Dozens of soldiers, many with machine guns, guard the entrance to Sheikh Hasina’s house. She’s the prime minister of Bangladesh, and her father Sheikh Mujibur Roman was the founder of Bangladesh. He was assassinated in 1975, and I suppose I might have my house surrounded by soldiers if my father had been assassinated, although ironically he was killed by soldiers.
I’ve been invited to Sheikh Hasina’s house for Iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast. I don’t know what to expect, but I think it unlikely that it will be me, Sheikh Hasina, and a few others.
Although her house is surrounded by soldiers, security seems much lighter than getting into, for example, the Houses of Parliament in London. I show a card that has neither a picture nor even a name on it; I don’t have to show any identification. I’ve been asked not to bring a mobile phone, and dutifully I haven’t; but once inside I see that most people have. The phones don’t seem to have been detected by the metal detector we have to pass through.
Once through the minimal security I walk with many other on a road through the garden. There are trees heavy with large jackfruits, the national fruit of Bangladesh. The Iftar is being held not in Sheikh Hasina’s house, but in a giant tent in front of it. The tent must be at least 150 yards wide and 80 yards from front to back. Hundreds of fans hang circle our heads, which is just as well as it’s 34 degrees Celsius. Large screens are scattered around, presumably to show us Sheikh Hasina, who will be invisible to most.
The tent is filled with round tables, each with nine places, each with a plate with Iftar foods covered in cling film. Each place has bottles of a sugary drink, water, and something white. There are also large dishes of what I later discover are biryani and lychees.
I’m on my own and unsure where to go. I walk forward uncertainly until somebody says “Down to the front and turn right. That’s diplomats.” I’m not a diplomat (although perhaps I am in some ways), but as I’m white and taller than most I’ll fit in more with them than any other group. So I walk to the front and walk up and down a row, wondering what to do with myself.
Suddenly I think of the Queen’s Garden and Party that Chicken and I went to in the late 80s. At that party people drifted around unsure why they were there or what to do. There may be slightly more point here in that we are breaking fast (although I and probably most of the diplomats have not been fasting), but only a tiny percentage of us will meet Sheikh Hasina, and even if we do there’ll be just a few meaningless words. At the London party, I remember, people clustered around the Royal Family when they appeared and processed slowly to the tea tent at the back of the garden: Princess Diana had a huge circle, whereas the Duke of Edinburgh had only a handful of people.
I recognise the British High Commissioner, but she’s engaged in conversation. I feel it would be above my station to sit with her, and so after more wandering I sit down next to a disconsolate man sitting on his own. He comes from Egypt. I try conversation, but his English is poor and my Arabic non-existent. I ask him about Egypt and others breaking off relations with Qatar. He grunts and says resolution will be slow.
We sit some more, and then there’s excitement as Sheikh Hasina appears. Dressed all in white (as I think she always is), she is preceded by a scrum of cameramen, most with their videos and cameras held above their heads. Behind her come soldiers and some heavies. We stand, and she passes within a few feet of me. It could even be that she smiled at me.
We sit down again, and the Ambassador of Kuwait, dressed in very fine Arab dress and smelling sweet (like the sugar on Turkish delight) comes and sits next to me. He speaks good English, and we manage some conversation. He knows icddr,b, and the Kuwaiti government may offer us some funding. I ask about Kuwait mediating in the dispute in the Gulf, and he smiles enigmatically. Three other diplomats arrive and say hello, but I don’t catch where they are from. Then comes the Spanish ambassador, who looks as if he’s having great fun, and he goes round the table and shakes everybody’s hand. Later we are joined by another Arabic speaker (this time in a suit) and a bullet headed man whom I guess to be Scandinavian.
A Muslim prayer is sung, and then a cleric delivers what I take to be a sermon. I ask the Kuwait ambassador who says he’s probably preaching about the virtues of fasting.
Sheikh Hasina has something close to a throne at the centre of a long table where she’s surrounded by her cabinet, all men. The people beside her are so far away she can hardly talk to them. There’s more singing, this time by a woman, and then the time has arrived to eat. The timing has to be right.
As I chew on the traditional but not tasty food talking to nobody but with a clear view of Sheikh Hasina I reflect that this reminds me of a giant wedding: the central woman in white, a large tent, cameras everywhere, songs, long dull speeches, indifferent food, and struggling to make conversation with people you don’t know and will never meet again. But no alcohol, of course.
Unlike a wedding it’s brief. After about 20 minutes of eating people begin to leave, even before Sheikh Hasina. In minutes it’s a flood, and we are all leaving. I’m glad I came, but I’ve decided that once is enough.