“Does language follow a democratic movement, or does a movement follow the language?” queried a source educated in rhetoric and journalism.
Many changes have come to the Maldives in the last twenty years, but some wonder whether Dhivehi is opening the door for political maneuvering.
“In the past, everything in the king’s palace had a word,” said Immigration Controller Abdulla Shahid. Listing wooden nails and coil ropes named for their specific purposes, he explains “it was a king-centered, palace-centered community. The people lived for King. But it has changed very little over hundreds of years.”
Today, Dhivehi leaves gaps of understanding which politicians have been using as public pressure points, Shahid claimed. Those gaps are sometimes filled with superstition, running deep in time.
A Superstitious Past
According to folklore and historical research, the Maldives is the only island group in the Central Indian Ocean to have supported indigenous culture since ancient times. As such, its people have a fairly isolated and protective heritage.
Certain sayings and practices exemplify the fear that isolation engendered.
“Traditionally Maldivians didn’t think that it was good for a person to look too much at the sea, because one’s ‘heart would turn to stone’”, wrote Xavier Romero-Frias in The Maldivian Islanders. He advises that the Dhivehi meaning conveys a loss of memory and focus, rather than a loss of mercy.
Romero-Frias also explains that the winding streets on islands were not only attractive– they also prevented kaddovi, malevolent spirits of dead ancestors, from walking about. Replacing them with straight paths at the king’s order in the 1900s was unpleasant, to say the least.
The advent of Islam in 1100 AD tried to dispel indigenous superstition. The Sunni tradition in particular strongly discourages aniconism, or the depiction of religious and living beings. Signs of the Buddhist culture as well as “all type of Dhivehi cultural expressions deemed un-Islamic”, were destroyed, including budhu, or any carven image of a living being.
Some say the new regulations had a positive effect on Maldivian culture. “Wahhabism removed suspicions and freed the psyche,” said one source familiar with the issue. With numerous demons and windowless architecture, he said, Buddhist culture leaned heavily on superstition and deterred progress. “There were ill-omen days, and on those days people might not go fishing, for example,” he said.
While physical evidence of a Buddhist past has more or less vanished, words and their superstitious connotations linger.
Budhu is one example. Lacking words for ‘doll’ or ‘monument’, Dhivehi speakers generally refer to such objects as budhu–a habit that can lead to confusion.
In one story from Gan Laam Atoll, a statue is remembered as a human being.
Naseema Mohamed, a history consultant at Dhivehi Academy, told the tale of a big man who always stood near the island’s stuppa, no matter the weather. He never sat down. Mohamed said the story was about a standing man, but infers that the “man” was a Buddha statue.
“To some, even a photograph is considered a budhu,” Shahid said. Shahid was in prison for the first 16 years of his daughter’s life, and saw her only 12 days a year. To remind their daughter of him, his wife kept a picture at eye-level in the house. The gesture was reportedly disdained by Shahid’s sister, a pious woman who only took photographs for her passport.
The burden of budhu
Given the many meanings and uses of the word budhu, it seems reasonable that statues and monuments would be considered a public, cultural threat in the Maldives. However, as the recent vandalism and theft of monuments in Addu illustrates, gaps in language could be “one of the most serious problems, especially at this time,” as Shahid claims.
Officials have suggested that the attacks on the SAARC monuments have a political base. Shahid believes they were engineered because the public was pre-disposed to accept the destruction of images. Without separate, secular terminology for ‘monument’, people fell back on the religious argument.
“This is just one of the factors of how the religious and political groups were able to blow things out of proportion,” said Shahid. “Nobody wants to argue about budhu, they don’t want to be labelled a non-Muslim, so it’s better to stay quiet.”
The SAARC monuments were first criticised by the Islamic Ministry on religious grounds. Soon after, opposition Progressive Party of the Maldives (PPM) hailed the vandals as “national heroes” and filed a case against Customs for allowing the statues into the country. When Nepal’s statue was stolen on December 7, Addu City Mayor Abdullah Sodig asserted that the theft had a political base.
Recalling acquaintances who asked whether people would start worshiping new idols in Addu, Shahid concluded, “my opinion is this whole thing has gone out of proportion because of the language problem.”
When asked about Shahid’s assessment, Mohamed pointed out that Pakistan’s monument was a historical illustration. “There was nothing for anyone to be angry or annoyed about, although I could understand how some people would have that reaction,” she said.
Editor of MaldivesCulture.com Michael O’Shea said most Maldivians harbor suspicions, but many make distinctions. “Because budhu has a wide range of meanings, getting upset about some forms of it and not others is a personal choice,” he observed.
However, politics prevail. “You can’t have a cultural discussion without it turning into a political swinging match,” said O’Shea.
Recent events support his claim.
On the day before the nation-wide protest to “Defend Islam”, a religious rally at which key speakers pledged to defeat President Mohamed Nasheed in the 2013 presidential election, Afghanistan’s monument was broken from its mount and sunk in the sea. Addu Councilor Hussein Hilmee said the monument was an image of Afghanistan’s Jam minaret, which features Qur’anic phrases and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
As printed slogans at the “Defend Islam” protest reminded the public, statues–even of the Jam Minaret–offend the national religion.
The destruction of the Addu-based monuments was one of several demands made by the protestors, who came close to clashing to with MDP protestors late Friday night.
De-politicising Dhivehi in a democratic era
Politics govern most conversations in both manner and practice, said one source familiar with linguistics and media. He said the evolution of journalism illustrates the pressures of a democratic revolution on Dhivehi language.
“The language of journalism is now less formal than it was before. But, as it becomes less formal it also becomes less neutral,” he observed.
The democratic revolution of the previous decade pushed Dhivehi to its limits. “Under Gayoom, we didn’t have a word for ‘protest’. Instead, we said ‘express displeasure’. Previously, there was no word for ‘detainee,’ only ‘convict’. You were either a political offender or a convict,” he said.
Dhivehi evolved quickly “because the movement was happening very quickly,” but the source said it could learn from Arabic media, notably Al Jazeera, which developed new words instead of adopting English terms.
Pointing out that ‘freeze’ in Dhivehi only refers to objects, the source queried, “When the western press talks about unfreezing assets, we haven’t even got a word for freeze. How do we keep up with that?”
However, the source claimed, journalists are falling short of their duty.
“Journalists are passing the buck. They are saying it is not their job to change Dhivehi, but this is a responsibility of journalism. You can’t just copy the politicians” because it narrows the discussion and alienates the people, he said. “There should be some strong face of journalism. At the moment it seems like the entire discussion is in the language of politicians.”
What are the consequences?
“It is not just a constitution that will bring democracy and human rights and civil society. In Maldives, it’s everything. From language, to religion, to the population size. The language issue is a problem here. It has to be overcome.”