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.