Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Gainesville Years part 11

Bangladesh – The Untold Stories
(For the full story read The Gainesville Years, 1 through 10)              
We were in Bangladesh to do a documentary for the Presbyterian Church U.S.  The purpose of the documentary was to help raise funds for an ecumenical project being spearheaded by the only Presbyterian missionary in the country.  The story was inspiring:  Thousands of Bengali refugees, victims of the country’s bloody war for independence and the disastrous typhoons that followed, had been dumped in a barren rice field miles from Dhaka without shelter, food or sanitation.  Touched by their plight, this Christian coalition of clergy set into action a program that was transforming the desolate rice field into a viable, self-supporting community complete with housing, and even a stocked lake so the people could feed themselves.  

From desolate rice field to viable community.

But as important and as powerful as this story was, today when I think of the time I spent in Bangladesh what I remember most are the untold stories from that trip, the stories that never made it into the documentary, but changed the way I see the world.  Like the personal story  of  Aasim,  the soft-spoken, dedicated Bengali man who oversaw the construction of the houses for the new community.  For his safety, I am not using his real name, but this is his story.

Aasim at work.

  I met Aasim while I was gathering research for the script.  Though it didn’t seem to slow him down, I noticed that he didn’t have full use of his right arm, and asked Dr. Coddington about it.  “His father tried to kill him,” Dr. Coddington said, “because he became a Christian.”
Aasim was reared as a devout Muslim, but he was a curious young man.  In the course of studying the Koran he came across a prophet named Jesus Christ, not as important as Mohamed, but still a major prophet  for Muslims.  However, whenever Aasim would ask about this Jesus Christ his father would become angry and refuse to discuss the prophet with him.   Aasim’s father’s reaction only intensified the boy’s curiosity.  So when one day Aasim met a Christian missionary he put his questions to the man, who was happy to satisfy that curiosity.   The missionary even offered to help Aasim learn all about the Prophet’s teachings.
Aasim took the missionary up on his offer.  In Aasim’s mind, Dr. Coddington said,  he was not doing anything wrong.  After all, this Jesus was revered by Muslims.  However, what Aasim learned under the tutelage of the missionary resonated with the young man so strongly that in time he decided to become a follower of this become a Christian.
Aasim’s father was furious. He decided to kill his infidel son.  He planned to do this during a Muslim holy day celebration. Fortunately for Aasim, an aunt who cared about him overheard his father discussing his plan and warned the young man.  Although Aasim did not want to believe her, he  stayed alert during the festivities.  When his father suddenly lunged at him with a dagger, Aasim was able to thwart a fatal blow, but the blade cut through his raised arm, doing irrevocable damage to critical muscles.  Miraculously (according to Aasim) he managed to escape with his life.
 When I spoke with Aasim about the experience he told me he is sad that he will never be able to return home.  He sorely misses his mother and aunt.  But as I watched the unbounded enthusiasm with which he went about his work, and the way his face lit up when he spoke to me of his “Savior” and the miraculous changes in his life since he has found Christ, it was clear to me that Aasim's newly found faith feeds the man's soul.
I heard a debate the other day on NPR.  The statement posed:  “The world would be better off without religion.”  Arguing in favor of the statement were A.C. Grayling, a British philosopher and professor, and Matthew Chapman, a journalist and screenwriter and the great, great grandson of Charles Darwin.  Arguing against the statement were Rabbi David Wolpe of Temple Sinai in Los Angeles and Dinesh D'Souza, President of Kings College, London.  To hear the debate click the link below.
The debate made me think: Over the years I have had the privilege of working for some remarkable Christian organizations and documenting the accomplishments of numerous exceptional men and women whose work was inspired by their faith. Yet, in spite of  this evidence I wonder if perhaps the world might not be better off without religion.  I respect those who find solace and inspiration in their faith, who believe adhering to their religion makes them better people.  But while I have an unshakable belief in a Divine force I choose to call God, it seems to me that religion has done far more harm than good in this world.
Aasim’s alienation from his family because of his conversion is just one example.  There are more  examples from Bangladesh I will share with you in future postings.  But I need look no further than my own family for examples.  It was religion that caused my father’s family to be banished from wander for generations through South and Central America before my great grandmother and grandfather finally settled in Philadelphia.  It was religion that triggered the pogroms that forced my mother’s family to leave Tsarist Russia.  Religion was  the trigger for the bloodbaths in Africa, Ireland, and the Slavic countries, and continues to make the Middle East a bloody, irrational battle ground. 
For all the comfort I have seen people derive from their faith, in spite of the reassuring sense of identity I know it gives many people, and all the good work has been done in the name of religion, even at its best religion still separates people into “them and us.”   And as long as this is a "them and us"  world, compassion will be unsustainable... and lasting peace forever unattainable.

