In Dhaka’s upscale bakery and restaurant scene, it was in the top tier.
Tucked away at the end of Road 79 facing the Gulshan Lake, Holey Artisan was not just a mere Mediterranean style café selling flour-dusted rye-breads and artisanal pastas. Rather, it was a Shangri-la for people who didn’t mind thinning their thick wallets for the perfectly made delicacies that it offered along with the unrivalled ambience.
Everything changed within a span of ten hours on July 1, 2016, when a group of five militants took around 30 people hostage in the café. The militants killed 20 people, including 17 foreigners, before army commandos stormed the establishment early the next morning. They killed five militants.
Following that unprecedented terrorist attack on Bangladesh’s capital, the restaurant, and the city’s Gulshan-Banani-Baridhara area (popularly known as Dhaka’s Tri-State area) wore a spooked look for months.
For months, there was a barricade at the entrance of Road 79 manned by armed guards and another one in front of the gate of the property that housed the café. Holey Artisan became a symbol that embodied horror and tragedy.
The owners, Sadat Mehdi, Ali Arsalan, Nasirul Alam Porag and his wife Lillian, were devastated. They decided to re-open their passion project, though not at the same spot. Following that militant attack, the government went on frenzy driving out commercial establishments from residential areas.
So when the owners of Gourmet Bazar, an upscale supermarket chain opened its first branch near Gulshan-2 Circle in 2017 and offered the owners of Holey a section of their space for the reborn bakery, it didn’t take much time for them to accept.
“The owners of Gourmet Bazar were our friends and like true friends, they approached us a few weeks after the incident with the offer of re-opening Holey at their place,” said Arsalan. “All we were asked to do was to produce and sell the products.”
Arsalan said that their main concern was security. That concern was allayed because the building that housed Gourmet Bazar is on the main road, he said, and there was a police check post right in front of it.
The staff of the original Holey café also played a role in prompting the owners to re-open the restaurant. The Holey owners had offered the staff full two months of pay without work but most insisted on working rather than sitting idle. Inspired by their resilience and the support and love that the customers and well-wishers of Holey had shown, the owners re-opened it in January 10, 2017.
The new Holey – smaller, not surrounded by walls of its own, yet niftier and with the look and feel of an artisanal bakery – is obviously not the same as the two-storeyed lakeside café it used to be.
“There will be no place like that,” said Arsalan, recalling the original establishment. Asked whether they have any plans to relocate to a bigger space later, he replied, “Unlikely. Once bitten, twice shy. But in future, if possible, we might open it as a rooftop café. No matter, where do we open it, our main concern will be to ensure security.”
Sadat Mehdi, another owner of Holey Artisan, said that if they moved to a larger space, perhaps it would be in a neighbourhood like the upscale Dhanmondi area. “But nothing has been fixed yet,” he said.
Mehdi’s wife Samira is the owner of the beautiful lakeside property that housed the original Holey. Following a court order in November 2016, the police handed over the property to its owner after barricading it for four months for the investigation.
The plot No 5 at Road No 79 in Gulshan-2 had originally been allotted to Ahmed’s mother, Dr Suraiya Zabin, for use as a residential building cum clinic in 1979. In 1982, Lakeview Clinic was built at the side of the plot,adjacent to Gulshan Lake.
After Zabin’s death, her daughters Samira and Sara Ahmed became the owners of the plot. Later, Samira’s husband Sadat started the restaurant there along with and his friend Nasimul Alam Parag, his wife and Ali Arsalan in 2014.
Now the house is occupied again by the Mehdi family. “We have started living here since the beginning of 2017,” said Sadat. “This was our residence before it was transformed into a café and it has become our residence now.”
When asked how they feel living inside a house where a tragedy of such magnitude had occurred, Mehdi said, “It’s hard to describe, but lives move on and we are moving on too.”
Meanwhile, the staff of Holey Bakery who were there inside when the militants attacked the café are also trying to move on. But the traumatic experience is difficult to let go even after five years.
“I will never be able to forget that,” said Shahriar Ahmed, a barista at the new Holey. “Whenever I am alone or sit idle for few minutes; somehow the memory of that horrible night comes into my mind.”
Shahriar Ahmed said that he is happy to start working in Holey again but he missed the old place. “It was like a dream place to work. Not only I was well paid but also, I was working in dreamlike place by the side of the lake. There were regular customers who used to spend the whole day in the restaurant premises. They complements my coffees. It gave me immense job satisfaction.”
He said that the regular customers – a mixed group of foreigners and local residents of the “tri-state area” – still visit the bakery and empty the shelves within a short span of time.
“Holey’s food is obviously great and it’s still the best in town,” said Arif Adnan, a resident of Gulshan-2 and a regular customer of both old and new Holey. “But I miss the joy of enjoying a cup of coffee with almond croissant on a lazy Friday afternoon in old Holey’s green lawn. I wish to go back to those old days.”
Faisal Mahmud is a journalist who lives in Dhaka.