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Destination Paradise - Among the Lies of Francesca Borri

Shahudha Mohamed
30 January 2019, MVT 12:51
View of Male' City from the rooftop of Dharumavantha Hospital. PHOTO: HUSSAIN WAHEED / MIHAARU
Shahudha Mohamed
30 January 2019, MVT 12:51

For the past few days, Maldivian twitter feeds have been abuzz with outrage at Francesca Borri, the infamous author of ‘Destination Paradise - Among the Jihadists of Maldives’, a book where she dwells into the wave of religious extremism sweeping through the island nation.

The author paints the whole of Maldives, its culture, heritage and people as radically Islamic. A nation that “...watched the Battle of Aleppo and cheered for Al-Qaeda while the rest of the world watched the Olympics”.

She ends the introduction with a transcribed conversation with a taxi driver that reads, “Talk to Muslims in Paris, in Brussels, in Tunisia about ISIS jihadists and they all have that mortified air, almost as if wanting to apologize, as if they feel responsible. They tell you: They’re out of their heads. They tell you: They’re not Muslims.

“In the Maldives they say: They’re heroes”.

This gross, generalised misrepresentation of the Maldivian population has sparked critical discourse across social media platforms, with prominent local figures and the general public alike throwing in their two ‘laari’ on the matter.

When this book, which was published in November 2018, finally made it into the hands of Maldivians, who apparently have never seen an iPhone, they read it and raged on Twitter, with their iPhones, for good reason.

Destination Paradise is rampant with exaggerations, factual inaccuracies, and in various cases, blatant lies. It is not surprising that Maldivians reacted the way they did, considering that the author stooped as low as to assassinate the character of an entire country for fame and money. This cannot be taken lightly. What Borri did was nothing less than criminal.

The book is riddled with unconcealed racism in several parts, painting Europeans and whites in a higher light than South-east Asians, comparing the latter to Africans more than once.

In one paragraph, she describes the amazement of Maldivians at seeing her iPhone, claiming that these islanders have never seen one. And yet, a glance at the 2017 statistics of the World Bank shows that, in fact, the Maldives has higher per capita cellular subscriptions (206.29 per hundred people) than Borri’s home country of Italy (141.29 per hundred people).

Additionally, a person employed at Maldives Democracy Network reportedly owned a later model of the iPhone than Francesca did, when she dropped by for an interview, demonstrating that the author had outright lied in her book while being well-informed over the situational context of the Maldives.

Borri did not just throw out fabrications where she saw fit. She twisted the reality of an entire nation to further her own agenda, and paint the country as backwards and uncivilized, in order to write a book that would sell with high demand.

On page 39, Borri states, “I think that the Maldives are the only country in the world where there is no local cuisine.” Locals took personal offence against this statement, flooding social media with mouth-watering pictures of Maldivian delicacies originating across the archipelago, from ‘haalu folhi’ in the North to ‘naruku faludha’ in the South.

Destination Paradise goes on to ludicrously claim that there are no bookstores in the capital city of Male’, with the exception of one Islamic bookshop. And yet, brands like Asrafee, Novelty, Asters, Chandelier and many others, most of which boast more than one outlet in the capital alone, stand in sharp contrast with Borri’s words. The oldest bookshop in Maldives, Asrafee, was founded in 1976. With a vast gap of 40 years between Asrafee’s opening and Francesca’s visit in 2016, the question that arises is: what research did she really do during her time here?

A sad irony that comes to light with this situaton is higlighted in a part of her book, where Borri addresses the issue of oppression. She writes, “Who am I to judge? To decide that a woman like that isn’t free? Why, am I? To what extent are my choices really mine? And anyway, what do I know about her, in the end? About any of this? I know nothing.” Perhaps her ending sentence is the one part in the book that most Maldivians would collectively agree with.

Despite the rampant misinformation and inaccuracies, quite a few of which could have been dispelled via a simple Google search, Borri’s “nonfiction” book is in stock and continues to sell on Amazon.

Some Maldivians took it upon themselves to research Borri’s older works for inconsistencies. Unsurprisingly, multiple issues in the author’s career have come to light.

In one of her articles, titled ‘Woman’s work - The twisted reality of an Italian freelancer in Syria’, published by CJR on July 1, 2013, Borri narrated a gory story of being shot in the knee by a sniper. However, a later review of her article outed this account to be a fabrication.

More recently, Borri managed to get an interview with the Gaza Strip Hamas’ leader, Yehiya Sinwar, which she published in an Israeli newspaper in October 2018. Within hours of the interview appearing online, Sinwar’s office released a statement revealing that Francesca Borri had interviewed him under false pretenses. Romana Rubeo, another Italian journalist, reviewed the article Borri wrote on her interview with Sinwar, describing that “Borri’s writing lacked credibility.”

Destination Paradise, which paints all Maldivians as jihadi apologists, is a falsified depiction of the ‘sunny side of life’. The Maldives has its fair share of problems, as do all countries, including religious extremism, corruption, economic inflation, gangs and domestic violence. Keeping all that in mind, Borri’s book, filled with inexcusable factual inaccuracies, appears to have been written with a specific agenda as opposed to disseminating well-founded information, and Maldivians have every right to reject it in a movement to defend their country.

In fact, the current atmosphere of Maldivian social media shows the unity of Maldivians fighting for a common cause, the patriotism and love for their culture, heritage and cuisine. It is both ironic and invaluable at the same time, how a book written to tarnish the image of our country ended up bringing our people together.

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