I expected to find getting a book in English by a Maldivian author fairly straightforward. Given the country’s colonial history, I assumed that there would be several things out there and it would just be a case of choosing what to read.
How wrong I was. After weeks of googling around and emailing people, I began to realise that, for some reason, books in English by Maldivian authors were more than a little thin on the ground.
I even tried contacting Robbie Bulloch, the British Deputy High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives. It turned out he was one step ahead of me: he’d asked friends in the Maldives for suggestions of translations only the previous week. From their blank looks, he said, it seemed the selection couldn’t be very wide.
He did send a link to a blog by Ibrahim Waheed, a writer who won the National Library of the Maldives’ first ever English Fiction Story Writing Competition in 2007 with what he claimed were the ‘first ever novella-length fictional works published in the English language by a Maldivian author’ (try saying that with a mouthful of marbles). In fact, he’d won not only first prize but also second prize, which made me wonder how many entries the competition had attracted in the first place.
His stories were available to read as pdfs on his site – but they were somewhat short. The search continued.
About this time in the year, I started pestering PhD students. It struck me that the biggest experts on literature from some of the remotest countries on my list might not be thousands of miles away but holed up in university libraries up and down the land. Perhaps they would be able to help?
As it turned out, there weren’t many people doing doctorates on the Maldives. However, I did find one: Mariyam Shiuna, a student exploring ‘Urban violence and disillusionment with democracy in the Maldives’ at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.
The discovery was a stroke of luck. Not only was Shiuna researching the Maldives, but she was also a Maldivian national. Two days after I emailed her, she came back with details of a classic she had studied at school, which she described as ‘the Maldivian version of Romeo and Juliet or Layla and Majnun‘. In fact, she went one better than simply telling me about it: she had found a free pdf of an English translation of the work online on a website promoting Maldivian heritage. The hunt was at an end.
Starting several generations before the birth of the title characters, Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu – told in this prose version by Abdullah Sadiq – unfolds a great, royal love affair that stretches across the archipelago. Boasting a large cast of characters, a plethora of incidents and a good dose of myth and magic, the narrative takes readers on a tour of the obstacles, complications and frustrations that stand in the way of happiness.
This is a book of new beginnings. I lost track of the number of times that characters abandoned their old homes and habits and struck out to set up a new life on a different island. From Raaveri Ali – who, having lost his family because of a rival’s curse, gets on a boat for Komandu island, leaving no trace of himself behind on Maroshi ‘even his smell’ – to his son Moosa, who runs off to live in Malé, the idea of clean breaks drives much of the narrative. This can be disconcerting, particularly when we see how quickly old loves and lives are forgotten, but it also gives rise to great ingenuity. The child Moosa, for example, sets himself up as a Koran tutor in the capital, earning the money that will enable him to start afresh. Indeed, the narrative seems to be shaped as much by the nation’s island geography as by its characters’ desires, and moves in fits and starts between one colourful episode and the next.
Through it all, the diligence of its modern-day author and his desire to do justice to this ancient classic is clear. As he demonstrates in his ‘Author’s Preface’, Sadiq feels a great responsibility to render the character of the original raivaru (song version), expressing his desire to write a prose story ‘that was worthy of such inspiration’. As a result, he includes numerous maps, genealogies, notes and explanatory essays in and at the back of the text, as though anxious that not one ounce of significance should be lost on the reader.
In fact, the story is robust enough to stand on its own, not least because the strangeness of some its episodes is one of its strengths. The curses and magic spells that fill the text, and are often described in elaborate detail, are fascinating – at one point the story even becomes a battle of wits between Ali Fulhu and Hawwa Fulhu, as each hurls fanditha (magic) at the other in an effort to come out on top. The scene where Ali Fulhu summons the great king of the Ocean is marvellous too. In addition, the numerous rituals that surround daily life, from the way to prepare for fishing to the words that should be spoken on the birth of a child are, for the most part, self-explanatory.
That said, Western readers will find some episodes hard to empathise with. Dhon Aisa and Moosa’s sanguine reaction to the discovery that their midwife has murdered seven of their babies is surprising, for example, while some of the reasons for characters to act as they do seem opaque – although this could be as much to do with the age of the story as its cultural setting. In addition, Sadiq’s commitment to use plain language and retain the original form gives rise to a few sequences in which very little seems to happen. Sometimes, reading descriptions of the characters talking about how much sugar they should prepare for toddy and their domestic arrangements, it’s hard not to feel that we are being forced to sit through the dressing-room conversations of actors in between their big scenes on stage.
All in all, though, this is a fascinating book – and one quite different from anything I’ve read before. It sparkles with insights and humour drawn from a time and place quite different from our own. If some of the storytelling techniques and actions of the earlier characters have a distancing effect, the love affair between Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu is utterly believable and engrossing when it comes. Enchanting.
Dhon Hiyala and Ali Fulhu by Abdullah Sadiq, translated from the Dhivehi by Fareesha Abdullah and Michael O’Shea © F Abdullah and M O’Shea, 2004
This sounds absolutely fascinating. I’ve downloaded the pdf and will have a go at reading it over the hols. Thank you for the link.
Great stuff – hope you enjoy it. It is unusual, but definitely worth sticking with.
Just to let you know I’m passing on a Liebster Award to your blog. it’s passed from blogger to blogger. I know you are not short of followers but it would be nice if it could add more to your wonderful project. I’ve a post on my blog which explains more, has a link to your site and also some questions which I hope you will be able to answer. Best wishes.
