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Alan Lightman: Outside The Book — Transcript

Read the transcript for this sneak preview of our newest new podcast, Outside The Book.
by Carrie M. King | Mar 21 2019

Alan Lightman: Well I guess you could say this story started around the year 2000. We made friends with a Unitarian minister who lived in Maine. He had been going to Cambodia for humanitarian work for a few years. In 2003 my daughter Elyse and I decided that we would like to accompany him on one of his trips to Cambodia. Basically because we wanted an adventure.

When my daughter Elyse and I went to Cambodia the first time in December of 2003 and followed this minister, one of the villages that he’d been doing some work in was this village about 100 to 150 kilometers from Phnom Penh.

Terence Mickey: Alan Lightman is the international bestselling author of Einstein’s Dream. He’s a fiction and science writer, as well as a physicist. His research has covered black holes, stellar dynamics and relativistic gravitation theory, among other things. He went to Cambodia searching for adventure, and that’s exactly what he found.

Alan: A materialist like myself believes that the physical world consists of nothing but atoms and molecules and nothing more. Everything in the world obeys certain laws, that everything is impermanent, and the brain is rooted in materialism. We have about 100 billion neurons in our brain and each neuron is made of atoms and molecules and there’s no magical essence in the brain other than that. That’s what I believe as a materialist. But I also believe that there are things that are larger than ourselves that we can connect to.

Terence: And it was in this village that Alan connected to something larger than himself.

Alan: There’s nothing that I could do in my life that would equal the experience that I’ve had with this village. Am I a different person as a result of this experience? Profoundly.

Terence: You’re listening to Outside the Book, a sibling podcast to Self? Help!, where you will hear from authors about life away from the desk, stories from beyond their particular expertise, experiences they hold dear but have not yet committed to the page.

There are roughly 16 million people in Cambodia and most of them are Buddhists. But 5% of the population are Muslim. And the Muslims in Cambodia practice a particular kind of Islam, which is called Cham. They have their own language. They have their own traditions. And there is a minority sect within the Cham, called Imam Sann. This minority sect blends Islam with Buddhism, Hinduism and Animism. They pray only one day a week. They have their own version of the Q’uran. They worship their ancestors, and at times feel that their ancestors live inside their bodies. They make up only 3% of the Muslims in Cambodia.

It was in a village of this small sect, a minority within a minority, where Alan and his daughter found themselves on their first visit to Cambodia.

Alan: There are about 700 people who live in the village. There’s no electricity, no plumbing. They get their water from a few water wells. Every single house is a one-room hut standing on these long skinny legs. The huts are built on stilts that are about 15 feet tall because of the monsoons. And underneath the house, where there’s a lot of room, they would keep oxen or a cow, and maybe a bicycle or motorcycle, and maybe a couple of sacks of rice. It’s a pretty poor village. And my initial impression was of a gentle loving people, whose traditions were important to them.

Terence: And these traditions are often under threat.

Alan: Muslims keep coming to Cambodia and to this village, trying to convert them, trying to make them build Mosque of a different type. The people just stick by their guns––that’s the way they are. And this is the way they’ve been about everything. And one of the reasons why I respect and admire them so much: they will not modify their traditions. They have resisted attempts of modern Muslims to convert them.

We went to the village, and the women of the village holding their babies came up to Elyse and me, and said would you please help us to build a school.

I had no idea that this was coming.

And I had in the back of my mind that I wanted to do humanitarian work at some time in my life. I had planned to do it much later in life. Maybe another 10 years after this point, but I also have lived long enough to know that sometimes opportunities come to you only once and you need to seize the opportunity when it when it comes. And something clicked in my mind. And I thought this is a way that I can help, that I’m here now at this point, at this time in this place and maybe I can help these women build a school.

Terence: Alan went back to the US, raised money and helped the women build a school, and this first project inextricably linked Alan and his daughter to the village.

Alan: We ate meals with them. We participated in ceremonies with them. We got really heavily involved. We really felt like we were becoming part of their community. I mentioned that my daughter was about twenty three years old. She stayed overnight at the village on a number of trips, and she was kind of adopted by the village chief as a daughter. He always wanted her to sleep in his house. And he would stand below sort of like on guard to protect her. And they had a very sweet, loving relationship. We were we were making connections of human beings to human beings. It’s a very very different experience than just mailing a check.

Terence: While Alan’s first project in the village was straightforward, the second project led to a conflict that would call into question for him and his daughter exactly what it meant to help.

