across Southeast Asia:
The Inter-Weaving of Histories & Identities
"To be ignorant of what happened before you were born is to be ever a child. For what is [wo]man's lifetime unless the memory of past events is woven with those of earlier times?"- Marcus Tullius Cicero
Southeast Asia: Colonization
Colonization also had a significant impact on the developments of Southeast Asian countries and communities. The first settlers in Southeast Asia came from southern
Though exploring these impacts was not the focus of my work, I did find some similarities of descending from a history of colonization between myself (being that my familial lineage is from British colonized India) and the Southeast Asian Muslims I met through my research. One of these aspects was the presence of "shadism" and the internalized belief of European/Anglo-Saxon/Caucasian superiority. For example, when I spoke with women in particular, they indicated that the fairer-skinned a woman is, the higher her chances of being pursued for marriage. When I spoke with men, they indicated that fairer-skinned men are believed (hidden belief reflected in pattern of behavior) to be stronger and more intelligent and usually are able to get better jobs. Note that the concept of "shadism" (a form of oppression in which fairer shades of skin are preferred), like many social phenomenon, is a hidden belief/value and an experience reflected more so in behavior and social patterns rather than verbally acknowledged or directly stated in an interview. Certainly, there are other factors to shadism such as classism and historical distinctions of outside-land labourers who were darker-skinned due to being in direct sunlight for most of the day for most of their lives. (Note that the existence and extent of shadism is debated pre-, post-, and during, colonial periods). There is, however, tremendous research and scholarly writing on deeply entrenched 'left-overs' from colonization and on the multiple and over-layered methods in which colonization has impacted, and continues to shape, both individual psyches and communities in all aspects of life.
Islam came to the world in the 7th century from
As a Canadian Muslim woman with a Pakistani background, I have had an interest in learning about my own history. I started with researching my Sunni Syed Muslim family, with particular our name, Bokhari. I traced our roots back to the City of
Bukhara was a major hub of the Silk Road, a route which connected west and east Asia, leading to much of the interwoven histories and cultural tapestries we can find today across Asia and parts of Europe.
In 1408, my ancestors left the Persian City of
At the same, I am also very much an ‘outsider’ in many respects to Southeast Asian cultures, which in itself is a vast region with so many distinct cultures and identities within it. Some of the major differences were my status as a Canadian visitor, difference in languages, my profession as a social worker, as well as my own socio-economic status. I had various privileges due to my Canadian nationality, my lighter skin-shade compared to those I was working with (often times I was mistaken for caucasian-western), my education and (perceived) status as a (North American) social worker, researcher or "expert". Certainly, I was somewhere on the large spectrum of being an “insider-outsider” and in some cases throughout my work in Southeast Asia I was closer to an insider than outsider and in other cases more outsider than in. This was dependent on the environment in which I was in, whether it was a poor rural village, a large company, a government office, an elite middle-class party or simply walking down the street. This of course impacted the way that I was received, the way I related to those around me, my experiences and the way that I interpreted and made sense of my experiences.
Importantly, because I shared both a Muslim and Indian history with Southeast Asians, certain parts of who I am were suddenly validated in new public and sometimes strange ways. This includes the experience of being amongst a large community that looked like me (or of similar shades, race and ethnicity), spoke similar languages (i.e. Hindi in Malaysia & Singapore), hearing old Indian music blasted on the festive streets that I only listened to among closest of friends, hearing the 'azan' sometimes as I walked by a masjid, openly seeing people/professionals wearing varieties of non-western clothing, speaking languages and talking about topics so openly in public (professional and official state spaces) that I was used to doing so only in small private circles. This was a beautiful experience and one leading to significant personal insight.
Islam came to the birthplace of my ancestors, the City of
The City of Bukhara
Traveled since then by the likes of Alexander the Great (Sikandar) and Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol empire (which later founded the Moghul empire in South Asia), this route was a means of not only economic trade, but also cultural, religious and political exchange which has shaped our global realities to this day. For example, one of the reasons that European settlers were attracted to the Southeast Asian region was for spices and herbs only available in the far east. Given the importance of spice trading, one of the reasons that have been attributed to Southeast Asians converting to Islam was that of the desire to create a “brotherhood of spice traders”, a mutual identity and a sense of belonging to this particular community of livelihood.
