Failing to make Hay in the sunshine

Despite the lineup of international literary luminaries, ticket sales for October’s Hay Festival Maldives, the first Dhivehi ‘Woodstock of the mind’, are so dismal organisers are reluctant to divulge the exact figures. Less than ten were sold on the first day the tickets went on sale, and the daily sales figure has remained unchanged since.

The national and international line-up is impressive, the venue is Aarah, and the tickets cost a Rf100 for two days of literature, music and intellectual discussion. It is billed as a celebration of the ‘world’s most hopeful new democracies and oldest island cultures’ bringing together international and national artists for ‘a festival of ideas’.

“As a new democracy, the Maldives is the logical setting for the vital debates that affect us all,” President Nasheed said of the Festival.

Reading habits and local education levels suggest the logic maybe flawed.

What do Maldivians read?

Although the international authors lined up by the Hay Festival are all relevant to the emerging democracy of the Maldives, none of their books are available in any of the bookshops in Male’.

Enthusiastic Maldivian volunteers organising the event told Minivan all the books will be available from Aster’s bookshop before the Festival begins. For the moment, none of their work can be bought in a Maldivian bookshop. The National Library is currently closed, and Minivan could not check whether it stocks the books.

Without getting into a debate over what can and cannot be classified as ‘serious literature’, a random sample of bookshops in Male’ reveal their shelves to be almost entirely bare of any fiction at all, let alone any great works of literature or the works of the authors participating in the Festival.

The Minivan survey revealed the most recently opened bookshop in Male’ to be its the most well-stocked in terms of literature – it had a copy of Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Harper Lee’s classic ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ as well as a few children’s classics, a few Roald Dahls, almost all the Harry Potter books, and a vast collection of Enid Blyton.

American teenage sensations Hannah Montana and Mary-Kate Ashley filled the remaining shelves, along with copies of four books on Maldivian law written by the proprietor.

The one and only bookshop in Hulhumale’ carried one book of fiction for adults written in English – ‘Three sexy tales: Playing Hard to get’ by Grace Octavia – according to the blurb, a ‘chic tale’ of three New York ‘It Girls’ and their lives.

There too, was a collection of Enid Blyton and the same American teenage fiction as the previous bookshop.

None of the local authors billed at the Hay Festival – Abdulla Sadiq, Habeeba Hussain Habeeb or Fathimath Nahula – featured on its shelves. The only Maldivian literature were religious publications promoting spiritual guidance.

What can Maldivians read?

Only one percent of all Maldivian students are interested in the arts. Less than a quarter have shown an interest in science, while more than half pursue commercial subjects, according to 2008 O’Level exam figures published by the Education Ministry.

If less than one percent of Maldivian students are interested in the arts, it indicates that only a minuscule number of Maldivians will grow up to be interested in literature, music, art, film, poetry or any of the activities that the Hay Festival celebrates. Had science had a stronger pull, perhaps the line-up of world-class environmental writers may have drawn a bigger crowd.

Although 90 percent of students sat the compulsory subject of English as a Second Language, only 0.1 percent took the English Language exam. The number of students who took the literature exam was marginally higher at 0.2 percent.

Of the 90 percent of students who did study English as a second language, only 20 percent passed. It was also English as a Second Language that received the most number of ‘U’s meaning ‘Unclassified’ or ‘Ungraded’ in 2008. In the same year, over 24 percent of students who sat the O’levels did not pass any subjects at all.

The ‘logic’ of choosing Maldives as a venue for the Hay Festival, a celebration of some of the best international and local literature, appears less than clear cut in view of local reading habits and education levels.

Full schedule of the Hay Festival Maldives

Day passes are on sale at the Olympus Theatre in Male’, and available online for non-residents.

For more information call 991 1429 (residents), +44 1497 822 629 (international), or email [email protected]

Minivan News is a media partner of the Hay Festival Maldives.