Alan: Around 2006, this was about a year or two after the school was built, the men of the village began asking me for help building a new mosque. And the existing mosque was just a wooden platform on stilts with open-air walls, and you can only seat about 40 people in it. It had a fairly low ceiling. The villagers make these very tall ceremonial cakes––they have them at marriages, they have them to celebrate births, I think they have them at some of their spirit ceremonies. It looked like a very tall wedding cake. Of course, there was no bride and groom at the top of the cake. The cakes would not fit into the mosque because the ceiling was too low. So for various reasons, it was unsatisfactory to them. So after the men began asking me for help building a mosque, I wanted to know what the women wanted.

It’s a patriarchal society. And in fact, the women aren’t even allowed to go into the mosque most of the time.

I asked the women, “If they could have anything they wanted for the village, what would they want?”

The women said that they would like help with health care. The nearest hospital was about two hours away. If a woman was sick or anybody was sick in the village, they have to get in an ox cart and it would take hours to get to the nearest hospital. And some of the women were dying in childbirth, some people in the village were dying of other illnesses because they couldn’t get medical care.

It’s important to point out that the villagers were kind of suspicious of Western medicine in general. Because they have their own traditional medicine that they use. But they also realized that the traditional medicine didn’t work all the time. And hospitals were good for something. So they had sort of a mixed, complicated appreciation of Western medicine. But nonetheless, they said they would like some kind of health care help. And I knew that we couldn’t build a clinic or hospital in the village, because we’d never get it staffed.

Terence: But Alan and his daughter came up with another idea. They’d raise enough funds to create an endowment that would provide money each year to pay for transportation to Phnom Penh, the nearest city, and pay for treatment at the local hospital.

Alan: My daughter and I discussed these two requests, you know, one request for a mosque from the men and another request for healthcare program from the women. And we thought that we couldn’t fund both of them. We thought that the health care program was much more important. I mean, if you’re not healthy and well, you can’t pray, you can’t do anything. It seemed to us that it was a no-brainer that the health care was the top priority.

Terence: With the certainty of knowing they’d made the right decision, Alan and his daughter headed back to the village to deliver the news that they would now have health care, and the current mosque would just have to do.

Alan: We rode out to the village in a van, the last ten miles on a very rudimentary dirt road with lots of potholes and red dust flying up in the air, hot even in December. During that trip in the van, which is about a two and a half hour trip, and we had our translator with us––so there were three of us in the van besides the driver––the translator was a young man from a neighboring village. He was an Imam Sann man. So he spoke Cham and he was our translator.

We started talking about it, and Elyse and I began worrying that maybe we were imposing our values on the villagers. And we’d gotten one request for health care from the women, and a request for a new mosque from the men. And maybe we had come to the conclusion that the health care was the most important, maybe we could come to that conclusion too quickly. It seemed logical from our perspective. Even the Cham man who was with us in the van agreed that the healthcare program was probably more important than the mosque. But we began worrying that we should let the villagers themselves decide between these two options and not impose our own judgment.

We decided that we should give the villagers a vote. When we arrived at the village, we couldn’t take a vote with all 700 people, because we needed to discuss the two options, and tell them exactly what would be involved. And so we decided to form a committee made of five men and five women––of course, very equal. Important to have an equal representation from men and women since they had different views on what was the highest priority.

We asked Lep Krem to choose four other men to be on the male side of the committee. And there was a very articulate woman in the village, who had a lot of light in her eyes, named Li San.

And we asked Li San to be the leader of the female contingent and to choose four other women to be on the committee.

They chose their members and Elyse and I in the committee of ten climbed the ladder into the old mosque. And you had to climb up this rickety wooden ladder to get into the mosque. So Elyse and I climbed up the ladder into the mosque, and the five men and five women climbed after us. And then about 50 villagers climbed up the ladder and they sort of surrounded us.

And the committee of ten formed a semicircle around us. Our translator was sitting next to us. And then about 60 villagers formed concentric circles beyond the committee of ten. So if you can sort of picture that.

I realized that this was an incredibly profound and important day for the village to choose between these two options that we would change their lives drastically. So I felt a huge responsibility, I felt kind of a combination of power and embarrassment. I felt power because I was the engine behind these two profound agents of change, the two options. And I was sitting there at the center of the circle, and I felt embarrassed that here I was a white guy in this Asian village with little understanding of their culture and that was embarrassing, and I really felt like I was imposing myself. I didn’t want to be in that position and yet I had been put in that position. I’m aware of all of the exploitation, and colonialism, and imperialism, that white people have have done to non-white people around the world. All of that was hanging on my shoulders. And yet, this was the situation.

