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Naeem Mohaiemen’s Tragic History of the 1970s Left

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, video, 1h 33min. Courtesy the artist
Vijay Prashad sees reflections of the present in Naeem Mohaiemen’s excavation of radical histories.
Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, video, 1h 33min. Courtesy the artist

Naeem Mohaiemen is an archaeologist in search of a future. He digs through the rubble of the past, looking at fragments of the history of the Left, hoping to unearth a jewel here and a potshard there that would open a door to understanding and to social transformation. And Mohaiemen’s past is not far away – he is an archaeologist of the 1970s.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Tripoli Cancelled, 2017, video, 1h 33min. Courtesy the artist

The reappearance of this particular decade – a formative period in the artist’s life – across his numerous films is striking and indicative of a larger project that is still unfolding. Born in London in 1969, Mohaiemen’s family moved from Bangladesh to Libya in 1975 as part of Muammar Qaddafi’s import of skilled labour to build his country. The story of Mohaiemen’s father – the inspiration for Tripoli Cancelled (2017) – is a synecdoche for the decade. On one of his journeys, Mohaiemen’s father is trapped in Athens without a passport. Being caught in limbo is a metaphor for countries such as Libya, or indeed Bangladesh, where Mohaiemen grew up. And just as his father is trapped in Athens, the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) – meeting in Algiers (1973), Colombo (1976) and Havana (1979) – finds itself trapped by the global debt crisis and its relative powerlessness in international negotiations (the theme of Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017). Mohaiemen’s dialectic oscillates from hope to stasis – not at all defeat but volatility.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Two Meetings and a Funeral, 2017, video, 1h 28min. Courtesy the artist

The Young Man Was

Before Tripoli Cancelled and Two Meetings and a Funeral – his two celebrated films of 2017, both focussed on the 70s – was the multi-part project The Young Man Was (2011–16). Who is the Young Man? What was he? Even the title is a fragment. It hints at something, beckons us to follow Mohaiemen into whatever trove of archival film he has dived into, to see if there is anything there that would set us in motion to change history.

The four films in The Young Man Was series give us a few clues to assemble the way Mohaiemen sees the world. The first film, United Red Army (2011), is about a Japan Airlines flight hijacked by the Japanese Red Army in 1977, on a runway at the airport in Dhaka, Bangladesh. An air force chief negotiates with the hijackers. Their conversation is peculiar. The hijackers are eager for the liberation of Palestine, except, as the negotiator tells them, their protest is costing this impoverished new country – Bangladesh having been established only six years before – more than it can afford.

The second film – Afsan’s Long Day (2014) – is just as searching, this time inside the memories of a former leftist, Afsan Chowdhury. The Bangladeshi historian’s diary fragment for Himal magazine in Nepal is quoted in the film and gives Mohaiemen the title for his series: ‘The young man was… no longer a terrorist.’ Chowdhury recounts the police’s surprise at finding Marxist books in his house during a search, sniffing trouble from his beard. ‘History has often testified that the state likes clean shaven men.’ It is likely that Chowdhury may not have known that the Cuban revolutionaries were known as the barbudos, the bearded ones (a phrase that did not please the women among them – Vilma Espín, Celia Sánchez, Teté Puebla and Haydée Santamaria, for starters).

Naeem Mohaiemen, Afsan’s Long Day (The Young Man Was, Part II), 2014,HD video, 40min. Courtesy the artist

The third film – Last Man in Dhaka Central(2015) – is about the Dutch journalist Peter Custers, who was picked up by the new Bangladeshi military regime in 1975. They accused him of being part of an underground Maoist cell. The film is impossible. Custers answers Mohaiemen’s questions elliptically and with many pauses, as the camera keeps us trapped inside Custers’ small apartment in Leiden, the Netherlands. The pace is very slow, the memories overshadowed by Custers’ caution. Decades have gone by and yet Custers is still reluctant to tell the full story of the failed Maoist uprising – whether it was to happen or how his role was exaggerated by a wary state. A few months after the film’s premiere, Custers passed away suddenly– an unexpected coda, leaving the film as an unplanned memorial.

