The Past is Present

Kompong Tralach district, Kompong Chhnang province – As Islamic orthodoxy flourishes in a growing number of Cambodian Cham communities, a minority within the minority continues to find order in the vanquished Kingdom of Champa.

Driven west by the Vietnamese, the Chams began arriving in Cambodia in 1471 with the blessing of Khmer kings.

They brought with them pre-Islamic customs, woven into their religion, and the memory of their defeated kingdom and flight.

Cham customs and sense of history remained largely intact for centuries, until the Khmer Rouge regime decimated their society, killing them by at least the many tens of thousands.

Since the Khmer Rouge were driven from power and Cambodia reopened to the world, Islamic missionaries with more orthodox teachings have strived to see the Chams pray five times daily and forget certain ancient practices.

By accepting new tenets and jettisoning the old, flexible communities have received financial support from Islamic donors in the Middle East, Malaysia and Indonesia.

But the group of Chams known as the Jahed have for the most part rejected outside interference, according to Norwegian anthropologist Bjorn Blengsli.

He describes the group, which he estimates to number between 40,000 and 48,000, as “ethnic Cham and keepers of the culture.”

“The Jahed, they don’t reject foreign money. They reject being told what to do,” said Blengsli, who has been studying Cham society in Cambodia since July 2001.

“They say that this is actually a problem” We don’t have money because everybody comes to us and tells us what to do.’ And they say, “We don’t change.'”

While some Jahed Chams try to classify their traditional rituals as “culture” instead of “religion,” Blengsli argues that the two designations are bound by the purpose they serve explaining this world.

“They use the past to make sense of the present-day, post-Khmer Rouge society, and they have a multitude of rituals which use the past. When they celebrate the past, they also celebrate the present,” he said.

In explaining a Jahed healing ceremony, in which the long-dead kings of Champa are channeled through mediums, Blengsli said, “the past is not the past. The forefathers don’t disappear. They’re here.”

On May 1, the Jahed celebrated the birthday of Mohammed, the Arab prophet and founder of Islam, in their own fashion.

Representatives from 10 of Kompong Chhnang’s Jahed villages gathered at the Sok Sar village mosque in Sala Lek Pram commune. That morning, about 200 men ate breakfast before entering the sanctum to sing the story of Mohammed.

The Quran was not present. Instead, the men relied on memory and handmade books the pages of which had been cut from cement sacks and stapled together.

The words were gracefully inscribed by hand in the Jahed variety of the Cham language, one truer to what was spoken in Champa than that spoken by many Chams today, they said.

“The ancestors told us to make these books to remind us of our history,” said Sales Sou, 82.

He said each book takes him about 10 days to complete, and he uses an indelible ink made from tree bark.

He displayed the crisp, clean print and said, “This one stayed under water for two days.”

The books contain Cham translations of the Quran, Cham history and customs, things that had once been passed down orally.

Sales Sou said children gathered at his home every morning to learn what is in his books. He has been a teacher of religion and history since he was 18, he said.

Following the story of Mohammed, which takes close to two hours to sing, the mothers, wives and daughters arrived to the beat of a drum, bearing towers of pastries on their heads.

Once the pastries were placed in and around the mosque, the babies born in the past year were brought forward to be named by the elders.

For days afterward, the birthday celebration would migrate from one Jahed village to another, requiring thousands of cakes and the conjuring of the past.

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