First Impressions - Male
Aasha Mehreen Amin
A Male street overlooking the harbour.
Arriving by speedboat to what looks like a quaint little city and being greeted by smiling -faces and an exotic fruit punch at the hotel seems like a pretty good start. The hotel in downtown Male is cosy and appropriately called Nalahiya, which in Dhivehi, the local lingo means 'cute shadow'. I conjure up the image of a fisherman spotting the petite shadow of a woman on the white sands and instantly making up a song that has a refrain of 'cute shadow, cute shadow'.
It is a restless night as I listen to sounds of people checking in, checking out at all odd hours of the morning, not to mention the occasional whirring of a motorbike whizzing by from the street below. Little do I realise that the next five nights will be more or less the same tossing and turning, wanting sleep to arrive quickly, waiting for that delicious entry into oblivion, a groggy semi-conscious state, the dismal ringing of the alarm on the cell that I listen to while being fully awake.
But there is no time to be grumpy, though I probably look like hell as I walk into the terrace restaurant to have breakfast. I spot quite a few probable fellow delegates but am too shy to just go and ask. What if they are just tourists or business people trying to avoid nosy, fellow South Asian strangers?
So while having Coco Puffs and croissants with dreadfully, diluted tea, I look out into the view in front. Shining in the sun are rows and rows of buildings painted in Barbie colours pink, blue, pistachio or white, they look like a toy land. But beyond all that I can see a line of pure turquoise that could be only one thing the dreamlike waters that this country of over two thousand islands is all about.
An azure paradise.
The city of Male itself proves to be quite uninteresting. I could be in a street in Dhaka or Colkata it was all very familiar. The locals look just like us Bangladeshis. The little crowded streets are lined with shops, all selling foreign goods -- clothes from Thailand, electronics from Hongkong and Taiwan, an odd grocery store or two selling foreign cosmetics and packed food, even the handicraft shops I eagerly go to are selling Indonesian masks, Sri Lankan artefacts. After a lot of rummaging in the shop I spot some wooden statues and toys that the salesperson says is pure Maldivian. These handicraft shops are a complete rip off, they quote dollars for rather shabby-looking knick-knacks. Like many other tourist destinations, foreigners are fleeced and charged exorbitant rates for everything. I realise that only too well when a few days later on the way back I make the mistake of eating at the airport cafeteria 10 precious US dollars for a cup of tea and vegetable sandwich!
The whole city is so small you can go all round it in perhaps an hour and a half. Yet almost everyone has a motorbike and it is quite normal for women to go about their business in smart little mopeds. There are in fact many surprises for me at Male.
It is the first time I have been to a 100 percent Muslim country. The women wear hijab, all shops-even the corner shop- closes during prayer time and nothing will be open before prayers are over on Friday. This is also where the most romantic resorts are located where foreigners sunbathe and enjoy themselves like any other top class beach resort. The locals however are not allowed to go to these resorts and have their own holiday area, thus mixing is not encouraged.
All this is quite expected. What is not expected is to see so many women working and out on the streets. At the Ministry of Information and Arts where I am taken to so I can work on my paper, I am pleasantly surprised to find that the particular department I am visiting is staffed by only women, some in hijab, others in western dress. This says 'Hospitality Coordinator' Hawwa Nasiha, is quite the norm as more and more women take up government jobs while the men were more interested in starting businesses. The first time I meet Hawwa she appears rather serious. It is much later that she turns out to be one of the most vivacious and mischievous individuals I meet and one who turns out to be a great friend.
There are more interesting details that I gather from the Maldivians I meet. Everyone goes to school and completes at least their O' levels. Some finish their A'levels and go abroad to study in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Singapore, India and Bangladesh. I even meet a ministry official who informs me that his son had studied his MBBS at Rangpur Medical College and was now practicing in Male. But for the majority of Maldivians, it is the job market right after O' levels. I am shocked to know that a country as rich as this and where practically all its citizens are literate, does not have a university, not a single one! Apparantly the government is planning to set up one soon but I was a little disappointed that a country with one of the highest per capita income in the region and that boasted the most glamorous resorts in the world, had not invested in something as vital as higher education.
But I had to admire the effort to give hands on training to people from an early age. A programme started by the Information Minister Mohamed Nasheed, allows just completed O' level students to take part in a six month internship at the Ministry as researchers, before they start their A' level classes. For the World Press Freedom Day, the event I am attending, these young, enthusiastic kids have been made protocol officers who would accompany and assist each foreign delegate during the course of their stay. That is how I get to meet Muraza, a serious looking teenager in hijab, Jazeer, another kid with the most engaging smile and many other bright young people who I am told are very promising students and have all received distinctions in their O' levels.