Prey Tom Commune (Cambodia), is home to a Muslim village called Dom Nak Jangea, and within it a small mosque titled Noor-e-Janna (seen here in pic). This mosque was originally built in 1973 and then rebuilt in 1994. The mosque had to be rebuilt because it was destroyed during civil war under the regime of the Khmer Rouge (1975-1979), a communist party who fought to destroy any form of religion, development or westernization. This particular Muslim village has 54 families, who earn livelihoods as rice farmers, by fishing and some as local Tuk-tuk drivers (similar to Indian rickshaws, a cabin-carriage pulled by motor-bike).
I spent some time with Imam Matdad, 75 years of age, who was elected the Imam for this village 10 years ago. He told me that his entire family was killed by the Khmer Rouge. He also talked to me about his Islamic teachings and ways of life being centered around peace and serenity. He is Sunni and indicated that almost all Muslims in
One of the ways in which I connected with the members of the village was the same way in which my ancestors traveling via the
Seen here is Masjid Asa Karim, built in 1962 in
Seen in the picture here are the fishing boats of the villagers. Fishing is one of the main livelihoods for many Muslims in smaller poorer villages, along with rice farming.
Seen in the picture below is the Imam of Masjid Asa Karim, 83. He welcomed me into the village and spent much with me telling me of the history that he has seen during his lifetime as well as that which was passed on to him by previous generations orally and through story-telling.
In Indonesia, (as with Cambodia, Laos, Brunei and parts of Vietnam) I found mostly extremely poor villages and some small elite circles of Muslims with everything in between this range (although, I spend much of my time in rural villages rather than urban and middle-class areas).
This was confirmed when I spoke with various women directly. Women were surprised to hear that in America, working women may only get 6 weeks for maternity leave. Women I spoke with who worked in international companies, or were professionals, indicated they found it odd that events that occur in everyones lives (giving birth, getting married, death in family, care taking of sick and elderly) are not events that women can easily work around in America (from what they hear from western counterparts). Certainly, Southeast Asian Muslim women also faced gender discrimination and experienced constant challenges of balancing home and work life, but felt that it would be harder (based on what they knew, heard and read) in western countries. They also felt that (caucasian) western women were too inwardly concerned, such as a high focus on looks, appearance, way of dress and associated judgments/ insecurities, as well as this false notion of 'women's liberation' being solely on (economic) independence. The women here were providing an example of the concept of 'independence' in the east, which I myself have found over and over again in all my time in the east. The issue of 'independence' is viewed very differently in eastern philosophies of self, in which we are all co-dependent whether we acknowledge it or not, because we all function within a societal space of some sort. Even though these women were middle-class professional women whom I was speaking with, they seemed to have a strong sense of family and community values similar to the women in the villages. They also indicated that this was the norm in their locations, even given diversity of religions, ethnicities and cultures, and this is why they feel it would be even harder in North America, because not everyone else around you would have the same regard for the priority of family in one's life.
Unlike, what I was used to in
In speaking with Muslims in Malaysia, Singapore & Thailand (countries in better economic shape than Cambodia, Brunei and Laos), many confirmed the history of the spread of Islam across Southeast Asia that I read about and as I have described earlier. I found similarities in
"Those who authentically commit themselves to people must re-examine themselves constantly." - Paulo Freire
To all of you whom I met along my journey, I want to thank you. I am grateful to all of the Muslims of Southeast Asia who shared your time and stories with me, as well as welcomed me into your homes as a friend. I feel extremely privileged to have known you and to have had the opportunity to learn from you.
"Whoever wishes to foresee the future must consult the past; for human events ever resemble those of preceding times. This arises from the fact that they are produced by [wo]men who ever have been, and ever shall be, animated by the same passions, and thus they necessarily have the same results." - Machiavelli
I dedicate this project to the man who brought me up from an infant, the late Syed Talib (Shah) Hussain Bokhari (~1912-2007), who was my first mentor in life and who helped construct my sense of history and identity. It was through many conversations with him over the years, and more so in his last difficult months, that I was able to document our history through his story-telling. I am blessed to have had this opportunity... and yet... the feeling remains, that there was, is, so much more, more to ask, more to hear, more to learn....just as how Abu always said it would be.
As I now turn to my broader family 'historians' to fill the gaps, in his honour, and for all the elders in the world who are the keepers and tellers of histories, I continue to be a student of 'our past'.