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Ramon Magsaysay Recipient Abdullah Abu Sayeed TalkAsia Transcript

Airdate: November 27th, 2004

Lorraine Hahn: LH
AAS: Abdullah Abu Sayeed


Abdullah Abu Sayeed

LH: This week on TalkAsia: A Bangladeshi who's striving to enrich the minds and souls of his fellow countrymen, through literature. This, is TalkAsia.

Welcome to TalkAsia. I'm Lorraine Hahn. In the second part of our 2004 Ramon Magsaysay series, we bring you the awardee for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts- Abdullah Abu Sayeed.

It's safe to say, that Sayeed, is an idealist. He's fully aware of the immediate problems his country's facing. Among them-rampant pollution, corruption, and a literacy level below 50 percent of the population. He does what he can, to raise awareness on those issues. But his true passion-lies in literature. And the firm conviction that exposure to great works of the literary world, will foster what he calls "enlightened" minds and souls. He spent the first two decades of his professional career, teaching literature at Dhaka College. But he was itching for more. In 1975, he founded the Bish-wo Sha-hitto Kendro or World Literature Centre-to further fufill his mission. And has influenced hundreds of thousands of people, since then.

I caught up with Mr. Sayeed just prior to the award ceremony earlier this year, in Manila. I began by asking him how does some one become enlightened-and how does literature come into play?

AAS: Somebody becomes enlightened by being a better human being, by adhering to high moral values; getting aware; having dreams and purposes of life; and deep concern for people around them, and their miseries.

LH: And how do they get this through reading?

AAS: Because through reading these are the great minds those they get in the books. Through the books they get the finer feelings, and sensitivities, and values and all over things that required to make a man of a committed nature.

LH: Has it always been like this in your country that people have turned to literature or to books?

AAS: Yes because there's a very great literary culture in our country, and we have many great writers and I think this is the most, this is the richest language in the whole of Asia in modern times, over the last 100 or 200 years.

LH: But that faltered a bit right, in modern times?

AAS: Yes now it has a downslide tendency but for almost a hundred and fifty years this was on the rise and it was said -- what Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow.

LH -- Right but in terms of readers or people interested in literature, was it the education system that didn't foster modern day youth in terms of enjoying a good book.

AAS: Yes that is not that is not happening today. For long for 200 years our schools have been very degenerated type, so anything could be done, or done from outside schools supplementing the formal education. Our schools are inefficient, our schools are inadequate, and we can not really have good people coming out of schools. So wherever there was input from outside you know rich input from outside, then they could really work.

LH: Is it true that less than half Bengalese cannot read?

AAS: Yes. Yes.

LH: You must have a huge upward battle then to get people to read literature?

AAS: Yes, oh yes but my purpose is not literacy -- my purpose is on the cultural level: enrichment, enlightenment, and it only covers those who are educated, those are the best, we want to make the leaders of my nation.

LH: about this center, what was the aim?

AAS: in 1968 I started a study circle --and I started that because we had the literary movement going on, and I could see that our success was not that great as the literary movement of the '30s in Calcutta. And I tried to see why this is happening and I could realize that they came at it from the background of World Literature and we came up from the background of our Bengal Literature. So we thought in order to get great personalities in literature we should have a background in world literature so we started this study circle and it died in certain time because of war in my country and then we started again in 1978 and it lasted for 5 years then we tried if one is successful, why not 500? (LH -- You started very small right with just a few students?) Only 25 students but they became so brilliant after these study circles, because they read 200 books over a period of 5 years those of the greatest books and they became very bright and it inspired me to go further all over the country.

LH: Can you share with me some stories of some particular students you have seen big changes in?

AAS: I was having a student last week with me who was in the first batch who is now the Director General of Foreign Affairs of Bangladesh. And another student is the head of research of -- we call it BARDEM-- this is a huge organization in my country, you know. Some are professors; they are very intelligent very bright and appreciate by everyone. Almost 15 of them, one has led a movement of education. So I think they are growing and they are coming gradually up (LH: And they are filtering down the system, hopefully right? AAS:Yes, Yes) We changed their minds, you see, we don't want to see them become scholars, but become great human beings - better human beings -- that's what we see. And then when they go to their active life this mind works. This enlightenment and enrichment of soul works, and they do better things in their life.

