Thursday, 18 August 2022

Kaunas Modernism

Kaunas in Lithuania has been designated European Capital of Culture for 2022, together with Esch-sur-Alzette in Luxembourg and Novi Sad in Serbia. This post which draws on my earlier articles about Kaunas' extensive collection of modernist architecture and appears in the current edition of Spirit of Progress - the magazine of the Art Deco and Modernism Society of Australia.

Until the 1920’s Kaunas was a relatively small city, characterised by wooden houses and baroque churches. A construction boom during the 1920’s and 1930’s changed this and left many new civic and commercial buildings as well as stylish apartment blocks. This was partly due to the city acting as temporary capital for Lithuania from 1918-1940. Today’s capital, Vilnius, was under Polish rule and Kaunas needed to acquire the trappings of a national capital. Unfortunately, this new found confidence and period of growth was not to last as the 1940 Soviet invasion, and then the German occupation of 1941-45, preceded incorporation into the Soviet Union. Independence was not regained until 1990. In the intervening period, many outstanding buildings fell into disrepair, were significantly altered, or even demolished. Despite this, Kaunas has one of the largest collections of modernist buildings in any European city. I first became aware of this about ten years ago and managed to visit the city in 2017. 

Former Post Office, Laisvés 102

Although examples of modernist architecture can be found all over Kaunas, several of them cluster on Laisvės, a tree-lined avenue pedestrianised during the Soviet period and today a place where people come to shop, stroll, sit outside the many cafes or ride along the green coloured cycle path. The former Central Post Office at Laisvės 102, was built in 1931. Feliksas Vizbaras’ design combined elements of folk architecture with the principles of modernism, including wide modern windows, convex glass on the façade’s corners and internal murals depicting Lithuanian postage stamps. The interior also features stained glass with heraldic symbols and figurative compositions. During the Soviet occupation, some of the original stained-glass works were removed and replaced with images of zodiac signs. The tiled lobby and main hall floors also reference folk art. The façade features curves, a flat faced clock in the central section and squared off towers to each side. Each of these elements rise to different heights. The building currently stands empty. Discussions have been held about using it for a museum of architecture but no date has been set for this.

Laisvés 53


Laisvės 53 is another Vizbaris designed building, designed for the Pažanga (progress) publishing company and was completed in 1934. It was owned by the then ruling National Union Party who produced their newspaper, books and journals here. It also had a second-floor snack bar and restaurant open to the public, accessed by a lift and a roof terrace. The upper floors were accessed by a lift and the large basement contained a meeting room with natural light from skylights made from glass bricks.


As with the Post Office, the façade has varying depths and heights. The central part features three balconies with decorative metal railings that combine folk art with art deco motifs. It is flanked by curved and sectioned windows leading to loggias running the length of the building. The ground floor has large shop windows reflecting its use as a retail space and mirrors the curved elements of the upper floors. Some original features have been lost, including the skylights. In 2017, the upper levels were occupied by Vytautas Magnus University, but today the building is unoccupied.


Vizbaris was born in 1880 and is known to have lived in Ukraine from 1909-1918 where he worked as a construction engineer and an architect. From 1922-25 he headed the construction department of the Kaunas municipality. He later worked on the extension of the port of Klaipėda before emigrating to Germany in 1944.

Former headquarters of milk processing company, Laisves


The building next door to Pažanga was the former headquarters of Lithuania’s milk processing company. It was designed by Vytautas Landsbergis and built from 1931-32. The exterior is defined by its interactions between vertical and horizontal elements. Each level is marked by uninterrupted panels running the length of the building. The rounded corner has convex glazing descending to the ground floor and main entrance, which is shaded by a wide illuminated ledge, reminiscent of Parisian department stores. This may have helped it to win the Bronze Medal at the 1937 International Exposition des Arts et des Techniques in the French capital. The entire structure is built around a reinforced concrete frame. As with the Pažanga building, there was a large basement, this one equipped with an icehouse. 


The ground floor originally contained the Dairy Centre shop, a café, milk bar and the rather fabulous sounding, Muralis men’s hairdressing salon, which extended over two floors. A few pictures of the salon’s interior have survived and show a crisp, functionalist environment with barber’s chairs, large mirrors, screens and wall mounted lighting. The salon was designed by Arnas Funkas, a prominent architect of the period. The administration functions were spread over two floors with apartments at upper levels – three units to each floor. Several prominent people lived here, including Dovas Zaunius, one time Minister of Foreign Affairs and Vincė Jonušaitė, his opera singer wife.  


