Cameron Conaway offers a rhythmic meditation on his time at the notorious shipbreaking yards of Bangladesh and with the desperately poor but endlessly generous people who live in the villages beside them.

The Good Men Project / June 20, 2014

by Cameron Conaway

Death for dancing?

The morning’s thought occurred before the electricity blew and that powering down sound reached my heart’s valves. The loose, lopsided wall fan wobbled its dust-crusted self to an uneven stop. Gecko chirp startled but this was only because the soft pulsing hum of the old air conditioner, now off, served both as great cooler and great muffler. Rest was granted to the small television whose fuzzy feed seemed to put all characters underwater, including the news reporters in its finale who spoke not of events here in Chittagong but of those in the mountainous district of Kohistan in northern Pakistan, where a traditional jirga, or tribal council, had sentenced six people to death because the rhythm of moment entered their porous bones and they gave to swaying. Together. The static that is in us all at varying degrees if we listen overwhelmed the television set. Men and women. The reporter’s voice sputtered. To remain separate at weddings. All but the bubbles now. Stained family’s honor.

Afternoon came to be after a pair of Bengali soldiers dressed in camouflage so bright eyes could hear it grated the iron gates against the concrete ground and loudly locked the latches at my approaching. This happened in nearly identical fashion three separate times in five minutes. The third time shook me up because the sounds of dragging gates and the hacking cough then spit from the guard felt five minutes familiar. Easier for the guards to let the harshness of metal against itself or concrete communicate than drill up energy and do it themselves. No matter. It’s all music. The notes of which guided me to one dead end after another until I reached a dead end.

With a hut that looked so dark inside from the bright outside that all I saw at first were white eyes. It’s June here in Bangladesh, the start of rainy season, the time of ripe jackfruit and malaria in the Chittagong Hill Tracts. A certain heat began to build within me not so much at the grinding gates or stern stares but at their meaning. No. And at my own tenuous stance on the shipbreaking industry. These heats melded with the sun’s to create a thrumming that mimed the drumming of hammer at the now visible shipbreaking yard. So when a few dudes with ripped shirts plop their bare feet in oiled mud to come greet you with huge smiles of curiosity and pitchers of some liquid you can hear pouring before it’s poured you walk in and you sit at the oldest wooden table you’ve ever seen and you know everything is going to be okay though you know not who the hell you are with or where the hell you are.

Though Dhaka’s 400,000 cycle rickshaws bestowed the “Rickshaw Capital of the World” title upon it, Chittagong is no slouch. If baritone horn played the soundtrack to the posture of the soldiers denying me, then inflating cycle rickshaw tire was the sound of my eased tension. Ten or more men of varying ages sat watching me from all angles. The elder of the bunch looked at me and raised the pitcher and his bushy white eyebrows while dropping his face slightly down – a human gesture beyond language that asks. I did.

“Tea,” a boy around ten said.

The sound of pouring tea made me see: though a visual in memory or imagined experience can be greater than reality, real sound always trumps sound imagined.

“Yes, thank you.”

“Where you from?” the boy asked.

“U.S.A.”

As I sipped the steam rose from my cup and I followed its trail up into their faces all smiling and even laughing at the smile on mine. Outside the hut are grown and muscled men who are but dots on the top of ships bigger than buildings. Inside the hut we are all smiling because they keep saying “Obama” and they keep saying “Obama” because they know it is a sound from my home and seem to like him and I am saying “Obama” because it spurs the comfort sound of creasing smiles and smiles need no translation and because it is pride and it is somehow simultaneously sound in this moment of place in Chittagong, Bangladesh, and in Altoona, Pennsylvania.

Outside the hut a man enters the poultry pen and a thousand feathers shed then rise with the flapping and panic. Inside the hut I am breaking fry bread apart and dunking it into tea as they showed me and they are laughing and patting me on the back and I am hearing Bengali and hearing what I hope and I gave to the swaying and am tapping my feet to the outside’s million tiny clanks, to how those tiny clanks accrue over six months to reduce cargo ship to toxic sheet metal music that is not good and good. I hear them all in me when I hear nothing.

–Photo: Pierre Torset Photography