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47 LESSON 7 REMEMBER YOUR HUMANITY Living a successful and satisfying life depends in great measure on early distinguishing between things which matter much and things which matter little. e. v. mccollum Several days before we had been evacuated from Dacca during the civil war (or, to the Bangladeshis, the War of Liberation), a prominent Bengali had come to our home. He had written two dozen names on a tiny piece of paper; all were prominent Bengali intellectuals and politicians who’d been murdered by the occupying Pakistani army. He asked that I deliver the list to a particular Bengali barrister in London . Of course, I said I would. I knew that upon boarding the evacuation flights we would be searched, and any intelligence would be confiscated . I therefore concealed the slip of paper inside a slit I made in my trouser belt. I felt like an actor in a grade B WWII movie, but I knew that this was not a laughing matter . My visitor had risked his life by preparing and delivering the list. After the few days in Iran we boarded our flight to London in route back to the United States. In London, we stayed overnight at Green’s Hotel. I telephoned a number I 48 TEN LESSONS IN PUBLIC HEALTH had been given and late that afternoon was visited by the barrister in question. He brought along an impressive, older Bengali gentleman, Abu Sayeed Chowdhury. I soon learned that I was in the presence of the highly respected chief justice of the Pakistani Supreme Court. In a quirk of irony, the day the Pakistan army struck Dacca, the chief justice had been out of the country, representing Pakistan at an international conference on human rights. He was now the roving ambassador for the nascent nation of his birth, Bangladesh. We spoke in hushed tones in a room at the rear of the hotel’s lobby. It had the eerie feeling of a scene from Casablanca. A mere sixteen months later, Abu Sayeed Chowdhury became the first president of Bangladesh. We were in Bangladesh because of the smallpox epidemic and just a few days from returning to the States for good. I sent a note to President Chowdhury, asking if by chance Jill and I might briefly congratulate him in person on the war’s outcome. I doubted he would even remember me. To my amazement, a beribboned colonel appeared at my office that same afternoon, bearing a gold-engraved invitation to attend dinner at the Presidential Palace the next evening. Jill and I were dumbfounded . What does one wear to the Presidential Palace? Surely something more formal than my khaki field clothes and Jill’s cotton shift and slacks. We convinced ourselves it would be a big party; we could sneak in, pay our respects, and be gone before anyone noticed. We drove to the palace in our only means of transport: my white, topless “smallpox jeep.” In route I got hopelessly lost in Old Dacca; we arrived at the gates of the palace twenty minutes late. The grounds were huge—and dark. We saw very few cars (certainly too few for the big party we had imagined). Armed soldiers blocked our path. I told them we had been invited to dinner by the president. Not unreasonably, given our dress and mode of transport, they didn’t believe us. REMEMBER YOUR HUMANIT Y 49 They called the palace and announced, “There is a Doctor Sommer who claims to have been invited to dinner with the president . . . [pause] . . . Yes, I see. Right away.” The guard turned to me. “You’re late; the president is waiting for you.” And so he was, on the steps to the palace, formally attired . We discovered this was his first official reception for the ambassadors of the major Western nations: France, Germany , England, and, of course, the United States. He led us through a huge, chandeliered hall to a small, intimate sitting room where all the ambassadors and their wives were waiting in formal attire. We were more than a bit abashed by how inappropriately attired we were. President Chowdhury clearly remembered our brief, previous encounter. He escorted Jill and me into the sitting room, arms around our shoulders, and announced to the gathering, “These two young Americans are heroes of our revolution.” The new American consul general, who had done everything he could to keep me out of the country (he feared rumors of CIA work if an American was...


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