Romuva Cinema, Laisves 54

During the 1930’s cinema design was heavily influenced by modernism. The Romuva cinema at Laisvės 54 was completed in April 1940. At the time, it was the biggest cinema in Lithuania, seating 687 people and benefitted from the most modern technology including mechanical ventilation and state of the art screen equipment. An oval shaped auditorium, special wall coverings and a vaulted reinforced concrete ceiling were included to enhance the acoustics. A circle was omitted from the auditorium for the same reason.


The tall, glazed tower on the exterior of the cinema was intended to be illuminated in changing colours. The Second World War had already commenced by the time construction was completed and the device needed to provide this feature was held up en-route and so this design element was not realised. The main part of the façade is divided by moulded frames and has two rows of different sized windows. The original plan was to use the upper level for advertising, but instead, windows were installed to light the office spaces. Numerous changes have been made to the original structure including moving the ticket office, increasing the slope of the hall and reducing the number of seats to 482. 


Brothers Antanas and Petras Steikūnas, members of the Lithuanian Businessmen’s Union commissioned architect Aleksandras Mačiulskis to design their cinema which is still in use today. Kaunas’ other modernist cinemas have not fared so well. The former Daina cinema at Savanoriu 74 is in very poor condition. When I visited the main entrance was bricked up and the façade covered in grime. It was operating as a “gentleman’s club” and scowling security staff stood guard at the entrance. 


Resurrection Church,  Žaliakalnis Hill

The Resurrection Church on Žaliakalnis Hill is one of Kaunas' best known buildings. In 1928, a competition was held to design a new church to commemorate the Lutheran revival. The entry from Karolis Reisonas, head of the city’s construction department, was chosen, despite his only placing third in the competition. His original proposal included an 82 metres high spiral tower with a statue at the summit, but was rejected on grounds of complexity and cost, and a simpler plan adopted. The church is an imposing white structure, supported by 1,200 reinforced concrete pillars. It has towers of differing height, a roof top chapel and can hold more than 5,000 people. For a small fee visitors may take a lift to the roof terrace and enjoy views across the city. Most construction took place between 1933 and 1940. The church was nationalised after Lithuania’s incorporation into the Soviet Union in 1940 and during the German occupation it was used as a paper warehouse. The returning Soviets converted it to a radio factory in 1952, but worse was to come. Stalin demanded demolition of the taller tower and chapel – fortunately this was not followed through. It was not until 1990 that the church returned to its original purpose following Lithuania’s regaining independence.

Jonas Jablonski Primary School, Ausros and Žemaičiu streets


The Jonas Jablonski Primary School is opposite the Resurrection Church on the corner of Ausros and Žemaičiu streets. It was the first school in Lithuania to make use of functional zoning, with the sports hall and auditorium located in an inner yard away from the classrooms. It was also the first school in Lithuania to have a swimming pool. Four handicraft classrooms were used to help children acquire skills for working in the craft industries and for managing their future households. The inclusion of these specialist rooms may also have been part of a general commitment to preserving traditional Lithuanian crafts. There was also a large canteen and a private apartment for the head teacher.


The school has an asymmetrical, rectangular configuration with one wing substantially longer than the other. The main junction has a stepped projecting turret – emphasising the corner location – as well as a small balcony above the main entrance which acts as a canopy. The façade is interrupted by a series of wide, red framed windows, contrasting with the blank rear wall of the auditorium. New sections were added during the Soviet period. Today the building is known as the Jonas Jablonski Gymnasium, serving an older age group than the original primary school which was completed in 1932 and designed by architect Antanas Jokimas.

Donelaičio 63


The once elegant apartment building at 63 Donelaičio Street looks a little faded today. It was built in 1932, to the designs of Jewish architect, Geršonas Davidavičius, who was responsible for designing several residences in Lithuania. The block was commissioned by the brothers Dovydas and Gedalis Ilgovskis, who were also Jewish and had a successful construction business.


The symmetrical main façade is animated by rounded corner windows, a long central balcony at first floor level and two smaller balconies with metal railings at the next level up. Towards the summit there is a decorative cornice topped by a parapet. Each floor originally contained two apartments with corridors separating private and common areas. The apartments contained built-in wardrobes as well as servants’ quarters located beside a rear staircase. It is believed that the Ilgovskis brothers maintained a construction office in the building.


Davidavičius, who was also known as Gerson Davids, escaped the fate of most Lithuanian Jews by leaving for South Africa in 1935. Shortly after arriving, he had a serious accident that resulted in the loss of an eye, but he continued working and designed several residential and commercial buildings before emigrating again, this time to Canada in 1959.