Through the translator, Elyse and I explained what the two options were, then the discussion started. First the men gave their arguments. We couldn’t tell what they were saying. Because our translator didn’t translate all the arguments. And then there was some back and forth with the men talking a little bit, then the women talking––they were having some kind of exchange. And what I thought would happen would be that, you know, after the exchanges there would be a break, and then they would take a vote. But that’s not what happened.

What happened is in the middle of these words flying back and forth between the five men and five women, suddenly and abruptly our translator, Youso, said, “They’ve decided.” It just, it just came out of the blue. He said, “They’ve decided.” I said, “Well, well, what did they decide?”

I mean, Elyse and I thought it was going to be a dead tie. We were certain it was going to be a tie, and then we’re kind of wondering what we would do next. But it wasn’t a tie.

Youso told us that all five men voted in favor of the mosque, and three of the women voted in favor of the mosque.

And Elyse and I were absolutely dumbfounded and shocked. And I looked over at the five men and through the translator I said as politely as I could, “Did you really let them have their say. Are they voting their true feelings? Did you badger the women?” The men swore up and down, they assured me over and over again, “This was an authentic vote. We didn’t tamper with it. We didn’t coerce the women. This is what they really wanted.”

But at the time we did not understand. Elyse and I thought that they had made a mistake. Not in the vote, but we thought that their priorities were not what our priorities were. But of course, we had asked them to take a vote, and they had voted. And we looked a little bit confused at first, but then we said, “OK, a mosque is what you’re going to get.”

When we were building the mosque, they were not willing to make any concession in the design of the mosque. I kept trying to revise the design to make it cheaper, and they wouldn’t make any concession. And finally, we got it built for the money available only because they used their own unskilled labor free. But when the mosque was just about built, and we began talking about the inauguration ceremony that was going to be a few months later––and they knew that people were going to be coming from all over the country to their village––they said that we would need a toilet, an outdoor toilet, because we would have people that wouldn’t want to go out in the woods.

And so the religious leader––you know, this is after vetoing all of my suggestions for revising the design of the mosque––he said to me, “You can pick the color of the toilet.” And he knew that he was being funny. And we both roared with laughter.

The mosque was completed in December of 2007. And in May of 2008, we had the inauguration of the mosque. And that was a really big deal.

After the mosque was built but before the huge inauguration in May 2008, there was a ceremony sort of like a private dedication of the mosque, when I was there. And the religious leader––there are a lot of interior columns in the mosque––and the religious leader whose name is Leb Sim had a container of holy water. And he walked around to each column and sprinkled some water. And then he took out a little knife and he chiseled out a tiny little speck of the cement out of the column. And he did that with each of the columns and threw the specs out of the window. And that was supposed to protect the mosque from evil spirits and to bless it.
And everybody who was there––maybe a hundred people, as I said men, women and children sitting around––they were spellbound. They were almost in a trance. And it wasn’t necessarily religious. It was a feeling of holiness. And it was like they were all being blessed.

It was spirit.

Later on, as Elyse and I talked to people in the village, we began to understand what the mosque meant to them. The mosque is not just a religious site, it’s the center of their social, cultural and spiritual life. They have meetings in the mosque that are not necessarily religious meetings. The whole life of the village revolves around the mosque. It’s their spiritual health. And we realized that they place their spiritual health above their physical health. See, with Elyse and me and our values, physical health was the most important. And for them––which we gradually came to understand––their spiritual health was the most important. It gave us a deeper understanding of the soul of this village.

The post script is that a few years later, after the mosque had been finished, we were able to raise the funds for the healthcare program. In the end, the villagers got both the mosque and the healthcare program. But that point of decision between one or the other brought out all of this new understanding and enlightenment.

Well I think it made me a more spiritual person myself. I’m a materialist, but I call myself a spiritual materialist. I think my development as a spiritual person has been greatly enhanced and motivated and inspired by my work in this village.

Terence: Thank you for listening to Outside the Book. Today’s episode was produced and edited by yours truly with audio engineering help from Dominick and production assistance from Nat. I encourage you to check out the foundation Alan founded. It’s called the Harpswell Foundation, and you can find that online. Alan’s most recent novel will be published in September 2019. It’s titled, Three Flames, and it tells the story of a Cambodian family, set between the years 1973 and 2015.

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