“Anwar”: Subversive Art in a Brutal Culture

 

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“Anwar” is an artist living in Bangladesh. He contacted me after I wrote about Chechnya. Over the course of the last 10 days I’ve spoken to him quite a few times. He’s bright and kind and talented. “Anwar” worked as a designer for Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s first and only LGBT lifestyle magazine. Two prominent LGBT activists (the editors and publishers of Roopbaan) Xulhaz Mannan and Tonoy Mahbub, were hacked to death in their home by religious extremists. Bangladesh legally suppresses the rights of homosexuals, and turns a blind eye to anti-gay violence.

Here are excerpts from our conversations, juxtaposed with art he made last year which he can not exhibit in his home country:

Him: My name is “Anwar.” Please don’t mention my real name. I live in Bangladesh. I’m an artist. I love to do LGBT related artwork, but it’s impossible for me to show my work in public here.

Me: Tell me what it’s like to be gay in Bangladesh?

Him: On April 25 2016, two of my friends were killed for gay activism. I used to work with them. They were very vocal online and published a gay magazine. Extremists followed them to their house. Four men entered the house and killed them with machetes. One of them was the editor of the first LGBT magazine in Bangladesh. I was the designer of that magazine.

Me: What are the laws like in Bangladesh, for gay people?

Him: Act 377 still active here. It’s an old Colonial British Law which criminalizes any gay activity.

Me: Don’t worry, then. I won’t divulge your real name. But, maybe I could help tell part of your story? Also, I’d like to share some of the art you can’t exhibit.

Him: I would like that. I limited my lifestyle after that incident. Now, I hardly go out unless it’s important. I’m scared all the time, even in my home.

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Me: Why are you scared in your home? Do people know you’re gay?

Him: Not my family. My family is very religious. We all live together.  Two of my brothers, their wives, children, both my parents in one apartment.

Me: But you still felt afraid to leave the house?

Him: Yes… most of the time. Especially in the daylight hours. Most of my friends left the country. Very few stayed.

Me: Tell me about the magazine?

Him: It was a small community. People were already afraid to be in the community before the incident happened on 25th April 2016. We launched the Magazine ‘Roopbaan’ in 2014 It was a monthly magazine. There was extreme backlash over the first issue. The government threatened us to shut down. The Prime minister was outraged. One of our close friends works in the Prime ministers office. He saw her face when they submitted the magazine on her table. It was not popular, but it was the most talked about subject at that time.

Me: What kind of content did the magazine have?

Him: Community lifestyle.

Me: So, not pornography?

Him: Oh god no – we’d all be dead!

Me: They would kill you for publishing pornography.

Him: For gay porn you would certainly die. Pornography publication is also illegal, but there’s thousands of straight porn titles on the black market. Things got worse after gay marriage was allowed in the United States. The first two or three days was awesome, when it hit on Facebook. People changed their profile photos [to support LGBT equality.] Then one Bangladeshi atheist, who lives in Germany now, posted a photo of the Pride Flag covering the Kaba, Macca, (a holy place for Muslims) and people were outraged.  I knew then we were finished. All these decades of work, vanished within a second.

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Me: It sounds like you’re angry at him?

Him: I’m fucking outraged at that bastard .

Me: Are you an atheist?

Him: Not really, but I’m not too religious.

Me: So, on some level, you still believe in Islam?

Him: Yeah … at least I want to buried in the Islamic way. So, the second issue of the magazine – we almost couldn’t find a press that would print it, and when we did it had to be done with extreme secrecy. The extremists were angry. The government was angry. Nobody wanted to risk it. The second issue was only 500 copies.

Me: 500 copies? That was enough to raise the anger of the Prime Minister?

Him: It wasn’t the quantity of magazines. It was that we existed at all that made everyone angry.

Me: How did this come about?

Him: I met a man at an art gallery opening and we wondered about each other. The gay radar, as we say. Then he approached me on a local site everyone uses to meet up.

Me: So you met a community of gay activists through this site?

Him: Yeah, that’s right. Well, also the gay community here in Dhaka is very small. Maybe 500 people in total.

Me: So how did Roopbaan magazine evolve?

Him: Xulhaz, the man who would become the publisher of the magazine, would host parties or get together several times a year. Xulhaz was a very respected person in the community at large, too. He worked at the US embassy, so that always helps. He was a good person. He always made sure everyone was comfortable in his house. In our country, we do have class racism. People are always judged by their appearance. Xulhaz was totally free from that bullshit.  He talked with everyone in the community and hugged everyone with care. I miss that so much now.

Roopbaan’s editor asked me if I had time for the design work. At that time, I was working three jobs. People in the community sometimes laughed at me because I never hung out with anybody. They said I was married to my work. I gave up one of my three jobs, actually, to work on Roopbaan for free.

