Art of preserving memory: The Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre in Bangladesh

Speaking with Bangladeshi architect Rizvi Hassan, STIR discovers the journey of a community space designed for the Rohingya refugees to strengthen their collective identity.

by Zohra KhanPublished on : Jun 27, 2022

If you had an hour or less to pack your bags, what would you take?

What if you won’t be coming back to your home, probably never, and no one’s carrying the bags for you. For the really privileged, this scenario could simply be a relatable plot from documentaries and movies that they watch from the comfort of their homes. Might if we add, "If that was us, we would have done things differently!" The truth is we never had to! But for 27.1 million people of the world, with the sand of the hourglass, their whole life slipped away. For a world with over 7,795 million global population, the plea of 0.34 per cent may not seem loud enough. However, we have talked, reported and documented the biggest refugee crisis from World Wars to the recent Russo-Ukrainian War. But amidst the political and worldly discussions, the fact is that every time a group of people is denied the fundamental rights of humanity, the world fails a little. Though many organisations and countries strive to provide a safe haven for those who had to flee their motherland, the traumas of loss linger. By providing food, water, air, and shelter, we expect the necessities of life to be met and hope that we have been a responsible caring society. But is that all?

In 2019, the researchers at the International Organization for Migration (IOM) in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, conducted a study in which three-quarters of the Rohingya refugees named 'identity crisis' as a key factor in their loss of well-being. For a group of people whose entire life revolved around a rich cultural heritage, Rohingyas in addition to having been forced out of the land that raised them helplessly witnessed their language, culture and tradition disappear in front of them. In an attempt to address this and provide a platform for the Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar to feel at home, and to hold to their roots and transfer their learnings to the younger generations, IOM and the Rohingya community have jointly launched the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre (RCMC). Bangladesh-based architect, Rizvi Hassan, who is no stranger to participatory proposals for the minority and community projects in the country, was at the helm of this project and completed it in a span of two years.

Over a Zoom call with STIR, Hassan recounts his journey through this special project that converges people and architecture to a noble cause, i.e. of preserving memory of a displaced community. Below is an edited excerpt from the conversation, as narrated by Hassan.

Aerial view of the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre in Bagladesh | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
Aerial view of the Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre in Bagladesh Image: Rizvi Hassan

I joined this project in August 2020. At that time it was already in discussion and the IOM was running it. It's a project under the Mental Health Department of IOM initiated for the well-being of the Rohingya refugees, for documenting their identities, their culture, and stories.

When I had joined, the IOM team was planning to have a physical entity of this project in the camp, so there came the idea of the centre. At that time, I was already working in this context and designing several community spaces and structures. Upon learning about their work and vision in this context, I realised that their team also wanted a similar vision from an architect. Though they were trying to plan and design a physical entity, at the heart of it, they wanted a process that really ensured mental wellbeing.

  • A priliminary sketch of the centre featuring a single hall which was later segmented into multiple halls | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
    A priliminary sketch of the centre featuring a single hall which was later segmented into multiple halls Image: Rizvi Hassan
  • An architecture model of the final form of the centre | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
    An architecture model of the final form of the centre Image: Rizvi Hassan

This was probably the very first sketch that we had. But following conversations with the government regarding this scheme, in view of some regulations, especially safety and fire issues and the texture and fabric of the camp, we resorted to designing segmented structures, instead of a large single hall.

Cultural artefacts, architectural models and artworks made by the Rohingya craftsmen are showcased inside the centre | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
Cultural artefacts, architectural models and artworks made by the Rohingya craftsmen are showcased inside the centre Image: Rizvi Hassan

At the start of this project, I was offered an extensive documentation of works of various Rohingya artisans who built architectural models of structures that existed in Myanmar. The resources recorded the information on what sort of villages they had, and the kind of bamboo patterns they were using. This documentation was also handed to me to use in the design process. Taking this information forward, we suggested conducting participatory workshops with Rohingya community key leaders, women and children, to have their understanding and views of the life they lived, the materials they used to build their homes, and the culture they are attuned to.

While this was during the COVID-19 pandemic and the plan to start the construction was no way sooner, we designed a process for the next one year. We proposed these workshops where the knowledge of the elderly Rohingya community could be transferred from one generation to the other, one camp to another camp, and even to the host communities.

  • Glimpse from an interactive space design workshop with Rohingya artisans | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
    Glimpse from an interactive space design workshop with Rohingya artisans Image: Rezaul Karim
  • Inside a knowledge sharing session with the Rohingya community | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
    Inside a knowledge sharing session with the Rohingya community Image: Khwaja Fatmi

In the workshops, what our team did was to gather the Rohingya artisans with different skill sets from the total 33 camps of the area, and conduct dialogues to understand how they can offer their knowledge in the project. At that time, we didn't have much idea of what the centre would look like, but our focus remained on understanding the knowledge sources and identities. Since the project is called The Rohingya Cultural Memory Centre, we were keen on making it an icon for the Rohingya community, and as it’s about their identity, we felt every bit of it should be coming from them.