The fourth film – Abu Ammar is Coming (2016) – takes us into the world of a small group of Bangladeshi militants who go off to join the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) in Beirut. We know so little about them: a photograph by Magnum Photos member Chris Steele-Perkins; a conjecture that they may have been conscripts rather than volunteers; or that they may even have been part of migrant labour networks (one survivor, Bilal, ‘has journeyed from fidayeen to underpaid security guard’). It is a six-minute film, and the main image is of five Bangladeshi men in the PLO – four of them looking out of the window, while one looks directly into the camera. He is the one who wants to tell Mohaiemen something. He has the answers that the other films cannot give.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Last Man in Dhaka Central (The Young Man Was, Part III), 2015, HD video, 1h 22min. Courtesy the artist

Dialectical Images

These films are excavations of inconsistent fragments of leftist politics in the 1970s, when Mohaiemen was a little boy. There is never a full narrative. They are fragments, dialectical images, contradictory narrations without full context and analysis, drawing viewers into the past. These pictures search through the rubble of aborted histories to find traces of alternative presents. They are made in such a way as to indicate their great distance from the contemporary moment – the archival footage is usually in black and white, and even Mohaiemen’s own footage seems washed out.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Last Man in Dhaka Central (The Young Man Was, Part III), 2015, HD video, 1h 22min. Courtesy the artist

It is as if all this happened a very long time ago. And indeed, it did. There is a wide gulf that divides the era of decolonisation and national liberation (1945–80) and our own era. It is hard to imagine the United Nations General Assembly today passing a resolution with the kind of forthrightness that defines the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples (Resolution 1514). In that declaration, the UN’s member states said, ‘the process of liberation is irresistible and irreversible’ and that ‘to avoid serious crises, an end must be put to colonialism and all practices of segregation and discrimination’.

Naeem Mohaiemen, Last Man in Dhaka Central (The Young Man Was, Part III), 2015, HD video, 1h 22min. Courtesy the artist

What allowed this confidence was not the taste of defeat, but the frisson of success. It was an enormous feat for countries to win their independence after World War II, often an independence won through great sacrifice by the people. Two decades later much of humanity had been liberated – although key parts of the world remained under colonial dominion. Their freedom, it had become clear, would not be won without armed struggle. Even the most conservative of the states that joined the NAM in 1961 recognised that the Vietnamese people had been willing to come to the negotiation table but had not been taken seriously; only their armed struggle was capable of bending the arrogance of France and the United States. In 1966, the Cuban government welcomed national liberation movements to Havana, where they joined together to establish the Tricontinental (the organisation of solidarity between Africa, Asia and Latin America). Key players in the new formation included Cuba, but also Vietnam and other national liberation movements.

When the national liberation movements came to Havana as part of the Tricontinental, the gun was their focus. Armed struggle seemed the only way to confront the armed power of imperialism. The iconography of the Tricontinental was entirely centred on it – no poster was without the decorative motif of the rifle and the pistol. The gun had given victory to the Chinese in 1949 and to the Cubans in 1959. Defeats because of it had taken place in the Great Lakes region of Africa and in large parts of South America. The gun itself was not the instrument of freedom – it was merely the tactical direction taken after a deep strategic analysis. The armed road would have major successes in the 1970s: in Angola, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique (1974); and Vietnam (1975). It was these movements that defined the era – their armed struggles that led to victory.

Their victories are not inside Mohaiemen’s stories. His is the tale of stasis. Struggles continue to occur, but they seem disorientated. At times, Mohaiemen opens out his aperture – taking in the struggles of the Japanese Red Army and the Palestinian fedayeen. These movements interest Mohaiemen, but only in the films as entry-points for his discussion about Bangladesh, its economic torment and the tragedy of its Left. It is from Bangladesh that we begin our journey, but we end up trapped – like those fighters or migrant workers in Beirut – elsewhere.

Naeem Mohaiemen, United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part I), 2012, HD video, 1h 10min. Courtesy the artist

Concert for Bangladesh

Mohaiemen is a chronicler of Bangladesh. His country was born in 1971, when he was two and away from home. Bangladesh is overdetermined – people believe that they know about it even when they know nothing of it. They see it as a synonym of poverty and hopelessness, a place without politics. Mohaiemen’s films are an antidote to this gaze. Even when they are not set in Bangladesh, they are always about Bangladesh’s political world, a world not only of suffering but of struggle.

