Broad-shouldered and imposing, sporting a large smile, a long white beard and a mysterious foreign je-ne-sais-quoi… Now aged 75, Gullar Mirsan is the guard of the Toul Tompong mosque in Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia. The area is often referred to as the “Arab neighborhood” by the Khmer and the Cham. He looks like the “Ta Arab” – “Arab grandfathers” – who once used to live in that neighborhood now called differently. However, there is no trace of a community originating from the Middle-East. Talking with Gullar Mirsan and a few others sheds some light on this mystery. One then quickly realizes that in Cambodia, just like in Europe, Islam tends to be associated in popular imagination with the “ethnic group” from the Arabic peninsula, whereas its historical roots can actually be found in the former British colonial empire in India and its Muslim population. “My ancestors came from Hazara[i] and arrived in Cambodia over 150 years ago,” the tall man recalls while gesturing toward the cemetery as evidence. The son of a Pathan – or Pashtun – man and a Khmer woman who converted to Islam, Gullar Mirsan is not one of a kind. These faraway travellers were usually single and married with indigenous women, either among the Cham or Jvea, who were also Muslim, or the Khmer or Chinese who accepted to convert to Islam. Next to Gullar Mirsan, the leader of the Toul Tompong mosque, a former boxer – not as tall and twenty years younger – is less talkative and also traces back his complex genealogy, a blend of “Pakistani”, Khmer and Cham from Chruy Changvar. Taking a stroll in what is now a residential neighborhood of Phnom Penh, it is hard to imagine that it once was one of the hubs of the small Indo-Muslim community which then numbered 3,000 families. They were reportedly placed under the authority of Ta Gullar’s father until the 1960s. “There was nothing and nobody here. We were the ones who had to clear the whole land when we arrived,” the leader of the mosque insists. “Our ancestors arrived in 1895. They raised, slaughtered or milked cattle there, close to the train station… That was before the French evicted them to lay rail tracks in the 1930s,” he adds, a little provocative. Few of these families have remained in Cambodia or survived the chaos of the Vietnam War that spilled over the Khmer territory in 1970 and, most critically, the Khmer Rouge who took power in 1975.
Outside the capital, the last representatives of the small Muslim community originating from the British Indies – whose pioneers arrived after the establishment of French Indochina – are still found scattered here and there in the provinces. In the province of Battambang, a majestic yellow mosque – built in the 1920s and reminiscent of the architectural style in South Asia – is still looking over the river in the commune of Norea. In the neighborhood office, most of the administrators are Jvea[ii] like the population, but some, like Mr. Hoeur, is one of a few exceptions. He sports a moustache and glasses and explains his different origins. Like some fifteen other local families, his mother – a Khmer convert – married one of the “men from the Urdu[iii] land” who arrived in the 1910s. “Few descendants from that immigration wave remain today in Cambodia. They died or left the country to go abroad years ago… The few survivors in Cambodia like myself are now old,” he relates before adding that he believes he has family “somewhere in Thailand”. His father first arrived in the neighboring country when he was 10 years old with a group of adventurous people who came from Lahore[iv] , in search of new business opportunities before settling in that part of Cambodia later on.
Holding a small glass of piping hot coffee in his enormous hand, the “Ta Arab” of the village of Prek Khmer (Kampong Chhnang province) reminisces about the reputation acquired in the meat and dairy business by his father and uncles, who came from Bihar[v]. Butcher shops were then left to these Muslim immigrants and were busy all around the Kampong Chhnang market.
* In the province of Pursat, the provincial leader of the Muslims can be seen in the back of a small floating house in the village of Kampong Luang, when he is not away on one of his mandatory trips to spread the faith. His broad figure clad in a black outfit, Abazar Osman, 64, has a piercing gaze behind his wide and falling glasses. He recounts his ancestry which he reports to be “Pakistani” through his father, while his mother was a local Cham. All of these men assign a “Pakistani” origin to their ancestors, the word itself is not appropriate since the State of Pakistan was only created in 1947 with the partition of the British colonial empire in the Indies – that is, long after the arrival of these immigrants. However, the reference is used to allow for a better distinction from Cambodians’ general perception of India, traditionally seen as Hindu. Although the connection with their father’s native place remains very strong, settling in the host country went smoothly.
These “Arab grandfathers” and their Muslim neighbors – either Cham or Jvea – live in perfect harmony with the Buddhist Khmer people. “I was born and I grew up here. It is here that I will eventually die,” Ta Gullar proclaims without an ounce of hesitation. Yet, the young man he was in the 1950s could have grown old in Pakistan, where he went to study religion before spending most of his adult life there. His father, “the Pakistani”, passed away in Cambodia shortly after his son left for the land of their ancestors. He was buried in the cemetery of the Toul Tompung mosque in Phnom Penh. Gullar’s mother immediately decided to leave her native Cambodia to join her son in Pakistan. She died years later in the distant mountains of the Hazara region. One after the other, Gullar’s relatives are disappearing. One part of his family did not survive the years of war in Cambodia, another is vanishing in Pakistan as the descent is not secure… Gullar himself never had any wife or children and decided to go back to Phnom Penh in the 1990s. Sitting in his armchair, he strokes his beard while staring at the slow bustle of the street. He points to the cemetery again in response to unfounded questions. “Why didn’t I stay in Pakistan? But because my home is here and it has always been!”, he exclaims. It would be hard for Phnom Penh residents to forget the dynamic Indo-Muslim community. Beyond the Tuol Tompung mosque, the city still bears marks of their presence. One example is street 21, which is called street “Okhna Abdul Carime” since the 1960s in homage to one of the great “Ta Arab”.
Abdoul Carime Nasir 2005 “Les communautés indiennes en Indochine française” (“The Indian communities in French Indochina”), Siksacakr, (7), 19-27 (94-109 for the Khmer version).
Chanda N. 1993 “Indians in Indochina”, Indian Communities in Southeast Asia, Sandhu K. S. & Mani A. eds., Singapore, ISEAS, 31-45.
Vidy G. 1949 “La communauté indienne en Indochine” (“The Indian community in Indochina”), Sud-Est, (6), 1-8.
I would like to express my gratitude here to Nasir Abdoul Carime for having carefully reviewed this article before its finalization.
This chronicle is from the Chams Clichés Backup Series.
Originally published: Issue 2 – September 19, 2008
Ithaca, NY, September 20, 2013, Emiko Stock.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.
[i] Pashtun region located in the North-West of contemporary Pakistan on the border with Afghanistan.
[iii] Urdu is an Indian language from the Indo-Iranian group in the wider family of Indo-European languages. It is spoken by the Muslim community from the North of the Indian sub-continent. (After 1947, it became the official language in Pakistan.)
[iv] City in present-day Pakistan.
[v] Region in present day India North-East.
* The picture originally inserted in the 2008 article was lost, and therefore replaced by this one.