‘I would say 90 percent of the tourists that I meet every day are going back knowing nothing about how people live in the Maldives,’ says Ahmed Hamdhan, who works at Banyan Tree Vabbinfaru in North Malé Atoll, a private island resort typical of the powdery beaches, turquoise lagoons and the ‘holiday of a lifetime’ promised by luxury brochures. ‘Maybe they think I live on a white sand island and my home is a water bungalow because that’s the picture they see in the hotel,’ he says. ‘But that’s not how it is.’
In reality – in densely populated Malé, the tiny island capital in which Hamdhan lives – Maldivians have paved paradise and put up a parking lot. One of the smallest capitals in the world and the modern face of the Maldives, Malé’s urban growth has reached the limit of its shores: the only way to build is up.
‘It’s a concrete jungle,’ says Mohamed Imran Ahmed, a local artisan, of the slim, brightly painted apartment blocks that, along with ancient coral trees, loom over and shade the narrow streets. It’s a city that thrums to the sound of a thousand mopeds, the flow ebbing only for salat. A city around which dhonis ferry local commuters off to the resorts for work, and where air taxis swarm overhead, supplying the guests.
Inland, Malé’s identity is, and has long been, a confluence of cultures. Middle Eastern interest in the Maldives as a strategic outpost on its trade route began in the 12th century AD and the Islamic codes that were introduced stuck throughout the Portuguese, Dutch and British rule that followed. Today, globalisation takes form in Malé as it does the world over: nasal Hindi tracks soar out from some stores along Madjeedhee Magu, Katy Perry assures shoppers that they are ‘fireworks’ in others.
In truth, in a city that’s circumnavigable by a 20 minute taxi ride, 24 hours is more than enough time to explore. While guided tours of Malé will stop at the fish and fruit markets, the Presidential Palace, Friday Mosque, Islamic Centre and Sultan Park, most of these sights are somewhat fusty, if not inaccessible.
However, with over 50 percent of the population under the age of 25, there is a new generation of Maldivians who, much like Hamdhan and Ahmed, are using the city’s global influences to their advantage, applying imported trends to local customs and providing visitors with a contemporary approach – from fashion and artisanal design to cuisine and community projects – to the true, Maldivian spirit that remains at the core of the city.
8:00am – Raalhugandu Skatepark DIY
‘Some people in Malé still don’t know this exists,’ says Ahmed Hamdhan, looking out over the gaggle of boys stood at the brink of a half-finished, concrete bowl at Raalhugandu Skatepark on Malé’s Artificial Beach.
‘In Malé, there’s no place to skateboard. You push around in the streets a little bit but the cops come and stop us most of the time, as if it’s something illegal,’ he explains. ‘I think we look like we’re having too much fun.’
Not allowing the flourishing subculture – a rarity to see in the city – to be stifled, Hamdhan called upon the help of his fellow skaters to build Malé’s own park. ‘We didn’t talk much about it. We just said, “Let’s do it now.” We got up, started collecting bricks from here and there, and we started building the same day. Around the fourth or fifth day, the City Council dropped by when the ‘crete was already mixed and we were pouring it, and told us we had to stop. But we said, “No, sorry. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to build this.” We were so determined.’
After 18 months of hard graft, the bowl is almost complete and used day-in-day-out by young Maldivians. ‘It’s a big shock for some to see young kids getting their hands dirty and doing some actual work,’ he says of the reaction in Malé. ‘They come and stare and make fun of us when we’re struggling. It’s hard work, but it’s fun.’
The group have not just built a park. ‘It’s a community here,’ says 19-year-old Lujain Hassan, one of the few female skaters in the Maldives. ‘When the government hands over something like this on a plate, people vandalise it. But because the skaters are building it with their own sweat and blood, we wouldn’t want a scratch on it.’
11:00am – Toddy
‘There’s always been souvenir t-shirts. They’ve been sold since tourism began here,’ says Ahmed Riyaz, describing the souvenirs on offer along Chaandanee Magu. Though shoppers will find various totems here to take home, they are, however, unlikely to find a souvenir made in the Maldives: most are imported from elsewhere.
Ahmed Riyaz and his brother Faya are the founders of Toddy, a modern apparel brand named after the popular, local palm sap drink. ‘We couldn’t afford designer t-shirts growing up, so we always made our own using iron-on transfers,’ recalls Ahmed. ‘We just thought it would be cool to have an apparel brand as a hobby, and the concept we came up with was to have designs that actually show the culture of the Maldives. Our slogan is “A Maldivian Story”.’
Toddy’s screen printed t-shirts, which are made using eco-friendly cotton and ink, feature contemporary interpretations of Maldivian folklore and handicraft motifs, such as the well-known story of a seductive female handi (evil spirit), or the pattern work found on kunaa, the traditional black, yellow and white weaved mats. ‘If you’ve ever seen the traditional dress of the Maldives, you’ll see we’ve used it as a pattern too,’ says Faya, who designs the graphics.