Finally on May 2nd I am ready to go and attend the much hyped about World Press Freedom Day at a public hall in the city. It is the first time that Maldives would be commemorating this day in such a big way and the Ministry of Information and Arts had gone all out to make it one of the grandest events of the year. The conference is itself a collaborative effort of AMIC, UNESCO and the Ministry of Information and Arts.
The attention is almost embarrassing. Almost, because how long can you remain stoical, stepping onto the red carpet and being escorted by Maldivian dancers - all young men, wearing gorgeously coloured costumes dancing to the staccato of drums- all the way to the conference hall. I tell a fellow delegate that he must memorise all the intricate steps before the end of our visit. He replies he will follow my lead.
In the next two days we are treated to some of the most stimulating presentations from various eminent personalities, all from South Asia. They are journalists, editors, social activists, academics and heads of international organisations, all of them discussing press freedom and introducing new ideas about how this liberty can be used for public welfare.
This includes Javed Jabbar, a former minister and senator from Pakistan, now chairman of JJ Media with an impressive number of hats - writer, filmmaker, founder of the South Asian Media Association and Citizen's Media Commission. Suave, elegant and charming, he is also a wonderful speaker. His presentation includes a list of 10 sins of South Asia, such as unresolved bilateral disputes, internal disputes, militarism and violence, malgovernance, corruption, authoritarianism, low health standards, poverty and a profound crisis of education. On the other hand, Jabbar points out the strengths of the region: a huge treasure of human resources, rich natural resources, the capacity to coexist, capacity for excellence and a strong media that has the ability to catalyse public opinion. Amanullah Khan, founder chairman of UNB (United News of Bangladesh) comments that the press is the best hope against evil forces, giving an overview of press freedom in Bangladesh, the ways it has been curbed by different regimes such as the various libel suits lodged against journalists. Ali Rafeeq, the editor of Haveeru, the largest daily newspaper in Maldives traces the evolution of the media in the country. Until the 50s the print media was completely controlled by the state. Now, after so many years, the Maldivian press has been allowed to open up. The government has granted considerable freedom of the press with more newspapers and magazines the country had ever had, many of them opposition papers. Rafeeq admits at the same time that ethics has been a problem and papers needed to be a lot more responsible.
This echoes the sentiment of the Information Minister who I get to meet rather unexpectedly during the lunch break at the dining hall. I am sitting with some of my fellow delegates, paying careful attention to my caramel custard and chocolate brownie mix when I realise that my companions have stood up and talking to a very young man. It must be someone from the ministry, I think absently while spooning the last remains of my precious dessert and it is a rather sickening moment when I look up as my name is mentioned and I realise that the young man is from the ministry; he is the information minister! Horrified and mortified, I mumble through the crumbs of my dignity, shake his hand and mentally kick myself over and over again.
At the lunch, the eloquent minister gives a little speech about how the government is welcoming the new era of press freedom, how the ministry keeps contact with the media through regular meetings, seminars etc. But soon it turns into a heated press conference with journalists barraging him with accusatory questions: Why are journalists being detained? Why has one of them been handed a life-imprisonment? The minister takes the harangue head on and gives his rebuttals quite confidently. He will look into the cases; the person with the life-sentence is a heroin addict… But the feeling of unease does not go away. There have been big protests outside the hall, only to be stopped by police in full view of foreign media and during the president's speech on the second day of the conference, some protesters hold up placards asking the state to free their colleagues. I keep asking every local journalist I meet about what's going on. A reporter from Minivan, an opposition paper tells me while taking snacks during a tea break, that he is most likely to be arrested as he had been one of the placard holders. Another woman, who had quit her job as an editor of a weekly, is also expecting to be arrested for publishing articles by one of the staff writers who had called the government 'a police state'. The 'errant' journalist would be arrested as well. According to the information minister, whom we will meet informally a few more times, many of these journalists were actually opposition activists who only wanted to make the government look bad by inciting trouble.
The minister, however, does have fans among the young journalists who often get invited to official functions like this, along with the critics. Some of them tell me that he is quite a likeable person who is sincere about bringing positive change to the country and its media scene. At a dinner hosted by the minister himself, I accidentally find him at the buffet table and he quickly remarks that he holds weekly news conferences and monthly meetings with the local media to try and resolve problems.
It does not take long for us to realise that despite certain hiccups, Maldives is definitely on the brink of change. After decades of having only one man heading the state there are rumblings of political reform and plurality. At present there are seven daily newspapers, 15 magazines and over 70 other publications registered. Six different media-related bills have also been formulated and sent to the parliament although it remains to be seen whether they will be more regulatory than liberating. They include a Freedom of Information Bill, definitely a win-win bill for public welfare and a bill on freedom of the press, which also points out what is not part of the freedom, no doubt a worry for many outspoken journalists.
To be continued…
(R) thedailystar.net 2007