January 7, 2006


Isn’t it interesting that we don’t always see ourselves the same way as others see us? Or is that just another facet of human nature? I’m aware of the fact that our perception of ourselves (or how we think others see us) isn’t always the same as how other people actually view us. But I had not considered the fact that this could be true also of cultural or racial groups. The fact was brought home to me recently by a comment somebody made.

I had just written an article for a Sri Lankan travel magazine about the Muslims of Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka, to lay some background to this whole entry, is kind of strange in that the people here don’t consider themselves Sri Lankans. Instead, they usually consider themselves as parts of a different ethnic groups – the Sinhalese, the Tamils and the Muslims. To me, that’s the strangest way to go about being a nation because you are never a single whole but a sum of fractured parts, if that makes any sense :p But then again, I guess this same sense of fragmentation occurs in many nations, human beings being who they are, just not to this extent.

Anyway, as I said before, I wrote this article about the Muslims of Sri Lanka. I was asked to write the article since I am a Muslim myself. So I wrote it and I kept it totally factual – I researched the story thoroughly, though I knew most of the bare outlines, and laid out the story of the Muslims from the early days in Sri Lankan history to the present (well, not actually the present – most of the major historical stuff ended around the British colonial period but who’s counting, right? :p) The editor’s comment on reading the article was that it was good but "not what he’d expected". I was a bit surprised since I thought the story was fairly accurate, so I asked him what he’d expected thinking that I’d slipped up somewhere. He said that he’d expected a story replete with buriyani and watalappam.

Now for the confused, let me hasten to enlighten you. Buriyani is a rice-dish that Sri Lanka Muslims are famous for, in Sri Lanka. It’s actually an Indian dish but they call it biryani there, what do they know? They might have invented the dish (I don’t know if they actually did …) but they can’t go around naming stuff differently than us Sri Lankans now can they? :p It’s basically rice, meat (and sometimes potatoes – the recipe varies a bit) cooked together with spices and it tastes really good. Muslims usually have buriyani at weddings, festivals and other festive occasions and so buriyani has come to be identified with Muslims.

Watalappam is a dessert. It’s basically a jaggery pudding. But then I guess I have to go into what jaggery is :p It’s the solidified treacle from either the kitul or coconut palm and is really sweet. It’s like a big, brown, chunky block of sweetness 🙂 And watalappam is basically jaggery and eggs. Again, it’s considered a Muslim delicacy in Sri Lanka and most people agree that Muslims make the best watalappam.

So what has all this got to do with the article? From my perspective, nothing :p I didn’t really think of the Muslims as being identified by either buriyani or watalappam since that has nothing to do with who the Sri Lankan Muslims are, how they came to be in Sri Lanka and their involvement in Sri Lankan history or politics. On the other hand, the editor, being a non-Muslim, expected me to write about buriyani and watalappam because I was after all, a Muslim :p I just find the fact that we have such diverse perceptions of the Sri Lankan Muslims as a whole and find myself wondering, if another Sri Lankan Muslim had written the article, would s/he have written about buriyani?

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Posted by Fahim at 7:28 am  |  1 Comment