In 1970, the year before the nation won its independence, the Bhola cyclone tore through its coastline. Half a million people died, and millions were left destitute. There is something painful about the fact that the cyclone was named ‘Bhola’. It is the name of the area where nature’s power struck, but the word in Bangla means ‘forgetting’. The Pakistan state’s utter failure to protect its citizens during this disaster became a key platform of the nascent Bangladesh nationalist movement, first expressed in the pan-Pakistan elections of 1970. Later, when that election result was not accepted by the Pakistan army, the Bangladesh Liberation War began.

In New York, George Harrison (of The Beatles) and sitar maestro Ravi Shankar discussed the necessity of holding a concert to raise money for the war refugees. Shankar was the son of a man from East Bengal – later Bangladesh. He had an affinity with the people of the region and had read of the people flooding into West Bengal (India), rushing away from the collapse of their world and from the brutality of the Pakistani army that caused it. The Concert for Bangladesh, held in New York City on 1 August 1971, put the graphic violence of poverty and war experienced in this part of Bengal on the map. It also became the template for later charitable concert spectaculars such as Live Aid. At the concert, Bob Dylan sang Allen Ginsberg’s ‘September on Jessore Road’ (1971):

Where are our tears? Who weeps for the pain?
Where can these families go in the rain?
Jessore Road’s children close their big eyes,
Where will we sleep when our father dies?

The parade of images – of poverty, of starvation, of desperation – overwhelms any representation of Bangladesh in the West. There is a straight line that runs from the refugee on Jessore Road – the road from Bangladesh to India – to the dead garment worker underneath the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka. Hope is erased in these images. It does not matter that Bangladesh, thanks to the gift of the garment workers, would become an economic powerhouse, that Chinese and Indian investment would provide the Bangladeshi economy with some heft. It does not matter that Bangladesh’s debt to GDP ratio is a mere 28 per cent, putting it in a better position than Switzerland and the Nordic countries. Bangladesh remained – in the whites of their eyes – as a place of destitution; or as a ‘basket case’, as it was described by the US government in the aftermath of the war. Bangladesh appears as if it must seek salvation from outside, from charity, and that it has no resources to transform itself.

The Bangladeshi elite has a contradictory relationship to these representations. It rankles the elite to be told that Bangladesh is a poor country, which it is not. What the elite does not want to confront is the fact that Bangladesh is a wealthy, but hugely unequal society. The Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics shows routinely that the poorest have a declining share of national income, whereas the richest have an increased share of this income and wealth – a picture of inequality and suffering also emphasised in the work of economist Anu Muhammad. The photographs that come out of the Drik project, led by renowned photographer Shahidul Alam (who was notoriously imprisoned in late 2018 for representing protests in the country), capture not only the inequality but also the social and political solidarity that emerges out of popular struggles. Such representations – of struggle by the people – go back to the early days of the war for Bangladesh. For that too, like this now, was a struggle of ordinary people against powerful institutions.

Naeem Mohaiemen, United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part I), 2012, HD video, 1h 10min. Courtesy the artist

There is a deep howl that comes out of the liberation war of 1971 – the genocidal violence of the Pakistani military, the unacknowledged role of the local collaborators (the Razakars), the scale of death and devastation. Out of this violence came a popular civilian government – led by Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, known affectionately as Bangabandhu or Friend of Bengal. This howl has led to texts of great pain and beauty, including the diaries of Jahanara Imam (Ekattorer Dingulee, 1986), Roma Chowdhury (Ekattorer Janoni, 1986) and Nilima Ibrahim (Amir Birangona Bolchi, 1996), Abdur Rouf Choudhury’s multi-volume novel on Bangladesh’s struggle to be born (Natun Diganta, 1992–94), and the imaginative fiction of Selina Hossain (Hangor Nodi Grenade, 1976). The howl opened with Stop Genocide (1971), the twenty-minute documentary by Zahir Raihan, which utilises the ‘nervous montage’ technique of Cuban film-maker Santiago Álvarez. This literature, with an investment in the future of Bangladesh and the Bangladeshi people, struggles to create its own voice. But, this voice – this authentic voice of the nation – had little opportunity to flourish. The new civilian government was formed in 1972, but it lasted for only a brief moment, until the first military coup in 1975.

