Authentic stories, about the lives of quintessential Maldivians across the Maldives, exclusively brought to readers by The Edition.
The quiet of dawn in the tropics is gentle but not entirely silent. Rustling palms sashaying in the breeze, twittering Kanbili and the occasional rude ‘Haa’ beckon the sun, just before the island is filled with the blessed sound of Fajr prayers.
Abdulla Rafeeq makes his way to the mosque, an every day routine, and after an hour or so of ‘Namad’ and religious meditation, he expertly works his way through the taro fields that lie not far from his house. Having worked up a decent sweat, it is now time to head back for breakfast, and he tucks a flower into his pocket.
Aisaadhy sits on the ‘Undhoali’, an exquisitely crafted traditional swing, rocking gently back and forth, in hushed anticipation of his arrival. He makes his way to her, and greets her with the flower.
It is met with a chuckle from both sides, and a knowing look passes between them. The sort of shared expression that is so precious, so private that one feels the need to look away, as though you are not meant to witness their intimacy.
But inexplicably, they turn to us, and it is time for our conversation to begin.
Their story begins in 1940, lives intertwined ever since.
“We met while she was residing in H.Sosunge. I was at Dhaarul Iqama” - and just like that, we were transported to a Male’ of winding sandy roads, nary a building towering over the grand ‘Nika Gas’ in the heart of Henveiru.
“It was a different time then”. Rafeeq’s voice turns wistful. “I studied at Majeedhiyya and returned to the island to work as a teacher. I was also Fuvahmulah School's first football coach. For three years I worked like that. After that phase, I ventured into seafaring and traveled frequently to Sri Lanka. “
Having been back and forth between the Maldives and Sri Lanka around ten times, Rafeeq opted to spare his wife from the constant wearying anticipation of his arrival, trading seafaring for a labour of love, farming in their island home.
There is a serene dignity in the way Rafeeq speaks and carries himself, devoid of any hubris even as he detailed impressive accomplishments. He spoke of a brief stint fishing, before moving on to serve as part of the Atoll Committee for a total of two terms, all the while dabbling in additional work during his spare time, so as to “not waste a moment”.
None of it, however, compares to the most important decision of his life. He says, “It has been about 60 years since I got married. We’ve been working to build a life together ever since, on our own merit”. ,
Straightening his proud composure, he continues, “I was in Majeedhiyya, she was in Saniyya.”
“Our houses were close by. We were in school when we first saw each other. We did not meet or anything. Just sent greetings to each other [via a messenger] and the like. Not like how kids are these days; before marriage, we did not even sit together side by side.”
Aisaadhy reacts to his retelling with a kind smile towards those listening, one that lights up her elegant features, reminiscent of once-striking beauty.
In over six decades of marriage, she has borne him seven boys, all of whom she describes as “good” and “strong-willed”. As grown men, they gifted their proud parents the joy of twenty-two grandchildren; 10 boys and 12 girls.
“Insha Allah all our children are good. God willing, none have thus far slipped from the path [of righteousness],” said Rafeeq.
Gesturing to the backdrop of low lying limestone walls, taro fields and mango trees that make up much of Fuvahmulah’s iconic scenery, Rafeeq dubs their lifestyle a “peaceful” one.
“Fuvahmulah is a nice place to live, a tranquil place. Sixty years ago during the war, we weren’t plagued with famine and sickness. Every Sunday, traders from Huvadhoo and Addu atolls would dock at our piers to purchase breadfruit, banana, screw pine, taro and other produce.”
Teetering on the liminal, that sweet spot between past and present, Rafeeq described their home when they first moved back to Fuvahmulah in 1953, “It had a thatched roof, the kitchen separated by tree trunks. The entrance comprised of palm fronds - our own work. We grew our own food.”
“Family helped”, Aisaadhy nudged chidingly, and Rafeeq ceded. “Yes, yes - both sides of the family were very supportive”.
A subtle display of the dynamic that balances the couple’s established way of life - Aisaadhy’s true north and Rafeeq’s unwavering determination makes for a strong, resilient combination.
“We came here by ourselves and it meant hard work for both of us. I fish, and she cooks the catch. During my annual bouts of seafaring, at the time I was Captain, we brought goods to last us through to the next expedition. But like my father before me, farming became my livelihood… it was not easy to make an earning in those days. Now it’s different. Our children are grown and have their own income”.
It is such a beautiful sight, the ease with which they interact, narrating the tale sometimes to their audience, other times between themselves, having been the sole keepers of individual diaries.
