Bhann Tes carefully opened a thick holy book, whose pages have turned brown with age. He fetched a small notebook from a shelf and began writing, copying the work line by line.
“These are Cham scripts, which look like Khmer Pali scripts,” the 76-year-old Muslim said recently, sounding out the religious texts in his single-room him in Samaki Meanchey district, Kampong Chhnang province. “I try to copy the scripts so that they will stay on after I pass away.”
Despite the efforts of men like Bhann Tes, researchers say Cham scripts are likely to disappear in the next few decades if they continue to be ignored as they are now.
Emiko Stock, a French anthropologist who has studied the Cham, a minority Muslim group in Cambodia, for the past decade, said only a few elder Chams can still read documents written in the Cham language.
“Now there are just a few old Cham literates left,” she said, “so it is a great concern that in the next five to 20 years, there will probably be no one who can read or understand poems, history or other documents in Cham.”
Cham illiteracy could result in the loss of Cham tradition, history and culture as a whole, said Stock, who speaks Khmer fluently.
Cham scripts are still in use by Cham people in Vietnam, who are mostly Hindu. Cambodia’s half a million Cham, who fled the fallen kingdom of Champa in today’s Vietnam, tend to use Arabic rather than Cham.
Stock said the trend of globalization has put Cham scripts in danger, as young Chams rarely learn their own writing.
Matt Roshat, 26, said he never learned Cham writing, even though he speaks the language. Instead, he learned Arabic and Javy, a mix of Arabic and Malay.
“We don’t know why we should learn Cham scripts when we can use Javy to demonstrate Cham pronunciation and Arabic to read and understand the Quran,” said Matt Roshat, a university graduate who works for a local non-governmental organization in Phnom Penh.
Matt Roshat is a member of a larger and more orthodox Islamic community in Cambodia, which prefers Islamic practices with Arabic or Malaysian touches.
The smaller Muslim sect, called Imam San, is the guardian of Cham scripts and culture. Imam San leader Kai Tam said the reason more and more young Chams prefer Arabic to their own scripts is that they are attracted by materialism.
“At the moment, they prefer learning from the other side, because that side has money, and we don’t,” Kai Tam said, referring to the larger Muslim community. However, he still writes and compiles the Quran in Cham for distribution and does whatever he can to preserve the Cham scripts.
“I am teaching the scripts to youths and villagers in their homes, in mosques and in any place I can teach, so that our Cham traditions, customs and culture will live forever,” he said in a recent interview at his home in Kampong Tralach district.
Sos Kamry, a mufti for the larger Muslim community in Cambodia, said any tradition affecting or in contrast with Islam must be abandoned or forgotten.
Emiko Stock said that any tradition or culture that does not change at all ultimately will die, so they need modernizing. However, she said the preservation of scripts is also needed for a tradition’s survival.
“When the young do not want to learn their own scripts today,” she said, “tomorrow there will be no one to be able to read books or anything left behind by their elders.”