The Guardian reports that new laws are being implemented in the Maldives to restrict the local publication and distribution of material supposedly offensive to Islam. (Some observers see other motives by the new, increasingly authoritarian government.)
When we were contacted about this by the Guardian, suddenly it all made sense why we have had great difficulties getting a rather lovely collection of folk tales of the Maldives by Xavier Romero-Frias made available inside the country. In every case there has been friendly interest by a potential local agent followed up by silence, stubborn silence.
Yes, among the 80 stories are scary tales about witches, shape-changers and demons. But the lead role in most of the stories definitely goes to the natural world of the Maldives, a rich, fabulous but fragile environment that attracts hordes of well-heeled tourists each year and for a while made the country the poster-child of the global-warming movement.
One has to wonder how unIslamic these stories are, as seen in one of them below.
9. The Sandbank of the Seabirds
Once upon a time, on a certain atoll there was a large sandbank. It was in a privileged location, far away from the large islands inhabited by humans, which were barely visible in the horizon. Food was abundant there. The turquoise-blue lagoon close-by was teeming with schools of silvery fish. During low tide, a huge number of small crabs, sea worms and other animals found themselves exposed on the dry coral reef. Hence, a large number of seabirds felt safe there and used to breed and find rest on its white sands. One day, shortly before sunset, a Koveli bird flew to it and asked for permission from the seabirds to stay overnight with them. They didn’t seem very happy, so he pleaded, “Birds, let me stay! I have been flying from one island to the other and I am very tired. I cannot fly any longer and I might fall into the sea and die. If you let me stay, I will not bother you and I promise I will leave tomorrow before sunrise.”
The birds could see he was exhausted and felt sorry for him, so they allowed the newcomer to stay. The Koveli bird looked for a dry place well above the waterline, settled comfortably there, and immediately fell asleep.
Later in the night, under the starry sky, the oldest seabird made sure that the Koveli was sleeping and then went to the far end of the sandbank. There he gathered the other seabirds around him and spoke thus. “I didn’t say anything before because I know you birds are very foolish and wouldn’t have paid attention to my words anyway. However, I am telling you that you made a big error by allowing that land bird to sleep here among us. I am sure that something bad will happen because of him.”
The other birds were annoyed. One of them confronted the old seabird. “The Koveli was tired. He had nowhere else to go. We did a good thing!” The old bird just said, “One day you will know I was right.” After that he went to sleep. Soon all the other birds fell asleep too.
At dawn, the Koveli, refreshed after a good night’s rest, flew away towards his destination. The seabirds mocked the old bird, saying, “You are always worrying too much. You see, nothing happened.”
But, unnoticed by the other birds, the intruder had left traces on the sandbank. His droppings carried seeds from berries he had eaten. Well lodged in the sand above the waterline, the steady wind covered them with a layer of fine sand. After the first rains, those seeds germinated and a pale-green bush began to grow.
Months passed and the old bird, pointing at the big bush told the other birds, “Look! Before, this never happened. Soon there will be many bushes on our sandbank and we will have to move away.” The other birds didn’t worry. Since it was providing some shade when it was sunny and shelter in windy weather, they thought the bush was all right. They murmured, “Old bird is always grumbling.” Soon berries fallen from that bush sprouted. As time went by the whole surface of the sandbank not reached by the tides was covered by lush, green vegetation.
One day a fisherman landed on the sandbank with his small sailboat and inspected it. Back on his island he wrote a letter to the atoll chief asking for the right to use the new islet. As soon as the atoll chief granted him permission the man decided to plant coconut trees on it.
Thus, a few days later the man went to the sandbank in the morning carrying small coconut palms and planted them among the bushes. He also planted other kinds of trees that grow well in poor soil and provide wood and shade. During the following months he used to go occasionally to see how his trees were doing.
Years passed and the palm trees produced coconuts. Then the fisherman built a hut and dug a well in the middle of the island. Now the man went often to the islet with his wife and children. He used to harvest coconuts while the woman looked for firewood. The children loved to scare the seabirds and looked for their eggs to eat. Their father caught a seabird every now and then and brought it home with its legs tied and its wingtips cut.
Finally, one night in the faint starlight, the old seabird gathered his few and battered surviving companions at the tip of the island. He was now almost blind and crippled with age and spoke gravely, “I warned you but you didn’t heed my words. Now this island is not a safe place for us. It doesn’t belong to us anymore. I told you long ago something bad would happen. Now we will have to leave.”
And when dawn came, all the birds, giving a last, sorrowful look at the island they had lost, flew away in search of a safer place to settle.