It’s Chinese new year. Right now and right here in Phnom Penh, today. It was also back then and back there, in that 60’s little town of Sala Lekh Pram, 60 kms away from Phnom Penh, miles into Kompong Chhnang province, a bouncy urbish square of land, flowing by the national road, holding on to the lake. The market is still around, sleepy when the sun is acting up, awake when coffee hasn’t been served yet to a weird assortment of moviegoers and dark-brew-sippers in that even quirkier western like saloon – sorry meant coffee-shop – screening the most illogical – and shall I add deliciously immoral? – selection of pirate VCDs. That market summarizes quite the intricacies of that idiosyncratic center of the world that Sala Lekh Pram can be to some. Sort of. In many sorts. Continue reading
“Because I am too old now, that’s why. This is exhausting. All that travel, all that work. So I am done, that’s it”. A pout face on me. That of a disappointed spoiled child. The partner in crime of photo swaps and techniques on a straw is retiring. Who am I going to nerd around from now on??? Filters shining through, exposures blurring people in precising ghosts out, Cecil B DeMille grand schemes for the next wedding set… The conversation has barely started, I turned around for a minute and this is it: Saeth Umar, quite the DYI uncle of all images has run his course, and leaves his photographer job to potential younglings. “I’ll miss it that’s for sure” concludes his little impulsive laugh. The laugh of a boy of 60+ year old who never stopped being amazed and amused by what started as quite a challenging job: making images in a no-more-images land. Continue reading
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… Continue reading
The figure of Buzz Lightyear flies by as I feel-fall in desperate need of ”rescue”. Just thinking this – ”to the rescue” – somehow always brings me back to Buzz: probably because he is the only one – outside of the real business of actual emergencies of tall firemen, strong soldiers and bulky swat teams – to still ab-use the expression (note to self: resist the temptation of ”abuzzing”). Rescue is really the only thing right now that can save me from the upcoming megaton wreckage of – what the hell was going on in this empty helmet brain of mine? – presenting this short movie of me. In public. With actual people watching I mean. Buzz Lightyear to the rescue of the apprentice – of sort – of visual anthropology. That’s about it. Or is it really? Is Buzz flashing by in that grand conference room devoted to animated anthropology with really nothing else to do? Or is his flickering in this bulb of mine, directly speaking to the actual matter of the symposium: an homage to Bob Ascher, anthropologist animated by the possibilities of animated anthropology, possibilities of – as Buzz only can put it – ”To the Infinity and Beyond”? * Continue reading
In a previous post which I hoped showed how little photos can make big histories, I introduced Ly Mah and her upcoming family saga. Following the daughter, Ly Mah, then pictured in her best attire to go to the movies, comes the portrait of a young, handsome, colorful man: the father, Kai Team.
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.
Recently I had to bring a little bit more of my very own self into the ethnography, through a seminar on Writing Ethnography and its genres, and the auto-ethnography model of Zora Hurston ‘’Mules and Men’’. I took up the challenge by revisiting an old piece from the Clichés Chams column that I was, back then, writing for the online news media Kaset. The article was all about Mei Bi, a character completely real, gone complete legend over Cham-landia. At the time, and within the journalistic frame, it would have been irrelevant and out of place to bring my own experience in the foreground of the story. But as the tale unfolds, as I was following up all through the years – all through the roads – all through the legends – the life of Mei Bi, it became more and more personal. Until the end revealed to be nothing else but a close up on this entirely personal quest, without me even knowing about it… Continue reading
The stress of last-minute preparations is palpable. Suitcases and passengers get all piled up with precipitation in a Toyota Camry heading towards Pochentong airport. Ahmat leaves Kilometre 9 in a bad mood: he did tell the women not to be long as he wanted to pray one last time before departing… “Once there [at the airport], there is nowhere to pray. When we depart for Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca], there are so many other Muslims that we all end up praying in the car park, but now, today, it’s different, what am I supposed to do now, pray alone on my own?!!” Continue reading
Act 3, Scene 3.
