Bangladeshi architect’s community-centric work builds resilience to climate change

Bangladeshi architect’s community-centric work builds resilience to climate change
Marina Tabassum, center, speaks to Arab News at her office in Dhaka on May 2, 2024. (AN Photo)
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Updated 23 May 2024
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Bangladeshi architect’s community-centric work builds resilience to climate change

Bangladeshi architect’s community-centric work builds resilience to climate change
  • Marina Tabassum is among Time’s most influential people of 2024
  • Her mosque in Dhaka received the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture

DHAKA: With structures that “breathe” and are designed in tune with Bangladesh’s history and environment, Marina Tabassum’s work focuses on the local community and resilience in the country where every year millions of people lose their homes and livelihoods to climate change.

The award-winning founder of Marina Tabassum Architects came to the international spotlight after winning the 2016 Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka, which she designed, built and fundraised.

An architect and educator, she is also the recipient of the prestigious 2021 Soane Medal for Architecture, the 2021 Gold Medal by the French Academy of Architecture, the 2021 Arnold W. Bruner Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters 2021, and the Lisbon Millennium Lifetime Achievement Award, which she received in 2022.

In 2024, she was featured on Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People list for developing a “practice and a way of being that prioritizes local cultures and values, as well as the perils faced by our shared planet.”

One of the drivers of Tabassum’s work is a sense of responsibility.

“There is enormous disparity in our human condition in Bangladesh and I feel like it’s not just my responsibility, (but) it’s for everybody to take that, their own share of the responsibility, and to do something about it,” she told Arab News at her practice in Dhaka.

“And I am of a breed who has the knowledge, has the capacity, all the different things that are required to take the responsibility to reduce these differences.”

Throughout her nearly three-decade career, she has designed some of Bangladesh’s most famous structures, which, besides the Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, are the Museum of Independence in Dhaka — a project with Kashef Chowdhury — as well as housing adapted to the environment, including a modular mobile house for climate victims in the country’s south and north.

The Bait Ur Rouf Mosque, which is personally very close to Tabassum, was built on land donated by her grandmother and with a modest budget raised through community contributions.

“I was not just designing it, but also constructing it, fundraising it, so that became a very intensely involved project. I would say it is an important milestone for me and also it gave me a lot of international acclaim, which definitely helps in many ways,” she said.




The prayer hall of Marina Tabassum's Bait Ur Rouf Mosque in Dhaka. (Aga Khan Trust for Culture)

The building’s porous brick walls keep it ventilated and cool while natural light enters it through a skylight. For Tabassum, one of the most important features in her work is that it “has to be able to breathe without artificial aids,” especially in her own subtropical country.

“It’s important for us to have our buildings as open as possible so that we can have natural ventilation, air can come and pass through the buildings. That’s what I call the breathing of a building,” she said.

“That’s an absolutely crucially important phenomenon that we should integrate in our architecture.”

Another crucial factor is having her architecture rooted, as much as possible, in the local context, including by sourcing material locally and working with local craftsmen.

Working with local communities and “trying to make ourselves available to their service,” is the main focus of her projects now — inspired also by her parents and teachers.

“Till date, my father, who is 87 years of age, is still working as a doctor, giving treatment to people who cannot afford cancer therapy. I think that’s embedded in us, to some extent, to have that value of giving,” she said.

As an architect, she has been inspired by many different people — her professors at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and Muzharul Islam, an architect and urban planner who is considered the grand master of modernism in South Asia.

“There’s a lot that I learned from him,” Tabassum said. “He always talked about how we have a small country and a huge population, how the entire country needs to be planned in a proper manner in terms of land use, in terms of housing, food production, and all the other things that a country requires, and every single space should be properly planned and designed — which we are still yet to do.”

In 2020, she established a new non-profit branch of her practice — the Foundation for Architecture Community Equity — dedicated to providing a home and humane living environment to Bangladesh’s low-income, landless, or climate-affected communities.

One of its flagship initiatives is Khudi Bari, which translates to “little house” in Bengali. Under the project, over 50 such bamboo-frame houses have already been built for the coastal communities where seawater regularly claims the land, and for flood-prone communities in the north, where swelling rivers cause catastrophic flooding during the monsoon season.




Marina Tabassum, center, and her colleagues from the Foundation for Architecture and Community Equity stand next to the frame of a house for low-income Bangladeshi communities affected by climate change. (FACE)

The cheap and light houses are made from materials that are widely available in the regions and are designed to be easily dismantled and moved when needed.

