Auschwitz, Animosity & Present Tense

Samia Tamrin Ahmed24179640926_3f247b8175_o

The sunny day and beautiful open blue skies were out of place at the location we were strolling in. We were at the infamous concentration camp in the Polish town of Oswiecim. Auschwitz was the largest of the German Nazi concentration camps and extermination centers where more than 1.1 million lives were taken. A gloomy winter day with a grey horizon would have been the default setting for such a place. Its proximity to Krakow allowed us to visit the memorial and museum to pay homage. Growing up hearing of horrors of torture, I was wondering if I could digest the gory reality of the place. Yet, it was alright, and we kept walking along the solid buildings with shocking melancholy. 

Nazi concentration camps were known for the gas chambers and torture on Jewish people. At the site I got to know camps were initially built for other political prisoners, homosexuals and gypsies. A pre-visit to the Topography of Terror in Berlin gave some background idea on the systemic targeting of victims. There was a lot of discretion regarding records of newly arrived men and women and lies told about disinfecting their bodies, as if for sacrifice. They were told to take an innocent shower that would indeed kill them. Pictures show how people were judged upon arrival – robust health meant they could be workers in the camp (irrigation or ponds) – imminent death if otherwise. Auschwitz has an extension – Birkenau which has a train track and platform where victims were received towards a horrific destiny. All this was gloomy indeed, no wonder there was a media uproar when a tourist took a selfie at this place in 2014. We sure could not think of doing something like this.
The museum and its exhibits convey long stories of detrimental endings and unbridled suffering. The original buildings are open and conserved to show the living quarters, washrooms and toilets of inmates as well as the office room of the supervising officer. Corridors are lined with photographs of registered prisoners; men and women with shaved head have cagey anxiety on their faces.
It hurt when I stepped into a room full of hair inside a glass enclosure. I felt how human dignity was being snatched from simple people. Gold teeth and artificial limbs were taken off dead prisoners. Shoes and spectacles are piled up in remembrance of lost souls. There are certain quarters prepared just for the children; walking along the claustrophobic wooden bunkers is heartbreaking. If people were not killed immediately, there were other horrible means of inflicting torture. Disobedience meant one could be executed (shooting or acid shot to the heart), hung backwards by tied hands, starved or confined in the ‘dark’ or ‘standing’ cells. Doors to those cells were tiny enough for a small animal – when a person did enter the phone-booth sized cubicle, he was not standing alone in punishment. Four people had to stand all night before another hard day’s work.
I am often bound to acknowledge that a certain place has tortured souls floating around. I look around in silence as if to grasp their presence. Then again, torture has not left us. Think of the schools and abandoned buildings turned to torture cells during our liberation war. In this day and age, Rohingya Muslims face marginalization and eradication, forced to living tormented destinies. Children are subjected to deplorable treatment and torture by adults who were supposed to protect them. War, too has not left us. An Economist report titled, ‘Pits of hell: Assad’s torture dungeons’ retells the fate of Syrians who were tortured and executed. The regime altered sports stadiums, abandoned homes, hospitals and schools into jails in order to silence any form of opposition. Survivors tell horrific tales of atrocities conducted at a systemic level. Amnesty International is running a petition campaign to raise voice on torture prisons in Syria and the shocks, burns, beating and confinement that is commonplace.
Auschwitz the concentration camp is accessible to all, to let generations be aware of horrors of war and discrimination. Memorials exist for placing homage to history and embodying the valuable lesson that torture, conflict, annihilation are elements to be erased from the earth. Despite the existence of the UN Convention against Torture, protection of human rights is a vague concept. Cruelty, perhaps is too deeply ingrained in the human DNA. Before we know it, Saydnaya will be the next Auschwitz.

 

