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Mingling with Cambodia’s Muslim minority

They are all from Malaysia –- three are Moslems, one is Hindu, and the fifth one is the secretary to the High Commissioner of Ghana in Malaysia.  One night, as they were walking in the streets of Siem Reap, Cambodia, they happen to appear in front of me, and they stop to talk to me. 

We are now sitting at a restaurant, watching the traditional Cambodian dance called Apsara and taking advantage of the night of ‘buy one drink, get the second for free’.  Some drink water but the others enjoy beer and ‘sex on the beach.’  The heads of the Moslem ladies are not covered and they act more liberated than many Western women.  They freely enjoy talking about the Kama Sutra and have fun joking with each other about what happens behind their bedroom doors and the different positions they may wish to see behind the same doors.

Our second stop is an Indian restaurant called Maharaja, where we are served by Ahmet, a Pakistani.  We all enjoy our yellow rice, kofta masala, garlic naan, and fried eggs with hot sauce.  The conversation includes topics such as the Kama Sutra and all the destinations they have visited so far in Asia.  Their ages range from the mid-40s to the early 60s, and they all look very happy in their ageing but spirited skins.

The next morning at 7:30 they all go to the Siem Reap market to buy vegetables and at 9, they watch a cow being slaughtered.  All this food is for them to offer to the Moslems of Cambodia living outside of Siem Reap in a village called Chonkhaih –one of the floating villages on Lake Tonla Sap in the area called Kampong.

At around 4:15, we are all picked up by a Cambodian man called Sukki, to visit the very poor people who live in the Moslem village.  We find the men grilling the halal meat with green onions over charcoal.  The tomatoes and onion salads are all ready, and some chicken marinates in spicy coconut juice.  All this food is the offering of my Malaysian friends to the Cambodian Moslems for the approaching month of Ramadan.

“It is a feast, it is called Kenduri,” explains Maznon, the Malaysian lady who visited Cambodia last year, discovered the poverty of Cambodian Moslems and decided to come back every year to help them. ‘Kenduri’ means ‘thanksgiving’ in Malay.

Maznon, who knows I am not a practicing Moslem although I come from a Moslem society, had happily invited me to the feast the day before.  She seems to enjoy being able to do something for the Chams – this is how Moslems in this part of the world as usually referred to.  “I am so very happy,” she says to me in a serene voice as we all sit together with about 40 people in the imam’s floating house by the lake.  The men in their mostly white caps sit on one side and the ladies in their colorful scarves and floral clothes on the other.

“Before the Pol Pot regime, there were 700 thousand Moslems in Cambodia,” explains Ustas Haji Musa Soleh, Imam of the Siem Reap Province and leader of the Moslems in the same area.  “Now there are only 200 thousand left,” he continues, with some bitterness in his voice.  The Moslems in this area were all moved to Phnom Penh in 1975 but after 1979 they came back to this area to reclaim their old jobs as fishermen, providing Siem Reap with some of the best fish from the ‘fish bowl’ – Ton Saple, the biggest freshwater lake of Asia.  “There are now about 25 families in this area,” adds Ustas.

Everything looks colorful in the imam’s floating house extending onto the waters of the lake.  Everything is dizzyingly colorful – the synthetic mats on the floors, the women’s shiny scarves, even the morning prayer in Arabic script written in blue on a white board.  All sing La ilahe il Allah and continue with a thanksgiving prayer in Arabic.

Norcani, a 25-year-old Cham, is holding her one-year-old daughter Safura and looking at me with her bright eyes.  Norcani spent one and a half years in Malaysia working in a factory but she was sent back to Cambodia when her visa expired.

Other than Cambodian and Cham, Norcani also speaks Malay.  Through my Malaysian friends who translate for me, she tells me how all marriages in the Moslem community are arranged and that women usually stay at home when the men are out fishing.  Norcani got married to a man her father had chosen for her when she was 20 years old.  She looks very happy and energetic among all the women, young and old, surrounding me on the carpeted floor of the imam’s second floating house, connected to the first one by a wooden plank. 

The notorious mosquitoes of the lake buzz around as the darkness sinks on the floating houses.  I hear the women washing the dishes in the murky brown water of the lake.  Some of the men continue praying in Arabic, and so are two women in white chadors.

The next morning, I am floating in the sky in a hot-air balloon above the famous Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, and I almost feel like I am above the same Moslem village even though I only see the shining water in the rice paddies dotted by sugar palms and the majestic Angkor Wat in the horizon. 

Looking at one of the roads leading to the temple, I remember my 27-year-old Cambodian friend Danay as we zoomed through the streets of Siem Reap on her tiny motorbike with a basket in front.  Men whistled at the tiny sweet Cambodian woman with a bigger European woman on a tiny bike.  Our first stop was a grilled banana vendor.  I tried to guess where Danay was taking me next.  She said it was a surprise.

