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A Lot of People Want This Woman Silenced

WASHINGTON POST

You expect a firebrand with flashing eyes and clenched fists, not the gentle woman who opens the door to the nondescript apartment in the dull brick building in a far-flung borough of this city.

It was only four years ago that Taslima Nasrin, the 35-year-old Bangladeshi poet, novelist, feminist and self-proclaimed atheist, stirred Muslim fundamentalists in her homeland to such a pitch of righteous wrath that she had to flee the country. She was widely excoriated as a rabble-rouser, a she-devil, a scourge. Religious zealots issued a fatwa calling for her execution, and from the emotions her public appearances ignited, it seemed there was no shortage of volunteers to carry out the sentence. Even the Bangladeshi government found it expedient to charge her with the crime of blasphemy and confiscate her passport.

Yet the small, plumpish woman who has just opened the door has soft brown eyes and a retiring smile that plays at the corners of her mouth. She is dressed simply in a white short-sleeved blouse and shorts and wears a few pieces of gold jewelry. Her quiet voice hardly seems suited to inflammatory pronouncements.

This is what a scourge looks like?

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“People say to me that I am very gentle and polite,” Nasrin says in the serviceable English that is her second language. (Bengali is her native tongue.) “People who don’t know me, people who just read my books, they think I must be aggressive. They are surprised how I can look like this. I don’t think I have to be aggressive or that I have to shout. What anger I have I can put in my books. I can be very soft, yet strong inside. Aggressiveness doesn’t mean that you are strong.”

Since 1994, Nasrin has lived in exile, behind locked doors in flats like this one--neat but vaguely cheerless places where the inexpensive furniture runs to Formica and bleached wood. Just inside the door, several pairs of shoes are lined up in a row. A noisy air-conditioner in the window pumps a stream of semi-cool air into the room.

At the height of her troubles, Sweden offered her political asylum, and Nasrin has taken refuge in Germany. For a while, when she ventured out in public, she often did so with security guards at her side. International journalists invariably compared her plight to that of author Salman Rushdie, whose 1989 “Satanic Verses” prompted the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to call for his head. In an open letter to Nasrin published in several prominent newspapers, Rushdie urged her to remain steadfast, assuring her that right was on her side.

But Nasrin eventually came to find Sweden “a cold and depressing place.” While her books have proved immensely popular in France, there, too, she feels “out of my culture and out of my language.”

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So 2 1/2 months ago she came to New York, where her younger sister has lived for the past year. Nasrin is here on a tourist visa. She is not seeking asylum, she says. She simply wants to see whether she could live here, adapt to the rhythms of the culture, find the peace and anonymity that would allow her to continue her writing career.

“My face is not going on to the television now, so here I am not known by general, ordinary people,” she says. “That makes me happy. But I do not always feel safe. There are a lot of Muslim fundamentalists here, and I have heard that newspapers in their language say that I am living here or that I have been seen in the subway. Some people recognize me, especially people from the Indian subcontinent. They ask, ‘Are you Taslima?’ And I say, ‘No, I am not Taslima. I look like Taslima. That is all.’ ”

The smile tugs at the corners of her mouth.

“Sometimes, when I come home at night from Manhattan in a taxi, the driver recognizes me and starts to ask me questions,” she continues. “I say, ‘Stop the taxi right away.’ I get out and take another taxi. I just want to move about freely. But I have to be very careful about my address, so that nobody knows it.”

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One thing is certain: Nasrin cannot go home again. She remains persona non grata in Bangladesh, where her trial for blasphemy languishes, unresolved, in the Bangladesh High Court. The fatwa, promising $1,250 to whoever puts her to death, is still in force. (While that sum seems small by Western standards, it is five times the average annual income in the poverty-torn country.) And now Nasrin’s mother is critically ill with colon cancer, which recently spread to her liver. All her lawyers’ attempts to negotiate even a brief visit have proved fruitless.

