You’re looking back.
It’s still very unclear to you.
There is excitement and anxiety.
She arrived a few days ago from the capital, Phnom Penh, where she lives. It’s your own cousin, not seen in ages, who is entrusting her to you. He is the man who somehow became her father years ago. After she had already done some growing up worlds away, the household had taken her in: she didn’t know what she was doing but she was around, they didn’t know what they were doing, but they casually brought her into the family. He calls her ‘daughter’ just as you call him ‘brother’ in your childhood memories.
He sends this daughter of sorts and you feel excited: they say she is really into that genealogy, that history. You’re curious. He sends this daughter of sorts and you feel anxious: how could anyone bring a stranger into that genealogy, that history.
He sends this daughter of sorts and she arrives excited: she will join you in that walk-through history.
He sends this daughter of sorts and she arrives anxious: she feels as if she was from here but truly, she is not.
You’re looking back, thinking, your hand approaching the roots, right at the feet of the headstone. Defiant patches of grass block the path to the engraving. Nature barring the precision carried by all this inscribing and engraving.
This is what we all came here for. Today of all days, an Eid one: visiting the living and the dead alike, remembering lines, one tombstone at a time.
The sign is now cleared: a reading naming the ancestor. Black marble and golden letters, three alphabets no less. It’s your other cousin, the minister in Phnom Penh, who types out the whole thing every time someone needs one of those signs: Arabic, Khmer, Latin. He knows it all.
One last look out. The cemetery is in the village, you could all have walked from your house. But the village is ‘remote‘, as those who don’t live here with you tend to say. Sometimes the rice fields extend the landscape, all the way to patches of jungle. Here, even the rubber plantations feel far, so you took the car.
One last look out. Moving back into yourself.
Hands receiving, head bending.
Hands just about to leave your face, to live your prayer. You are just about to move on to the next grave, family already gathering there. You are taken aback by a voice, a low chopped one. The voice the kids enjoy making fun of: it’s the accent when she blames away ‘Chaaam language is just zzzoooo harttt.’ His daughter. Your ethnographer. She and her words right behind. You turn. Her fingers are still running through the Farsi engraving, stopping at a symbol: ‘And that one... What is that one for, Uncle?’
A few steps.
Back to the stone.
You are not so sure.
Seized in immensity.
Horizon afar coming to a close.
Gasping for air.
A caption for capture.
You hesitate. Then, finally: ‘That one, it’s Nephew Hidden-Imam who made it. Something real Seaths do. Something that must come from Iran.’
The indecency of it.
That things have to be written up to be sure and certain.
That marks have to be beaten up and pounded down to leave trace.
You, Saeths, questioning the real of it all.
Mired four wheels and crammed aunties. On to yet another cemetery.
You spot her. She is taking notes on her phone, typing answers of yours to questions of hers. You are not sure why this all should be of any consequence. You are not sure what consequences could come out of all this.
You try to go back to whatever you said that might have been so precisely worthy. But as she keeps sliding notes on the screen, you wonder if she is inscribing too much, if you said too much. What could have been carved on those tombstones that is now swiped onto that screen?
You remember the name and the man buried, barely. You were just a kid. ‘Those are true Saeths, you know.’
Your own elders, they would never have thought of any of you, any of them, as a not-so-true Saeth. For we were all that: all true, all Saeths. But that very truth, it all came with legends, myths, and no documents to prove any of it. And so, the doubt came. From outside and from within, lurking, that maybe things were not precise enough for you all to be truly, wholly Saeths, real descendants of the Prophet, loyal defendants of the Imam, actual survivors of She.
Now some more precise younger fellows are drawing genealogies back to the ancestors. Shi’a in-depth knowledge all the way to ‘Ali. Studies into the seminaries of something called Iran. So now, somehow, it’s all for real. It’s all gaining precision.
Precise matters where there shall be none.
All writing on the stones wholly new.
Before the war(s) – for that war was one, but one too many – there were no signs to start with. When you were a kid, ancestors down there just wore old pieces of laterite to mark heads and toes, females and males, husbands and wives.
Dotted lines, grounded down. But no inscriptions. Nothing to be read. You couldn’t just stop by, swallow script and know, this is not how it works. You’ll show her, that daughter-ethnographer.
Trying not to get stuck in the mud this time, trying not to sink in the rainfall, trying not to slide away from the sandy track. A few villages far behind, the plantations long gone. An arrival: yet another gravesite.
In the midst of the fields. None of those belong to any of you anymore.
‘This. This is where we grew up. That’s where the village used to be before it moved again. At least that was ours for some time, for a moment, for my generation.’
The sky: it’s calling in rumbles. It’s going to pour again.
Down. Feet scratching a mound full of them way under, somewhere no one can see. After all, it’s just a mound now. Dirt and broken pebbles. No tombstones here. No stones marking no tombs.
‘I mean... I guess we were here for a while... The elders, they used to be somewhere else... Somewhere over there.’ You are not pointing anywhere. You corner a smile: your ethnographer seems to be looking away, hoping for a path opened in that sentence. She would love to know where to pause her eyes, but she has no idea how to. That’s hardly the point. She gets back to you with a look. She’s given up looking for directions. And so you know she has been there. Somehow.
And on feet.
