Clichés Chams (1): Saeth Mith’s Glorious Ancestors

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Saeth Mith only has one good arm, but he starts busying himself when the call to prayer is heard in his village of Chrok Romirt, Kampong Chhnang. He begins by reciting the sacred first verse of the Koran before putting on his head his “kopeah”, the Muslim cap. “I got interested in religion only as I grew older. When he was alive, my father never even saw me pray as I used to prefer playing football!”, he says with a laugh as he walks swiftly towards the mosque.

Kompong Chhnang (Cambodia), Saeth Mith.  © Emiko Stock

Kompong Chhnang (Cambodia), Saeth Mith.
© Emiko Stock

Yet, if he lived somewhere else in the Muslim world, Saeth Mith might have been predisposed to theology. Saeth derives from the Arab name “Sayyid” which sounds like an ode to the very birth of Islam. It evokes the memories of the Caliphs, Prophet Muhammad and their descendants. “The elders used to talk all the time about the profound knowledge of the Saeth and the power they drew from their arcane secrets. They were said to be magicians,” he confides in a hushed voice. 

This is evidenced by the graves of the Saeth in Cambodia. They are still often revered – including by the Khmer who know them – in the hope of receiving protection and success like those enjoyed by the glorious ancestors. It is better to be in their good graces…

With every Cham legend told, their powers and warrior strength become more and more magnified. Along the coasts of what is present-day Vietnam, it is said that the Sayyid who came from Arabia were the first to convert the kingdom to Islam. This is mentioned in stories of love between indigenous princesses and mysterious foreigners or of friendship with humanistic ascetics. But mostly, the epics dwell on the desperate battles of such and such Saeth, either a general who swore eternal allegiance to his king or a warrior fighting to his last breath. These warriors are even honoured in ceremonies of possession before the spirits of the Champa kings they used to defend are invoked. In Cham or Khmer chronicles, they are the ones remembered as heroes devoted to some prince, or rebels rising up against another. When domestic power struggles gripped Cambodia, the 19th century royal repressions took a heavy toll on the Saeth.

When these centuries-old memories are evoked, Saeth Mith gives a shrug and claims he – like many of his kind – has forgotten the bloody episode to be able to celebrate better the integration of the Cham community within the Khmer kingdom. 

Saeth Mith – who inherited his trademark thin nose from his glorious ancestors – takes pride in his name without any need to boast about the many a Saeth or Cham who served as civil servants for ministries and acceded to the highest governmental responsibilities, whether they kept their Muslim name or took a Khmer one. He only has to proudly flaunt a few medals he earned as a soldier.

However, his heritage always caught up with him. In the direct tradition of the Saeth warriors, his father – who also made a career in the military sector– had taken up arms in support of the then “protector of the kingdom”, Lon Nol. Saeth Mith would follow in his footsteps. But he then interrupts his story to specify hastily that “[W]hat matters is that I then joined the army of Heng Samrin, that is of Hun Sen, because he had become our new leader and our protector.”

Saeth Mith escaped death many times, whether it took the form of a bullet or a mine which his body still bears the marks of. But the protection of the greatest failed to spare him the loss of one eye or the use of fingers forever paralysed. He also lost an arm, not because of war but while trying to survive. “I settled with my wife in her native village in Kampong Chhnang, which has been long famed for its blacksmiths. Neighbours would open up mines looking for scrap metal to sell. I repeatedly told them it was far too dangerous. But my pay as a military football player was insufficient, so I followed suit too. On my third day doing that, a mine exploded in my hand.”

That marked the end of Saeth Mith’s fame, though as a football player not as a descendant of a Caliph or a powerful warrior. In the time of his sports glory, some Chams would recognise him in the streets of small and bigger towns where he travelled for games. They would ask to get their picture taken next to him. Back then, he used to go from one province to another – and “from one girl to another”, his wife adds, with a mix of jealousy and pride in her eyes. His sports and military careers then reached an end – their only traces are found in a small cabinet full of trophies and medals and placed proudly between the Koran and the television at the back of the house.

But Saeth Mith bounced back. The establishment of the UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] in late 1991 offered him the opportunity to become the French interpreter for other Muslims, the Tunisians in charge of the hospital in Kampong Chhnang. The arrival in mass of NGOs – and that of the American Quakers in 1994 in particular – enabled him to become responsible for the organisation of tournaments for the disabled.

Now in his fifties, he says he has plenty of time to go and pray, and therefore attends the mosque everyday. Also, he still enjoys sport… although he is only a spectator now – he likes to watch his only son playing his favourite sport, fast and precise on the field. Young Kamel slaughters oxen when he is not playing with a ball. He did not continue with the brief religious studies he followed in the South of neighbouring Thailand. So, he did not follow in the footsteps of the Saeth who were great theologians or formidable warlords. However, as the only son in an otherwise female progeny, he is a bearer of hope for his family as he is the only one who can perpetuate the last tradition of the Sayyid, the transmission of the name through the father. The unborn child that is still in his wife’s round belly is the chief concern of the future grandfather. “If it is a son, the name of the Saeth of my branch will be saved,” he anticipates. “If it is a daughter, she will at least get the beautiful Arab nose of the paternal lineage!”, the grandmother says in consolation.

This chronicle is from the Chams Clichés Backup Series.

Originally published: Issue 1 – August 22, 2008

Ithaca, NY, August 16, 2013, Emiko Stock.

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


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