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.