Partial Transcript: I am from Bangladesh, and I say that because both sides of my family are from Bangladesh, but I was born in Pakistan.
Keywords: Academics; America; American; Bangladesh; College; Diplomat; Europe; Family; Father; Grad school; Husband; Middle East; Pakistan; United States; US
Subjects: Bangladesh; College; Family; Pakistan; United States
Partial Transcript: She—um the rules of the foreign service were that when you are stationed abroad the spouse who was not the diplomat, who traditionally, historically, has been the woman, so the man is the diplomat and the woman isn’t, doesn’t get to work.
Keywords: Diplomat; Foreign service; International; Job; Oversea; School; Spouse; Volunteer; Wife; Woman; Work
Subjects: Job; Mother; Volunteer; Work
Partial Transcript: He started out to be a college professor— in history—, and I think at the time it was very prestigious to take—to go into the civil service, this was 1960s Pakistan—, Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan at the time—, and so I think someone encouraged him to take the test.
Keywords: Bangladesh; Civil service; College; Dhaka for University; Educated Wealth; Exam; Family; Father; Foreign Service; High school; Mother; Overseas; Pakistan; Professor; Teaching; Travel
Subjects: Bangladesh; Civil service; Exam; Family; Father; Foreign Service
Partial Transcript: It was, because my father—and we call it of course the Bangladesh Independence War, we don’t call it the Indo-Pakistan War, even though, you know, India came in at the end and won the war for us, many would say—
Keywords: Bangladesh; Bangladesh Independence War; Birthday; China; College; Delhi; Diplomat; Father; Flag; Government; House; Independence; India; Indian; Indira Gandhi; Indo-Pakistani War; New Delhi; Nixon; Pakistan; Pakistan Embassy; Pakistan Foreign Service; Parents; Scary; Violence; War
Subjects: Bangladesh Independence War; Indira Gandhi; Indo-Pakistani War; Parents; Violence
Partial Transcript: So the war ended December ’71, with Bangladesh officially independent, and then seventy—April ’72 we moved to France.
Keywords: Bangladesh; Beirut; Civil War; Embassy; English; Europe; Father; Foreign Service; France; French; Hindi; Independent; Language; Lebanon; Mom; Pakistan; Parents; School; Sister; Trilingual; Urdu; Western
Subjects: Bangladesh; English; Family; Foreign service; France; French; Lebanon; War
Partial Transcript: I have, thanks to Facebook, now found friends.
Keywords: Bangladesh; Bangladeshi; Beirut; Cousin; Embassy; England; Facebook; Family; Foreign Service; Friends; Harvard; Kids; Parents; School; Sister; Social; Technology; War; War zone
Subjects: Facebook; Friends; Parents; School; Technology
Partial Transcript: My parents moved to Kuwait this—, we’d been in Poland and even in Poland I’d gone to boarding school in England because there were no English schools in Warsaw, this was Communist Warsaw, the only English school was the eighth grade—
Keywords: American; Arab Times; Asian; Bangladesh Observer; Bangladeshi; Boarding school; Boston; College; Communist; England; Festival; Financial aid; Gender; Indian; Iraq-Iran War; Job; Kuwait; Movie; News; Newspaper; Overseas; Pakistan; Persian Gulf; Poland; Politics; Reviews; Saudi Arabia; School; South Asian; Students; Summer; University; US; Warsaw; Women; Work; Workplace; Writing
Subjects: Job; Kuwait; Newspaper; Women; Work; Writing
Partial Transcript: Um…nNo, because once I learned English when I was eight, it had always been English schools from then on.
Keywords: American; Australia; Bangladesh; Boston; California; College; Conservative; Culture; Dad; English; Father; Food; Grandfather; Harvard; Headmaster; High school; India; Language; Married; Overseas; Parents; Poland; Princeton; School; Similar; Texas; Undergrad; United States; Yale
Subjects: America; Bangladesh; College; Harvard; Parents; School; United States
Partial Transcript: So I don’t think it was that much of a shock, and I’d been away from home to be in boarding school, though of course that is much more restricted so...
Keywords: Aunt; Bangladesh; Boston; Canada; Children; Christmas; College; England; Exam; Family; Freedom; Friends; Harvard; High school; Home; International; Kuwait; New England; Paris; Poland; Regret; Roommate; School; Snow; Summer; Thanksgiving; Transition
Subjects: Boston; Christmas; College; Family; Friends; Harvard; Thanksgiving
Partial Transcript: Yes, because the first time it was very easy, my dad was the ambassador to Kuwait, so he would just take—he would make an appointment, or the Bangladesh embassy made an appointment with the US embassy, he came with me, we sat down in a nice room, probably got coffee or coke or something, and the paperwork was done and then we left.
Keywords: Ambassador; Arab Times; Bangladesh; Boston; Dad; Embassy; Foreign Service; Harvard; Kuwait; Paperwork; Parents; Princeton; Saddam Hussein; School; Stress; Student; Student visa; University; Visa
Subjects: Harvard; Paperwork; Saddam Hussein; Stress; Student visa; Visa
Partial Transcript: Bangladesh yes, because I ended up doing my senior thesis and dissertation on Bangladesh, so I—so I kept going back.
Keywords: Adult; Bangladesh; Dissertation; France; Husband; Kuwait; Lebanese; Parents; Poland; Thesis
Subjects: Bangladesh; France; Lenabon; News; Poland; Pop culture
Partial Transcript: Um…I guess, wWhen I was coming to college, the assumption was that I would study economics, because many people came to Harvard from places like Bangladesh to study economics, and then the idea was then you go back and you apply it to fix the problems in your country.
Keywords: Anthropology; Asian Studies; Bangladesh; California; College; Consulting; Country; Economics; Fondren Library; Government; Grad school; Grameen Bank; Harvard; Helena Mickie; History; Husband; Interdisciplinary; Job; Kuwait; Lynn Huffer; Paula Sanders; Politics; Princeton; Psychology; Rice; Rick Smith; Social studies; Sociology; Thesis; Women; Women and Gender Studies; Women's studies
Subjects: Asian Studies; College; Economics; Harvard; Helena Mickie; Job; Lynn Huffer; Paula Sanders; Politics; Rice; Rick Smith; Women and Gender Studies
Partial Transcript: Um…no…I mean, w We’re trying to raise them tri-lingual.
Keywords: Arabic; Bengali; Canadian; Children; Christian; Christmas; Culture; Daughter; English; Ethical; Family; Holidays; Identity; Kids; Languages; Lebanon; Moral; Muslim; Parents; Preschool; Ramadan; Religious; Son; Trilingual; University of Houston; Ussama
Subjects: Arabic; Bengali; Children; Christian; Culture; Daughter; English; Family; Identity; Muslim; Religious; Son; Trilingual; Ussama
Partial Transcript: I don’t… think… so. I think it’s unrealistic—
Keywords: Advantages; America; Arabic; Bangladesh; Beirut; Bengali; College; Connection; Cousins; Daughter; England; English; Environment; Friends; Globalized; Home; Kids; Language; Learning; Movie; Moving; Parents; Poland; Prepare; Protect; School; TV; Unrealistic; Ussama; World
Subjects: Advantages; America; English; Globalized; Kids; School; Ussama
Partial Transcript: Not my husband, my mother-in-law was worried at some point.
Keywords: America; Beirut; Career; Concerns; Houston; Husband; Irvine; Job; Kids; Marriage; Married; Mother; Mother-in-law; PhD; Pregnant; Rice; Student; Ussama; Washington DC; Working
Subjects: Career; Husband; Kids; Marriage; Married; Mother-in-law; Ussama; Working
Partial Transcript: Um…going back it was more about, you know, “This is what you should wear and not wear.”
Keywords: Bangladesh; Brother; Clothing; College; Daughter; Dissertation; Family; Gender; Harvard; Houston; Kids; London; Married; Salwar-kameez; Sari; Sister; Teach; Weather
Subjects: Bangladesh; Clothing; Family; Harvard; Houston; Married
Partial Transcript: I think also because we were part of…you know,, I was always in an embassy, and my father, I got the impression from him that he was—he felt beleaguered by the different local Bangladeshi associations.
Keywords: Ambassador; Bangladeshi; Bangladeshi associations; Bangladeshi-American; Community; Diplomat; Embassy; Father; Houston; Organizations; Parties
Subjects: Bangladeshi; Bangladeshi associations; Bangladeshi-American; Community; Embassy; Father; Houston
Partial Transcript: I think because it had an educational element to it.
Keywords: Amazing Faiths; Boniuk Center; Canada; Christ Church Cathedral; Conversation; Culture; Daughter; Educational; Friend; Identity; Interfaith Women's Group; Iranian-American; Muslim; Passover; Religious; Rice; Stereotypes; Success; Women
Subjects: Culture; Identity; Interfaith Women's Group; Muslim; Religious; Stereotypes; Women
Interviewee: Elora ShehabuddinInterviewed by: Kelin Herrington Date: March 14, 2011 Transcribed by: Kelin Herrington (Edited by: Taylor Ginter 5/3/17)
Key:ES: Elora Shehabuddin KH: Kelin Herrington —: speech cuts off; abrupt stop …: speech trails off; pause Italics: emphasis (?): preceding word may not be accurate [Brackets]: actions [laughs, sighs, ect.]