The next stop was her house, a wooden shack like many others in Siem Reap, built on stilts by the muddy garbage-choked Siem Reap River, probably overnight.  Danay’s mother and sister with her family had joined her there about four years earlier from their village about 300 kilometers away from Siem Reap.  The mother, in her 50s, looked shriveled and twice as old.  How could she not, having survived the Pol Pot years, during which she lost two of her brothers?  Her shaved head told me she was quite a religious Buddhist.  Contentment was apparent on her face even though her husband had abandoned her years ago for another woman, leaving her with the responsibility of taking care of her three children.

“I now thank my father for leaving us,” Danay tells me.  “It has made me strong.”

When she was 15 years old, Danay left the village to live in her dream town, Siem Reap.  She helped her aunt working at a food stall outside Bayon, of one of the most stunning temples of Angkor Wat.  “I slept behind the food stall, backed and flanked by the dense jungle, and I was so scared of the darkness and the monkeys patrolling the area,” she describes, her usual smiley self.

The tourists at the guesthouse where Danay works could hardly guess what this young lady had to endure to get to her current position as a PR person.  She had learned English through talking to tourists coming to visit the temple and now competently used the Internet to correspond with tourists.  When I met her, she was taking Japanese classes from 6 pm to 7 pm, and worked at the hotel all day and at a restaurant in the evenings to support herself, her mother, and her little sister.

She had only an hour’s break from 5 to 6 pm each day, and that was when she took me to a place where many Cambodians in Siem Reap like to have a picnic and watch the sunset.

Danay’s little niece Sokkumana joined us for the picnic.  When we stopped by Danay’s house to pick her up, she was very excited.  She had immediately gone and changed into her pretty pink princess dress.  It was obvious that this was the only fancy dress she had.  It was faded and looked quite old.

We were now three on the motorbike.  Danay talked to her niece as if she were her daughter – with passion and intense love.  “Why don’t you come home more often?” she complained to Danay, holding for dear life on the handle bar.  Danay could not spend much time with Sokkumana as the little girl would always be asleep when she came home from work and when she left for work the next morning.

Vendors walked by, selling balloons, grilled eggs, boiled corn, roasted peanuts, cubed sugar cane, and grilled bananas, all looking at us curiously, trying to figure out what a foreigner was doing among them at their picnic site by the main highway.

This was the first picnic of the day for me.  The second is with Ustas, the imam.  We are very close to the floating village where Chams live in wooden huts on stilts.  The only places to sit are twenty brown string hammocks tied to the roof.

Ustas, who has five children, tells us how the Imam of Siem Reap used to send him, a religion teacher at the time, to the annual meeting of imams in Phnom Penh.  Gaining a lot of experience and being around imams led him to become one when he was only 27 years old.

As he opens the lunch boxes of rice, fried chicken, and grilled eggs that his wife prepared, he tells us what he remembers from Pol Pot regime.  Even though he was only 6 at the time, he remembers seeing three people being killed by Khmer Rouge soldiers and heard women being raped before they were killed.

He takes fresh prawns which come from Lake Tonla Sap and drops them one by one on hot charcoal.  We then dip each prawn in the typical Cambodian mixture of lemon, salt, and pepper, also prepared by his wife.  Cham men, like in many other Moslem communities in the world, are also able to marry up to four women, but Ustas has only one wife.

After dinner, we all go back to our own private hammock to enjoy the slight swing and the caress of the cool night breeze.  Ustas enjoys his 555 cigarettes from Vietnam. He is the first imam I ever see smoking and he can tell I am surprised.  “When with friends, a pack a day,” he explains.

Smoking, however, does prevent him from singing ezan to call the faithful to pray.  I ask him to sing it for me.  He does, briefly.  It is mesmerizing to hear, in Cambodia, the Arabic words rising into the air with the cool breeze and slowly penetrating my spirit as I swing on a hammock.

Our Malaysian friend Maznon jokingly tells me Ustas may get a second wife.  He protests, saying “No! No!” with his bright smile.  “But perhaps a foreigner – if Sezgi brings one with her the next time,” he continues the joke like a little naughty boy.

49-year-old Maznon is second wife to a Malay man in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, one of the economically fastest developing countries in the world.  Her first marriage did not last and now she has been married for ten years to her second husband, whom she sees only three or four times a month.

He says I can take care of myself and this is why he doesn’t need to see me very often,” she complains to me.  “What is the point of being married if we do not have a relationship?” she continues.  “Next time I am marrying a foreigner.”

Maznon is happy she is financially independent, working as a secretary for a company in Kuala Lumpur.  “At least I can travel on my own and take care of myself.”

Ustas’ wife does not seem as independent as I watch her with her five children, cooking for us in her long narrow kitchen the day after our picnic on hammocks.  Like many Moslem women in Cambodia, she can only work at home.  She seems very happy though.  She seems to accept her place at home, with her children and next to her husband, the imam.

We eat our fried chicken in chili sauce and our soup with lemon juice and basil leaves, but the wife and children do not join us.  They all look through the tiny glass window of the kitchen opening to the dining room and giggle whenever they catch me looking at them.

All kinds of people I have met in some ‘least developed’ countries, including the Moslems in Cambodia, usually seem quite happy and content to me, even though people from more ‘developed’ countries might define their lives as struggles in different shapes and forms.  I am more and more convinced of it, but then again, it might be nothing but a feeling.

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