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Volume 44, Number 2March/April 1993

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The People Persist

Written and photographed by Bill Strubbe

Hemmed in by popular nightclubs with names like Apocalypse Now and Hard Rock Cafe Saigon, and by a construction site heralding yet another hotel, the graceful minarets of the mosque rise unexpectedly above the trees, captivating the eye. Seemingly out of place amid the enormous Panasonic and Sony billboards presiding over teeming boulevards, the mosque beckons, an unlikely oasis in the heart of Ho Chi Minh City - former Saigon.

The visitor slips inside the gates of the compound and climbs the steps, brightened with fuchsia bougainvillea, to a veranda shimmering with reflections from the ablution pool. As the visitor steps into the mosque, and feels the welcome coolness of tiles underfoot, the bustle of the city recedes. This is the world of the Chams, descendants of an ancient people who built the powerful kingdom of Champa in what is now central Vietnam. Despite repeated conquest by invading armies and attempts at cultural - and even physical - obliteration, the Chams survive in Vietnam and Kampuchea (Cambodia) as a proud Muslim people, retaining a distinct linguistic, cultural and religious heritage.

Geographically, Vietnam has been likened to the peasant's traditional pair of carrying baskets balanced on a shoulder pole. The rich flood plains of the Red River in the north and the Mekong in the south are the rice baskets, while the mountainous backbone of the country serves as the sturdy pole. The dramatic drive from Hue to Da Nang, up the switchbacks of the Hai Van, or Pass of the Clouds, provides a breathtaking sight of the coastal mountains plunging into the sea and a view of what used to be the heart of the Champa kingdom, whose people once believed that the world lay divinely balanced between two elements: earth and water, masculine and feminine, mountains and sea.

While debate continues, many scholars consider the Cham people the original inhabitants of south-central Vietnam, rather than migrants from the Malaysian archipelago. People with "dark skin, deep-set eyes, turned-up noses and frizzy hair" are first mentioned in AD 192, in a Chinese description of Champa, then called Linyi, or "savage forest." The name Champa was not used until the seventh century; by then, a sophisticated civilization had developed, the most exclusive Hinduized culture outside of India. The Cham language, of Malayo-Polynesian origin and employing an Indian script, was the first written language in Southeast Asia. The Champa kingdom was preeminent in international trade; possessing a powerful commercial fleet, it exported enslaved prisoners of war and sandalwood - an important commodity for making incense used throughout Asia - in exchange for Chinese and Japanese silks.

At its peak, the kingdom of Champa occupied the territory of modern-day Vietnam from north of the 17th parallel - the old north-south dividing line - to Ho Chi Minh City in the south, embracing a number of tribes such as the Rhadé, Jarai and Roglai. As the splendid ruins of Mi Son and Dong Duong demonstrate, the sixth to ninth centuries were Champa's golden era, centered in the region of present-day Quang Nam province near Da Nang. The Cham people were outstanding builders, and the temples at Mi Son, 69 kilometers (43 miles) southwest of Da Nang, are among the oldest structures in Southeast Asia. Centuries before the Islamic faith made inroads into Champa, the religious practices were an amalgam of Hindu, Buddhist and animistic elements, and the Mi Son temples and towers were dedicated to kings and Brahman divinities.

The Champa towers were ingeniously constructed of dried brick mortared with resin from the cau day tree. When completed, the structure was enveloped in fire for"several weeks, fusing the bricks and resin together to create an edifice able to withstand the onslaught of time and elements - though not 20th-century warfare. Mi Son valley became a free-fire zone for American B-52 bombers during the Vietnam War; out of more than 70 ancient structures that stood before the war, fewer than 20 remain.

From Da Nang to Phan Ri, numerous Champa ruins dot the Vietnamese landscape, their red-brick towers vividly silhouetted against blue sky and spectacular cloud formations. In the coastal city of Nha Trang, the Cham temple of Po Nagar is now a Buddhist shrine and a tourist attraction. Mi Son is a destination for only the most determined, requiring several hours by car and on foot, while the tower near Cam Ranh is just a few meters from the main highway.

A stone stele inscribed in Arabic, found near Phan Rang and dating from the 10th or 11th century, is the earliest record of the Muslim presence in Champa. Islam arrived in Southeast Asia via India and Malaysia, spreading along the trade routes (See Aramco World, November-December 1991). Arab trading communities lived in contact with the Chams from the 11th century onward.