Mohaiemen’s work looks into the leftist projects that were incubated in the liberation war, flourished briefly in the first years of the post-liberation government and then fell apart during the long years of military rule (1975–90). Mohaiemen grew up in the shadow of military rule, which denied the civilian role in the liberation war in order to lift up its own legacy, and which denied the genocide to prevent any full accounting of the violence. Neither the patronising Western gaze on Bangladesh nor the military’s suffocating embrace of the nation would be enough. Mohaiemen ferrets in the shadows, looking through the myriad leftist groups and their divergent projects for why they failed to create a powerful movement. When the military dictatorship fell in 1990, popular movements emerged to fight for the creation of a Gono Adalat (people’s court), where it was hoped that the criminals of 1971 would finally be made to narrate the truth. It was in this context that a Bangladesh Liberation War Museum was created in Dhaka and that artists began to reflect openly on the war as well as on the betrayal of its hopes. It is in this context too that Mohaiemen’s entire work must be situated. He is an artist of the post-1990 period, someone who is struggling – like his entire generation in Bangladesh – to reveal the truth about the war and why Bangladesh did not transcend the conditions for the war.

Years ago, Naeem and I talked about the possibility of his writing a book on the history of the Bangladeshi Left. This was long before he made his films, long before he decided to do a PhD in anthropology. How to tell the story of that Left? This was a Left already fragmented, since 1947, by the partition of Bengal between India and Pakistan, when key parts of the Bengali-speaking communist leadership left for or stayed back in West Bengal. Harsh repression on the Pakistan side of the border and discrimination against Bengalis within Pakistan drove the Left into ideological disarray; some sought solace underground with a Maoist-style armed struggle (with some eventual parallels to the Naxalites on the other side of the border), while others looked for a future in linguistic and cultural nationalism. Divided into factions and incapable of leading mass struggles, the Left in East Pakistan (and later in Bangladesh) became marginal.

One wonders why Mohaiemen has not made a film about the ‘Red Maulana’ – Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani. Bhashani began his political career as an anti-imperialist during the time of British rule. In East Pakistan, he organised the peasantry into leftist groups. Bhashani miscalculated the importance of the 1970 election, which he boycotted, and which pushed him into the margins when discussions began over the new Bangladesh’s political order. Here is a figure of promise, but one whose life has become marginal to the country that he helped create. The fiery Red Maulana provided an example of bringing socialism and Islam into political dialogue. But Bhashani’s project slipped away and the Bangladeshi Left remained fragmented.

No wonder that Mohaiemen did not write that book – nor, indeed, does he allow the Bangladeshi Left to take centre stage in his films. It is always there, sitting in the corner, observing whatever he presents, but never walking into the centre and taking charge of the film. The hungry camera in Last Man in Dhaka Central darts around Peter Custers’ apartment, searching for a Left that is hiding in the corners. The fragmented Left is mimicked in Mohaiemen’s fragmentary art. To make a list of the many Bangladeshi leftist organisations – a half-dozen communist parties themselves – would be inadequate. To detail their differences would not help us grasp the problem. A conventional chronicle of the Left, therefore, would be encyclopaedic, but hopeless. Mohaiemen’s method in his films is different. He wants to take hold of the fragments and allow them to breathe.

To chronicle defeat is easy – nostalgia or jubilation, depending on your political orientation, is often the mode. It is far harder to depict the volatility of politics – a political trajectory that is unsettled and unpredictable. The story has not ended, which is why defeat cannot define the argument. Mohaiemen’s films have the air of being unfinished because the history he is working on is unfinished. As Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel famously observed in his Philosophy of Right (1820): ‘The owl of Minerva takes its flight only when the shades of night are gathering’; in other words, the understanding of a historical process is only properly possible when the process has come to a close. When the process is not complete, the mode of the artist has to be as volatile as the historical forces that are being represented. Mohaiemen’s films are unsettled and unpredictable. This is because he has put a mirror to reality.