In the Southeast Asian country, a photo shoot by Sherif Sonbol turned into something more than a pretty picture
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Clockwise from the opposite page: SheikhulIslam headquarters in Bangkok surrounded by traditional rice fields; the architecture of mosques in the south; a mosque in Bangkok; Ton Son mosque that was built on the ruins of the oldest mosque in Bangkok; before the new Ton Son was built
I went to Thailand to take pictures of its floating markets, exotic temples and breathtaking landscape. Throughout the trip, I learned that beyond its beautiful buildings and sceneries, Thailand is more intriguing than its fa≥żade.
It's happened before, elsewhere in the world. Whenever I go to shoot something beautiful and seemingly simple, I end up in a different situation. In reality, situations and people who shape my photos transforms simple objects and surroundings into something much more complicated. For example, I went to Upper Egypt for a story on the relaxing Lake Nasser cruise, yet I found myself at the centre of the Nubian issue. Another time, I was preparing a book about a Nile cruise during which I found that the Luxor governor was in the process of tearing down the long established houses of Al-Gourna on the west bank of the Nile “ê" a battle that involved guns with real bullets. My photography permits were cancelled, which had me genuinely involved!
But back to my experience in Thailand: I arrived and there was Mohamed, a graduate of Al-Azhar (the great Islamic university in Cairo) waiting to be my friend and guide.
We had an ordinary chat about the sights and sounds of Thailand, and soon after, I learned of the hidden complexities of Thai society. Mohamed is a Thai-Muslim living and working in Bangkok. I asked him if there were Muslims like himself throughout Thailand, or only in the south. Mohamed said there are large Muslim communities in Bangkok and that he himself lived in one such area. I asked him to take me there. That was on the second day after I had some great Thai meals and a Thai massage, which unexpectedly involved the masseuse's knees and elbows.
"Is Mohamed your real name?"
"But is there Sharia?"
I decided to take a further look into the background in the south of Thailand by consulting books, and scholar friends who told me their story of how the southern region of Thailand became part of the kingdom. Actually they told me many stories, as history always has many faces of the same coin. However, they all agreed on the following:
The south was part of a Hindu-Buddhist kingdom founded as early as the second century. It appeared in many accounts by Chinese travellers; the most famous of them was the Buddhist pilgrim I-Ching. Pattani (one of Thailand's southern border provinces) became a very important trade centre, and then, as always happens, degenerated into an insignificant port. After that it became part of the Hindu-Buddhist Empire of Srivijaya who dominated trade in south China. Malay culture had substantial influence on the area.
The creation of the present-day province of Pattani is thought to have been around the mid-13th century. Stories abound as to how it was founded. Some people tell a story of a ruler who was ill and being treated by a sheikh who threatened to hide the medicine, finally converting him to Islam. Others speak of a fisherman named Paktani who was sent by the king of Siam to survey the coast for an appropriate settlement. After Paktani set up a successful fishing port, other people joined him. The town soon grew into a prosperous trading centre that continued to bear his name. Others still believe it was founded by Shah Ismail of Persia. A friend told me that it was an era of weakness when Muslim merchants took over. It was not until 1902, that Pattani officially became part of the Kingdom of Thailand“ê¶
But with so many theories and options, never mind how Pattani was founded. We went, Mohamed and I, to the Ton Son Mosque metro station. We took the Thai Tuk-Tuk, which was cheap, comfortable and fast. We did not sit on seats as in Cairo but on a kind of wooden bench placed on a metal basket.
At Ton Son we met Sukre Sarem, a researcher at the Muslim Centre of Asian Studies in Chulalongkorn University. I had contacted a friend, Narissa Smanavanichai, a Thai-Muslim diplomat at the Thai Embassy in Cairo, who recommended him as someone who could show me the Thai-Muslim communities in Bangkok. As I presented my business card to Sarem, he gave me his. It was very rich, listing the position of Director of the Muslim Siam Forum for Art and Culture (MSFAC) and a few others besides. Sarem took us for a walk in the Islamic district, and introduced us to the Ton Son Mosque.
On our arrival, I was taken aback. The Ton Son Mosque looked like a very modern building, one with no character, like a modern mosque in Cairo for example. Mohamed told me that the mosque should not look like a Buddhist temple! Sarem, director of the art committee, said he disagreed with the renovation project of the old, beautiful mosque, but had to accept what the others thought. It was a nice mosque from the inside, with marble and so on; but as far as I was concerned, the building had no character. It was not Mamluke, not Ottoman, not anything. Just a nice modern building with a marble floor and non-decorated dome.
Sarem showed me a picture of the old mosque in beautiful Thai style.
We then walked a little in the narrow streets heading to the Bang Loing, a beautiful mosque built in old Thai style. There we met the imam, Sheikh Ramadan, who immediately asked me: "Do you still have problems in Egypt between Muslims and Christians?"
We had a quick chat with Amina, who was sitting on the floor selling food in front of the mosque.
So, it seemed like a good idea to go to the south and see for ourselves what was going on.
Unfortunately, I did not have much time, and therefore was not able to see everyone. Besides, I still wanted to shoot the floating markets and the temples.
I asked for help from Suchitra Muangnil, Second Secretary at the Royal Thai Embassy in Cairo. She helped put me in contact with people in the south and in Bangkok.
But before going south, I had some questions for her.
Suchitra has a very accommodating expression, but it is as if any attack on Thailand is a personal attack on her. She welcomes criticism, but you can see it in her eyes. She feels bad when people say bad things about Thailand.
