‘My gay friends were hacked to death in Dhaka. I escaped.’
The Daily Beast
October 10, 2017
Ali Asgar still remembers the terrible screaming of Xulhaz Mannan, founder of Roopbaan, Bangladesh’s only LGBTQ magazine, and Mahbub Rabbi Tonoy, as a gang of six attackers hacked them to death.
The murders, on April 25 last year in Dhaka, garnered international headlines. Then-Secretary of State John Kerry called the murders “barbaric.”
Asgar, who was a friend of Mannan’s and at his home at the time, managed to flee, and has never before spoken about the attack in detail.
Now an artist and performer studying for an MFA at the University of Maine, Asgar, who identifies as genderqueer, is seeking permanent asylum in the U.S.
Asgar is one of the artists helping launch PEN America’s Artist at Risk Connection (ARC), which PEN describes as “an online collaboration of more than 500 global organizations that provide life-saving resources to artists worldwide who face oppression, persecution, arrest, and violence for their creative work.”
An interactive online catalogue will help threatened artists identify programs for which they’re eligible, including emergency funding, housing opportunities, residencies, fellowships and grants, and legal, immigration, and resettlement services.
Asgar’s involvement is significant because, as PEN notes, between 2014 and 2016, “a significant number of people in Dhaka—bloggers, writers, free thinkers, and religious minority group members—were hacked to death by the Muslim extremist groups of Bangladesh which later claimed their association with Al-Qaeda and ISIS.”
Asgar—who uses the pronouns “they” and “their”—told The Daily Beast that they were close friends with both Mannan and Tonoy.
Mannan’s home in Dhaka was a 10-minute walk from Asgar’s and had become a gathering point for the city’s LGBTQ community and activists. Homosexual acts are illegal in Bangladesh, under a law dating back to British colonial rule.
While rarely enforced, the police use Section 377 of the country’s penal code, detailing “unnatural offences,” as a pretext to crack down on gays in the country.
That evening, Asgar had gone to Mannan’s apartment to discuss the problems all three had been having getting visas to travel in India—Asgar to attend an arts residency in Goa, and Mannan and Tonoy to attend an LGBTQ youth conference in Mumbai. Asgar also wanted to wish Tonoy a happy birthday.
When he opened the door to greet Asgar, Mannan said that he was suspicious of the four people who had apparently come to the building a few hours previously.
“They were looking to deliver a parcel to Xulhaz, and wouldn’t hand it over to the caretaker,” recalled Asgar. “They wanted to deliver it personally. I told Xulhaz that he was overthinking things, that it was not serious. I didn’t realize the depth of the situation. He was afraid someone was coming looking for him.”
Mannan, who also worked for USAID, an American government agency for poverty prevention, had organized two “Rainbow Rallys” in Dhaka in 2014 and 2015, around the time of the Bengali New Year. In 2016, he had been forced to cancel the event, because of security concerns.
The anti-gay mood was threatening, Asgar said. Messages had been posted online to slap gay men in the face with shoes and hand them over to police.
LGBTQ people, said Asgar, were more fearful of police than homophobic vigilantes. “The police arrested people suspected of being homosexual,” Asgar said. “Because Xulhaz worked for USAID, he thought he would be OK. He was more concerned about Tonoy and me. He was very concerned with the hate-filled threats he was receiving. They were serious.”
Tonoy, said Asgar, had also been receiving death threats, and was carrying a heavy wooden object in his bag in case someone attacked him while he was out walking. “I told him to carry something else. It didn’t seem enough to protect himself with if he needed it.”
Asgar said that at the time of the murders all three were taking added precautions for their safety: not going out by themselves, not meeting anyone they didn’t know, and not arriving home too late.
‘I heard screaming outside, it was Xulhaz screaming my name’
Half an hour after Asgar arrived at Mannan’s home, the doorbell rang.
“Xulhaz went out of the bedroom to open the door,” Asgar recalled. “Within 35 to 40 seconds we both heard Xulhaz screaming. His bedroom door was half-closed, and we saw him getting pushed outside by someone else. We ran towards Xulhaz to help him. When we got close to Xulhaz we saw five other people. Three of them caught Tonoy. He was also screaming. One of them ran towards me.