Thanks very much. I’m touched – congratulations on your award too.
Reblogged this on Solely By Virtue.
Great search story and what a gem you found.
Thanks Clare. Yes, it was a lucky find!
for a bit less ambitious Reading Challenge [52 countries only], I read a very interesting book by Heyerdahl of the history and origin of the Maldives: http://wordsandpeace.com/2012/05/04/2012-22-the-maldive-mystery/
Good stuff – sounds interesting!
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How very, very neat! I clicked on the link for the PDF and within a few sentences, I was hooked! Can’t wait to continue this unique, fascinating story!
You have inspired me to do some bookpacking of my own this year. Thank you 🙂
Great stuff – hope you enjoy it!
Wonderful! And I am glad you found a book from the Maldives. I am currently trying to translate/write some short stories about Maldives and its culture. Good luck with the readings and thanks for sharing your list. Maryam from the Maldives.
Thanks Maryam. Do let me know about your translations – it would be great to have some more literature from the Maldives available to English-language readers.
Two books by Maldivian authors which may interest you,Available at http://www.vijithayapa.com or http://www.srilankanbooks.com.
The first is by the former President of the Maldives, Mohamed Nashhed
Author Mohamed Nasheed
Size 217 x 220 mm, 88pp
Our Price US$ 7.99
A Historical Overview of Traditional Dhivehi Polity 1800-1900 by a well known Maldivian Journalist.
The second is foiled, a novel by Ameena, available at US $ 12
Amyna is a student of human nature. Having been a stay-at-home mom and worked from home, she has experienced the complexity of the individual. As her children grew up and had children of their own, Amyna has finally had time to sit down and write about her interests.
Amyna became aware of a popular online writing competition, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This was just the opportunity Amyna was waiting for, and she finally got down to exploring the intricacies of the human mind, the criminal mind in particular. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, Amyna has crafted Foiled, a truly superb tale of love gone wrong.
Amyna currently resides in the Maldives and Malaysia. She and her husband live near her children and grandchildren, whom she sees as much as possible.
Matters of the heart are rarely simple and straightforward, and nothing could be truer for Fiona. In Foiled, a romantic thriller, the heroine of the novel is falling in love. However, what should be the best and happiest period of her life becomes a dark and dangerous time.
Author Amyna is a first-time novelist whose lifelong affinity for crime, romance, and thriller stories has taken root in the form of Foiled. The book is a complex tale of a woman with a troubled past. Her family life was marred by an abuse so earthshattering she grew into a woman with deep but invisible scars. Fiona has tried to put her childhood behind her, but some things do not stay in the past. The psychological toll on Fiona has left her confused and vulnerable as she launches into a romantic relationship with a man who is perplexed by her unusually cold demeanor.
Fiona tries her best to love and be loved the way she thinks is best, but not all is what it seems for her. Justin, her self-proclaimed protector, is continually lurking in the background. Is he good or is he bad? He seems furtive yet well intentioned, but can he truly be both? This uneasy feeling is juxtaposed with Fiona’s love for her boyfriend, Rob. But Rob may not be all he appears to be. The heartbeat of the book is a constant, dark presence that trails Fiona. Will it ever be resolved? Who, if anyone, means her harm? Will Fiona survive in the meantime?
Foiled is a psychological thriller that will captivate you until the last pages, and the truth comes out in a shocking conclusion
Thanks Vijitha. They sound interesting. Nice to know that NaNoWriMo has played its part in bringing more Maldivian literature to the world.
Your discover really surprised me! I thought just like you – never did I expect it to be so hard to find a book in english there.
Thank you for sharing your experience. Your post was very interesting and informative to read!
When I planned to read one Novel each from SAARC countries, I got stuck up at the literary doorsteps of Maldives. Tried every possible methods including a search initiated by some friends in Maldives, but failed. Today, found your article and I am in great relief 🙂 Thank you very much for sharing your quest.
And sure I am going to read “The World Between Two Covers”.
You’re most welcome, Pradeep. Enjoy your reading!
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I’m trying out the challenge. I was wondering if you had suggestions for finding books if I’m having a hard time finding a book for a country. I have looked through the books on your list, but I’m 11, so some of them are inappropriate for me. Lots of them are great though. The list is so helpful! I also love to read and I think this challenge was a great idea.
Good luck Samuel. It’s great to hear you’re going to read widely. I’ll be doing a blog post soon on tips for world readers. Watch this space!
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What an interesting challenge!
And I would love to read this book too, but the link doesn’t seem to work now.
Can anyone please share the PDF?
Thanks. Sorry to hear that. It is rather old now. I will update it if I come across a fresh link. Happy reading.
I have translated the following three books from Dhivehi, the Maldivian language to English
1. The story of Mohamed Thakurufaan.
published by Novelty Publishers, Maldives (1985). This book is still available in the Novelty Bookshop in Male’, Maldives.
2.The wedding of a Maldivian sultan in Suez: The Suez Wedding by Hussain Salahuddeen. This was published this year on Amazon
3. The Motorboat Revolt: The demise of the first Constitution of the Maldives by Mohamed Ismail Didi. This was recently published on Amazon.
I have also written an introductory book on the Maldives. This book was published by Novelty Publishers in 1983 but is now out of print.
Wonderful! Thanks for letting me know.