Suriname, A Tranquil Caribbean Melting Pot / by Andy Isaacson


I step out of my guesthouse the first bright and humid morning in Paramaribo, still holding Suriname as a fantasy formed by alluring snapshots and brief descriptions, like an Internet date I am meeting for the first time.

First impressions call to mind previous encounters. The sight of a roti bread shop housed in a white colonial building conjures the memory - if not quite the manic energy - of New Delhi. The sound of Afro-Caribbean music beating out of a Chinese-owned DVD store - New York, perhaps. I am on the northern fringe of South America, but nobody is speaking Spanish. This is unique. I continue to walk.

Handsome, 18th century brick-and-clapboard Dutch Colonial townhouses with balconied facades, preserved as a World Heritage site, line narrow streets freshly stained from a tropical shower. I emerge from the capital's historic downtown onto the Waterkant, an esplanade with food stalls along the muddy Suriname River, where Indian families eat Javanese bami noodles and Creole men sip their first of many Parbo beers under the shade of weeping tamarind trees. The heat is rising.

Down the street, merchants, hustlers and loiterers drift between the neon-lit casinos and gold exchanges that surround the boisterous Central Market. Inside, broad women in colorful African head wraps use long Chinese string beans to shoo flies off displays of bananas, rambutans, and medicinal barks.

I pass a dark-skinned Creole man with a shiny set of gold teeth who is selling cups of shaved ice with an array of flavored syrups. His wooden pushcart is festooned with - among other random items - plastic pink roses, Surinamese and Chinese flags, a framed poster of Orlando Bloom's elfin character in "Lord of the Rings," and the words "Snoop-Dog Bless!" scrawled in red paint.

The ices taste OK, but are better as a metaphor. Suriname - a nation smaller than Washington state, much of it uninhabited jungle - is home to 480,000 people who speak more than 15 languages.

Dutch is the official one - the tongue of lawyers and ministers, and friends who consider themselves educated - but if this cart's decorations are any reflection of where most Surinamers currently look to in the world, Holland is conspicuously absent. English is also widely spoken, beamed with "American Idol" into thousands of living rooms each week. But the lingua franca is Sranan Tongo - a hybrid of English, Dutch, Portuguese and West African words that best reflects the Babel that Suriname came to be.


Much of that story is a familiar colonial tale. Natives encountered strange Europeans (first the British, then the Dutch, who gave the Brits Suriname in exchange for Manhattan, thus ending in 1667 the Second Anglo-Dutch War). The colonialists imported slaves (from Africa) and indentured servants (Indians, Chinese, Indonesians). Independence was eventually achieved (in 1975), and power struggles followed (20 years of them, give or take).

But the denouement is unique. Descendents of all these multiethnic settlers still remain - Arawak and Carib Indians inhabit the coast, Maroons live in inland jungle communities founded by the escaped slaves, and pasty Dutch tourists pedal bicycles around the capital - to form an ethos of ethnic tolerance of which Surinamers proudly boast.

From the Central Market I stroll up Jodenbreestraat to reach a symbol of this remarkable pluralism. Neve Shalom, a wooden synagogue built in 1835, occupies a plot of land next to a towering, modern mosque, the largest in the greater Caribbean. Stately white columns give the synagogue the appearance of an antebellum mansion in the tropical sun.

Caretaking a tiny, adjacent museum, 61-year-old Lilly Duym represents the legacy of the Sephardic Jews who sailed from Portuguese Brazil in the 1660s, fleeing intolerance, to establish sugarcane plantations up the Suriname River.

(One day I took a guided boat trip to see Jodensavanne, their once-thriving colony, though all that remains are stone tombstones etched with names like "da Costa" and the original synagogue's brick foundation. Imagination must construct the rest: the Sabbath worshipers mouthing prayers over a din of cicadas still audible today, the breeze shaking guavas off trees into the hands of playing children.)

Lilly receives me warmly, then launches into a veiled call for help. One of the oldest existing Jewish communities in the Americas, she tells me, today a dwindling diaspora of around 125 people, is becoming a historic relic. Another old synagogue a few blocks away is now an Internet cafe and computer repair store; its ritual objects occupy a glass display case in an Israeli museum.