A programme of events has been designed to celebrate Kaunas' European Capital of Culture status, offering visitors from all over the world the chance to discover and enjoy the city's busy cultural life and architectural heritage.  Visitors may wish to obtain a copy go the superb book, “Kaunas Architectural Guide” edited by Julia Reklaitė, published in 2017 by Architektūros Fondas, which includes many outstanding modernist buildings. 


I would like to note my thanks to Kastytis Rudokas for his help, support and advice in 2017 and with this article. 

Thursday, 28 July 2022

Fré Cohen - the Dutch artist who turned ordinary objects into things of beauty

 “Fré’s work is so interesting. She was skilled in a range of techniques at a time when there were few women in her field and was able to not only promote her beliefs but also to make a living from her work Our exhibition concentrates on her social ideals, feminist views and Jewish inspiration,” says Alice Roegholt, founder and director of the Het Schip Museum in Amsterdam, which is showing an exhibition on the work of the recently rediscovered Dutch graphic designer Fré Cohen.

Fré Cohen at work in her studio, 1934

Frederika Sophia Cohen, known as Fré, was born in Amsterdam in 1903, the oldest daughter of diamond workers, Levie and Esther Cohen. When she was still very young, the family moved to Antwerp in search of work only returning to Amsterdam in 1914, at the outbreak of World War I.


Fré showed skill in drawing at an early age and wanted to be a cartoonist. She also developed an early interest in left-wing politics, perhaps influenced by her father’s connections to Netherlands’ social democrat movement. She attended youth camps organised by the Arbeiders Jeugd Centrale, a Social Democrat movement, where she took part in hiking, sports and cultural activities. An image has survived of her at one of the camps, smiling and drawing and surrounded by friends. 

Giro booklet


Despite her artistic promise, it was not until she was 21, in 1924, that she began studying at Amsterdam’s Quellinusschool, first on a part time-basis and later, as a full-time student. She graduated with a Medal of Honour – the first to be issued in the school’s history.  


In 1921 she was hired to design advertisements for the Draka wire and cable factory and later found work with a publishing firm with strong links to the Social Democratic Party. She produced many designs for the party’s printing office, Vooruitgang (progress), and received commissions from trade unions, socialist youth movements and the magazine The Proletarian Woman. She depicted workers in a positive way, showing them as strong and capable, rather than downtrodden victims.


She went on to work for the Amsterdam municipality’s printing firm but left in 1932 to become freelance. She was so successful that by 1933 she was living in her own studio. Her nephew, Ernst Waltemathe, who later became a leading Social Democrat politician in Germany, recalls visiting “my rich aunt” in her studio and receiving gifts from her. 

Brochure for the Social Democrat Party's youth organisation, 1925

Postcard for Amsterdam city cleaning department, c1931

Ex-libris for actress Marie Hamel, 1932


Her work was varied and included book bindings, ex-libris, illustrations, postcards, calendars, playing cards, posters and pamphlets, as well as woodcuts and linocuts. Examples of all are included in the exhibition and show a range of influences including art deco, art nouveau and the Amsterdam School. 


The Amsterdam School movement had been founded by Jewish architect Michel de Klerk at the beginning of the 20th century with the aim of improving the living conditions of the working class. The Het Schip Museum, which is devoted to preserving and promoting the work of the movement, is one of his buildings. Fré not only shared his politics but was one of the leading graphic designers associated with the movement. 


Many of the artworks and objects she designed found their way into the homes of ordinary people, where they have survived until today. “When we announced the exhibition, many people visited us, bringing items that she had designed. We thought they wanted to donate them to us, but no, they just wanted us to see these things that they have treasured for so long,” said Roegholt.


City of Amsterdam coat of arms, 1930

Cohen was not afraid to work in different mediums or new formats. In 1934 she wrote “Each new technique is welcome: book print and lithography, offset and rotogravure. It’s just a matter of choosing the right technique suitable for the product we wish to create.” She exemplified this by making three-dimensional works including boxes and scale models. She also pioneered statistical graphics, in which data is presented with icons rather than numbers. This work included brochures for Schipol Airport and the Amsterdam port, using pictograms to show the growth in passenger numbers and cargo. 


Her reputation spread, and in 1934 the Midlands Master Printers Association invited her to give a series of lectures in the UK. Her subject was ‘Modern Lay-out in Holland,’ and she designed an invitation card especially for the lectures. The December 1934 edition of the Association’s magazine reported that “The lectures were both interesting and helpful and everywhere well attended”. In her presentations, she outlined the history of Dutch printing and spoke about new technology within the industry. 


