A Reflection on Art, History, and Travel Through Cambodia

Words: Dr. Emily A. Holmes Images: Dr. Mary Campbell

During the first week of January, Dr. Mary Campbell (Behavioral Sciences) and I travelled to Cambodia as part of a partnership between CBU and the Harpswell Foundation. Harpswell’s mission is to empower a new generation of women leaders in Cambodia, and they accomplish that mission through two dormitories and a leadership center for university women in Phnom Penh, along with a school in the village of Tramung Chrum, fifty miles from Phnom Penh. (Harpswell was founded by MIT physicist and New York Times bestselling author Alan Lightman, who has close connections to Memphis.) Two of Harpswell’s students will be joining us here at CBU for a year starting this fall, enrolling in classes and living on our campus. This is an incredibly exciting opportunity for us to welcome and learn from these bright young women who are developing the skills to become leaders in their country.

Our week was packed as we learned about Harpswell and the history and culture of Cambodia. We began by visiting the two dormitories built by Harpswell and meeting some of the 84 young women who live there. Numerous studies by international development organizations have shown that educating and empowering women is the single best way to help developing countries move out of crushing poverty. But in Cambodia, the brutal Khmer Rouge targeted the educated population for genocide during the 1970s. Although universities have been rebuilt and reopened in the capital city of Phnom Penh, they do not provide student housing. Male students from the provinces typically live in the Buddhist monasteries while they attend classes, but female students are not allowed to live with the monks. Harpswell was founded in 2006 when Dr. Lightman and his daughter met a young woman who explained that women students lived outdoors, cooking and sleeping underneath the raised university buildings where they attended their classes. Two dormitories now provide housing, meals, and healthcare for 84 women students, and, in addition to room and board, these students are enrolled in an intensive leadership program through which they develop critical thinking skills, practice their English, and participate in on-going programming designed to connect them with contemporary issues in Cambodia and the world.

These young women are smart, out-going, ambitious, and incredibly impressive. They come from poor villages all over the country; without Harpswell, they would likely be working as rice farmers, garment factory workers, or in arranged marriages. Living together in the dorms, four to a room, they have developed a powerful bond. They cook together, clean together, and call each other “sisters.” They recently formed a Harpswell Alumnae Association to stay connected and to continue their support of one another. Many of the graduates of the program are now working in education, in NGOs, in banking, engineering, and architecture firms, or for the government. I have no doubt that during our visit we were meeting the future leaders of Cambodia – the next Secretary of Education, U.N. Ambassador, or even Prime Minister.

Our visit also required coming face to face with Cambodia’s history—both its trauma and its glory. In 1975, Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh and began a program of cultural cleansing and social engineering that led to the deaths of over 2 million people, fully a quarter of the country’s population at the time. The educated and wealthy elite and those considered politically subversive or undesirable were targeted for torture and execution, first in Tuol Sleng (a former high school converted into a prison) and later in the “killing fields” outside the city, where mass executions took place to the sound of blaring music. We visited both Tuol Sleng, now a museum, and one of the nearby killing fields, now a memorial site to the victims. In addition to the direct victims of the genocide, Pol Pot’s agricultural reform efforts led to the deaths, by starvation and treatable disease, of an additional 1 million people. Almost everyone we met in Cambodia had lost at least one family member during the regime’s time in power; trials are still taking place; and many of the people responsible for the genocide still hold positions of power. It is incredibly important to bear witness to these painful events in Cambodian history and to overcome the complicity of our ignorance. (For more insight, I highly recommend the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” about a New York Times reporter and his Cambodian assistant who are caught up in the events.)

But we also witnessed the magnificent beauty of Cambodia, both ancient and contemporary. We travelled to Siem Reap to hike among the medieval temples of Angkor, watching the sun rise over the famous temple of Angkor Wat, the largest religious site in the world. Most of these temples were Hindu in origin, some dedicated to Vishnu and some to Shiva, with numerous altars and statues depicting Hindu myths. Others were Buddhist, built by kings who had converted to Mahayana Buddhism, with statues of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva of compassion. Because the site has been much used by Hollywood, we couldn’t help but think of Indiana Jones and Tomb Raider, but I was overwhelmed by the religious significance, beauty, and peace attached to this sacred place. Even though the temples are no longer used officially, I witnessed numerous visitors (pilgrims, really), both monks and laypeople, venerating images of the Buddha and leaving flowers and sticks of incense, along with their prayers.

The beautiful signs of contemporary life could be seen in the Theravadan Buddhist monks walking in pairs each morning with their begging bowls; in the lush and abundant fruit trees all over the city; in the woman peddling roasted snails along the road outside our hotel; and in the chickens wandering the streets. But the vibrancy of life was perhaps best seen in the markets: busy, bustling places with narrow aisles that were often suffocatingly hot, visited by many people on a daily basis for their goods. Transactions are cash only, Cambodian riel or U.S. dollar (preferred), and bartering is an expected part of the social ritual. The vegetables, fruit, meat, seafood, and eggs were incredibly fresh (the seafood was typically still alive), sold daily, and without refrigeration. Any other goods you might need were also available—car parts, bedspreads, clothing, electronics, counterfeit goods, souvenirs. We visited four different markets, from a village crossroads to the large art-deco Central Market to the Russian Market whose name recalls its history as a site of Soviet imports. Each market represented the lively work of hundreds of small business owners and a vibrant set of relationships distributing these goods, whether imported or locally grown, raised, or caught. Life goes on, even after genocide.