Next: the rice planters and fish gatherers of Bangladesh.


Monday, June 6, 2011




The crew finally arrived in Dacca. Much to my delight, it included another woman—a first (and as it turned out, the last) in all my years of doing this work. Today women can be found in all aspects of film making, but thirty-five years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a woman in a technical crew position state-side, let alone on an overseas assignment. Her name was Fran Tarranella. She was a bright, ambitious twenty-something sound engineer out of Atlanta.

Crew conference before hitting the road..

In retrospect, it is easy to smile at some of the situations Fran—simply by virtue of being a woman—found herself in during that shoot. At the time, however, they didn’t seem all that amusing. Take, for example, the gas station incident our first day on the road.

Unlike documentary makers who have the luxury of spending a year or more finding their story, we were on a tight, fixed budget which dictated that we complete all our shooting in roughly two weeks. So, with a number of locations slated for filming, in the early hours of the morning the day after they arrived, our small crew, which, besides Fran and me, included our producer, Sandy McDonnell , our director, Neil Halslop, and our cinematographer, Mitchell Lipsiner... along with a missionary who would serve as our translator and guide... piled into a car and hit the road.

Years traveling with all-male film crews overseas and in remote areas of the United States where amenities are few and far between, prompted me to develop a well-disciplined bladder, something Fran had not yet done. After about two hours on the road she informed Sandy that she was in need of a rest stop.

We pulled into a gas station and Sandy asked the owner for permission to use the rest room. Permission was granted—until the man, a devout Muslim, realized that the request was for a woman. The offer was immediately rescinded by the angered proprietor, who was offended by the request. From what we could gather from our guide and translator, the owner considered the request an insult since women were unclean. Allowing one to use his “facility” would be a desecration. Her use would somehow contaminate it. No man would ever be able to use it again. Our missionary guide apologized, but said there was no use trying another place. In this Muslim area we would get the same reception everywhere.

In the end, whenever we were on the road, a clump of bushes a respectable distance off the highway had to suffice as a ladies room for Fran and, on occasion, me, whenever we required one.

Then there was the amusing clash of culture Fran unwittingly ran into in a little Hindu village.

Fran carried her recording equipment slung over her shoulder and leaning on her hip, much like the women in the village transported their young children. A man carrying his equipment in such a manner would have attracted little attention, but a woman, wearing pants (permissible when we worked in Hindu communities), with a large machine strapped over her shoulder in that manner—stirred up considerable curiosity and conjecture. Just how much, I discovered as I was prepping some of the village women for some shots we wanted of them going about their daily chores.

In an effort to build rapport with them, I searched for common experiences.  Since child bearing and rearing were the core of village life for women, that is what we discussed. They were delighted to learn that I had children, and that two of my children were sons. In Bangladesh, the more sons a woman has, the higher her status. There was a practical reason for this hierarchy.

 In the villages of Bangladesh, when a woman marries she joins her husband’s family and becomes a virtual slave to her husband and mother-in-law, to whom she must show the greatest respect.  If the woman has only daughters, she never rises from this lowly position. But if she has sons, eventually she  becomes the matriarch in her son’s household. Without sons, if her husband dies, she has no place to go.  Ergo, the more sons, the more security and the more power.

Gettinhg ready to record
  I noticed, as we talked, some of the women seemed preoccupied with Fran, who was setting up her equipment for the segment we were about film. Finally one of the women addressed me through our translator. Pointing to Fran she asked if she had children. When I explained that she was not yet married they seemed upset, or perhaps saddened would be a better description. To them, Fran was very old to still be unmarried.  What would she do in her old age with no sons to care for her? Then one of the women pointed to Fran, and said something that made the other women laugh

“What did she say?” I asked.

“Oh,” my translator said, laughing herself, “she has figured out that your friend does have a child. It is that thing she carries on her hip and is always talking to.”