Fré also explained her design philosophy saying, “My task is to create solid books, to make beautiful printed matter. The ordinary articles we use every day should be things of beauty”. She managed to provoke a minor controversy. The same article reported on her, “…friendly criticism of William Morris’ work, that the decoration tended to become more important apparently than the text” and how this provoked questions about her own use of white space within designs. 


Although Fré enjoyed work, she also liked to have fun and in 1934 took her first holiday in an artists’ village in Ascona, Switzerland. She wrote to a friend describing the town’s bohemian atmosphere saying “…there are vegetarians of all kinds (and) don’t be shocked…principled nudists”. She enjoyed the town’s café culture and painted watercolours there, some of which feature in the exhibition.

Greetings to eternity - watercolour by Fré Cohen

Anscona landscape by Fré Cohen

In the 1930’s her work increasingly showed Jewish influences. Hebrew letters appeared on her ex-libris, magazine covers and political posters. In 1933 she began working with an organisation assisting Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria. It was there that she met writer, journalist and poet, Joseph Gompers. She designed two ex-libris for him. One, from 1934, shows a ploughman and Hebrew text which translates as, ‘the day is short, and the work is much’. The other, produced in 1936, shows a body crushed by a swastika and the words, ‘Ex-libris antisemitism’ in Hebrew.  It was intended for Gompers’ collection of books on antisemitism. The two friends would sometimes go for walks in Amsterdam’s Jewish neighbourhoods. Gompers wrote about these walks in the Nieuw Israeliëtsch Weekblad magazine, under the title Wanderings in Little Jerusalem. Fré contributed the illustrations. 


In 1940, Germany occupied the Netherlands and in October of that year, legislation was passed dismissing Jews from government employment. Fré’s commissions from the municipality ceased but her private commissions continued, including some teaching work at the WH Van Leer Jewish Applied Arts School above the Hollandse Schouwburg (Dutch Theatre). 


In the summer of 1942, the theatre began to be used as a holding point for Jews before deportation. The exhibition includes a photograph taken that year, showing her with a group of the students, and wearing a large Star of David on her coat. 


Life became increasingly dangerous for Dutch Jews, and in 1942, Fré went into hiding, staying at various houses in Amsterdam, Diemen, Rotterdam, Winterwijk and Borne. She continued to keep a busy routine, working on private commissions under the pseudonym ‘Freco’. The exhibition includes playing cards and illustrations for children’s books produced during this period. She also went for walks – running the risk of being recognised and arrested. This troubled her friend, Rie Keesje-Hillebregt, who hid her in Diemen. In a video recording in the show, Rie says, “She dyed her hair red…but she still looked very Jewish.” 


Fré still had hopes and ambitions but was clearly aware of the danger she faced. In 1942, she wrote, “I still have plenty of plans, sketches, and drawings at the ready, for after the war, if we ever live to see the end of it. You sometimes begin to doubt it.” She was right to doubt. On  9th June, 1943, she was captured in Borne and quickly took the poison she had been carrying for such an occasion. After two days in a coma, she died in hospital in Hengelo on June 12th. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery there.


After the war, she was largely forgotten, but in recent years interest in her work and life has grown. Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum has a large collection of her graphic works, some of which are included in the Het Schip exhibition which is being enthusiastically received and attracting crowds. Perhaps, more importantly, many of those ‘ordinary articles’ that she designed as ‘things of beauty’ have survived, and are treasured, in the homes of people all over the Netherlands.

Fré Cohen, outside Amsterdam Central Station, c1935

Fré Cohen, Form and Ideals of the Amsterdam School runs until 30th October 2022 at the Het Schip Museum.

An edited version of this article, with additional illustrations, appears in the Summer 2022 edition of Jewish Renaissance Magazine.

All images are reproduced with the kind permission of Het Schip Museum.

Tuesday, 12 July 2022

"We are the last generation" bringing in the catch at Angeiras

"We are the last generation" said Dona Fatima. She was perhaps 70, quick to smile and happy to talk. I noticed her as I passed by the fishermen's cottages of Angeiras, a small town just 15 kilometres from Porto. She sat in the open doorway of her family's storage unit, waiting for her husband to return with the catch. Her family have fished here for generations but as she explained "The young people don't want to do this work. It is hard and dangerous, they want to do other things".

Dona Fatima

The grey, sea-fretted morning reminded me of my home town on England's north-east coast, where there was once a thriving fishing fleet, but where today there are only a handful of boats. It also reminded me that there is no guarantee of sunshine on Portugal's Atlantic coast during June. The importance of fishing  to Angeiras is emphasised by the paraphernalia stored along the pathway at the edge of the beach. Nets, baskets and flags used to mark the pots left at sea are piled up waiting for use or repair. A black and white cat roamed the nets, looking for tasty scraps and grew angry when one of the locals stroked her tail. Other less active (or maybe less hungry) felines dozed, waiting for the boats to return, knowing they would be thrown the rejected fish from the early morning catch.