“From that moment, all I remember is that I ran. One person ran behind me. On my left I saw Xulhaz’s mom’s room.
I ran inside and locked the door. I heard screaming outside, it was Xulhaz screaming my name, and asking where I was, and whether I was safe or not. He screamed for me not to come outside, and to stay inside the room that I was in.”
Asgar also heard what they presumed to be the attackers screaming, “Allah is great.”
“I was so paranoid I didn’t know how to react. Should I try to ring someone, should I ring the police? There were a thousand people on the street outside.”
After a while there was a knocking on the door. “I was so afraid,” said Asgar. “I thought, ‘They have come to get me after finishing Xulhaz and Tonoy.’”
But it was Mannan’s housemate who had locked herself in the kitchen, and she said they had to take the gravely injured men to the hospital. Asgar left the room. “I saw for a second Xulhaz, his whole head smashed, there was blood everywhere.”
Outside on the street, Asgar asked for help to find a vehicle to take their friends to a nearby hospital. No one helped, Asgar said. A member of staff at the hospital they went to said it was a private hospital and couldn’t supply an ambulance; another member of staff told Asgar they could provide an ambulance but at a price.
Asgar returned to Mannan’s home to find an active crime scene. The police asked Asgar who they were, but Asgar did not reveal they had been inside the home at the time of the attacks. Asgar said they were scared. Asgar told a friend the truth, who advised Asgar to flee immediately.
Later, Ansar al-Islam, the Bangladeshi division of al Qaeda on the Indian subcontinent, claimed responsibility for the killings, one of many at the time of bloggers and activists.
Asgar went home, and picked up their passport and laptop. “I just remember that I felt I couldn’t be where I was at that moment. No one was running behind me after the killings. But I was feeling scared, not safe.”
Asgar sought shelter at the U.S. embassy in Dhaka. “I felt continuous fear inside me until the day I left. A group of us lived in a safe house, and that’s where I stayed for the next two months. Every time someone knocked on the door, you didn’t know who it was, even though there was security all around.”
Mannan’s killing “was the prelude to the darkest days for the LGBTQ movement in Bangladesh,” one campaigner told The Daily Beast last year. This campaigner now lives in exile and asked not to be named because of fears for his own life.
“We’d been gaining such momentum and visibility. But after this incident, everything collapsed immediately. The other leaders have all left the country or gone underground. The whole volunteer community just disappeared overnight. There was a sense of insecurity and panic.”
In a later email, I asked Asgar if they ever went to the authorities to reveal that they had been a witness to the killings.
“After going to the safe shelter of the U.S. embassy, I did talk with local police and FBI,” Asgar wrote in response.
“The embassy and authorities were aware and without their help, it was quite impossible to go through Bangladeshi police safely.”
The process with the police ended up by me giving a written statement to them as an eyewitness of the incident, and I had to give an official statement to the magistrate at the lower court in Dhaka.”
Representatives from USAID and the U.S. embassy worked quite closely with Asgar “to finish the process and make sure I am not getting harassed by the police” or misrepresented in the local media. Asgar added, “It was impossible to talk publicly about the incident while I was in Dhaka for many security reasons,” but after Asgar came to the U.S. with a fellowship from the Artist Protection Fund during their year of fellowship as a visiting artist on lectures, artist and panel talks and public discussions, they have talked about the experience in an extension of their art practices.
‘I’ll never be able to accept my son as gay’
Until Mannan’s murder, “for 25 years of my life,” Asgar had grown up in Dhaka. “I had spent my entire life in that city, and suddenly I didn’t feel safe enough to walk out on the street. I found myself thinking recently, ‘What if I went back, would I feel safe or not?’ Only a few months ago 29 LGBTQ people were arrested there, and there is still aggressive anti-homosexual propaganda. It’s not like things ended with the murders of Xulhaz and Tonoy.”
