British Council has been a long-standing partner for the Dhaka Lit Fest since its inception, and the collaboration continues to be integral to the success of the revered festival.
On the occasion of DLF’s 10th anniversary, we at Dhaka Tribune sat down with Tom Miscioscia, country director for British Council Bangladesh, to discuss his work in Bangladesh so far, the Dhaka Lit Fest, and what lies ahead.
Your lengthy career with the British Council has taken you to such diverse locations as Colombia, Ethiopia, and now Bangladesh. As varied as all these experiences must have been, what, in your opinion, are some important things that these different cultures have in common?
These are three amazing countries on three very different continents. I’d say that one commonality I found in all those countries is the amount of cultural pride on the ground, and I would say Bangladesh has been no exception. Arriving here and seeing how culturally confident Bangladeshis are, perhaps I would say it is more similar to Colombia. It’s almost a sort of Latino confidence in the Bangladeshi culture, at least from my experience of the last few years.
What’s been great to see in all those places is how music, dance, or literature — like today, we’re here at Dhaka Lit Fest — have actually brought those cultures alive. And the role of festivals act as a vehicle for cultural expression, for cultural freedom. It’s been a privilege to experience the three different cultures through festivals like the Dhaka Lit Fest and other festivals.
You’ve been here over three years now. What has been the best thing about working in Bangladesh?
Without a doubt, the best part has just been the people — whether it’s people I’ve met through the British Council, at work, our colleagues, and just the people in general, even in terms of my wider life wandering round the country. People here have been incredibly hospitable.
I think that perhaps not that many people know about Bangladesh or Bangladeshi culture, or about how hospitable people here are. I think the greatest asset in this country is its people and the warmth of its people, and the culture itself in its broader sense — the food, the music, the dance — and if you put those things together, it’s an amazing cultural cocktail.
What unique challenges have we presented for you, especially during the pandemic?
Well, the pandemic itself is by far the greatest challenge we have all faced in the past few years. For me personally, one of the challenges has been working in a cultural relations organization and not being able to travel as much around the country as I would have liked, or not being able to do all the work out there. Of course we try to deliver our work successfully online but I don’t think it’s the same as getting out there and having that face-to-face engagement. The pandemic has made us all retreat back to our apartments for long periods of the last few years. I arrived in late 2019, so to only have a few months here before we went into that slightly alternative universe was by far the greatest challenge. And, of course, the traffic.
The British Council has always done important work in Education and the Arts, with all your programmes and workshops and grants. How has the present worldwide scenario — with the war in Europe affecting global economies — impacted some of these planned activations?
We have been living through hard times and continue to do so, with the war in Ukraine and the cost of living crises that has been affecting everyone globally. Our organization has been massively affected over the last few years. Not many people know that the British Council is not for profit and we operate independently from the British government.
So one of the challenges we had over the course of the pandemic, which continues now, is how we fund ourselves: Our main income source — teaching English, and running exams — was cut off at the knees during the pandemic.
We really had to focus on the core areas of impact that we had, so we streamlined our portfolios to focus on three main areas: English, education, and the arts. And as a result we are doing more of the great stuff in those areas, and moving away from the areas that have been distracting in the past.
It’s been a challenging time for us as an organization. As we are coming out of the pandemic, I think our work is even more relevant. British Council was set up in the inter-war period. We were established between the first and the second World Wars. In a way, the purpose of our work is diametrically opposed to military interventions. We call it cultural relations, other people call it self-power.
Ultimately its about connecting people from countries around the world, building long-lasting friendships, creating opportunities for people so that we avoid military interventions — soft power, as opposed to hard power, which is what we have been witnessing in Ukraine. As we have come out of the pandemic I would say that our organization is incredibly relevant, and because we are focused on these three key areas of our work, we are looking forward to extending the impact we can have in those areas.
Just to go back to what you said earlier, a lot of the work was moved online due to the pandemic. Are there any models or methods that were delivered better online that you would want to continue, despite the fact that we have in-person communication now?
Everyone is having to do a little bit more with less, given the challenges we are facing. I think what we have learned through the pandemic about the digital engagement is not going to disappear. As I said I don’t think it can replace face-to-face engagements, but I think it will continue to play an important part — just how we can now have meetings at the drop of a pen involving people from all over the world.
I believe the value of festivals like Dhaka Lit Fest will remain, but the opportunity to dial in other voices that can’t attend in person has certainly become more relevant, and technology allows us to do that.
One example of that is an online project we funded with Dhaka Lit Fest called Everything Change around 18 months ago, to bring together international thinkers and writers to talk about creativity and climate change, and how the creative community can help to combat climate change and the main issues we are still facing. One of the directors of DLF opened that online forum with Margaret Atwood, and a lot of that content is still available online.
What’s great about digital interface is that we now know that it will be there for posterity. I think that was a good example of using digital platforms to bring together the arts on an important theme like climate change, which is affecting Bangladesh but also countries all over the world.
British Council has been integral to events like the Dhaka Lit Fest, and the Hay Festival here before that. What are your thoughts on the return of DLF after its hiatus?
It is fantastic to see that Dhaka’s festival season is in full swing again after all this time. We couldn’t be more proud to see the leaps and bounds that Dhaka Lit Fest has made over the last 10 years. As you mentioned, the partnership first started off between British Council and the Hay Festival. It was always meant to be a pilot project. For many reasons the Hay Festival was not able to continue in Bangladesh, and that’s when we worked together as the British Council, with the three directors to ensure that what was a seedling of an idea pilot was built on.
They have done an amazing job over the last 10 years, up to what it is today. I have only had the opportunity to visit one other festival before, so I’m looking forward to this one. I think it is really important that this type of forum exists in Bangladesh to allow young Bangladeshis, and hopefully not just elite Bangladeshis — Bangladeshis from all over the spectrum to come and hear directly from international voices and thinkers, and also celebrate the amazing wealth of Bengali literature that is out there.
What sessions are you interested to attend at DLF this year?
We are specifically sponsoring three authors and one publisher at this festival: Owen Sheers, Sarvat Hasin, and Alexandra Pringle. I’m looking forward to seeing some of the talks that they would be giving, and meeting them in person. Otherwise, I hear that Tilda Swinton is in town, I will definitely be attending her reading.
So many fantastic authors are coming out. It’s an opportunity for them as well to come to Dhaka and experience a little bit of the Bangladeshi culture I was talking about — and the hospitality — and for Bangladeshis to get a glimpse into the world.
What are you looking forward to in 2023?
I am probably most looking forward to getting out and about again. In the last few months, we have seen activities resume, festivals like this one starting up again, and we have a number of festivals coming up. British Council is organizing a Women of the World festival from February 24-25. I am looking forward to getting to all the fests in Dhaka, and also getting out of Dhaka — to see our work and the corners of the country that I haven’t managed to visit yet.