 150 per day.  He usually keeps between Tk 10 and Tk 20 for himself, and gives the rest to his family, who live in an area close to the American embassy.  He arrives at the intersection at around 9am and leaves about 10 hours later.

Sohel's friends in Gulshan

Sohel doesn’t have a catalogue of grievances about life on the street.  He said that overall, life is “okay.”  He said, “My only enemy is the beggars.”   When Sohel is trying to sell stickers, beggars approach the same vehicle to compete for their share of business.  Sometimes they try to forcibly drive him away from the intersection.  However, up until two weeks ago, Sohel had an even bigger headache.  Gang members forced him to give them a proportion of his profits every day – usually around 12 taka.  Considering that Sohel only makes a Tk 3 profit for every sticker book he sells, the annoyance was a big one.  Sohel said that the gangsters are operating on a “low” level, as they are not affiliated with any political parties.  When Sohel started to refuse to pay the gangsters, he was beaten.  When asked whether he could run away and hide from a gang, he said, “I can’t – I must stay on the street and sell.”

Recently, when another street hawker was beaten to a bloody pulp by gang members, the street kids decided to go to the police for assistance.  Although street hawking is illegal in Bangladesh, Sohel said that the police were very reassuring – and that they came to the intersection to give the gang members a taste of their own medicine.

“The gangsters won’t be back this lifetime,” Sohel assured me, but one wonders how he can be sure.  Sohel has been harassed by gang members ever since he started working.

Sohel believes that all rich people are the same, whether Bangladeshi or foreign.  He described both as “good people,” although he said that foreign men are not as nice as the women.  He said, “Sometimes I can tell that the men are saying repulsive things to me, but I can’t understand what they’re saying.”  Sohel has been handed up to Tk 600 at a time by foreigners, which he shrugs off with a sheepish grin and the following explanation, “Sometimes the foreigners don’t realise how much they are giving away.”

However over the years, Sohel has had some nasty experiences with rich people.  During last Ramadan, an elderly Bangladeshi woman threatened to slap Sohel and called him a “son of a bitch.”  Sohel walked away, but not before giving her a piece of his mind.  He told her, “The rich and the poor are all the same – and we should behave the same way.  If you tell me to go away in a nice way, I will.”  I asked Sohel why he thinks that some people are rich whilst others are poor.  After chewing his lip for a little while, he simply said, “Everybody wants to be rich.”

While sitting on the balcony of a café during the interview, Sohel’s raggedy friends try to distract him from the street below.  “Ali Baba!!” they cry out, while throwing coconut husks across the road and being chased by shopkeepers wielding cane sticks.  It almost seems a performance for our benefit.  “They call me ‘Ali Baba’ because it means ‘thief’, but I don’t know why,” said Sohel, shaking his head.  Perhaps Sohel’s friends consider him their leader; or perhaps it is a term of endearment, as it is in its literary sense.  That, however, might be unlikely – none of Sohel’s friends have been inside a classroom.

Sohel said that he went to a school in his village, which is about 10 kilometres from Comilla.  He hasn’t been back inside a classroom since his family moved to Dhaka, but he said that a woman comes to his house and teaches him the alphabet, which he can write in both Bangla and English.  However that seems to be the extent of his learning.  He said, “If I stayed in the village, I would be studying.  I could be like you if I had stayed there.”  He’s obviously a smart kid, and charismatic too – and unlike some of the other street kids, Sohel said he’s not interested in sniffing glue or taking amphetamines.  “I just come here and sell stuff, I don’t want to sniff anything,” he said.  Sohel will need to save a lot of money and keep his wits about him if he is to achieve his dream to open a shop of his own in Gulshan.  “I want a grocery store or something,” he said, before adding, “Something from which I can feed my family.”  This is a dream yet unfulfilled by Sohel’s father, who works as a janitor in Banani.  Despite the fact that two out of the four children are also working, Sohel’s family gets by on just one meal a day.

When the interview finished, Sohel politely explained that he had lost some earnings by being away from the street.  He refused to specify how much I ought to give him, preferring instead to leave it up to me.  I compensated him fairly generously, having been impressed by his patience in answering so many questions, as well as being staggered that he refused to order a single drink or snack – despite my protests that he could order anything he wanted.

“I’ll buy some food for my family with this money,” he said with his Cheshire cat grin.  I’m sure he did.

A little bit of Italy goes a long way: Prego at the Westin, Dhaka

Executive Chef Tony Khan

Executive Chef Tony Khan describes Italian food as being “like a mother coming home to you.”  The Bangladeshi-born chef spent 32 years developing his culinary crafts abroad before returning to Bangladesh, where he now heads up the kitchen at one Dhaka’s finest restaurants – Prego at the Westin.

