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Zahid's story: For Hosne Ara

STORYCENTER Blog

We are pleased to present posts by StoryCenter staff, storytellers, colleagues from partnering organizations, and thought leaders in Storywork and related fields.

Zahid's story: For Hosne Ara

Emily Paulos

Every year, I celebrate one Eid festival with my mother, and another one with Hosne Ara’s mother.

She has no one except me.   

My father had wanted me to study to be like my grandfather, a great Sufi of Bangladesh. But my passion for my life was different than my father’s.

One rainy morning, against his wishes, I left my sweet home, the village where I was born. I reached the port city of Chittagong, where I began my studies of journalism.

I joined a local newspaper as University Correspondent, then, the country’s premier English Daily – The Bangladesh Observer.

I loved working for repressed people. If I heard any cry from any corner, I ran towards them, listened their sufferings attentively, took pictures and wrote news story. It was my long awaited dream.

In school we were told to observe. To write. To stay detached.

But this is not my way.

I was assigned to investigate an acid burnt housewife at the nearby hospital. Because her family couldn’t afford the high dowry, her mother-in-law threw acid on her body…

I went there with the guise of being her cousin.

Hosne Ara’s body was 80 percent burned, except her mouth, and two shiny eyes. What I saw was not a human being, but rather, an alive roast.

But she was fully conscious and able to talk. She tried to extend her hands towards me, but couldn’t.

Urging me, Bhaia (brother), please write for me that those doctors would not help. I want justice, and please don’t forget my mother…

Suddenly, a physician came to interrogate me and called his colleagues. Later, I learned he was the relative of Hosne Ara’s mother in law, and didn’t intend to disclose the information about the incident to the media.

They took my bag, discovering that I am a journalist.

In a separate room they beat me until I was senseless, tied my hands and left. They returned and broke my left hand and right leg with an iron rod. I floated in blood. Someone suggested hanging me from the ceiling fan. They tightened my neck with the bed cover and were attempting to tie it to the fan, when the police broke down the door.

The journalism community burst out in protest. Every newspaper, television channel and radio station published and broadcast news of the incident. My colleagues filed a case with the police.

But the doctors filed two cases against me. I was harassed.

After a long recovery, I returned to my newspaper office, only to be dismissed without concern. I learned later a bribe was involved.

Again, I was threatened, so I fled, leaving everything… my computer, bed, books…

…and my sweet dream. 

I cried all the way to Dhaka. 

My face was too familiar, and no newspaper would hire me.

Still, I couldn’t forget Hosne Ara, the housewife who died for lack of a dowry, and with no medical care. 

With some activist friends, we knocked door to door for her justice. I gave up my own case to fight hers. In late 2008, a judge finally gave the verdict.

But the soil of Bangladesh is still not safe for the housewife.

Or the journalist,

…Like me.

For Zahid – by Allison Myers,Southwest Region Director

Zahid knew to take the last turn in the story circle. When he finished talking, no one said anything for what felt like 10 heavy minutes. 

When he handed me a script, it was almost 2000 words.

I remember taking a deep breath.

First, I have to paint the scene. We were in Bangladesh working with storytellers representing various NGOs from South Asia.  Every workshop has interesting twists and challenges- quirky technology keeps you hopping, or stories hold onto you for weeks afterwards, but this workshop was the ultimate opportunity for me to practice presence… in chaos.

With seemingly endless tea breaks cutting into production time, incessantly honking horns that made clean audio recording tricky - even on the 15th floor, multiple power outages taking out unsaved edits, and a national strike that left us a day short, it was a miracle we finished with 10 wonderful stories, or finished at all. 

The intensity of Zahid’s perseverance and desire to tell his story, walking again through this traumatic saga that he had never fully shared, was striking. A lot was at stake.

Overcoming our language barrier, we talked through his story in a lengthy interview process.

I typed while he talked.

He told me his father wanted him to be a Sufi holy man, laughing when he said all he wanted was to be a journalist.

I wrote that down. 

He asked me to edit the draft for him overnight. I felt the weight as a facilitator, (that I think we should never take lightly)of walking the sacred line between helping someone through a difficult story, and having my fingers in it. Our handprints are inextricably on the stories, by the questions we ask, the way we respond, and the choices we help the storyteller make.

And we have to tread so lightly. 

The best I had to offer Zahid, was my presence. It seemed my most important task was to support him in walking through to the other side of his story.

And here’s a glimpse of the other side.

He had invited about 30 journalists and peers to the workshop screening of the stories.

But with the long script, the lost day, the language barriers, the challenges of finding a compelling way to illustrate the story, and the power outages, Zahid’s story was nowhere near complete. The screening was in thirty minutes.

But we both knew that the talking and the writing had only taken him half way. He needed to come full circle. And there was an audience of his professional peers- the journalism community that had supported him, and also rejected him - waiting in the other room while we sweated it out, literally, at an ever-crashing computer.

His story was played last- with huge gaps in the visuals, the music too low.

But after the last note of Hari Prasad’s haunting flute faded out on his audio, the room was silent for the second time that week.

This time I held my breath.

Then suddenly, the crowd leapt to their feet, exploding in applause.

Zahid stood before his peers and openly wept.

And it dawned on me, that this was a holy moment, for Zahid the journalist… the holy man,

and also for me.

This workshop was part of a project funded by the Affiliated Networks for Social Accountability (ANSA) South Asia Region (ANSA-SAR) and coordinated from the Institute of Governance Studies, BRAC University, Dhaka. ANSA is an initiative to promote, strengthen and sustain social accountability knowledge and praxis globally. Participants in the project were from Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, India & Nepal.

Zahid now works as a Training Specialist at JATRI (Journalism Training & Research Initiative), which is devoted to improving the state of journalism in Bangladesh by providing training and support to journalists and to researchers investigating social and economic issues of importance to society.