A Spaniard’s love for Maldives culture
“Male’ was a very quiet place then. The streets were unpaved and there were very few vehicles. The houses of high-status families were low and cool with large swingbeds inside or in the verandah. Most had silent courtyards shaded by large trees. People were very calm in their demeanor,” he recalled.
I first heard about him when I was struggling to gather information about Maldivian folklore. The idea of going to the library and burying my face in extensively elaborated Dhivehi books was absolutely appalling to me. I was bickering about this over dinner with my family one night when my brother told me about a book he saw on Amazon. He had told me about a book titled “Folk Tales of the Maldives”, in which I can find everything I need – and in English too.
But what really piqued my interest was my brother mentioning that the author of the book is not a Maldivian, but a Spanish national, who is fluent in Dhivehi.
Therefore, I decided to put my wicked investigative skills to use and looked up the author on Facebook. It took me less than two minutes to find him.
Xavier Romero-Frias is an agreeable and approachable man. Even though I have not had the privilege of meeting him in person, this was my first impression of him based on our conversation on ‘Facebook Chat’ – which has become an acceptable medium to form an opinion of someone in today’s society. Upon conversing with him further, I discovered that this man had done far more to preserve our culture, history and tradition than any Maldivian had ever done.
Maldives has a vibrant history that dates back over 2500 years. However, the effort that is put in to preserving our history is dismal, at best. Maldivian history is not taught in schools, nor is there a systematic and rational way of enquiring into our own past and its meaning. And in recent times, we have begun disassociating ourselves from the elegant traditions we once practiced so passionately, and the country has fallen in to a dreary abyss of political turmoil.
Xavier, who spent 13 years in Maldives, has written four books and over 30 papers – both in English and Spanish – ranging from the oral tradition practiced in Maldives to recipes of local delicacies. He is also an artist and had made several drawings depicting the bygone days of the Maldives. Most of his papers are available online, as are his books.
So how did Xavier end up in the Maldives in the first place?
“I arrived to the Maldives by chance. I was in Colombo in May 1979 and my plan was to travel eastwards, towards Malaysia. But I met Saeed Abdullah (Pearl, Male’, also known as Kaafaru Seedhee) and we became friends. He was working at the Maldives Skipper, an MSL merchant boat which was anchored at Colombo harbor then. Saeed Abdullah told me about his country and said that the Maldives was a good place to go. So I changed my plans,” he explained.
“A few weeks later I met Saeed Abdullah again when his ship anchored in Male’. He told me to go to Fuvahmulah, which he said was a very genuine island, with traditional Maldivian culture. He gave me a letter for Karaange Fatma Didi, who had been a former lover of his and so I ended up in Fuvahmulah.”
When I asked him what it was about the Maldivian society that made him want to stay here for so long, Xavier’s answer had forced me to recall my preconceived notions about my own culture.
“What I had before my eyes was diametrically opposed to my own experience, to what I had lived during my youth in Spain. My own experience was that of the Francoism of my childhood, a society that issued forth from a religious dictatorship and liberalized gradually, giving way to a more tolerant and enlightened social order,” Xavier said about his experience in Spain.
“But in the Maldives, I was witness to the opposite process, a general indoctrination that put the population on guard against liberalism and that favored the development of intransigent and zealous religious positions. The political discourses were based on religious rhetoric, leading a process towards establishing a religion-based anachronistic form of government that I found disquieting, but that for me was fascinating to observe at the same time.”
Speaking about his experience in the Maldives, Xavier said that he had learned Dhivehi very well at first, and then started gathering samples of local art, customs and superstitions of the things that gave its own color and personality to the Maldivian island society.
“I studied local stories and myths because I noticed that the local oral tradition was fast disappearing and no was cared about it,” he said. “For many people what I gathered had no role in their lives. It was ‘old stuff’.”
Xavier is one of the few people who have vividly documented the traditions that we practice, our folklore and our way of life. This Spanish national has also written books on Dhivehi language. Besides “Folk Tales of the Maldives”, other works of Xavier include; “Dhivehi Akuru”, “Maliku Taana-Devana Foiy” and “The Maldive Islanders: A Study of the Popular Culture of an Ancient Ocean Kingdom”.
However, his time in Maldives did not go unchallenged. Xavier was accused of being an undercover Christian missionary. He said that people had gone so far as to say that he was a “Christian missionary who pushed the limits further than that of even the most extreme of missionaries.”
Xavier’s response to this was simple. “It is a stupid thing to say because missionaries destroy cultures in order to replace them with the doctrine that is part of their mission.” Xavier’s academic work alone stands as testimony that he was not a Christian missionary.
But perhaps a better counter for these rumors came from the son of a close ally of Xavier. Xavier, during his stay in Fuvahmulah, formed a close bond with the then-Island Chief, Madarusaage Mohamed Saeed. His son had responded to the rumors about Xavier being a Christian missionary by simply saying, “Why didn’t he preach Christianity to me and my siblings when we were young, instead of teaching us English?”
Speaking about how the Maldivian society has transformed since he left Maldives altogether in 1991, Xavier noted some significant changes that has taken place. “While I lived there the society was quite thrifty and few things were discarded, while now there is a lot of garbage being produced and most islands face serious ecological problems. The existence of street gangs and the great number of immigrant laborers are also some new developments that I did not experience while I lived there,” Xavier said.
Xavier currently lives in Northern Thailand, working as a teacher in Chiang Rai Witthayakhom School. He said that he would like to return back to the Maldives as he has many friends and family here, but that he has little money to travel now.
“I think I was the only one who observed the Maldivians and admired their ways, for they were full of ancient wisdom and they were adapted to the environment of the islands. So I kept quiet and asked questions to the old men and took notes,” Xavier reminisced before concluding. He also added; “I think many of the present-day problems lie in having forsaken the ancient traditional island ways and the spirit of community in which they originated.”
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