One can take the help of the clichéd expression and say she wears many hats, but that would be an understatement. Dhaka-based Sadaf Saaz, whose book of poems, Sari Reams, was published in November last year, is a dedicated women’s rights activist and a successful entrepreneur. The 40-something director of a Dhaka-based readymade garment manufacturing company is also the co-founder and producer of the Dhaka Hay Festival. Her travel company aims to showcase the lesser-known Bangladesh to an outside world fixated on the country’s poverty, natural calamities and industrial disasters. Doubling in many roles is all in a day’s work for someone who studied molecular cell biology from the University of Cambridge.
Her collection of poems presents a wide range of emotions, from the “cacophony” of “noshto (spoilt) women” to the “delightful morsels” of the “mango shango”. She writes about women, and she speaks of their pain, struggles, betrayals, relationships and happiness. She writes about the birangonas, a term (literally meaning the brave one) given to the survivors of the brutal rape campaign unleashed by the Pakistani army during the Bangladesh Liberation War in 1971 and she speaks of the deathly silence surrounding rapes:
It was not to be.
Allowing vicious violation, murder and rape
Into the sound of silence
She does not leave out the minority Biharis of Bangladesh:
He, from a minority Bihari community
They had been failed by our society
Holes in the Bangla status quo
And, moved by the Rana Plaza tragedy of April 2013 in which over a thousand people were killed when an eight-storey building collapsed, she writes:
He tastes that smell
despatching dignity to the dead.
Sadaf Saaz talks both prose and poetry.
How did you become a poet? Why did you choose to write poetry?
Poetry is something which I have used to express myself since I was young. I love the play of words and how one can use a few words to convey a multitude of emotions and situations.
Most of your poems speak of women, their pains, and their unacknowledged sacrifices. Is your poetry an extension of your activism?
Poetry is very personal, and is about what I feel strongly and deeply about. Activism is another way to channel strong feelings about injustice, to try and bring about change.
Your book comes with a CD of your readings. What was the idea behind this experiment? Some of the poems that you’ve read out are not verbatim. The poems in the audio have some extra lines here and there compared to the written ones. Is this deliberate?
I actually sometimes feel that reciting my poetry brought out more of the essence of the poem, as I could recite words in just the way I had conceived them in my head—which could hopefully connect more with the reader or listeners. Some poetry is best read, and yet some people love to listen to poetry. I felt that some of the poems could be better conveyed in the spoken form than the written.
So I worked with two very talented young Bangladeshi musicians (Rokon Emon and Nirjher Chowdhury), who used a range of western and eastern instruments. The music perfectly complemented the words. I could imagine the music expressing the feelings my words were trying to put across. It was deliberate that some of the poems are not verbatim. One of the poems was better in the short form in print. In the audio version, I used the longer version of the poem because there it fit perfectly.
How did you become an entrepreneur?
I think the idea of being the master of one’s own destiny—creating something and executing a vision, harnessing the incredible energy and potential available—appealed to me. Bangladesh felt like such a place where there was scope to do this.
You’ve been an activist for a long time now. How did it start and what has been your experience so far?
I joined the women’s activist organisation Naripokkho in 1992. The idea is that as a woman, I am fighting against any kind of injustice which stops me, solely due to the fact I am a woman. Back then, I found a few amazing women who thought the same way I did.
Naripokkho has tried to address women’s issues in a variety of ways. It has done a lot of work in working for the rights and entitlements of women. Speaking to many women all over Bangladesh, we discovered that violence and the threat of violence were the major impediments to women fulfilling their potential.
Naripokkho has tried to address the issue of violence against women and worked for rights of women to health care and services. It also convened a national network of women-led organisations called Doorbar, with organisations from all 64 districts in Bangladesh. Women are so strong, and often they just need to have the support and network of other women and communities to help themselves and bring about a huge change. Many men have also come forward to support and change things.
An activist, a poet, a businesswoman—what are you? How do you juggle the roles? Activists and businesspeople are often at loggerheads with each other. How do you reconcile your two selves?
I have different sides to me, and they are all part of who I am. I think that not having an understanding of different sides to a situation can be unhelpful. As an activist and a businessperson, one can see both sides of the coin. I am able to appreciate the challenges and the realities both face, and it keeps me in a better position to do both in a way that is responsible with a vision.
Poets observe the world we live in and capture the emotions. Hopefully this makes me able tap into that realm of emotion, beauty and humanity that make us who we are and bring a certain sensibility to all I do.
You’ve been heading a garment company for a long time now and have seen women workers closely. How has the Bangladesh’s garment industry improved the lives of women in Bangladesh?
I have been working in the RMG industry for many years now, and have seen a lot of changes happen. Over 80 per cent of the workforce is women. Women now enjoy more independence than before. They earn some of the highest comparable salaries in the country. Their families respect them and they are the face of modern urban workforce. They speak their mind, and are confident.
This has changed the social fabric of urban Bangladesh. Twenty years ago, women were hardly visible on the streets. Now you can walk any time of day or night in Dhaka without it seeming odd.
I have always supported the idea that working women should not be held back in any way just because they are women—they must have a very supportive day care centre for their babies and of course maternity leave benefits, free doctors and medicine, and reproductive rights advice, and access to health care.
You were part of the team that performed The Vagina Monologues for the first time in Dhaka. It was quite a ‘bold’ thing to do, wasn’t it? How was your experience?