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My Spanish Week

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A Travelogue by Samia Tamrin Ahmed
Anto said to try traveling without a plan and I set my habits free, and before I knew what was happening, I arrived in Madrid slightly unnerved but equally excited.
I bought my lunch of double cake at the food market at Madrid Opera square. A random Egyptian temple is nurtured in the center of the city. I walked along the first Gran Via, seeking wifi signals to steal and a treat of delirious gelato. The cheerful cafes in La Latina seem to mesmerise me even now… there is wisps of romantic charm in the air. The five hour Alsa bus ride gave me a better entertainment than the Qatar Airways I flew into Europe with. I used internet from one screen and listened to music from the one of the next seat that was vacant. But the night that lay ahead was anything but fun; I froze to frustration in the openness of the bus station in 10 degrees weather.
Morning eventually came in Granada and the boy who helped me use the station locker said I was attractive. I laughed and ran away searching for remnants of Muslim Spain in Alhambra. In the ride uphill, the glorious architecture just made me love Andalusia at first sight. The views atop the palaces can never tire you, the flowers in Generalife can never fail your senses.
The second best thing in Granada to me, would be the shape of the street lamps on Gran Via. They are like several cubes clumped together which looked brilliant alongside the golden leaves along the very road.  I know I must return because the hiking trails of Sierra Nevada are waiting, wishing for my curious footprints.
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The streets, palm trees and the gulls in Malaga all charmed me. When I revisit, I shall take a walk by the beach, try the Oasis hostel but Calle Mindanao is better left forgotten and avoided. On another morning I rushed within the gardens of Alcazar .. Someday I must enjoy the maze, English garden and Poet’s garden as arenas of quiet contemplation. I have not done justice to their pristine beauty in this trip but took quick photos to serve memory and earnestly chased the peacocks! Seville is also where the girls of that Oasis hostel room bonded and laughed in happy drunkenness. Eventually their paths diverged, staying true to their unique individual experiences.

That led me to Barcelona sixteen hours later. This is a city where I jumped the metro and got away with it. Gaudi’s signature work enmeshing architecture and natural philosophical ideals adorn the city like a default Dali-esque wallpaper. La Sagrada Familia is truly a special place – a remarkable cathedral and so worth the ticket price! I walked the hills, harbour, beach, and medieval trails alone and later with an old friend who was also randomly in Spain at the same week. With the Swiss-German Camino Santiago walker I had a midpoint lunch after which we switched our paths to opposite ends. And in that last walk I took with the Catalan-Iraqi at 3am, there was a girl getting up from a squat position in the far edges of an important square – after a pee or poop, I do not know which…
I did not pretend to know the language but yes, smiled and spread positive energy in every hola and gracias to the strangers who showed me the way. Finally, I was in a place in Europe where I could walk around without a fat coat in December. I truly enjoyed the hostel experiences. The tapas, UNO rounds, conversations and joyful vibe were part of my trip, although my heart broke again and again seeing those in slumber inside the ATM booths. I love some countries for the friends who live there, friends so very close to me but Spain does not need that excuse for a revisit. I must admit, it stands as a favourite on its own right.

A Bengali in Baku

Bountiful Baku/ Samia Tamrin Ahmed

It was an amusing experience- being a traveler in my magenta kameez-being very out of place with my dark skin, my curious dress attracting strange glances from strangers, as I walked alone.

I was making my lonely walk to enter the walled city for the second time. I followed a street and after five minutes of walking uphill, met with the olden brick walls and eventually one of its gates. Cars were in a queue to enter and I walked right in.  I was about to enter the walled enclosure created in the 12th century in Baku, Azarbaijan, the gem of the Caucasus. It is one of the most random places to have a vacation, but here I was. The opportunist in me stayed back an extra day after my event, to give ample traveling pleasure to my soul. I was in a plaza area which I recognized from the day before. There were vendors selling souvenirs such as the Russian dolls, carpets, key rings, fridge magnets and haggling is necessary.  I followed the labyrinth of narrow streets-looking for where they end up. There were suspicious winding alleys with congested buildings all around and I felt like I would be lost. Then I reminded myself-“I am here to get lost-I have the whole day!” Travel is fun when these almost anxious moments lead on to hidden treasures in every nook and cranny of a strange city.

That is the interesting thing about Baku-the ancient treasures can be explored on foot in a short period of time. Most of it is clustered along the Caspian Sea side. And all roads seemed to lead to the Shirvanshah’s Palace built in atop a hill, built sometime in the fifteenth century. The ruling dynasty of the Shirvan, ie moden day Azarbaijan moved their capital from Shamakha in northern Azerbaijan to Baku in the twelfth century following an earthquake The complex contains the main building of the palace, the burial-vaults, the shah’s mosque with a minaret, Seyid Yahya Bakuvi’s (the dervish) mausoleum, a portal in the  east – Murad’s gate, a reservoir and the remnants of the bath-house; the complex giving an enthralling view over the Caspian Sea. The complex was built over three levels. I think the hammam and its ancient walls on the lowest level captivated me most. I sat on the platform where the stairs begin- running into the underground chambers below-with two (men’s and women’s) sections with small square rooms organized around octagonal halls. I am glad I was embracing a UNESCO World Heritage site in this short visit.

The inner walled city of Baku is such a living, thriving place. There are buildings, offices alongside the ancient monuments, vendors, palace, mosques, etc. There are embassies situated inside, and I found homes of embassy attaches as I walked in the narrow, cobbled alleys. If only I was a diplomat in the midst of heritage like this!

