Monday, 23 March 2009

"Cham Clichés" (7): The prayer rooms at Pochentong airport, Cambodia

Phnom Penh (Cambodia), 09/01/2009. The arrow indicates the direction to Mecca in the Muslim prayer room at Pochentong Airport.
©Vandy Rattana


By Emiko Stock

The stress of last-minute preparations is palpable. Suitcases and passengers get all piled up with precipitation in a Toyota Camry heading towards Pochentong airport. Ahmat leaves Kilometre 9 in a bad mood: he did tell the women not to be long as he wanted to pray one last time before departing... “Once there [at the airport], there is nowhere to pray. When we depart for Hajj [pilgrimage to Mecca], there are so many other Muslims that we all end up praying in the car park, but now, I won’t do it on my own!”

This was more than a year ago. Ahmat was on the plane to Malaysia to visit his daughter, at the exact time when he had to observe one of the five daily salat (Muslim ritual prayer). Today, Ahmat will be boarding the same plane, to meet his newborn grandson... And something has changed at Pochentong airport: it now has two Musallas, or two places allowing Muslim travellers to find spiritual rest.

Two small white-painted rooms, almost devoid of any decoration, are simply filled with immense calm... The vacuity emerging from that space could almost remind one of the canons of Japanese zen, or even the inspiration of some very minimalist design. The only decorative detail is an arrow-shaped sign pointing towards the Qiblah, i.e. the direction of Mecca which determines the orientation of the prayer, and a screen indicating the flight schedule, thus linking the faithful to the realities of other skies...

The first Musalla is located near the arrival terminal and can accommodate around twenty-five people in a total of 36 square metres, when the smaller version – 20m2 – is located on the first floor among the boarding rooms and allows ten people to observe salat.

The contribution made by the Société Concessionnaire des Aéroports (SCA) did not leave Cambodian Muslims cold: “My fellow Muslims often come to thank me for having contributed to provide that place for meditation. In all countries, especially those where there is a small minority of Muslims, there is always a room allowing us to observe our prayers, it is so important in our religion. We had to build one in Cambodia, for Cambodians who are departing and for foreign transient travellers too”, says Ahmad Yahya, who was at that time an advisor to the prime Minister, in charge of Islamic World Affairs and of that dossier.

Ahmad Yahya played an essential part in this turning point which he calls “historical” for Cambodian Muslims. In February 2008, he drafted a request to the prime Minister and the latter answered 2 weeks later with enthusiasm. Everything went quickly from then on: in the space of a month, the different government entities discuss and the SCA was assigned to the task. Their reaction did not take long to come: “There was little space available in the airport, it seemed difficult to build new premises, so we made a selection of the rooms which could potentially be vacant, and we proposed that to the Muslims representatives we were in contact with. Then, we talked together about the specific aspects that the place would require, like the proximity of the toilets for ablutions, or making the Koran and prayer mats available and clearly indicating the direction of the Qiblah”, one of the SCA representatives explains.

According to some, the project allegedly took shape after the visit of a Kuwaiti delegation in Cambodia. However, Mufti Sos Kamry, the religious chief of the Cambodian Muslim community, refutes the statement: “The idea was mentioned a while before. I have heard of that project, initiated by the SCA, for several years already, even as they were in the middle of rebuilding the airport. This is why we are grateful to them and the government: we never asked for anything and they themselves had the idea of offering us this present”.

This present, unlike mosques and Suraos throughout the country, could do without the usual building consent of the Mufti and the Ministry of Religions and Cults: “The aim of the Musalla is totally different. Themosque must at least gather forty Muslims under the direction of the Imam, and it is used for the five daily salat and the Jumat, the most important prayer in the week, observed on Fridays at midday. As for the Surao, it is mostly needed in small villages with low demography where, contrary to more populated towns, the mosque is too far away: people can gather there every day except Fridays for the five salat, even only two people do it. And the Musalla, unlike the mosque, does not formalise the person’s prayer wish. A long time ago, it allowed people to meditate as well as rest after a long trip. There, people should be able to both observe the ritualised salat, at set times during the day, and make one last prayer before their departure towards the unknown”, the Mufti details. His consent was granted rather than necessary.

The opening ceremony was as quiet as these two rooms, but had its effect: some forty persons came to observe a first common prayer on Friday, May 16th 2008. Late 2008, their presence should have changed the face of the annual pilgrimage to Mecca in Pochentong. As families are usually many to come to accompany the candidates to Hajj who observe one last prayer in the airport car parks, Musallas should provide a few hundred pilgrims on the go better conditions for their ritual. Unfortunately, the Thai problems causing the blockade of Bangkok airport at the same time put an end to the dream of a lifetime of many a travelling family: “The number of pilgrims has kept increasing over the past few years, except for 2008 when in the end, only 150 people were able to do the trip to Mecca, when 400 people turned up in 2007”, the Mufti says. No doubt, however, that Musallas were then a special place for reunion, both for those who were lucky enough to go and those who had to return to their village.

The activity in each of the two rooms remains unknown, since anyone can go there if they want to, at any time when the airport is open. Access to the rooms is not monitored and the lack of statistics reveals this total freedom of access, which is the aim of a Musalla itself.

Still today, these special little rooms are empty, or simply filled with serenity. As Ahmat is about to fly to Kuala Lumpur, he finally says no to his last prayer, which he could have done at last: “It’s not the same when I’m on my own... If there had been several of us, it would have been better...”, Ahmat says, not without some mischief: “Anyway, I’ll be in Malaysia in three hours’ time and over there, they even have prayer rooms in markets, on the roads...! I’ll catch up there!”

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