With the gradual conversion of the Cham people from Hinduism to Islam in the early to mid-1600's, tension rose between Hindus and Muslims. Infighting was brought to an end when the Hindu king Po Ramo, whose wife was Muslim, required subjects to attend each other's ceremonies and observe each other's holidays. The next king, Po Nraup, had two wives, one of each religion. It was Po Nraup's heir who embraced Islam. The religion of successive kings was a matter of personal choice until the kingdom of Champa disintegrated in the 18th century. As late as 1770, shipwrecked French sailors reported visiting a scaled-back Champa royal court, where the king's throne had been reduced to "a simple footstool."

I had traveled to Vietnam to learn more about the people whose ancestors had built the Champa kingdom. But on my fourth day in Hanoi, the authorities notified me that Cham villages were a "security problem" and off-limits to foreigners. Nonetheless, I moved on to Nha Trang, down the coast in former South Vietnam; through quiet inquiries there, I managed to find a car and driver willing to cover the 110 kilometers (68 miles) to the nearest Cham village. Following directions we had been given, we continued south from Phan Rang over two bridges, turned left on the dirt path past the pink pagoda on the right, then crossed another bridge and continued for two kilometers (about a mile) until we arrived at the village of Thuan Tu.

The youngsters there had probably never seen a Westerner before; scores of boisterous, curious children followed at my heels as I toured the village. Elderly women with red betel-stained teeth threshed rice without either baskets or winnowing mat by simply throwing handfuls into the breeze. The prickly-pear cactus hedges flourishing along the roadside give proof that Minh Thuan Province is the most arid part of Vietnam. Thuan Tu was one of the poorest villages I'd seen, and many of the children were visibly undernourished.

Interspersed among homes built of wattle and daub rose several newer homes of concrete and tile. We passed a schoolhouse undergoing renovations; half the crew was enjoying a midday snooze in the shade. Nearby, at the mosque, I exchanged Arabic greetings - al-salam 'alaykum (peace be upon you) - with the assembled Muslim leaders, dressed in white robes and turbans fringed with red tassels. These men, elected every few years, shave their heads and faces, dress in white and abide by special dietary and hygienic rules. After a brief visit, I reluctantly left the village and headed back to Nha Trang, mindful that the authorities might become suspicious if I did not return to the hotel by sunset.

In 1970, an estimated 80,000 Chams lived in their ancestral homeland, a third of whom - as well as all those in Kampuchea - are Sunni Muslims of the Shafi'i school. Hindu Chams call themselves Cham jat or Cham harat, meaning Chams of "pure race," while Muslim Chams call themselves Cham pak or Cham muk, meaning "southern" Chams or Chams "of the community."

The Muslim Chams are further divided into orthodox and traditional communities. The orthodox Chams, who live mainly in Ho Chi Minh City and in Tay Ninh and Chau Doc near the Kampuchean border, adhere to mainstream Islamic practices. In the coastal plains of Binh Thuan and Minh Thuan provinces, where Thuan Tu is located, live the traditional Chams, whose lifestyle blends Islam with indigenous cultural elements.

Long ago, Cham society was dominated by several powerful matrilineal clans, and until recent years, all property was inherited through women; when a woman marries, her husband comes to live in her parents' home. In these respects, Cham society resembles that of the Minangkabau, a Muslim people of Indonesia (See Aramco World, July-August 1991). Mixed marriages of Chams to Khmers, Vietnamese or Chinese almost always result in the non-Cham partner's conversion to Islam. Vietnamese - and in Kampuchea, Khmer - is the language of trade and commerce for the Chams, but at home Cham is spoken. Muslim Chams also attend Qur'anic schools to learn Arabic and Malay in Arabic script.

Rural Chams live at subsistence level, much like the poorest Vietnamese and Khmer peasants. Those who work as farmers tend to grow cash crops such as cotton, sesame, indigo or vegetables, rather than cultivating wet or paddy rice. A number of women supplement their incomes by weaving bright, multi-hued textiles and ribbons. Muslim Chams often control local cattle trading, lumbering, weaving and commercial fisheries, and serve as butchers of cattle for Buddhist Khmer and Vietnamese - many of whom will eat beef but refuse to slaughter it.

