Paul phones me this morning to say that an interview today is looking ‘unlikely’ although the president ‘might’ have time to meet me at his home this evening, but that’s pure speculation on his part. “Look, I think it would be useful for you to come to a lecture the president is giving today about Gandhi, and try and talk to him there,” says Paul. “As my interview?” I ask a little incredulously. “No, no, just, you know, to put you in the president’s mind.” It’s now clear to me that despite months of e-mailing, Paul has left arranging my interview to the very last minute. I get the feeling he’s genuinely embarrassed, having assumed he’d have no problem slotting me into the president’s diary during my time here, and suddenly finding that, er, he can’t. Both the president and I leave Malé tomorrow – me to visit eco-resort Soneva Fushi and him to talk pre-Copenhagen Climate Conference strategy with the Indian government. “Look, you’ll get your interview, even if we have to change your flights,” says Paul, but I’m beginning to fear that my flight being turned into a pig is more likely (and probably the cheaper option).
The lecture – a talk to commemorate UN World Peace Day (a day chosen because it is also the annual anniversary of Ghandi’s birth) – isn’t until the afternoon, so I take the morning to explore some more of the capital. I visit the National Museum, and am shown around three floors of artefacts that attempt to tell the rich history of these islands. My guide is Asma. Just finishing her ‘A’ levels Asma hopes to find further education abroad relating to museum practice (there are no opportunities here she tells me). I promise to put her in touch with my friend Ross Parry who I know from my day job co-running Flow Associates and who is ‘the big cheese’ at the world-leading Museum Studies course at Leicester University – and where foreign students flock before returning home to help revitalise the interpretation of their cultural heritage.
Early settlers in the Maldives were Buddhists. The nation’s conversion to Islam is told in the legend of Berber Abul Barakat – who thwarted of the evil sea demon, or Jinni, through recitation of the Qur’an, thereby bringing to an end the long-standing ritual of providing the beast with a virgin upon which to feast. On hearing of this demon-quashing theology the then King Shenuraza concluded the Maldives should follow the teachings of Muhammad. Islam remains the state religion to this day.
Various colonial powers have had a crack at invading and ruling the islands – the Portuguese, the Dutch, the British – with bloody results, demonstrating with depressing regularity that regime change often comes hand-in-hand with brutality and loss of life. Reflecting on this gives today’s lecture greater resonance. Nasheed’s democracy movement embraced the non-violent resistance championed by Gandhi, and in doing so succeeded in birthing a political revolution with minimal bloodshed.
I also take time to pop into the National Art Gallery. It’s a great space. There’s no sense of an ‘in the know’ hierarchy of arts aficionados and a blissful absence of those overly wordy and simultaneously patronising labels. I find myself more interested by the work on display here than in any gallery I’ve visited.
I arrive in good time for the lecture and sit next to a man called Per, who turns out to be a) recovering from Dengue fever and b) the head of the Red Cross in the Maldives. On my other side, a very fat and aggressively cheery fellow called Wahid makes easy conversation, laughing and smiling with each inhalation and exhalation of breath, while telling me of his role in the recent transition of power.
The lecture is inspirational and Nasheed, as is his habit, delivers it without looking at his notes. He’s a compelling speaker, not because his delivery is overly slick, but because you can tell he believes every word. It’s something I’ve seen in the various speeches I’ve watched in preparation for my hanging-in-the-balance interview. During an early conversation with Paul, the PR man had told me, “the thing with the president is that he just tells the truth. Which can cause me some problems.”
Nasheed talks of one of Ghandi’s core principles – “that to bring down the might of an Empire, with all its guns, bombs and tanks, you don’t fight fire with fire. Total rejection of violence in all its forms is, strangely enough, the best way to combat dictatorship.”
Gandhi’s logic was flawless. If protestors challenge the existing regime, say by assembling for protest, and get away with it, the authority of the ruling power is undermined. But if the protest is suppressed by brutal means then the regime loses legitimacy. It’s a lose-lose situation for the oppressor. But it hinges on the resolve of the protesters to take whatever punishment is dealt out without retaliating. This requires enormous acts of will – and strong examples of non-violent leadership.
