When residents of this poor, Cambodian village need something built, they call on the Lightmans.
The Jewish-American family’s latest gift: a mosque.
“We never had such a beautiful mosque in our village,” said 81-year-old Leb Sen, a toothless, village elder with a wrinkled face. “The young people said to me that I am very lucky to live long enough to see one now.”
Flashing a broad grin, Leb Sen brought his palms together and bowed repeatedly in gratitude toward his American donors — Alan Lightman; his wife, Jean Greenblatt Lightman and their daughter, Elyse.
Alan Lightman, a 59-year-old humanities professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said building the mosque was not part of his family’s original plan to improve education in the village, about 70km northwest of the capital, Phnom Penh.
“It’s too much to comprehend. We never imagined that we would build a mosque in a remote village in Cambodia,” said Lightman, author of the best-selling novel Einstein’s Dreams.
“It was so strange for us to be there … halfway across the planet, and it’s a religion that’s far from our religion,” he said.
The Lightmans first learned about the village in 2003, when a friend introduced them to various rural education projects. Two years later, the Harpswell Foundation, an organization founded by Lightman to help children and young women in developing countries, built a four-room concrete school, the village’s first.
Some of the 600 villagers came to Lightman in 2006 asking him to fund a new health center, a popular choice among the women, and a mosque, which the men favored. He told the villagers they would have to choose one. In the male-dominated community, it was a mosque.
“The men have won again, but the mosque is also very important for preserving our culture and tradition,” said 50-year-old Sit Khong, one of the five women in the village who were part of a committee to pick the project. “We will never find enough money to build it ourselves anyway.”
The mosque, with the gold-colored inscription “Funded by Loving Gift of Lightman Family” above the front door, opened on May 9. It can accommodate about 200 people and replaces a tiny building on wood stilts that held only 30 worshippers.
The villagers follow Imam-San, a small Islamic sect that incorporates Buddhism, Hinduism and animism. The Imam-San makes up about 3 percent of Cambodia’s 700,000 Muslims, who themselves represent only 5 percent of Cambodia’s 14 million people, the US State Department annual report on religious freedom said.
Besides mixing in elements of other religions, Imam-San followers pray only once a week, not the traditional five times a day.
“In the view of the real teaching of Islam, they are not pure,” said Tin Faizine, a 24-year-old Muslim student who was interpreting for the Lightmans.
Elyse Lightman, who is writing a book about Imam-San culture and traditions, said she was happy to help a community that is not fully embraced by either mainstream Muslims or Buddhists, Cambodia’s majority religious group.
“You can see why Muslims don’t consider them to be their own,” she said. “And then Buddhists say, ‘Well, you pray to Allah.’ So, they’re caught in the middle.”
She said the Imam-San, like the Jews, have faced persecution over the centuries, most recently when the Khmer Rouge seized power and abolished all religion.