The man who saw all presidencies
His wrinkled, kindly face lights up with boyish excitement as he spots the visitors wandering along the nondescript road in Gan, Laamu Atoll. As a doyan of the community, he is familiar with nearly every soul who lives in his home island, and the fresh faces are easy to pinpoint; he takes the initiative to approach, waving a welcoming hand in greeting.
“My name is Dawood Ibrahim and I have lived through every single presidency in the Maldives”, he proclaims boisterously, appearing delighted with the surprising reaction this evokes.
Emanating an infectious joy, Dawood is eager to share the plethora of experiences he has seen, heard and lived throughout a long and accomplished life. He is one of the few alive to have witnessed the turn of the tides under every leader that rose to power since the Maldives became a Republic - and one who excelled in four vastly different careers during that time.
“I am over 90 years old now”, he says, claiming to be the oldest person alive in Gan, with a youthful grin that belies his years.
His memories of childhood come easy to him, however, as he speaks of his early years in Majeedhiya School, the then all-boys school in the capital city of Male’ and the oldest in the country.
“I studied a course on ‘katheebukan’ (island chief) in Majeedhiya”, he recalls. “After my studies, I became ‘kudakatheebu’ (deputy island chief) of this island”.
Dawood began this tenure during the short-lived administration of Mohamed Amin Didi, the first-ever president of the Maldives after the abolishment of an 812-years-old sultanate in 1953. During his time as deputy chief, Dawood witnessed the revolution that ended Amin Didi’s state and temporarily resurrected the monarchy, before the successful establishment of the Second Republic.
“... until the end of Nasir’s era, I was deputy chief here”, he says, referring to Ibrahim Nasir, who served as the second president from 1968 to 1978.
“Nasir created new salaries”, narrates Dawood. “Deputy chiefs were paid MVR 64 monthly, while the chiefs earned MVR 88”. The island leaders also received coconuts and breadfruit as part of their remuneration, he adds.
These numbers shed light on how drastically the value of Maldivian currency has changed over the decades, with the incomes of current island and city councillors amounting to tens of thousands of Rufiyaa.
After several years, Dawood Ibrahim gave up his position as the second in charge of the largest inhabited island in the Maldives. He had learnt the craft of ‘kissaru vadaan’ (boat building), and he built a ‘dhoni’ (traditional Maldivian boat) for himself.
“We didn’t have enough fishermen”, he explains. “So I became one - and there wasn’t a man in this atoll who could best me at fishing!”
Dawood Ibrahim of L.Gan; the man who saw all the presidencies in Maldives. PHOTO: HAWWA AMAANY ABDULLA / THE EDITION
For over a decade, Dawood made a living out of fishing, one of the main industries of Laamu. However, later on, he made another life-changing decision - to take up boat-building, a skill he had already mastered.
“I built boats for the next ten years”, says Dawood, who also passed down the technique to his children.
He took up the last of his professions during the 30-year regime of Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the fourth president of the Maldives who succeeded Nasir in 1978.
“I became an Imam”, he reveals.
Continuing in this field, he led prayer congregations in the mosque, through until Mohamed Naheed’s administration, who historically became the first democratically elected president in 2008.
“I was retired during [Nasheed’s] government”. For the first time, Dawood’s tone is coloured with melancholy as he reminisces, appearing to miss the industrious life he had led for nearly eight decades.
And yet, Dawood has since witnessed the eras of Nasheed, Abdulla Yameen Abdul Gayoom and now the incumbent President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih - and even a short chat with him hints at the treasure trove of history and culture that lives behind his soulful eyes; the stories and tales that cannot be found in a book.
He shares how, during the government of Amin Didi, the residents of Gan used to snatch and run off with pieces of the ‘Hawitta’, the pyramid-like mound of hardened rock and sand that has stood in Gan for over 850 years, a remnant of the distant pre-Islamic era of the Maldives.
Dawood also recounts the wonders of ‘Bodu Fengandu’, the freshwater pond in Gan famously known as ‘Paree Fengandu’ (Fairy Pond) which, according to local myth, is bottomless. Giddy with childlike eagerness, he tells the story of how the islanders used to cut down trees, some of which stood as tall as 20 metres, at the site for wood.
“But if they fell into the water, those huge trees would completely sink and disappear!” he exclaims.
“People used to drop fishing lines [with a weight at the end] to measure the depth of the pond. Sometimes the line would stop after reaching a certain depth, but maybe they got caught on rocks because, if you shook out the line, it would continue to sink again until you ran out”.
These are but a glimpse into the endless tales Dawood Ibrahim has to tell. One could, without doubt, spend days in the thrall of his stories, which are as informative as they are interesting. While this particular audience regretfully could not stay longer, we could only hope to return and run into this jolly gentleman from the South again, for another look into the yesteryears of the Maldives, raw and undocumented.