The secret, they divulge, lies in communication. Somehow, the message holds more weight than any self-help book or an inspiration quote on Pinterest. Their words have an indisputable quality to it, strengthened by the weight of the slightest looks they exchange.
“All couples face hurdles, we are not exempt. Sometimes familial issues do surface. Regardless, we try to be very patient with each other.”
His eyes twinkle conspiratorially as he spouts an unexpected Urdu phrase, “Joru we baat karni ho to narmi au meherbani se karna zaroori hain”, which, according to friends hailing from the lands of the pure, means, “If you talk to your beloved, do so softly and be humble with love”.
“Raising our family, we exercise restraint and stay calm. We don’t raise our voices, nor do we show displeasure with physical aggression. As you might imagine, it was not easy raising a horde of boys”.
“Things have changed so much in parenting as well. Back then, all children were breastfed for at least two years - now some parents force-feed their kids - what?”, Rafeeq’s animated discussion is interrupted as his wife laughingly reminds him he is on camera. “Let’s not discuss that”, she says and he immediately accepts her rather wise judgment. However, it comes across not as a display of subservience, but an innate trust in her intuition.
“Anyway, we have had a good life. We have been very happy together, Alhamdullilah”.
It is quite incredible, the detail in which they recall their union, having written so many chapters together since. But perhaps it is not so surprising, his voice steadying significantly as he swiftly declares, “the day we were wed is a very happy memory for me”, and she murmurs faintly though with undeniable adoration, “for me as well”.
“We were married in Fuvahmulah, at the time you had to head to a “Vaaruge” if you wished to tie the knot. Her ‘Ran’ was MVR 50 I think…,” he trailed off, looking at her expectantly - when she nods in agreement, he resumes narrating.
“Her father was the island chief, one of the wealthiest in the island”, his answer betraying a hint of the tall order that was perhaps expected of him, having won her hand. “In the beginning, we lived at her father’s residence”.
Aisaadhy adds, “And all our kids were born there as well”.
“Yes, yes. We moved to this house and still returned there for each birth. Our third child, Ali Rafeeq, was born during the ‘Dhevana Bagaavai’ and I spoke out against them, resulting in my banishment to Funaadu. Ali was a month old when I managed to sneak in and see him”.
If anything, their trials have brought them closer to their children. Yet they had their own ‘village’ to lean on. “We had a lot of help from our families, even in raising children. Times were difficult. My kids pursued an education in different countries”.
“But in their childhood, we kept them close. I took them to swim in the sea, gave them baths. We both took care of them … but their mother is their biggest strength. Good children are raised by good mothers - much more so than me”, he gazed at his wife lovingly as he showered her with genuine praise.
Blushing ever so slightly, Aisaadhy emphasized, “You have to help each other in raising children that exhibit discipline and good moral values. God willing, we were able to achieve that.”
If the moment weren’t picturesque and idyllic enough, a little girl of about five bounded up to them, clad in a school uniform. Such miniature flurry of energy, as she rushed to cuddle her grandparents while cleverly avoiding the lenses before them.
Even to an outsider passing by, the family radiates beauty, love and affection. And at the very core of it, is this pinnacle of romance, exhibiting the truest form of love. In his words, “one may only succeed in this way if there is a strong relationship. You have to help and advise one another in all matters.”
Abdulla Rafeeq leans in and offers a Quranic verse, “إِنَّ اللّهَ مَعَ الصَّابِرِينَ”, meaning “Indeed, The God (Allah) is with the people who have patience”.
“Be compassionate to your partner and your children. Be gentle. Today, our children are all so good to us.”
The romance is far from transient - more of the novel-inspiring, lasting the test of time saga. The blending of their silhouettes against the blaze of the setting sun, as they walk along the beach in the tradition they’ve followed nearly every single day over the last sixty years, draws glaring parallels with the state of their souls, that is simply difficult to ignore.
Whatever the case may be, it is a love story for the ages, wouldn’t you agree?
The national bird of Maldives, Kanbili refers to the White-Breasted Waterhen while Haa is the Dhivehi term for a Rooster. Namad means Salat, or the mandatory prayer Muslims practice five times a day of which Fajr is the very first. An Undhoali, on the other hand, refers to a traditional swing, in this case exquisitely crafted. Vaaruge is an administrative office located in every island and Funaadu is a ward in Fuvahmulah, which along with Addu and Huvadhu, are Maldivian names for particular atoll divisions in the Southern region. Dhevana Bagaavai presumably here refers to the latter stages of the southern separatist movement 'United Suvadive Republic' against then-President Ibrahim Nasir. And that’s a wrap folks!