KH: Oral history interview of Elora Shehabuddin at her office in Houston, Texason March 14, 2011. Interview conducted by Kelin Herrington for the Houston Asian American Archives at Rice University’s Woodson Research Center. Uh so tell me about yourself.
ES: Um, so it’s okay to repeat stuff that’s on…I am from Bangladesh, and Isay that because both sides of my family are from Bangladesh, but I was born in Pakistan. And then because my father was in the Bangladesh Foreign Service I grew up mostly in Europe and the Middle East. But because he was in the Foreign Service he was a diplomat for Bangladesh, I had a very clear sense of here we 1:00are, wherever we are, representing Bangladesh, so even though growing up I only spent four years there, um it was very clear to me that I’m from Bangladesh and not from anywhere else. Um…what else? I came to the U.S. for college and stayed on and on and on. When I came it wasn’t clear how long I’d stay. But after living in all these places I applied to American colleges and came and then went to grad school here and then met my husband, and we were both going to be academics so this seemed to be the right place, so, here we are. I have a U.S. passport now, because he is American-born, but I really see myself as belonging to both Bangladesh and here, and nowhere in many ways.
KH: So, so my next question was going to be, what do you consider ‘back2:00home’? So you would say, you would say Bangladesh?
ES: Yeah… because my parents are back there now so it’s….I guess even whenI was here and they were somewhere else, I would have said both where they are... When I came to the U.S. they were Kuwait and then they were in Paris, so back home—back then—I guess I would have to specify whether I meant back home where my parents are, or Bangladesh depending on the context. Now they are in Bangladesh so that’s just one place.
KH: So your parents are originally from Bangladesh then.
KH: What did your mother do?
ES: She—um the rules of the Foreign Service were that when you are stationedabroad the spouse who was not the diplomat, who traditionally, historically, has been the woman, so the man is the diplomat and the woman isn’t, doesn’t get 3:00to work. She had no permission to work in the countries we were stationed in, so she would be in charge of, you know, the entertaining, she would be part of the diplomatic corps wives, and do volunteer work, organize international festivals, things like that when we were overseas. Then the few times, the four years that I did live back home growing up, she taught at a school for disadvantaged children. But…most of my life growing up she wasn’t working a job.
KH: Why did your dad decide to go into the Foreign Service?
ES: He started out to be a college professor—in history—and I think at thetime it was very prestigious to take—to go into the civil service, this was 1960s Pakistan—Bangladesh was still part of Pakistan at the time—and so I think someone encouraged him to take the test. He took the test, he did well, he 4:00placed into the Foreign Service so he thought okay. They had never gone overseas. Growing up, my mother’s family traveled around a lot in Bangladesh. My dad grew up in the village he’s from; then he moved to the big town over. They came from a very good family, that’s an expression you have back home, you know, good lineage, but, you know, they’d lost their wealth over the years because many many kids, the property keeps getting split up, so by the time my father and his brother were born, there wasn’t much property left, but, you know, everyone had been very well-educated. So he went to the local village school then he moved to the next town over for high school then he moved to the next city over for college, and then to the capital city in Dhaka for university. And then he was teaching for a while, history, social studies, whatever, and then someone said, ‘You should really take the civil service exam,’ he did, he placed into the Foreign Service. And I imagine the lure of, 5:00you know, getting to see the world was probably a very attractive one, and so yeah, that’s what he ended up choosing to do.
KH: Okay I’m going to pause it for a second. [recording stops and startsagain] Your pre-interview form said you lived in India during the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971. [ES: Yeah.] I mean, you were quite young—
ES: I was three years old.
KH: [laughs] But do you know if the situation was at all difficult for your parents?
ES: It was, because my father—and we call it of course the BangladeshIndependence War, we don’t call it the Indo-Pakistan War, even though, you know, India came in at the end and won the war for us, many would say—my father was stationed at the time in the Pakistan high commission, so he was—right because it was one country, east Pakistan west Pakistan, so he was in the Pakistan Foreign Service, there was no Bangladesh at the time, and he 6:00ended up being the first East Pakistani diplomat to defect, and so the very first Bangladesh mission outside, you know, overseas was actually our house, the first time the flag was unfurled et cetera. They played a very important role, and he—you know, they would—both of them—take part in protests, once they’d left and gotten asylum from the Indian government and everything was safe, they, you know, did protests outside the Pakistan Embassy, well no not the Pakistan high commission the British and the Americans who were supporting the Pakistanis at the time, Nixon for example was very supportive of Pakistan because he was trying to make inroads into China at the time, so he needed to stay friends with Pakistan for various complicated strategic reasons. So my parents were very involved, you know, Delhi was sort of the center of where things were happening, obviously the violence was happening in Bangladesh, but 7:00Indira Gandhi, the prime minister of India at the time, was very involved and invested in the outcome of the war, so they were very, very heavily involved in what was happening. The danger was very much at the beginning, so independence was declared March 26, our fortieth anniversary is coming up, which is also my birthday [laughter], I remember my college essay began, you know, sort of dramatically, ‘I’ve always felt my life is inextricably linked with the fate of my country,’ or something, because it’s the same birthday! So my third birthday party was cancelled because suddenly, you know, independence was declared and we were in India. So they um—and then even before provisional government had been formed in what was to become Bangladesh, my father and a colleague declared that they were leaving, you know, they sort of snuck away from their Pakistani—from the high commission, and did a big press release, a 8:00press conference saying that, you know, they’re sort of leaving the Pakistan high commission and setting up their own independent Bangladesh mission in, in New Delhi. So I think those moments, and my father recently wrote a—wrote his memoirs, it was interesting to see, you know, growing up we’d heard these stories, but when he described, you know, people showing up at the house that evening to make sure they weren’t planning anything because people had gotten suspicious, I realized how scary it must have been. It was—I was three and my sister was one and half, so, you know, for young parents with two young kids to sort of go into the unknown out there without knowing whether Bangladesh would ever actually come into being, right, they were risking everything so. Yeah, I think they were very scared and apprehensive, because of the violence that was happening in Bangladesh, in East Pakistan at the time, they felt they couldn’t keep working for the Pakistani government. So…yeah I don’t remember anything 9:00myself, but having read the memoir and heard some, you know, clips of the story growing up, I know they were very in touch with everything, so that’s exciting.
KH: So then next they [your parents] moved to France?
ES: Yes. So the war ended December ’71, with Bangladesh officiallyindependent, and then seventy—April ’72 we moved to France. I think my father as part of his Foreign Service training had had to learn some French, sitting in Pakistan, but obviously none of us had any, but we were put in when I was four and my sister was two, two and a half, we were put in a local French school and so we learned French. I didn’t learn English until much later, so. We were there for three years, went to local school and I think for my parents it must have been—it was the first—I mean India’s still familiar because 10:00everyone grows up even then watching Hindi films, and also they had Urdu in Bangladesh, it was mandatory for a while when it was East and West Pakistan, so the language was very easy for them but to come to Europe for the first time, I keep thinking, my mom, you know, with these two little girls coming here, it must have been so dramatic, and there are pictures of her switching to western clothing, I mean, to do that for the first time in your twenties, I don’t know, I mean, but, you know, I think that they really had a great time, and we were there from when I was four to seven, and then from there to Beirut for a year.
Most of these postings are supposed to be for three years, but we got to Beirutand then three days later the civil war broke out, the civil war that would last fifteen years, so we went to school for a few months, continued in French—in a French school because Lebanon is tri-lingual, French, English, and Arabic, and 11:00then for the summer my mother took us to Bangladesh, and then we came back and we were going to start English finally, I was eight years old, I was going to learn English, and then the war was getting so bad that we basically didn’t go to school, so my parents taught us at home for, you know, I guess a school year, and then we—my father closed down the embassy in Lebanon and we left after just a year and a bit in Lebanon.
KH: So, did much of this sort of drama were you really conscious of that or wasit just sort of part of the backdrop of your childhood?
ES: I was conscious of it, and caught up more in the excitement than theworrying. I mean I remember when we were in Lebanon we would make daytrips to Syria, so I remember once we went to Syria and we had a—maid at home that we’d brought back from my mother’s village in Bangladesh, and when we were 12:00coming back at the end of the day from wherever we went in Syria, they wouldn’t let us cross the border, they said no you can’t cross the border you have to spend the night here, and so we had—we slept in the car that night, and then the next morning they said okay you can go home now. We went home and the woman, she was white as a ghost, because there were no cell phones then, right, we had no way of—I think phone lines must have been down, or maybe we tried—I don’t know the details, did we try to call her? But she had no idea what had happened to us, right. So all night she was alone by herself...I remember we could see the shooting in the, in the horizon, but she...but, you know, so we showed up and she was totally scared and terrified, and it turned out, I learned many years later, when my parents were telling the story, that that was the night the Syrians were moving into Lebanon, and then they stayed for, you know, ten, fifteen, fifteen, twenty years, no, more than 13:00that, they only left a few years ago. So that’s why for our safety they had kept us at the border. But for me it was like Oh! We’re sleeping in the car tonight! And I hope Muti the woman at home is okay, but for my parents it, you know, must have been much more terrifying, whereas if, you know, we were sort of upset or excited about sleeping in the car, I have no idea. So yeah stuff like that happened, but I don’t think, I’m sure, you know, we didn’t realize the potential for danger that really was there, you know. It was just like, Oh, okay, this is different. [laughs] Unfortunately, or better, maybe, that we didn’t know.
