Sittwe Homeboy

by Robert Salisbury, October 8, 2013

Today I was riding a bike around a neighborhood, or “quarter” as they call it here. I’m looking for a house to rent for just Yvonne and me. 

I hear strange banjo music. I stop and peer up to a balcony on an older wooden house. One dude motions me to come on up. I do. Two guys almost my age it turns out (late 50’s), one playing this odd looking four-string banjo, the other has what looks like a mandolin only it has just six strings, unpaired. The tuning on the “Myanmando” is something I’ve never heard. They want me to try out both instruments, but before I make too much of a fool of myself a third dude shows up — the rhythm section. A wooden clacker sits in his one hand and he holds two tiny cymbals connected by a string in his other hand. They noodle around some and then break into a tune. Both stringed instruments play the melody in unison, mostly, kinda. There is no chording, it’s all fairly quick finger picking in scales totally unfamiliar to me.

The rhythm guy begins to sing, accompanying himself with occasional clacks and tinkles. He has a nice voice, the song seems sad and quite beautiful. They tell me it is traditional Rakhine music. I can’t figure out if it’s a love song or what, and it doesn’t seem to matter.

They say they play every evening about this time and invite me back. I’ll go back with my guitar sometime soon and probably make a bigger fool of myself. If we can start on the same note I believe we can jam baby.

Another place I came upon was a kind of crumbling rambling house reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s in Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations.

I first met the daughter on the road who eagerly dragged me in her home to be shown off like some exotic prize. We entered through a kind of ante chamber which I couldn’t figure out if it was a storefront for oddball dusty things or a storeroom for dusty oddball things.

The main room had an exposed gabled tin roof with the ever present rain drumming down making it difficult to hear. To one side was a low balcony with a stairway winding upwards to some mystery I could only imagine. I was given a chair under a balcony I had to duck under to sit on. Much of the rest of the floor was covered by a low raised dais. On this dais were bamboo mats scattered about. Around the edges, heaped up on the walls was a hodgepodge of items — clothes, bags of dried fish, boxes of more oddball dusty things, piles of books, and in the place of honor, a TV featuring an overwrought South Korean soap opera with Myanmar subtitles.

Ensconced on some musty cushions was the grand dame of the household, meh-meh, who rose to welcome me. Her hair was wrapped in a kind of twist while her face was very pale from the makeup everyone seems to wear here. It is made by mashing the wood of the Thanaka tree in a small bowl.

Most women and children wear it daily usually in two big patches on the cheeks, with a bit on the nose or forehead for good measure. Meh-meh however covers her whole face and in the dim light of the rainy day she seemed a ghostly apparition. As the tea was brewing their story unfolded. The daughter spoke fairly good English.

Aye Mya Thands father and Meh-meh’s husband U Ba Thein Maung had just passed away two months ago. I was shown his picture and ushered into another room. This room appeared to be some sort of memorial to him.

The room was full of small statues, wooden carvings, metal castings, stone carvings, along with books stacked to the ceiling. There were antique artifacts, some very old, in glass cases. While meh-meh fondled some of the carvings, her daughter told me her father was a lawyer as well as a widely known artisan who had made all of these things. She said that he had fought against the Burmese government for a free Arakan state, and in the next breath proudly showed me a photo of a Chinese jeep she said the government gave him for being such a good artist. He also was an historian and many of the books scattered about he had written. I’m not sure if I got all of that right, but I thought best not to ask for clarification, he being so recently deceased and all.

We headed back for tea and amidst the Korean soap opera, meh meh’s occasional reminisces, a few more family members who drifted in and out, and the rain drumming away, Aye Mya Thand tore into the muslims: “They are all terrorists out to murder us. The Taliban is training them, they are dirty, they just arrived from Bangladesh. They started the attacks in 2012 and for sure they are planning more.”

I am in Sittwe after all, Capitol of Rakhine State. The Muslim quarter is closed off. Most of the people have been moved to camps outside the town and whoever is left cannot leave their quarter. The mosque is closed, behind barbed wire, guarded by soldiers. Now I see only Rakhine Buddhist people. As I buy flowers outside a Buddhist temple, when they see my white face this is the story I hear over and over, “We don’t like the Muslims, they are planning on taking over Rakhine State, they have so many babies.” The unasked question is: “and white boy are you helping them?”

I usually do the generic NGO “everyone is a human being, when I see someone who needs help I help them if I can. There are Rakhine IDP camps, there are Muslim IDP camps, I don’t make a distinction.” This is not received well, I know because then they are silent. Here that means no. I have found that discussing the situation is not an option. I’m learning to clam up when they go off on the Muslims.

I don’t know how many people live in Sittwe but as far as rumors go it’s got the small town rumor mill dialed in. Walking down the street, the people wave, point and laugh as they see me. One group called me Tarazan, (I was quite flattered). On our street I got a gang of kids who follow me around, Spiderman, Banana boy, and wiggle legs. Yesterday a group of giggling girls said they knew me, I was Mr. Balloon.

It’s like that here. Wandering down the road I’ll get invited into a home. They might serve tea or “coffee mix” with some really awful packaged sweet cakey things. They are almost always friendly and curious, many younger folks want to try out their English.

These are wonderful people, generous to a fault, having a good sense of humor. The junta mentality of paranoia has given way to an openness that is new to them. People are feeling free to express themselves.

One of the expressions I hear over and over is that Muslims are bad.

This new freedom for expression allows for some bizarre excesses as well.

The ugliest of these I find is this Nazi thing they got going on. It’s almost funny. Oh yeah, guys on these little motorbikes with Nazi helmets. Bunches of guys with their Nazi t-shirts walking down the avenue. There is, I hear, even a Nazi Quarter in town. For the most part I think they’ve got no idea of what they are promoting here. I want to tell them, “Guess what guys, real Nazi’s would hate you.”

Young people are grabbing onto some odd Western “culture.” They are gifted copiers. Unfortunately what they are copying is not always the most inspired. It’s what is being marketed to them. Crappy western action movies, you know — lots of non- stop blow ‘em ups. Current pop music for the most part favors pretty schlocky covers of pretty schlocky formula pop tunes, or nasty rap, I mean nasty. That’s ok, give them some time and they will find their way. But these Rakhine folks are not even close to some kind of reconciliation with the Muslim population. ¥¥

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