By Daniel Bosley
What do people think of when they hear the word ‘Maldives’?
For 350,000 Maldivians, it’s home. For the tourist, it’s paradise. Divers think of the reef, while fisherman think of tuna. Shipwrecks and seashells may have preoccupied the sailors of yesterday, while tomorrow’s environmentalists will continue to link the isles with climate change and its impact.
But few people will think of all these things at once; of a complex and ancient nation rather than an archipelago of issues, separated into coral pigeon-holes.
Far more people have simply never heard of the country.
Even after five years of living here, friends and family still struggle to remember where I am (‘how is Moldova these days?’), and any far flung Maldivians running the gauntlet of airport immigration are likely to meet head-scratching officials googling frantically behind their desks (‘how do you spell Moldova again?’).
For most of the world, this country of 1,192 islands may as well have 12,000, or 100,000...or how about 2,000? It is in honour of this beautiful and enduring obscurity that my wife Naj and I have chosen to name our photography and journalism project ‘Two Thousand Isles’.
Brand ‘Maldives’ now brings 1.2 million tourists to the country every year, most of whom are able to count the number of islands they visit on one hand, and the stories they hear about the country on a few sandaled toes. Beyond this, the real place and its people remains a niche topic, leaving the world’s media to contrast the tourism stories with tales from the ‘other side of paradise’ in order to justify rare and expensive visits.
So it seems the country’s image is increasingly wedged between a hirigaa and a hard place; between the headlines and the holidays. Which end of this polarised (and self-perpetuating) coverage people see is increasingly left to the autocratic algorithms of social media.
Paradise or 'paradise lost', the real Maldives is more interesting than either, and this is something we hope to demonstrate with twothousandisles.com.
Coral in Context
Outside of a couple of excellent web archives, the Maldives between the news and the brochures remains somewhat of a digital desert. For those searching for more information about daily life and culture in the islands there are only a few places to turn (or click).
Detailed works on the islands, from the likes of HCP Bell, Clarence Maloney, and Xavier Romero-Frias, are all pre-internet and often difficult to obtain, leaving curious netizens to settle for a few generic, and often questionable, facts (visitors, no matter what you read, NEVER address your roomboy using the word ‘kaley’!).
We began working on Two Thousand Isles last year, pairing my ever-expanding interest in the country with Naj’s inspiring photography. With the work having been warmly received, we have decided 2017 is the year to take our work out into the islands, and we feel very lucky in having the team at Mihaaru provide a platform for serialised and exclusive content.
Our ambitious aim is to represent the country as it really is - barnacles and all - a task that is often beyond the resources of under-resourced (and over-worked) journalists and beyond the remit of travel writers. We will also share details of our progress through travelogue articles here on Mihaaru and on our site - the highs and lows from four feet above sea-level.
We won’t make bold claims to uncover the mysteries that continue to immerse much of Maldivian culture and community, and neither do we expect to improve upon the work of great scholars. If anything, we hope to encourage new audiences to rediscover some of this research through our combination of words, pictures and videos.
Above all, we want to preserve the stories and images of this rapidly changing country; not for politics or profit, but for posterity. The need to document life (all of it) in these idyllic surrounds seems more pressing today than ever, and is something the whole world will regret should they be lost to us.
So please visit our site, share our stories, and keep reading Mihaaru for regular updates on our re-discoveries.
Editor's Note: "Two Thousand Isles" is a collaboration between Maldivian photographer Aishath Naj and her husband, British writer Daniel Bosley in partnership with Mihaaru to document the untold stories of the Maldive islands.