Cham: People of an ancient race seek to fulfill a promise made while living in war-torn Cambodia

Posted on October 27, 2012

When the Khmer Rouge burned down Chrok Romeat village, 24-year-old Zahrah Sos, her husband, son and newborn daughter traveled to the countryside. It was 1973, and the beginning of a horrific era in Cambodia. Pol Pot, the leader of the Khmer Rouge, was gradually gaining power. Zahrah and her devout Muslim family ended up living in tents in Cheung Kou, a forested area that had never been inhabited by humans before.

There, the Khmer Rouge forced men to work the fields, and women to grind the rice. Khmer Rouge, translated to red Khmers (Cambodian), was the name given to the followers of the communist party in Cambodia. They would become the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979.

Everything was done collectively, and the Khmer Rouge controlled what happened at every moment. They began working at sunrise, ate a communal lunch, and worked again until their communal dinner.

She, along with her family, quickly learned that running away or refusing to obey meant death. They noticed men and women disappearing one after another. Zahrah watched as Khmer Rouge leaders collected men to “work,” but she never saw those men return. Stories began to surface.

The genocidal communist government aspired to cleanse Cambodia of all affluence. Khmer Rouge leaders arrested, tortured and eventually executed anyone suspected to be an “enemy.”

Among the enemies were minorities, artists, musicians, writers, professionals, intellectuals (even people who wore glasses), and anyone with ties to the former government. But what shook Zahrah and her family to the core was the targeting of Muslims. The Khmer Rouge made it clear that practicing any type of religion, which involved a god or leader other than the communist government, meant death.

One Imam who taught Quran was burned alive.

“We always thought we were going to be killed,” Zahrah told me. “We never felt like we were alive.”

Zahrah’s family heritage can be traced back a millennium to the Kingdom of Champa, in what is now southern and central Vietnam where the religion was Islam. Champa was eventually invaded and taken over by the Vietnamese. Today, only the Cham people and language remain from that kingdom. However, because they once lived under strict communist rule, the Cham do not identify with the ancient culture; instead, they identify themselves as Cambodian Muslims, or Khmer Islam.

In their hearts, Zahrah and her family remained devoted to Islam while living under the Khmer Rouge. Despite fear of punishment, some found ways to continue following their religion. They prayed in the dead of night and fasted without anyone knowing — difficult to do with Khmer Rouge soldiers patrolling at all hours. Though forbidden in Islam, Cambodian Muslims were forced to eat pork under threat of death.

Once they were free, they promised themselves they would go back to practicing Islam.

They lived like this for years, moving by foot from village to village. In 1979, the same year Vietnam invaded Cambodia and ousted the Khmer Rouge, Zahrah and her family ended up on the Cambodian and Thai border at a refugee camp where they would live for a few months until they were relocated permanently. Zahrah’s family hoped to live in Malaysia — a Muslim country where they would be free to practice Islam unconditionally.

However, destiny favored America — a non-Muslim country, but a nation of immigrants founded on freedom of religion. If they were going to live in a non-Muslim country, then they would do so together.

There is an old Cham saying: It’s easy to take one stick and break it. Breaking two is just as easy. Take a hundred, and it will be impossible to break any one of them as a group.

That was the mindset of the Cham who escaped Cambodia. They would live alongside each other, to support and look after each other.

Zahrah and her family ended up living among 100 Cham families in a Santa Ana condominium complex with Chinese, Latinos, Laotians and other Cambodian refugees.

Every family here talks about its journey to America differently. But all of the Cham trace their stories back to war-stricken Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge ruled.

The older men especially remember the time they could not practice Islam. Now they live life fulfilling the promise they made while living under communist rule — practicing Islam to the fullest.

Outside their condominium, Cham women cook at their front door dressed in traditional Cambodian garb. They wear long silk skirts and a khmer kroma, a scarf worn around the head or neck — setting them apart from the other ethnic women in the area.

The khmer kroma is also referred to as hijab when it is worn on the head for modesty by Muslim women.

Just as they would if they were still in Cambodia, the Cham families here send their children to afterschool Islamic studies classes. The young Cham are taught the do’s and don’ts in Islam, and expected to follow what they are taught. They learn to read and memorize the Quran, but they never learn to understand the book for themselves.

Some young women don the hijab like their mothers and grandmothers, but others have become more Americanized, and some are searching for a middle ground.

After reading the Quran for herself, Faris Sos, Zahrah’s daughter, decided she wouldn’t cover her hair. It’s not required according to how she read the verses regarding modesty.

Living among non-Muslims, Faris felt like she wasn’t at peace watching the other girls in the neighborhood live “normal” lives while she stayed at home being an obedient daughter. After years of internal strife, she decided to research Islam on her own and read the Quran and translation for herself.

She found that the Islam she was taught at school and at home was not the Islam she understood for herself.

“I am glad I read the Quran for myself because it so beautiful for all the right reasons,” she said via email.

