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Bengalis Come to the Table Without Partitions


The authentic Bangladeshi restaurant on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. seems more like a family room than a restaurant. It draws people together from Bangladesh and India that share the Bengali ethnicity but whose countries have been separated by conflict since 1947.

At 6 p.m., the place was still empty, and only one person had trickled in.

Two hours later, seven people were crammed around a table meant for four, with newspapers, cups of tea and food items littering the wooden top.

The authentic Bangladeshi restaurant on the outskirts of Washington, D.C. seemed more like a family room than a restaurant. It draws people together from Bangladesh and India that share the Bengali ethnicity but whose countries have been separated by conflict since 1947.

Delicious Bengali dishes like “hilsa fish,” or goat “biryani” made their way to the tables occupied by members of the Bengali diaspora, their camaraderie overshadowing the chicken, fish or beef. Hilsa — called the “queen of fishes”— is a Bangladeshi delicacy and in danger of being overfished. Biryani is a South Asian mix of rice, vegetable and meat.

Gharer Khabar
Gharer Khabar

From the outside, Gharer Khabar -- which means “homemade food” in Bengali -- looks like many other narrow restaurants with plate-glass front windows in northern Virginia. Operated and owned by Nasima Shahreen and Ashraful Siddique, a Bangladeshi immigrant couple, it sits in a strip mall on busy Lee Highway.

But inside, Gharer Khabar turns the restaurant into a place where “homemade food” comes from a kitchen of love.

“My goal was that,” said Nasima Shahreen, co-owner and head cook of Gharer Khabar. “Homemade food with affection, with love.”

Shahreen and her husband, Ashraful, both from Bangladesh’s capital city of Dhaka, emigrated to the U.S. at the end of 2003.

The couple worked as sales representatives before starting a part-time catering business in Bengali food. When the first order came nearly 12 years ago, the couple had never imagined owning a restaurant of their own.

They only dreamt of it.

Nasima Shahreen and Ashraful Siddique
Nasima Shahreen and Ashraful Siddique

“Till now, I am not a trained cook. I don’t know how it happened, so I just cook like for passion,” Shahreen said. “But it happened.”

Their first order came from an immigrant Bengali family from Kolkata, India, who needed help after the birth of their child. They read an advertisement about homemade catered food in a Bengali community website.

“We prepared some fish, vegetables and rice,” Siddique recalled. “We gave it to them. They liked it.”

Next week, an order came in to feed 30 people, Siddique said.

And then, word spread among the Bengali diaspora in the Washington metropolitan area. Approximately 10,000 Bangladesh-born residents live there, according to a 2014 Migration Policy Institute report. And, at least 2,500 to 3,000 Bengalis from India are said to reside in the area, according to Somin Mukherji, who retired from the World Bank in 2014 and is a longtime Washington resident from Kolkata.

Bengali-Indians also come to Gharer Khabar to bond with immigrants from Bangladesh because of familiar language, food and culture.

The union of Bengalis are poignant because the province of Bengal was divided along religious lines in 1947. West Bengal lies on the India side of the line with a majority Hindu population. On the other side in Bangladesh is a majority Muslim population, which was East Pakistan until 1971. But most people from both those regions are ethnic Bengali and speak Bengali, despite practicing different religions.

“See, like here, they are from Calcutta (Kolkata), and they are from Bangladesh,” Siddique said, pointing to customers in the restaurant. “We have lots of people who come from Calcutta (Kolkata), and we feel like since we have the same language, our food taste is 80 percent is the same, we can connect (with) each other very easily.”

The business grew with constant requests from the diaspora for Bengali cooking, which obliged the couple to open Gharer Khabar at the end of 2011.

Every evening around 8 p.m., Bengali immigrants from Bangladesh and India gather for social and political conversations, play games such as chess and lodo (a board and dice game), and eat Bengali snacks with tea, Shahreen said.

One of them is Nusrat Rabbee.

Rabbee is an immigrant from Dhaka and came to the U.S. in 1981 for her undergraduate degree in computer science and economics at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. She moved to Washington from northern California in August to teach at the University of Maryland.

Since coming to Washington, Rabbee has been to Gharer Khabar almost every week, she said.

Drawn to its authentic Bangladeshi food, Rabbee was initially shy. She quietly ate her food and left, she said.

But, now that’s changed. The hospitality of the owners and the vibrant community of Gharer Khabar has empowered her to join the discussions of others.

“Gharer Khabar is a community center for all of us,” Rabbee told VOA StudentU. “When I enter, it feels like the sitcom ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name.

Bangladeshi Bengali restaurant
Bangladeshi Bengali restaurant

“They know what you like to eat.”

This wasn’t the case in northern California, Rabbee said. Even though similar communities existed, a class divide remained, wherein political and social intellectual exchanges referred to as “adda” in Bengali were constrained among the educated elites.

Such is not the case at Gharer Khabar, Rabbee said.

Conversations don’t revolve around reminiscing Bangladesh, Rabbee said. They, instead revolve around art, politics and social issues.

One compelling debate Rabbee participated in was on whether publication of animal slaughter pictures from Eid-ul-Adha on Facebook should be acceptable. Eid-ul-Adha is a a holy Muslim festival, also called the Sacrifice Feast, and is observed, among other rituals though the sacrifice of a sheep, cow, goat, buffalo or camel.

In that discussion, "women's voices were audible,” Rabbee told VOAStudentU. “I liked that.”

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    Parth Vohra

    Parth Vohra is a VOA intern for the fall of 2017. He is a junior studying political science, theater & performance studies and journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Parth aspires to use journalistic tools as a catalyst for social and political change in society. He is interested in topics of immigration, ethics and law, social justice, human rights and regional conflict.

    You can follow Parth on Twitter @parthvohra622.

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