Braving the traffic of Ho Chi Minh City on a motor scooter, we wove in and out of the swarms of bicycles and trucks, headed for the Cholon district, home of the city's ethnic Chinese. In the 1930's, the Indian Muslim community erected a mosque in the district, called Jami-ul Masjid Cholon, which sits at a skewed angle to the street, oriented westward toward Makkah. By the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, many of the Indians had fled the country, and the mosque was taken over by Cham Muslims. The modest complex is maintained largely through donations from overseas relatives. On an average day, some 20 people attend prayers there, and on Fridays close to 100.

I was introduced to the imam; interpreting for us was a Cham businessman, whom we will call Rama. Because of his association with the Americans during the war, Rama spent a decade in reeducation camps; now he is involved in foreign trade. Over the years the government has worked to assimilate the Chams, bestowing on them family names such as Ong, Ma, Tra and Che. At the government's behest, Rama vietnamized his Cham-Arabic name.

Rama explained that animosities, often escalating into confrontation, have always existed between Vietnam's regimes and the religious and ethnic minorities - the Chams, the mountain tribes, and the Hoa Hao and Cao Dai sects. A group known as FULRO - United Front for the Liberation of Oppressed Peoples - was organized by a Kampuchean Cham in 1964, and survives to this day. During the Vietnam War, most minority groups were sympathetic to, or actively supported, the Americans. When the United States withdrew and the Communist regime of North Vietnam swept to victory in the south, a futile Cham uprising was brutally suppressed.

Though the last 20 years have been untroubled, the Chams are still treated with suspicion by the current government. In Vietnamese society, Chams are often discriminated against on the basis of language. "Because Cham is spoken almost exclusively in their homes," Rama explained, "Cham children enter school with a language handicap that affects their education and later job opportunities, so the Chams tend to be poorer than their Vietnamese neighbors."

Up until the fall of Saigon, every year 100 Cham Muslims flew on chartered planes from South Vietnam to Saudi Arabia to make the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Makkah. But since the reunification of Vietnam under the Hanoi government, it has been impossible for Chams to make the Hajj, due to the government's anti-religious stance and the lack of funds. Rama added a hopeful note: "The political and religious climate is slowly changing for the better. Things are slowly opening up. Two years ago, I would not have dared to meet and talk with you."

But fear still lingers. Rama asked me not to photograph him or use his real name. Later, a Cham declined to take me to a Muslim wedding because he was afraid to be seen with an American riding pillion on his scooter.

The origin of the hostility between Vietnamese and Cham goes back some 14 centuries, to a time when the kingdom of Champa found itself in frequent conflict with the Dai Viets to the north, ancestors of the modern Vietnamese. The first Champa capital of Tra Kieu was destroyed by the Dai Viets in the sixth century and a new capital was built south of there at Indrapura. As warfare continued, the Cham people were forced to move their capital five more times - each time farther south. Trying to re-establish themselves, the beleaguered Chams then fell prey to their western Khmer neighbors. The intermittent fighting between these two peoples, spanning the 12th century, is well chronicled in the bas-reliefs at the famous Angkor Wat ruins in Kampuchea.

Beset by internal dissension and the ensuing Mongol invasions of Kublai Khan, Champa began to crumble. In 1471, the Vietnamese emperor Le Thanh Ton swept down from the north, vanquishing Champa and sending much of its population fleeing to Angkor, the predecessor state of Kampuchea, where the refugees were welcomed by the Khmer king. When the Vietnamese captured the Champa port of Phan Rang in 1693 and a massacre ensued, another 5000 Chams fled westward to Kampuchea.

It made sense for me to follow the route of the Chams to Kampuchea, where Cham villages are more accessible. From the air, Kampuchea looked like a vast swamp, with the Mekong River a great, brown swath slicing through it all.

Since the 13th century, a small community of Muslims of Malay origin existed in Kampuchea. By 1590, Muslim Arab and Malay traders had settled in Lovek, the former Kampuchean capital, engaging in brisk business up and down the Mekong and intermarrying with Chams fleeing the intermittent upheavals in Vietnam. Muslim influence gained ascendancy in Kampuchea when Prince Ponhea Chan, supported by the Malays, assassinated the reigning king. Ponhea Chan converted to Islam, adopted the name Ibrahim and shortly thereafter launched a jihad or holy war against the Dutch East India Company. In 1650, Ibrahim's Khmer enemies overthrew him and Kampuchea's only Muslim king was captured and killed. In 1790, another large wave of Chams migrated to Kampuchea following the collapse of the Tay Son revolution in Vietnam.