Anyone familiar with the Westin brand will enter with high expectations, but Tony is confident he can exceed them.  His team is comprised of highly trained and dedicated staff, including several who have worked in Italy, and a general manager whom Tony refers to as his “guru.”  Prego uses only the finest imported ingredients from Australia and Italy and blends in local products, such as chili, whenever possible.  Vegetables and fruits are flown in from Bangkok and Dubai.  Prego’s location on the 23rd floor of the ultra-plush five star hotel makes it one of the capital’s classiest dining spots – and it offers one of the most beautiful views of the capital.  And for those who may have assumed that Prego’s prices are out of reach, consider this – a gourmet Italian lunch costs Tk 600, which is less than half of what competitors are charging.

Tony’s enthusiasm for all things Italian is contagious.  With a great big grin and a strong hint of an Italian accent, Tony described the best learning experience of his career.  While living in Melbourne, which he described as “the food capital of Australia,” he learnt to make lasagna and different types of pasta at “Mama’s Kitchen” on Melbourne’s famous Lygon Street.  He said, “I learnt “the A – Z of food preparation from Mama herself.”  As well as being familiar with all styles of Italian cooking, whether it be the spicy Sicilian flavours, the rich aromas of northern Italian cuisine or the gentle blend of south eastern fare, Tony’s full repertoire includes French, Mediterranean, Modern Australian, Middle Eastern, Caribbean, African, Pacific Rim and Pan Asian cuisine.  After being trained in Singapore, Tony later worked for King Faisal of Saudi Arabia as well as some of the world’s finest hotels, before coming to Prego to make his mark.  Like any successful chef, Tony takes food very, very seriously – his mantra is “Food is the first medicine for the body.”

Tony’s guru, General Manager Atique Rahman, takes an equal amount of pride and pleasure in what he does.  With a sweep of his arm he said, “As you can see it’s a lovely restaurant and one of the finest in Dhaka.  I’m proud to be associated with it.”  Atique believes that Prego and the Westin outstrip their rivals.  He said, “All the hotels sell beds, food and beverages.  But I think we have an edge over them in terms of service and quality.”  Atique said thatPrego is the only restaurant in Dhaka that is 100% Italian, which, incidentally, is one of the world’s most popular cuisines as well as one of its oldest – it can be traced back to the 4th century BC.

Before returning to Bangladesh seven months ago, Atique spent 35 years in the USA.  After completing his studies, he spent several years working in five star hotels before opening a highly successful sushi restaurant in Texas.  He said, “It is said that Texas is the meat is the meat town of USA – but now they love sushi!”  Atique also spent 18 months as the director of food and beverages at the Playboy Mansion in New York.  Atique said that working for the legendary Hugh Hefner taught him a lot about the entertainment business.  He said, “Hugh Hefner was very humble, but at the same time, he knew what he wanted and there had better not be any mistakes – the club had to be immaculate and everything made according to his specifications.” After spending some time with Atique, it became evident that he too likes to run a tight ship.

Atique returned to Bangladesh in order to spend time with his elderly mother and to make a contribution to the country where he was born.  He said, “I wanted to bring my education and skills back to Bangladesh and to teach the staff here to be better at what they do.”  Customers can see Prego’s staff hard at work in the bustling kitchen, which is located in the centre of the restaurant.  Each section has at least one dedicated staff member, if not two or three.  Chef Rashid, who spent 10 years working in restaurants in Rome, tends to the soups – fresh mushroom, minestrone and fish, as well as preparing fresh sheets of lasagna, cannelloni and fusilli pasta.  He said that working at Prego has resulted in his culinary skills reaching a new level of sophistication.  But as they say – the proof is in the pudding.  And what a pudding I ate during my visit last Saturday night – a delicate rice dessert covered in a rich white sauce with lashings of cream.  The three course meal began with an Italian salad laced with balsamic vinegar and two serves of crisp bruschetta, followed by a succulently grilled catfish that was accompanied by lightly steamed vegetables and a salsa sauce.  Portions were perfect and the flavours were divine.

Prego – which means “welcome” in Italian – opened in Dhaka in 2007.  Tony said that Italian food is a relatively recent addition to the capital – up until five years ago anyone would have been hard-pressed to find a plate of gnocchi.  Nowadays, Prego is doing a brisk trade as it serves up around 1,5000 meals a week.  Atique said that most of his clientele are investors from Europe, America and Asia, as well as embassy staff and NGO workers.  An increasing number of people are dropping in off the street, having been enticed by the prospect of a luxury dining experience.  If you are even half-considering it – I would urge you not to hesitate.

Angry garment workers riot in Dhaka’s major shopping district

Gulshan 1 Circle, Dhaka

Thousands of frustrated garment workers took to the streets of Dhaka’s Gulshan area this morning to protest against the government setting a minimum monthly salary of Tk 3,000 (US$43).

The rioting began at 9am and lasted around an hour.  At least 50 shop fronts have been smashed by rocks.  Police estimate that between 5,000 and 6,000 garment workers were involved, and that around 40 percent of the protesters were women.