I felt The Vagina Monologues gave a very personal perspective to sexuality and violence, and could connect to the audience beyond sensationalism. In the women’s movement, we had been trying to create a space to talk about sexuality, and its importance in women’s lives—the lack of knowledge and discussion around sexuality that affect men and women, and have a bearing on the trajectory of women’s lives.
I felt it was important to do The Vagina Monologues, even if to a small English-speaking audience, because quite often those with apparent ‘exposure’ are those who may still have very archaic values surrounding women and sexuality. I was nervous, much more than some of the younger women, because I didn’t want all the work that I have been doing to be discredited by people who may misunderstand the performances. But felt if I was asking other women to be strong enough to speak out about such issues, I needed to also put myself beyond my comfort zone too.
Ultimately it was very well-received. The first performance was an unforgettable show with a women-only audience, with much laughter and camaraderie, and a celebration that we could say things in public which we had never thought possible in Bangladesh. A few men did say that it was the first time that they realised how it may be for a woman subjected to violence, the first time they really empathised.
When Eve Ensler (the American playwright who wrote The Vagina Monologues) came to Dhaka in January 2013, we were also able to perform monologues that we had written, based on Bangladeshi women’s experiences. I am now writing monologues based on women’s experiences, to perform in Bangla in several locations around Bangladesh.
You’ve branched out into travel and tourism too. What made you set up your own travel agency?
I started a travel company (Jatrik) just out of the love of travelling around Bangladesh. There is something wonderful and intangible about Bangladesh right now—a beautiful resilience and warmth of the people, a spirituality which may be lost as we ‘develop’ more.
I remember I was once on a wooden boat listening to a folk song accompanied by an ektara (single-string) instrument, in the moonlight. The idea of Jatrik, which means traveller, was to give a holistic travel experience rather than a typical touristy one. Our aim is not only to get the people to travel on rivers and see ancient and historical sites, but also experience our living cultures of music and the arts, and the ways in which Bangladesh is trying to hold itself against poverty and climate change. So we arrange experiential holistic travel experiences, where people get a flavour of many different aspects of Bangladesh.
Hay Festival is a prestigious festival of literature and arts. How did the Dhaka chapter happen? What do you hope to achieve through it?
I am involved in endeavours to promote Bangladesh through Jatrik; for example, the Dhaka World Music Festival of 2011. I am part of a writers’ collective called Writers Block. Tahmima Anam, the novelist who lives in the UK, was contacted by Hay Festival and she approached me. I got really excited about promoting the literature of Bangladesh, and having Bangladesh plugged into the global literary scene. We worked together to establish Hay Festival Dhaka.
Initially, it was a pilot one-day event; it is now a three-day literary extravaganza with four concurrent sessions at the Bangla Academy, which is the heart of literature in Bangladesh. Now we have built up a great team, including poet Ahsan Akbar, writer K. Anis Ahmed, and actor Naila Azad.
What do we have to look forward to in this year’s Hay Dhaka?
Hay Festival Dhaka will be held on November 20-22, 2014. We are looking at having a stellar line-up again this year, with interesting panels and thought-provoking topics. We also look to build on our children’s section, and there will also be an emphasis on performance poetry.
Bangladesh is said to have a very healthy reading culture. Why is this?
Bangladesh has a great tradition of oral poetry and written literature. From the early Buddhist poems of the 8th century to Sufi ballads of bards of Bengal, to the greats like Tagore and Kazi Nazrul Islam, to the biggest book fair in the world: all have contributed to its culture.
Bangladeshis are a very emotional people and passionate about language in various forms—poetry, songs, theatre and literature. But there is a challenge with the new generation, in the era of Star TV and Facebook. One of the reasons we wanted to do the Hay Festival and encourage other endeavours was to ensure literature, reading and writing remains engaging, accessible and loved in the years to come.
You write in English. Do you have many readers? What is the scene like for Bangladeshi authors writing in English?
It’s a small but growing English readership in Bangladesh. Last year, three imprints publishing English fiction were launched at Hay Dhaka, which means publishers are seeing a market for it. There is an emerging group of younger writers who are finding that they are more comfortable writing in English— having studied in the English medium, perhaps even abroad. They also are writing in a variety of styles on a range of topics. This new writing has to be nurtured but there is a lot of potential.
You were born abroad and raised abroad (she still has a British accent). You did your higher studies in the UK. Why did you choose to make Bangladesh your base? What kind of adjustments did you have to make?
I was born in the US and grew up in the UK. We moved to Chittagong when I was 16. It was tough, as I went to a Bengali medium college. But it also gave me an insight into what Bangladesh was about.
Later, I chose to come back after I finished my studies (at the University of Cambridge) and be part of the process of trying to determine our own future, even as a third world nation. I always believed that we need to determine our own path, and develop the expertise to find our own way and solutions.
For a long time, the top two Bangladeshi political leaders have been women. Has this made any difference to the lives of the common Bangladeshi women?
I think certain government policies over the past two decades, supported consistently by both political parties, have contributed to Bangladesh doing well on social indicators in South Asia, surprising all, like the high rate of enrolment of girls in schools, reduction of childhood mortality, etc. This is something which should be recognised.
What is your next writing project?
I am writing a novel set in Dhaka, apart from finishing the series of monologues on lives of women in Bangladesh.