The laterite road has ended, now you are going through the mud of a paddy shy to come out this year. This year and the ones before that. You talk together. Through those many graveyards, scattered, disconnected, afar: one Eid visit to weave them all together. The tombs, the living and the dead, the constant displacements, and this home of sorts. Your hand rests on an old laterite round stone, one among other ones, on this little mound.
Before, the dead had none of that.
And still, the living knew their dead.
The others, they went to visit ancestors in a bundle, to pay their respects to tombs they couldn’t recognise, as in a lot. But you, you had to follow the line traced by the elders. The one traced from one cemetery to another, from one death to another lineage: displacements as murders, constant movement, settling in hiding.
The history no one should speak of.
Her voice shatters again.
She is talking of The-Ancestor-Of-All, the one when it all came to an end. The one where it all began. She talks about his tomb, the most important of all. The lines, the betrayals, the deportations and the settlements. She knows it’s there, right at the centre of the capital, but she couldn’t get in. The soldiers laughed, then became all too serious, and she had to leave. You tell her that yes, of course, she wouldn’t get in: ‘No one can. Decades ago, they took over. Uncle-Minister himself can’t get access. The soldiers, the neighbours, they were all falling sick of course. So, they decided to raze it to the ground.’
They erased him deep down into the ground.
They erase us all, deep down.
You are on your knees, your fingers on the dust. As if you were calling the earth for witness. As if this was where ancestors ended and disappeared before they were all undone.
You tell her of that other hero of yours, the other ancestor. The one who lost his head to the injustice of battles and the inconsistency of it all. You never went back to that tomb since that day, back when you followed the elders as a child. But she has. ‘It has burnt down,’ she says, ‘it’s all ashes now.’
You are disappointed.
Scratching pebbles with toenails.
Sometimes beheaded heroes tend to bring hell to earth in burning angers against the ones who dare to remain.
You can’t get yourself to tell the whole story just yet. She may even have heard of it already; you never know. You just want to point out to the right direction, nothing more.
You slowly stand up.
Those old bones...
‘He was with the king once. And he got land to settle down over here. But then he stood against. All up against them all... So, they came after him. After his family. After the whole of them... They always come after us in the end....’
You hope she sees that, at least.
So that not all is lost.
You rub your hands to get rid of the dust. It takes an effort to remember whose grave is this, where exactly it was. Must be somewhere here, under. Must be someone you should have cared for, somehow, at some point. You are not sure you’ve even ever told your own children, and even less their children.
But you know.
Or at least you know that you know.
You had to know.
Before all those signs and scripts came to map out memory, came to make it all more... quite... simple. The youths now, when they come – if they do come at all – they sure know how to read it all.
But they know nothing.
Nothing of the struggles.
Nothing at all.
One just can’t bring them back in, not like that, out loud. You’re not sure if it’s because it’s too scary, downright disrespectful, or well... maybe that’s just because it’s all too sad.
You can’t say.
You cannot say.
That’s why you all used to come here, along with the ancestors, to the graves, so that you would all know where they are, who they are, and how Saeth history is too twisted to just end here and not return. Maybe we should all do what Uncle-Minister recommends: give it all up. Take back our Saeth names, in IDs and paperwork, copy genealogies, get them stamped, make it all official, inscribe things precisely, inking them down.
Even, at last, or at least, tell it all, the history that cannot be told, to her, snapping pictures again, corner of your eye. She is like our own, brother insists. She can be trusted Uncle guarantees. No one wants to take us down; no more, he swears. She shouldn’t be let in, warns Nephew. She carries the shadow of a double he is certain.
The usual cold sweat and threat down your spine.
The one that would lead you all to your end.
At least she is following those ancestors.
But that, precisely: she is following those ancestors who didn’t leave traces. She shadows those who didn’t want to leave.
You are lost in thoughts until you hear her again, pointing out to a brand-new inscribed stone with two numbers.
37: generations from the Prophet.
4: generations from that ancestor of us all.
The first one to die away from his home (wherever that might have been). The first one to die within our home of Cambodia (whenever that might have been).
That one who turned Saeth history into one of beginnings grown out of shrinking ends.
Not so much.
All over again.
You get closer to the tombstone; there is also a double birth and death dating. A name in so many words, letters, languages. So much precision. The thing the ancestors were running away from.
Precision will catch you, they used to say.
That’s what we are made of, that’s what leads them back to us, always.
They follow us.
They have always been on our heels.
So better not leave footprints.
We know our line so as not to trace any route.
We know our line so as not to inscribe threats on our back.
You look back at her: she is noting things down.
You look back at her, and she is noting things down.
I would like to thank the Cornell University Society for Humanities writing group Haunted Figures, Diasporic Legacies and its members Ryan Buyco, Elizabeth Wijaya, Andrew Harding and Andrea Mendoza for their attentive reading, generous commenting, careful support and endearing fellowship, and Christopher Goscha from UQAM for his encouraging commenting during a Montreal Southeast Asia PhD Workshop.
Emiko Stock is a visual and historical anthropologist currently based at The American University in Cairo. Working with Chams (Cambodian Muslims) and Sayyids (descendants of the Prophet Muhammad), she traces passages between Sunnism and Shi’ism and Cambodia and Iran as a practice of history refracted in still and moving images.