NOVEMBER, 2017. I went for an evening walk with a (female) friend at Agargaon. Different departments of the government are located here. The area has comparatively wide streets, where, after the office hours, people from nearby areas gather to enjoy leisure time. Near an intersection, as we were crossing a road-side tea-stall, suddenly someone called, ‘Rohingya’. Both of us were a bit startled. Many a times, while crossing a lonely area we have heard male voices calling out, ‘how much?’ In the context of Bangladeshi ‘street culture’, we interpret as a possible patriarchal attempt at shaming women in public space by indirectly calling her a ‘whore’. But, never have we heard or being called, as ‘Rohingya’. I was perplexed.
January, 2018. To cross a river in Mongla, we were walking toward a crowded dock. Fellow travelers all had backpacks. Here again, a rather loud whisper in my ear, ‘Rohingya’. This time I decided to ask around. What does it mean? What is this act of calling out people as Rohingya? I asked the boatmen who was carrying us across the river. He felt a bit awkward, avoided to answer my question by saying, ‘No, no. No one said anything to you’ or ‘I didn’t say anything’. When I assured him that I was not offended, rather curious to know the meaning of the word in this context, he explained. In Mongla, there is an Export Processing Zone, where foreigners frequently come. They all carry bags on their back, walk in group, exactly the way TV news depict Rohingyas walking across border in files with their few belongings. That is why locals jokingly refer to foreigners or any outsiders as Rohingya.
February, 2018. Shyamoli, Dhaka. I took a turn on my bicycle to enter a small alley. From the road-side tea stall came flying the word, ‘Rohingya’. I gathered courage to stop at once, got off my bike. Putting down my sunglasses, I walked towards the man frying dalpuri (flat bread filled with lentils) and asked pleasantly, ‘Why did you call me Rohingya?’ The man immediately denied that it was meant for me. The explanation this time was different: when a working class wo/man to sarcastically criticise another wo/man of their own class for showing off a false higher status (futani) or imitate the elites, they call them Rohingya. Like when the dalpuriwala wore sunglasses and the tea seller next door called him Rohingya. One might remember that wearing sunglasses in Bangladesh is rather associated with fashion or style than necessity. The dalpuriwala went on furthermore, ‘You know, the other day my daughter-in-law was calling me Rohingya for that I dyed my gray hair? She said, ‘Abba you look just like a Rohingya’.
As days go by, my experience and encounter with the word enriches. In Dhaka or elsewhere, I hear the word ‘Rohingya’. Slowly, I get used to the word. Talking to journalist and anthropologist friends in my social circle, I gather that they have also had heard the word. It appears that as a derogatory term a new word has been included in Bengali vocabulary in Bangladesh. But, not all use the word in the same manner.
One last anecdote. It happened in late March, 2018 in a Mirpur to Jigatoa bound tempo. Close to the Mohammadpur bus stop, the seat next to the driver became empty when the helper asked a young passenger to sit on that seat, ‘Hey! Rohingya, go and sit in the front’. The passenger didn’t look like an everyday middleclass office goer or a university student. He rather appeared to be someone from the lower-middleclass. He moves around with his earphone on and eyes glued to the cell-phone screen. He casually moved to the front seat, as if he got used to being called as Rohingya or simply does not care. I wondered — why the transport worker would call a charming young man from the lower middle class a Rohingya?
I asked the helper politely, ‘brother, why did you call him Rohingya?’ Even before the helper could answer, the woman sitting next to me responded, ‘Oh! He was just joking. You can recognise a Rohingya by their language. Their language and our language are very distinct’. I probed her further, ‘But, what kind of a joke is this! Some people are fleeing violence as the minority in their own land and came to our country for shelter. Why make a community in suffering subject of your joke?’ The woman almost in a gesture to comfort me replied, ‘People in Bangladesh are like that. Don’t understand anything. Would say anything’. I was not ready to accept that people are obhujh (not-understanding), as the women implied.
From what understanding people have started to call each other Rohingya, I asked again. Now the woman sitting in front of me responded. In her view, the way people in Chittagong refer to any outsider as Boingya, the word Rohigya or Roingya also means the same. To refer to someone who came from outside, someone who is not local, this word is used. For example, people of Dhaka refer to someone who came from other districts as Rohingya. Even people from one neighbourhood in Dhaka would call someone from another neighbourhood with this term. Recently, the use of the term reached such a state that helper from one transport company would refer to helper from another company as Rohingya. At this stage, most passengers in tempo agreed with this explanation, some even was adding more to the analysis. All this while, the helper of my tempo was smiling sheepishly, as if our analysis was not his answer. At one point in the discussion, one of the passengers mentioned another word that was frequently in use about four, five years ago. The word is — Mofiz. The term was used to refer to people who came to Dhaka from mofussil towns, struggling to cope with the pace of the city and stumbling at every step of the way. Is it that today the word Mofiz is replaced with Rohingya? I asked. Now, the helper agreed. He said, ‘Yes, yes, Rohingya means Mofiz’.
Political economy of everyday language evolves and works in this manner that it will be mistaken to assume it as simple conduit of celebratory nationalist sentiment. The inclusion of the word Rohingya, though not always used as brutal derogation, does not always carry the idea of Bangladeshi as the ever gracious host as portrayed by international media or the rulers of the country.
Nasrin Siraj is an anthropologist.
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