A census carried out in 1874 by French colonial authorities found 25,599 Chams in Kampuchea, about three percent of the total population. In 1936, the Chams' numbers there had grown to 88,000, and by 1975 swelled to 250,000, making the Cham Muslims the country's largest minority. By 1970, there were 132 mosques in Kampuchea, and 25 Cham scholars had graduated from various Islamic educational institutions outside Indochina, nine of them from Egypt's al-Azhar University. Eighty Kampuchean Chams annually made the Hajj to Makkah, and by 1975, when the Khmer Rouge captured Phnom Penh, an estimated 1000 Chams in Kampuchea had completed the pilgrimage and thus were entitled to be called hajjis.

Today, most Kampuchean Chams live in 70 villages scattered along the banks of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in Kompong Cham and Kompong Chhnang provinces. Some also live in communities in Takeo Province near the Vietnamese border and in Kampot on the Gulf of Thailand. Just north of the capital Phnom Penh, in the Cham heartland, is the village of Chrang Chamres, wedged between a ribbon of asphalt called Highway 5 and the reddish-brown waters of the Tonle Sap. At the heart of village life is the river, providing food, transportation, water for bathing and cooking, and, for the giggling children splashing in the shallows, sheer fun as well. The wooden houses perch on tall pilings, allowing the waters to sweep just below the floor boards during the monsoons.

For centuries, fishing was the traditional means of support in Chrang Chamres, but now many people work in fish-processing, lumber or weaving factories. A fisherman might make $30 a month, a factory worker $25. With city life encroaching on the villages, a substantial number of villagers have become street vendors, selling drinks, foods, and small products of various kinds.

Many women in Chrang Chamres once labored over looms, weaving the brilliant silk fabrics found throughout Kampuchea, but now a lone woman preserves the craft locally. Sitting in the shade beneath a house, the heddle suspended from pilings, she passes the shuttle back and forth between the silk weft threads, patiently producing a black-and-purple checked cloth. "The silk thread is imported from Vietnam and is becoming too expensive," she said. "None of my daughters or other girls are interested in learning to weave. I'm the last one in this village." But in villages farther from the capital, the weaving continues.

Off in the distance, the insistent beating of a heavy skor drum accompanies the muezzin - here called a bilal, the name of Islam's first muezzin - as he calls the faithful to prayer. Plastic slippers line the steps of the mosque. Inside, men pray wearing white caps (kapeas) and colorful batik cloth skirts tied in a knot at the waist. Mosque An-Nur an-Na'im, built in 1901, was once the largest in the country; now, like many Muslim places of worship, it is being rebuilt after being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge. When the Khmer Rouge were finally ousted from power in 1979, only 20 of the 132 mosques in Kampuchea remained.

In 1972, amid growing unrest on the eve of all-out civil war, the Khmer Rouge revolutionaries launched a campaign to eradicate Cham culture. The distinct Cham communities, with their large villages, separate language and independent organizational networks, posed a threat to the Khmer leaders' vision of a homogeneous, highly regimented country. In areas under Khmer Rouge control, the Chams were accused of excessive religious devotion that detracted from work time, and their religious observances were gradually restricted. Cham women were compelled to shear their long hair and adopt the short Khmer style. The traditional Cham batik was forbidden and the people were forced to wear black "pajamas." Eventual suppression of the five daily prayers precipitated a general protest, and Khmer Rouge authorities began arresting religious leaders.

As the Khmer Rouge gained full control in Kampuchea, mosques and schools were closed and Cham villagers dispersed throughout the countryside, along with the rest of the urban population. When the massacres of the educated, the talented, the exceptional and the recalcitrant began in earnest, a Cham Muslim's simple refusal to eat pork was grounds for immediate execution.

By the time Vietnamese troops entered Kampuchea in 1979 and ousted the Khmer Rouge regime, only 30 out of 1000 Cham hajjis were still alive, 38 of 300 Qur'anic teachers, 45 of 350 community leaders and deputies and two of 25 foreign Islamic school graduates. All told, some 90,000 out of 200,000 Chams were killed in the dark years of the Khmer Rouge regime.

