Mei Bi & Me: Re-writing Ethnography, Bringing the Ethnographer Back In

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

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Chams Clichés (7) – The prayer rooms at Pochentong airport

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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

Clichés Chams (2): The ‘’Ta Arabs’’ from India

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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

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. Continue reading

Backing Up: The Clichés Chams Chronicles

ChamCliche_EngIt 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.

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