The Myths We Tell Ourselves
Yuval Noah Harari in his book ‘Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind” discusses how gossip and the ability to create myths gave Homo Sapiens an unprecedented advantage over the rest of the species. And how although Neanderthals were stronger and more catered for the harsh environments, Homo Sapiens amongst all human species somehow developed a sudden cognitive revolution that allowed for them to develop and create myths around which they could rally thousands and thousands of people at the same time. These stories garnered the support of people and created larger and more united societies. And it isn’t just limited to the social makeup. We have created myths about economics, spiritual ideals and even concepts of politics and human rights. And unlike other human species, these concepts are as tangible and animate as a physical river or a tree or a mountain. This trait is one of the key reasons that has allowed the Homo Sapiens population to outlast all other human species and finally teleporting itself to the top of the food chain. This has created its own problems of sustainability but that isn’t what we are delving on today. For now it will suffice to understand the important roles myths had played and continue to play in the evolution of Homo Sapiens.
Fast forward to a country that, according to all available historic records, has been in existence for more than 2500 years. A tiny little archipelago scattered across the Indian Ocean called Maldives. Just like any other society, they too thrived on myths and gossip to cultivate a cultural patina to hold people together. Historical records show a cultural and religious potpourri that had shaped the psyche and ideals of the people. From people who told stories about God’s that resided in the natural elements like fire, wind and water, to the cultural diffusion of Hinduism and then Buddhism from neighbouring countries Maldivian society ebbed and flowed with stories aplenty. And as religious tides changed to allow the spread of Islam to replace the Buddhist faith, myths and stories played a crucial role in explaining this significant transition. Maldivian history is quirky. While it has its usual historically accurate details that explain the story of the country, it also has a fair amount of fantastical stories that somehow mistake themselves to be historical facts. The earlier explanation of the conversion to Islam, for example, is explained by a vicious sea monster that demanded a virgin every month until a pious Muslim from either Iran or Morocco, depending on who is telling the story, put a stop to it by reciting verses of the Quran. Here a myth conveniently merges with small historical details to create a story that in any other country will be categorized at best as a legend or at worst a fairy tale. But the need to create uncanny tales to capture the imagination of people and the rally people around the common idea of the power of faith may have prompted the elevation of such stories as historic facts. Until very recently this story was recalled in the school curriculum as a history.
In addition our Kings (interestingly the Queens are often painted as murderers and power hungry sociopaths) are flawless heroes and historical records often recall them as without any blemish or vice. It somehow was important for the powers to be (and it is an established fact that most history is written by the victors or those in power) needed a “whitewashed” history to ensure a nationalistic mindset punctuated by patriotism and jingoism. These stories till date are the official political rhetoric to insist on the homogeneity of Maldives. We will talk about these stories in a bit but for now since we have established the importance of myths to the Maldivian society lets move even further into the present.
The present Maldivian society is multicultural. And no matter how much we rage and try to put down that view, it is nonetheless a fact. While our population hovers around 400,000 we have an expatriate population that is almost a third of that if not more. We also have cultures that are concealed behind the mainstream cultural values that often relate to the capital Male’. With almost 2000 islands it is not inconceivable that independent cultural practices and myths and historical truths would have emerged that are dissimilar from the mainstream narrative promoted as the singular story of the Maldives. But, and this is important so listen well, different cultural ideals and myths and histories are dangerous to those who want the country to thrive on a single narrative. A narrative that drives the nationalism and a narrative on whose back the powerful have created a convenient story that serves to maintain an insidious status quo. Lets go back to my discussion about “whitewashing” history earlier. One of the most important reason why we have created infallible historical characters with impeccable reputations and an unswerving love for the nation is so that Maldivianness can be perceived and promoted as an unquestioning loyalty to anyone who uses terms such as “for the good of the nation” “sovereignty” “homogeneity” “the sweat and blood of our forefathers” “dying for your country” and “one language, one culture” amongst others. These terms are seen as sacred and unequivocally significant to uphold the Maldivian identity. And in a bid to ensure loyalty, anyone who challenges the mainstream myths which Maldives is seen to be about, is shunned and ostracized as unpatriotic, treacherous and rebellious.
An offshoot of this deliberate creation of similar identities is that many Maldivians have become intolerant and downright hostile towards any idea or culture that may reside within their own. It is also paved way for religious extremism and fundamental ideals to take root because they seem to have no problem piggy backing on the already established ideals and myths about the “oneness” of Maldivian identity.
One group that has had to bear the most brunt of this ultra jingoistic and xenophobic mindset are the migrant workers in the Maldives. They somehow seem to stand out like a sore thumb to the homogenous Maldivian society and recently we seem to have become more brazen in our efforts to shun them. It is apparent that we have no place for them in our myths and stories and the supposed “glue” that binds us all together as a society seems to weaken at the very thought of people from other countries residing in Maldives. They are an anomaly in the myths we tell ourselves. And so we treat them like animals. So that the anomaly can be normalized. They live in inhumane conditions, they are paid next to nothing and they work more than 15 hours at a stretch and we push them out so they reside in the fringes of our society. The fringes to which we do not pay much attention to. We dehumanize them and prohibit them from ever practicing their culture. We purposefully try not to socialize with them lest they blend into our stories. We have become so apt at ignoring them that it seems in a “hundred percent” Muslim country we are complacent with them not receiving the basic access to healthcare, water, food, shelter and sanitation. We are ok with human beings living a life devoid of dignity simply because we are too comfortable in our own created myths to ever bat an eyelid to their plight. We often take pride in an assumed fact that we have no racial tension or ethnic divides. We often boast about the singularity of our society all the while blind to the blatant discrimination we adhere to migrant workers. We openly discriminate and devoid them of their fundamental rights without any disregard to our very own legal system. Because the myths we tell ourselves are much more potent than the written down Constitution and the statutes that are intended to uphold the rule of law.
Throughout the years we have found a stable disharmony that has allowed us to hold on to a status quo that is built on faulty foundations. And as we move our mindset from isolation to globalization, the ripple effect is both unnerving and enraging many Maldivians. The pluralism that the world is embracing threatens the very foundation of we have so vehemently placed our feet upon. Our myths, outdated myths demand that we be left alone, but the social, economic, political and cultural realities seem to be bludgeoning the long narrated stories of oneness, homogeneity and singularity. And we in turn are making a futile attempt at halting the inevitable by treating the most vulnerable group in our midst with a hatred and disdain that ironically do not go parallel to the myth of our perfect hospitality.