Family Sagas Season I Episode III: Ong San & A Lost (American?) Brother

Up to this day, still attractive I am sure. Sitting, still tall I can tell. ”Haven’t seen you in a while”. The smile also the same. ”It’s been some time. You don’t come much to the mosque anymore, where have you been?”. The voice has aged a bit, but it still holds on to the air. It still hangs in. Just like when Ong San was a ‘Bilal’ holding on the call for prayer, just when I was an anthropology undergrad, hanging out at the mosque. Me hours in, listening. Him hours out, chanting more than a mere call: for the ‘Bilal’ – named after the first muezzin of Islam – has a voice performing a much more important function among Chams – and more specifically the ‘followers the Imam San’ – than in other places. The photography goes from my hand to his: a double, enlarged. A smile, quite large. ”Oh… I forgot you framed that one”. Lost for a minute: ”It sure was back in the days!” bursts the laugh, deep, from the bottom of the lungs, if only laughs could be prayers…


It’s a picture that tells of loss, for a brother had been lost along the road, but it’s also a picture that tells of love, for it was love young San was after on the road. A brother of Ly Mah, a lover of Ly Mah. A neighbor with a beauty she wore like charisma, with a height granted like a power, with a distance taking you in like a magnet. The Ly Mah who was introduced in this family saga’ first episode. ”It was not so common for the groom and bride to know each other back then. I mean we all knew each others in a way, it’s a village after all, but really it was all up to the elders to put you up with someone”. Ly Mah was a neighbor from afar. She too for sure was from that very same village, but her father was a businessman, always in the city. He got a new motorbike to go back and forth, he took another wife to settle down, and so the kids got a new life across the river from Phnom Penh, into Chruy Changvar Peninsula. ”She was going back and forth too. Sometimes there, sometimes here. I remember that day. I came to visit her”. Coming from the paddy fields, taking his sweet time, going around and about. San ran into the local photographer: coming through the paddy fields, taking his sweet time, going around and about, camera in hand that is. The motorbike shines off. It’s borrowed from the sweetheart’s very own father. ”He was a rich and powerful businessman. He was traveling around a lot. Abroad, here. Didn’t stay put much, so he needed the bike. I got him to lend it to me for a ride on that day”. You better believe, adds Ong San, that nobody in the village had a bike like that at the time. ”Way too much for farmers like us”. There is something though San managed to obtain from the great man. His daughter. ”Let me think… We were married right before the bombings started around here, so I guess some time around 1970-71. And that picture, it must have been… Well about two years before I guess”. San was 25 years old. Not really a young chap even… Coming from the paddy fields, taking his sweet time, going around and about. Or something like that. A laugh: ”Well, what can I say?! I just wanted to have fun, I indeed wasn’t in a hurry to take a wife! And well, she sure didn’t seem that much in a hurry either!”. Eyes lock in, smiles shared, shoulders getting a little closer for a flitting instant. Ly Mah sits right next to him. Almost half a century later they are here, cooking together. Just like I remember them, a few years ago: when taking her position at the door of the mosque – where women are so essential to complete the ritual of most of Imam San’ ceremonies – Ly Mah was actively silencing while her husband was chanting. Tuning in together.

The togetherness leaves someone out of the picture though. Someone long lost. Someone longed for, never returned, apart from here, in that picture. ”Her brother. He was barely 18 when they took him next, that Lon Nol army. Neak Luong… And after that, we never heard from him again”. Wars taking on names, changing names, bombs all the same. There is a shadow over the photograph. That brother who will never be more than 18 because it is beyond the image of him, that brother who will never return because it is beyond the imagination. Or… Taking his time, going around and about? ”I had changed my name. I had another name before it all went down. And another one when we all came back”. Ly Mah mentions. ”And then, just a few years ago, I was not at home, I must have been around but not like at home. He came by. I am sure it’s him. It was a man from here but from another country, like America they said. The neighbors, they never heard of the name he was looking for. So they said I didn’t exist”. It was after the series of wars: Ly Mah had changed her name just like wars did: Lon Nol… Pol Pot… And the long aftermath which has yet to say its name… The brother may have been back: coming through the wars, taking his time because that’s what wars do, they take their time. They go around and about. Wars, unfortunately, usually come back, taking other names. Ly Mah, unlikely, under another name, also came back. Coming through finally, brothers, hopefully, will too.

Phnom Penh, November 16, 2015, Emiko Stock.


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