As a city, Asgar said, Dhaka is rigidly stratified by class and how much money and power one has. Asgar’s family is lower-middle-class. Their father is a government employee, their mother a housewife. They were the oldest son, and “very effeminate from childhood” (Asgar also has a sister 11 years their junior). Asgar’s parents, because they were the first son, paid for the best education for him that money could buy.
Asgar fell in love with a classmate, but “gay” and “queer” were not familiar words, and would remain so until Asgar gained access to the internet in his first year studying for a BFA in printmaking from the Faculty of Fine Arts at the University of Dhaka.
“Then I found out. I could name this desire. My family never realized I was, or maybe they did and were in denial. I would wear my mom’s jewelry and wear things that were not masculine.”
Finally, with access to the internet, Asgar made connections to people like Mannan, and LGBTQ community organizations too. Mannan’s eloquence and articulacy impressed and inspired Asgar.
“I wanted to create performances, to make a language, which talked about this desire. Talking about sex and sexuality are both taboo in Bangladesh,” said Asgar. “You could go to the U.S. embassy or another elite kind of discussion, but the moment you returned to real life it would vanish. No one discusses it, or has the courage to say anything positive about it.”
Asgar came out to their family around five years ago. Asgar didn’t log out of the fake account they had created to surf LGBTQ sites on the family’s desktop commuter, and Asgar’s father accessed it.
While Asgar’s parents are both left-wing activists, and homosexuality not an unknown to them, Asgar’s father asked his child if they were gay, and Asgar said yes.
Asgar’s father said, “After a certain conversation, maybe the whole world will accept you as gay, but I’ll never be able to accept my son as gay. So if you want to be like yourself, either leave this country or go somewhere where I don’t have to deal with you.”
After the murders of Mannan and Tonoy, Asgar’s father “became more accepting in some ways, and he would try to have a conversation on a regular basis,” Asgar recalled. “But we would never talk about who I am, or being gay, or Xulhaz and Tonoy. The one question my dad asked me was, ‘Were you in that house on that day or not?’ I just said yes, and the conversation ended on that point. My dad knows very certainly that I am not going back to Bangladesh in the near future. There is a comfortable and uncomfortable silence in the family. Everyone knows what the facts are, but nobody is talking about it.”
Asgar misses their family, Dhaka, old friends, and their old professional life because the city was key to Asgar’s first creation of art—from inspiration to exhibitions in galleries, and applying to arts foundations for grants and the like.
Having to flee Bangladesh was not by choice, Asgar said, but governed by circumstance, the latter out of Asgar’s control.
“Coming to America, I have had to make myself relevant. When I talk about racial issues, racial injustice, racial suffering, racial queer suffering, and brown-skinned queer suffering that’s what I have suffered coming to America. It’s a whole different identity politics, or maybe an extension of my previous identity politics.”
‘White people don’t know why skin color is such a big issue for all people of color’
Asgar did not settle in a multicultural metropolis like New York City or Chicago, but is an Artist Protection Fund Fellow in residence at the University of Maine, “continuing politically-inspired projects that emphasize trauma, dislocation, isolation, body politics, and queer identity,” as their biography puts it.
Asgar is particularly focused on the “personal struggle and experience of growing up in conservative Bangladeshi patriarchal society and its attitude toward members of the LGBTQI community,” and uses their own body and self-imagery “as a rudimentary element to walking the line between reality and the artifice of self-analysis.” Asgar’s work has been exhibited in India, New York, Boston, Chicago, and Portland, Maine.
Asgar described living in Maine as an “intense and isolating experience. For most people, I am the first person they have met who has come from Bangladesh. Some of them think Bangladesh is in Saudi Arabia, or Africa.
“I’m not saying they have to know where it is, but they don’t have the context when they meet someone like a homosexual like me to imagine how two people can get killed in front of me,” Asgar said. “It’s such an unbelievable experience. If I were an American who grew up in Maine maybe I wouldn’t understand how things worked in different parts of the world. It’s a huge struggle. I can’t explain myself, or what I went through, or who I am.”
Asgar notes that producing the kind of work and performance as they did in Bangladesh, wearing saris and cross-dressing, may have been considered radical; here it may not be.