Me: Okay, so then what happened?

Him: Then, amid all the stress of these two controversial issues, I had a heart attack. I had been working insane hours. Three jobs.  I was planning to have a small office of my own. My bank account went totally nil after the heart attack. I was saving all for the future office. It’s hard, really hard to save money, because you can’t earn more here. The payment for work is really small. All those hours I worked, I hardly earn 700 to 800 US dollar a month. Which was actually twice of my older brother, who is a doctor and works in private hospital.

All of the members of the Roopbaan magazine family came to see me in my sisters house. I stayed in my sister’s house after the heart attack for a month.  They came separately, not all at once. Xulhaz was very careful about this. You know what happens when a bunch of gay guys meet! Chatting gets fabulously loud!

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Xulhaz… was very careful about the content. Not a single topic could clash with our religion. Xulhaz was an atheist but he never hated religious people. There are few people  in Roopbaan team who, when it was prayer time, they prayed in Xulhaz’s house. Xulhaz always kept a prayer rug in his room.

After the publication, people started talking more about the community. Facebook trolls, people mocking the magazine. Mocking the community. People in Bangladesh were disgusted by gay people. People wished death and torture upon us.

The day that attack happened, I was in my house doing some graphic work for some exhibition. Someone on Facebook told me about the slaughter of my two friends. Then within a few hours, the TV channels and online newspapers ran the story.

I tried to contact everyone I knew from the community; most of them deactivated their accounts. We scattered. The openly gay people left the country. I tried to get a Polish or German visa, even borrowed money to try so show I had assets but I couldn’t get an exit Visa. Welcome to the third world – you can’t even get a tourist visa without lots of money, or property. 

After the attack, most people I know from community deactivated their Facebook accounts. After 2 or 3 days, I did that too. That was the most stupid decision I ever made in my life.

I couldn’t reach anyone over phone. All phones were off.

After deactivated my account, a few people I used to know were curious about me. I had to decline when they tried to friend me. Worst part of my life.

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All of my family member knew I worked with Xulhaz. The next day, all the newspaper reports that the editor of the gay magazine was hacked to death. Everyone read it in the newspaper. My brothers and sister knew that I worked with them.

My older brother had to change the locks on our house. My siblings were afraid I would be targeted. I was scared, still am, to cry for my friends. After a week, my sister asked me why I worked with them. She strongly told me not to pay any respect to these types of people. And that it’s “OK TO BEHEAD THESE TYPES OF PEOPLE”

All of my body screamed inside! Couldn’t make a sound.

Me: I’m interested in how it makes you feel, to have part of yourself your family can never know about…

Him: Yeah … it’s hurts so bad. My community was the only place where I could breathe freely. Now it’s almost gone. Moving to another city won’t help, either. Dhaka is the only city I can work and be with my family. Also, I can’t afford the cost of living in another city without my family.

Me: What’s the political climate like there for homosexuals? Do you have any rights?

Him: There are no rights for LGBT people. Period.

Me: Do you have some sort of artist’s statement about your work?

Him: Sexual fantasy is a big part of my life.  Because of living in a very conservative family, sex was always forbidden before marriage. The gap of real life experience took over inside the fantasy. I was obsessed with erotic photos online. But, those photos to me are too exposed. I like to hide the color in my imagination. The shapes of those male figures, the moves make me excited to run through those lines. No matter how the line curves or breaks or stuck in a loop, I always find myself to follow the new lines and my imagination keeps moving.

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Me: So, your community has been decimated, and those who were wealthy enough have moved to Europe. Do you think you might be able to leave the country and seek political asylum?

Him: I’m sorry to say asylum isn’t an option for me. It’s not respected, and I couldn’t do that to my family.

Me: Surely there must be some sort of community there still? Are you completely cut off?

Him: I can’t show my work – that’s out of the question. I have at least 100 outwardly homophobic people in my social media network. Most people either don’t know, don’t care, or worse – support what is happening right now in Chechnya. That’s life here. You know, a man thinks you should die for who you are, and you have to smile and shake his hand like it’s nothing.

Me: Yes. It’s not as bad here but there are similar situations. You can legislate things like marriage equality, but you can not make people stop hating you.

Him: So for now, most everything is very much underground. That’s just how life is. It’s the reality of living as a gay man in Bangladesh. There is a memorial for the two community leaders who were brutally murdered. Obviously, the police did nothing besides file the necessary paperwork. But, maybe I’ll see some old friends at the service. That would be nice. This has set our community back 20 years at least… I originally designed the hand print logo with the whole rainbow flag, but I had to narrow it down to the blue and purple in order to display it. Even the rainbow is too dramatic to show in public. Unfortunately, that’s what we’re dealing with…

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