KH: How did the—how did your frequent moving affect your childhood? Like didyou—did you enjoy the changes, or did you sort of wish you could stay in one place a bit longer?
ES: Bit of both, you know, I think I got used to the idea that we’d move very14:00often. I think as I got older especially...in Beirut because we didn’t go to school we ended up not having any real friends, it was just my sister and me, and we’d sit there, you know, imagining stories and writing stories, you know, and reading, doing a lot of reading, but then we went to Bangladesh for three years, and there we started to make real friends, and cousins, et cetera, so leaving there was very hard, and then the next one was England for three years, so now we’re eleven—no, England when I left it was eleven to fourteen, so it was even harder to leave, and then we went back to Bangladesh and that was just for one year, that was really hard, you know, at age fourteen, fifteen you make some really close friends, and also I felt gypped, you know, we were supposed to be here three years, these one year moves were unexpected, so you’re just getting comfortable in your home, you’re getting to know everything, and then we were moved again, so I think as I got older it got harder, so looking back now I have no childhood friends, you know, I have, you know—when I got to 15:00college my roommate was from Boston, and there were other friends I got to meet through her, they’d been together since kindergarten, and I couldn’t conceive of that, so maybe they paired us together for that reason, and we’re good friends now, so you know, that I had—I couldn’t claim anything like that. But, you know, I’m glad I got to see all those places…I hope it means I can meet people more easily or something, you know, so…
KH: There are trade-offs, I guess.
ES: Yeah, exactly. I can’t say, ‘Oh, I’ve known her for, you know, fortythree years,’ or something, but there are other things, I’m glad I got to see all these places, try all these, you know…and really live in places, not just visit. So I think…yeah, trade-offs, exactly. Some good, some bad.
KH: When I was reading your form, I was so jealous [laugher] especially now that16:00you’re telling about all the excitement, I mean wars but…
ES: You know it’s true, and my parents have gotten a lot of flack from myfriends for, you know, being in war zones time and time again. [laughter]
KH: So you haven’t kept in touch with any of the friends you made in your liketwo or three year stints?
ES: I have, thanks to Facebook, now found friends. Maybe old friends fromBangladesh whose parents also happened to be in the Foreign Service, who we met along the way, somehow we didn’t always have other kids our age in the embassy, it didn’t always happen, but a few, because my parents kept in touch with their parents, I’ve found them again, also on Facebook, recently. But…I think the oldest friend from a school is from England, from when I was eleven to fourteen, so I found them again on Facebook, the ones who are academics. 17:00[laughter] You know, I think they’re easier to find also somehow, right you leave an electronic trail. So yeah, from that age. Beirut, you know, I didn’t go to school really, so now friends from there, and Paris, I was too young to remember people’s last names, four to seven, so, yeah, no one from that far back.
KH: So would you say that the, basically sort of the, growth of socialnetworking technologies have made a big difference—
ES: Definitely. My sister, who’s a grad student at Harvard, kept traveling todifferent places, and she’d—and I’d say, Well I want to see the pictures, and she’d say, Well it’s all on Facebook, and I’d say, I’m not going to join Facebook. Of course finally I did, and then it was amazing, you know, when I first joined I just found all these people and also because there were many cousins who were scattered all over the world, it’s been good just for the family also, for the cousins to stay connected and then as I said, and then as I said I found all these old old friends, Bangladeshi and non-Bangladeshi, in 18:00different places. So, yeah, you know, if we’d had email back then it would have been easier to keep in touch with people, especially when you leave a war zone, there’s no point in sending letters back. And um, yeah, had this stuff existed then I think I would have been in touch with more people, you know, continued to stay in touch.
KH: So, could you talk a little about your first job, at a newspaper in Kuwait?
ES: Oh yeah! My parents moved to Kuwait this—we’d been in Poland and even inPoland I’d gone to boarding school in England because there were no English schools in Warsaw, this was Communist Warsaw, the only English school was the eighth grade—uh it was the American school, which stopped at the eighth grade, so I was beyond that. I went to boarding school for two years and I came back, spent a year in Poland, applied to American colleges because English 19:00universities don’t give financial aid to foreign students—foreign undergrads. So I said I have to try America! I took a year off, lived in Poland, did various things and applied to American colleges, and then the summer before I was going to go off to college, they moved to Kuwait, so I moved to Kuwait with them, and then I flew from Kuwait to Boston, and then, you know, I got to college and realized everyone’s supposed to have this summer job but I needed to go back and see my parents, so I’d heard of people who’d done other Bangladeshi—another Bangladeshi woman living in Kuwait, who went to college in the U.S., came back and did this summer job at the Kuwait—at the Arab Times. The way it works is that most people go on vacation in the summer because it’s really hot in Kuwait, so they have these openings at the newspaper. It’s slow, you know, slower than usual because so many people are away, so they needed a summer substitute for the features editor, so I went in. It wasn’t a great 20:00newspaper, in the sense that, you know, they just took...there was some local reporting, I mean it’s a tiny place, but a lot of it was just taking wire stories and—fixing them for local consumption, so we’d have to do things like—so this is ’88, so just the end of the Iraq-Iran War...so Kuwait had sided with Iraq against Iran, and so things like, you know, if a wire story came in from AP or Reuters saying the Persian Gulf, we would have to do things like cross it out and make it the Arabian Gulf, right, they wouldn’t allow it to be called the Persian Gulf in the local newspaper.
And then I would sort of cover the local social beat, you know, the big events,sometimes the event that my parents were going to anyway, like, you know, the Indian festival or something. I think I brought in movie reviews, but it was 21:00just having different features…So I learned about galleys, and newspapers, and the hours were different, and I think what I remember most is it was a Friday holiday schedule, so the weekly holiday was Friday, but because we were a newspaper our holiday used to be Thursday because there was no need to produce a newspaper on Friday, so I was totally completely off whack from all my friends in the U.S., right so my weekly holiday was Thursday, not even Friday, and they were, you know, doing the weekend on Saturday, Sunday, so that was weird. But it was nice, you know, I had never had a job before, they paid me terribly [KH laughs] because they knew I was living at home, whatever, but I remember, I think, the second summer trying to—having such a hard time going to talk to the editor about, you should really pay me more, and they increased some tiny amount, but you know, that was the sort of stuff…But I met some good people, 22:00the other staff, a lot of South Asians, you know, like the sports editor was from Pakistan, the woman I was replacing for the summer was I think Indian or Pakistani so, you know, it—it was, it was just fun. It was (where was she from? A Bosnian woman, maybe…) so it was just—I was the youngest person there, but it was a fun experience, I’m glad I did it.
KH: Were there, were there many other women at the newspaper?
ES: There were women. I was replacing a woman for the summer, there were a fewother editors of different sections who were women, yeah. I don’t think I noticed anything…unusual. And I think Kuwait is generally much more open, or 23:00was at the time, I don’t know now, than certainly places like Saudi Arabia, so. The editor in chief was a man, the newspapers…no, the top news editor was a man. The editor in chief was what we all referred to as the sort of the spoiled son of a very wealthy industrialist, you know, we’d joke that we didn’t even know if he could read and write [KH laughs], I’m sure he could but you know, he had cars and women and that stuff, that seemed to be his main preoccupation, but he was officially the editor-in-chief for some reason. So, yeah there were no inappropriate gender dynamics in the workplace, it was all very nice and proper, you know, and I enjoyed it, it was fun. I felt very grown up, going to work in the middle of the afternoon, so I’d work I think from four to—from two to eight or something, it was bizarre, not only the weekly holiday—not only was the weekly holiday on Thursday but also the hours were 24:00different because we were trying to get the newspaper ready to be, you know, printed that evening, so you don’t go to work in the morning, it was sort of late morning or mid-afternoon, I don’t remember now. It was just sort of out of whack with everything else.
KH: So did that…did that job influence your ultimate career choices at all, orwas it just like sort of a summer job?
ES: It was a summer job, but I guess, you know, being around politics and newsand writing, so…I think I always enjoyed that… I used to write for—I’d send stories to this young people’s page in the Bangladeshi newspaper, my sister and I did that, so even when—because even when we were living overseas, every week in the diplomatic pouch we’d get the Bangladeshi newspapers, and they used to have, once a week, sort of one page in the newspaper, I think it 25:00was called the ‘Bangladesh Observer,’ the page was ‘Young Observer,’ so they would publish the fiction and nonfiction by young people. So my sister and I routinely sent stuff there. I remember sending something, you know, about my tour of Auschwitz, for example.
KH: Oh wow!
ES: Yeah, and then also—I was a teenager then—but also short stories, so youknow, I always enjoyed writing, so I think it was more that I chose the summer job in a newspaper because I was already interested in that stuff, and if anything it just reinforced my interest rather than suddenly showing me I want—oh, this is what I want to do. There are probably other things I could have chosen in Kuwait, like oil and gas—no! [laughter]
KH: So…so you were saying that you chose to come to the United States, at26:00least in part, because of the financial aid?
KH: Were there any other reasons you chose it over another country?