Nasheed turns the lecture to the subject that has brought me to his country: reactions to climate change. He sees no value in criticising developed nations for the advent of man-made global warming, instead citing Gandhi’s doctrine of forgiveness and his famous maxim ‘An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind’. For him ‘tit for tat’ politics and historical grievance will not lead to a solution. A recurring soundbite in his rhetoric on climate change goes, “This is not like your standard disarmament negotiations or trade negotiations. You cannot negotiate with the rules of physics.”
“The Maldives is a small country,” he says to the assembled crowd. “We emit less than 0.1% of global greenhouse gasses. The Maldives has played no part in causing the climate crisis. And yet, we stand to lose the most from global warming and rising seas. It would be so easy for us to point the finger of blame at Western nations for causing the climate crisis. It would be so easy for us to refuse to help solve a problem we did nothing to create. However, the problem with this line of thinking is that it will make ‘the whole world blind.’ Unless every country on Earth agrees to cut carbon pollution, all of us will suffer as temperatures rise. The Maldives has announced plans to become the world’s first carbon neutral country. We do this not because we can solve global warming on our own. We do this because we hope to lead by example. If the Maldives can become carbon neutral, bigger countries might follow. By doing the right thing and showing the way, we can make a far bigger impact than blaming others for causing the problem. To quote Gandhi: ‘Be the change you wish to see in the world.’ ”
Moving forward without rancor over the injustices of the past is, admits Nasheed, not always easy to do. It’s difficult to imagine that the fit looking, bright-eyed young president before me has been brought to the brink of death twice through torture, but when he speaks now, you can hear the memories – a tiny modification of his tone, an imprint of something that he will not speak of (at least not in public) but that still troubles him.
“I understand, from my own personal experiences, how difficult it is to forgive. It is especially difficult to forgive people who refuse to say sorry for the hurt they have caused. But at the same time, I don’t believe that retribution, or going for a witch-hunt, will make us happy.”
Nasheed practices what he preaches. Few would have blamed him for throwing his former nemesis Maumoon Abul Gayoom in jail. Instead the erstwhile dictator now leads the opposition. On his election Nasheed said, “A test of our democracy will be how we treat Maumoon.”
The lecture ends (you can see the full text of it here) and I search out Paul who tells me with some trepidation that getting an interview with the president today remains “very unlikely”. I remind him this is my last full day in Malé and I think he can see I’m finding it hard to hide my exasperation. He looks a little like a rabbit in headlights, poor boy. After all, he knows how far I’ve flown, and that I’m here on these dates at his invitation and the promise of a presidential audience. “Look, could you do me a favour?” he says “Go and introduce yourself to Ziattey, he’ll be with the president, you’ll recognise him from his ponytail. He’s Nasheed’s right-hand man, they go back a long way. If you can convince him then you might get your interview”. It seems Paul thinks I have a better chance of getting my interview than he has. (In all fairness, I get the feeling Paul is constantly grappling with a moveable feast when it comes to dealing with the presidential diary and he’s been doing his absolute best.)
At a buffet lunch in a private room I find ‘Ziattey’ (former democracy campaigner Mohamed Ziyad) and introduce myself. “I’m hoping to interview the president,” I say and recount my months of communication with Paul. He assesses me with a kind of bemused indifference. Being Executive Services Secretary Ziyad looks after the Secretariats of the President, Vice President and Special Envoy and visiting authors are, I would imagine, of as much interest to him as the next Simon Cowell manufactured slice of Christmas muzak is to me, i.e. of no interest at all. “This is the first we’ve heard of you,” he says. “Paul hasn’t mentioned you to us at all. There is no chance of you getting an interview. The president is busy.”
There’s a part of me that’s about to lose it, but I suspect throwing a tantrum in a room filled with government officials will totally scupper the now, admittedly, wafer thin possibility of an audience with Nasheed. I’ve not given up yet.
I spy the jocular Wahid (who sat next to me during the lecture) talking to the president as they both nibble on spring rolls from the buffet. Wahid, as ever, looks like he’s just heard (or is about to tell) the funniest joke ever told. They’re an odd pairing – Nasheed has the look of a jockey, while Wahid looks like a Maldivian Oliver Hardy. I use the fact I ‘know’ the larger man to infiltrate the circle, via a Ziyad-distracting ‘dummy’ visit to the buffet (where I admittedly do pick up an Onion Bhaji).
