HIGHLIGHTS

  • For some thirty years, he taught literature at Dhaka College. Observing the decline of intellectual life in Bangladeshi society, Sayeed founded the World Literature Center in 1978 to restore interest in reading among the youth and to “enlighten human beings.”
  • Responding to the lack of public-lending libraries in Bangladesh, Sayeed launched a nationwide library program in 1998.
  • Funded largely by the Norwegian government, its mobile libraries-actually, buses stocked with thousands of books-today make stops at two hundred and fifty locations in four cities throughout the country.
  • Versatile and charismatic, Sayeed has written twenty-two books. He devotes himself fully to the center and its programs and, these days, also to urgent environmental concerns.
  • The RMAF board of trustees recognizes “his cultivating in the youth of Bangladesh a love for books and their humanizing values through exposure to the great works of Bengal and the world.”

 CITATION

The Bengali literary tradition is among the richest in Asia, drawing upon a deep well of its own and upon centuries of cosmopolitan interaction with the rest of the world. Abdullah Abu Sayeed cherishes this tradition and is part of it. But modern history and its upheavals have left many people in Bangladesh without access to literature or to books of any kind. Today, television and other media have largely displaced books as the primary source of knowledge and pleasure. Reading has gone out of fashion. Sayeed despairs for this trend. Through his Bishwo Shahitto Kendro, or World Literature Center, he is acting to reverse it.

Born in Kolkata (Calcutta) in 1939, Sayeed was the son of a well-known playwright. After Partition, he attended Dhaka University in East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh in 1971. As a young man, Sayeed wrote poetry and prose and led a vibrant literary movement in the 1960s as editor of the magazine Kanthashar (The Voice). He drifted into the new medium of television and hosted a succession of popular shows. For some thirty years, he taught literature at Dhaka College.

Observing the decline of intellectual life in Bangladeshi society, Sayeed founded the World Literature Center in 1978 to restore interest in reading among the youth and to “enlighten human beings.” Under his guidance, twenty-five university students began reading and discussing great works of literature in an Enrichment Program that eventually grew to include high school students and general readers. Meeting in guided “reading circles” and drawing on literary and nonliterary works from the Bengali and world canons, each group in Sayeed’s program worked its way through a twenty-two-week reading course each year, completing more than one hundred books over seven years.

Assisted by the Ministry of Education, Sayeed extended his Enrichment Program to branches in Dhaka and eventually throughout Bangladesh. Today, there are five hundred branches in fifty-four districts and the program has hundreds of thousands of graduates. In the meantime, Sayeed has developed the center itself as a library, serving hundreds of readers daily, and also as a publishing house. Yearly sales of its two hundred and fifty volumes provide financial support for the center’s many activities.

Responding to the lack of public-lending libraries in Bangladesh, Sayeed launched a nationwide library program in 1998. Funded largely by the Norwegian government, its mobile libraries-actually, buses stocked with thousands of books-today make stops at two hundred and fifty locations in four cities throughout the country. Nearly twenty thousand readers have become members of the program.

Versatile and charismatic, Sayeed has written twenty-two books. He devotes himself fully to the center and its programs and, these days, also to urgent environmental concerns. His work is constantly growing. Today, the center offers programs in the arts and possesses a film and music library. Sayeed manages it all with seventy-six staff members and more than four thousand volunteers, including many of his former students. He dreams of building an ever larger network of libraries, bookmobiles, and reading circles throughout Bangladesh; of publishing seven hundred and fifty of the world’s great books in Bangla translation; and of erecting a new twelve-story cultural complex in Dhaka. But, most of all, Sayeed dreams of a new generation of enlightened Bangladeshi citizens whose values and understanding of other cultures are enriched by reading. His country’s future leaders will emerge from such a group, he says hopefully. “We see our students everywhere.”

In electing Abdullah Abu Sayeed to receive the 2004 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Journalism, Literature, and Creative Communication Arts, the board of trustees recognizes his cultivating in the youth of Bangladesh a love for books and their humanizing values through exposure to the great works of Bengal and the world.