Year-round fishing began here at the beginning of the twentieth century  Prior to this, activity was seasonal and related to agricultural work. Small crabs and seaweed were gathered for use as fertilisers. Today's fishing activity includes the catch of pout, bass and octopus. According to a sign on the beach pathway, the sardines and shrimps caught here are considered to be the best in Portugal. The beach is known as Praia des Pescadores, or, the beach of the fishermen.

Dona Fatima was not the only one waiting for the boats. Small groups clustered around the cottages, talking, smoking and hoping that there had been a successful morning's work. Most of the people I met were in their sixties or older, all of them friendly, talkative and happy to be photographed (thank you Signors Salvador, Fonseca and José). Most of their families have been involved in fishing for generations but one young man said he had previously been a carpenter. Corsino Benjamin's uncle was a fisherman and he decided to join him some years ago. Since then he has remained working with the uncle, his aunt and his own wife, Eugenia, only occasionally practising carpentry. 

The boats come in one by one. They are first brought to the water's edge and then pulled along the beach by tractor. In the past this task was carried out by villagers who dragged the boats in by hand. One boat had recently been painted and left a colourful trail on the sand.  Once the boats were sited, the village women emerged and quickly began sorting and cleaning the fish, preparing it for sale at the nearby market. Meanwhile, the men checked and repaired the nets - there is a clear division of labour with "men's work" and "women's work".

Few of the men were happy and most reported a poor catch. Aurelio, also in his sixties said "the fish here were once plentiful but not today". He was removing the small fish that had become stuck in the net, rejecting most of them and throwing them to the waiting cats and seagulls who rushed forward to pick up the treats. From time to time squabbles broke out between the birds as one hungry gull tried to snatch food from the beak of another.

Signor Aurelio

Signor Salvador
Signor Fonseca

Signor José

Angeiras has several places to eat. The street behind the fishermen's cottages is lined with cafes and restaurants. Most of them specialise in fish and sea food but good coffee and the ubiquitous pastel de nata can also be found at the Doce Mar (sweet sea) cafe. On the day of my visit, numerous backpackers sat outside the cafes, some of them in pairs, most of them alone. All were participants in the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage, heading for Santiago de Compostela in Spain.There is also has a small but busy indoor fish market where hoteliers, restauranteurs and local families come to make their purchases. The market boasts two delicatessens that sell local cheeses, meat and wine. 

Dona Olindina was selling shellfish from a tiny stall outside one of the restaurants. It's hard to believe she can make a living from this and I wondered if it's something she does in order to keep active and to remain in contact with other people. She nodded and called out "bom dia" (good morning) in response to my greeting. After asking me about my work and family she became philosophical "I'm 82 now. I've bought a plot for my burial. My husband is already there. I don't think we (humans) are really from here. Maybe we are from heaven and when we die we go back there". 

Dona Olindina

I don't often find myself in front of the camera, but I was accompanied in Angeiras by José of Picture Photo Tours in Porto. He assisted me in engaging with the people I met and also took a few shots of me, including the one below, in which I am a little directive! Details of his services are available here.

Monday, 6 June 2022

Picture Post 73 - An Art Nouveau Warehouse in a Porto Alley

Last week in Porto, each morning at 10.30, I had coffee and a Pastel de nata at the C'alma Speciality Coffee Room on Rua de Passos Manuel. This small cafe is tucked away on the ground floor of the Porto Commercial Athenaeum gentlemen's club, established 150 years ago and which today hosts occasional concerts and group tours. On my last morning in Porto I took a different route to C'alma and discovered a piece of the city's history.

Just a few steps away from my morning coffee, I noticed a single storey building with an art nouveau facade. The Depósito de Sola e Cabedaes is the former warehouse of what was once once an extremely successful shoe parts supplier. The company was founded in 1887 by Adriano Vieira da Silva, whose name is inscribed on the decorative tiles at the top of the facade. These premises were inaugurated in 1917 and are an example of late art nouveau. The design features floral flourishes, classical references with small pillars and discs, and stained glass windows, the colours of which brighten when they watch the sun. The building incorporated modern design ideas including skylights that maximised the use of natural light and air circulation equipment which helped prevent deterioration of the stock. This approach was carried through into service and the staff were known to be polite and knowledgeable.