I compliment Nasheed on the lecture and remind him of our brief introduction after the cabinet meeting. Ziyad is instantly on to me and I see him moving towards us with a look of ‘must save the president from the author’ on his face. I make my last ditch effort, explaining (very quickly) to Mohamed Nasheed that I have travelled here on the promise of an audience with him and leave the island tomorrow. Ziyad is now with us. This is absolutely the last hope I have. The president turns to him.
“My diary is pretty full today”. Ziyad nods. “So, the only way we can do it… is now? We can do it now I think.” My hopes rise. He wants to help me out and is trying to find a way. Bingo. My dad always used to say, ‘If you want anything done, go to the top’.
Ziyad looks slightly annoyed. I’ve exhibited out-and-out brass-neck by directly asking the president for an interview moments after he has told me it’s impossible. I’ve shown his authority no respect and now his boss is on my side. I’m an irritant he wasn’t expecting when he woke up this morning, and you can’t blame him for being miffed.
“How long do you need?” asks Nasheed. The ways thing are looking I suspect I’ll be lucky to get 10 minutes. Still, in for a penny, in for a pound.
“An hour?” I say.
To my complete surprise the president says, “OK, but it has to be now.” Bingo! again.
“Here?” I ask.
“No, we’ll do it at the presidential offices.”
Before I know it I’m in a coterie of officials, (including, I notice, security staff with those funny earpieces) being escorted out of the building. Ziyad ushers me into the back of black windowed car that starts to drive off before I’m fully in it and he reprimands the driver. From this moment on he becomes helpful, if still rather peeved. But if Nasheed has agreed to talk to me he’ll make it happen.
We arrive at the presidential offices and rush straight through security. In the lift I try to break the emotional stand-off between us by asking him if he was with the president when he was exiled in Sri Lanka and Britain. “No, I was here,” he says.
“That must have been difficult?” I respond. “The last regime didn’t really make it easy for you.”
He looks at me like I’ve just said the most facile thing possible. And then his face saddens a little. “It was hard,” he says softly. That’s an understatement. I subsequently find out that as a key figure in the democratic movement he was targeted and abused by Gayoom suffering arrest, solitary confinement and torture. The businesslike man escorting me to my interview was so severely treated by the National Security Services that it took a long spell in intensive care to recover. Now he confidently walks the corridors where the former regime endorsed and ordered the indignities he was forced to suffer. I’ll probably never get a chance to talk to Mohamed Ziyad again and that’s a shame. His story, like so many who fought for change here, is extraordinary.
I’m ushered into a wood-paneled meeting room and a few minutes later Nasheed enters, smiling. It’s less than 15 minutes since Ziyad had told me there was no chance of me getting an interview.
In person Nasheed is both compelling and, well, normal – and surprisingly candid and open. There is little of the guarded phrasing typical of career politicians. By contrast he’s ‘fresh’ and disarming. Early in our conversation he says “You know I’m always told ‘be cautious – not to do that, don’t say that, you can’t be saying this’. I end up saying something ‘wrong’ every week and they don’t like it.” He smiles. “But I have to go on saying what I believe in.” The ‘they’ in question is the government machine he’s inherited, which clearly frustrates him. It’s a common refrain I’ve heard in my travels – that the way governments work is frustrating, compromised and slow (it’s particularly revealing to hear it from a head of state) – and increasingly I realise I’m meeting people who’ve decided to get on a do things without waiting for government to catch up.
- Harvard genetics pioneer George Church who has been working to create a surveillance and licensing strategy for the synthetic biology industry for the last five years. “Part of the reason governments don’t want to act is because they don’t want to be accused of being clueless, which they are when it comes to my field.” So George has just got on with creating an international consortium of more or less all of the key players in synthetic genome and gene synthesis. He hopes that when the details are worked out the government will ‘rubber stamp’ it.
