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Beyond the Mekong

By Sitwat Hashmi
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I was woken up by my roommate, Kimberly Lee, at around 7:30 AM telling me to get ready for
my Eid prayers as she readied herself for the same errand. We were not only going to the Jamia
Masjid (est. 1970) to observe the Eid prayers, but also to unearth a story that undeniably lived
therein. The story of the faces blurred to the back of the plains of Laos. The story of one of the
fastest growing faiths in the world, existing merely as a shadow in the Lao community. The story
of the Lao minority Muslims.

After performing my wudu, donning my somewhat new clothes and eating my raspberry flavored
choco pie, Kim and I headed out of the door, our backs laden with recording equipment. I had
called the only Muslim I knew in Vientiane, Jamil Zahid, to ensure that my non-Muslim friends
would not be met with adversary at the gates of the mosque, and that we would be allowed to
conduct interviews and film freely inside the mosque. Jamil Zahid, whom I knew through
ordering my Sahur (morning meal for the fasting month), was very kind and helpful in giving me
the information I needed - the prayer times, the dos and donts, the ifs and buts of being in Jamia
Masjid. I felt as prepared as I possibly could in a foreign place where I did not speak the
language and had not come across a single Muslim religious entity thus far. I knew not what to
expect and therefore, I knew not how to prepare myself to face it. I found some solace in what
Dr. Robert Cooper had told us in our session with him just the day before. He had said that all
religious communities, including the Imams of the only two mosques in all of Laos (situated in
Vientiane) were very tolerant and open-minded in religious matters.

Once I entered the mosque, I noticed that my roommate and the student travel guides (Petch,
Parn and Mook) were no longer tailing behind me. I exited the mosque to find them waiting at
the door. Immediately my mind slipped into panic, conjuring up the worst possible scenarios in
my head, had they been stopped by someone?

Why arent you guys coming in? I asked them reluctantly as some of the student guides took
pictures of the mosques exterior.

Are we allowed? Kim asked simply. Slightly relieved at the thought that they were not stopped
by someone but were being cautious by themselves, I gestured for them to come in. I reminded
them of what Mr. Zahid had told me about it being completely normal for even whites to visit
and pray at Jamia Masjid.

Once inside, we were able to navigate through the mosque with the help of the locals there. Petch
had to go to the gents area, while Kim, Parn, Mook and I went to the ladies. We listened to the
sermon quietly or we tried at least. Our equipment was garnering a lot of attention. Though the
women permitted us to film them, they remained curious. We were being bombarded with
questions from every side-

Where are you from?

What are you studying?
Will you come to our shop with me after the interview?
Have you been to Singapore? My son didnt like Singapore.
Are you Muslim? Yes. Why are you wearing these white strings? Sigh.

Once the Takbir sounded, I was more relieved than I had ever been at the sound of those words
because the barrage of questions stopped, and everyone rose to their feet, ready for prayer. The
men outside had noticed the camera crew standing outside (due to lack of space in the ladies
area) and had laid out a woven mat for them to sit on while the rest of us prayed.

After prayer, I dashed to the mens side and asked one of them to inquire if the Imam would be
willing to sit down and speak to me. Immediately, he disappeared and reappeared just a few
minutes later, arm in arm with the Imam. The man introduced the Imam to me and my crew and I
proceeded to do the same. After explaining who we were and what we aimed to gain through the
interview, we hit record.
Ssfdfsf: Imam of Jamia Masjid
The Imam was very pleasant to talk to. He listened to me patiently as I struggled to construct
sentences in Urdu. He told me that though he was a Lao citizen, he had been born in Burma and
had some of his family in Pakistan. Much like him, majority of the South Asian Muslims in Laos
come from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Burma. The Imam informed us of a Cambodian and
Laotian Muslim community in Laos to whom belonged the second mosque, Masjid Azhar
(est.1986). When I commented on the significant difference between the attendance rate of the
women in comparison to the men, the Imam said that Masjid Azhar had a bigger population of
women as compared to Jamia Masjid. When asked how the Muslims dealt with only having two
mosques in all of Laos which are both only in Vientiane, he simply said that none of it hindered
the Muslim community. This, he admitted, was because majority of Laotian Muslims resided in
Vientiane, and those that did not, need only come on special occasions like Eid.

I had also noticed, during prayers, that people were praying in two different manners. Some
people would cross their arms on their torso, like myself. While others would rest their arms
straight to their sides. I asked the Imam about this and he explained that in Laos there existed
two schools of thoughts of Muslims, Sunni and Shafi. He further elaborated by saying that the
two lived rather harmoniously together and did not argue or fight over much; not even over what
was halal (permissible) and what was haram (forbidden).