Da Silva was born in Santarém in 1869 and came to Porto at a young age, initially finding work as a clerk. He went on to establish a successful business and to have a career in politics. He was a member of the Portuguese Republican Party and a close friend of its leader, and three times Prime Minister, Afonso Costa. From 1919-1926, Da Silva served as administrator of the Gondomar municipality, just outside Porto. 

The April 1917 edition of the Illustraçáo Portuguesa magazine marked the inauguration of the premises saying "we can consider today that this is the biggest and most complete (shoe parts supplier) of Portugal and all of the Peninsula". An extensive range of products was offered, including leather, suede, soles, glues, laces, buckles, waxes, polishes and insoles. The company was the main supplier for cobblers, leather workers, bag makers and other artisans. 

Over time low-priced competition from overseas and the decline of the tanning industry in Portugal impacted on the business and it closed its doors for the last time in 2016. The building appears to be well maintained with only a small amount of graffiti but stands empty, in a side-alley, waiting to be brought back into use. Similar premises in Porto are now serving as cafes, restaurants or cultural venues. I'd happily have my coffee and pastry in the old warehouse on my next visit.

Sunday, 17 April 2022

"We slowly lose our hearing because of the noise" - Stories from Bangladesh

Much has been written about Chittagong's notorious ship-breaking yards. Their appalling safety record and working conditions have been the subject of numerous documentaries. The owners, not welcoming this kind of exposure, no longer admit visitors. Dhaka's Karaniganj ship-repair yard is less well-known and attracts little media attention. This may be why I was able to enter unchallenged, look around, take photographs and talk to the workers, despite the presence of several managerial staff. No-one seemed perturbed by my being there, and there were no problems with photography. One of the supervisors even asked me to take his portrait.

I noticed the noise from the yard well before I reached the gate. Hundreds of small hammers chip away the rust from the ships' sides, releasing toxic particles into the air and damaging the workers' hearing. Other hazards include chemical fumes and extreme heat. Some of the men wore hard hats but most  worked without protective gear. 

I asked some of the men (I saw only male workers here, unlike at Mirpur)  about the lack of safety equipment and the impact of the work on their health. Ripon, aged 32 and a Dhaka native, said "When I first came here I had a headache every day. I'm used to it now and I don't get them anymore, but we slowly lose our hearing because of the noise". Shahin, a welder, aged 30, said "I have goggles and a mask but I can't wear them. It's too hot and it gets difficult to see". Like several others, he also reported having respiratory problems and headaches. Shahin had dreams of a better life. "I wanted to work in Singapore" he said. "An employment broker asked for $4,000 to find me a job there. I took a course in welding and then borrowed the whole amount to pay him, but he disappeared with the money and now I have a debt. I have a wife and two small children and life is very difficult". 

Many Bangladeshis work overseas and send money back to their family to pay off debts, to improve their living conditions, or to educate their children. Unfortunately stories like Shahin's are not unusual including in the UK. Last year the British Government published a warning about employment scams that target Bangladeshi nationals.

Back in Karaniganj, the ships are drawn up onto the muddy banks of the heavily polluted, and in places, foul-smelling Buriganga river. A few hundred metres from the water, behind the ships, there are small houses where many of the workers and their families live. It is here that new propellers are made. Visitors venturing this far need to tread very carefully as they pass red hot metal and open fires, trying not to breathe in the steam, smoke and sulphurous air, while avoiding areas of soft, sinking ground. None of this seems to trouble the workers or the children, or the goats and dogs that live, play and wander around in this area.

Some of those children are themselves employed here. One 18 year old painter told me he started work in the shipyard when he was 12. He was one of very few wearing some kind of protection - a thin scarf covering his mouth and nose. He removed it and asked me to take his picture. There are reports of children as young as five or six carrying out some of the tasks but I did not see this when I visited.  

Amidst the mud, noise and noxious fumes there are occasional scenes of beauty. I saw a young man climb down from a ship, his movements delicate and precise, like those of a dancer. As he descended he made shadows and shapes on the freshly painted, vivid red ship. He swung and stepped from one narrow wooden platform to another, manoeuvring by the rope used to secure the wood to the ship. Elsewhere groups of three or four men stood on similar structures, removing paint or adding an extra coat. Like their workmates, they make about $5 per day. A little further on, water poured from the rear of one of the ships. A labourer waiting close-by, appeared to be standing under the water - taking a shower fully clothed. But this was a visual trick and no water touched him.