- …or Vicki Buck, the ex-mayor of Christchurch, New Zealand (who I’ll blog about as my virtual self – this blog – catches up with the real me just back from the Antipodes) who sums up her view rather brilliantly as, “if we wait for governments to sort out the climate change thing, we’re buggered”. Vicki quit politics to become a Clean Tech entrepreneur, and her eco-directorships now outnumber her limbs.
The logic, and it’s seductive, is we do not need to wait for legislators to give us permission or guidance. Indeed, it’s increasingly clear, many argue, that they cannot. The mighty ‘ideas broker’ Nick Gerristen who I meet in New Zealand said:
“One of the biggest issues I see is that we are expecting a system that led us to where we are, to now ‘remarkably’ be able to correct itself and take us further – in many senses do a 360 degree turn and contradict itself. For me Copenhagen was a stunning example of this reality – the end of the world system has started….and so yes, we need something else…more elegant, subtle but more powerful enabling and encouraging individuals to reclaim their personal sovereignty… to encourage thinking and most importantly action.”
Einstein encapsulated it nicely too:
“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them”.
Even Arnold Schwarzenegger is saying something like it.
“I believe technology and economic focus will overtake the politics and regulatory efforts of national governments. We are beginning on a historic great transformation, a new economic foundation for the 21st Century and beyond. We in California do not wait for Washington or Beijing or Kyoto. We are moving forward and making great progress.”
When both Einstein and The Terminator agree on something it’s compelling in a whole new way. (In my mind’s eye I suddenly imagine the physicist and the cyborg discussing the relativistic characteristics of the Uzi 9 millimetre machine gun).
Nasheed isn’t waiting either – as demonstrated by his commitment to, and action on turning the Maldives carbon neutral. But he still has to deal with the frustrations of government, does he not? He laughs and says something I didn’t expect.
“I think what’s helping me is Tom Sharpe,” – an out-of-the-blue reference to the English satirical author whose comic novels are famous for graphically and lewdly lampooning authoritarianism. “The comedy of it all – of government, of endless meetings, another meeting and again another meeting. You’d be amazed at the kind of ‘work’ I do,” chuckles the president. “Apparently I am doing work they tell me. I hope to find a conclusion for each meeting, but in the end what you decide upon… is to have another meeting.”
The Copenhagen Climate conference must have been a special kind of hell for Nasheed, yet he was hailed as “the real hero” of the conference by Danish Prime Minister Lars Rasmussen. “The Copenhagen Accord is a long way from perfect. But it is a step in the right direction towards curbing climate change,” said Nasheed, before returning home to get on with leading by example.
Nasheed understands better than most how to negotiate the seemingly impossible, and to have the patience to endure the almost infinite progression of baby steps to a resolution.
“When you reach a dead end in trying to convince someone or trying to do something it would be best to give it a moment, and give it some thought. There’s no value in just banging on. There’s always more than one avenue to any destination. All roads actually, finally lead to Rome. Even in a dead end, when things get really, really bad you have to keep going – however badly you suffer, whatever losses you incur, you just have to keep going. You have to make a tiny step. Don’t just be stuck with a single option.”
By example Nasheed recalls his interrogations at the hands of the last regime’s Chief of Police, Adam Zahir – which became a battle of wills. “I can see many would say there is no point reasoning with him, but there is nothing else better than reason,” he says. “And despite his reputation, you could see he was wobbly”.
Zahir was the only person Nasheed asked to resign when power was transferred. I’m fascinated by how he works with those who remain in a military and police force that formerly worked to oppress him. He answers with a typical optimistic pragmatism.
“I think they, being very hard people, with their military background and minds, actually look up to me because I did not capitulate.” Suddenly he becomes stern, and the pencil he is holding becomes a pointer. “They tried their best,” he says stabbing it forward. “They tried to get me to capitulate.” He lightens. “You know some of the police officers I work with now are my personal interrogators.” He’s almost amused by the irony, but then a hint of metal creeps back into his voice. “They know who they’re talking to”.
Our talk turns to climate change.
“This is the biggest challenge we will ever face,” he says. “Not terrorism, not piracy, not drug dealing: nothing compared to this. So we really need to try and do something about it. No matter how small or however insignificant we may be.”
