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Religious rhapsody

  • Published at 12:01 am March 12th, 2019

Do you say ‘hello’ or ‘Assalamualaikum’?

Some years ago, a friend of mine was telling me about his nephew who went to Peace International School in Dhaka. The third grader was given Thankurmar Jhuli, a collection of Bengali folk and fairy tales, on his birthday. Soon after the boy opened the book, flipped one or two pages, he shrieked.

“It’s a Hindu book,” the boy declared brazenly, studying the illustration of living beings on the pages. The book’s title and the writer’s name might have also helped him come up with this conclusion.

Shocked and amazed, my friend couldn’t ask the boy, “Is this what they teach you at school? Communalism?” He knew about Peace School, which was named after the Islamic televangelist Zakir Naik’s Peace TV. Within a few years of operation, the school sprouted up and opened a myriad of new campuses across the country.

With a special focus on teaching Arabic, the school’s moral and religious studies followed the curriculum of Medina University. The students of this institution had a special dress code too -- boys were required to wear a skull cap and girls a hijab scarf.

However, as the institution gained popularity, it surfaced that the Peace School chain had alleged links to the Jamaat-e-Islami, the largest Islamist political party in Bangladesh. During the 1971 War of Independence, Jamaat collaborated with the Pakistan army and its members took part in the genocide in Bangladesh.

In 2016, following the Dhaka Terror Attack, the Bangladesh government banned Peace TV since allegations were brought after the controversial preacher Zakir Naik that at least two of the Gulshan attackers were inspired by him.

The authorities subsequently shut down Peace Schools.

Recently, I visited an old friend from my university days who used to be a non-believer. But now he is a different man, totally transformed. His curly, wild beard along with his Islamic attire defined his utter submission to religion. And, to my astonishment, he demurred to get his wife come out and say hello to me.

She observes purdah, he informed me. 

Snacks were prearranged on the table before my wife and I set foot in his flat. His six-year-old daughter kept popping in and out of the room. From time to time he half -- rose to his feet and flung his hand to keep the door half-closed behind her, in a bid to block my view travelling to her.

The girl, as I gathered from him, goes to an English-medium Islamic school, which had earlier happened to be the popular Peace School. 

My friend seemed pretty uncomfortable talking with my wife. He tried not to look at her. And my wife found it difficult to continue the conversation with a person who doesn’t make eye contact when talking.

A wave of clink-clank sound went on in the other room. Dinner was served by a shadowy figure. We all sat to eat excluding my friend’s better half, of course. A woman of flesh and blood existed among us, but she could not be exposed. And my friend, in the presence of my wife, was doing the least amount of talking. I felt the atmosphere quite claustrophobic. You cannot open up in this sort of “family-friendly” dinner.

Back then, in the university, my friend recited poetry, sang Tagore and folk songs and wore clean, crisp shirts. The summer he fell in love with a girl from his home town, he introduced her to me.

But now, in light of his religious metamorphosis, I was not allowed to talk with her face-to-face. Silent, I wondered about his wife’s life in seclusion. Any male arrival in this small flat meant her being cooped up in one room. How did she feel about it?

The metamorphosis of my friend has reached such a level that he even thinks saying hello instead of “Assalamualaikum” when answering the phone is “bidati” (bad). Before I left my friend’s home that evening, he advised me to pray regularly.

I was in the queue to check out my groceries at a store near my house in Mirpur. The woman ahead of me, in a black niqab, was seemingly paying for a children’s book. I took a glimpse of the title: “Belaler Mojar Pora.”

But the cover of the book confused me. It had the bust of a boy wearing the traditional Arab male headwear Keffiyeh. The boy’s white Keffiyeh, in the style of Saudi men, was gripped with a black Agal too. 

“Excuse me,” I said to the buyer of the book, the niqabi woman. “Can I see that for a second?”

She didn’t mind. I held the book and opened it. It’s an alphabet book. Inside, it’s all same -- the same contents that most alphabet books have in Bangladesh. But, the cover page made all the difference.

This venture of the publisher on making an innovative Islamic cover page must be praised, for they have fathomed the nascent demand in the market. 

Rahad Abir is a writer.