I have never considered myself a coward. In fact, I fancied myself to be a risk-taker. Now that my poor father is squandering his golden years reading my articles, I suppose some of the confessions here will not take him by surprise, at least not too much. Dad, do you remember when Luccio and I went to try out his new parachute? Well, guess what.
No, I didn’t parachute. See, it cost $90 in insurance to do that, and I couldn’t afford it. So the pilot suggested that I wing-walk instead. “Oh that’s free,” he commented. “There’s no insurance company in the world crazy enough to pay for that.” So, I got out on the axle of the Cessna 172 and went hand over hand along the wing strut, until I stood on the wheel. My dad used to remind me of the difference between courage and stupidity, a fine distinction I didn’t quite understand at the age 19, as I stood on the wheel housing at 5000 feet.
Today my feet are planted on terra firma. The blazing sun is like a big playful dog waiting for me to get outside to pounce and slobber me with loving abandon. Three minutes outside and my clothes are already sticking to me. The afternoon promises thunderstorms. I walk through the streets, pencil scratching the sheets of paper and I embark upon another day in my actual life, my ideal life, where free of teaching obligations, I can focus on becoming a writer.
Above my head, a blimp floats listlessly in this still, humidity-thick air. As I crane my neck to see the blue dirigible, it seems to hang on invisible wires gliding with emaciated clouds on the scant breeze. The scene is a bit ironic — all I can see is this garish floating billboard whose belly begs me to like “them” on Facebook, but whose side-panel advertising I cannot see, and therefore can neither like nor dislike. Minutes pass. I jot my ideas into my notebook. When I look up again, the blimp looks like what the Argentineans call “punto aparte,” the period that ends a paragraph.
On the edge of the paragraph of clouds the fractal wailings of turbulence and vapour that only distance makes solid, so much like words themselves, this request for friendship from some unknown advertiser is floating away. From high above, it would seem that this advertiser’s plaintive cry to be “liked” had found the perfect medium. It begs to be liked, but not to be touched.
We Americans can often “like” and never allow ourselves to touch or be touched.
I think back on the articles, the research I’ve done since those early days, and realise that my own evolution as a person has been informed to such an extent by writing this column, that although my writing has not changed the world one iota, the lessons I have learned while writing have had a profound effect on me.
Like that powerful and distant sun, the gravity exerted by events on your shores has pulled me into orbit around you, and your solar flares have ignited auroras. Your very soil, your waters, a close reading of your story, prove that Bangladesh will not countenance apathy. Your history rises to touch you, and as long as you remain on her floodplain, virtually or actually, she will find you and move you. She will give you the choice of courage or annihilation.
I give myself a bit of a pep talk as I walk along. I shouldn’t feel frightened. What sort of a coward am I, after all? I scribble in my notebook without breaking stride.
The dying art of reading and writing is part of our innate endeavour to make the word flesh. Words are frightening things indeed. But unlike some of you, I will never have to risk my life to defend my right to speak English or attempt to practice Bangla.
Today, I will self-consciously greet the banker, a Bangladeshi native by saying asalaamu aleikum, kemon acho? One line. How would you react to an American attempting to greet you in that way? When I first tried, using online resources to greet him, I read online that it was proper to say “namaste” in Bengali and was lightly rebuffed. It’s embarrassing to be wrong, to inadvertently cross the confusing cultural borders between distant lands, only to be shot down albeit politely. Turns out, it leaves you more gun-shy than even stepping onto the wheel of an airplane high above the catskill mountains.
As a result of several failures, I have curbed my efforts to communicate in Bangla.
My recent life is about summoning the courage to speak whether or not those subjects to it will internally click the “like” button. How can I do otherwise, when my fears seem so trivial next to your example?
See, there are two types of courage. One is the courage of an impetuous madman, the same type of stupidity that gets you out on the wing of a plane at 5000 feet. Then there’s the courage born out of a dignity that cannot be found by begging to be liked on Facebook. It is the courage to actually reach out and touch people, to spit defiantly at your enemies, and to risk embarrassment enough to utter unfamiliar syllables to potential friends. It is a type of courage that I am learning from my virtual travels in Bangladesh, that your history inspires me to take as an example.
If I were ever to write a poem about Bangladesh, I’d start, “Bangladesh is Word made flesh”. It is a nation born out of the right to express, and sanctified over and over again by the blood of people just striving to live and to make something of it. You have given me your attention. I owe you my courage, and my industry. But how?
Ironically, after all these articles, after all my research, I realize that I have been asking the wrong questions, perhaps even in the wrong language. In all my travels, and in all my writing, it all winnows down to the same conclusion over and over again, “to love is to be able to help without being able to help.” So what can I do?
As I open the pages of bdnews24, and a single name stands out, almost like God’s answer to my reverie, I notice the name Rizwana Hasan. As I prepare to send this article I notice, my inbox, an email that reminds me of a girl named Rachel Beckwith, about whom I wrote a year ago, who would have been ten this month. A germ of an idea forms…
..To be continued.
Frank Domenico Cipriani writes a weekly column in the Riverside Signal called “You Think What You Think And I’ll Think What I Know.” He is also the founder and CEO of The Gatherer Institute — a not-for-profit public charity dedicated to promoting respect for the environment and empowering individuals to become self-taught and self-sufficient. His most recent book, “Learning Little Hawk’s Way of Storytelling”, teaches the native art of oral tradition storytelling.