ES: Um…no, because once I learned English when I was eight, it had always beenEnglish schools from then on. So…so Beirut, the, you know,we went to school for a few days, a month or something, and then my parents taught us English at home, and then we went to Bangladesh, and they put us in a local—not a public English school but, you know, an English medium—schools in Bangladesh are divided, English medium and Bengali medium, which means the language of instruction is primarily English or primary Bengali, so because they knew we would be going overseas again soon they chose the English…schools, so when it was time to choose colleges it was clearly going to be England or America, you know, Australia was totally unknown, far away, why would I do that? So England turned out to be not feasible financially because they don’t have scholarships 27:00for foreign undergrads, so then I chose America. I’d never been here. It was a total, Where is this?? But you know, I think everyone feels familiar with America, culturally, you get to see enough of it through movies et cetera, et cetera—
KH: Sort of like you were saying with the, with the Bollywood-type films?
ES: Yeah, yeah, exactly. So I think the way my parents felt comfortable in Indiabecause they could speak the language, it’s, you know, similar clothes, similar food, I think if you grow up watching American films, or, you know, TV shows, et cetera, it doesn’t feel quite as alien. But I remember, I got in, you know, I found out in April that I’d got into all these colleges, and I had no choice, you know, because they said if you got into Harvard, you have to go to Harvard. There are other places I thought I should go, just to be contrary, 28:00you know...I got into Yale, what was the other one...I didn’t get into Princeton. I didn’t get into Williams… There’s something else, there were three and… Anyway, my parents were very happy, I remember, because the letter came to my dad’s office in Warsaw, so he, you know, FedEx or whatever it was back then, I didn’t even know those things—and he called, he said, It’s here, it’s here, you have to come! So, you know, I rushed to the office and he said, I jumped out of my seat! He was very happy, he said, If only your grandfather were here, because his father died before my parents even got married, and he was, you know, very well-educated, he was the headmaster at the local high school, so for him, you know, this is sort of where—this is the pinnacle of everything we could have… So they were very happy, so I felt, I 29:00have no real grounds for saying, Oh I’d rather go to Yale than Harvard, because Harvard was just better known back, back home for whatever reason. So, yeah. So to answer your question, it was between England and the States, and then in the States, you know, I went to where I was told to go basically. [laughter]
KH: Oh, so when you came, was the United States different from what thetransmitted culture had suggested?
ES: Um…oh! Sorry, so what I had meant to tell you also before, so we found outin March or something, and then I—my aunt who lived in Geneva invited me to Geneva for a month, because I wasn’t doing anything in Poland, once the applications were gone and the results were back in, I was just hanging out with my family…and there I met many people who had been students in the U.S., you 30:00know, other Bangladeshi children because my aunt’s husband was in the ILO, International Labor Organization, so they knew a lot of other Bangladeshis in the UN circles, and those older children had been to the U.S. and back. So I remember then someone saying to me, Oh you’re going to Harvard, that’s great, but don’t judge America by Harvard, so that stuck with me. And then I also remember a reaction from someone in Poland, in Warsaw, my mom or dad saying, Oh she just got into Harvard, and this woman saying—I forget where she was from—saying, Oh, you have to be careful you don’t get brainwashed! [laughter] Because you know, Harvard has been involved in many sort of conservative movements in say, Latin America, et cetera, so I came to Harvard armed with these two warnings in a sense.
I think it’s good that I came to Boston, because it’s more European-looking31:00in some ways, than I think if I’d landed in Texas or even California it would have been more of a shock, but Boston was easier to deal with. And then other people who’d been had also warned me that you should eat the pastries while you’re here in Geneva or Warsaw because American pastries [KH laughs], you know, they don’t cut it, they use different butter or something. So these are the kinds of things I’d come with, in addition to everything I’d seen. You know, I’d seen Love Story, for example, which is set at Harvard. [laughter]
KH: Was your college experience exactly like that?
ES: Yeah, exactly [laughs]. So I don’t think it was that much of a shock, andI’d been away from home to be in boarding school, though of course that is much more restricted so...no, I enjoyed it, even the too much freedom, sort of freshman scrapes and things like that, it was fine. I think my main regret about college, looking back now, is Oh my god, I was at Harvard and I didn’t take 32:00advantage of everything that I could’ve there? But you know, when you’re eighteen, nineteen, whatever, at any point in our lives we can only do so much, right, you can’t do everything that’s possible to do in any…location. So no, it was great, I made friends, I told you my roommate was from Boston, she—her high school was the older high school in the country, and we had—through her I met her friend that she’d been friends with since kindergarten, and that was an alien concept. So it was—and then I also got to be good friends with people from South Asia or from, you know, other parts of the world, so it was—it was a good experience. I think it would have been harder, as I said, to be in a different town than someplace like, you know, New England, and also a less international place would have been also very hard for me, so it was a good place for me to be, I think. Made the transition easier. 33:00
KH: Was it difficult being away from your family for the first time?
ES: It was, because they were so far away. Because even when I was in boardingschool in England they were in Poland, and I’d go home every three months, we had terms, so I’d go home sort of in December, I’d go home in April, I’d go home in the summer, whereas now they were in Kuwait, and I was going to go home once a year. So at Christmas, I’d go up to my aunt, my mother’s sister who lived in Canada, which has even more snow than Boston [laughs]
KH: That’s saying something!
ES: So that was my—but I’d been in Poland—
KH: Oh, okay [laughs].
ES: —So I’m familiar with snow, but yeah, that’s how I spent my, or, youknow, three Christmases, four Christmases, by going to Canada. And also, Harvard, like Princeton turned out later on, has final exams after Christmas, so my abiding memory of Christmas was lugging all my books for final papers and to 34:00study for exams up to Canada and then back, and, you know, I’d get some work done but not that much, it was a ritual that began, I’d cart work with me whether—because I’d feel guilty if I didn’t. So all the library books to write the research paper would get carted up there and back.
KH: Really optimistic packing.
ES: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, yeah…
KH: So did you—it [the questionnaire] says what was your port of entry, so didyou just come straight to Boston?
ES: Yeah, yeah. Oh, and sorry, you asked if I missed—it was hard because I wasseeing them once and seeing my aunt…helped, and we talked on the phone…
KH: Had you known your aunt before coming to—
ES: Yeah, we’d met up over the years, she visited us in Paris and…andBangladesh and in London, so I don’t think I grew up seeing any of my 35:00relatives annually, but every so often. And, you know, she’d always send us birthday cards, so we were close. So that wasn’t a shock, and I got to know her children, her sons were both much younger than me but it was nice to get to know one part of the family on a regular basis, [laughs] every Christmas. And they—because they had been here for a long time, they had a Christmas tree and things like that, which I hadn’t grown up with. You know, we knew all the songs, all the Christmas carols from school, but we never had a tree at home, or the practice of presents at Christmas, so that’s where I got that formal training, by going to their house…
KH: [laughs] Formal training.
ES: …you know, formal training in the traditions of, you know: Christmas Eve,Christmas morning—all that stuff. I’m sorry, what was your next question?
KH: Well, sort of going off of that, did you—what did you do for Thanksgiving?36:00
ES: I was in Boston.
KH: So you would stay on campus?
ES: Stay on campus, yeah, it wasn’t a big holiday to go away anywhere, wecould stay on campus. I think I went back to my Boston roommate’s house once, or…and then maybe another Boston friend’s house. It may have been to stay overnight, may have just, you know, been for the meal and then back to campus, yeah, our campus stayed open...this one [Rice] shuts down.
KH: Yeah, no it stays open.
ES: For Thanksgiving. Christmas it closes down.
ES: Yeah. Okay. Yeah I think I basically stayed around—Is never traveled forThanksgiving, I’m pretty sure…yeah.
KH: I’ve done the like imposing on various Houston friends.
ES: [laughs] They invite you and they know you’re here! Right. It’s theworst time to travel [laughs].
KH: Yeah…was it difficult to get a visa? I guess, during any stage—37:00
ES: Yes! Yes, because the first time it was very easy, my dad was the ambassadorto Kuwait, so he would just take—he would make an appointment, or the Bangladesh embassy made an appointment with the U.S. embassy, he came with me, we sat down in a nice room, probably got coffee or coke or something, and the paperwork was done and then we left. And then summer of 1990 was the invasion of Kuwait by Saddam Hussein, so—and that was the summer between my junior and senior year, so I’d worked at the Arab Times the first two summers, end of freshman, end of sophomore, junior summer I was going to do senior thesis research in Bangladesh, but I’d bought my ticket on Kuwait Airways from Boston to Kuwait to Bangladesh, and then I was going to come back. So I—I came to Kuwait in June, when Harvard ended, saw my parents, and then went on to 38:00Bangladesh. August 2nd , the invasion happens. My I-20, and all of my paperwork for my visa had been sent to Kuwait, but there was no way I could come back to Kuwait in August or early September to do my Kuwait Airways thing back to Boston, so I contacted Harvard, and they sent the stuff to me in Bangladesh. And then I had to go to the U.S. Embassy in Bangladesh by myself, no, you know, dad, no special appointment... I think someone in the Foreign Service there obvi—you know, maybe got me a little in. And I remember, I had what I had, I didn’t have my parents’ financial statements or anything like that because they were stuck in Kuwait. And I remember, you know, she—I had one year left at Harvard—the woman asked me all the questions, and I said I don’t have this, I don’t have that, there’s a war, you know, Kuwait’s under occupation, and I just remember so clearly, she took off her glasses, and said, ‘You know, I could deny you this visa if I wanted to.’ I was so—it was 39:00just such a power trip, I was so annoyed. She knew I’d been there and back, and where my parents were, what was going on in Kuwait...And she said, ‘Well, I’ll let you go.’
