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A Lot of People Want This Woman Silenced

There's a price on the head of Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasrin. Why? She dared to speak out.

July 16, 1998|DAVID RICHARDS | WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK — You expect a firebrand with flashing eyes and clenched fists, not the gentle woman who opens the door to the nondescript apartment in the dull brick building in a far-flung borough of this city.

It was only four years ago that Taslima Nasrin, the 35-year-old Bangladeshi poet, novelist, feminist and self-proclaimed atheist, stirred Muslim fundamentalists in her homeland to such a pitch of righteous wrath that she had to flee the country. She was widely excoriated as a rabble-rouser, a she-devil, a scourge. Religious zealots issued a fatwa calling for her execution, and from the emotions her public appearances ignited, it seemed there was no shortage of volunteers to carry out the sentence. Even the Bangladeshi government found it expedient to charge her with the crime of blasphemy and confiscate her passport.

Yet the small, plumpish woman who has just opened the door has soft brown eyes and a retiring smile that plays at the corners of her mouth. She is dressed simply in a white short-sleeved blouse and shorts and wears a few pieces of gold jewelry. Her quiet voice hardly seems suited to inflammatory pronouncements.

This is what a scourge looks like?

"People say to me that I am very gentle and polite," Nasrin says in the serviceable English that is her second language. (Bengali is her native tongue.) "People who don't know me, people who just read my books, they think I must be aggressive. They are surprised how I can look like this. I don't think I have to be aggressive or that I have to shout. What anger I have I can put in my books. I can be very soft, yet strong inside. Aggressiveness doesn't mean that you are strong."

Since 1994, Nasrin has lived in exile, behind locked doors in flats like this one--neat but vaguely cheerless places where the inexpensive furniture runs to Formica and bleached wood. Just inside the door, several pairs of shoes are lined up in a row. A noisy air-conditioner in the window pumps a stream of semi-cool air into the room.

At the height of her troubles, Sweden offered her political asylum, and Nasrin has taken refuge in Germany. For a while, when she ventured out in public, she often did so with security guards at her side. International journalists invariably compared her plight to that of author Salman Rushdie, whose 1989 "Satanic Verses" prompted the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to call for his head. In an open letter to Nasrin published in several prominent newspapers, Rushdie urged her to remain steadfast, assuring her that right was on her side.

But Nasrin eventually came to find Sweden "a cold and depressing place." While her books have proved immensely popular in France, there, too, she feels "out of my culture and out of my language."

So 2 1/2 months ago she came to New York, where her younger sister has lived for the past year. Nasrin is here on a tourist visa. She is not seeking asylum, she says. She simply wants to see whether she could live here, adapt to the rhythms of the culture, find the peace and anonymity that would allow her to continue her writing career.

"My face is not going on to the television now, so here I am not known by general, ordinary people," she says. "That makes me happy. But I do not always feel safe. There are a lot of Muslim fundamentalists here, and I have heard that newspapers in their language say that I am living here or that I have been seen in the subway. Some people recognize me, especially people from the Indian subcontinent. They ask, 'Are you Taslima?' And I say, 'No, I am not Taslima. I look like Taslima. That is all.' "

The smile tugs at the corners of her mouth.

"Sometimes, when I come home at night from Manhattan in a taxi, the driver recognizes me and starts to ask me questions," she continues. "I say, 'Stop the taxi right away.' I get out and take another taxi. I just want to move about freely. But I have to be very careful about my address, so that nobody knows it."

One thing is certain: Nasrin cannot go home again. She remains persona non grata in Bangladesh, where her trial for blasphemy languishes, unresolved, in the Bangladesh High Court. The fatwa, promising $1,250 to whoever puts her to death, is still in force. (While that sum seems small by Western standards, it is five times the average annual income in the poverty-torn country.) And now Nasrin's mother is critically ill with colon cancer, which recently spread to her liver. All her lawyers' attempts to negotiate even a brief visit have proved fruitless.

"I am willing to risk everything," she says, her voice becoming faint. "But it is not possible. The authorities will not let me in, even though I have the right to go there. They say that the fundamentalists will make trouble if I go back. I will be thrown out from the airport if I try. And my mother is dying. She will die within two weeks. It is so terrible that I can't see her."

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