Holey Bakery, One Year On

I wrote this last summer and never posted it. Although out of date, it’s not as though it doesn’t fit with the times…

A little more than a year ago, when post-convention election coverage fatigue was setting in, tragedy in a remote corner of Asia slipped into the news cycle. An ISIS-inspired terrorist attack in a Muslim nation known primarily from the labels in your H&M and Zara garments caught the eye of the world with a few small news pieces and a trickle of well-meaning, supportive Twitter hashtags for a couple of days in early July.

Although this might vaguely ring a bell, terrorist attacks flash and fade with such regularity these days, it’s no surprise if you don’t recall the name of the upscale bakery in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where 20 foreigners and two local police officers died at the hands of upper-class Bengali terrorists claiming to be affiliated with ISIS. As part of a summer terrorism wave, the attack was soon overshadowed by the Bastille Day massacre in Nice, which stunned the French and captured the attention of the world for the several weeks that followed.

But back to Bangladesh, in case you were wondering: it’s called Holey Bakery, and they had great croissants, flaky and buttery and perfectly crisp enough to make any pastry chef drool. Those croissants were unrivaled in Dhaka’s naisant coffee shop culture, among the half dozen or so similarly upscale bakeries dotted across the foreigner zone of the 20-million-inhabitant city. I should know — I’ve Instagrammed those croissants!

A gram of my Holey Bakery croissant.

The last time I went to Bangladesh was in early 2016, about three months before the Holey Bakery attack. I have been there several times since 2006, working with a marketing and production company that provides visual and audio support services to NGOs and businesses. Our job is to paint the picture of Bangladesh’s severe development needs (it’s one of the poorest countries in Asia) and tell the stories of people who are making real and lasting impact. Some of those are large foreign aid organizations that grant micro-credit loans, build houses and deal with disaster relief; others are simply progressive small businesses, owned by locals and foreigners, that bring spots of creativity, diversity and new ideas. Holey was one of the latter.

So when a friend in Dhaka texted to tell me the bakery was under siege last July, it was pretty upsetting. The whole ordeal, a standoff between five armed gunmen who took the entire restaurant hostage, and the police, lasted more than eight hours. In that time, the captors released native-born Bangladeshis, and held foreigners and non-Muslims with guns and machetes before eventually slaughtering each one of them. The story was miserable and barbaric. It led immediately to an exodus of aid workers, Embassy families and foreigners.

In ten years, I had seen Bangladesh open its monocultural arms, even with its lingering fundamentalists kicking and screaming, to the rest of the world. It used to be a place where only men walked the street, and foreigners got kidnapped at the airport. Now, women run small businesses and teenagers photograph latte art made by their middle-class baristas. After the attack, which had been precipitated by smaller, one-off attacks on journalists, secular bloggers, religious minorities and even an Italian aid worker, I wondered if this was the final straw: if Bangladeshis would reject outside influence and return to their insular, impoverished existence. Instead, it was foreigners who were rejecting Bangladesh, fleeing in fear from a place they had been so passionate about helping in the weeks, months, and years before.

I’ve always been a little bit ambivalent about the nature of foreign aid in what are labeled “developing countries,” or the Third World. As a traveler, I hate the idea of the world becoming one big globalized melting pot of malls and fast food, diluting diversity into corporate Starbucks personality. On the other hand, don’t rich countries have a responsibility to help poor ones, who are many times poor because of the pillaging and imperialism perpetrated by rich countries? While it’s great and necessary to help people in need, there is a very thin line between promoting local, sustainable development and falling into the trap of becoming another white savior. Of course, I can’t blame institutionalized wealth for preventing poor Americans from pulling themselves out of poverty while also claiming that Bangladeshis should be able to spearhead their own progress and conquer their systemic development problems. I’ve spent a lot of rounds circling these conundrums on my multiple trips into the fray.

Holey Bakery was a business which balanced that very thin line between the globally generic and the locally insular. Owned by Bangladeshis, it retained the personal charm and local character of an indigenous business, but its owners had an intense interest in learning the buttery baking secrets of a French pastry chef, offering the taste of something exotic and different. Holey modeled a new, expanding Bangladeshi worldview that embraced difference while staying true to itself. The kind of thing that can only come from locals: are proud of their culture while curious about the world. However, without travel and experience and difference and, yes, development work, it might not have been possible. Amid State Department travel warnings and the disappearing American Embassy staff, I was hoping all of this progressive thinking wouldn’t disappear.

Gulshan Lake, Dhaka.

I cried when I read a New York Times piece from January this year: “Bangladesh Cafe Attacked by Terrorists Reopens.” While foreigners sequestered themselves in compounds, cowering in fear, the Bengali owners did what we would expect any Riviera resort cafe to do after terrible tragedy: roll up their sleeves, mourn their loss, give each other a hug, and keep going.

So while the world moves from one tragedy to the next, I’d like to take a moment to remember that it’s not just the West battling terrorism and showing resilience. To really nurture multicultural acceptance and pluralism, let’s give brave Bangladeshis their due, too.