It’s true, I didn’t have every single piece of paper but for good reason,but I’d been there and left and, you know, she knew exactly where I was going. So that I remember…but so that was the only time I had to…you know, the slightest difficulty getting a visa. Otherwise, you know, it’s very straightforward, they send you paperwork from the university and then you show your bank statements or your parents’ bank statements et cetera, how you’ll cover the financial aid, plus this and that and the other. This was long before 9/11, I think it’s gotten harder since then; I know of cousins who have tried to come since then, and I think—and they’ve made it but it’s always been much harder, even for children of, you know, former diplomats, or even people, 40:00you know, the children of well-connected people. So it’s getting harder and harder.
KH: Do you think even for similar student visa situations?
ES: Yeah. You know, I had a cousin who got into Princeton, and his father, myuncle, was also a diplomat, and I don’t know if he’d retired already by then or was still in the Foreign Service, but they, you know, they made it—they dragged it out enough that everyone was very stressed about, Would he be there when school, when the semester began. And he got it in the end, but there was a lot of stress, which I don’t remember from the first time I came. So…this was, you know, five, six years ago, so post-9/11, I’m pretty sure.
KH: [long pause] Have you kept up with news and popular culture in, I guess, inBangladesh, and maybe more generally in any parts of the world that you lived in? 41:00
ES: Bangladesh yes, because I ended up doing my senior thesis and dissertationon Bangladesh, so I—so I kept going back. So that summer of 1990, when I went to do research and my parents were still in Kuwait, was the first time I felt, I am going there on my own as a grown-up—whatever, I was twenty-one [laughter]—I’m going on my own and I’ll meet people who are not related to me and have adult conversations, so that was, that was a big summer for me. And then I’ve gone back many times since then. And I do keep up with the news, obviously, I, you know, as I said I do consider myself from there. Other places, I think, I think not in as intimate a way. So France, for example, doesn’t seem as personal to me, you know, I’ll keep up with the news there the was I would any other place. And my husband is Lebanese, so Lebanon came back to haunt 42:00me and be part of my life again [laughter], and I go there and I started doing research there recently, so that again has become more personal to me. Um…yeah. But other places...what are the other places, Kuwait—yeah, I guess Kuwait I sort of keep tabs on, but I think France I care about, but it doesn’t feel more mine than other—you know, it’s less personal.
ES: Poland, Poland actually I do, because I think people don’t know as muchabout Poland, so I feel I should sort of take care of Poland [KH laughs]. I feel invested more.
KH: France has enough people taking care of it.
ES: Yeah, exactly! Or, you know, France is fine. I guess if I hear aboutneighborhoods I know or something, then it feels more special, but otherwise France is fine, it’s in good hands [KH laughs]. Whatever, you know, there are enough people doing France.
KH: Well, so how did you decide what academic path to pursue? What like drew you43:00to it?
ES: To the academic path, or the field within?
KH: To the field you chose, and I guess maybe more generally academics?
ES: Um…I guess, when I was coming to college, the assumption was that I wouldstudy economics, because many people came to Harvard from places like Bangladesh to study economics, and then the idea was then you go back and you apply it to fix the problems in your country. And I’d done A-level economics, which is a…British system, and you take it when you’re eighteen, A-level is an advanced level economics, so I got to Harvard and I could have placed out of the intro class, but I realized I really didn’t enjoy [laughs] economics [KH laughs]. I ended up doing this interdisciplinary major called social studies, 44:00which is an honors only major, you have to apply to it to get in, and then you take courses in different social sciences, which includes history there—history, psychology, sociology, anthropology, politics, all these different things, and then you have to write a senior thesis where you bring it all together. So to—for my senior thesis I ended up writing on the Grameen Bank, the microcredit organization. The founder gave the commencement speech here last year? Yeah, last summer, Dr. Yunus, and they got the Nobel Peace Prize, both the organization and Dr. Yunus in 2006, but not back then. Back then, you know, I was sort of floundering, what shall I write on?, and my uncle, the father of the Princeton cousin, said, You know, there’s this new organization working on women, why don’t you go write on them? I said, Oh okay. So I did a term paper for a seminar based on material that the Grameen Bank sent me, and other research I did, and then in the summer I got the money to go there and that’s when the Kuwait stuff happened. So when I was—so I 45:00knew I wanted to go to grad school, because I played around a little bit with...you know, I think I interviewed for a couple of jobs, everyone seemed to be going into consulting, which I still don’t know what that means [KH laughs], and so I did that, I didn’t get very far, and I also couldn’t bear the idea of, you know, sort of, a clock, like a real job, and, you know, having to dress a certain way and be at a certain place at a certain time, all that stuff. So I—and I think I always knew I wanted an advanced degree, so even if I’d gotten a consulting job it would have been for a couple of years and then I’d have gone on to grad school. So when it was time to choose what to apply for in grad school, I talked to my advisors and I said I wanted to do social studies, I loved this interdisciplinary stuff, and my advisor said you, you can’t do that in grad school, you need to pick a discipline. So, um…she’s an economist—she’s a feminist economist—so I think from her perspective, 46:00political science looked very open and…interdisciplinary or broad, so she said do politics (you know, political science, politics, government, it’s called different things at different schools), do that, I think that will be good for you. And I’d only taken one politics class as an undergrad, so I thought, Oh god, what do I say in my statement? So this is what I came up with: I said that for my senior thesis I looked at how rural women in Bangladesh come together to engage in collective economic action.
What I would like to do in graduate school, through my study of politicalscience or government or politics, is look at how they come together to engage in political action. That was the extent of what I could come up with! [laughter] I didn’t know any debates, I didn’t know anything about the discipline [KH laughs] and it worked out, I got into all the schools I wanted to get into, and then...Oh, and for the year after graduation I got a fellowship to go back to Bangladesh and work with rural women. So I was actually in Bangladesh 47:00when I applied, and yet I see routinely every year these grad students who got into, say, the history program, come and they look around and they talk to people, and I’m like god, I’m sitting in Bangladesh, I had no idea where any of these places were, and I just...So I chose Princeton because it was on the east coast, because I knew New York, so I said, okay, it’s near New York, I don’t know where Chicago—you know, I’ve never been to Chicago, or even Berkeley—you know, all these other places, they were in places I didn’t know, whereas Princeton I could peg as being close to New York City, which I knew, so that’s what happened. And it turned out to be a good decision, because at places like Chicago they let in many people, but then they weed them out after two years, whereas at Princeton they take fewer people and, you know, they get them through the degree. So by chance I made the right decision, so that worked out. So I applied to politics and Princeton was a good place, it was—I ended up taking courses in other departments too, and then…then over 48:00time—I’d already been interested in women, but I didn’t do a certificate or anything in women’s studies, but there was enough of it in my work I guess that I was able to get jobs also in women’s studies when I…finished. So I don’t know that I went in knowing that I was interested in politics, but once I had to make up my personal statement and look deeper into it—because politics could be defined broadly enough, and in the end my advisor had a point there, that if you’re doing economics there’s less room for maneuver, whereas politics can be defined, you know, as political protest or just redefining different things, so it, it worked out. You know, it just worked out. But I really wasn’t interested in politics [laughter], it’s not something I knew, you know, from the beginning.
KH: Even just like, every time I look you up, I always forget like, what paths I49:00have to take to find you, because you’re not under the history department list, like even though you’re here—
ES: Yeah, well, because when I was hired, the Center didn’t have its ownspace. The director at the time I think was Lynn Huffer, or Helena Mickie or Paula Sanders. We didn’t have—now we have a hallway downstairs, we didn’t even have a hallway then. And the reason Rice ended up hiring me—I came here because my husband is in the history department, and then the—I was still writing my dissertation, so they gave me a little office space in, in Fondren, and I sat there and wrote my dissertation, but then, you know, I had to apply for jobs, and the job I got was in California, a proper tenure track job, and there they, you know, it was fifty percent women’s studies and fifty percent political science, so I went off, we commuted for two years, so no kids, it was fine, hard but it was okay—and then Irvine decided to do a search in Middle 50:00East history, and offered Ussama a job, so that’s when Ri—you know, when he said, Well, I can go to Irvine and be there with my wife, unless you find her a job here. They created a job for me. Otherwise there’s no, you know, there’s no reason for a position like mine, I don’t have a department [KH laughs]. So then they created the job, and then because women’s studies had no line, had no space, history said, Well, in order to retain Ussama we’ll give her space here, so this is where I’ve been for ten years.
That’s fine, because, you know, I like historians, I like history, and thenfinally they got the space downstairs, and, you know, I’ve often talked about moving down, but there hasn’t really been office space there, so, you know, I’m connected by the stairs in the back. So it’s worked out. But yeah, I’m not in any department, I teach in Asian Studies, and Women and Gender Studies, Asian Studies has been a program for a long time but it’s only recently become the fancy center that it is now. 51:00
KH: Yeah, with Dr. Barlow, [ES: Yeah.] right? has done a lot of—
ES: Yeah. So the fundraising happened with the Chaos, and Rich Smith worked onthat for a very long time…[phone call]
KH: Should I pause it?
