The stranger in the orange kameez

I include fiction and short stories based on fact in this section of the Hearth from time to time. This story is one that really happened though it is told here from an uncommon perspective.

In Dhaka there is a small area of square blocks with a grid of paved roads between them. Each block is surrounded by a high wall topped with razor wire and guarded by several weathered men. This is the Embassy District. Many wealthier Bangladeshis live here as well but a good portion of the houses are inhabited by foreigners--embassy personal, aid workers, scientists and the like.

One day near the beginning of the dry season a girl walked out of the district wearing striped orange kameez, the long tunic over blousy cotton pants favored by more progressive women in the city. The matching orange scarf was looped casually over her head, respectful enough but not quite right in its folds.

At the edge of the Embassy District stands the imposing red brick edifice of the American Embassy, the largest US embassy in the world. Because Bangladesh is considered a difficult country for Americans to work in, almost everything the staff needs is actually inside the embassy itself. And almost no American comes to Bangladesh without some tie to the embassy. 

Beyond the embassy there is an open space of several hundred yards where no one is allowed to build. This is a Muslim country after all, though not a particularly extreme one. The embassy requires security. But half way across the security buffer little garden plots have sprung up. Workers tend them in the hot sun, heads hidden under round conical hats.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

On this day, the conical hats tipped and bobbed as everyone tried to get a glimpse of the strange girl in the orange kameez. Almost no one left the Embassy District by this muddy track headed toward the vast slums housing millions of the nameless, hopeless poor--people uprooted from rural areas by floods, starvation and disease and tossed at the edge of the city like so much garbage. A few of the luckiest residents of the slums were hired as gardeners, cleaners or other laborers in the district. Thus the need for the muddy track. But almost no one came the other way, let alone an unescorted girl. 

The peering eyes took her in--uncomfortable in the local attire, her face pink from too much sun and not enough pigment. She carried no bag but something bulged inside her scarf, carried on her chest. 

She walked slowly and smiled at everyone. They smiled back. It is good if a foreigner smiles. Then she lifted the scarf to reveal a sleek black camera. She took the cap off of the lens and nodded toward two of the workers in a nearby garden. Her eyebrows arched in question. They grinned and stood up, walking toward her through the small garden. Several other workers followed from nearby plots. And four young men ran down the road to join them. People in the slums love cameras and they love posing for pictures.

But the girl's face changed. Now she looked dismayed and she waved at the workers to go back. She gesticulated and tried a few halting words of Bangla, "No come... Yes work... I please." The workers laughed and jostled one another. A foreigner--European foreigner no less--who spoke Bangla no matter how badly. This was a true wonder, something to break the monotony of the day.

But they could not make out what she wanted. She wanted to take a picture. They were willing. But she was now unhappy. Some moved slowly back to work. Others stood waiting to see what she would do. The four young men ran around her in circles on the muddy track. 

Finally the girl's face firmed with decision. She turned her back on the workers and lifted the camera toward the far horizon, away from the slums and back toward the embassy district. She seemed to be taking a picture of the great brick wall around the American Embassy. The workers sighed. She was not interested in them after all. Of course, the embassy wall was something much greater. They straggled back to their plots and even the young men looked disappointed and ran back down the road toward the slum. 

The girl peered over her shoulder, smiled and turned back to her study of the horizon. She did not actually take any pictures. She only waited. 

Then when the scene had cleared she turned back around and framed two of the workers in her lens. Their conical hats and quick hands were delightful. She was about to take that first beautiful picture when an angry shout split the morning sunshine, "Stop or we'll shoot!"

Half a dozen soldiers were running down the track from the embassy. They each carried a heavy machine gun.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

The girl's hand's jerked and she would have dropped the camera had it not been on a strap around her neck. She was not prepared and she did not run. The workers ran and the children playing in the ditch flattened themselves into mud. They knew what was good for them and being noticed by the soldiers was no part of it.  

The girl was surrounded by the soldiers before she took even two steps. The lead soldier demanded her camera in broken English. The girl trembled a little but tried to protest. "I'm American," she said, gesturing toward the embassy wall. "I am a tourist. You can't take my camera."