A couple of hours in the shipyard was enough for me. It was hot, my head ached, my eyes were itchy and I'd pulled my scarf up over my nose and mouth to block the dust and fumes. Just before leaving, I was offered a drink at a small tea stall near the exit. I joined a group of workers, taking a break, drinking chai and eating snacks to give themselves a little more energy to complete their shift. They wanted to know my name, where I am from and what I was doing there. I don't speak Bangla but was able to use some of my limited knowledge of Hindi, which surprised and amused those who understood it. Many of them were not from Dhaka but had moved there to find work. Most of them had left school aged 10 or 12. They joked with each other and we spoke about football, films and family before they went back to work and I went back back to my hotel. 

You might also like "There is no work without hard work"  or The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalpur from the Stories of Bangladesh series.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here

Follow me on instagram at @adrianyekkes

Saturday, 19 March 2022

"There Is No Work Without Hard Work" - Stories From Bangladesh

"In Bangladesh, there is no work without hard work" said Omison, a day labourer at Mirpur, Dhaka. Just a few kilometres from the centre of the city, Mirpur is one of several places in Dhaka where goods are delivered for unloading and onward sale. All day, hundreds of labourers collect 30kg baskets of coal, place them on their heads and then walk up a steep narrow plank before emptying the goods onto a dark, dusty mountain. They repeat this process over and over again. For each load, a foreman hands them a plastic token. The tokens are collected at the end of the day and the workers are paid 3 thaka for each one. That's less than 3 pence. A  cup of street tea in Dhaka costs between 5 and 10 thaka. 

Omison is not sure of her age, but thinks she is about 60. She wore a purple and orange floral print sari, part of which she pulled up to cover her head in the way many Bangladeshi women do when talking to strangers. I asked her how she came to be working as a labourer. She said  "I've been doing this work for many years. I can't remember exactly when I started. It's very hard but I don't want to beg". I asked about her family. She said, "I am originally from Jamalpur. My father was a farm worker and my mother begged in the street. I live alone. I don't have a husband and my son is dead." I pressed a little, still curious about why she is doing this particular type of work. "I didn't go to school" she said. "I am not educated. I tried to get work in a garment factory or in the home of a wealthy lady but they wouldn't take me. What else can I do?"

As I stood and watched, the endless line of workers moved up and down the ramp, their motion regular and unchanging like the workings of a clock and their moving shadows reflected on the side of the barge. They have a short break in the morning and another one for lunch when, for a few thaka, they can buy rice and watery curry from one of the stalls that have sprung up to serve them. The breaks are taken in shifts. The line never stops.

"I have to take painkillers every day after work so that I can sleep"

Most of the workers are men, but there are also several women. Most of them younger than Omison, but at  a different location, I met a woman doing similar work who said she was 66. Male or female, they have similar stories. Most of their parents were day labourers either in rural areas or in the city. The majority had either never been to school or had received only a few years of education. Despite this, they were hopeful for their children and the younger workers I spoke to claimed to be sending their sons and daughters to school. This does not mean that they will complete their education and many Bangladeshi children leave the classroom before they reach their teens,  to start work and to help the family survive.

All of the workers I met told me they suffer from headaches, back pain and problems with their knees and shoulders. Krishna, aged 30 said "I have to take painkillers every day after work so that I can sleep". I asked if they had respiratory problems because of their exposure to the coal dust. All of them said the dust did not affect them. I hope that this is true but as Dhaka has recently been identified as having the  poorest air quality of any city in the world, it may be that they haven't noticed due to their constantly breathing in dust and other pollutants.

Most day labourers cannot afford to be ill. They are only paid for the work they do and there is no sick-pay. I asked how they had managed during Covid. Tinku, aged 48 said "It was a struggle. I have two children to feed. I had to buy food and pay the rent,  so I took a loan from an NGO". He is now making repayments at an interest rate of 15%. Omison had been able to stay at home. "Friends helped me" she said and then added "I didn't have to beg". She mentioned begging three times during our conversation. Financial security is precarious here and many live with the fear of having to ask for money in the streets. 

Dreaming of some other place

Bangladesh is full of surprises. In the midst of this hard labour, two Hijra, members of the country's third gender community, sat on the ground, one arranging the other's hair. They saw me, and start pulling faces and joking. They were quickly joined by two other Hijra who begin to dance, and to pretend to fight, as they staged a "scene" for the camera. They are also employed as labourers which is most unusual. I have met and interviewed several members of this community in India, but have never encountered or heard of Hijra working as labourers.