ES: Maybe I should just…The fundraising had been happening for some time, butonce we hired Tani Barlow she came and gave the center shape…
KH: She’s a force! [laughter]
ES: Have you had dealings with her?
KH: I have.
ES: What capacity?
KH: Um I took a, I took a course with her [ES: Oh! Which one?] a year or twoago. Um…Gender History.
ES: Oh, okay!
KH: It’s like Modern China. It was really interesting.
ES: Oh, okay. Good, yeah no, no, no—I was on the search committee so I’lltake credit [laughter] Um…um, so yeah. So we’ve been very pleased, it’s just given the Chao Center this huge international and national profile, so that’s, that’s been good. So my responsibilities are in these two places, but because of the way the Rice system is set up, I can’t be called—or, whatever, my rank—a Professor of Women and Gender Studies, or Asian Studies, 52:00so that’s why I have this bizarre title of, you know, now Associate Professor of Humanities. And because I had this training in political science, I got a courtesy appointment with the Poli-Sci department, but we don’t—they do a very different kind of political science, so I cross-list courses with them every now and then, but…I’m not a member of the department, and I don’t think it would be a good fit. Um, yeah. So, yeah, I think the cen—the two centers are where you’ll find me, and where else… The Chao Center website, the Women and Gender Studies website is where I am.
KH: Has it been at all strange being a bit of a like a spouse hire?
ES: No, because I had my own job. If I hadn’t had that, I think it would havebeen weird, because I never would have known if I could get my own job [KH: 53:00Right.], but because I had that, and we chose to come here, in the sense that he could have chosen to go there, I—it hasn’t affected me. I think if I had never had that, I always would have wondered, you know, Could I get my own job without being taken in to retain Ussama? But it hasn’t been an issue…
KH: How was the transition from single life to married life?
ES: Um…It’s been good. You know—my parents, and his parents, despite alltheir openness, et cetera, when we said we wanted to marry one another it was a big shock to both families, so for me that sort of colors that whole [laughs] moment—we were different countries, different religions, so that was a huge deal. And I remember, I think Ussama said it at the time, the parents keep thinking, ‘Oh my god, you’re going to lose your culture’, and I think he 54:00put it beautifully: Instead, you know, what they should be thinking of is how you’re gaining a culture. So my Arabic is terrible, but, you know, I feel intimately involved in what’s happening in Lebanon, you know, some things I like more than others [KH laughs]; you know, the food, the culture, all that stuff. So for me it was, it was a transition to married life, but also a transition to being part Lebanese in some ways, you know, being exposed to all of that and going there on a regular basis—you know, every year we go—so it was more that—I was in college and I was in grad school, we got married in grad school, as poor grad students, and so I think my adult singlehood—single life—was basically the two years I was in Irvine in California, kind of, because we were commuting, so I had my—a little studio on campus, and I had to do all my stuff. We flew back and forth a lot but that’s probably the closest 55:00I came to having a job and being single, because being single in college doesn’t count in the same way. So I think that was the closest...So for me when I think of the transition, it’s more to do with the, sort of the cultural enrichment that came along with it, I think.
KH: Have you had any trouble reconciling that now that you have children?
ES: Um…no…I mean, we’re trying to raise them tri-lingual.
ES: I mean—it worked for my son, our son, who’s now eight, better the firstfew years. So, even though he went to, you know, a local preschool at the University of Houston at age eighteen months and was exposed to English, and of course Ussama and I speak to one another in English, so he knows, we all know English. We would speak to him—I would speak to him in Bengali and Ussama 56:00would speak to him in Arabic, and until age five or six he would be very good about responding to me in Bengali and speaking to Ussama in Engl—in Arabic, and even—he was so cute—translate, thinking, you know, we really had no idea, that I had no clue of Arabic and Ussama had no clue of Bengali [KH laughs], though we knew enough to know what’s going on so he’s translating. And then once he started kindergarten, sort of English just took over, and I can see it...it’s easier for him to express complex thoughts in English, and I think sometimes it’s easier for us too. But, you know. So now he tends to speak back in English a lot more, and uh…but we just keep talking to him in our languages, so at least it’s collecting in there somewhere. With my—with our daughter, who’s four years younger, it’s been a total failure [laughter], because he speaks to her in English [laughter], so she’s, you know, so she’s mostly English with a few words. She basically never even had 57:00the phase he had, of at least being trilingual for a few years. She’s been English thoroughly from the very beginning, and she’ll every now and then grace us with a few words in Bengali or Arabic. Um, yeah so that’s where they’ve experienced the mix, and how we’re trying to make it work. But uh, you know, food, we’ll rotate between different cuisines, but also cuisines we have no connections to, Southeast Asia or Italian, so food is very mixed at home…you know.
KH: What are the religions in your family?
ES: I’m Muslim, Ussama’s Christian. So, that hasn’t come up—I thinkthat’s what both families were most worried about. In Lebanon, religious identity is very important even if you’re not religious, so it’s sort of your identity, because it’s also on your ID. Um…he’s not very—his family’s not very religious, and my parents are, certainly more than me, so 58:00what I—what we’ve tried to do with the kids— and it’s come on me to do this, because Ussama doesn’t—is to just—I’m trying to teach them the good moral, ethical principles of all religions, so they don’t identify as one or the other, but they know there are Christians out there and there are Muslims out there, and, you know, everything else and they all believe…I mean for Noor, our daughter, it’s not very relevant but for our son, I went and bought this book about world religions, and I say here! and we read this together. So, we celebrate all the holidays, so Christmas is a big deal.
KH: Good thing you had that training.
ES: Yeah, no, no, exactly! I kept thinking, my god, how did I know what to dothe first time I had Christmas at their house, and I remembered my Canadian experience [laughter]. Um yeah, so there’s that. And then we celebrate the end of Ramadan, for example, you know, I’ll have a big party and make it fun for the kids. Um…so and we’ve gotten to know more people…now I was just 59:00remembering today, when I teach my Gender and Islam class, I have the students go do an interview with a Muslim woman, and I was remembering today when I was thinking about, you know, coming in to see you, the first year I taught it, I actually didn’t know that many Muslim women in Houston, so I wasn’t able to be that helpful to my students, I had to ask around. And then the last time I taught it, I’d already met many more. So I think I was much more helpful. They’d say, Oh you might want to consider or—you know, I—I’d check with them first, Do you mind if my student contacts you about an interview, but there was, you know, it happened gradually, when I first moved here I didn’t know that many. I think having, you know, exposing them to different kinds of people has… They meet Lebanese, and they meet Bengalis, but the kids all speak to one another in English. Because I think it’s the language of play. You know, it’s hard to play Monopoly in Bengali or Arabic [laughter]. I don’t know how it works, but they’re all—even the children of, you know, where both parents 60:00are Bengali or Lebanese, when the kids get together they do it in—they talk in English. So that hasn’t been as helpful to the language as I had hoped it would be [laughter], but it’s fine. I think it’s more important that they’re exposed to everything and then at some point it’ll all settle down. Or they’ll get to college and be one of these heritage learners of, you know, Bengali or Arabic or something, and they’ll have some base in their heads that will give them an advantage.
KH: They’ll be able to talk to you at least, [ES: Yeah! Yeah.] to the family members.
ES: Now they understand everything, both of them, it’s just that, you know, Ithink that they’re just hesitant—English comes out more naturally. And they hear so much of it at home so it’s uh…and certainly all day long at school. [KH: Right.] I know what’s happening, I just keep wishing they’d speak more Bengali and Arabic.
KH: Um, do they—have they had the chance to spend much time with your extended families?61:00
ES: Back home?
KH: Um…either way, like taking them to see them or them visiting here.
ES: Yeah. We go home every summer to both places. It’s exhausting. So we gofrom here to Beirut, from Beirut to Bangladesh, back to Beirut, and then back here. But we’ve made a rule of that, because they have...there are no cousins on my side, I have three younger sisters but no one has kids yet, and on Ussama’s side he has an older brother with two kids, they live in California, and a younger brother with two kids, and they live in Beirut. So in the summer, all three brothers coordinate and get together at the grandparents, so all six cousins are together for just a couple of weeks at least. And then the LA cousins we see every Christmas, and we take turns, we celebrate Christmas here one year, and in LA the other year. And the grandparents come whenever they can. 62:00So…yeah and then my sisters, one’s in London, one’s a grad student at Harvard, but she’s been in Bangladesh the last year, and then my youngest sister lives in Bangladesh, still with my parents. So they—so they know the London one least, because she’s in London so we only see her when we’re going through London, and she’s been to visit, but the other two they see regularly. When my other one’s in Bos—when my third sister’s in Boston, she’s come down, you know, for long visits, and we’ve also managed to overlap in (?) the last couple of summers, so they know the younger two better, but there are no cousins so it’s not the same [KH: Right.] kind of connection. But my sisters try really hard to get to the level of cousins! [laughter] They’ll play with them, and do whatever they need.