After the brief exchange of backgrounds, I began to ask him the real questions. I asked him about
the Constitution of Laos and the clause of religion it bore, allowing an individual to change, exit
and interpret their religion. I asked the Imam how he felt about the statement and what his ruling
was, Islamically, on the matter. He told me that none of the mentioned things were a problem at
all. If someone was to enter Islam, he would first ensure that it was being done out of freewill
and not out of fear or coercion. Vice versa, he commented on someone exiting Islam, as not
being an individuals fault, but rather the sign of the whole community failing that particular
individual, causing them to leave the faith to search for what the Muslim community lacked,
elsewhere. For this, he said, it made no sense to condemn the individual, verbally or physically.
Rather, he regarded such instances as a wakeup call for the Muslim community to better and
improve themselves. He also added by saying that the Lao government did not include the
religion of their citizens on official documents like the passport, thus, there was no hindrance
from the government either in terms of changing and exiting religions.

Moreover, he commented on the rights of women and transgender individuals. He said that for
women, activities such as obtaining jobs were a normalcy in the community and so was not
wearing the hijab. No woman was to be frowned upon or ridiculed for doing (or not doing) either
one of those things, he said. For transgendered individuals, I questioned him if he would allow
them to practice the Islamic faith and enter mosques to pray as one next to others of their faith
(Islam). To these, he replied yes in a matter-of-fact way. As if, what I had asked had been
something that would not be problematic in the least.

Our conversation was then abruptly interrupted by one of the Imams friends who happened to be
a Lao (non-muslim) government official. When I asked him why he was here, the Imam simply
said that he was there for him, to wish him well on Eid. I was amazed and felt a sense of pride
fill me. Here I sat opposite to one of the leaders of our faith (Islam), who had no shame or
reluctance in calling a non-Muslim man his friend as he came by to wish him Eid. I asked the
Imam if his friend could briefly join us for the interview, to which he replied by saying there was
no point. He said that as he was a government official, I could not ask him questions and even if
I did, he would not answer them. It was at that moment that it hit me. No wonder the interview
had been so politically correct. Not once had he defamed the government, in fact, he had highly
praised them through the entirety of the interview. Admittedly, this upset and irritated me a little

that was until I remembered that even well-renowned personalities like Dr. Cooper had had
similar experiences in Laos where the government regulated everything, particularly religion.

The interview thereafter was short-lived, as not long after the first intrusion, there was a second
one. This time a man by the name of Muhammad Hussain, who was very willing to talk
alongside his family. He called his wife, three daughters and a young son upstairs to join the
interview. Two of his older sons remained outside. According to Hussain, they had spotted our
Ddgdg: Muhammad Hussain
I was both surprised and delighted by how much Hussain was willing to share with us. He,
unlike the Imam, did not hold back in voicing out his frustrations on the lack of opportunity the
Muslim community had, in regards to learning their own religion. The Imam had informed us
that the mosque held lessons of Quran after Maghrib (evening prayer) for children, but Hussain
was unhappy with this arrangement as well. He explained that prior to this program (which was
only a couple of months old), temporary teachers came from India, Pakistan and other countries
of the South Asian region to teach the children. This was ineffective because the teachers never
remained long enough for the children to learn the rulings of the religion as they grew.
Furthermore, commenting on the current Quran lessons, Hussain complained that many families,
like his, lived rather far from the mosque, thus, could not afford to send their kids to the mosque
at night. In addition to this, Hussain also expressed his frustrations over the fact that he was
unable to send his children to Burma. He talked about how Pakistanis, Indonesians and
Malaysians could send their children to the respective countries while he could not as his wife
was Lao and the Burmese government was not supportive towards his faith.

An interesting fact that I learned was that Hussain did not allow his children to leave the house
after 6 PM. This, he said, applied to all the daughters and the sons and extended to the fact that
they could not eat with non-Muslims, could not shop with non-Muslims, and could not socialize
with non-Muslims, outside of the daytime. Hussain feared that if he allowed this, his children
would be led astray and would turn to bad habits, such as drinking, which are haram (forbidden)
in Islam. When I asked one of his daughters, Maimonna, what she thought of these rules she told
me she was introverted so they did not affect her much. She was soon interrupted by her father
who then proceeded to mention the 6 PM curfew and his reasoning behind it in detail as stated
above. This was not the first time he had interrupted one of the girls, thus, frustrated, I found
myself talking to Maimonna on the way out of the mosque with her father far behind. I asked her
the same question (and recorded her response) regarding the rules of not eating outside (not even
at halal restaurants), the 6 PM curfew and the fact that her brothers had to follow the same rules.
Her responses did not change much but she did admit that her brothers were allowed more
leeway in certain aspects because, they are boys. I wish I could say I was surprised by this, but
this was exactly what I suspected and thus, wanted to speak with Maimonna in the absence of her

We departed with the family and the mosque on that note, but linger a little longer if you like and
listen to Maimonnas full response and much more, in the video below!
00Beyond The Mekong: Beyond The Mekong