The lead soldier looked a little less sure. "You come," he demanded. The soldiers formed up around the girl and marched back to the embassy. The workers and the children looked after them, relieved and a little confused about the girl. She clearly did not belong here.

In front of the embassy the soldiers met the Americans. They were men dressed in black pants and white shirts. They had black ties and black sunglasses. They looked like pictures from the American magazines that the workers from the slums sometimes found in the trash. They too demanded the girl's camera. She finally gave it to them along with a small blue book that she took out of a pocket hidden inside her kameez. One of the American's put it in his own pocket.

"You need to answer some questions," he said. "You cannot take pictures of the embassy."

"But I wasn't taking pictures of the embassy," the girl protested. "I was only trying to distract the crowd so that I could get a picture of the people working in the garden." 

The man in black sunglasses did not look convinced, but no one could really tell. His face looked like stone beneath the glasses. But the soldiers took their positions again. Two American soldiers, in the crisper uniforms than those of the Bangladeshi soldiers, came and stood behind the man and the girl. And they all walked into the embassy together. It was not clear if the girl was a prisoner or if she belonged there. She suddenly moved like someone who belonged, swinging her hips and chatting with the man in sunglasses, thickening her western accent a bit and making as many American references as she could come up with on short notice.

It won her nothing. She was taken inside and then the man opened a door for her, as if to courteously let her go in first. The girl, expecting a conference room or at most an imposing office with a heavy wooden desk, walked in without hesitation. But the man did not follow. Instead, he slammed the door behind her. And the girl found herself in complete darkness.

The first sound she made was wordless--a cry of shock and fear. The room had been built to inspire just these feelings, though it was usually used to interrogate Bangladeshis. No foreigner ever went where the girl had gone. 

A strong light came on with a snap and the audible hum of electricity. The girl could not see anymore than she could in the dark. She put her hand up and squeezed her eyes shut. 

"Who are you?"

"Where are you from?"

"Who do you work for?" 

"Why were you taking pictures of the embassy?"

Again the girl insisted that she was not. She told about the excited people in the gardens, how she had wanted a nice pastoral picture. She had only vaguely recalled where the American Embassy was. She had not thought it through.

"Where is your residence?"

"Why are you in Bangladesh?"

"For how long?" 

The questions continued like the beat of an ominous drum. The girl answered and insisted she was a "tourist." She was in essence telling the truth, but it was such a strange truth that it was not believed. She wanted to see Bangladesh. She had a friend she could stay with in the Embassy District.

"Who? What friend? What is his name?"

The girl's answers were coming between hiccuping sobs now. She was properly terrified. But finally she gave the answer that mattered--the only one that mattered. "Oh, my friend is the medical director at the embassy. He has to be here. Ask him. He'll tell you I'm not lying." 

A quick phone call confirmed the girl's story. The men in black sunglasses came and let her out of the dark room. They handed her back the camera and the little blue book. They even apologized. She nodded, blinking back tears, trying to pretend it was all just fine. She understood. Terrorism and all that.

The only thing the men in sunglasses couldn't understand was why she had not given the name of her friend at the embassy first thing. The truth was that her presence here was just as strange in the American world as it was in the Bangladeshi world--impossible really. She had never before been in a position to drop a name. She was not of that class.

The girl walked out of the embassy and back to the muddy track. Several of the workers saw her and they were surprised. No one came back out of the embassy that quickly. It was scarcely noon.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

She stood in the middle of the track. Her hands shook. She looked back toward the square blocks of the embassy district. But then her mouth firmed into a determined line and she turned her feet again toward the slums. This time she kept her camera well hidden under the scarf. 

She walked in among the low cardboard and sheet-metal homes of Dhaka's poor. The lane leading to the muddy track from the Embassy District was fairly wide and moderately straight. The girl glanced into the side allies, teaming with children and trash heaps. But she pressed on for some distance, deeper into the slum. A gaggle of children followed her, laughing and speculating on why she had come and whether she might give them some money or even take their picture.