Although she had to go to Islamic studies and Quran classes, Faris had the opportunity to learn Islam on her own terms, a luxury many Cham women in Cambodia will never experience.

At prayer time, the Cham men in this community head to the mosque located in the center of a condominium complex and sit down in the apartment that they transformed into a mosque. They greet each other with the Islamic greeting, “Asalamu alaikum,” which means “peace be upon you.”

More than 8,000 miles away, the same words are used to greet fellow Cham in Cambodia.

Not all Cham escaped Cambodia. There are still more than 230,000 Cham scattered throughout all over Cambodia, 1.6 percent of the entire Khmer population. It is not known how many reside in each district and province.

There is a Muslim fishing village called Boun tucked away in Koh Kong on the west coast of Cambodia. It is next to impossible to find this village in cyberspace. It was here where I found how location affects how religion develops over time.

Cham men fish while their wives and daughters cook and see to their homes.

Here, they are isolated and untouched by other religious groups. They are free to be as Muslim as they want, and they practice to the greatest degree possible.

Every woman covers her hair and body — how much depends on her and the family she was raised by. There are women who cover everything save their eyes, and others who cover their hair with a thin scarf while wearing pants and a long-sleeves shirt.

There is not one, but two mosques in the village.

One mosque is old and worn out. It has two stories, wooden banisters and a minaret where the call for prayer is performed. Chipped blue paint betrays its age. The other mosque was built by Arabs a few years ago to meet the large demand of people wanting to pray Juma’ah on Fridays, the most spiritual day of the week for Muslims. However, time and poor craftsmanship have left their mark on the caved-in roof.

On Fridays, Cham men pack both mosques including the rickety balcony of the older one. When the time for afternoon prayer comes, a tenor voice recites the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer:

“God is greater,” the man recites in Arabic from memory. “I bear witness there is no deity except God. I bear witness that Muhammad is the messenger of God. Come to prayer. Come to success. God is greater. There is no deity except God.”

With Juma’ah prayer just starting in Boun village, the hustle and bustle comes to a crawl. Dressed Arab tunics and robes called kaftans, the men make their way towards the mosques to wash up and pray. The older men cover their heads with keffiyehs over their kufis, a cultural headdress for men. The younger boys only wear kufis.

It is the only time during the week when the women are free to roam without a headscarf. In the off chance a tourist should visit their village on a Friday during prayer time, the women of Boun run into their shacks to cover up. Some of them admit they don’t know why.

While visiting Cambodia, I met Sanah Ismail, 19, who has been wearing hijab since she was 10 years old. I told her I was a Muslim interested in learning about the Cham. She was as interested in me as I was with her. In between my questions, she asked some of her own.

Like a bug she couldn’t swat away, she asked one question over and over again: “Why don’t you cover your hair?”

I told her that my parents never asked me to wear a headscarf. No woman in my family wears it. I could tell she was bothered that I didn’t wear hijab like she did. Naturally, I asked her why she decided to wear it. She didn’t know why, but she added that she wasn’t forced to wear it.

“You don’t have to wear it,” Sanah told me through a translator, “but you will be held accountable and punished by Allah if you don’t.”

She is happy to be Muslim, but sometimes she’s disappointed.

“Sometimes I don’t want to wear a headscarf.”

To understand more about Cham customs in Cambodia, I met with the Imam in Boun village. He spoke with me while 15 other men from the village observed.

“We believe in Allah who made the land, water and world,” said the Imam, Abdullah Hassan. “Allah wrote the Quran and there is no bad thing in the Quran. If He says to do something, then we must do it.”

“Does anyone question what they are taught?” I asked the Imam.

He looked at me, and then he looked at the other men. One of the others answered.

“There is no question.”

Like Sanah, the men were curious about who I was and how I could call myself Muslim if I didn’t wear the hijab.

“Some people know the words, but they are not Muslim,” one of the younger men told me in an almost accusatory fashion. “Woman are like diamonds,” he added. “So we hide them.”

The elderly Cham who live in Santa Ana are much like the Cham who still live in Boun village in Cambodia. They stick to the written word and tradition. There is no questioning. There is no change.

But it is inevitable. Change — whether it’s physical, psychological or spiritual — always follows war. The destructive Khmer Rouge era in Cambodia was no different.

While agricultural reform changed the once lush lands of Cambodia to famine-ridden wastelands, social reform and genocide took a developing nation back to ground zero.

Coming to America after the war presented a different kind of change for the Cham — one that was unanticipated by Cham elders and Muslim scholars. Living here among Christians, Jews and other religious groups showed Muslims like Faris that there is a different way of looking at Islam, a way that doesn’t have to be so rigid.

The two Cham communities trace their histories back to the Khmer Rouge, but where they ended up after the war changed the way they look at their religion forever.

Regardless, the two communities are only looking for one thing: A place where they can be free to practice their way of life, Islam.

Originally published on, for Cal State Fullerton’s reporting on minorities class.

Posted in: Features