“Architecture is not a product, architecture has expanded and has always had that expanded idea of creating a proper environment, a good environment. And in order to create a good environment, you cannot just focus on a building, but you have to create, starting from planning to landscape to building (according) to people’s living conditions, economics,” Tabassum said.

“It’s about changing the mindset in many ways … The changes I would like to see (are) more about rootedness, more about sourcing locally, building responsibly, including people.”


Putin says North Korea hosted children of soldiers killed in Ukraine

Putin says North Korea hosted children of soldiers killed in Ukraine
Updated 55 min 7 sec ago
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Putin says North Korea hosted children of soldiers killed in Ukraine

Putin says North Korea hosted children of soldiers killed in Ukraine
  • Putin thanked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the “act of care“
  • The Russian children, who were sent to the Songdowon International Children’s Camp on the Pacific coast, are rare outsiders in the country

MOSCOW: Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday said North Korea had hosted children of Russian soldiers killed in Ukraine at a summer camp in the reclusive country.
Putin thanked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un for the “act of care” during a state visit to Pyongyang to advance Russia’s relations with its closed neighbor as ties with Western countries are ruptured over Ukraine.
The Russian children, who were sent to the Songdowon International Children’s Camp on the Pacific coast, are rare outsiders in the country which shut itself off from the world even more after the Covid pandemic.
“I want to thank our Korean friends and personally comrade Kim Jong Un for organizing the holiday of the children of killed participants of the special military operation in the Korean camp Songdowon,” Putin said, using Moscow’s term for its offensive on Ukraine.
“We highly value this genuine act of care and friendship,” he added.
Moscow has not said how many of its troops have been killed in more than two years of fighting in Ukraine, but the number is believed to be at least in the tens of thousands.
Putin said that the countries were developing tourism ties.
“For the summer season, tours are being organized, focused on holidaying in Korean seaside resorts,” he said.
Russia and North Korea share a short land border, near the city of Vladivostok.
As Moscow touts relations with Pyongyang, regional authorities in the Russian Primorye region bordering North Korea have also upped cooperation.
Local governor Oleg Kozhemyako touted sending children from the region to North Korean camps during a visit by Kim to Russia’s Far East last year, causing some alarm from parents.
In an address to schoolchildren, Kozhemyako said: “When we were like you, we would go there, they had good camps in Korea. That’s why maybe we will agree and send some (children) to pioneer camps... There is the sea there and it is warm.”
In April, he said some 200 school children were ready to holiday in Songdowon.
At the time, the head of the Russian League for a Safe Internet, Yekaterina Mizulina, said she was flooded with complaints from concerned local parents.


India launches new campus at site of ancient Nalanda university

India launches new campus at site of ancient Nalanda university
Updated 19 June 2024
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India launches new campus at site of ancient Nalanda university

India launches new campus at site of ancient Nalanda university
  • Ancient Nalanda university was founded in 427 CE during Gupta empire
  • Present-day Nalanda University is a flagship project of India’s government

NEW DELHI: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated on Monday a new campus of Nalanda University, an institution located at the site of a 5th-century learning center considered the world’s first residential university.

The ancient Nalanda university in the state of Bihar was founded in 427 CE during the Gupta empire and flourished for more than seven centuries. Its archaeological remains became a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2016.

The present-day Nalanda University was established in Nalanda district as a public research university by an act of the Indian Parliament in 2010. A flagship project of the Ministry of External Affairs of the government of India, it was proposed by India’s former president A.P. J. Abdul Kalam and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who served as its first chancellor.

Supported by 18 member countries of the East Asia Summit, Nalanda University’s first batch comprised a dozen students enrolled in graduate and postgraduate courses in 2014. The construction of its new campus started in 2017. It was announced as a “net zero green campus,” with solar panels and water treatment and recycling plants.

“It’s a very special day for our education sector,” Modi said during the inauguration ceremony attended by Bihar Governor Rajendra Arlekar, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, and foreign ambassadors.

“Nalanda has a strong connect with our glorious past. This university will surely go a long way in catering to the educational needs of the youth.”

India’s PM Narendra Modi, top officials and foreign diplomats participate in the inauguration of Nalanda University’s new campus in Bihar, June 19, 2024. (PM’s Office)

The ancient Nalanda, whose complex spread over an area of 23 hectares, attracted thousands of students arriving from China, Indonesia, Korea, Japan, Mongolia, Sri Lanka and Tibet to learn medicine, logic, mathematics and Buddhist teachings. It also sent some its best professors to propagate Buddhist philosophy in learning centers across Asia.

