It was late evening in the Persian Gulf and there was a cool summer breeze wafting through the wide wooden door as the two ladies approached it. One of them carried my favoured Sri-Lankan sweetmeat “Lavariya”, which she presented to me with a kiss on both cheeks. I returned the favour by handing a parcel of homemade dhodhol specially brought from Sri-Lanka.

We were in Bahrain, a tiny oil rich island off the coast of Qatar with a Causeway to Saudi-Arabia. It is known for its pearls and petroleum and like many countries in the Middle East has a strong Sri-Lankan population (an estimated 14,000), that ranges from housemaids to Senior Managers.

The women were here to take me to see something very unusual in these parts; a Buddhist temple. Yet what was special about it was that there was a statue of Lord Buddha that was found in a temple called Barbar in Bahrain, which was 1500 years old. It was definitely something to see especially amidst news of rising tensions in Sri-Lanka, that had resulted in targeting harassment towards Muslims.

We headed off to the temple that was a 5-minute drive away and respectfully entered it after removing our shoes. It was a spacious property with ample room for meditation and was equipped with a large kitchen. It felt so surreal to be in a temple in the Middle East. Feelings of both elation and surprise kicked in as we turned a corner at the back and saw a magnificent “Bo tree” with its heart shaped leaves humbly swaying in the crisp air.

The two women explained that the statues inside were brought to these premises from Barbar and that the owner was Arab. Previous occupants planted the Bo tree and it was pure coincidence that this property then was converted to a temple.

The two women then expressed their concerns. They were not housemaids, they were hard-working Skilled Sri-Lankans who had come to the Middle East in search of a better life and it is repatriated funds from people like them that brings in approximately Rs. 382,801 million accounting for 47.03% of gross foreign exchange earnings for the Government of Sri-Lanka every year. Worker’s remittances in 2009 alone were in the range of $3.4 billion according to Reuters.

With the situation in Sri-Lanka worsening they drew my attention to the small Sri-Lankan community in Bahrain. United and respectful; Muslims, Sinhalese, Christians and Tamils celebrate, socialise and support one another. Their children play together and their wives gossip together. All is as it should be.

With the increased harsh treatment of Muslims by the radical nationalist Bodu Bala Sena organization in Sri Lanka these women were worried that their peace and harmony in the Middle East would be affected. If Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi-Arabia or the Lebanon asked all Sri-Lankans to leave what would they return to Sri-Lanka and do? What hope did one have if one was not rich, connected or educated?

The irony of the situation puzzled me. The BBS were subsequently putting this serene Buddhist Temple at risk with their extremist agenda. The Ladies made two very valid points. The BBS claims that the Muslims are diluting the population by having more children and that “Sinhalese” people are reducing. However by increasing racism and fuelling hatred the last time around we ended up in a war that lasted 3 decades and took countless lives thus contributing to reduced populations. Another racist campaign would also be costly in terms of lives and will not help in fostering the future of people of Sinhalese descent. A further point that they made was that we were all Sinhalese. Although I may have a Muslim surname we were racially the same as Muslim traders married Sinhalese women and we descend from that genealogy, which is apparent in my grandfathers surname of “Varakamuragedera”. Therefore the racist rhetoric is invalid.

Underneath the serene Bo tree we agreed that the fault lay on both sides. Many Muslim families in Sri-Lanka today have excluded themselves from engaging with other ethnic groups and have become very introvert and therefore contributed to increased animosity. Similarly nationalist’s especially in rural areas have used Buddhism as a platform for their own perverted agenda’s similar to the way that Al Qaeda uses Islam to justify its aims and recruit people to its calling.

But what about the domestic workers that came to the Middle East? I woke up one morning to find Devi Akka sweeping the floor in my father’s kitchen. She had just returned from Sri-Lanka after the 3-month almsgiving of her husband who committed suicide after falling out with his sister. I asked why she returned. She replied, “I am happy here.”

Every year roughly 120,000 Sri-Lanka’s go to the Middle-East mostly to work as unskilled domestic aides. From this number we hear many stories of women especially in Saudi-Arabia who suffer untold hardships; the case of Rizana Nafeek is a fresh wound that displays one case of extreme injustice.

However amidst the downside there are very successful cases of maids who have worked and earned their share and come home to provide a better life for their families. Often Sri-Lankan men in that socio-economic bracket are worth less than their wives. If these men could find proper employment within the country then perhaps their wives may not need to go and seek employment in such tricky conditions; yet that debate is another story.

Overall it is a lucrative source of income for Sri Lankans and also one that is vital and necessary for the economic well-being of the country, especially for rural populations from which the large majority of housemaids come. Therefore again the BBS rhetoric of “Muslims should leave Sri-Lanka” contradicts itself. For better or worse Sri-Lanka needs the support of Muslims countries. As displayed in the recent UN vote, Saudi, Kuwait, Jordan, and Qatar were amongst the few that supported Sri-Lanka with regards to the accusation of War crimes. Kuwait is a large donor of funds to Sri-Lanka for development projects and Pakistan often supports Sri-Lanka with weapons.

Our Government has already angered the West and renders no support from it. Is it not prudent and diplomatic to be a country that people do not see as a failed aggressive state?

Maybe if our Government was not so corrupt our monks would not be attacked in India.