LH: Up next on TalkAsia. Mr. Sayeed re-lives the moments which first inspired his love, for literature.


LH: Welcome back to TalkAsia. Our guest this week is the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay recipient for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, Abdullah Abu Sayeed.

He's been recognised for his dedication to cultivate a love for literature among the youths in Bangladesh. At his World Literature Center in Dhaka, readers can roam through shelves full of translated works of Leo Tolstoy, Shakespeare, as well as great works of their own Bengali literature. But since not everyone can come to the center, the center-is going to them as well.

AAS: We have libraries on vans, you see, these have wheels so these can go from one place to another. So it goes to different parts of the cities now because it has been introduced in four cities, Dhaka is the capital of Bangladesh, Chittagong and (somewhere) and Khulna. These are going every week on a fixed time and a fixed date, to every locality - we are covering 280 localities now.

LH: So they get to places where that maybe people could never get to?

AAS Yes, never because we set up a library and failed because people has to take to great pains to get to their libraries, but if we go to their doorsteps and they become members and we have campaigns to become members and they become members, they can take books home and books are not lost because they are very near our hands, you see. If they do not turn up we will go to their...'hello brother, how are you? You are not coming to our library? So they are always coming and it is becoming a true success and people are very inspired and enthusiastic about this. And we are possibly going to introduce it all over the country

LH: I wanted to talk a bit about you personally, and where your love for literature came from? I mean was it from you father -- who, I read, was a teacher and a well-known playwright -?

AAS: Yes, he was a teacher of English literature and Bangla literature -- both, and he was a writer he was a playwright, and the environment of our home was all literally oriented, and secondly we had fairly brilliant teachers who inspired us to pass through to knowledge, you know, to pursue knowledge. And their influence greatly and the heroes of the early years of our life.

LH: Give me an example...

AAS: We had a teacher, he was a moulana, you know? - a religious man. He used to teach us Arabic and Urdu. But he was a suited man with tie, only a cap on his head. But he was so inspired urdu poetry and when he used to recite those with the poetry (recites a poem in another language). So these were recitations by him which inspired my, you know, the depth of my existence and I started loving Urdu poetry, I started loving Bangla poetry because my sister - elder sister -- was, used to recite Rabindranath Tagore - have you heard of him? (LH: No, actually) Yes, but he's great, he's the greatest of Indian writers -- of our language, of today. So she used to recite to me, and I use to see the world through poetry and the music of poetry

LH: That is amazing -- as a young child?

AAS: Yes as a young child, so our whole all our environment was filled up with literally, you know, feelings and activities. My father was a playwright, so he used to stage his plays every year (LH: Did you act in any of them? AAS: Oh, of course LH: Were you any good? AAS: I think so, because my father was pleased to see me acting in his plays and he was the director because normally he didn't get pleased with me in anything, but in acting he was pleased. (he laughs)

LH: When you attended university in, what was then the newly independent East Pakistan (AAS: Yes), did you manage to cultivate still this love for poetry this love for literature?

AAS: Oh yes we had the best environment for cultivating literary activities 16:45:16 and there was a teacher called Muni Chokri who was killed by the Pakistani army later on, and he was a great orator and we had many very good teachers of literature and everything was set on fire in me and again reinforced what I had learnt in my early years

LH: It sounds as though you were a very passionate young man during that time (AAS: Still passionate LH: Still passionate, ok. Both laugh). After writing and publishing books, of course, you went into television -- what was the interest in that medium -- in tv.

AAS: Because I had a love for the stage as well, as I have told you that I acted in plays directed by my father, not only that I acted when I was a student of class 8, maybe 14 years, and I got a silver medal for being the best actor and in the university days I became the champion in literary competitions in many halls of the university. So all this inspired me to go look for the quest and the love for the stage, and to come before human beings and before viewers and this I think...

LH: You were pretty popular, right?

