Monday, March 21, 2011


Note to new readers: Read blog entries "The Gainesville Years, Part One through Six to get the full story.

Bangladesh – The Adventure Begins

It is disconcerting—waking up your first morning in a strange country. Especially when it is still dark, and your wakeup call is the blaring sound of a muezzin’s voice carried over a loudspeaker from some distant minaret—announcing the day’s first adhan, or Muslim call to prayer. The call ripples across the city as it is picked up and echoed again and again by other muezzins on other minarets.

In Dhaka, as in other Muslim cities, there are five calls to prayer each day, all the same except for the first, which I learned at breakfast that morning has one extra line. Lest the believer be tempted to turn over and go back to sleep, the first call to prayer ends with a reminder that “prayer is better than sleep.” The call to prayer is central to the Muslim faith. It is not just the first thing a Muslim hears every day; it is imprinted from birth. The words of the adhan are the first words whispered into the ear of a newborn Muslim child.

I couldn’t have asked for more gracious hosts during my stay in Dhaka. Even though I was there for the Presbyterian Church, the people at the Baptist mission house did everything they could to make me comfortable and be helpful. They generously took the time to provide me with what proved to be critical information about Dhaka and the Bengali people. I had done my homework, read books and government reports to prepare myself to work within the Muslim and Hindu communities around Dhaka, but there is no substitute for the kind of firsthand information one can only get from people who have lived and worked in an area. It is always the little things, the nuances that are never documented in the literature, that enable you to cross cultural barriers and win the trust of the people who view you as an outsider, and in the case of Muslims, even more critical…as a nonbeliever.

I had the sense that the Baptist missionaries were treating me with deference. This, I attributed to the fact that I was on the film crew. It wasn’t until I got back to the States that I found out it was not my profession, but my religion that made me special in their eyes. Although it was never mentioned, my Baptist hosts had been informed that I was Jewish, a fact that made me an exotic in their world.

One reaction to my faith I found particularly endearing. While I wasn’t conscious of it while I was there, in deference to my being Jewish my hosts adjusted their eating habits during my stay. No pork, ham or bacon was served for the duration of my visit which, in a way, was a pity. I am not a big fan of pork (except in Chinese food) or ham, but I would have had no problem if they had served these foods, and I would have loved a little bacon with my eggs at breakfast. Still, in hindsight, I appreciate their thoughtfulness.

Dr. Herb Coddington, Medical Missionary for the
Presbyterian Church, U.S. in Bangladesh
 My first task was to meet with Dr. Coddington, the Presbyterian medical missionary who had inaugurated the project that would be the subject of our film. He lived a few blocks from where I was staying. I knew from my research that Bangladesh was one of the most highly populated countries in the world, with some (in 1974) 71 million people living in an area the size of Iowa. Still, I was not prepared for the crowded, bustling streets of the market area that greeted me that first day. What surprised me more than what I found there was what I did not find there: There was nary a woman or girl to be seen amidst all that activity. In the Bangladesh in 1974 women were kept at home. They ventured out only rarely, and then only when escorted by their husbands or fathers, or some male relative. (Some escorted women can be seen in the top picture, taken on a later trip to the market.) All the things we in America tend to think of as woman’s chores—the grocery shopping and household errands— in Bangladesh were done by men.

The bustling streets of Dhaka
 As I approached Dr. Coddington’s house another surprise: there was a queue halfway down the block leading to his front door. Once a week Dr. Coddington would set a table out in front of his house, creating a makeshift clinic for the treatment of the poor in the neighborhood who had no access to medical care. Even more remarkable than the existence of this makeshift clinic was the interaction that took place between the doctor and his patients; the remarkable rapport he maintained with them. He seemed to know each one by name and spoke warmly of their families; he inquired as to how things had gone with them since he last saw them. They greeted him with genuine affection, and poured their hearts out to him. And because this work he was doing was not authorized by the church or any other group, the medication he dispensed when necessary was paid for out of his own pocket. I cannot remember a doctor in my own life who ever showed such compassion or concern.


When Bangladesh (formerly East Pakistan) was being born out of Pakistan’s bloody civil war in the early 1970’s, Dr. Herb Coddington was miles away in Korea, heading up a tuberculosis clinic. Bangladesh was not even on his radar—until he began having a recurring dream. In the dream he was instructed by God to go to Bangladesh because he was needed there. After having the dream a few times the doctor decided he was being called to act, and asked his church to send him to Bangladesh.

The Presbyterian Church considered his request. They judiciously analyzed the situation in the new country. The war, plus two consecutive disastrous monsoon seasons had left Bangladesh politically unstable and economically in shambles. Millions had died in these events, crops had been destroyed, and a major part of the population was displaced and struggling for survival. After a survey of Church resources, the Church reached the realistic conclusion that what little they could invest in Bangladesh would make no real difference in the struggling nation. They turned Dr. Coddington down.

The dream persisted. When it came time for his vacation, instead of returning to the States, Dr. Coddington went to Bangladesh. When the ecumenical Christian community discovered he was a tuberculosis expert, a disease that was rampant in Bangladesh, they petitioned the Presbyterian Church for his services…a request the Church could not deny.

The Presbyterian Church agreed to let Dr. Coddington move to Bangladesh—with one caveat: he was only to work in the hospital as a tuberculosis expert. There would be no monies forthcoming for any other work, and he was instructed not to involve himself in any other medical activities. But a man of deep faith and conscience, Dr. Coddington could not turn his back on need. So a simple act of grace turned into an unauthorized weekly early morning clinic for the neighborhood poor, and a witnessed government act of intolerance and cruelty prompted a reaction that gave birth to an ecumenical outreach that would bring homes and hope to thousands of displaced Bengalis.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Note to new readers: Read blog entries "The Gainesville Years, Part One through Five to get the full story.


