In terms of placing myself within the context of a national identity, I have always struggled. The most pressing question remains: What exactly is a national identity comprised of?
Is it the food you eat? The religion you follow? The language you speak? Or is it merely a coincidence of history, of the entirety of history coming together to place you in a particular place, at a particular time?
These questions -- questions which most of us at one time or another ask ourselves -- enforce a doubt that makes it difficult for an individual to identify and relate to their fellow countrymen and countrywomen.
When one is made aware of the changing course of history, of the various events which shape empires, which consequently break them down into nations, moving and pushing and erasing borders, and especially so in this age of globalization and increasing access to knowledge, one is caught grappling and clutching at labels which try to define what one is.
On what basis, exactly, can you call yourself a Bangladeshi? And who decides?
While such self-reflection -- both for the individual and the nation itself -- is prone to put into question the role of traditions, and the intrinsic value we sometimes imagine they have, they do serve a purpose in uniting people, and giving meaning to shared heritage.
This is why, when placed in a foreign land, we immediately gravitate towards those who speak our language, who share our memories, those who, most importantly, understand us.
As the very notion of tradition is broken down moving forward, it is perhaps not completely harmful to hold on to some of them, so that citizens of a country remain, through shared heritage, united.
Traditions, no doubt, give meaning to our lives. Repetition heavies the things we do. But, it is important for countries, especially one such as Bangladesh, to realize when these traditions are meaningful, celebratory, and uniting, and when they are harmful, and must be eliminated.
Take, for example, Shab-e-Barat. While its veracity as a true Islamic tenet remains contentious, why does it matter? So many of us remember childhoods where we distributed halwa of different kinds to our neighbours and the poor and still do so.
Some men would go to the mosque and stay up all night praying with their friends and family members. The atmosphere around the mosque, in the dark, under the stars, surrounded by neighbours and makeshift tea stalls, was comforting and exciting at the same time.
These “normal” day-to-day activities, just because they were carried out in a different space in time, made them special and, even for me, personally, I have some of my best memories with my cousins and friends lying down in the mosque and looking up at the white-washed ceilings talking about life.
And even our non-Muslim friends would show up, partaking in the festivities, because their religion was irrelevant to their involvement in the festival. At the end of the day, it was just a good time shared with people you cared about.
When we do these things now, it is a reflection of that memory bleeding into the present. It unites us in a way that Pohela Boishakh and Eid do. Or, at least, it did. Whether or not it is explicitly and without doubt mentioned in the Qur’an, let scholars deal with that, and we can have healthy discussions later on.
All too often, we find ourselves divided, into groups, factions, religions, on issues which do not matter
Where the origins of Shab-e-Barat lie, for us, as citizens, that is irrelevant. The fact that we have always done it, and it is harmless, and that it is, at its most basic, a simple and nice tradition that all of us can partake in, is what is important.
All too often, we find ourselves divided, into groups, factions, religions, on issues which do not matter, hating each other for what we were born into, for trivialities, while ignoring issues which truly affect us, like climate change, corruption, political turmoil, poverty.
However, the paradox of such a solution, where we decide ourselves what traditions to follow and what not to, is not lost on me.
If we ourselves have that power, what is a tradition anyway, if we can discard it through will? How do we as a nation decide, when we can’t even come to terms on what the national identity is?
That is a tougher fish to fry. But there are certain questions we can ask ourselves: Is it mandatory, is it forced?
Is it part of our heritage, our culture? Does it divide or unite us? And, most importantly, is it harmful?
SN Rasul is Editorial Assistant at the Dhaka Tribune. Follow him @snrasul.