“Are there some parallels between a man in solitary confinement and a tiny nation in the midst of the world’s biggest problem?” I ask. “Do you think something in your solitary confinement prepared you for this role?”
He looks at me squarely and I worry for a second my question might be taken as making light of his ordeal, that I’m trying to spin it as a useful experience and have therefore have trivialised what happened to him. But instead he exclaims, “I think you’re very right there! Yes! If you can muster the faculties to survive in solitary for long periods of time you must have some mechanisms, some tools upon which you can build a strategy for stopping global warming. Very true.” He points, not at me, but as if as some philosophical target hovering between us. “I was just one person right in the middle of some huge, very sophisticated machinery. And we are in solitary, in a cell, surrounded by bigger nations and big countries with huge achievements and we are just probably nothing, but still…” He shrugs. “…we have our ideas. We want to survive. We are not asking for much.”
From this point on it becomes hard to separate the man from the nation. When he speaks ‘I’ and ‘we’ become interchangeable. When he recalls the struggle for democracy or talks of the current battle against global warming the language is also transposed freely between the two (indeed he often slips between timeframes when answering a question). For him it seems the two are not separated, but two events in an ongoing war to help his homeland flourish. Perhaps this is why so many people find Nasheed a compelling negotiator – an ability to come across not just as a representative of his country, but an embodiment of it. In our time together I certainly begin to get this feeling. It’s as much in the way he rebuffs hard line Islamists (who have publicly criticised him this week for removing his wetsuit and exposing his chest at the close of Saturday’s water-bound cabinet meeting) as it is his views of political and environmental realities. “No sane Maldivian would think you could be in the water with anything on you. What are they talking about? Have we ever gone swimming with a T-Shirt on? No! So why should the president? That is not the Maldives.” The message is something like ‘I’m a Maldivian first, and the president second’.
That sea, which is such a part of the Maldivian national psyche is also, many believe, the biggest threat to the nation. Certainly if enough of the ice sheets currently melting in the Antarctic and Greenland slip off the land into the water the Maldives are likely to be one of the first nations to disappear below the waves. Nobody will care who’s wearing a T-Shirt or not then.
Given the severity of the threat he sees to his nation how does he keep optimistic?
“With the belief that there is hope, that there is a bright future. By seeing another picture other than the very fearful picture that is staring you right in the face.” He slips time frame and we’re back in the democracy battle. “What I would try to do is imagine another country, another homeland, another time, other circumstances”
That can’t always be easy to do though? Earlier in our conversation Nasheed had told me that nearly everyone around him told him the fight for democracy was ill-fated (“My family, everyone, told me ‘You have a good life, two daughters, a good wife, you have a home, a job – what is the point?’”) and it’s not hard to find commentators who suggest the battle against global warming is futile. This is the view that we should be battening down the hatches and giving up – a view that sees the Maldives’ plan for carbon neutrality as a ridiculous and facile footnote on the inevitable march to climate Armageddon.
“There is always the option of resigning yourself to whatever you have and then not think about other possibilities and other futures,” he says. “But working against the odds has been our thing and it has given us some tools for working towards a better picture. You have to believe that you can.”
At its core then it’s all about having the right vision?
“I’ve always been optimistic. I feel if you can show the light at the end of the tunnel it’s bearable to move out from difficult times and situations – if you see some light at the end. It’s easier to go towards that and reach that goal. I know that this is huge odds, but if you look at the situation the Maldives were in five years ago, most people would have said ‘what is the point with the democracy movement? we are wasting our time.’”
The fact I’m having this conversation with a head of state who was a former political prisoner, whilst sat in the presidential offices, rather amplifies the essence his argument.
The big picture, the goal, the brighter future, optimism that things can be achieved. All admirable ideals, but how does one hold onto these when you’re embroiled in the ‘endless meetings’ and the ‘comedy’ of government he talked about earlier? By way of an answer he sighs and puts his hand to his temple in a gesture of comic resignation. This inspires me to ask if, in a strange way, he misses his days in solitary and spent under house arrest, where he had plenty of time for thinking. He smiles.