They have been racially abused, and had bottles of Coke thrown at them on the street. Asgar’s white fellow students try to discourage them, they said, from thinking “everything is not a racial thing, but it is a racial thing. It doesn’t have to be aggressive, it can come in many forms. But white people don’t know why skin color is such a big issue for all people of color. People in Maine will say that racism happens in the South, or the middle of country. ‘We’re nice people.’ But by denying my experience or de-validating it, they’re kind of doing the same thing.”
Asgar has also found racism in the LGBTQ community. In Maine, “it is obviously a very white, gay, cis male community. They don’t have much of an awareness of a transgender or genderqueer community. There is a vacuum.
I went to speak at a local LGBTQ center and was told they were not into ‘international stuff.’ That was shocking to me. I am international, so what—my experience cannot contribute to the local experience?”
While their cross-dressing performances has made for more attention-grabbing photographs, it is not the totality of their work, Asgar said.
“People identify me as a homosexual rather than a person who does art, or as an artist. It’s hard for me to overcome that fact my sexuality defines me but there are many parts of me, prominently yes around gender and sexual identity and maybe activism. But there is also pure fine art, abstract fine art, printmaking, watercolors. I am primarily an artist. Activism came as a by-product of being a socially aware artist.”
Asgar is frustrated that one show in Maine had the label “adult content” stuck on it, because the nudity it contained was not explicit.
The artist recently did a show, No One Home, where for eight hours, 40 people joined him in a room to discuss racial discrimination and injustice for 10 minutes apiece. Most were white, and pretty scared, Asgar said. “A few cried, some didn’t say anything, some were so nervous they didn’t know how to react.”
In November, Asgar will create, Dinner Table, a dinner for seven people at a time, Asgar stipulating what they will wear, eat, and discuss. The artist is fascinated by “the racial history of American food,” and how white Americans eat various ethnic foods—Thai, Chinese, Mexican—cooked and prepared mostly by people who are not white. After this cultural odyssey dressed up as a feast, Asgar will ask attendees for a debrief on their experiences.
‘He was that guy, that big brother, who would help you just by talking to you’
Asgar is single. “It is not easy to meet people when you identify as genderqueer,” they say. “My passion is towards men and the cis white male community here is racially not very diverse and has a rigid idea of what masculinity should look like.” They meet people in Chicago and New York City when traveling, but will likely stay in Maine where they have an academic and performance home.
It wasn’t much easier dating in Bangladesh, Asgar said. “As you might have gathered during this conversation, I’m sometimes quite brutally outspoken. I know what I want. I demand things in life. Being with closeted, straight-acting men who are afraid of talking about their own sexual desire was frustrating. I want to be treated not just as an object of desire, but as someone who can enjoy a relationship and celebrate another person.”
Asgar is still awaiting his asylum interview, and feels very frightened by President Donald Trump’s rhetoric around immigration. “Every day I feel depressed if I look at the news. For Americans it may seem terrible. For people like me, or others who have just come here, it is not just about opportunity. It is about life and death. It brings a level of uncertainty to my life, and I don’t know how to deal with that.”
Asgar does not know what Mannan would have made of their journey since that terrible April night. “He was more like a figure who was like a tree. He would take care of everyone. He was 37 years old I was 25, Tonoy was 27. Most of my life experience and thought was deeply influenced by Xulhaz. He was not an artist, he was self-made and had a deep experience of what life is. I miss that. I miss that I cannot just reach out to him and ask what should I do in a situation. I lost that person, and not only me, many other people did. He was that person, that guy, that big brother, who would help you just by talking to you.”
I asked Asgar if they had come to any kind of terms with the events of last April.
“I don’t think I can overcome the whole thing. I’m not sure what Xulhaz would think of what I am doing these days. But I am trying to be honest with myself. That mattered to him, to both of them. They were extremely honest people. There was no hiding.
“That was part of the reason why I admired both of them as people, regardless of their sexuality, activism or what contributions they had made in certain communities. They were just honest people with an honest desire to make contributions to this world. They were a huge inspiration to me. I don’t know if I’ll be able to become a person like them, but I can say that had had these friends who were that brave and that honest and that’s an inspiration every day of my life.”