I looked over at Fran. She was doing a sound check, talking into her equipment. She did, indeed, carry her equipment around much like a village woman would carry a child.  She treated her equipment gently, carefully, and did talk into it softly as a mother would talk to a child. In a way, I guess, her equipment was her “child.” At least, that’s how the women in the village saw the situation.

Fran at work

Making friends

Madonna, Bangladesh style

Dinner prepaaration

Bath Time in a Bengali village


Thursday, May 5, 2011



Easter Sunday, 1975 Dhaka, Bangladesh

I bolted upright in my bed. It wasn't a dream. The ear-piercing clamor was real. Had it finally happened—the military coup the missionaries had been talking about in hushed tones the past few days? I checked the clock. Four A.M. A hell of a time for a coup.

When I finally shook the daze of sleep from my head, I realized it wasn't artillery I was hearing; more like someone banging on large, empty metal containers or tin pans. The noise was coming from the courtyard beneath my window.

Cautiously, I pulled the curtain aside. The courtyard was dark, but I could make out the shape of a large truck. There appeared to be some figures in the open bed of the truck. They were furiously beating on what looked like oil drums and over-sized garbage can lids; pummeling them for all they were worth. The clamorous result of their efforts almost drowned out the knocking at my bedroom door.

"Sunny, are you up?"

What a question. I doubted even the dead could have slept through that racket. "Yes," I said.

"Good," the voice on the other side of the door said. "We'll be waiting for you downstairs."

And that was my introduction to the Bengali Easter custom of arousing believers for the Sunrise Service. With an unbridled sense of urgency, young men in old trucks, armed with empty oil barrels, wash basins, metal trays, and any other noisemakers they could find or devise, set out in the wee hours of Easter morning for the homes of the faithful where, with great enthusiasm, they beat and banged their makeshift instruments to call the city's scant Christian population to prayer.

I hurriedly dressed and joined my Baptist missionary hosts and we headed for a lake side park. Easter Sunrise service in Dhaka in 1975 was not compartmentalized by denomination. It was a community affair. Communicants from all the area's Christian churches greeted the holy day together. They gathered in the dark, bringing their chairs, to wait for the sun to rise. They sang together, prayed together, and their priests and pastors shared the holy word with the ecumenical congregation.

The Christian Community gathers, Easter Sunday 1975, Dhaka, Bangladesh

And when the sun had risen, and the service had been completed, the Baptists, Presbyterians, and other denominations proceeded to the Anglican Church for the rest of the Easter day celebration. (The Anglicans, I believe, were the only denomination in the city with their own church.)

Anglican Church, Dhaka, Bangladesh

The women in their colorful saris, the men in their crisp white lungis and shirts, flowed into the sanctuary and seated themselves on woven mats on the floor. Their voices rose in song. The sacred melodies were unfamiliar, the language foreign, but the sense of holiness and celebration was unmistakable.

I have attended other Easter Sunday services, in Washington State and California, where the pageantry and service was more familiar, the language understandable and the fellowship welcoming, but none have moved me more than that Easter Sunday service in 1975 in that austere little church in Bangladesh, amidst that group of strangers whose world I barely understood. Their faith, their passion for their belief was palpable, and it moved me.

I thought about them this Easter Sunday as I read how Christians in some of the Muslim countries in the Middle East chose not to celebrate their most holy holiday this year for fear that their Muslim neighbors would kill them. That small group of Christians in Bangladesh knew that fear. They had felt the wrath of their Muslim neighbors during the revolution, as did the Hindu citizens of Bangladesh. All was calm at the moment, but in such countries, where political instability exists and poverty is rampant, the possibility of mayhem is ever present.

Christian, Jew, Muslim... it is never easy to be a minority, to hold a belief that is out of step with the majority of the people around you. Sadly, it is no different in this country. When things are not going well, it is too easy to target and blame the “other” for our discontent, to make them a scapegoat for our problems. Even good people sometimes fall into that trap.

Let me pose a question. Christian, Jew, Muslim... all believe in one God. All these religions teach that God created all things. Then by what distorted logic can anyone professing to be a Christian, Jew or Moslem, anyone claiming to love God, justify killing, or even hating a fellow human being—another creature lovingly created by God? Just something for you to ponder.


