Saturday, 26 June 2010

An entirely different World Cup in Bangladesh?

For those of you who are sick of the World Cup already fear not; this comment does not actually relate to the playing of football. Instead, its about what for me, is an entirely different world cup experience to the ones I remember having of Italia 90, USA 94, France 98, Japan-Korea 2002, Germany 2006. What makes it different is not that it is the first one ever in Africa, it’s not those Vuvuelevasdansnasdakln; and it’s not the lack of performances from France or Italy. No, it is of course the fact that I am in Bangladesh.

Since I’ve arrived here, the only thing anyone could say about Ireland was that we have a cricket team which is pretty much on a par with Bangladesh i.e. not the best. At no point did anyone mention say Packie Bonner, Roy Keane, Damien Duff or even our beloved Thierry Henry. But all of that changed with the world cup….well I’m exaggerating a little but I have heard Keano’s name mentioned a few times recently.

It all began in mid- May when I took a trip to Dhaka and noticed some giant flags been flown on rooftops all over the city. It was pretty crazy but I thought it must be some Dhaka thing….but low and behold, by June 1st the World Cup had come to simple Satkhira. Flags are flown from anywhere and can often be 5x5metres in size draping over the sleeping day labourers returning from a days work on the top of big old Bedford trucks. There are flags everywhere and I guess 95% of them are Argentinean and Brazilian! Ah, that’d be because of Bangladesh’s long and distinguished history of trade with the South Americans and its illustrious football history….ah no! Ask someone who they support and they’ll say Argentina or Brazil and some will tell you they have two teams: Argentina and Brazil! Asked why, the usual answer is Pele and Maradona. Most will then mention Kaka and Messi though many haven’t a clue which one plays for Brazil and which one Argentina. But this is only the beginning.

I have the pleasure of having a TV in my spare room, and, as I live in the same building as our office, it was decided that mine would be the ‘bar’ of choice for watching the world cup. Never has one who enjoyed company while watching matches; I reluctantly agreed that this was a smashing idea and that I love watching football with friends. This however, is where things turn Bangladeshi. Obviously with no alcohol to liven things up and with matches so far being pretty uninteresting, we are forced to chat. Chat on a good day is hard work here, but chat about something like football (as those who have zero interest in the sport will tell you) is not really that simple. Here though, it is exactly that, with comments often like ‘Argentina very nice team’ ‘Spain no good team’ ‘Goalkeeper is best player’ ‘Playing is Messi?’ or ‘Slovenia…Hard team!’. My favourite however are similar to those Ray D’arcy used to ask on Blackboard Jungle such as ‘Greece is European Country?’ ‘Mexico?’ ‘Honduras is Africa?’ or ‘Africa is cold country?’ ‘Germany is today rich country?’ In fairness I know my friends here are just trying to learn something new but conversations about the Greek or Irish Economic disasters are a) way too complicated for conversations greatly restricted by language problems b) practically every country bar none in the EU if not the Council of Europe is a rich country compared to Bangladesh.

On the other hand, there is something incredibly bizarre going on here. Bangladeshi’s by and large have no idea about football…when I say no idea I mean along the lines of someone who does their very best despite the media bullshit to ignore football back in Europe. Yet, while in Europe most of these people ignore the world cup; in Bangladesh people who otherwise couldn’t care less about Messi etc, who use soccer pitches either for grazing cattle or for playing cricket, are now absolutely obsessed with what’s happening down in South Africa. This obsession has already hit levels I thought impossible to reach. For example power shortages meant most of us 160,000,000 people would be lucky to get one half of each match. However, after some sober Bangladeshi hooligans in Dhaka attacked the power office in protest at missing half an Argentina match, the Bangladesh Government, which at the moment is incredibly unpopular, strongly encouraged all industries to stop producing during match times. Given that these are the same factories which already pay large sums for generators etc, it seems mightily unfair and economically suicidal to tell these companies that between 5.30-3a.m., they must stop all operations. Whether they followed the recommendations or not; the power situation has not improved. On the other hand, you have fields in the middle of small communities which have big screens where hundreds of people (read men) will watch football until 3am and then get up for work at 8am.

