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

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

Chams Clichés (6) – Yiey Yah, High Priestess of Possession ceremonies

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March 2006, Phum Phal (Kandal, Cambodia). Yiey Yah, possessed by Neang Champa So. © Emiko Stock.

March 2006, Phum Phal (Kandal, Cambodia).Yiey Yah, possessed by Neang Champa So. © Emiko Stock.

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

Chams Clichés (5) – A Franco-Cham Romance from Cambodia

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Cambodia, circa 1960’s-70’s, Gabrielle Pianette, known as "Mei Bi" 
© Mousar family.

Cambodia, circa 1960’s-70’s, Gabrielle Pianette, known as “Mei Bi” 
© Mousar family.

‘’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

Chams Clichés (4) – Rowing… Cham Style…

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‘’Fête des eaux à Phnom Penh. Pirogues malaises et cambodgiennes’’ in Extrême Asie, Revue Indochinoise Illustrée, No 5, Mai 1926.

‘’Fête des eaux à Phnom Penh. Pirogues malaises et cambodgiennes’’ in Extrême Asie, Revue Indochinoise Illustrée, No 5, Mai 1926.

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

Chams Clichés (3) – Mawlid Celebrations: Sweet Treats for the Dead & the Living

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Udong, September 2007 ©Emiko Stock - Traditional Mawlid cakes made by Imam San are being put up on the flashy Kah Lasai as celebration displays.

Udong, September 2007 ©Emiko Stock – Traditional Mawlid cakes made by Imam San are being put up on the flashy Kah Lasai as celebration displays.

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

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