To Lilly I seem to represent the Jewish world that barely recognizes Suriname's existence. She invites me to a Passover seder to be held later in the week, where I can mingle with more of the community.

"They'll be nice girls there!" she adds as I leave, proving that Jewish grandmothers are an international breed.

For all of its polyglot flavor, Paramaribo, surprisingly, lacks spice. By 5 p.m. weekdays and for much of the weekend, the greater downtown merely whispers. Sightseeing in the city is practically limited to Fort Zeelandia, a 17th century brick fortress built by the British on the bank of the Suriname River that also houses a small cultural museum, and aging sugarcane plantation homes in the Commewijne district on the opposite side. Suriname may be one of the few countries in the world without a single movie theater.

I discover some action early one Sunday morning at Independence Square, the country's administrative heart, which is flanked by 200-year-old brick ministry buildings and the white Presidential Palace.

A few dozen men holding birdcages are gathered in the grassy oval plaza. A tiny songbird is a Surinamese man's best friend, a tender bond rooted not in male sensitivity but in an economic reality - a well-trained bird commands a street value of several hundred dollars. Every morning, men across the country can be seen ritually hanging birdcages in front of their homes; many also take them to work. A few admit that their fidelity to these birds, upon which they shower both attention and wages, does cause some marital angst.

Every Sunday, they hold competitions. It must say something about the temperament of a country when its men gather recreationally to encourage birds to out-chirp one another rather than, say, stage cockfights. On the grass, cages hang from metal posts planted 10 feet apart; beside them stand judges, with strained looks on their faces and chalk poised, striking notches on chalkboards after every squeak or whistle a bird makes. Basically, the bird with the least stage fright wins. To loosen any inhibitions, owners present their male competitor with an enticing female just before show time. This seems to work.

Two days later I am in the sanctuary of Neve Shalom, not a songbird in sight, but still singing. The floor is sandy, a feature typical of Caribbean synagogues that harks back to the Inquisition era when Jews had to pray furtively. The pews are a dark mahogany, arranged behind white columns around the perimeter of the space, underneath a balcony where women traditionally sat. Brass chandeliers dangle over the middle of the floor, where three men are leading prayers from a raised, carved wood bema. The simple but elegant decor as well as the atmosphere, reverent but hardly orthodox, reminds me of a New England Quaker meeting house.

The 70 faces around me - colored dark brown to white - reveal the story of Suriname's four-century-old Jewish heritage, as well centuries of intermarriage. The legacy of the early Jewish settlers, though having a modest presence today, is deeply embedded into modern-day culture. Sranan Tongo includes words of Hebrew origin, like treef (forbidden food); the unofficial national dish, pom - a baked casserole made with a local root vegetable and chicken - that was introduced by Jews.

I had wished that the seder dinner would feature some of these old Jewish recipes, but when we sit down at banquet tables in an adjacent building after the service, it seems that the food is standard communal Jewish meal fare, down to the Manischewitz. I might as well have been in a suburban New Jersey Jewish Community Center.

I sit beside a family of Dutch and Spanish background, an Israeli who is in the country on business, and an American Peace Corps volunteer, who is stationed in a Maroon village an hour from the city, where he teaches English. He tells me that he discovered that some Maroons there still light candles on Friday nights and observe Jewish mourning customs, unwittingly inherited from their ancestors' Jewish masters. (The scene here - a ritual meal celebrating the Jews' exodus from Egyptian bondage, in a country settled by Jews also fleeing persecution, who then promptly became slave owners - has a tinge of irony.)

We sing a few familiar Passover songs after the meal, and by 11 p.m. the crowd begins to thin. I say goodbye to Lilly and her family before walking outside into the humid night. Chandeliers from the synagogue's sanctuary next door still glow softly behind high windows. I walk toward home down the middle of the still and quiet street, past stately mahogany trees that throw pools of shadow across the uneven pavement. A few stray cats cruise along the sidewalk and two night watchmen lounge at their posts, a faint hum of music drifting from the portable radios beside them.