So what is it about Bangladesh and the World Cup that makes its people, young, old, male and female, adopt a team (read Brazil or Argentina). I’ve seen my director receive a phone call from his wife boasting that her team is winning. What makes them, rich and poor, buy materials with which to create a humongous Dutch flag? But maybe I’m phrasing the question incorrectly. Instead maybe I should ask what is it about the world cup that makes a country with no so-called footballing history become its biggest fans? I don’t have an answer but do have a few theories.

One is that the World Cup presents all Bangladeshi’s with an opportunity to forget the water shortages, the electricity blackouts (kinda), the upcoming monsoon, the tragedies in extremely overcrowded buildings and buses. Similarly in Ireland I assume the World Cup is calming talk of recessions. In the US, maybe it’s distracting people from the BP mess. In the UK, it could be providing David Cameron with a bit of a honey moon…in Saudi Arabia I wonder if pilgrims to Mecca are getting a sly look at results on the internet. It is a form of collective escapism on a global scale, a distraction from our daily routines and troubles.

The other theory is a little bit more difficult to back up and perhaps a little more limited in application to Bangladesh. But, there is little doubt that bar a massive world war there is no other event than the World Cup which has such a global reach and which brings home the idea that at the end of the day, we are all human. Bangladeshis who know nothing about football will happily discuss tactics with an Irishman who knows perhaps a tad more. They’ll drape flags of countries they know nothing about anywhere they can. Why? It’s pretty simple: they too want to be join the global party. They don’t want to be excluded because they are poor or because their national team is crap. These over the top flags are a statement: Look at us…yes we’re poor, we’re often flooded, we’ve our fair share of fundamentalist but hey, just like you in Cameroon, Poland, Australia and Chile, we too are loving this party!’

So, as I get ready for a week long holiday in Nepal, I say Viva the World Cup and even more-so Viva the World Cup – Bangladesh style.

(lazy Michael will post photos of said flags soon!!!)

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Happy birthday - sorry but facebook has been blocked by the govt of Bangladesh

It was my birthday on Sunday and I feel obliged to share the randomness of that celebration.

A birthday in Bangladesh is capable of doing strange things to the mind and so, for this reason, I decided to breach by self-imposed ban on going to Dhaka, in order to have a celebratory night out with a few friends. In fact, there were three of us, Paddy Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman, whose birthdays fell within four or five days of eachother. And in true British Isles’ style, a gang of us celebrated by drinking into the early hours of the morning, annoying neighbours and sleeping on sofas.

The next evening I set off for Satkhira and was back on the morning of the 29th. Bloody 10hours bus journey plus the predictable chaos when I forgot my wallet on the bus, left me wrecked as we spent the day observing an ‘open-budget programme’ within a kilometre of the tiger’s paradise.

On the morning of the 30th, I awoke to a text message from a Bengali admirer (less said about this the better) and a seriously grumpy self. Yet as the mails came in from friends home and abroad, I began to feel much better – for this I say thanks!

On the other hand, I certainly do not thank Sheikh Hasina and the Bangladesh Government who decided to block access to facebook because of some cartoons ridiculing senior political figures in this country. And the block is still imposed!

By evening, my work was complete but, for some reason, I was not allowed to enter my room upstairs. Bemused, I went for a cup of tea and on return found all the staff waiting at the bottom of the stairs. As I followed the now very excited Project Coordinator Diponcur around the corner, I noticed that candles had been lit either side of the staircase. As I entered the room, I was greeted by balloons, a cake with 16candles, decorations and lots of food (mango, banana, mishti, jackfruit and the obligatory veggie pastries). Obliged to blow out the candles very slowly for the camera, it was then time for ‘family’ photos.

First up were the ladies: all the female staff, my director’s two daughters, two neighbours and a survivor from acid violence who just happened to call by to discuss her situation.

Then the men, each more excited than the next and of course, finally they had to get one of Michael on his own sporting a very awkward pose. After cutting the cake a few times, it was my turn to sing a song and for some reason I resorted to one we learned in the Gaeltacht called ‘Bí ann’ from Kila….anyway despite adding some non-gaelic words to make up for my amnesia, they were all chuffed.

Fifteen minutes for food was followed by a very abrupt end to proceeedings. That was it, a party which reminded me most of one I had as a 9 or 10 year old and which despite its incredibly tight and structured schedule, was an amazing gesture from people who never celebrate birthdays beyond the age of 16or so.

A random but extremely enjoyable hour and a pretty good birthday on the whole.