Beside the food stalls, there was, of all things, an ice-cream kiosk. A small boy, in a long-sleeved shirt and tatty shorts, stood a few feet away from it, slowly eating an ice-cream on stick. His legs and feet were covered in grey dust. I was certain that one, or both of his parents, were unloading coal. He briefly looked at the camera, but not in an excited or curious way like many children do. Rather, he had a detached air, as if he wasn't really there and was dreaming of some other place. He may well have been dreaming of better things, but the cruel truth is that when he reaches his teenage years, he is likely to be doing the same work as his parents.

You might also like The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalapur 

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here.

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Sunday, 13 March 2022

The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalapur - Stories From Bangladesh

I met Noor Jehan outside Kamalapur, Dhaka's main railway station. Not the Noor Jehan who was Pakistan's best-known actress and singer, but her namesake, who is one of the city's two known women rickshaw drivers. I asked her how she came to be doing this work. She said "I began six years ago when my drug-addicted husband finally left me. I need to support my two daughters and I want them to complete their education." Her girls are now aged 13 and nine and their photographs are displayed on the back of her rickshaw. 

"My name is Noor Jehan"

I went to Kamalpur, Dhaka's main station to admire the modernist architecture, and to look for pictures and stories. Kamalapur is a mini-version of Dhaka. Huge crowds flow in and out of the station. Hawkers, beggars and street kids take up residence under the external canopies, hoping to make enough money to feed themselves, and dozens of rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers wait, anticipating customers. At night (and sometimes during the day) homeless people sleep here. The mood is often raucous as the drivers tease each other or minor disputes break out between the other occupants. The drivers drink tea  purchased from a street vendor and drive a hard bargain with commuters and shoppers before setting off on their next journey.

In the midst of this activity I noticed a woman standing beside a rickshaw, with a small crowd around her. She wore a gamcha (worker's towel) as a hijab and held the handle-bars of an electronic rickshaw. I have never seen a woman rickshaw driver in my travels around India and did not expect to meet one in Bangladesh. Together with Liton, my guide and interpreter, I drew closer and we began to talk to her. She was small and quietly spoken and understandably seemed a little suspicious at first. We introduced ourselves and she said "My name is Noor Jehan".

I wanted to know how she became a driver, and how people reacted to her. This was only my second day in Bangladesh but I had already learned that if I stop to speak to someone, a small  crowd will gather, follow the conversation and sometimes try to add to, or dispute, the answers I'm given. The canopy at Kamalapur was no exception and very quickly a large group gathered, including other drivers, passers-by and a couple of Hijra, all of them taking close interest in our conversation. It was clear that this wasn't the best place to talk, so we hired her, and she took us for a drive around central Dakha.

 "I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Driving in Dhaka at four in the afternoon is not for the faint hearted. Actually, driving in Dhaka at any time is not for the faint-hearted. There are too many vehicles, not enough space and the rules of the road are interpreted very broadly. The rickshaw is a very fragile vehicle and when surrounded by cars, buses and overloaded trucks the driver and passengers are vulnerable. Despite this I love traveling this way, being close to the activity, and getting a different view of the street. But of course, I don't have to do this to earn a living. Noor copes with this every day.

She explained how the rickshaw system works. She rents the vehicle from the garage, for 300 thaka, per day, which  is about £3. By 4pm on the day I met her she had made 400 and so had only just cleared a profit. She would go on working until the evening while a neighbour looked after her daughters. 

I asked her how she managed to secure the job. "I needed work but didn't know what I could do. I thought maybe I could drive a rickshaw and so I went to a garage and asked to rent one. The owner laughed and told me to go away. He said the work is too hard for a woman and that I wouldn't be able to do it. But I didn't give up and eventually he agreed to rent an e-rickshaw to me". I wondered about the response of the other rickshaw drivers and how they treated her. "Some are pleasant and encourage me" she said, "others are not pleasant  and say bad things. It's the same with the customers". Shortly after starting our drive I saw an example of this less pleasant behaviour. While we were waiting at a traffic light, a man leaned out of a bus window, shouted something and leered at us. Liton shouted something back and the man quickly sat down. I asked him what had been said. "He was rude and asked us why we had chosen a woman driver. I told him to mind his own business" he said. From the expression on the man's face, I suspect it may have been something a little stronger than that. 

I asked if she was there were any other woman rickshaw drivers in the city. "I only know about one other" she replied. "I've seen a woman driving a rickshaw in the university area but I've never spoken with her". After twenty minutes we made our way back to the station. As we said goodbye we wished her and her daughters luck before insisting she accept the tip that she twice refused. "Remember me in your prayers" she said, "I am happy to work hard for my girls. I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Logistics for my trip were managed by Native Eye and Bangladesh Eco Tours.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here.

Follow me on instagram @adrianyekkes