“I really do,” he says almost wistfully. “I’m surviving from the reserve – and my feeling is you will only be able to survive for five years on a reserve – and this is probably why five years is a natural term for anyone to be a leader.”
“Your brain is too full with the day-to-day now?”
He sits forward. “You don’t get the bigger picture,” he says urgently. “You lose the concepts. So then you get hold of processes, frameworks, strategic plans, matrices – it’s all very good…” He tails of. “But if you don’t see the bigger picture…” he shrugs.
This is the essence of leadership. Keeping to a simple vision, even when things get complicated. Later during a visit to Australia, a man called Bruce Ward (who helps me investigate the way soil carbon could reverse the effects of global warming) wisely remarks ‘Keeping things simple isn’t easy’.
The president points to the clock indicating that our time is nearly up. I have one more question, and then a request. First I want to know what it’s like being a head of state. This is the first president I’ve met (and will possibly be the last).
“You’re quite young to be president. Do you ever wake up and go ‘my God, how did I get here?’” I ask.
He smiles, and takes a moment to think.
“You do feel that, you know, you’re not so grand, you’re not so big – but people take you to be. But you only have one of a president, so the whole system is arranged around looking after me.” He pauses. “It leads you to very awkward situations, where you think ‘Oh my God, can I have some moment for myself?’ Every single step you make, everyone, someone is watching you.”
Nasheed is both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time. Like his idea for an underwater cabinet meeting he manages to mold day-to-day reality with something singular and exceptional. He is both a leader and eminently approachable (as evidenced by the method by which I finally got my interview). Having met him it seems almost obvious that he’d want to have a cabinet meeting underwater.
Time is short and I decide in the little time I have left to do a bit of advocacy for Klaus Lackner and his carbon scrubbing technology (see my post on meeting Klaus here). The president hasn’t heard of Klaus (although he has heard of Klaus’ key advocate, the mighty Wally Broecker). As I explain the potential of Klaus’ work you can see his brain working. His eyes go up and to the right. He leans forward. How much money does Klaus need? (Nasheed tells me he is hoping to put aside $100million each year for investment in his carbon neutral project). I repeat the figure Klaus gave me of $20million to take his technology to the next stage – a design that can be rolled out worldwide. Suddenly I find myself suggesting to the president that maybe one of the deserted islands in the Maldives might act as a good demonstrator for the technology, to show the world its potential. As an act of cheek it goes beyond anything I’ve ever done (Clearly this is a day for sticking my neck out). The bloke from New Cross has just overstepped the mark. Except the president says, “So he should come down here, and we could give him some room…”
Should I put him in touch with Klaus?
And what would be the best way of doing that I wonder?
“I think the best way would be to get in touch by personal e-mail,” he says, scribbling his contact details on a piece of paper and handing it to me. I’m dumbfounded. A president has just handed me his private e-mail address. (It’s not a government e-mail account, it’s hosted by one of the world’s popular web-mail providers.) I want to phone my mum and shout ‘Mum! Guess what?!’
I have one last question. What’s his one tip for approaching the future?
“Never give up hope, you know? Never give up. Just keep moving.” He pauses. “Tomorrow must be better. Tomorrow is better.”
Our interview is over and we pose for a photo together as I thank him for his time. He smiles readily and, ever the diplomat, thanks me for my questions.
And then he is gone. A presidential aid escorts me out the back entrance of the offices and I am once more on the humid streets of the capital. I have a huge grin on my face. It’s not just that I finally got my interview, it’s because the interview has made me feel lighter.
Nasheed is a lightening rod for optimism, and it’s hard not to feel better about the future after spending time with him. And then it strikes me forcibly that it’s not just him, but all the people I’ve been meeting. From Nick Bostrom, the philosopher, to George Church the geneticist. From Wally Broecker the climate scientist to Cynthia Breazeal the robotocist. From Hod Lipson the Artificial Intelligence pioneer to Xavier Claramunt, the orbital hotelier. All of them are inspired by what can be done, all of them are doing something to make it real. And none of them is waiting for permission.
During our interview Nasheed had said
“Thoughts are real, they’re material. Once you have given thought to something, it then becomes material very often and quickly. If you can see a bigger picture then you work for that.”
He is, of course, right.