Life was going on in another way in the tiny village of Tramung Chrum (pop. 1000), about 50 miles outside of Phnom Penh (or about 3 hours by bus over bumpy, dusty roads). Harpswell built a school in this village in 2005 and continues to maintain a close relationship with its population. A few days prior to our visit, the wife of the village leader was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident. This tragedy hung over the village, and their pain was palpable. Nevertheless, the village leader and his family generously and hospitably insisted on welcoming us to visit and see some of the sites associated with Harpswell: the school, full of smiling, curious children; a small sewing business (Red Dirt Road) owned by the daughter of the village leader, who employs a number of other women sewing high-quality purses and scarves, at a living wage, for a Western market; and a mosque built by the Lightman family. The village of Tramung Chrum is inhabited by traditional Cham Muslims, an ethnic and religious minority in a predominantly Buddhist country, whose practice of Sunni Islam differs somewhat from majority Islam. The Cham believe in and pray to one God, Allah, and observe Muslim holidays and festivals, but they also incorporate pre-Islamic ritual magical practices into their religion and are less focused on the five pillars (creed, daily prayers, pilgrimage, fasting, charity) than other Sunni Muslims. All religions were banned under the Khmer Rouge, and Cham Muslims were particularly persecuted, their culture and customs officially abolished, and their mosques destroyed. Like the monasteries of the Theravadan Buddhist majority, Cham Islam has slowly revived, and the village of Tramung Chrum now benefits from the spiritual leadership of its Imam and the place-making value of its newly constructed mosque.

Dr. Emily Holmes teaching at a symposium

At the end of the week, we celebrated two events: a reunion of Harpswell Alumnae, celebrating ten years of educating women and their numerous accomplishments, and the annual Harpswell seminar. The Alumnae event included a performance of local musicians from Cambodian Living Arts, along with a demonstration of Apsara dance, a graceful and highly stylized form of classical dance depicting the Apsara divinities, who are dancing feminine celestial beings of Hindu and Buddhist mythology and symbols of beauty, grace, and wisdom (images of Apsaras are found all over Cambodia, including in the temples of Angkor, and an Apsara holding a book is the official symbol of the Harpswell foundation). These ancient art forms were almost lost under the Khmer Rouge, who targeted artists and musicians for execution. Survivors of the regime have worked to revive the arts in the country and to rebuild a sense of national identity around these art forms.

On our last full day in the country, we attended the annual Harpswell seminar, this year focused on the theme of mindfulness. Each year, Harpswell organizes a seminar on a given theme so that students can learn from professionals from a variety of fields. Along with two other representatives of different religious traditions (Rabbi Micah Greenstein of Temple Israel, here in Memphis, and the Venerable Yos Hut Kemacaro of Wat Lanka, Phnom Penh), I had the opportunity to give a lecture on the theme of “Mindfulness in the Christian Tradition.” The lecture was translated on the spot from English to Khmer by a very talented Harpswell student! Our talks all focused on the importance of mindfulness, contemplation, and awareness of the present moment in our daily lives, and particular practices that can help us develop mindfulness. Most inspiring to me was the fact that this seminar was held in the “Hall of Great Women” on the top floor of one of the Harpswell dormitories. The room was decorated with images of great women from around the world: Wangari Maathai, Toni Morrison, Malala Yousafzai, Sandra Day O’Connor, and Aung San Suu Kyi, among others. And, of course, the hall was filled with great women, too: the women leaders of tomorrow.

Travel has the effect of making you see your own life in a different perspective, and at the end of the week I noted a few takeaways that will stay with me. First, our material lives in the United States could stand to be a whole lot simpler, less wasteful, and less energy intensive. To take one small example, Cambodians live, for the most part, without air conditioning, in a place where daily temperatures hover between 93 and 95 degrees. Many wear second-hand clothing. They share vehicles. And they eat smaller meals that are much healthier (fish, vegetables, rice, eggs, fruit) than the standard American diet. There are lessons here for more prosperous societies as we adapt to a changing climate and a less abundant future.

Second, relationships matter. Connections with other people, particularly people with different life experiences from our own, are our best hope for peace. Whether it takes the form of friendship, mentoring, networking, asking for advice, or simply sharing a meal and a conversation with someone we will never see again, our relationships matter deeply. When we ask about and listen to one another’s stories, we engage in a practice of attention. We learn how to be mindful and grateful in each moment. Etiquette and ritual can help facilitate these connections, but the relationships themselves transcend formalities.

Third, a liberal arts education matters, both in developing countries and here at CBU. Unfortunately, it is something we often take for granted in the United States. We cannot move forward as a global community without understanding the history of violence, war, and genocide, and our own complicity in it. We cannot understand the world we live in without knowing something about the religions of the world, their practices and beliefs, and their impact on people’s daily lives, for good or for ill. Education matters for everyone, but it is particularly valuable for those who have been historically disadvantaged by their position in society due to their class, race, or gender. This trip made clear to us how much women’s education matters in particular. In order for women to overcome the multiple barriers they, and their children, face—child marriage, domestic violence, malnutrition, and sexual trafficking and assault—we must be willing to invest in and prioritize women’s education here and around the world.  Education gives women and children the best path out of poverty and the best hope of living meaningful and fulfilling lives. In that vein, I hope you will join me in welcoming our two Cambodian Harpswell students here at CBU in the fall and take every opportunity to learn from them, just as they are here to learn from us.    

Dr. Emily A. Holmes is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and Philosophy at Christian Brothers University. She is the author of Flesh Made Word: Medieval Women Mystics, Writing, and the Incarnation (2013) and the co-editor of Women, Writing, Theology: Transforming a Tradition of Exclusion (2011) and Breathing with Luce Irigaray (2013). Her teaching and research interests include women’s writing practices, feminist theology, religious pluralism, and the spirituality and ethics of eating.
Posted by Josh Colfer at 10:25 AM

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