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Dispatches: The Amos ‘n’ Sirajul Flap

3 minute read
Michael Quinn/In New York City

Famine, flood and that George Harrison album. for years, this was all most Americans knew of Bangladesh — and Mukit Hossain has devoted his life to erasing that image. “We are a sophisticated, intelligent, highly evolved culture,” proclaims Hossain, former head of the Federation of Bangladesh Associations of North America. But despite his efforts, non-Bangladeshi Americans have had a fresh stereotype to associate with Hossain’s homeland ever since late-night king David Letterman’s roving camera strayed into K&L’s Rock America souvenir store, hard by his Times Square studio, and discovered Mujibur and Sirajul, painfully good-natured immigrant salesmen whom Letterman’s Late Show has transformed into the nation’s newest pair of unlikely semistars.

Now in the midst of a televised cross-country tour, the duo are clear successors to veteran Letterman foil Larry (“Bud”) Melman — with one important difference. Melman was a character played by actor Calvert DeForest. Mujibur Rahman, 34, and Sirajul Islam, 39 (“the boys,” as Letterman calls them), are real New Yorkers — and a real problem for their fellow emigres, who have no illusions about what America is laughing at.

“Ninety per cent of the people of Bangladeshi origin living in New York can’t speak the English of the average American,” observes travel agent Mohammed Hossain (no relation to Mukit). “Letterman seems to be enjoying their failure.” And yes, standing by the Mississippi last week, the pair triggered the brittle Letterman chuckle by staring blankly at a reference to the Stanley Cup and discovering new consonants in words like Illinois.

Ironically, Mujibur and Sirajul are unknown to many stateside Bangladeshis, who work immigrants’ hours and lack both the time and the English to enjoy Letterman’s Late Show. But word is spreading. At a Manhattan restaurant popular with Bangladeshi taxi drivers, opinions are as hot as the five-alarm curry. “These two people are stupid!” snaps one hacker. “They joined another stupid person, David Letterman, who does not have any respect for other cultures!” Among better-educated Bangladeshis, the unease is scarcely less intense. The Bangladesh Association of New England meets next month to draft a letter of complaint to the Late Show — the first such formal protest. bane president Shahjahan Mahmood recalls how a graduation party for the son of a friend was consumed by talk of Mujibur and Sirajul. Nancy Hossain, wife of Mukit (and a graduate of Letterman’s alma mater, Ball State), has also noticed the pair’s increasing prominence in Bangladeshi dinner chat: At one gathering “someone said, ‘Hey, maybe these simple men really are the face of Bangladesh.’ He was shouted down.”

In fact, Mujibur and Sirajul are not simple men. They met at the University of Dhaka, where Mujibur studied law and Sirajul specialized in Bangladeshi literature. But these are not the men on display on the Late Show — or at K& L’s Rock America, where tourists regularly drop in to have their photos taken with the only Bangladeshis they think they know.

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