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Dominica doesn't give a banana about exile's fate


Latin America Correspondent

Most folks on the little Caribbean island of Dominica couldn't care less about the possible arrival of the Saudi dissident, Mohammed al-Masari. They are more concerned with next month's carnival, the highlight of their year, and a recent banana-marketing deal they believe makes them more than just a "banana republic".

Some residents of the strongly Catholic island, however, fear that Mr Masari's presence could lead to a surge of Muslim fundamentalism and say the Prime Minister, Edison James, made a mistake by granting Mr Masari asylum.

Mr James categorically denied yesterday, for the second straight day, that he had received a financial quid pro quo from Britain in return for accepting the dissident. Speaking to reporters in the capital, Roseau, however, he indicated that, as with almost every issue in Dominica, bananas were a factor. The fact that Britain is Dominica's main market for bananas was reason enough, in itself, for granting London's request to accept Mr Masari, he was quoted as saying.

"Most people here are not bothered about this man. It's not a subject that's being talked about on the street," said Rashid Osman, editor of the island's weekly newspaper, the New Chronicle. "Hardly anyone believes he'll end up coming here, anyway. Here, bananas is the big news. People are still talking about the big banana deal."

Mr Osman was referring to a recent coup by Dominica and its fellow banana- exporting partners on the other Windward Islands. The islands, in a joint venture with Dublin-based Fyffes, bought over the marketing of their own bananas from the Geest company, which had shipped their crop for 40 years.

The deal, largely pushed by Mr James, was seen as a major breakthrough for the Windward Islands - Dominica, St Lucia, St Vincent and Grenada - by giving them total control for the first time over their key crop.

Mr Osman, a Guyanese brought up as a Muslim but now a Catholic, said some Dominicans, including the opposition leader, Brian Alleyne, had expressed concern that Mr Masari could initiate a wave of Muslim fundamentalism on the 290-square-mile island, which lies between Martinique and Guadeloupe. He estimated there may be up to 100 Muslims, all blacks and recent converts, reflecting a similar movement in the US and elsewhere.

The fact that there are few Muslims on the islands was one of the reasons cited by Mr Masari in London for describing Dominica as "inappropriate" for his exile. There is no mosque on the island. Muslims tend to congregate at a shop called the Muslim Store on the capital's Great George Street.

Dame Eugenia Charles, the long-time prime minister, succeeded by Mr James last year, said the figure of 100 Muslims was exaggerated and she saw no danger of a surge of fundamentalism. "There are only about four of them on the island," she said. "They're not real Muslims. They wear white hats, call themselves Muslims and change their names, but they know less about Islam than I do."