KH: Um…did you have any concerns about raising a family in America?63:00
ES: I don’t…think…so. I think it’s unrealistic—you know, I’ll havefriends who will say, We don’t want to raise kids here because of this that and the other, and the world is so globalized now, I don’t think there’s anything here that’s not also present there, in terms of, you know, TV they watch and movies they see, I think the home environment is the most important thing, you know, and I have friends who worry about private school versus public school. We live very, you know, across the street from a really good public school’s for me, so I wasn’t worried that they wouldn’t—my daughter’s still in private pre-school, because there’s no public pre-school, but my son goes there and it’s a great school, plus, you know, I think so much learning happens at home but, you know. Because also I grew up moving, and they put me in 64:00whatever school they could afford or, you know, or was available wherever we were. So in England, there was a good public school—you know everything’s in English, so that’s where I went, when we were in Poland, nothing, so they just sent me to boarding school in England right, so. Maybe it’s wrong to think that it’ll, it’ll work out for everyone the way I—you know, it did for me, but I think in the end the home environment is so much, and I think that my parents, while well-educated, you know, to move to Europe and have to learn many things from scratch, so in that sense my kids already have an advantage because we’re very at home here, you know, we know what’s what and how to navigate things. So I think, you know, they’ll be fine whatever school they go to, and in the end it’s for us to protect them or to prepare them. I don’t so—you 65:00know to answer your question, I think what would be nice about raising them at home would be the language, but I think even back home, it’s not just the friends here, when the cousins get together, the six cousins, it’s, it’s all in English, even back home, even in Beirut. So I don’t know that the language would necessarily be better, except there would be more people speaking Bengali or Arabic. Um…so, you know—Ussama on the other hand was born in the U.S. but grew up in Lebanon, until—so he was born in Washington, moved back when he was four, grew up in—grew up there until sixteen, then came back to the U.S. for a year of prep school and then college and the rest. So, because I didn’t have that experience, it’s not something I, I relate to. So I, I think it’s possible to maintain a connection just by going back regularly, but maybe I’m 66:00wrong, you know. We’re not representing Bangladesh or Lebanon, so my kids might not have the experience I did growing up, that we were the Bangladesh representatives in Poland or… I don’t know. I’m not worried about being here the way I know some other people are. There are many advantages to being here, so.
KH: Did your husband or in-laws ever have any doubts about you pursuing a career?
ES: [pause] Yes! [laughs] Not my husband, my mother-in-law was worried at somepoint. She said, ‘You’re both working, who will take care of the kids if one of them is sick?’ [KH laughs] So, and I think it had more to do with her own issues. When they lived in Washington DC, her husband was at the IMF, the International Monetary Fund, an economist, but she was very well-educated, of course, and she went off… She said when she went off to be a Masters student, 67:00she had two kids at home, and was pregnant. And she said she was the only married woman in her Masters class. So this is America in the 1960s, it was either Georgetown or George Washington, I don’t know, I forget which university. So, and then at some—you know, they decided not to stay in Washington anymore and move back to Beirut in the early 70s, and I think, you know, her concerns about—I’m sorry, it wasn’t when I was going to get married, it was when I was going to accept the job in Irvine, and go off in a commuting relationship, we’re married but in two different places—maybe it was when I was married…no! It was when we were getting married, there were other concerns about Irvine—so she—so I think it reflected her own, the very difficult position she found herself in, so she did the masters as the only married woman in her class, but then decided not to pursue a PhD, okay? And then she did sign up for a PhD at age fifty-five or something, in England, and in the 68:00end didn’t finish that, because she got so busy writing her own books—she’s a very successful author.
KH: Oh, really?
ES: Yeah. (Do I have anything here…?) So she wrote her own book and sentthem—and never had time to finish her dissertation (…she gets great reviews in this one, after this), so I think it, it sort of, when she saw me trying to make choices about what to do, she was uh…I think it just made her reflect back on the choices she had made as a mother in the early 70s, so I think it was less about me and more about her thinking, Oh god, did I make the wrong choice? I should have insisted, and gotten a PhD and gotten a job back then. But she’s done very well for herself, she doesn’t need a PhD because…and what we told her, you know, we get a PhD so we can write books people will buy, [laughter] and if people are already buying your books, unless you want to teach, why do 69:00you need a PhD? So that was the only, so when we were getting married, her concern was if you’re both working, who will take care of the kids if one of them is sick… And then when I was going off to Irvine, again, because we were in Beirut that semester, Ussama had a fellowship so we were in Beirut, and I got the offer from Irvine. And, you know, Ussama and I both agreed it would be difficult, but if I don’t get my own job, you know, I’d always, you know...If I waited around, Rice was under no obligation to give me a job, it’s only the threat of Ussama leaving—of a faculty member leaving that makes them—you know, any institution, it’s not just Ri—any academic institution will only do it in order to keep someone, you know, the person who is already here, as a retention thing. So, you know, we knew that if I didn’t do that, you know, I’d be adjuncting for the rest of my life at Rice, you know, they’d give me courses… So the very first time I taught Asian Civ, I was 70:00still writing my dissertation, I got to teach with Rick Smith and Nanxiu and, you know, there I was, you know, barely a third year grad student or something ...It was a great experience, getting up there in front of seventy people, [laughter] but I think it prepared me well for giving job talks, and after that. But had I not gotten my own job, I think that would have been my future, being at the mercy of odd jobs I could find around Houston. So we knew it was going to be difficult, but I needed to go off and get my own job, and then I could bargain with Rice from a position of strength, or, you know, whatever, Ussama would get a job there and we’d both be there. So I think for—to my parents it was also very clear—you’ve worked all these years, of course you should go get your own job even if it’s hard, but I think from their perspective it was, Oh, you’re going to leave our son and go off and get this job in California, what, what does that mean for your marriage, you know, what kind of marriage is this? And, you know, I think— 71:00
KH: It’s a very difficult choice.
ES: Yeah. And I remember the first time, he took me there and left me there, andI thought oh my god we had no idea how long this might last, commuting, because there was no prospect of a job for the other at either place, but it worked out [laughs]. We were very lucky. We met people even in Irvine who had had to commute for eight years. [KH: Oh…] I think we knew that, you know, if something didn’t work out in two or three years one of us would make a decision and move or something, so we were very lucky. I feel very lucky in general [laughs]. Things have worked out.
KH: Um…so this is sort of—this is a bit of a digression, on the mention ofyour dissertation, but you said that you went back to Bangladesh and like sort of worked among women there. Um…did, how was that for you, as sort of a part 72:00of that community and yet not… Did they see you as an outsider, as a…as a Bangladeshi or as an American?
ES: Um…I was just reading the introduction to my book where I talk about this.Because I didn’t grow up in Bangladesh, my Bengali—you know, I read and write Bengali, but because I didn’t go to any Bengali medium schools, for example, it’s not really sophisticated Bengali, and also written Bengali is very different from spoken Bengali, it has this other level of formality to it that exists in Arabic and maybe some other spoken languages, French, English…you know, there are some colloquialisms that you wouldn’t use in written English, but otherwise it’s pretty much the same language, right, written and spoken. But not so in Bengali, and certainly not so in Arabic. So the research I was doing was in—was with rural women, who are typically uneducated, so what people at the Grameen Bank told me, for example, Do you 73:00really know how to relate to them? Because that’s the Bengali, you know that’s the level of my Bengali.
But the line I have in my introduction is that, so it worked very well for me inthe villages because I could speak to them, you know, my Bengali was, you know, perfectly well—worked perfectly well for them, but when I’d be in sort of more formal settings like academic seminars, I wouldn’t find the words. So that was harder for me. Um…so I think the fact that I could sit and relate to them and—I—because both my grandmothers had spent time in rural Bangladesh, and in Bangladesh you always had a village home, you know, you don’t say you’re from Dhaka or any of the cities, you know, it’s, it’s a point of pride to be able to say, you know, exactly from which village your family came from, so I know both my parents’ village home and I’ve spent summers there 74:00and time there, so it wasn’t an unfamiliar setting, and, you know, and I did research in both those villages as well as in other places, so the fact that I could speak to the women, I think even though they say, you know, I probably had an accent, I’ve had people tell me, We can tell you didn’t grow up in Bangladesh. I think it’s also because my Bengali, when I do speak it, is in some ways however limited it is, is very proper, because if you don’t grow up [there] you don’t learn the slang. I don’t know any bad words [laughter] in Bengali, because I learned it only from my parents overseas, so you can imagine. So I think that’s—probably what some cousins mean when they say, It’s clear you didn’t grow up here.
What, what did strike me once was, you know, I had to go for research from onetown to another, and I just when, you know, people said, You can’t travel alone, you’re a woman, and I’d say, Well, I have to. And there is a time, 75:00you know, my uncle took—came with me on the train ride, took me there, settled me down, and then came back, because it’s not proper for young women in their twenties to be—single women—to be traveling alone like this, and then on the way back I, yeah, I finished research early, so I took a train back by myself. I think that’s where my ease, you know, being used to traveling alone here, served me well, but I remember people there being quite shocked by it. And also, because the only train—there are classes on the train, first class has nicest seats, nicest carriage, and then all the way down to third class, I think I traveled second class because that’s all they had, so I remember my cousins, who had grown up there being, Oh my god, you traveled second class? You sat with all these people you don’t know? Whereas for me it wasn’t such a big deal, I sit next to all sorts of people here on the, on planes, right, I don’t know what they do for a living. So that was interesting, I hadn’t thought 76:00about…that. So, yeah I think everyone could tell that I hadn’t grown up there, but I think in the villages they were happy to talk to me because I took an interest. And in the end that’s all that mattered. The other thing I do—I talk about in my book, my parents are both from southeastern Bangladesh, a province, or district, called Chittagong, and it has its own dialect. So, growing up, my parents never encouraged us to speak it, they said you should, you know, you should speak proper Bengali, and they spoke the dialect to one another, so I grew up never learning the dialect, so when I did do research in Chittagong, they laughed at me. I think that put the women at ease, that here’s something that I—I don’t know how to do and they do, I think that helped them. And in other places it was fine. So yeah, so I was insider in some ways, outsider in others, a bit of both.