 RESPONSE

I come from a country that is very new as a sovereign state. We have passed many years under foreign domination. Foreigners have occupied our land and played with our destiny. We did not have any scope to decide our own fate. This opportunity came to us only with our independence in 1971.

Our nation achieved freedom through a war. But the war of liberation was against an external enemy. Our real war however began after that, in the free world of our independence, against not an external force but against ourselves. This was an all-out war, long drawn and sleepless. It was against the decadence and degeneration, indolence and inefficiency within us. Our enemy this time was our pettiness, greed, inadequacy, and capacity for self-destruction. The realization grew that the Bangladesh we had achieved was not the mythical Golden Bengal, but a Bengal of just plain earth. It was for us to transform it into Golden Bengal with our labor, endeavor, and dedication. Our main struggle therefore was to build a strong and prosperous motherland.

Ladies and gentlemen, we soon left behind the restless phase and our national life began to stabilize. We began moving forward with some confidence. Trade and industry started to grow, and there began an initial capital accumulation. We achieved credible success in various sectors such as education, communication, population, agriculture, etc. There was global recognition for several positive NGO initiatives in Bangladesh, and the civil society movement gradually gained in strength.

This is the context of the establishment of the Bishwo Shahitto Kendro in Bangladesh in 1978. We had realized then that we were entering a phase of nation building. Nation builders therefore were the need of the hour-enriched men and women inspired by ideals, dreams, and human values. These men and women would build the nation with their vision, their labor, and their excellence. Bangladesh’s future depends on developing these men and women, and in large numbers.

Little minds and great nations cannot go together. Consequently, our aspiration for greatness as a nation must be matched by our commitment to create enlightened people within the nation. And, therefore, our endeavor is to create for Bangladesh an informed, enriched, and committed generation of future citizens. In this, our focus has been on the youth. We, the older generation, represent the past, while the youth are the future. They are young, impressionable, inquisitive, and receptive. At Bishwo Shahitto Kendro, we are preparing them with qualities of human leadership through the study of books and by engaging them in various cultural activities to promote a spirit of cross-cultural understanding, refined sensibility, and action. They are inspired to pursue great dreams early in life.

Ours is a small country in terms of area, but our population is large. There is a pressing need for humanistic development in the nation as a whole. Therefore, parallel to our effort for enrichment, we have also endeavored to take books and other cultural opportunities to the doorstep of the citizens at large.

Ladies and gentlemen, the awakening of human values is relevant not only for our nation alone, but also in the context of today’s world. Materialism has converted everything in this world into consumables. Man today is continuously becoming dehumanized. Mechanization is becoming the inexorable fate of humankind. We may have to witness the painful end of human civilization unless we are able to inculcate in our future generations the finer human values in the face of this overpowering trend of consumerism. This is what we have been trying to do in the limited context of our country.

Distinguished guests, the promise of a prize or an award does not engender action. Initiatives are born in response to the sufferings that we are dogged by constantly. Nevertheless, prizes and awards are a source of great pleasure and satisfaction. These provide not only joy, inspiration, and strength, but also enhance our responsibility.

The overpowering darkness and ignorance in our national life prompted me to act. That is all I can say. The Magsaysay Award has enhanced my sense of responsibility. And I accept this honor in all humility. I thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

 BIOGRAPHY

If I can educate the best,” says Abdullah Abu Sayeed, “they will take care of others.” Sayeed has been carrying out this mission since 1968, when he started “study circles” to promote book reading in Bangladesh—one of the ten most populous countries in the world and also one of the poorest.

Bangladesh was still part of British India when Abdullah Abu Sayeed was born in 1939. His family was staying at the time in the village of Karatia in the Tangail district, some thirty-seven miles from Dhaka. When Sayeed’s mother was about to give birth to him, Sayeed’s grandmother took her to Kolkata (Calcutta), the great Bengali metropolis and capital of West Bengal. He was born in Park Circus, a predominantly Muslim enclave where his maternal grandfather lived.

Sayeed was born to a professor who was also a writer and playwright, and to a “very cultured” lady who, he says, was “not that educated.” His father taught English and Bengali literature and held a master’s degree in both languages.

(For the complete biography, please email biographies@rmaf.org.ph)