How many mosques are there in Dhaka - Dialogue with the Islamic World

Bangladesh is one of the regions of the world that is most severely affected by climate change: the rise in sea levels is threatening large parts of the coastal regions in the south. Cyclones are robbing hundreds of thousands of people of their existence at ever shorter intervals. In the north, the old peasant rules are no longer in force.

Over half of the people of Bangladesh make a living from agriculture and nobody can tell when monsoons and floods will come, how long they will stay and how strong they will be. The population has hardly contributed to global warming: The per capita emissions of CO² are less than 0.5 tonnes per year, in Western Europe it is 15, in the USA it is even 20 tonnes.

The effects of global warming are an important factor in internal migration. Many are drawn to the capital Dhaka because they want to start a new life there: in the textile industry, on construction sites, as garbage collectors or rickshaw drivers. According to official information, 2000 people move in every day. The 14 million metropolis is already bursting at the seams.

For example, even the hundreds of mosques in Dhaka do not hold all believers for Friday prayers. Therefore, around noon, the Mirpur Road, one of the most important main roads, will be closed to a single lane. The faithful then kneel in long rows on their carpets, sounded by large loudspeakers, and offer their prayers in the street.

When the muezzin calls at five in the morning, the city of twelve million people wakes up to hectic life. It is also the end of the night's sleep for the many homeless people who cannot lie down to sleep on the roadsides and in niches until around midnight because there is no space there during the day. They quickly pack up their modest belongings, often nothing more than a blanket, a couple of tin pots or a tool that they need as day laborers on one of the countless construction sites.

Many newcomers are among them. They have not yet found a place to stay in southern Dhaka, where most of the slums are. The poor districts south of the Buriganga River, which divides the city in half, are also called "Asia" by the residents of Dhaka.

Life in the slum

Jahangir Alam lives in Muhammadpur, a district in the western center of Dhaka, so in "Asia". The closer you get to the Buriganga River with its stinking black water, the poorer the dwellings are. Bosila is the name of the slum cluster in which, besides Jahangir Alam and his wife Farida, about 500 families live. They call the wealthier districts in the north "Europe". The skyscrapers there are massive, many have an elevator and a large parking lot in the basement. Large four-wheel drive SUVs are a special status symbol.

Jahangir Alam and Farida are newcomers and have at least been better off than those who have to spend the night on the sidewalks and at the roadside. But in contrast to the other huts in the slum, which stand on wooden stilts to protect them from the annual flooding, the two of them live on a six-square-meter area directly on the ground, which is only barely covered with a plastic tarpaulin. Your belongings consist of a couple of blankets, two plastic buckets for the water supply, a basket and a few tin containers.

They married their twelve-year-old daughter to Gazipur, a city north of Dhaka, because they think that their new place of residence is too dangerous for the girl. Because they didn't have enough money, they sent their two younger sons to work: one was hired as an assistant on a large ferry, the other in a vegetable shop in Gazipur. They don't earn any money there, but they get free board and lodging. Farida and Jahangir Alam only have the opportunity to see their children every three to four months. In their old home on the Bhola Peninsula in the delta of the gigantic Meghna River, the children went to school and lived with their parents.

"Twenty years ago I lost my first house, back then I was working as a fisherman," says Jahangir Alam, "then three years later the river washed away my second house, and seven months ago my third". After losing the second house on Bhola, he had already started to earn his living with a cycle rickshaw. In Dhaka, too, he pedals to earn a living.

Dust, smog and sweat

It's hard work: The three-wheeled vehicles have a loading surface or a seat. They are actually intended for two passengers, but sometimes entire families ride a rickshaw. Then the gaunt Jahangir Alam must literally exert himself in order to move forward. Although he earns a little more with his work in Dhaka than on the peninsula, life is also much more expensive.

"In Dhaka you have to buy everything, e.g. water, but in Bhola you didn't have to pay anything, neither for water nor for the land you lived on; almost everything was free," Alam recalls. The many people and the narrowness of Dhaka are uncomfortable for him, as well as the long walks over dusty streets and through thick smog. "Sometimes it takes me two hours to get to the part of town where I work". In summer it is often unbearably hot and there is no fresh sea breeze like on the peninsula. "When I step on the rickshaw, I sweat like crazy - that never happened to me on Bhola," said Alam.

There is no privacy in the slum. The next latrines are half a kilometer away. "During the day this is a problem for my wife in particular, at night we just go out and do our business," says Alam. A power plant is buzzing in the middle of Bosila, but the electricity only supplies the more distant middle-class building complexes.

Everything in the slum runs on batteries, sometimes also on small generators. For his little hut, Jahangir Alam has to pay a third of his monthly income for rent as well as for using the well and the latrines one kilometer away. But this place is threatened. "The landowner wants to build houses here, then we have to vacate our little hut".

Cars have right of way

Sometimes Jahangir Alam goes to the tea room on the main street. A television runs continuously here, which is drowned out again and again by the loud engines of the passing trucks. If he wants to talk to neighbors and colleagues here, they almost have to yell at each other to drown out the deafening background noise.

"There are more and more cars and buses in Dhaka and they are clogging the streets," Alam complains. Sometimes the "gentlemen of the street" also get violent. "If drivers think we did something wrong - for example, setting an example too late, they sometimes get out and beat us up." Alam fears the worst: "Soon Dhaka will be so full of cars that there will be no more space for us rickshaw drivers."

His concern is not unjustified: since the end of the 1990s, the World Bank, among others, has been funding projects to develop the traffic system in Dhaka. Although 80 percent of the residents get around the city on foot or by bicycle rickshaw, traffic is to be expanded to make it car-friendly. A driving ban was imposed on the most important main roads in Dhakas, of all places, for the environmentally friendly rickshaws.

The result: In addition to increased environmental pollution from exhaust fumes, the average income for rickshaw drivers has fallen by more than 30 percent. "No fuel and many jobs: Sustainable transport - no gasoline and many jobs: This is sustainable transport" is the motto with which a non-governmental organization wants to rehabilitate rickshaw drivers. This initiative has little chance of success, because the lobby of wealthy motorists, the consumer promises of the advertising industry and the profit expectations of the car companies determine politics.

A couple of geese cackle in front of the dwelling of Jahangir Alam and his wife Farida. Children play and scream, a neighbor chops up an old piece of furniture in order to burn it. It smells of treated wood and burnt plastic. Jahangir Alam longs to return to his old home. Although he can neither read nor write, he knows who is to blame for his odyssey.

"Because of the industry and the many cars, the climate is getting hotter, that's why the current is getting stronger, that's why our country is disappearing," said Alam. He wants to go back to his relatives and friends in Bhola. "We didn't want to make this sacrifice, we wanted to stay on our island."

For Jahangir Alam and many others, Dhaka is a terminus. Continuing the odyssey, for example with an escape to nearby India, has become life-threatening compared to before. Because the Indian border guards shoot sharply when they see someone who wants to cross the green border. In addition, the Indian government has had the fences put under high voltage for a number of years. "Shot at the border," it says regularly in the Bangladeshi newspapers. It happens so often that it is usually only worth a brief message to the editors.

Dominik Müller

© 2021