Two Thousand Isles © 2021 Design by Naj
Words by Daniel Bosley; Pictures by Aishath Naj

When the American anthropologist Clarence Maloney visited the Maldives in the 1970s, he witnessed only a small number of full-time occupations that didn’t involve fishing.

Already gone were some of the older trades, like the stonemasons who’d carved a role creating coral mosques and tombs, and the goldsmiths who’d decorated the beyfulhun.

The island jobs he did find included raveri, fandithaveriya and astrologers, katheebs, kuda katheebs, hakeems and kanburuveriya (blacksmiths) – with the latter still being found in most of the larger islands at the time.

Had Maloney visited the island of Gaafu Dhaalu Nadellaa, he would have found a young blacksmith named Solih Hussein, working away in his shop on the main road, as his father did before him.

He can still be found there today, bending scrap metal to his will in order that his patrons might bend the fruits of the atoll to theirs. His workshop shows little sign of the intervening years, other than a few modern devices which have helped take the strain after the atoll’s other smiths downed their tools.

Solih still fires his furnace with charcoal made from local trees (kuredigas), stoked by hand-operated bellows and a reputation forged over decades of toil.

Maloney’s research suggested that such occupations may once have formed a rudimentary caste system on the islands, recounting stories of blacksmiths who refused to let non-smiths into their shop, and whose craft was considered hereditary.

Not today. All are welcome to visit the workshop, though nobody seems interested to learn the trade.

“A knife is pretty when it is sharp and a wife is pretty when she is kind”

Maldivian proverb (Source: Xavier Romero Frias, ‘The Maldives Islanders’)

A good knife had traditionally been key to survival on the islands. Southern men are reputed to have carried one with them everywhere lest they need to gut a fish, open a kurumba, or even to perform a magic ritual (folk tales would suggest that only a foolish fandithaveriya would leave home without his masdaiyffiohi).

But the rise of cheap imports in recent decades means that most fishermen are content to use flimsier kitchen knives, while the crucial role the kanburuveriya once played in local boat-building has been lost in barrels of fibreglass resin.

Despite this, there’s still no substitute for a sturdy kathivalhi (machete), and slicing betel nuts is nearly impossible without a decent foah valhi. Making and repairing these, as well as things like dhaani, for collecting well-water, and coconut-scrapers, continues to bring more work than Solih can get through.

Maloney’s studies, mostly conducted in 1975, were subsequently published as ‘People of the Maldives Islands’ in 1980 – the only in-depth anthropological study of the islands. Having already sensed the rumblings of change that were about to shake Maldivian society to its core, he noted in the preface to the book’s second edition (2013) that most of what he’d described was now more a snapshot of history than a description of the country.

Of the occupations mentioned more than 40 years ago, the only ones that seem to have survived today are those of island administrators – though the katheebs has also moved on – and that of being a ‘noble’ (which still seems a fairly lucrative business).

In Nadellaa, Solih is still hammering on into his 71st year, striking a blow for tradition. What could be more noble than that?

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