April 25, 2017 at 12:00 pm EDT | by Tausif Sanzum
Memories of an unforgettable past with Xulhaz

Xulhaz Mannan, gay news, Washington Blade

Xulhaz Mannan, a prominent Bangladeshi LGBT activist, was hacked to death in his home on April 25, 2016. (Photo courtesy of Facebook)

“How much will it cost on the rickshaw to go to Shia Mosque?” I clearly remember asking my mother. It had only been a few months since I moved back to Dhaka after living in Kuwait for 13 years. I needed the rickshaw to go and meet Xulhaz.

After almost three months back, I had seen him briefly at a Boys of Bangladesh, which is a self-identified gay group in Bangladesh, event and added him on Facebook. I was away in Savar, an area on the outskirts of Dhaka, for a residential university semester. We would talk over the phone and Facebook. I had asked him to meet me near Shia Mosque when I returned home as that was one of the few nearby landmarks I knew. “Super! You won’t believe (it) but I was thinking of proposing Shia Mosque! I am not much into (the) human species, too complicated, I’m more comfortable with nature. Loving the weather now, don’t u? Spring, no matter how lived, still rocks! Dangerous too, for it derails me from my path,” he replied back.

This was back in February 2010. Little could either of us predict that the end of spring 2016 would derail his journey forever! I was 19 back then and totally mesmerized by him. His voice had warmth but at the same time it had authority in it, something which was both comforting and disarming.

We used to talk about a lot of things, and love and relationships were one of them. Talking about relationships, he once mentioned, “Serious relationship . . . ummm . . . I fell in love with five men in my life, no matter how serious they were for me, the first four were unilateral but the relations in other terms were serious, like a serious friendship. The last one, number five, was bilateral, probably, is my only serious relationship that ended at the end of 2004 because he got married. We took about a two hours break, and now we are friends again.” During that time he would confess to being too individualistic to love and be with someone for 24 hours. I was invited to several gatherings at his place. He would refer them as “adda,” which is a gathering of his close friends filled with fun, sometimes music. Unfortunately, I had a curfew from my mother about staying out late and could never attend most of these. Somehow memories of him from the Boys of Bangladesh event betrayed me. Instead I would draw a picture of him from our conversations and how he must be in real life: A big tall man with a bigger personality. I confess that I was a little disappointed when we met. For a person with such a mature voice, he was petite. However, the disappointment was momentary. Within seconds, we were talking in the tone which we did over Facebook and the phone. The memory that I partly cherish and partly detest of him from this period was his ability to make me feel both loved and unwanted in split seconds.

Just in passing conversation, I once mentioned to him that I wish I were born as a woman so that I could be a homemaker. He got pretty irritated by that comment.

“Can’t believe people still see women’s role as a mere home maker,” he said. “You can still be a home maker. Why do you have to be a woman for that?”

He questioned my childish view of the world. When I read the messages we exchanged during those days, there were moments where he would get irritated on small issues, but he was mostly cheerful and happy. I once commented that he is glowing these days in his profile pictures. He said that he was happy and it reflected in them. He preferred things to be organized and in our conversation it was clearly visible.

I had once written to him, “It has been almost four months since the first time we met. If it has lasted four months.” It was only in 2015 when I messaged him back wishing him a happy birthday, 10/11/2015. The conversation did not go anywhere. However, I reached out to him again the same year. There were a lot of bloggers being killed in Bangladesh and I was worried about him. For the next few minutes, I felt that no time had passed between 2010 and 2015. He said, “This is so coincidental. I was just reading your review of our first Issue.” Among other things, Xulhaz was also the co-founder of Roopbaan, the first and only LGBT magazine of Bangladesh and I had written a critical review of it. We discussed about the violent situation in the country. I told him that because of their visibility, they make very easy targets for the extremist groups. He replied casually, “The last thing I’d want to do is live in fear, for not doing anything wrong. If anything happens as such, I’ll see it as an accident, not a punishment.” That one line made me come back to reality that it was 2015 and Xulhaz’s ideas towards LGBT visibility in Bangladesh to some extent might have taken over the cheerful and at times rude Xulhaz of 2010.

During this period, we came across each other at few LGBT advocacy events and we would merely exchange pleasantries. I remember visiting his house for a party and when I was leaving he came across to give me a hug. I did not know how to react to it. It was only in March 2016 when I got to spend a significant amount of time with him. He has proposed the idea of a documentary on the subject of the third Roopbaan rainbow rally and I volunteered to assist in directing it. The documentary required my boyfriend who was directing it and me to repeatedly visit Xulhaz’s house for pre-production leading up to the main shoot. Our interaction during this period was bittersweet and completely different compared to when we first met many moons ago. It must have been a combination of security concerns in the country, the pressure upon him to single handedly put up the rally and to a large extent we both had moved on in life. He was all over the place, putting the volunteers together, helping with the shoot, discussing about security risks and making sure his mother and everyone who gathered in his house had eaten lunch. One could clearly see that he was tired but he could manage everything and yet have time to mop his room, which I must say indicated OCD.

I am scared of cats and he had a big, fat one in his house. One time we went for an early morning shoot and we were having breakfast and I was telling his how scared I am of them. With a poker face, he said, “If you are so scared, why are you not reacting since she (his cat) was right behind you?” I screamed and moved to another place. He went to comment that I was overreacting, a comment I still feel was uncalled for considering it was about someone’s phobia. Between running around with cameras and helping to set the lights, there were moments when I could see the Xulhaz of 2010. I was looking for a rare white variety of aporajita (Asian pigeon wings) and I found the plant in his terrace garden. He promised that when the seeds will dry, he will keep some for me. The dream of having a white ajorajita remains unfulfilled.

The last time we ever met was on April 14, 2016. The police had denied permission for the LGBT community to participate in the rally. However, we went to Dhaka University to walk as Bangladeshis at the Pohela Boishakh (Bengali New Year) rally. When I reached, I saw that he was standing and talking to few people from the community. The disappointment of weeks of hard work being cancelled was visible on his face. However, when he saw me, he walked up to me and lightly touched my tummy for one second. That one moment of genuine concern from both of us was beyond any communication we ever had.

Xulhaz and his friend Tonoy were brutally murdered by a group of extremists who broke into their house on April 25, 2016.

Tausif Sanzum is a freelance journalist and a member of the LGBT community in Bangladesh.

1 Comment
  • Thank you for sharing your experiences and vivid snapshots. I also really liked your cat story, haha! I feel like I got to know Xulhaz a little myself. I hope that through this article and other means, he will be remembered and his efforts carried on.

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