Saturday, April 9, 2011


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


Politics insinuated itself into the Bangladesh project, the kind of politics inherent in telling a story about Christian work in a Muslim country. Foremost in my mind as I created the script was making sure that nothing said or shown would in any way endanger the delicate relationship the ecumenical Christian community had built with the Bangladesh government or the Muslim and Hindu communities in which these groups worked. Because of this concern, some of the most interesting and touching stories I uncovered in my research never made it into the film. I would like to share two of them with you.

   Tongee  was already under development by the time I arrived in Bangladesh.
 The residents had been hired to dig a series of lakes in the community
which were later stocked with fish. This created  immediate income and
future livelihoods for the people.  Men, women and children participated.
 The first is the real story behind the creation of the Tongee community. By the time I arrived in Bangladesh, the Tongee project was already taking shape. In the script I described the project as the result of the combined efforts of the members of Bangladesh’s ecumenical Christian community to help the country solve a pressing problem with some of its displaced people. This was true—but it was not the whole story.


If you remember, when the Presbyterian Church U.S. finally agreed to let Dr. Coddington go to Bangladesh it was under the condition that he would confine his activities to the hospital and his work with tuberculosis patients. And he did, until one day on his way to the hospital he witnessed an act so disturbing, so inhumane, he could not, in good conscience, ignore it.

On that day, as Dr. Coddington was driving through Dhaka, he noticed a dozen or more military trucks parked in front of the shantytown that took root in the city at the end of Bangladesh’s recent bloody war for independence. The rambling aggregation of unsightly shacks made of packing crates and other scavenged materials was home to hundreds of Bengalis—men, women and families who had been displaced by the war, or by one of the two destructive monsoon seasons that preceded and followed it.

The monsoons are the life blood of Bangladesh; the people depend on them for good crops. But for two years in a row the rains had struck with such destructive force that they reshaped the land, changing the course of some of its rivers. The shifting terrain left thousands homeless. Families who had contentedly tilled their little piece of land for generations abruptly found that land, and their homes, gone, swept away or buried at the bottom of a redirected river.

When Dr. Coddington reached the shantytown he heard raised voices: the soldiers were shouting orders, men were protesting, women were wailing. He got out of his car to see what was happening. Using axes, their rifle butts, metal pipes...anything handy... the soldiers were systematically demolishing all the shacks and herding their former residents into the waiting trucks.

Dr. Coddington learned later that government officials had ordered the shacks demolished because they were preparing for a conference that would bring corporate investors from around the world to Bangladesh. They feared this eye sore, this blight on their city, would tarnish the image they were trying to project of Dhaka as a place of infinite investment potential. But on that day the doctor wasn’t concerned about why this was happening. His only concern was for the welfare of the people being herded into the trucks. As one by one the trucks pulled away and headed out of the city, he made a decision. His work at the hospital would have to wait. He had to know where the people were being taken.

Dr. Coddington followed the military caravan out of Dhaka many miles into the countryside, to an abandoned rice field. He watched dismayed as the soldiers unceremoniously dumped their human cargo and left. How could they do this? The place was uninhabitable: There was no shelter for the people, not even a tree for shade. There were no amenities, no latrines, no source of potable water. Nothing.

He hurried back to the city. Whether he gave any thought to the promise he made to his church to limit his work I don’t know, but he immediately contacted all the Christian groups in the area and began a one-man crusade to find help for the abandoned community. It was not an easy task. The Baptists, the Anglicans, the Quakers, all of the churches wanted to help, but they were already stretched thin in personnel and money. Yet, by some miracle, Dr. Coddington was able to turn his compassion for these displaced Bengalis into a compelling vision and, in time, a sustainable plan.

You can see why this story never got into the film. The government would not have permitted it to be told. Nor would they have wanted the world to know the next story I am going to share with you, the story of the first woman I interviewed in Tongee.

The simple, inexpensive houses built at Tongee provided permanent homes
for the first time for many of the residents who had been forcibly moved there.
  Like the lakes that were being created, they provided immediate income and
the promise of a better future for people who came to this place without hope.


I had explained to my translator that this was to be a film of hope and promise. The purpose was to raise money for the project from Presbyterian churches in the United States, and my job was to help potential donors see the vision for Tongee and convince them that their donation was important and would make a difference. But the young woman insisted that to truly understand what was happening at Tongee I needed to talk to some of the people who were there before there was hope. There was one woman in particular she wanted me to meet.