“I am willing to risk everything,” she says, her voice becoming faint. “But it is not possible. The authorities will not let me in, even though I have the right to go there. They say that the fundamentalists will make trouble if I go back. I will be thrown out from the airport if I try. And my mother is dying. She will die within two weeks. It is so terrible that I can’t see her.”

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Trained as a doctor, Nasrin didn’t make a name for herself until the late 1980s, after she’d begun writing poems and newspaper columns with an ardently feminist point of view. In a country where 80% of the women are illiterate and often little more than chattel, her belief that men and women should be equal was nothing short of revolutionary. And in a country where Islam is the state religion, the sexual imagery of her poems was considered offensive. (“Run! Run!” one of her earliest poems, warns women: “A pack of dogs is after you. Remember rabies. A pack of men is after you. Remember syphilis.”)

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Even more inflammatory are her religious views. Although raised a Muslim (her mother prays constantly for her return to the fold), Nasrin is an atheist and a frank advocate of the secular state. But the match that lighted the tinderbox was her 1993 novel, “Shame.” It was inspired by real-life events, beginning with the destruction of a 16th century mosque in India by Hindu extremists the previous year. In retaliation, Muslim extremists rioted, and the violence quickly spilled over into neighboring Bangladesh.

“Shame,” which came out in October in an American edition published by Prometheus Books, depicts the atrocities that are inflicted upon a fictional Bangladeshi family whose only sin is that they are Hindus living in the path of a Muslim storm. Although hastily written and psychologically rudimentary, the novel was an immediate sensation. Some 60,000 copies were sold in Bangladesh alone before the government banned it. Muslims saw “Shame” as an unforgivable slur on the faith; Hindus read it as a vindication of theirs.

Nasrin insists that the book is meant as a condemnation of religious fanaticism in all its forms. But she did little to quiet the controversy when, in July 1994, she was quoted in a Calcutta newspaper as saying that “the Koran should be revised thoroughly.” She subsequently claimed that she was misquoted and was calling for a revision of Islamic law, not the Muslim holy book itself. But the clarification counted for little. She had to go into hiding. The next month, wrapped from head to toe in a black burkha, the traditional garb of Muslim women, she was spirited out of Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, and flown to Stockholm.

The years of exile have not softened her views, only convinced her that the waters of fanaticism run as wide as they do deep. “Since I have come to Europe, I appear at seminars and lectures,” she says. “When I talk about Muslim fundamentalists, the Christians support me, thinking I am only against Islam. But when they see that I am against all religions, then Christians start to dislike me too. What I discover is that fundamentalism exists in every society. In Bangladesh, it is more visible. That is all.”

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Vocalist Irene Aebi sings into the stand-up microphone. “He is your father. Really, he’s no one to you. He is your brother. Really, he’s no one to you. . . . She is your mother. Really, she’s no one to you. You are alone.”

Behind her, the Steve Lacy Ensemble, six musicians who work the outer fringes of modern jazz, are playing with an absorption that knits their brows and narrows their eyes. The harpsichord thrums insistently. The accordion emits sharp wails. The effect--on a non-initiate, at least--is that of Kurt Weill gone berserk. But the 150 jazz aficionados at the Jewish Community Center in Washington, D.C., where “The Cry,” a song cycle based on a dozen poems by Nasrin, had its American premiere late last month, appear deeply entranced.

The music builds, strident and haunted. “Except for yourself, you have no one, no animal or plant,” sings Aebi. “But as much as you say you are yours, are you really?”

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“The Cry” grew from a single poem by Nasrin, “Happy Marriage,” which Lacy read in the New Yorker three years ago. He immediately set it to music and performed it in Berlin, where, by coincidence, Nasrin then happened to be living. Upon meeting her, he proposed a collaboration--she would recite her poems live before an audience, the musicians would then transform them into jazz. Consciously avoiding political or religious material, Lacy chose to concentrate instead on what he perceived as the timeless story of a woman from youth to old age.

“She is a good poet. She has a genuine gift,” he says. “But it wasn’t an easy collaboration. Everywhere in Berlin we performed, there were police dogs and everything, bomb squads coming every few hours, checking for bombs. In France, too. It was really a big drag. It wasn’t her fault. I think people were overreacting. But she’s a hot subject.”