“Ancient Nalanda had come up in the 5th century CE and this used to be one of the prime institutions of not only Asia but of the world, because it was the first residential university of the world,” Nalanda University Vice-Chancellor Prof. Abhay Kumar Singh told Arab News.

“The new university is situated at the same place where you have the ancient campus ... Lots of authentic literature on philosophy was produced. Not only philosophy. Sanskrit, grammar, Ayurveda, metallurgic arts, cosmology, astrology and astronomy — all these things were studied here.”

There are conflicting reports on who destroyed the ancient campus. Some Indian historians believe that it was the Turko-Afghan military general Bakhtiyar Khilji during his conquest of northern India, while many Buddhist sources blame local Hindu Brahmins who they say were jealous of Buddhist dominance at that time.

What is undisputed is that when Nalanda was burnt down in the 12th century, most of its scholars fled to Tibet, and exchanges with other Asian learning centers stopped.

“They lost their source of knowledge. These interactions ended 800 years ago ... In 2006, former president Abdul Kalam suggested that we should have ancient Nalanda rejuvenated again. At the same time there was an East Asia Summit. Member countries also suggested that we want the same Nalanda to be revived and we would support the Indian government to establish the center,” Singh said.

“The university was established and 2014 was the first batch of students, just 10 or 12 ... Now we have students from 26 countries. Although the number is not high, the representation of all these countries is here. It’s truly an international university.”

In the past semester, the university had 170 foreign and 50 Indian students enrolled in world peace, Buddhism, comparative religion, philosophy, literature and management courses.

Soon it will be ready to receive more students at the new complex, which has two academic blocks with 40 classrooms and total seating for about 1,900.

“Earlier we were functioning from temporary facilities. This campus has the capacity to accommodate about 7,000 to 8,000 people — both teaching and non-teaching staff combined,” Singh said.

“We initially planned to have more than 2,000 students and for this we need more courses. Right now, we have six master’s degrees and every course takes 40 students. We are now adding more master courses and more students will join.”


Academic blasts Swedish PM after missing out on prisoner swap

Academic blasts Swedish PM after missing out on prisoner swap
Updated 19 June 2024
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Academic blasts Swedish PM after missing out on prisoner swap

Academic blasts Swedish PM after missing out on prisoner swap
  • “Mr. Prime Minister, you decided to leave me behind under huge risk of being executed” Djalali said in an audio recording
  • “I talk to you from Evin prison, inside a horrible cave where I have spent eight years, two months, almost 3,000 days of my life“

STOCKHOLM: Iranian-Swedish Ahmadreza Djalali, an academic who has been on death row in Iran for eight years, attacked Sweden’s prime minister after being excluded from a prisoner swap, in an audio recording obtained by AFP Wednesday.
Two Swedes were released on Saturday in exchange for Hamid Noury, a 63-year-old Iranian former prisons official handed a life sentence in Sweden in 2022 for his role in mass killings in Iranian jails in 1988.
The two Swedes were EU diplomat Johan Floderus, held in Iran since April 2022 accused of espionage, and Iranian-Swede Saeed Azizi, arrested in November.
But Djalali, on death row in Iran since 2017 after having been convicted of espionage, missed out on the swap.
“Mr. Prime Minister, you decided to leave me behind under huge risk of being executed” Jalali said in an audio recording shared with AFP by his wife Vida Mehrannia.
“I talk to you from Evin prison, inside a horrible cave where I have spent eight years, two months, almost 3,000 days of my life,” Djalali said.
Directing his message to Sweden’s Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, Djalali asked: “Why not me?“
Swedish Foreign Minister Tobias Billstrom has stressed that Stockholm tried to secure his release, but Tehran refused to discuss his case as it does not recognize dual nationality.
He was granted Swedish citizenship while in jail in Iran.
“It’s just excuses,” Mehrannia told AFP. Her husband’s release “wasn’t important to them, they didn’t want to challenge Iran,” she added.
“I’m so angry, I’m at a loss for words.”
In his message, Djalali dared Kristersson to meet his son and family in front of tv cameras and tell him “why you left his father behind.
“My son was four when I was detained and he is now 12 and a half years old. He spent two thirds of his life without a father,” Djalali said, noting his son had been born in Sweden and grown up among Swedish children.
As a result of the publishing of the recording, Djalali had been denied making calls to Sweden, Mehrannia told AFP.
“But I think it was worth it,” she said. “It was important.”
Amnesty International has called on Sweden’s government to “do everything” to ensure Djalali can return.


