By : Pearl Thevanayagam
If Tamils are portrayed as the oppressed minority think again. When I came to Sri Lanka on holiday from UK in 1981, I went to Wanni District with my mother to visit the Holy shrine of Madhu Matha, the miraculous Virgin Mary who is revered by all irrespective of religion in Sri Lanka.
This is not about our reverence for the mother of Lord Jesus Christ but about the Muslims living in the heartland of Wanni.
We were staying with an uncle who was a medical practitioner in Oddisuttan.
As I traversed the village I came across a Muslim household and my cousin asked me to pay a visit to a Muslim wedding celebration. This was a hovel made of thatched roof and the bridal couple were seated under a dais decorated with colourful sarees. The food consisted of Orange Barley and Maliban biscuits. This was wedding festive food. I wondered what they had on a daily basis.
Fast forward to Kaththankudi in 1990 and this writer’s visit to Batticaloa where a whole area was allocated to the Muslim refugees rendered homeless by the LTTE. Muslim businessmen and landowners who once lived in relative comfort were herded into settlements bereft of utilities such as running water and electricity.
Then on accompanying two Australian journalists from Sydney Morning Herald in 1996, I came across refugee settlements in Puttalam where those Muslims chased out of Jaffna by the LTTE were living in encampments reminiscent of Palestinian refugees. The lavatories were open holes and there were no visible wells to provide water.
Tamils need to shine the torch inwards before proclaiming they are the only oppressed minority. Tamils have a lot on their conscience in chasing out innocent Muslims who were the economic backbone in the North. They existed peacefully with the Tamils and their business acumen contributed to a considerable extent towards its economy.
Dayarams and Tolarams, the textile outlets and Fancy Palace in Main Street which sold anything from baubles to picture frames, the electronic shops at Grand Bazaar selling stereos and electrical appliances and many other textile shops were run by Muslims and they co-habited peacefully with the Tamils since they shared the bond of a common language and practiced their faith undisturbed in mosques. Nobody grumbled about the prayers reverberating over loudspeakers. There were no environmental laws on noise pollution then.
They set up local television transmissions across Jaffna and the people enjoyed watching birthday, wedding and age-attaining ceremonies telecast which was a novelty in the eighties. In general the Muslims were a peaceful community.
The Kaththankudy Mosque which was attacked by the LTTE during prayer time in 1990 showed gunshot marks on its holy walls. I then felt ashamed to be a Tamil. The names of the devotees killed during prayer time are etched on the walls of the mosque.
When this time round I came to UK in 2001, I stayed with two young Sri Lankan Muslim families for almost a year. Whenever I visit them to this day they would not let me go without partaking in a meal of Buriyani or manipittu. Fazal would order his wife Inshira to get the table ready for me. Such is their hospitality.
My own bit of coconut land in Kalpitiya which is now a mere eight acres has been managed by the Marrikar family for decades and in my absence he oversees the land which was virtually plundered of its coconut trees whereas it yielded plentiful harvest in yesteryears. The Marrikars own 500 acres of adjacent land but it is their commitment to our family which melts my heart.
Muslims are ethnic Sri Lankans and their arrival in the island is just a few hundred years after Sinhalese and Tamils came from India. They kept their religion to themselves and did not proselitize like the latter Christians did. Let us admit they did not force Islam down our throat.
Their contribution to our education, economy and politics we cannot ignore. Sir Razeek, former attorney general Shibly Azeez, Macan Markar (Galle Face apartments belonged to them), Gulamhusein, former speaker M.H.Mohamed, M.P. Majeed, A.H.M Ashraf, Alavi Moulana, A.H.M.Azwer, Rauf Hakeem, Bongso Jayah, Nalim Hadjiar who introduced broiler chicken to Sri Lanka market with his Bairaha farm products, Jazeema Ismail, educationist and human rights defender, Sithy Thiruchelvam among many others are prominent Muslim leaders who sought to bring amity among the ethnic groups which were sparring.
Where would Colombites, particularly University students, be were it not for their restaurants which sell delicious buriyani, beef steak ( pronounced bistake), koththurotti, manipittu and barbath at affordable prices? At any time Mohammedia at the intersection of Colombo University and Royal College is packed with customers.
Tamil literature is more enshrined in Muslim culture more so than in Tamils themselves. SLBC would be bereft of Tamil contribution were it not for B.H.Abdul Hameed, Mohideen Baig and others whose talent and eloquence far supercedes our own NE Tamils. To their credit they did not shy away from learning Sinhala so that they could articulate better.
It is about time we, as Sri Lankans, recognise and appreciate the valuable contribution Muslims endowed us with to make this island rich in culture, diversity and economy.
(The writer has been a journalist for 25 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at email@example.com)