Finally she came to a little market set up at the meeting of three of the larger alleyways. Several people sold vegetables, fruit and cheap clothing from stands there. The girl peered curiously at the produce, but she didn't seem to have any money. Finally she smiled at one seller, who smiled back. And she lifted her camera and took a couple of tentative pictures. The children pressed forward, waving excitedly. To be in a picture was good luck. It meant you were someone and your picture would be there forever, somewhere in the world of the rich.

Then there was a low growl behind the children. "Scat! You filth! Move out!" 

The little market was ruled by a slum gang. The sellers paid them for the right to sell and for protection from the hordes of thieves in the slums. And the gang mostly left the sellers in peace. But none of them, not the gang nor the sellers paid any taxes or tribute to the more powerful city gangs, and the gang bosses did not want any outsiders taking notice. 

This girl had a reason for coming here, an uncommon reason. No one from the Embassy District came to the slums without a damn good reason. The gang leaders were sure of that.

The children scattered before the growling voice, all but one little girl, who crouched down behind a barrel by one of the stands. This girl's name was Minara and she was eight years old. She wore a shift with a faded red and white pattern and nothing on her feet. She was too intrigued by this tall, sun-haired lady in the orange kameez to be scared away.

Minara had never seen anyone like this. The women she knew were small and stooped, scurrying across alleys furtively and always working. They never had time to play and they lowered their eyes before men.

This lady was taller than the men, even taller than the men of the gang. They crowded in around her--a dozen gang members and two dozen more of their supporters and those who owed them something. Minara sucked at a strand of her tangled hair.

"You don't belong here! Go away!" one of the gang enforcers stood in front of the tall foreign lady and shouted at her. Sellers and costumers alike vanished from the market, ducking their heads and hitching up their clothing to run. 

"Why did you come?  You have no business here!" Another man made a fist at the lady.

Minara couldn't decide if she was really a lady or an oversized girl. Her face was unmarked and smooth. And her expression was one of interested amusement rather than exhaustion and fear. 

The overgrown girl turned around in a half circle, looking at the men who suddenly surrounded her and possibly looking for an escape, though she looked more confused than frightened. 

"Take her camera!" a voice called from back in the crowd. "See what kind of pictures she's been taking."

Minara stood up from behind her barrel and slipped between two of the men. She thought this lady or girl or whatever she was should not be here. The men were angry and it is never a good idea to make the men angry. Minara was now the only women around, and her mother had often told her that the oldest woman around was the one who had to take responsibility.

So, Minara reached out her slim hand and slipped it inside the hand of the strange lady just as the front line of men took a threatening step forward and two of them put their hands out to grasp at the camera.

The first man who had shouted--a gang leader, Minara knew--shifted his gaze down to the child. 

When Minara spoke her voice was a quiet rasp, but the man saw her lips move. "She's only lost. A silly girl."  

He stopped shouting and stood still. All the other men were looking at him and they stopped as well. The lady beside Minara jerked with sudden realization. Minara looked up and the lady's face was now full of fear. 

Minara gripped the hand more firmly and the lady looked her. Minara smiled and then tugged at the hand. 

"Come," Minara said. "Don't bother the men. You are so silly."

For a moment, Minara was not sure that the lady would follow her. Her feet were set and she was so large that no one except maybe all the gang men together was likely to move her. But then the foreign lady softened her hand and her face, ducked her head and docilely followed Minara like a wandered cow. 

The men said nothing. They only stared as the child led the strange woman away. 

An idea was quickly forming in Minara's mind. She knew now where to take the strange lady. Foreigners and especially tall, pale foreigners had money. She should show this foreigner the beggars and maybe she would give them money. Everyone would be happy then and there would be good luck. 

Minara led the lady through one street and then another. A few of the men followed them for a bit, but then they dropped back and another gaggle of children began trailing a few steps behind. They kept back this time. There was respect, since everyone could see that Minara had this one in hand. 

