Cham language literacy rates among the roughly 300,000 Cham Muslims in the country are low, with most speaking the language in their homes but unable to read or write the Cham script. A new initiative, however, is aiming to change that with the launch of two new Cham language textbooks funded by the US and the UN.
The Cham script was nearly wiped out during the Khmer Rouge era, during which Chams were targeted and their books destroyed, said Farina So, a researcher of Cham oral history at the Documentation Center of Cambodia.
“Cham education before the Khmer Rouge was better, and also there were plenty of texts. But when the Khmer Rouge came, the texts—even the Quran—were destroyed,” she said. “After that, we lost everything and had to reconstruct our cultural identity.”
Cham children have little opportunity to write in the Cham script—of which there are two versions, one originating from Arabic and the other derived from an Indian script resembling Khmer, which will be used in the new books. Children generally either have to attend religious schools or learn from older family members to become literate in their primary spoken language.
Leb Ke, a Cham researcher and program assistant manager at Emerging Markets Consulting—which has been hired by the US Embassy to help with the project—said that three books were being produced: a teachers’ edition and two student editions.
“We have two kinds of books: one that teaches you how to read and write Cham script, and one that talks about Cham youth,” said Mr. Ke, adding that the youth-focused book contains 20 essays on issues that affect the Cham community, including Khmer-Cham relations, drug abuse and migration.
The target age for the latter book is about 16, according to Mr. Ke, who has spent more than a decade going from village to village collecting old manuscripts that survived the war and talking to elders who still have knowledge of the script.
The project is expected to reach about 200 Cham children in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Kompong Chhnang, and the curriculum will begin following a launch ceremony for the books later this year.
The books will be taught to those students who are interested in after-school classes by newly trained teachers brought on to teach the curriculum, according to Alberto Perez-Pereiro, an anthropologist and project manager at Emerging Markets Consulting.
“This program is not allowed to supplant Khmer education. You can only take this course if you’re Khmer literate,” said Mr. Perez-Pereiro.
Because most children and teenagers have never been taught Cham script, the book on the alphabet will teach them the mechanics of the writing system, he added.
“People are very interested in trying to recover this aspect of their heritage. They’ve been speaking it and unable to read and write it…. It’s an effort to make it a living aspect of the community rather than just a relic,” he said.
Asked whether the US Embassy was trying to promote the study of the Indian Cham script over the Arabic script in a bid to cut down on Chams traveling to study in the Middle East, Mr. Perez-Pereiro said that the project was not discriminating.
“The program doesn’t have any religious or political components. In terms of their studies, if they want to go abroad, they’re still going to have to learn Arabic script.
“This program doesn’t hamper them, it doesn’t discourage them from going to madrassas,” he said.
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