The government announced its decision to increase the minimum wage for garment workers by 80 percent last Wednesday.  However workers were disappointed that their demand for a salary of Tk 5,000 was not met.  Some observers have noted that their salary is the world’s lowest.  Garment workers are currently paid less per day than the men who drove horse-drawn streetcars in New York in the 1880s (the pay was $1.75).

Monno and Shinepuker, Gulshan 1

Topu Jamal, the owner of Monno and Shinepuker homewares said that it will cost him around 10 lakh to repair the damage to his showroom.

He said, “The garment workers are poor and hungry, so if the government doesn’t fix the monthly salary at Tk 5,000 things will be broken every day.”

Topu reported seeing men throwing rocks at the glass shop front as some of the female workers laughed.

The rioting began in Mohakali before it moved through Gulshan 1 and Gulshan 2 along Gulshan Avenue, one of Dhaka’s most affluent areas.

“The workers attacked the markets here because garments are sold in these shops,” said Assistant Police Commissioner of Gulshan Division, Anis Jaman.

Hush Puppies

The commissioner said that the workers ran away when 50 police arrived on the scene around 10am.  Thirteen people have been arrested and 12 members of the police force sustained minor injuries.

Hafiz Khatun, executive sales and marketing manager of Athena furniture store said that 11 lakh damage has been caused to Athena’s glass front and products.  She said, “It’s bad that the garment workers are paid so little, but now the public is suffering too.”

——

I posted the link to this story on my Facebook wall yesterday and there were some very interesting points made.  I have included the comments below:

Anis: I still find it difficult to understand that how could the Wage Board fix the minimum wage so low while a person needs at least Tk 6,000 to survive in Dhaka….It’s utterly unacceptable because the factory owners earn millions every month…yet they deny giving the workers enough money to survive…
Shumo: I wish this had happened when I was doing my MBA in U.k. – I could have included it in my dissertation.
Anis: I guess you didn’t check at that time..The labour unrest has been going on for a long

Quazi Zulquarnain: Interesting. But having been smack right in the middle of this today, the one thing tht struck me as being odd was that most of the agitators were young men in the 15-21 demographic. I seriously doubt if too many of these people are actually garment workers, but maybe thts just me. Whts sad is that we as a nation dont understand the difference between civil agitation and vandalism.

Taher: I can’t see any valid reason of this rampage today just after 1 day of 80% wage increase. Violent street protest should always be the last pawn in any movement, when every other way fails. I still doubt that the ‘real garment workers’ were behind this event today totally. Go slow while validating events like this unless you want to become another “Munni Shaha” 🙂

It is a very sensitive and critical issue. This 300% wage increase can also be a “conspiracy” who knows. Wage Board cannot fix anything on only survival issue – it is like a 3 party agreement – all have to accept and have to run the show.

Anis: I don’t advocate violence. In fact, I denounce it..I believe non-cooperation movement (It has to be non-violent) is the most effective way to bring your oppressors down to their knees. All I want to say is the garment workers have been deprived for long..Now it’s time to address their issues….

I agree that some “external elements” might be there to create tension or make the situation worse. But it is used as an excuse most of the time.

Sabine: What is the difference between civil aviation and vandalism?!  I don’t advocate violence but it’s hard to keep a steady head if you’re hungry, tired and overworked. a witness told me he saw 40% women, but everyone said it was only men who threw rocks etc.  I think this food chain is terribly unfair – the consumers buy cheap clothes, the bosses get fat and the factory workers sweat. You know what Gandhi said? “Pay the worker before his sweat has dried.”

Quazi Zulquarnain: Well, for starters, civil agitation is civil and vandalism is most definitely not. I completely agree that the food chain is terribly unfair and even exploitative in many cases. And i also vindicate the pay rise. What i cannot support is some so called ‘garment worker’ breaking a cng to bits (and i saw this happen today). How do you rationalize that? For me atleast two wrongs don’t make a right.

Sabine: No, they don’t make a right, but this is a tough political environment (ie it’s very easy for people to believe there may be other forces behind this) and i’m not sure whether anyone would listen to them unless they did something drastic. no one’s been listening to them for a long time, as morshed said. they have nothing, and have nothing to lose. that said, i think it’s really sad.

Taher: My concern is not there – a big and bottom-line industry is not like running govt. offices. What I worry is that, this rise (5,000 Tk, 300%) will shut down many small RMG factory. Many workers will loose job. at the same time this rise will increase rent and inflation, which will in turn affect all low income people of every sector. We have to understand that labor is also like any other product in the market. Their value is cheap not because we are paying them less – it is also because the supply is too much.  I am always for the idea of job for all – even with a low salary than job for some with a good salary.

David: Ah, the specter of conspiracy and foreign hand! What year is this?