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

They soon approached the crowd around the blanket where a child who had been born deformed with only nobs for legs sat every day. The child was doing tricks, standing on his hands then turning in a circle and falling onto his stumps. A crowd had formed and people threw bits of food or the smallest coins onto the blanket, where a little girl collected them. 

Minara tugged at the lady's hand and she bent down from her great height. "Baby!" Minara squeaked over the noise of the crowd. 

The throng was too thick and tight for Minara to see much at all. But the tall lady went close to the edge of the crowd and peered over the heads of the tallest men. She backed up much more quickly than Minara expected though. Her face looked funny and she shook her head fiercely. 

"Baby! Money!" Minara told the tall lady. She must understand something. 

The lady put a hand inside her Kameez while turning her back on the men and after a moment she produced a coin. It was not the smallest coin, but enough to buy food for Minara's whole family. And to her shock the tall girl put the coin in Minara's hand. Then she looked again toward the crowd of men around the beggar's blanket. She did not seem to know what to do.

Minara smiled and gripped the coin firmly. She pressed between the legs of the men and crouched at the edge of the blanket. With great excitement she revealed her fist and then slowly opened it to show the coin. Everyone in the circle made a noise of approval. 

Minara flipped the coin off her fingers and onto the blanket in front of the smaller girl, who grabbed it immediately. And the child with no legs began a kind of dance, hopping from one stump to another. And then with a flick his hands he bounced up and flipped to stand on his hands again. Now he would do the best tricks. Minara had seen him do them plenty of times, but it was always fun. 

The foreign lady would like this, Minara thought.

She wiggled back between the men's legs to look for her strange charge. The lady was standing across the narrow alley, her back pressed against one of the shacks. 

"Come! You see baby play," MInara said, using simple words so that the lady would understand. She pulled the lady's hand again, trying to get her to come toward the circle.

But the overgrown girl shook her head and pulled back. This time Minara could feel how strong she was. She did not want to go near the crowd of men 

"Where?" MInara spread her hands to show that she did not know what the strange lady wanted.

The lady squatted down so that her face was the same height as Minara's. That made the smaller girl step back. No adult ever crouched down to her short height, let alone a foreigner who was normally so huge. But the lady's face looked kind, so Minara waited.

After a long time, the lady spoke--her words halting and clumsy in Bangla, "I see... Look me... your school?"

Minara didn't understand until the lady had said it three times, but when she did understand, she was happy to know what the lady wanted at last. She grasped the lady's hand again and pulled her down another street and around a few more corners until she arrived at the reading house, where a barefoot Imam taught the boys to read the Koran.

Minara patted the lady's hand to tell her to wait and then she hopped toward the school. It was one of very few full brick structures in the slums and the only one with a sort of second floor, but some of the walls had crumbled into rubble. If there had ever been glass windows, only empty window frames remained. Minara grabbed a hold of a window sill and boosted herself up. The imam looked up over his book at her with watery, surprised eyes.

Minara told him an America had come to see him and then she hopped back down and ran to stand behind the foreign lady. The imam came to the doorway with some of the boys he was teaching clustered around him. Their legs and arms showed their bones under the skin.

The foreign lady said a few words to the imam in her own language, but he did not understand her either. Finally the lady knelt down again to speak to Minara. "You go school here?" the lady asked, pointing directly at Minara's belly. 

Minara shook her head vigorously and the boys standing near enough to hear laughed. This did not make the lady happy either. She looked even more unhappy than she had with the baby that does tricks.

The lady seemed to think and then she asked "Where is your..." but Minara could not understand the word she used. It sounded like a word for a palace or one of the great houses of the rich. Minara knew she had no such thing. So she only shook her head.

Photo by Arie Farnam

Photo by Arie Farnam

The lady tried again, "Where is your mother?" 

Ah, this Minara could do! She called a farewell to the imam and started off down another alley. Soon they came to another little market and here the lady tugged at Minara's hand to stop her. She pointed to a pineapple on one of the carts. The seller jumped to attention, pulling out a plastic bag and putting the pineapple inside. The lady looked around as if searching for something. She put her fingers against her lips and whispered, "Yellow and orange, yellow and orange," In English, so that Minara did not understand. 