We met in the newly completed health clinic. She was a slight woman, frail, with profoundly sad eyes—a Hindu woman. It is difficult to tell the age of someone who has been trapped in poverty all their life. Hunger, malnutrition, and chronic insecurity age a person. My best guess is that she was in her late teens or early twenties. “Tell the lady about that first night,” my translator prompted. The young woman nodded and began. I girded myself for a tale of hardship, but I was not at all prepared for the story this young woman had to tell.

When the soldiers dropped her and her baby in the field, along with the others, she said, she was very frightened. Not so much for herself, but for her little girl, who was only a few weeks old. She thought about trying to walk back to the city, but she knew it was too far. And she was exhausted. Thankfully, she had managed to retrieve a blanket from her shack before the soldiers destroyed it. Moving to the edge of the group, she spread the blanket out and lay down with her little girl. Before she knew it, she was asleep.

Sometime during the night she was awakened by what she thought was someone tugging at her. It was dark and she was half asleep; she couldn’t make out the figure hovering above her. Then her eyes adjusted to the darkness and she saw it...and screamed. It was a hyena. A pack had surrounded her, and one of the beasts had hold of her baby and was tugging at it. The young mother could hear people running towards her. Garnering all her strength, she tightened her grip on her little girl, but the hyena was stronger. With one quick move it snatched the baby from her arms and took off into the darkness with it. Some of the men ran after the beast, but they were too late. The child was gone.

The sad eyes looked into mine. There were no tears. She had cried for weeks, months, my translator told me. She had no tears left. I heard myself sob. I am seldom at a loss for words, but I could find none now. I finally nodded and feebly thanked the young woman for sharing her story with me, knowing that I would never use it in the film.

As I went about the rest of my interviews that day the story haunted me. I tried to console myself with the knowledge that there was now hope in Tongee, even for this sad-eyed young woman. For the first time in her life she had the possibility of a real home, a stable community. I was sure there would be more children for her, and because of what was happening in Tongee, a future more promising than any she had probably ever dreamed possible. Still, I was a mother. I knew how precious every child is. I knew that regardless of how much happiness this young woman would find in the future, nothing would ever completely erase her memory of that horrific night, or completely heal the profound sense of loss she will always carry with her for her lost baby girl.


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.


Tuesday, February 8, 2011


It was apparent, as I struggled to teach, rear my daughter, and pursue my master’s degree that, in spite of Dr. Christiansen’s encouragement, I would never be able to muster the money or the stamina to go on and get my doctorate. That left me with only one more year at the University of Florida. It was time to start job hunting.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Communication Department was looking for a staff writer with documentary film experience. With a solid recommendation from the man I had worked with on the state's water lily project, I applied and got the job. It meant moving to Washington, D.C., but the salary and benefits offered something I had not known in my adult life: financial stability. My new boss even had a project waiting for me, a documentary on the invasion of killer bees from Latin America. They weren’t here yet, but the Agriculture Department wanted to warn the nation’s farmers about the prospective danger. I told Dr. Christiansen I would be leaving at the end of the semester. He was sorry to see me go, but wished me the best of luck.

After procrastinating as long as I could, I was about to break the news to my daughter that we were going to move again when I received a phone call from my new boss. President Ford had just put a hiring freeze on all federal agencies. My job was put on hold...indefinitely. I was back at square one.

Looking back, the remarkable thing about my life has been that whenever I believed I had run out of options something unexpected, some solution that was far better than any I could have imagined, appeared in my life. This time it came in the form of a phone call from a producer I had only worked for once, back in 1972. It was on a project for the Presbyterian Church U.S. (see my series of postings on my 1972 trip to Brazil) first overseas assignment.

I don’t know how Sandy MacDonnell tracked me down, but he had a new project for the Presbyterian Church, this time in Bangladesh, and he wanted me onboard as the writer. Hallelujah! I was back in the film business...that is, if Dr. Christiansen would give me permission to go.

