Gail Howard's Gem Trade Adventures in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) in 1965 and 1966

Written by

Food was eaten with the fingers and at the end of the meal, one's hand was coated up to the wrist. I went native eating with my fingers in Tahiti, but didn't dare try it here. I would have dropped rice all over the expensive linens and plush carpet.

Two weeks later, Leon flew to Bombay. He had bought his goods and was impatient to get on to Israel to see a favorite sister he hadn't seen for ten years. I stayed on, planning to go to the mines at Ratnapura. Not only did I learn a lot from Leon about the gem trade, but he was fun to be with. We were always laughing and sometimes, when something struck us funny, we couldn't stop. I missed our great times together.

Leon left me in the care of Rafi and Fiaz, who did their best to show me around and entertain me. They took me to the mines in Ratnapura where I saw rough stones being cut and polished with stone-age equipment. The toes pulled a cord that made a wheel turn. Unbelievable! So much work goes into cutting and polishing a stone, that I couldn't understand how commercial quality gemstones could be sold for so little.

Fiaz's sister, Zeena, became a close friend. We spent time together with the other sisters and their mother. It was all women talk, such as which brands of creams and makeup I used and questions about diets and dieting. Ceylonese married women are hopelessly fat from eating delicious Ceylonese food and not having a thing in the world to do.

But mostly, it was gossip. Ceylonese women were not the only ones addicted to gossip. The men were even worse. Zeena would not think of wearing western clothes because people would gossip about her. They had many small taboos like that, which kept everyone in line.

During my stay, I saw two men perform a Kandian dance. It was a very interesting dance that had an afro-primitive feel, but with unique and complex movements. I was so impressed with the dance that I wanted to learn it. Fiaz took me to the house of Mohamed Sali, the famous musical director of Ceylon movies. Mohamed Sali brought together for me the three best female dancers in Ceylon to teach me the Kandian dances.

They danced several numbers for me. But they could not teach me the dance I wanted to learn because it was performed only by men, and it was considered taboo even to teach it to a woman.

Mohamed Sali was having a big performance in Kandy in a couple of days and invited us to come for his show. The morning of the big day, Zeena, Rafi, Fiaz, and I drove to Kandy. After the performance, we went to Fiaz' grandmother's large house, where his aunty and cousins lived.

His cousin, Sari, was beautiful, though plump, and quite outspoken for a Muslim woman. She was about 30 with two preteen daughters. Her 26 year-old unmarried sister, Siah, was a quiet young woman raised by the granny in an orthodox way. Siah was painfully shy. When I talked to her, she hid her face behind the granny. When I took a group picture, Siah hid. When I diplomatically tried to get Siah into the picture, Sari snapped, "Oh, she isn't important."

Suddenly I understood the cause of Siah's shyness.

Later that night, as I prepared for bed, Siah came into my bedroom and talked volubly and asked me many questions.

As I undressed to get into my nightgown, she grabbed the maid's face and warned, "Don't look!" She hid both their faces behind a newspaper.

After that crisis had passed, she chatted on and asked, "Will you take more pictures tomorrow?"

"Of course I will. And I want a picture taken of us together."

Siah's face lit up.

Next day, as I was about to take the photos, Siah again hid and became withdrawn, almost terrorized.

Go back to page 3.
Go on to page 5.

website counter