Packing for my trip proved a challenge. The nanotechnology available today did not exist in 1975. I had to figure a way to get my cumbersome tape recorder, portable computer, printer, and the bulky converter transformer I needed so I could plug them all in, plus my research, a ream of paper and my clothes and personal necessities…all into a medium-sized suitcase and duffel bag. This was essential because I would be carrying all this myself, even after the crew joined me. It’s a cardinal rule on documentary shoots: everyone carries their own “stuff.”

A word about my wardrobe for the trip. While Bangladesh is home to some Hindus, it is primarily a Muslim country. Fortunately for me, the Muslim culture in Bangladesh is more lenient regarding  its rules about clothing than it is in many other parts of the world. I wasn't required to wear an abaya (a long robe that covers the body from neck to toe) or hijab (a veil or head scarf), but I did have to pack some long dresses to meet the standards of modesty required in some of the areas in which we would be working.

Sunny in Bangladesh, wearing one of the more discrete long dresses
she packed in deference to the modesty rules followed by Bengali Muslims.
As the writer on the project, I was scheduled to fly to Bangladesh a week before the crew to do research and set up our shooting schedule. A glitch in our pre-production preparations resulted in a brief detour. Unable to locate the equipment we would need for the shoot in Dhaka Sandy MacDonnell, our producer, had rented our production package in Miami and shipped it ahead so it would be there when he arrived with the crew...only the shipment went missing somewhere in transit. The airline still hadn’t located it by the time I was ready to leave, so Sandy asked me to stretch what was to be a brief layover in London to two days so I could put together another package and have it shipped out from there.

That was fine with me. I had never been to London. Sandy had called ahead, so putting the production package together and paying for it wouldn’t take but a few hours, giving me time to do a little sightseeing.  I hadn’t, however, taken into consideration what spring is like in London.

April in Bangladesh is hot and muggy. I had packed accordingly. April in London, on the other hand, is, well, cold—very cold—and damp. I had nothing suitable in my suitcase to keep this “Florida girl” warm enough for sightseeing. I nearly froze tracking down the equipment we needed. All I could think about was getting back to the nice, warm hotel and a bracing cup of hot tea. Seeing the sights of London would have to wait for another time.

A quick aside on the missing equipment: Sandy and the crew finally located our Miami shipment at the New Deli airport on the way home from the shoot—quite by accident. They spotted the shipment, worth several thousand dollars, dumped in the corner of a hanger, unsecured and gathering dust. Some airport bureaucrat (probably for a few under-the-table-dollars) had bumped our shipment for some agricultural equipment. When Sandy tried to get the equipment shipped back to Miami the New Deli official balked.

“Sir,” the bureaucrat insisted, “It is addressed to Dhaka, and that is where we must send it.”

After a long argument, “oiled” by a few well- placed dollars, Sandy finally prevailed. However, I am certain—between what he paid for the second production package and what it cost him to change the airport official’s mind—Sandy’s budget for the project took a substantial hit.

But back to my trip to Bangladesh. After 35 years, the memories of my journey that remain most vivid are the ones connected with strong emotions. My plane trip there, for instance, is mostly a blur, except for one specific incident: a refueling stop we made in what was then the Shah’s Iran.

It was dark when we touched down and taxied to a stop on the dimly lit tarmac. Suddenly our plane was awash in light; illuminated from every angle by huge spotlights. As soon as the lights went on some forty or so soldiers in full combat gear, weapons drawn, burst on to the tarmac and surrounded the plane… some facing outward, some facing our aircraft. I don’t know whether they were there to prevent anyone from getting off, or someone from getting on. What I do know is that their presence was unsettling… frightening. We must have sat on that tarmac for some 30 minutes. The tension inside the plane was palpable, the mood—uneasy. I didn’t breathe easy again until we were safely back in the air.

It is hard to keep track of time when you fly at night, especially when the flight is long and passes through various time zones. My best guess is that we arrived in Dhaka close to midnight. The city's airport was very small.  There were a couple other Caucasians on the plane, but the flight was made up mostly of Bengali and Indian passengers.  We were all herded out of the cabin, down the metal staircase and across the poorly lit tarmac to an over sized corrugated shed that served as Dhaka's International Airport  Terminal.

If any of the customs officials understood English they did a good job hiding the fact. There was something surreal about the whole experience: the muggy, suffocating heat inside the metal building; the single, naked light bulb dangling over the head inspector's desk; the disconcerting way the Bengali officials would stare at me, then whisper among themselves, though why they bothered to whisper I don't know.  It had to be obvious to them that I didn't understand a word of their language.  The inspectors read and reread my documents and rummaged through my equipment.  I knew someone was waiting for me just beyond the door to take me to the Baptist Mission House, but that was little consolation as the inspection seemed to drag on and on for what felt like hours, although in reality it was probably no more than thirty to forty-five minutes.

At last they were finished with me. I put out my hand out for my passport, but the inspector shook his head and slipped it into his desk drawer. I panicked. I kept repeating the word "passport" and pointing to the desk drawer.  The inspectors kept shaking their heads. Finally one of them thrust my duffel bag and suitcase  into my arms and  unceremoniously shoved me through the door and out into the night.

“It is okay,” the man from the Baptist Mission assured me as he loaded my luggage into his car. “That is how they do things here in Bangladesh. You will get your passport back when you leave the country.” It was too dark to see much as we drove through empty streets to the Mission House. By the time we got there, everyone was asleep. The gentleman who picked me up showed me to my room and I collapsed, exhausted, on my bed. Ablutions would have to wait until the morning.