Suchitra responded with the example of General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the former commander-in-chief of the Royal Thai Army and former head of the Council for National Security, who is a high ranking Thai-Muslim official in the government. On 19 September 2006 General Sonthi became the de facto head of government of Thailand after overthrowing the elected government in a coup d'etat. After retiring from the army in 2007 he became deputy prime minister in charge of national security.
That was at the professional level. At the personal level, because he was Muslim, Sonthi had six wives. This was allowed despite legal prohibitions against ploygamy.
Suchitra also said that one friend and colleague, Narissa Smanavanich, is a Thai-Muslim diplomat. Suchitra told me that in the time she has known her, over seven years, Narissa has always been proud of her faith and is proud to represent Thailand as a female Muslim diplomat.
In April 2004, around 100 Muslim militants launched a simultaneous attack on police and military outposts and government targets in the three southern border provinces. Over 100 young militants were killed in the clashes and more than ten were arrested. Being one of the bloodiest incidents in the history of Thailand, the government responded heavy handedly to extremist and separatist groups.
In 2006 General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, announced he would break with government policy and negotiate with the leaders of the insurgency. Since then the government's position appears to have shifted to a softer approach, encouraging dialogue and reconciliation.
On meeting officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over a delicious Thai lunch at the ministry restaurant, Jak Sangehai, of the Middle East Division, said, "Religion is no barrier to friendship. It is the personal character of people. We have around seven to nine million Muslims. We are a society of acceptance, not tolerance - because we do not have anything to tolerate. We have had historical relations with the Arab world since the 12th century. Merchants came to Siam, and we have been part of the Silk Road, and they lived here. Some got prominent positions. Muslims have reached the highest positions -- head of the army, prime minister. The Middle East is the source of the world's energy“ê¶ and every year we get 100,000 Middle Eastern tourists.
Piyapak Pip, of the South Asia department, was also present.
I asked, "Suppose I was a Muslim woman and wanted to inherit according to Thai law, not Shar'iah law. What then?"
Piyapak said my question had been raised earlier, and that Muslim scholars had replied that if you are a Muslim, you have to apply Muslim law.
According to the constitution, the king is Patron of the Faith. He is not the defender of Buddhism, but the faith of his people, be they Muslims, Christians or Buddhists. The people choose and he respects their choice.
We then went to meet ex-prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva in his office (he was then prime minister). Abhisit entered with a smile on his face. I have to admit that Thais always meet you with a genuine, big welcoming smile, never fake. He was in a hurry, so he invited me into a meeting room with a beautiful chandelier shaped like grape bunch. It was attractive and original.
Then we headed to Sheikhul-Islam's office on the outskirts of Bangkok, surrounded by the beautiful scene we always see in the movies - rice paddies. Sheikhul-Islam is the head of the Muslim community in Thailand. Unfortunately he was ill and in hospital, so he assigned his deputy Dr Pakorn Priyakorn to meet us.
This reminded me of a court verdict taken in Cairo few years ago: the Kasr El-Doubarah Church is not a legal entity, and therefore cannot buy land in which to expand.
Dr Pakorn's tone sharpened noticeably. "Money coming from other countries does not lead to conflicts. When the USA gives their USAID, nobody complains, but the Islamists cannot give their aid? (I did not want to explain that USAID is a controversial subject in our country, so I kept quiet). Most of the funds go to orphanages, schools, research and education. For example, Al-Azhar grants an annual scholarships to 80 Thai students.''
We then flew to Songkla to the College of Islamic Studies at the Prince of Songkla Government University in Pattani Province. Dr Ibrahim, the deputy director of the university, as he introduced himself, began to put forth: "We are a very active centre. Last year we organised a gathering of 5,000 Muslim women. We also had the Moral Muslim Meeting for Youth. We also have a Memorandum of Understanding with Saudi universities, Al-Azhar university and others. Sixty per cent of the university graduates find work, while 100 per cent at the College of Islamic Studies find work as Islamic teachers."
As we were having a walk on campus, Dr Ibrahim mentioned that sometimes graduates have problems finding work because of the veil and the daily Islamic practices like prayers during working hours. In such cases, he said, they advise their students not to work rather than work and break Islamic rules - that was a surprise.
Then I headed to an army camp and school, where the army is teaching the locals how to earn money by producing simple foods and delicious ice tea. They also showed me some magic. I selected two sticks from the forest and pointed them in front of me. They moved like magnets towards each other, which meant there was water right ahead. I read about this when I was a child (a very long time ago) and it was a surprise to see it actually work. I had dinner with Lt Gen Udomchai Thammasaroart, 4th Army Region commander.
Of course, we had some army people together with us at the dinner table. Ltc Nipon Inmai added: "Long ago, the French occupied countries east of Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, etc and the British occupied countries to the west (India, Nepal, etc); Thailand survived unoccupied. The rulers of the south wanted independence, but the people refused and said: “êėWe are Thai.' People here speak the Malay language and they come from Malay roots. But so are the people in the north. They look Lao, but they consider themselves Thai“ê¶ Those southern gangsters tried to have independence, and when it did not work, six years ago, they tried to use religion to attract attention and religious sympathy which did not exist before.''
Finally we went to visit one of the bilingual schools where children learn both Malay and Thai. I met many school teachers, and as usual, they received me with a nice smile and a glass of ice tea.