Dystopia – Remembering Xulhaz and Mahbub
Editor’s Note: Xulhaz Mannan and Mahbub Tanoy were two young gay rights activists from Bangladesh who were killed by alleged Muslim extremists on 25th April 2016 in Dhaka. The killers have not yet been apprehended by the authorities in Bangladesh.
By Tausif Sanzum
On the eve of the Chinese New Year, I was thinking of Pohela Boishakh, the first day of the Bengali New Year. The festival for years has served to go beyond the Muslim identity which has now become synonymous with our Bengali identity. If you do not visit the country, you will never be able to understand the obsession for this festival among every section of the society. From buying the traditional Hilsha fish to the white and red dresses, the festival is filled with so much colour and festival that it hides the cracks in the society. An integral part of the festival is the rally in the Dhaka University premise, Mangal Shobhajatra which was recently recognized by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.‘Humanity’ represents the human race and also the ability to show humanness. However, a rally attended by hundreds of people ‘celebrating diversity’ failed to accommodate less than hundred members of the LGBT community in Bangladesh on 14 April 2016. For the last two years, Roopbaan, an organization which started as the first LGBT magazine in Bangladesh organized a small rally filled with colourful motifs which celebrated the inclusion of the LGBT community into the mainstream. Amidst all the colour and celebration of Pohela Boishakh, it served as a platform to show that this community is no different from the rest of the country. The late Xulhaz Mannan commissioned my partner and me to make a documentary about the lives of the people participating in this rally.
For days, we recorded how Xulhaz’s house commonly known among a lot of us as “Nanur Basha” became a sanctuary where various LGBT and non-LGBT community members would come and contribute towards the creation of masks and other motifs needed for the rally. In their smile and eagerness for the rally, it was hard to believe that they were not even recognized in this country and how much danger loomed upon their heads. Xulhaz went out of his way to provide us with the basic technology we might need to make the film. He would sit on the side carefully listening to the stories being recorded. The excitement of having a crush on someone for the first time, the sadness of rejection, the bitterness of the society, the happiness of finding non-judgmental friends and the exhalation of being independent. All of us could connect to these narratives and it became a shared experience. I believe that the power of these shared experiences gave us the courage to be part of the rally.On the first day of the shoot, we realized that there was not enough light in the room. As we were are not professional film makers we were depending on getting a thousand watt bulb which we asked Tonoy to bring. However, there wasn’t any in the shops nearby and we had to do with natural light. The only option left was to use the balcony. Xulhaz loved plants and his balcony was filled with them. During those days I was looking for a white aparajita plant which he had. He promised to give a seed as soon as there is the next bloom. I keep wondering what happened to those plants. Did they wither away too? I am allergic to cats and Xulhaz had a big fluffy one. Once we went early, to shoot a footage in broad daylight and I was having breakfast. I was sharing with him how scared I am of cats and he said, ‘why are you not scared when it is right behind you.’ On this, I turned back and there it was – the queen of the house idling her time on the fridge. The scream from me that followed was not very pleasant. Meera, his cat would keep coming into the frame during the shoot and did not make things any simpler for me. His mother used to stay with him and the name ‘nanur basha’ (Grand mother’s place) was in relation to her presence in the house. How did his mother feel when those extremists slaughtered her son pieces by pieces in front of her eyes? How does any mother feel losing a part she brought into the world right in front of her eyes?
Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy was multi-talented. Dance, singing, acting, crafts work – there was hardly anything he would not try to do. In his interview footages for the documentary, he kept saying that despite all the harsh criticisms they face every year, he wanted to be part of this rally as it was one of the few occasions where he could let the world hear their voice. He wanted to wear the costume of a peacock at the rally and be just as graceful. Once we were all having lunch at Xulhaz’s house. We almost finished everything and then Tonoy joined as he was taking a shower. Xulhaz appeared suddenly and gave him some curry he had saved for him. In that tiny gesture, I could clearly see what they meant for each other. The peacock will not spread his wings and dance again. For years, his family will have nightmares of the screams of their young boy being hacked to pieces? What about the questions which they have to face for years regarding their son’s sexual orientation?
Xulhaz’s house for years had been a place where everyone was welcome without the fear of being judged, discriminated or align with the societal norms. The house was always filled with laughter, happiness, music, dance and away from all negative vibes. The silence the house faces now haunts many individuals who over the years have been to it.
After weeks of preparation the day of the rally finally came. Upon arriving at the premise on the day of the rally, we heard that the government authorities had called up Xulhaz and asked him to cancel any participation in the rally. Not only does the LGBT community face the wrath of the extremists in the country but they are also denied any support or security from the government. Under all this pressure, the rally was cancelled. All those days of hard work did not count at all. Instead of the rally, we decided just to walk with the people. Just be part of the celebration which our Bangladeshi identity gave us right to. Even this was not accepted by the authority and four young men (one of whom we shoot in the documentary) were picked up by the police and interrogated. For hours, Xulhaz kept standing outside the police station to get these young men back to the safety of their houses. He asked all of us not to be near as he knew that we were being watched and he did not want further harm to come upon us. These men were released the same day but the damage was done. Their names became part of social media posts and this made them vulnerable to any radical attacks.
The arrest was just the beginning. After this, every member of the LGBT community in Bangladesh started fearing not just extremist groups but also public authorities. Amidst all this, my partner was forced to leave the country. The lengthy process of securing a visa prevented me from doing the same. This sheds light on how non-global we truly are in the era of globalization. All of the sudden there was a crack in communication among members of the LGBT community with fear taking over us all. On 25 April, I was at a café with a friend when suddenly there was a call. My friend sobbing and the only thing which he could utter was, ‘they attacked Xulhaz”. It was only few minutes later that I came to know the incident which changed the direction of the LGBT community in the Bangladesh. Xulhaz and Tonoy were no more. They were mercilessly hacked to death by extremists in the same house which for years we thought was a safe sanctuary. I would never be able to interact with them. The feeling of pain of losing someone I have known for years combined with the fear that I could be next is hard to describe in words. I remember walking through the streets of Dhanmondi, sobbing loudly not knowing exactly what to do. Just like me, many LGBT community members in our country, did not know how to react. Xulhaz particularly had always been a leader, an advocate for our rights and suddenly he was not there. We lost one of the most prominent LGBT leaders among the only few we have and the void was almost impossible to fill.
After the incident I did not know where to go. My house was no longer safe and I did not want any danger to come upon my friend and hence did not go to his house. My friend dropped me home. I felt that every eye was watching me. Every person seemed as if they were approaching in my direction with the intention to cause harm. Every knock on the door felt as if it might be the last. I broke down once I reached by room. Every memory of my life came back to me. Every moment which led to this particular moment was right in front of me. And so was he, Xulhaz. All I could remember was he caressing my tummy right before the cancelled rally. The thought that this was a nightmare and when I wake up it will be all over was a big mistake. It was just the beginning of a dystopia.