‘’You know he is not really a man in fact…’’. Ong-Always-Cranky (for he is always cranky) says. There has been a silence before that. Not a usual thing with Ong-Always-Cranky. The silence followed the departure of the couple from the hill, as they left the little ascetic community covered up by the forest and the stupas of the former Cambodian royal capital of Udong. The couple had been living here for a week or so. That’s what they did, in life. Going from one hill to another, one monastery to another, one retreat refuge to another, mapping all the country’s unworldly world, together, hand in hand. Continue reading
With all her delicate care, Yiey Yah places a narrow candle on her bay si with her long thin hands. The offering is made of a young banana tree trunk section and decorated with bright colours. It is now in its final shape following a long morning of preparations for the upcoming ceremony. The small-frame woman straightens her krama on her silver hair and hurries between the houses while cautiously carrying the precious gift to be placed as soon as possible in the specially built shelter. In the fading coolness of dawn, she grumbles, “We are getting late this morning. At this rate, we are going to have to leave the offerings in the paddy field in the middle of the night!” The graceful 80-year-old grandmother regularly performs in possession ceremonies, which are intended to express gratitude for the recovery of a sick person. Continue reading
‘’Once upon a time, there was a young and beautiful lady, scared and breathless, running by the Mekong bank in Kampong Cham. She was a French woman, trying to escape the Japanese invader on her heels. She was tracked, alone and without her parents, remembered as prosperous rubber planters. The sad heroine found herself facing the river, with no way out. All hope seemed lost… when suddenly, a Cham fisherman, young and handsome, appeared. Driving the light craft towards the bank, he saved her from the enemy. Carried away by the smooth rhythm of water and love, the young couple berthed alongside the other bay, in the village of Phum Trea. There, they got married, had many children and lived happily ever after.” Continue reading
The sun is already high in the sky and the craft is on the water. Like so many others on the eve of the Water Festival, a long dragonboat is almost set to leave for Phnom Penh. This is the last chance training. To cheer his team, a jolly man in the middle of the boat is delivering a continuous array of songs and gags, dirty jokes and wordplays, far from his customary austerity. He is the bilal of the village, the one who calls the faithful Muslims to the daily prayer. Continue reading
The picture is as simple as it gets. An absolute statement that minimalism is understated. When a single studio portrait can unpack so much. An invitation to question ethnic borders and limits. In a previous post it was all about Phnom Penh. Now let’s go along the river to Sala Lekh Pram, sit for a minute and see that indeed cosmopolitanism was never strictly a capital thing.
In some Cham villages in Cambodia, the air has seemed milder for several days with the sweet-scented promise of delicacies to come. A pleasant smell of frying escapes from homes between Udong and Battambang. It announces the post-harvest season, the time for a treat for the palates. The cakes especially prepared for Mawlid celebrations will soon be ready so the saints can be celebrated. In Arabic, Mawlid traditionally refers to the celebration of the birth of Prophet Muhammad. Continue reading
A year ago Norodom Sihanouk, the King Father, the Father of the Nation, posthumous Preah Borom Ratanak Kaudh, went away. There is a sentence in the Rig Veda that I found profoundly beautiful and appropriate, three months later, when he was cremated: Continue reading
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. Continue reading
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. Continue reading
It was five years ago almost day to day… A team of inspired journalists from Cambodia (a fix of foreigners and Cambodians) launched the very first online news magazine on / in the country: Kaset. And then, they invited me to come on board, with a monthly column on Chams… The Clichés Chams.
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… Continue reading
This past week has been quite important for Cambodia and Thailand. Of course both calendars highlighted a long holiday of celebrations to kick off the new year. But some Thais and Cambodians were getting busy a the very same time, arguing their case in front of The Hague International Court of Justice. The ‘final’ discussions over the long disputed case of 11th century Preah Vihear temple and moreover its surrounding area, are supposed to be coming to an end… a solution for the borderline between the two neighbours. Well, if you are a regular of this blog, you know that if I mention this… there must be some Chams behind the scene somewhere… And indeed, there are! This little forgotten archive I recently found while doing a little ‘new year cleaning’ just cried out to be on stage today. Continue reading
Today I was invited to the wedding of Tiya, whom I have known for a decade and grown found of over the years. She also happens to be the grand daughter of Mouh Som and Ong Leb, who have been watching over me along the way, both as teachers and substitute grand-parents. Tiya and Adam’s wedding is also the last one of a series I recently attended and filmed, simply entitled ‘3 Weddings’, and that will soon be uploaded in the video section of this blog. Before those come in, I thought about a couple of old wedding pictures I had, that would perfectly match the mood of the day in complete continuity. Continue reading
I guess that may come with the job description… As an ethnographer, I have to confess an absolute adoration for ethnographic movies. I would choose a Jean Rouch film over any Oscared documentary, anytime. I love that those films have – just like Cinema Vérité – this ‘’fly on the wall’’ approach. I love that they take the yellow brick road without being too sure of where it leads, and that the final destination aimed for is ‘’let’s-just-observe-and-deliver-the-thing-completely-raw-to-the-viewers’’.