The fact that the shoot was scheduled for the summer, a time when the class load wasn’t very large, was a plus. Still, had no idea of how Dr. Christiansen would react to my request. Again, luck was on my side. Dr. Christiansen, I learned, loved India. He had spent two years there on a communications research project when Bangladesh was still part of that country and had wonderful memories of the place and the people. “Of course you should go!” he said. He would figure a way to work it out. I think he was as excited about the prospect of my going as I was. He was filled with advice about what to take and what to see.

There was, of course, Eileen to consider. I would be away at least three weeks. “I’ll look after her,” my housemate, Pat Holmes, said when I told her about the job. “Don’t worry about a thing.” That left just one more hurdle to overcome... a big one.

Documentary writers incur expenses. They may be reimbursable, but the procedure is for the writer to put whatever they spend for the job on a credit card, then turn in their receipts and a record of the expenses to get reimbursed. The problem was... I didn’t have a credit card. All the credit cards I had were in my ex-husband’s name and requests to have them put in my name had been turned down. I was told I had to build up a credit history before I could get a credit card.

I went to my bank in Gainesville to try again. Surely, now that I had a steady job with the University, and had established a residence and a record the past two years of paying all my bills on time they wouldn’t turn me down. But once again I hit a brick wall. None of this mattered because I had no credit history. I hadn’t bought anything on time, paid off a loan, or done anything that left a paper trail. It didn’t matter that I had been the primary breadwinner for a major part of my life, or that the only reason my ex-husband's credit cards got paid was because I provided much of the money to pay them. The bank saw me as a credit risk because I had not incurred visible debt that they could evaluate.

The banker feigned sympathy, but said there was nothing he could do. I left the his office in total despair, struggling to hold back my tears. No credit card meant no job. I got as far as the front door. That’s when it hit me! My frustration gave way to a burning anger. Not usually one to seek confrontation, I suddenly found myself hungering for it. I turned around and marched back to the banker’s office.

“Ms. Fader!” There was alarm in the man's voice as he rose from his chair.

“I need this credit card.” I announced. “I have to have it. I can’t take this assignment without it.”

“I would really like to help you out,” he said, regaining his composure, “but, as I explained, my hands are tied. You have no credit history.”

“My students, the ones your bank has been so actively soliciting... the ones you have been handing out credit cards to without blinking an eye...the young men and women who have never held a job, probably never paid a bill,...are you going to tell me they have a credit history?”

“Well no, but that is different. They...”

“.... and if my ex-husband walked in here today, with his questionable credit history, you would have no trouble issuing him a credit card, would you?”

“Well, I don’t know about that, Mrs. Fader," he said.  "It would depend on...”

“I have a job. I have no debt. I have a history of paying my bills on time. If you cannot see fit to give me a credit card, I am afraid you give me no choice but to sue your bank.”


I had hit a nerve. “Yes, sue," I said, "for.... for... sex discrimination.”

The blood drained out of the banker’s face. Twenty minutes later I walked out of the bank with my credit card. I had to settle for a $500 limit and hoped that would be enough, but at least I could take the job.”

Some years later, during a discussion I was having with my daughter about her very successful career, she said to me, “Remember, back in Gainesville, when you fought with the bank to get a credit card so you could go to Bangladesh? You were so strong, Mom, so independent. I learned it all from you.

I’m glad she was inspired, but the truth is, it wasn’t strength or independence... it was desperation. Yet, looking back, I guess that incident did mark the day I finally grew up.

Coming next:  My adventures in Bangladesh.

Monday, January 24, 2011


It’s a new year...a fresh chance to get back on course. Top of my list: more frequent blog entries. (Yes, I have heard you my friends.) I have some seven decades of life to draw from, so I am shooting for two-a- month. There are people I would like you to meet and experiences and places that I would like to share with you. So here goes. Hope you will come along for the ride, and please, leave me your thoughts on my postings.

Things were moving along smoothly. My students’ evaluations of me as a teacher put a smile on Dr. Christiansen’s face. He had taken a risk in hiring me, lacking, as I did, the academic credentials for the position. The high student ratings pleased him; his gamble had paid off. He was also pleased when my documentary film credentials helped the department land a contract from the state for a documentary on how water lilies were threatening native plants and fish in the state’s water ways. (I was just happy to be scripting films again.)