Art in the form of sculptures and fountains adorn the historic roads of Baku. The huge bust of Aliaga Vahid, the Azeri poet is stunning with natural and human forms on the head and neck. There is the Seven Beauties- seven armudu tea glasses piled on top of each other. These traditional glasses are shaped in the way to keep the tea warm in the lower portion. Apparently a prospective groom who gets sugar in his tea in the armudu glasses has gained approval for marriage from the in laws. There is a sculpture of a girl with an umbrella with her cell phone on her ear-right in front of the McDonalds. In fact, young people love hanging out in the Fountain Square area and Torgovaya Street-lined with shops, eateries and whatnot, situated near the old city. Dozens of beautiful fountains are seen throughout the public square first constructed during Soviet rule of Azerbaijan. The Bulvar area is beautifully kept-a popular haunt for families to walk and picnic beside the blue waters of the Caspian.

Azarbaijan was such an important stopover in the silk route trade era.  It was evident from the caravanserais we had seen inside the walled city, Iceri Seher being an important aspect in the olden days of trade and commerce. Funnily, the caravanserai for the Indian origin (Multani) traders faces the one meant for the Christians and Muslims (Bukhara). These were places of rest for the traders and their camels. The country is in a strategic position, with oil resources, providing one fifth of the oil used in the world. One can see many fine buildings from the 19th century “oil boom “period.  The oil barons used their wealth to start institutions of academia, hospitals, etc. The Maiden Tower can be passed while riding on the main street-this is another icon of Baku-a tower built in 8-7 BC, adjacent to the walls. Baku has the world’s tallest flagpole-situated in the Boulevard beside the Caspian Sea, the blue-red and green colours flapping in the wind. Our guide during the city tour explained that red relates to the Turkish identity of the Azeri people, green for Islam as their religion and Blue for the European inclusiveness. It is one of the most liberal Muslim countries, with its Soviet past, Turkish brotherhood and thriving economic growth. Lucky for me, I knew some Turkish words, and I could communicate with strangers with the very few necessities I know.

I found the Azeri cuisine similar to the Turkish homes, especially in their consumption of the dolma-mince meat wrapped in grape leaves. I grew sleepy from the multiple courses we were fed in the conference, beginning with the bread, vegetables, salads, cheese, topped up by the cherry drink that is commonly drunk there. My favourite was a simple roll of kabab inside. There was the steamed dumpling type of food stuffed with greens. A different sort has meat as well. Their biryani has specks of meat and dried fruits, garnished with bread on the sides. I had to overfeed myself to take in all the culinary experience of the Caucasus.

The dances that we had seen, the cuisine, famous mugham music all reflect the colourful spirit of the Azeri people and culture. I may have underestimated the weather of Baku. Baku is known as the “Windy City and the winds did blow us away. It was nice weather at the end of April but the winds made us cover well to avoid the chills. Old and the new are in perfect harmony in this city. The western branded stores are all lined up on the road that leads to the medieval city. Emerging landmark constructions and historic buildings share the space. The beautiful flame towers is the icon of today’s Baku-the red colours look like shimmering fire in the night sky. At other times, the lights on those buildings show the Azarbaijani flag in its tri-colour glory. I was lucky to have ridden the Baku metro with its underground carriages, and had opened in the late 1950s. Getting to Azarbaijan from Bangladesh can be tricky-one has to either get visa from a country with their consulate, or get visa on arrival by coming on an official visit. My gratitude remains to the event organizers and the kindness of the immigrations officers at the entry port. There was intense drama at the Immigrations in Dhaka- I almost got offloaded- now that’s another story!

 

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Bali to Me

Temple Run in Bali/ Samia Tamrin Ahmed

DSCN6120It took me about 70 US cents  to enter Bali by ferry and 50 USD to get out of it (plus some stupid departure tax!). I never in my life imagined going there till last October while making Java plans. I decided to bunk a few more days of work and add Bali to my trip just as well.

The conventional image of Bali is of a party island with unhindered beach time. Bali to me was nothing like that, but contained three days of temple run, monkey rendezvous and my first time diving.

Bali to me was the artsy, Sabai homestay that found us in Ubud, its balcony and the tea time I relished. Its temples in all directions we meticulously planned to see offered beauty- by the lakes, caves and cliffs. Having seen the scams first hand in a temple entrance, my advice would be to check reviews of every temple on Tripadvisor to be slightly more aware.

In the northeast coast a ship wreck lay waiting, for me to dive in and fall in awe all over again with God for some unreal colours painted on fishes. I cannot forget the curiosity of those fishes when they saw my orange-purple rubber band in my hands or the effect of light in a sea bed of volcanic sand.

