Namira Hossain talks to Dhaka city dwellers to gauge their feelings about the reopening of Holey Artisan bakery
In January 2017, when a new supermarket opened up its’ first branch in Gulshan, nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary. From the outside, that is. But if one were to look closer, the re-opening of a certain cafe inside the supermarket, meant a great deal to a great many people. As customers stood outside the glass entrance and took pictures and exchanged glances with the familiar faces behind the till – one could tell there were a lot of emotions brewing, definitely some story that needed to be told. One of the regular customers exclaimed, that the re-opening of Holey was a shining example of Bengali resilience.
Six months ago, life came to a standstill in the normally bustling city of Dhaka. Like every other city, Dhaka always had its’ own problems – things that its’ denizens complained about, but no one could ever imagine what was about to unravel on the night of the 1st of July, 2016. Thanks to the internet and quickly shared Facebook statuses about the sounds of gunshots, news quickly traveled of a hostage situation that was taking place in the Holey Artisan Bakery smack dab in the middle of the diplomatic quarter. The gruesome deaths of 22 people at the hands of militants came to be known as the Holey Artisan Attack and became etched in the memories of those who considered Holey Artisan Bakery to be a part of their daily lives.
Derek Hendriks, an expat of the Netherlands who has been living in Dhaka for the last few years, considered Holey to be a ‘little haven inside this chaotic city.’ ‘I would go there every day,’ he says, ‘for my morning coffee and breakfast croissant – its’ excellent bakery products always reminded me of home.’ After the attacks, where foreigners were specifically targeted, Hendriks had no choice but to stay under severely restricted movement for some time. ‘I consider this to be my home,’ he says, ‘and we simply picked up where we left off.’
There were some who criticised the decision to re-open as complacency, and a sign of ‘the rich going back to being rich again as opposed to resilience,’ but for its’ workers and owners it was a practical move at the right time. Ali Arsalan, one of the partners says that re-opening for them was simply the most logical move given that they already had the trained staff with learned skills and equipment that was simply lying around and getting rusty.
But for some time after the attacks, the lingering feeling of fear was palpable in the city, especially within Gulshan. Businesses were hit hard and restaurants lay empty. Arsalan, who is also a partner at Izumi, a famed Japanese establishment in the city, says, ‘we suffered a lot financially after the attacks, with the loss of sales.’ He goes on to add, that perhaps the suffering cannot be equated to that of a person who lost a family member or a loved one. ‘But there is no competition here,’ he asserts.
For the workers as well, it has taken a great deal of courage to come back to a place of work where they witnessed such violence. Shahriar Ahmed, one of the waiters at Holey, recalls the incident clearly. He remembers hiding in the coffee room behind the sink, and the cold way in which the terrorists went about accomplishing their mission. ‘They didn’t want to hurt us because we were Muslims, but the trauma is unforgettable.’
He remembers the times he spent there with the rest of the staff, whom they all considered to be part of a family. ‘I was unemployed for a few months afterwards, but the owners were not only supportive but also very inspiring,’ he says. Ahmed also suggests that it was only because of the help of the owners, did they all have the courage to deal with the aftermath of the trauma – such as interviews with the police and the RAB. ‘My family is dependent on me, so it is hard but insh’Allah, we will be able to rebuild ourselves again and so will Holey,’ he affirms.
The new location of the cafe is probably in one of the safest areas – it is right behind a police check post and also has a gunman assigned there for protection. Faria Zakaria, who was a regular patron of Holey, says that this has become part of her ‘new normal.’ She used to consider Holey as an extension of her home life, recalling fondly the times when she and her friends would lay out in the garden at Holey for hours, soaking up the sun after a leisurely weekend brunch. Despite being on holiday during the attacks, she was desperately worried for the safety of her boyfriend who is a foreigner and friends who are also expats. She looks at the re-opening of the cafe, not just as a sign of resilience, but also as a sign of love and support from everybody. ‘It is okay to be worried, but it is also okay to move on without guilt,’ she says.