Indonesians top global intake of microplastics, new study shows

A man looks through plastic and other debris washed ashore at Kedonganan Beach near Denpasar on Bali.
A man looks through plastic and other debris washed ashore at Kedonganan Beach near Denpasar on Bali.
Updated 19 June 2024
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Indonesians top global intake of microplastics, new study shows

A man looks through plastic and other debris washed ashore at Kedonganan Beach near Denpasar on Bali.
  • Southeast Asia’s largest economy is second-largest ocean plastic polluter after China
  • No report on illnesses related to microplastics so far, Health Ministry says

JAKARTA: Indonesians are the top global consumers of microplastics, a recent Cornell University study shows, estimating that they ingest about 15 grams of plastic particles per month.

The study, published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal, mapped microplastic uptake in 109 countries and found that people in Southeast Asian countries, including Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, are the top consumers of microplastics worldwide.

Indonesians topped the list as they consume the equivalent of three credit cards in microplastics every month, the majority from fish and seafood. Using existing data models, Cornell researchers said that Indonesians’ daily consumption of plastic particles increased by 59 times from 1990 to 2018.

“This latest finding adds to the long list of the alarming dangers of plastic pollution in Indonesia … the existence of microplastics cannot be separated from the massive production of plastics,” Afifah Rahmi Andini, plastic lead researcher at Greenpeace Indonesia, told Arab News.

Indonesia, an archipelago of more than 270 million people, is the second-largest ocean plastic polluter, just behind China, according to a 2015 study published in the journal Science.

Despite being a major producer and consumer of plastics, Southeast Asia’s largest economy still lags behind when it comes to waste management.

“Our waste management capacity is still far from ideal. Our recycling capacity alone is less than 10 percent of the total plastic waste we produce. So, it’s not that surprising if right now we have to face the bitter truth that Indonesians are at the highest risk of being exposed to microplastics,” Andini said.

Over the years, the Indonesian government has designed various regulations to address the issue of plastic pollution, including a national action plan that aims to reduce marine plastic debris by 70 percent by 2025, which covers strategies for waste reduction, improving waste management infrastructure and public education campaigns.

Major regions, including the capital Jakarta and the popular holiday destination Bali, have also introduced bans on single-use plastics.

“But the existing regulations are not ideal enough to address the issue of microplastic contamination … we must adapt, because it’s now a fact that microplastics are part of our environment and our bodies that we can no longer avoid,” Andini said.

The Cornell study also built on earlier research exploring the presence of plastic particles in fish in Jakarta, crabs in Central Java and chicken eggs in East Java.

“Unfortunately, up to now, Indonesia has yet to include microplastics as a parameter into our food and environmental quality standards.”

The Indonesian Ministry of Health has yet to receive a report on clinical illnesses related to microplastics, but the Cornell study serves as “useful information,” its environmental health director, Dr. Anas Ma’ruf, told Arab News.

“Though it needs to be studied further, it can still serve as information on how health risks caused by microplastics require attention,” he said.

“As Indonesia is the largest maritime country and a main producer of microplastics in the world … public education campaigns must be increased.”


Wildfire rages outside Athens fanned by strong winds

Wildfire rages outside Athens fanned by strong winds
Updated 19 June 2024
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Wildfire rages outside Athens fanned by strong winds

Wildfire rages outside Athens fanned by strong winds
  • Traffic was suspended along a main highway connecting Koropi to Athens suburbs
  • One storage facility was on fire and flames crept into a boat dry dock and across fields of dry grass and olive trees

ATHENS: Greek firefighters and aircraft battled a blaze in the town of Koropi 30 kilometres south of Athens on Wednesday as strong winds fanned the flames and forced residents to flee their homes and businesses.
Traffic was suspended along a main highway connecting Koropi to Athens suburbs. One storage facility was on fire and flames crept into a boat dry dock and across fields of dry grass and olive trees, images on local TV showed.
There were no reports of deaths or injuries, a fire service official told Reuters. Civil protection and authorities evacuated two nearby villages.
It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze. Four fire fighting planes, six helicopters, dozens of fire engines and more than 50 firefighters were dispatched to the scene, the fire service official said.
Much of the Athens area has had no rain for weeks, leaving large areas bone dry.
"I saved my home at the last moment. It all happened so fast," a resident whose face was blackened by smoke told local Skai TV channel.
Wildfires are common in the Mediterranean nation but they have become more devastating in recent years amid hotter and drier summers that scientists relate to the climate change.
After forest fires last year forced 19,000 people to flee the island of Rhodes and killed 20 in the northern mainland, Greece has scaled up its preparations this year by hiring more staff and stepping up training.