Bali to me was witness to the countless sunsets and budget meals we chased… and me having to deal with moody silences of a travel buddy. Bali taught us to trust our decisions- the best one being based out of Ubud; the commercial Kuta flavour hardly matched our mood or spirit.

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Bali to me was the culmination of stress and tiredness of a long adventure; could hardly keep my eyes open on that last day. On top of the attack by a naughty monkey at Uluwatu, my glasses were broken and somehow, blindly I found my way home after facing two flights, a night sleeping on the bench at an airport and the crazy Dhaka streets.

One Night in a Volcano

My Ijen Story/ Samia Tamrin Ahmed

Source: Internet

Source: Internet

I was trudging along with the group of people with a guide but was getting distracted by the stars up above.  It is not every day that I am awake at 2-3 AM walking into a volcano with the open sky calling out to appreciate nature so vividly. My friend and I vacationed in Java, Indonesia last October and volcanoes were one of the off-the-track reasons we chose this island. On this very night we were walking into Mount Ijen to watch something called the ‘blue flames’- a rare phenomenon, seen only in Java and Iceland apparently. The sulphuric gases escaping from cracks ignite as they come in contact with the air, causing the blue fire, which now attracts tourists eager for the midnight hiking. When the gases cool down, they are eventually collected as solid sulphur in this mine which are transported in baskets by 200 miners, who we passed being busy on the job.

Coming back to the stars and the open skies, we were on the way to higher altitude to reach the peak of Kawah Ijen, and then to walk into the crater by steps cut out. Climbing up was tough for me, also because I was getting breathless. It felt lonely falling behind our group of travelers. I was panting like a dog, looking up to see the stars and trying to capture the beauty of the moment and also pushing my own mind to move ahead. I was layered up, but felt hot and cold at different moments. This discomfort felt strange.

With torches the guide led the group slowly down by the inside of the mountain. The steps were tiny, so it helped to place our foot parallel to them, climbing down with body kept sideways. I had worn my canvas shoe for this trip yet I never felt it would be a problem. Some hours back, few travelers who came in our car, themselves donned in boots had looked at me sideways asking if I was sure about my shoe. Can I make it inside the volcano in THAT? While following those steps, my belief was reinforced … that it is not about strength or the type of shoe even, but the technique one uses- to climb and to balance oneself. Afterall, the miners walking up and down several times a day hardly wore Adidas! I actually enjoyed this part, it was a fun challenge- watching my step, and calmly making steps grabbing the effective grips available.

PC: Samia

PC: Samia

Watching the blue flames was the objective but the overall experience is nothing short of memorable. In the darkness we reached the crater area and saw the smoke and blue fire. We observed from many angles… we were not too far from those cracks which were the source of the flames. People were warned about sulphur fumes hitting the nose, so everyone made it a point to buy thin gas masks of the types doctors wear for surgery. Somehow, my buddy and I kept putting off this purchase, being the budget travelers we were trying to be; later we realised it is actually not necessary. Only when the wind blows in your direction will the strong, pungent smell hit you. This is, of course the unforgettable smell of bad eggs! I had a scarf to shield my nose when the smell ‘attacked’. This happened more so at a particular section of the crater which was like a cave and there were flames inside.

Light was coming into the sky and I remembered something called morning was about to dawn in. I spent the night in the crater of a volcano – my journey to the center of the earth! The crater lake was now visible; its blue was a brilliant emerald colour, with its concentrated acid content. We followed a slope and came near this water; I took many photos with an enthusiastic group of Korean friends carrying selfie sticks. The same route was taken to return to the car park. Now the last treat was the spectacular mountainous landscape we saw on this stroll back. This was the path where I was panting last night in the dark and now the daylight, trees, grey sand, and the morning sky all felt like magic.

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Most people know Bali when thinking of Indonesia. But Java has some amazing gems that called our adventurous spirit. From Yoguakarta these volcano tours can be booked and options are given for different prices. You can combine Mount Ijen and Mount Bromo tour, with or without the blue flame midnight hike. Tours start at Yogyakarta usually and can end at the ferry station at the end of Java. With less than a dollar and an hour later, you can land in Gilimanuk, in Bali. You may book with any agency but eventually all tours are handled by a monopoly system. The handlers are extremely commercial and have no time to be cordial. The travel infrastructure in Java is still underdeveloped and the attractions quite underrated. I am glad we took the midnight hike to experience the phenomenon that is Mount Ijen. On the downside, my clothes retained the sulphur smell for days!