Every Cham has a devastating personal story to tell. "The Khmer Rouge killed over half of my family. I escaped to the Thai border, passing as Khmer," said the imam at the Chrang Chamres mosque. "There are still many Chams who live as Khmers because the situation is still so unsettled and they're afraid something could happen again." He lives in a house with some of his 30 grandchildren and does not take any of their lives for granted.

Thousands of Kampuchean Khmers and Chams were bludgeoned to death at the extermination camp of the Choeung Ek "Killing Fields" outside of Phnom Penh. Cows graze in the gaping mass-burial pits, the soil still visibly impregnated with bits of cloth and bones. Over 8000 disinterred skulls are stacked according to age behind the glass panels of a memorial erected in 1988. As we returned to the car, our guide said quietly: "One of those skulls is my father."

Later, we arrived for dinner at Abdullah Ben Yousef's house in Prek Kdam, not far north of Chrang Chamres. Security in the area was somewhat unsettled, but the sight of an AK-47 assault rifle beside the bed - and the presence of the local police chief - assured me I was in safe hands. Abdullah's spacious house and new car, the only one in the village, were evidence that his lumber business was prospering, making him among the wealthiest men in the village. Abdullah was fortunate enough to make the Hajj to Makkah in 1988 and his walls are covered with souvenirs and pictures of his pilgrimage. In the past two years, in an indication things are gradually returning to normal, a total of 55 Kampuchean Chams have made the Hajj.

Delicious smells wafted from the cookhouse on the far end of the veranda, where Abdullah's wife Fatima prepared dinner. Food was served on the floor: dishes of fish, one smothered in ginger, garlic and green onions, another with peppers. Rice and a salad of cucumber and green tomatoes - and Coca Cola - completed the meal. The men dined separately, while Fatima and the children watched. I chewed self-consciously, each swallow eliciting giggles from the children as my Adam's apple bobbed up and down.

To my surprise and disappointment, shortly after we'd finished eating, my host announced we would have to head back to Phnom Penh. I asked to stay longer, but the translator explained that "bad men are on the road" and "it's not safe to have foreigner in car." Several people had been killed recently at nearby Angkor Wat. As we drove back, the long stretches of dark, empty road seemed interminable. Several times, we were stopped at roadblocks manned by local militiamen, and the Marlboros I had given as a gift to my hosts were handed out the window to the soldiers. When I was dropped off at my hotel in Phnom Penh, I gave Abdullah my last pack of cigarettes and a few dollar bills in case they needed to pay a "toll" on the return trip home.

The next morning, we returned to Prek Kdam. From behind the village mosque, we could hear a chorus of children's voices reciting the Qur'an, in that melodious lilt that helps youngsters remember. The children squirmed on wooden benches, laboring over pages of Arabic script. My appearance in the classroom doorway caused an instant uproar, and the teacher beckoned me in.

Mohammed Abdul Hamid has lived in Malaysia for 15 years and visits here periodically to teach the children English, Malay and Arabic. He pointed to the bare bricks and said, "The school has been undergoing construction for four years. Sometimes the UNTAC [United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia] soldiers from Muslim countries come and help us. But as you can see, we have a way to go."

I asked the children what they wanted to do when they grew up. They responded with enthusiastic flurries of hands when I suggested a doctor or a teacher; being a fisherman also seemed desirable, while a few wanted to be movie stars. Three boys and one girl - who looked around and then lowered her hand - wanted to drive a truck. Interestingly, the notion of a government job produced much giggling and few hands.

Through the translator, I urged them to listen to their teacher and study hard, so they could one day contribute to the rebuilding of their country. I asked if they had any questions for me - expecting some to be curious about where I was from and what I was doing in their country. One girl, about 12, timidly raised her hand and asked, "Would you like to contribute some money for the construction of our school?" She was practical and to the point; how could I refuse? I advised the teacher to keep an eye on that one; with such children, the future of the Chams would be assured.

Boston writer-photographer Bill Strubbe has a long-standing interest in Islamic culture and history, and writes articles dealing with the world's cultural and environmental diversity.

This article appeared on pages 10-15 of the March/April 1993 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for March/April 1993 images.