Is Grand-Pa going to Mecca?!

It’s been a while since this little ‘’Cham’’ ‘’Visual Anthropology’’ blog hasn’t been much ‘’Cham’’ and ‘’Visual’’ and that old pictures haven’t been showing up on the screen to chit-chat with the present. Way time to get back on track friends! So hop in for a little pilgrimage…

A laptop full of photographic archives, shelves full of notebooks from the field (covered with stories that would take a life time to faithfully restore), and a mind full of ideas, are all sometimes just not enough to get one into the writing-mood-writing-move. Then, as I was longing for inspiration – or rather decisions – a friend came to the city for a visit and timely announced: ‘’So, I have this picture which is the only one left from Grand-Pa. I think he went to Mecca or something. Do you think you can scan it?’’ ‘’Oh my, if I can scan it???? Dear-dear, take a sit, we need a serious tea to go with this!”

Grand-Pa Chrou Kae (1900-1972) - Circa 60's-70's.

Grand-Pa Chrou Kae (1900-1972) – Circa 60’s-70’s.

And this is how late Grand-Pa Chrou Kae and I made sweet acquaintance. Chrou Kae was born in 1900 in Chrok Romirt village, Kompong Chhnang province (do I still need to introduce my favorite-feel-home-place guys, seriously?!) and he was a blacksmith, just as his father, his grandfather, his son, his grandson, yet probably just unlike his grand-grand-son since youths now tend to shy off from this heavy – yet beautifully muscular if you ask me… – job. Back then blacksmithery was not to be taken lightly. No only because it bears so much in terms of savoir-faire, respect, power – whether actual or symbolic – but also on a much more down-to-earth level, because it brought food on the table. More food than any neighboring farmer. So our Grand-Pa was well off. And on his old age he was on his road to wealthy. This is when he decided that he had reached the perfect combination of maturity and riches to achieve the pilgrimage of a lifetime to the holy city: Mecca.

‘’Back then, it you had done well it was just the thing to do’’ says his last son, Ong Sith Math who is now 72. ‘’And it was something… I mean in my family nobody ever made it to Mecca, and in the village there were only a handful of Hajjis’’. We are talking late 60’s – early 70’s here, and things are sure very different now. Tuon Ael, who is nowadays the main Imam of Chrok Romirt accounts for 20-30 Hajjis in the village, with about 3-5 new Hajjis who made the pilgrimage just last year. On the nation scale, 2012 was a millesime year with the biggest number of pilgrims from Cambodia ever recorded: 800. Seth Muhammadsis, member of the Central Committee of the Cambodian Muslim Development Foundation comments on the number, saying: ‘’Before it was so different. People had much less money, it was much more expensive, and so complicated! Those who went by boat had to leave their homes for 3 to 6 months, some of them even dying on the way’’.

Still, despite all the sacrifices and the difficulties, Chams were on the road to Mecca, way before Saudi Arabia distributed visas and free fares through its foundations, way before successful Phnom Penh Muslim families set up shops offering accompanied packages, way before kids got wealthy – or connected – enough to become Hajjis at a very young age. Way before all that, back to the 30’s, the proportion of Hajjis among Muslims in Cambodia and Cochinchina is estimated to 500 souls, 1% of the total adult population (Ner 1941: 186). And way back to the far end of the 19th ‘’numerous’’ Chams go on pilgrimage to Mecca (Aymonier 1891 : 98). Marcel Ner – impressed – even adds:

“Think of the distance to the holy city, the length of the pilgrimage requiring at last 7 or 8 months, its cost, and the number of people who prolonged their visit for several years in order to frequent the schools in Mecca […] and you will understand the value that they attach to religious observation and to an exact knowledge of the precepts of the Prophet” (Ner 1941: 186).

Grand-Pa Chrou Kae would have been part of the 1,000 Hajjis & Hajjas accounted for by 1975 (Guerin 2004 : 49 quoting Kiernan 1998 : 310). If only… But Grand-Pa didn’t go to Mecca. He just didn’t make it. ‘’Money had a complete different value then, everything was much more expensive. It took a while to save money, so he started to prepare long before hand’’. Ong Sith Math takes another look at his father’s fading picture: ‘’He is wearing his classic outfit: his Chinese-3pockets-shirt and the black kopeah that would get you anywhere. Not like today with kids running around just bare heads, just like that. Then he went to proceed for the proper paperwork, renew the ID card, you know the multileaf black one like the French, with the 3 sections. Really he was quite ready to go’’.

Grand-Pa Chrou Kae would take on another journey just as he was reaching 72 years old in 1972: ‘’He felt sick. And then the war started. And then his health got worse and he just died. And then the war got worse and we just left’’.

Ong Sith Math wanted his children to know Grand-Pa Chrou Kae so sometime in the 60’s he had a family portrait taken. It was lost among many other things during the war. All is left is a scraped ID picture… And all the hopes of the holly pilgrimage it carried.

Phnom Penh, July 1st, 2013, Emiko Stock.

Bits of readings:

– Aymonier E. 1891 ”Les Tchames et leurs religions”, Paris, Ernest Leroux Editeur.

– Ner M. 1941 ”Les Musulmans de l’Indochine française”, Bulletin de l’Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient, (41), 151-202.

– Guérin M. 2004 ”Les Cam et leur “véranda sur La Mecque”. L’influence des Malais de Patani et du Kelantan sur l’islam des Cam du Cambodge”, Aséanie, (14), 29-67.

And for a broad approach to the Hajj in Southeast Asia a the crossroads of history and anthropology:

– Tagliacozzo E. 2013 ”The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca”, New York, Oxford University Press.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

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