Eileen was adjusting to Gainesville. Helping that adjustment was a little four-legged critter she named Brandy. That is a story in itself. After we moved to Winter Haven, Eileen began begging for a dog, specifically a toy poodle. We had had one a couple years before, but it had gotten out of the yard and been hit by a car. I wasn’t averse to her getting a dog, but couldn’t afford to buy I made a deal with her: If she could find one free she could have it.

For months my daughter scoured the newspapers, determined to find her dog. One week-end while we were visiting my brother in St. Petersburg she found what she was looking for. “Apricot poodle, free to a good home,” the ad read. I had promised, so off we went to check the dog out.

The dog turned out to be a great disappointment. It was a miniature, not the toy Eileen had envisioned, and it was a mess: dirty, shaggy, and covered with sand spurs. The woman who put the ad in the paper had found it wandering around. I was relieved when Eileen decided it wasn’t what she was looking for.

As we were leaving a heavy set woman with a little girl was coming up the path, obviously headed for the apartment we had just left. In a voice that could be heard a block away, she was issuing a series of threats to the child: “And I don’t want to hear you complaining about walking and cleaning up after this dog. Do you hear me? You want it, you will take care of it. Is that understood? I have enough to do without worrying about a dog. And another thing...” On and on she went in a voice reminiscent of chalk screeching across a blackboard.

As the mother and child passed us, Eileen grabbed my arm, and turned to watch them. Still berating her child, the woman rang the bell. The door opened. Suddenly Eileen bolted back to the apartment, dragging me behind her. Before the woman could say a word, my daughter yelled out, “We’ll take him!” The dog may not have been what she wanted, but there was no way (Eileen told me) she was going to let that awful woman have the poor thing.

We named the dog brandy because of his apricot color. Well, what we thought was his apricot color. As it turned out, after the groomer got rid of the sand spurs and trimmed and bathed him, Brandy was a silver poodle.

Our household in Gainesville soon was increased by two more. My colleague and friend, Pat Holmes, had ill-advisedly fallen in love and married a charismatic professor in the broadcast department who had a problem with responsibility. They had a son, and the day after the boy was born, her husband walked out on her. A week later, Pat and Kevin Quinn came to live with Eileen, Brandy and me. It was a good arrangement for all of us. Pat and I were able to cut down on our expenses, and I got to relive the joy of having a baby in the house.

Me and a 9 week-old Kevin Quinn
Gainesville’s academic environment suited me well. This was 1976, remember, a time when, as I learned firsthand living in Miami, divorced women were looked upon as a pariah. Married women tended to view a divorcee as a threat. But in Gainesville the women I worked with, married or single, accepted me as a colleague and I forged lasting friendships that continue to enrich my life to this day.

The only thing missing from my life during my Gainesville years was male companionship. It wasn’t that there weren’t men knocking on my door. There was a charming Shakespeare professor, and a quite handsome documentary producer from Ocala for whom I did some work. Both men showed an interest in getting to know me better. And there was my former partner, Frank James, for whom I had some serious feelings. But there was also my 14-year-old daughter, a sweet, nearly perfect child; a mother’s delight—except when a man got within five feet of me. Quick as a flash, she would turn into an obnoxious little brat. Eileen was determined to keep her mother all to herself.

Eileen and her best friend, Brandy

I could have, of course, overridden her efforts to sabotage my romantic life, but looking back I think I was a bit gun-shy then when it came to men. Based on my experience, I didn’t feel I could trust a man to take care of me, so I was focused on learning to take care of myself. My Gainesville years were all about figuring how to build a secure future for me and my daughter. (My sons were older, and out of the house,) Romantic entanglements were not a distraction I felt I could afford at the time. When Eileen scared a man away, I didn’t try to get him back.

During my second year at the university Dr. Christiansen began pushing for me to get my Master’s and Doctorate so I could go on teaching. No matter how well the students liked and responded to me, my lack of academic credentials meant that he couldn’t keep me on staff more than two years. I took and passed my GRE and began my work towards my masters. I was able to do that at the University of Florida, so I wasn’t incurring a lot of expenses. But to get my doctorate I would have to go to another university and pay tuition and living expenses, without the backup of a salary for teaching. I had no idea how I was going to afford to do that, and I was concerned about temporarily uprooting Eileen again. As much as I was enjoying my life at the university, it was time to look for an alternate plan.

Next time: The job that almost took me away and a dream of a film assignment that helped me stay.