AAS: Yes, I was popular when I had my entertainment and literary programmes on the television screens for ten years. And I was so engrossed with this that I used to think that if I could die on the floor while doing these programmes it would be the most glorious day of my life

LH: Although Mr. Sayeed enjoyed his television days, he says he does not miss the limelight. Being a teacher has and always will be, his first love. More with Mr. Sayeed, after the break


LH: You're back with TalkAsia and our conversation with the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay recipient Abdullah Abu Sayeed. He used to be a popular television personality in his native country, Bangladesh. But he walked away from fame when he felt that education, was where he was needed most

AAS: I have taught for 30 years and then I left my job as a teacher because I had some dreams and I wanted to make them better human beings, you see, and it failed because our education system degenerated very fast and I at one point I realized that within this education system I couldn't really do anything. But about my students, my students have always loved me was very dear to me they were very dear to me as well. And I used to care for each of my students, they are very big in number they are 150,000 in total. But, I think I have heart for each of them you know, I have love for each of them and I tried my best to set some dreams before their eyes so they can pursue that and go somewhere I don't know. People think that dreams are very abstract things, these are wild imagination things, it's not that - dreams are what our destination is and we strive to go there. So I tried to sow dreams in their hearts, that's what I did and I think I was successful to some extent.

LH: Have you had to make many sacrifices through the years to achieve what you have

AAS: Sacrifice means personally you know (LH Suffering) money, and I am not very popular in my hope, though my wife is very good and a very good soul she has no materialistic ambition, and neither my daughters -- that are two in numbers. They have never put any pressure on me, and I dedicated a book to my wife telling that she who helped me most my merely enduring. So I have nothing, I am a very poor man I couldn't acquire anything for me. But it is my pleasure that I can do something for some people, at least .

LH: Was there a particular incident that you felt showed you that all you had done had really really paid off, was there one incident?

AAS: I cannot answer this in this way, but can I tell you one story? That I lived in a house where I had to pay 12,000 taka -- is our money, our currency -- a month. And I lived there for 2 years, and I expected the rent will go high for at least 1,000 or 2,000 taka, and suddenly the house owner came to me and said 'you have to pay 2,000 taka less' (LH: Wow) and I think this is the highest price because normally landlords do not (LH: Go the other way AAS: right, go the other way). So this is something that it has reached the people, what I'm trying to do -- this is a good thing that it has reached even to the common people.

LH: Talking about the center again how do you hope it will grow, and where do you see it growing to?

AAS: It is grow, because we are now involved with almost 150,000 mostly young men and women, and some are elderly people, of course And I hope we are introducing our enrichment program and will enrich students that are involved. We have 500 branches and now we are introducing it to 1000 schools, so the number will become 175,000. With the mobile library we shall reach almost 300,000 -- 300,000 readers. You know, a reader is not a simple ordinary human being, a reader is a thinker, a reader is somewhat a philosopher, who gives direction to life, ok? So I think if we cater to 500,000 people at a time, it's a great attainment, and we have other programs we have almost 1500 programs, that is a fairly complicated jump

LH: Mr. Sayeed you have touched the hearts of many older youth and adults as well, but what about the young children of Bengal?

AAS: we are working for the young people of Bengal, not the older. One of the, you know, very respected person told me that is we can make the older people read I should nominate your name for such awards, and I said 'sir, I have some value of time, I can not waste my time with older people because they are gong to die, but I look for very young who are sensitive, who are eager who are impressionable, who have quest, whose minds are soft, you know, to act onto anything, so I am looking for them. If I can reach them, then I reach this country for the next 60 years.

LH: And what is your dream for this new generation?

AAS: I dream for the new generation, for them to become turn out as enlightened human beings and they are inspired to do good things for their fellow beings and to mitigate their sufferings and they become responsible citizens, they shouldn't look for themselves only, but for everyone around. Be better human beings, and enjoy this world and love this world, you know and die peacefully. Because one who has loved, he has or she has burnt his life into end, so there is no problem. One must enjoy life.

LH: 2004 Ramon Magsaysay recipient for Journalism, Literature and Creative Communication Arts, Abdullah Abu Sayeed.

And that wraps the second installment of our special TalkAsia series from Manila. Thank you very much for joining us. I'm Lorraine Hahn. Let's talk again next week.

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