KH: Were there, was there a lot of that, sort of that difference in gender77:00roles, going back, that you had to get used to?
ES: Um…going back it was more about, you know, ‘This is what you should wearand not wear.’ I started very early, you know, I would wear—even when I teach, I find our clothing comfortable, especially for Houston weather is exactly like Bangladesh weather, so I wear kameez a lot. Saris I haven’t worn since my kids were—my daughter was born, because it just takes a long time to put on, you know the Sari? [KH: Mm.] So I haven’t done that. But on teaching days, when it’s not freezing cold weather, I’ll wear salwar-kameez. This is what I wear when I don’t have meetings and I’m not teaching.
KH: Could you spell that, actually?
KH: Uh the…
ES: Salwar-kameez? S-A-L war, uh W-A-R, that’s one word still. And then the78:00way I write it is hyphenated, dash kameez, K-A-M-E-E-Z. So kameez is a cognate of chemise [KH: Oh!], or so French. It’s the long shirt, and then the salwar are the baggy pants, and then it’s usually a scarf so it’s a three-part thing. I’d wear those, I think when I was younger—so dissertation research, I’d gotten into blending in. I think when we went back from London, between eleven and fourteen, you know, I was a little girl becoming, sort of a teenager. That’s when people started saying, ‘You probably shouldn’t wear dresses anymore,’ and things like that, you know, stuff like that. I think the other time gender roles were—I have four sisters, my father was—it’s just him and another brother, my mother’s side there’s seven siblings. Three brothers and then four sisters. 79:00
When I got the offer—because we were overseas, we operated pretty much like anuclear family, right, so even though we were very much in touch with the extended family back home, many decisions we just took—of course I was going to apply to the best schools and see what happened. But many people—when I got into Harvard, many people said to my parents, ‘You’re going to let a girl go all the way there by herself? She doesn’t know this place, it’s really risky.’ You know, whereas I think they wouldn’t have said that if I were a boy, but my parents said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, she’s going to Harvard.’ [laughter] So, you know, my parents, they put an end to that. But that’s when I remember thinking, ‘Oh wow. They wouldn’t have said this if I were a boy.’ So that’s extended family.
KH: My family actually did the same thing.
ES: Oh my gosh! From Philly to here?
KH: For coming here and then when I went travelling last summer.
ES: Where did you go?
KH: Just around Europe.
ES: Oh, okay. Hah!
KH: …yeah. Hasn’t changed as much as it ought to.80:00
ES: Right, that’s right. Yeah so I think that’s uh…and then also, once Ifinished college, [coughs] or even before then: ‘Oh, when are you getting married,’ and, you know, trying to set me up with various eligible young men…You know, I met people—I met a guy in Canada that my aunt arranged someone, and there was a guy who drove all the way from Ohio to Princeton to meet with me, and I was happy to meet, but, you know, they wanted an answer immediately, and I said, ‘I can’t decide on the basis of even six hours of walking around Princeton with you,’ so that didn’t go down too well. But, you know, there were times when I went along with it as long as I could, but it wasn’t happening.
KH: So then you met your husband in grad school?
ES: Yeah, Princeton. He was in history, I was in political science. And uh…andI—we met in ’94, and then he went away to do research in Istanbul and 81:00Lebanon, so we ended up commuting even then, that’s why the idea of commuting afterwards wasn’t so scary. And then I—and then we got married and I went off to do fieldwork in Bangladesh, so I was gone for several months, so we had a lot of this um…you know, sort of separations very early in the relationship. We got married in ’95, still in grad school.
KH: Um…would you say that your race or immigrant status has significantlyinfluenced your life in the U.S.?
ES: No. No, I don’t think so. I mean, the only thing I’ve done…recently isbecome involved in this interfaith women’s— 82:00
KH: Right that’s…coming up.
ES: [overlapping] That’s the only thing I’ve done! That’s about it. Ithink also because we were part of…you know, I was always in an embassy, and my father, I got the impression from him that he was—he felt beleaguered by the different local Bangladeshi associations. No matter how big the community, they seemed to have splintered into many factions, so he would always stay a part of—from them, so we’d have huge parties, three hundred people coming for various holidays, whether Independence Day or end of Ramadan, et cetera, but my father would be very careful not to show partiality to one organ—one Bangladeshi group over another, because he said, you know, ‘As ambassador, as diplomat, I don’t need to be involved in local organizations,’ so that’s—so I think even though now I’m not in an embassy, I’m sort of a normal Bangladeshi-American (I’ve never used that term...), but here I am, I 83:00never wanted to become involved with one of those local organizations, and there are two or three in Houston. I don’t know how large the Bangladeshi population is in Houston, but there are two or three organizations. So I’ve stayed away from that kind of um…sort of organized activity generally, and I keep thinking it’s because of, you know, the embassy background. But then um…
KH: So what drew you so strongly to the interfaith group?
ES: I think because it had an educational element to it [laughter]. So I got anemail from the two co-founders, it was August, so it was a year before that, less than a year before that I think—so it was the fall before that. They said, you know we—one of them had just attended an interfaith women’s Seder for Passover that had been going on for eleven, twelve years at that point, and it’s only women, and they bring in women from different communities, you know, 84:00and they share the Passover meal together, and she was very inspired, she’s a very young Iranian…um excuse me, Iranian-American women, she’s a lawyer—she’s a writer now, she wouldn’t want to be described as a lawyer, she’s sort of basically…gradually left behind her law practice to focus on her writing. She said we should do this, this was fall, so they got in touch with me because the other woman, she’s a graduate student in Canada, I had met with her, I had invited her to many events at Rice, so she reached out to me and said would you like to be involved and do you know other people in town who might be involved? So I helped them get started, and then in the end they wanted—so the idea is to help break stereotypes about Muslim women by—which is what I do in my classes, so I thought ‘okay, I can do that.’ But I thought really, in a year you’re going to organize this? Because I have no capacity or talent. And they did, we had two hundred people at Christ Church 85:00Cathedral downtown, by the following August for the (?) event. I was the main speaker of sorts, I spoke in the cathedral before it was sunset, and then we went and, you know, broke up into little tables, and there were a couple of Muslim women at each table, and the idea was that all the other women at the table would be non-Muslims, but a number of Muslims snuck in because they were curious about the event! And it was a great success. And now we’re doing—there’s going to be a second annual event in August, and then this month we organized—I mean it was my idea but I forget how…oh I think it was inspired by the Amazing Faiths dinners. Do you know about these? The Boniuk Center came up with these, so basically you invite strangers or strangers sign up to go to a home, and the idea is that because you’re a guest in someone’s home, you’ll have conversation in a respectful way. So this month it’s also women’s history month, every Satur—there was one last Saturday—this Saturday a friend and I are co-hosting a dinner, where, you know, eight or ten 86:00strangers will come to my friend’s house, we decided to do it at her house, and, you know, it’ll be a more intimate version of the cathedral event. So they’ll come and we’ll make some sort of usual dinner food, and we’ll talk. So…you know, it’s not religious religious—it’s about being Muslim. We’re all Muslim in different ways, some of us cover, some of us don’t, some of us, you know, I think don’t even believe but have a cultural identity as a Muslim woman, so they’re all sorts of women. And it’s been fun to meet all these non-Rice women, right I mean—I have a lot of good friends on campus, but it opened it up. I think it was also the right time in my life, you know, my daughter was old enough, you know, that I wasn’t constantly carrying her, having to deal with her—she’s four now—so it came along. It’s a, it’s a fun group of professional women, and it had this educational component to it, 87:00so it made fun—made, you know, sense to me. It’s been, it’s been good.
KH: Um…well, it’s about an hour and a half, so do you have any concludingthoughts? [pause] To be very vague, and unhelpful [laughter].
ES: Oh no, no, no! Um…I think you’re right, you know, what you said at thebeginning—I haven’t…I mean, I teach this stuff, and the comparison you draw between the African-American experience and the Indian-Americans, or South Asian Americans—so many of them came in under sort of the bright and talented visa thing. I mean I didn’t come in that way, I came in on an F-1 student visa, then changed it as I got married and got a job, so I think the experiences are very different, but I know there’s a lot of diversity even within the 88:00Asian American experience. Obviously, just go up to Chinatown or any of the restaurants, you’ll find a whole class of people who wouldn’t be willing to speak up. So…we’re hoping that these archives will get at all of these different experiences eventually. Um, I don’t know. Is there anything else you wanted to ask me?
KH: Um…I, I think I covered most of it.
ES: Okay…okay good, thank you! [laughs]
KH: Thank you!