Finally she asked the seller for a bag of sweet potatoes and another of oranges and bunch of bananas. Then she pulled three coins out of her hidden pocket and gave them to the seller. The seller smiled at her, showing more holes than teeth. Minara wondered if this was finally what the foreign lady had come for, though she knew that some of the richer women of the slums worked for houses in the Embassy District and they had maids to do their shopping for them. 

But when she was finished the lady asked again about Minara's mother, so Minara continued on her way home. A few streets from her house, she glimpsed her little brother, completely naked and sitting by a trash heap. She chided him with a click of her tongue and he got up and toddled after Minara, too stunned to ask what his sister was doing with this large, orange monster. 

Finally they arrived at the little house where Minara lived with her mother, her brother and sister and her uncle who was odd in the head since he had a bad sickness as a child, so he could not go away to work in the factories with the other men. The house had three brick walls, which was better than most of the houses in the slums. Inside everything was neatly hung on pegs made from sticks whittled and stuck into the cracks. Minara was proud to show how she had cleaned up that morning. 

Her baby sister was there and uncle, but not her mother. The lady took a several photographs and then asked Minara about her mother again.

Minara motioned for the lady to follow and hurried behind the house to the brick yard just a short distance away. She knew her mother would be there. Many women and some children squatted in the brick yard, knocking bricks together with their hands to make the reddish gravel that the construction workers used in the Embassy District. 

After a few minutes of searching Minara called out and her little brother ran ahead. Their mother stood up slowly from her pile of bricks and gravel. Her eyes were tired but lovely to Minara. 

"What have you done now? What have you done?" her mother's words were more fearful than angry.

"It's okay, Mama," Minara said. "She is silly. I don't know why she is here."

Minara's mother turned and reached out her hand to touch the lady's knee. But the lady knelt down again, looking deep unto the mother's wrinkled face. 

"Good girl. Very good girl," the strange lady said, patting Minara on the shoulder. 

The mother's face broke into a delighted grin, showing that she had lost all of her teeth. 

The foreign lady put her hand on her own chest and spoke a strange name that Minara could not say. Her mother only continued to smile. 

"How old are you?" the strange lady asked the mother. But she did not understand the foreigner's broken Bangla. So Minara had to tell her mother the question again.

"Twenty six," Minara's mother finally said.


The lady's face when strange again, blank and troubled. Minara knew the look by now. She knew that it meant the lady was unhappy. 

"I am twenty three," the lady said at last. At least that was what Minara thought she said. If it was true than the lady really was not an overgrown girl at all. But how she could have such straight, white teeth and such a smooth face and be so old, Minara could not understand. 

The sun was getting low in the sky and after a while the lady started to walk back toward the muddy track to the Embassy District. Minara went with her, walking among the piles of bricks. Finally the lady stopped beside a rickshaw. She asked the rickshaw puller to take her to a street in the Embassy District. He nodded.

Then the lady turned to Minara and knelt down again.

"Go to school," she said. Her face still looked unhappy. but she tried to smile. 

She took paper money out of the pocket under her clothes and dropped it into the bag of fruit and sweet potatoes that she still carried. 

She stood up and said again, "Go to school." Then she looped the strings of the bag over Minara's hands so quickly that she couldn't do anything but grab the strings to keep from dropping the bag in the mud. Then the lady hopped into the seat of the rickshaw and the puller started off. 

Minara stood watching her leave, holding the bag with all the yellow and orange foods, whih contain the most vitamin A. She never knew why the strange lady had come. She did not even know about vitamin A or why so many children she knew went blind. She only knew that the things in the bag cost more than the rice to eat for a month.

That was twenty years ago.  If Minara is still alive, she is an old woman, haggard and bent. Now floods caused by the exhaust of cars, factories and cattle in distant countries drown the streets. Minara might have her eyesight at least. Maybe she has her own children who play at the edge of the flood waters and eat little bowls of rice. She almost certainly never went to school or left the slums, unless she was very lucky.

But her picture and her name are here someplace in the world of the rich.