One of the artisans showed us the technique using Nipa Palm leaf as the roofing material. You won’t see this material in the camp or in any other structure but they used to have this material in almost 99 per cent of housing back in Myanmar. We tried to gather this material and fortunately it was available nearby; we brought it and tried to learn their technique and to spread it to other artisans.

We were continuously in conversation with the community, government and other stakeholders. Speaking of the structure, it's not that we had exactly a picture in mind, but we had a vision. I'll say it was an ongoing process.

The entrance to the centre is reminiscent of the traditional entrances to the houses of the Rohingya refugees| Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
The entrance to the centre is reminiscent of the traditional entrances to the houses of the Rohingya refugees Image: Rizvi Hassan

Identity was an issue around the camps. IOM had discussions with the Rohingya community where they tried to connect with their past and present stories, of what makes them happy and feel good about themselves. The conversations led to the collection of tangible things that connect to the community’s history and even serve as a knowledge resource that the counsellors can relate and show as objects with memories surrounding it.

The spaces are laid around a traditional courtyard | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
The spaces are laid around a traditional courtyard Image: Rizvi Hassan

Of course the Rohingya refugees had a distinct identity back in Myanmar, but probably they didn’t get a platform to express it. This project lets them voice themselves with dignity.

For example, one artisan working with us - Mohammad Noor bhai - we had seen him working on various other constructions where he didn’t express himself or his ideas or any stories. Nobody earlier sought to peek into the life he live or the stories that belong to him. This project created those pushes and platforms that helped us connect with them personally. We have seen women leading here as well. For example, we have a musician, Mustafa Khatun. She is a very powerful voice for the community. She comes and talks to the male members, and sings in a melodious voice. I’d say this platform created the scope for them to express themselves.

  • Windows of memories surrounding the courtyard | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
    Windows of memories surrounding the courtyard Image: Rizvi Hassan
  • Community pathway and semi-outdoor exhibition space | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
    Community pathway and semi-outdoor exhibition space Image: Rizvi Hassan

The construction technique, the craftsmanship and detail work of the Rohingyas are extremely refined, so beautiful that it was a completely new thing for me. I haven't seen anyone up close working on weavings in such detail. I didn't know what the technique was, and that these could be done with such precision and care.

Fine weave work on one of the walls inside the centre | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
Fine weave work on one of the walls inside the centre Image: Rizvi Hassan

These fine weaves need at least 14 steps to be created in a defined version, from the raw bamboo to the fine weave. And one artisan taught me how to do it with his knives and tools. I cut my hand twice in just five minutes and they are doing this the whole day. I technically gave up because it’s extremely difficult. The roofing mechanism was also new for me. It was a typical Rohingya technique in which the roofing material and the purlins were crafted keeping in view the stability of the structure to withstand the wind on the hilltop.

In the past 50 years, the Rohingyas have been relying on natural resources because of the instability back in Myanmar. They were not allowed to have brick or concrete buildings so they used to rely on bamboo, wood and other natural resources, and that made their skills very refined which ought to be shared.

An informal discussion; the tiles on the floor are handmade by the Rohingya artisans | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh
An informal discussion; the tiles on the floor are handmade by the Rohingya artisans Image: Rizvi Hassan

The tiles were designed by the Rohingya artisans. We just had the idea that we cannot have the full floor casted as this is a temporary structure. Guided by the government rules that didn’t allow any reinforcement in the floor nor the whole casted floor, we resorted to segmented tiles to prevent cracks and provide easy disassembly. So, the artisans came up with floral ideas for the tiles, and made multiple options from which we selected some. If you see the details, you’ll find no two tiles are the same.

Innovative bamboo screen (left), and a traditional Rohingya screen inside the centre (right) | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
Innovative bamboo screen (left), and a traditional Rohingya screen inside the centre (right)Image: Rizvi Hassan

Collaboration was a key theme in the development of the centre. If you look at the design of the screens for light and ventilation, the technique is not a complete interpretation of Rohingya artisans' skillsets. There is a lot of innovation that went in the process. We shared our knowledge and resources to create something 'new' .

Music and art events form a usual sight inside the centre | Rizvi Hassan | Bangladesh | STIRworld
Music and art events form a usual sight inside the centre Image: Rizvi Hassan

This project is not just about physical things. It is also about music, poetry; the spaces are about comfort where people can come and spend some time practicing various arts.

The Rohingyas have always been strong as a community, especially with the things they have gone through, and it was expressed very well in the construction process. And even now the way they lead the centre, or the way they led the construction, it really created a story for me in my personal life. I have learned so many things from them. And not just me, anyone who was involved with the project will admit that they feel blessed to have worked with these people.

With inputs from Sunena V Maju (Intern, STIR).

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