Maybe if our Government was not so corrupt it would not back racist groups that deter emphasis and focus away from true problems in Sri-Lanka.

Maybe if our Government was not so corrupt and attempted to increase the well being of its people then we would not need to put our people in jeopardy by sending them to work as housemaids.

However overall, my trip to the Pansala taught me one thing. Stereotypes can change. A pious Arab can lend his land to a temple and a saffron clad monk can hurl stones.

In the end, it is a choice made by people.

  • Thakshila

    This is a very well written piece and I love your eloquence. However, I respectfully disagree with the content of it.

    (1) “The women were here to take me to see something very unusual in these parts; a Buddhist temple. ”

    There is a reason for the temple being an unusual phenomenon- because Buddhist temples, relics etc that remained in now predominantly Muslim areas were viciously destroyed by Muslims long before any sort of unrest occurred here in Sri Lanka.
    On the contrary, there is nothing unusual about mosques here in Buddhist Sri Lanka. In fact they seem to be even more common than temples now. There is a massive mosque around every corner and they are in no way restricted- they have the freedom to put their prayers in loudspeaker just as much as temples do and no one discriminates against it.

    (2) “With the situation in Sri-Lanka worsening they drew my attention to the small Sri-Lankan community in Bahrain. United and respectful; Muslims, Sinhalese, Christians and Tamils celebrate, socialise and support one another. Their children play together and their wives gossip together. All is as it should be.”

    Muslim Countries have a far worse track record against, not just Buddhists, but any follower of every other religion except their own, than any track record that Sri Lanka has had or will ever have. In fact, whatever the unrest here would be negligible compared to certain things that people of other faiths have had to endure in Muslim countries.

    Above are just 2 examples. Even as of today, my Muslim colleagues at office have no restrictions on Fridays when they pray right there and then in office. They put down a mat and pray in front of all of us and this is the way it is in all offices, colleges (my own college had a separate prayer rooms for Muslims as do most colleges)and no one would dream of even rolling their eyes, let alone go so far as arresting.

    (3)”… Muslim traders married Sinhalese women and we descend from that genealogy…”.

    Of course there were Muslim traders who married Sinhalese women. There were also Traders who were Chinese, Dutch, Portugese, British and many others who married Sinhala women. But that doesn’t in essence mean that Sinhala women married ONLY these people. The key word is “some”. Some Sinhala women married Muslim, Chinese, Dutch, Portugese, and British traders, but certainly not all of them. the ones who did were a minority. There were more than enough Sinhala men for the rest of the Sinhala women to marry. I have nothing against interracial marriage at all. What I’m pointing out is the fact that your logic is flawed. Just because there were some interracial marriages it doesn’t mean that it’s all one amalgamated “broth”.

    Also your argument that “we were all Sinhalese” means nothing in today’s context. Maybe many many centuries ago your genealogy started like that, but there is nothing whatsoever that is “Sinhalese” when it comes to today’s Muslims in Sri Lanka. Today’s Muslims are fully fledged Muslim to the core Muslims. Again, there’s nothing wrong with that. I fully advocate people following their religion and culture. However, let’s not blur the crux of the matter by trying to sugar coat it.

    (4) I fully agree with all your criticisms of the government. Certainly the level of corruption is abhorrent. However, one thing needs to be said. There is a quite a bit of development going on. Now it’s easy to criticise projects such as the Mattala Airport saying that the government should first focus on the poor people and bring their lives up to standard before going in for massive projects.

    The problem is that if a government were to wait like that, the wait would be indefinite. There is no country in the world which has waited until they have eradicated poverty to start on development. In India the rich-poor divide is so stark. There are children literally dying (not simply suffering from malnutrition, but dying) of starvation and yet India spends billions on nuclear weapons. 22.4 Million American households (which means 15% of the American population) is on food stamps. This is not at all an acceptable figure for a country which is supposedly the most developed in the world and calls itself the Land where Dreams Come True!

    Furthermore, major projects such as the above mentioned, create a whole hub of commercial activities to grow and foster around. When there’s an international airport, there will be hotels built to cater to the tourists. This will lead to boutiques, food stalls etc etc- boom in farmers selling their produce, boom in handicrafts, boom in job opportunities, good exposure for the up to now hidden locals.

  • Liz

    Thakshila –

    It may be true that you can find more instances than should be of Islamic bad behavior. But you should be careful about mining publications such as frontpage magazine which are notorious racist organizations set up and financed to attack Muslims – there is no shortage of material in such – BBS
    and others are following in the footsteps of RSS, etc on this. David Horowitz who funds this has been outed many times over and no respectable news outlet or news analyst quotes him. A non-partisan foundation found his work to be dangerous and produced a website on them – David Horowitz the first among them. Most of these guys were quoted by that open Muslim hater Norwegian mass murderer – Brevik – in his manifesto.

    Reading the comments to the other article that you have, it seems that
    things are not clear-cut there either. But certainly, the House of Saud and there rule there is intolerant not only of other faiths but also their own people.

  • Jon

    It’s all very well writing about the benign Muslim population in Sri Lanka. However I believe that the SL Govt. had to recently deport 114 Muslims from the Maldives due to their over-zealous evangelising amongst the Buddhist Singalese. On return to the Maldives their influence was responsible for a young woman being sentenced to a public flogging for ‘crimes against morality’, whatever that may mean.