The brothers claim to have been the first Maldivians to brand, in the modern sense of the word. Though the feedback is positive from their peers, it seems some tastes are slow to change. ‘We actually went to some of the tourist shops with our designs and they said, “We can’t sell these. They’re too modern. If there’s a fish on it, or a coconut, we can buy it,”’ jokes Riyaz. ‘That’s the trend, but we’re trying to change it.’
2:00pm – Trans Maldivian Airways
With over 200 inhabited islands in a chain of 1,200, island hopping in the Maldives was once a lengthy endeavour. But, based at Ibrahim Nasir International Airport – just a 10 minute dhoni trip from Malé – Trans Maldivian Airways has been working to speed up the journey for both tourists and islanders alike with its fleet of stylish Viking seaplanes.
‘We had over 80,000 local residents fly with us last year,’ says Ibrahim Shifan, a public relations manager for TMA. The airline carries over 3,000 passengers per day to around 60 destinations during peak season. ‘We’ve cut down what was once a four hour ferry ride to a 45 minute flight.’
With the longest trip lasting 55 minutes, and the shortest just four, hopping on a seaplane is one of the most exhilarating ways to view the Maldives’ topography. The company has a jolly atmosphere, one that embodies the laidback, local lifestyle. ‘We fly on water, so shoes aren’t really… aren’t really… it’s a Maldivian thing,’ says Ahmed Yasir, a training captain who, like all of TMA’s other pilots, flies his aircraft barefoot, in shorts and with an open cockpit.
The views afforded from the flights are reflected in the airline’s look, too. ‘With the Maldives being a tropical country, when you fly over the atolls you’ll see deep blues and vivid greens. Using these bright colours says we are part of the Maldives,’ Yasir says of the paintwork. ‘Our red planes just give an extra ooze.’
‘As a Maldivian,’ he continues, ‘it makes me feel super proud to be a part of the most successful company here, not to mention having one of the most unique jobs available – not only here but in the world, really.’
5:00pm – Gadheemee Collection
‘It’s important that everyone should try to revive a little bit of our culture. I’m trying to do my bit,’ says Mohamed Imran Ahmed, a self-taught artisan and the owner of Gadheemee Collection, which he runs from his own attic space.
Meaning ancient in Dhivehi, the Gadheemee Collection seeks to recover the Maldivian art of stone carving – an all but extinct practice. ‘No one’s doing it anymore,’ he says. Nor have they for a long time. ‘I asked people my grandfather’s age if they had done it too, but no.’
Historically – as early as the Buddhist period – coral stone was the primary building material used for monumental structures in the Maldives, its softness allowing ‘coral carpenters’ to carve intricate patterns into it (a skill that died out with the introduction of masonry in the late 18th century). ‘I take silicon building blocks, as coral is now too rare, and I carve as if I were carving wood,’ Ahmed says of his modern approach. ‘It is bad on the hand,’ he adds, pointing to a lump on his wrist.
Ahmed has been studying the ancient motifs closely. ‘I’m very passionate about ancient culture and history. The most similar designs would be Islamic artwork from the same era. I’ve looked at Morocco, and there are similarities,’ he says. Arabic calligraphy can be found on virtually all of the carvings, from which Ahmed has discovered hidden symbolism.
‘The artists put secrets into them, too. I found Arabic calligraphy in the shape of a face,’ he says, pointing out the appearance of a mouth, nose and moustache on a pattern that he replicated from one seen at a mosque. ‘If I tell anyone that I found a face on a mosque, it would be destroyed.’
‘What I’m trying to do right now is to recreate these ancient patterns, and get people more interested in them,’ he says. ‘It’s truly a 100 percent Maldivian business and I’m my own boss, that’s the best thing. I want to stand on my own two feet.’
8:00pm – Dhivehi Malaafaiy
As residents of Malé return home from work – quite literally by the boatload – many head to the city’s cafés and restaurants. Hedhika, or ‘short eats’, such as gulha (deep-fried dumplings filled with dried tuna, coconut and chilli) are popular in informal establishments, while spaghetti Bolognese and panpipe pop Muzak beckons from the more contemporary restaurants.
Tucked away on Rah Dhebai Magu, a side street off Majeedhee Magu, Dhivehi Malaafaiy offers traditional Maldivian cuisine with a contemporary flavour. ‘People don’t know there’s a Maldivian restaurant in Malé,’ says Salman Hussain, the restaurant’s managing director.
Occupying a large, yellow mansion, Dhivehi Malaafaiy has been open for just over one year and takes its name from the food box traditionally used in the Maldives to store food. ‘It’s like the Japanese bento box,’ explains Hussain. He recommends customers to try his garudhiya – a clear tuna broth served with steamed rice. ‘All Maldivians eat it at home,’ he says.
Though Hussain says that Maldivians prefer to eat ‘submarines and pizzas’, he explains that his restaurant is becoming popular for its shisha. ‘A lot of Maldivians travel abroad to Malaysia and other Islamic countries and get a taste for it,’ he says. ‘It’s a trend here now. We started with five pipes, and now we’ve ended up with more than 50.’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s September/October 2014 Issue.
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