A tall woman. A pendant made out of gold, or at least a golden shade, applied later, applied for better. Finger waves. A touch of rouge. A certain elegance in the way the hand uncertainly hangs on the body. And just pure elegance holding on to the whole pose, holding together the whole picture, holding together the two young ladies. Meet Ly Mah in her seventeen. Meet her as an introduction to a series of family sagas I have long been willing to share.
When I started this blog (or rather its ancestor, back in 2007) I wanted to make some use of those marginal portraits and family pictures I too often encountered in the midst of tea times and ”field” encounters. Academic serious research was no place for those pictures – or so I was told back then, back there – and so they should return to the cookies’ tin where they all came from. Blogging came from that: that burning hankering to tell those stories that had been, most of the time, burned with the pictures in some fire, in some war. I was longing for a history of Cambodians, maybe just the Muslim ones, maybe just the Cham ones, maybe just the ones I was nearby, told only by those stories. A(n) (visual) anthropology piecing together those portraits to make sense of those two un-separated worlds: the one of the grandmas and grandpas unfolding in the ones of the kiddos next door, and unfolding the anthropology of today, right now, right this moment. A line of continuity that would assume the disruptions, the break downs, and the holes as a fabric of togetherness.
Anyhow, it may have been a while since I last opened the cookies’ tin and sat with a bit of tea and lots of stories. Thought it may be time to go back to basics and piece it all together in family sagas: for those pictures do not only make sense by themselves, when you hear those little tiny details of daily lives behind them, those making the big picture. They also share family relations, love and passions, weds on the lock and renewed identities; and they link it all back together. Looking at one of those pictures, and at a few others shared in the same family enables not only to reconstruct the household trajectories, but also to trace some of the trajectories common to a lot or a few Cambodians, a lot or a few Muslims, a lot or a few Chams, a lot or a few humans, a lot or a few neighbors and remote cousins.
Enough. Back to Ly Mah and that very picture which will be the first of a family saga in four pictures to come out every week this January. Wait. The first? Not exactly. From this batch excavated now, from that hard drive, yes. But actually O faithful readers (O young hopes!) you already encountered the family in another post, a few months ago, on genders crossed and lives along different sexes. For Ly Mah’s brother’s Sath was a boy before she was a girl, and became a women before he got back to be a man. You’ve met Sath. Now meet Ly Mah. Her long graceful hand, her standing tall and standing still posture, the pendant, the rouge, the waves. And the skirt. And meet her friend. Aesah. The determined look, the pendant, the rouge, the long hair. And the skirt. Yes the skirts. The silk sampots. For those have become a rare find today. Those sampots are reminiscent of a Cham aesthetics that was renown in all Cambodia. Sure enough, Khmer silks are quite amazing by themselves. But the weaving loom, the materials, the colors and the motifs going sideways, going wild and bold, leaving the lines of the weave, everything set the Cham silks apart from the Khmer ones. Most of those silks – this is me avoiding the ”all of those silks” – are no longer produced for most of the know-how and technique hasn’t transferred to the new generations. Some of the old pieces are still kept in the houses. This was the case of Ly Mah’s sampot: ”It was my grand mother’s. Look at the design, you can recognize it’s a Cham one, right?”. Sight. ”We don’t have it anymore. I exchanged it for some rice during the war”. ”Look, Aesah is also wearing her [Cham] sampot”. Ly Mah pauses for a second. Her long fingers going along the dog eared corners. A laugh: ”Nobody wore heels back then. Plus I was already kind of tall”. Love the *kind of*. Ly Mah, now in her sixties, has a good head or two on me… Ok bad choice of comparative element… ”We just came out of the hairdresser. We took off our veils and got ready for the picture”.
More. In the subtext of the portrait, some elements of Cham recent history appear. Aesah and Ly Mah were respectively 17 and 18 at the time, in the mid sixties. Both were Chams, from completely different locales – or so: Ly Mah was from O’Russei village, in Kompong Chhnang province. Aeasah was from Chruy Changvar, the peninsula right in front of Phnom Penh and the Royal Palace. Ly Mah was from a ”traditionalist” village, one often affiliated to a heritage preserved all the way from Champa. Aeasah came from an ”orthodox” village, one trying to integrate the debates of international Islam. What the picture could be saying is that, back then, at the time, when it was all good and golden, the two branches now seen in opposition were not that opposed, separated, and divided. I’d rather say that what the picture is saying is that micro-stories are always the ones in play in the big History, but somehow get to be forgotten along the way, the hegemonic narrative taking over. The narrative today is that Traditionalists and Orthodoxs are, among Chams, completely different entities. Their practices are not the same, inter-marriage is not exactly encouraged, and this is all reinforced by Middle-Eastern funds polishing Orthodox mosques, and international assistance (read: Western) reviving Traditional heritage. The narrative omits that back in the 30’s, Cambodian authorities and the French protectorate had to intervene to solve religious conflicts opposing different religious trends right there in Chruy Changvar. Back in the 50’s, a man came back to Kompong Cham from his studies in the Middle East, launching tumultuous debates in families on whether one should stay with the old, or go with the new: Wahhabism. The narrative omits, today, the many inter-marriages, the constant re-locations, the orthodox mosques seeing little middle eastern funding but much more local tycoons’, and even more ”Cham-Cousins-From-Overseas” funding. The narrative looks down on the many daily relations maintained by both groups and across borders: along the lines of genealogies, kinships, opportunities, chances, and try-outs. The narrative looks down on what Ly Mah, looking back at the picture, looking back at her life in Chruy Changvar has to tell, a story that could be told over and over today: ”I had gone to live in Chruy Changvar to take care of my Grand-Ma. She was married to a Cham from Chruy Changvar. I liked it there. I remember that day and the picture. Aeasah and I loved cinema. So we took off and crossed to Phnom Penh. We went to catch a movie at the Hawai’i Theatre. Then we went to the studio and took a picture. I mean… That’s about it. Really there is nothing much to say about it all’’.
Phnom Penh, January 7, 2015, Emiko Stock.
* Episode II of the saga: Family Sagas Season I Episode II: Kai Team in Singapore