By Sharyn Jackson
When Abu Khaliquzzaman was a sixth-grader in what was then East Pakistan in the 1960s, he first noticed something curious about the schedule. His school in the region’s capital, Dhaka, was divided into a morning shift for Urdu-speaking boys from West Pakistan and a day shift for Bengali-speaking boys from East Pakistan.
“In the day shift, they provided us one cookie for all day of classes,” Khaliquzzaman recalled. “The morning shift got four or five items. So I protested.”
Khaliquzzaman’s adolescence was checkered by the trouble he got into for speaking out against such inequalities. He had to transfer schools three times, and he survived torture and an alleged poisoning by a police officer before finishing his studies. Khaliquzzaman was a pharmacy student in Dhaka when Bangladesh declared its independence from West Pakistan and went to war in 1971.
Twenty-five years later, Zaman, as he is called, moved to the United States, a place where he found the freedoms he was deprived of in his youth—particularly freedom of speech. “When I came to the United States and I saw the sky and the plane landing, I told my wife that this is my country,” said Zaman. “It’s a country where I could have opportunities—the opportunity to say what you are thinking.”
Now in the Kensington section of Brooklyn where he settled, Zaman, 54, is waging another battle to assert his Bengali identity and finding himself embroiled in controversy in his adopted land. As the only Bangladeshi member of Community Board 12, Zaman last March proposed renaming the area around Church and McDonald Avenues, home to thousands of Bengalis, “Banglatown.” He also suggested erecting a monument to Bangladeshi liberation “martyrs” on a traffic island at Avenue C and McDonald Avenue. While Zaman’s ideas inspire pride among Bangladeshis here, they have been seen by some Kensington residents and activists as a threat to the multicultural balance of the neighborhood.
“I would really love to see our community focus on celebrating how diverse we are instead of trying to pigeonhole ourselves,” said Maggie Tobin, leader of the West Kensington Action Group and a newly appointed member of the community board. Tobin said Zaman’s proposals may do more harm than good in a neighborhood that has been a haven to immigrant Albanians, Russians, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, and South Asians over the last 20 years, as well as longtime Jewish, Irish and Italian residents.
“I think it’s exclusive and it’ll just cause friction,” said Tobin, who is a planner of the Kensington World’s Fair, a multicultural festival to be held in October. “I’d really like us to move in a different direction than ‘Banglatown.’ I want it to be our town.”
Comments on local blogs reflected Tobin’s sentiment. One commenter on kensingtonprospect.com made the point that a monument to Bangladeshi “martyrs” could be seen as an implication of Pakistan in genocide—something that is still being debated by the two countries. According to Bangladesh’s first government, the war in 1971 resulted in 3 million Bengali casualties. Pakistan has estimated Bengali losses at a tenth of that. “Erecting such structural art would be taking sides in an active struggle that has persisted for decades and continues to the present day halfway around the world,” wrote the commenter.
“I feel the monument is divisive,” said Bridget Elder, a Kensington-based activist and substitute teacher. “There are Pakistanis in our neighborhood. I don’t think it should be on public property, because you’re going to alienate people.”
The proposed monument is a model of the Shaheed Minar, a five-column structure erected in 1952 in Dhaka, days after West Pakistani-backed police killed dozens of Bengali-speaking students at the University of Dhaka in demonstrations against legislation favoring the Urdu language. Every year on February 21, the anniversary of the massacre, Bengalis in Dhaka place flowers at this monument, and around the world at replicas in England, on the lawns of homes, and in front of Bangladeshi stores lining Church and McDonald in Brooklyn.
“This has been the expectation of the community for a long, long time,” said Mohammed Nazrul, a Bangladeshi business owner who moved to Kensington 15 years ago, when there were only a handful of stores near the intersection that is today a hub of his community. “The people of my country and people all over the world should know these things. That’s why I think a monument should be here.”
Abdur Rob Chowdhury, president of the Church McDonald Bangladeshi Business Association, which is now working with Zaman on the proposals, believes Pakistanis will take the monument well. Besides, said Chowdhury, who lost a brother in the war for Bangladesh’s liberation, “It is our demand; it is our justice.”
The partition of Pakistan was a casualty of British colonization. Britain pulled out of South Asia in 1947, but not before dividing the subcontinent into a Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan. The Pakistani province of East Bengal (later East Pakistan) lay 1,500 miles away from central government on the other side of India. Yet more than geography separated the ethnically and linguistically distinct province from the rest of Pakistan. When a Bengali-speaking politician from East Pakistan swept statewide elections in 1970, the West’s military regime did not welcome him into the government. On March 26, 1971, Bangladesh declared its independence and with the help of India, fought to keep it in a nine-month-long war.
Thirty-nine years later, Brooklyn’s Pakistanis and Bangladeshis live separate, but peaceful existences. “That’s the beauty of the United States,” says Mohammed Razvi, executive director of Council of Peoples Organization, a South Asian services and advocacy group originally serving Brooklyn’s Pakistani community. “People may have differences outside the country, but here they stand side by side,” as South Asian immigrants who share many of the same interests.
Not standing side-by-side with Bangladeshis, however, are some Kensingtonians, who used the May Community Board meeting to air grievances about conduct at a Bangladeshi mela, or street festival, held that month. The event was unexpectedly crowded, and there weren’t enough restroom facilities for festival-goers. “There were like 3,000 people in the street and some were banging on residents’ doors trying to use the restrooms,” said Sandy Aboulafia, the vice-chair of the board’s transportation committee, which, incidentally, may cast the first advisory vote on Zaman’s proposals after the board’s summer break. “You can’t do that.”
“It kind of screamed prejudice,” said Bridget Elder about the complaints over the mela at the board meeting. “Whenever a neighborhood changes, people get upset. So they make blanket statements.”
Zaman insists the complaints were not discriminatory, and is now focused on garnering neighborhood approval for his proposals. He said he has approached local leaders about holding community-wide meetings to work through charged feelings on all sides. “I also want to address the Bangladeshi people at these meetings, so that when declaring they are in ‘Banglatown,’ they don’t think they are the owners of this area,” said Zaman. He later added, “We’ll work together with every culture. This is not Bangladesh—leave Bangladeshi politics in Bangladesh.”
Beyond board members and activists, though, other longtime residents in the area may be difficult to convince. Inside Denny’s, an Irish pub that has stood on the corner of Church and McDonald since 1974, the change in the neighborhood over the last 20 years has been insignificant. Said Sean Connell, a Kensington native and regular there, “This will always be known as Church and McDonald.”