Nasrin acknowledges that she was uncomfortable onstage, too, so “The Cry” is now performed without her.

Days before the premiere in Washington, she says categorically that she will not attend. She is too busy with other projects to leave New York. She would like to go, of course, but no, she can’t. Impossible.

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Then, just before “The Cry” begins at the Jewish Community Center, she shows up. No one recognizes her. After the performance, Lacy introduces her to the audience, which applauds her warmly.

Later, she explains that a friend persuaded her to go at the last minute. But you wonder. Was she being secretive out of habit, fearful that any advance word about her appearance would cause problems?

“She’s out there in deep water,” says Lacy. “It’s not easy for her to navigate her boat. People want to use her, exploit her, all the time. She’s made to be a spokesman for things she doesn’t really speak for.”

The worst part of the last few years, Nasrin says, is that it has made writing difficult. Her chief source of income is her book royalties, from “Shame” in particular, but the money dwindles.

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“Because of that nightmare--all that I faced in Bangladesh and then being away from my family and friends in a new country--it took me a long time to start writing again,” she says.

Therefore, she places great hopes in her autobiography, which is slated for publication this month in India and before the end of the year in France. Her French translator, Philippe Benoit, a young professor of Bengali at the Sorbonne, has been staying with her in New York the past few weeks, going over the manuscript for the French version. (As yet, no English edition is in the works.)

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Although the autobiography covers the first 15 years of her life, before her political travails began, Benoit believes that its candor will be seen as explosive in Bangladesh. “In the literature of her country, it’s definitely a novelty, something new,” he says. “She confronts a lot of taboos, including sexuality, that just aren’t addressed there. The writing is very strong and open.”

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“Nothing comes from my imagination. What happened, I wrote. I just want to be honest about my life,” says Nasrin, who relates in the book how she came to question the Muslim faith and talks about the indignities inflicted on the household servants, especially the female ones. Among the characters: her dictatorial father, a doctor who regularly tried to beat the rebellion out of her, and a relative who she claims at one point attempted to rape her. But mostly, Benoit says, the book explores the terrible isolation she felt as a girl whose brothers were allowed to scamper freely in the fields while she was confined to the house.

Even the title--"My Girlhood"--is apt to raise eyebrows.

“Actually, in Bengali,” Nasrin explains, “there is a word for boyhood and there is a word for childhood. But there is no word for girlhood. So I made it up. If you say ‘my girlhood’ in English, it is nothing. But if you say it in Bengali, it is a kind of revolution.”

Like so much of Nasrin’s life, context, it would seem, counts for a lot. Fiercely proud of the Bengali language, she frets that her work loses too much in translation. She senses that her appeal is not that of the Indian writer Arundhati Roy, whose poetic memoir, “The God of Small Things,” has been a runaway international bestseller. Nasrin’s words seem to register most forcefully in Bangladesh.

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“For centuries, women have been taught that they are the slaves of men,” she says. “They think that they have to accept the system. And I write in my books and columns that this is oppression and that the system should be changed. What I say is perhaps nothing in Western countries. But in my country, a lot of young girls start to change their lives because of what I wrote.”

Much as Nasrin yearns to go home, she knows that would be possible only if she recanted her views, apologized publicly for her attitudes and put down her pen once and for all. And maybe not even then.

“Even my mother is telling me to beg for forgiveness,” she says. “I love my mother very much and I want to see her. But I won’t do that. I will never do that. I don’t want to see her that way.”

So Taslima Nasrin wanders this city, asking herself if it could ever be a real home for her. And she eyes the throngs in the street, wondering if that is harm she sees in their eyes. Or indifference.

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She drifts to the window of her apartment and looks out. The temperature on this particular day is sweltering, so hot that in a fish market, not far down the street, the fish have begun to stink.

“It is sad,” she says. “I have no country of my own. It is like a bus stop here. All the countries are like bus stops. I am waiting to go back to my homeland. But I can never get a bus that will take me there.”


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