Masked dance tradition rises from near extinction in Cambodia

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A dancer performs a masked theatre known as Lakhon Khol which was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighbouring Thailand's version of the dance, known as Khon at the Wat Svay Andet buddhist temple in Kandal province, Cambodia, December 16, 2018. (REUTERS)
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Dancers get ready backstage before a performance of masked theatre known as Khon which was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighbouring Cambodia's version of the dance, known as Lakhon Khol at the Thailand Cultural Centre in Bangkok, Thailand November 7, 2018. (REUTERS)
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Dancers get ready backstage before a performance of masked theatre known as Khon which was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighbouring Cambodia's version of the dance, known as Lakhon Khol at the Thailand Cultural Centre in Bangkok, Thailand November 7, 2018. (REUTERS)
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A dancer gets ready before a performance of masked theatre known as Lakhon Khol which was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighbouring Thailand's version of the dance, known as Khon at the Wat Svay Andet buddhist temple in Kandal province, Cambodia, December 16, 2018. (REUTERS)
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A dancer poses backstage before a performance of masked theatre known as Khon which was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations' cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighbouring Cambodia's version of the dance, known as Lakhon Khol at the Thailand Cultural Centre in Bangkok, Thailand November 7, 2018. (REUTERS)
Updated 04 January 2019
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Masked dance tradition rises from near extinction in Cambodia

  • Thailand’s version of the dance has fared better than its neighbor’s, but practitioners still depend on recruiting a new generation of performers

PHNOM PENH/BANGKOK: Cambodia’s centuries-old tradition of masked dance was nearly wiped out by the Khmer Rouge’s “Killing Fields” regime, but a handful of artists managed to keep it alive and are now working to pass it along to a new generation.
Sun Rithy’s father and grandfather were both performers of the Lakhon Khol masked dance, but the ultra-Maoist Khmer Rouge — who scorned most art as decadent — banned its study when he was a child in the 1970s.
Now 48, Sun Rithy leads one of the last Lakhon Khol troupes in Cambodia, made up of about 20 performers and students aged six to 15. For him, teaching a new generation is a matter of survival for the tradition.
“I don’t want Lakhon Khol ... to go extinct,” Sun Rithy told Reuters.
Lakhon Khol was recently listed by UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, as an intangible cultural heritage, along with neighboring Thailand’s version of the dance, known as Khon.
There are different variations in Southeast Asia, all featuring dancers wearing elaborate painted masks depicting the Ramayana, a Sanskrit epic poem in which a prince rescues his wife from a demon with help from an army of monkeys.
But in Cambodia, the art form is still struggling to recover from the Khmer Rouge, under whose genocidal 1975-79 rule at least 1.7 million people, including artists, dancers and writers, died, mostly from starvation, overwork, disease, execution or torture.
“In the Khmer Rouge, I was young and they didn’t teach people dance. Lakhon Khol was destroyed,” said Sun Rithy, who started to learn the dance when he was 14, after the Khmer Rouge were ousted from power.
Ahead of a recent rehearsal, students stretched their legs and hands at the troupe’s a newly built theater at Wat Svay Andet, a Buddhist temple outside the capital, Phnom Penh.
Pum Pork, 49, said his 11-year-old son, Pum Meta, was attending the dance class.
“I want to have my son trained to perform so that in the future we won’t lose the ancient art,” he said.
Cambodian Minister of Culture and Fine Arts, Phoeurng Sackona, said that the dance needed immediate preservation and urged all people to get involved.
“Elderly performers are trying to preserve the dance at this Wat Svay Andet,” Phoeurng Sackona told Reuters. “But it is up to young people whether they agree or not to receive knowledge from the elders.”
Thailand’s version of the dance has fared better than its neighbor’s, but practitioners still depend on recruiting a new generation of performers.
Thailand’s Khon tradition, originally centered on the royal court, is now taught by many schools and universities.
Mom Luang Pongsawad Sukhasvasti, 67, has followed his father’s footstep in making Khon masks since he was 10 and still hand-fashions the masks from his home studio in Ayutthaya province, north of Bangkok.
Each mask takes a month to produce, from molding the plaster to drawing the intricate details.
Pongsawad said the UNESCO listing could boost awareness.
“Teachers now must do more than teaching the dance,” he said. “They need to help students understand the roots as well to preserve it.”


The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

Syrian businessman Ali Shami arranges olive soap bars in a factory on the outskirts of Aleppo. (AFP)
Updated 23 March 2019
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The scent of soap making returns to Aleppo

  • Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year

ALEPPO: After years of war, the scent of laurel oil once again wafts from a small soap workshop in Aleppo, signaling the revival of a landmark trade in the battered northern city.
Surrounding soap workshops in the Al-Nayrab district still lie in ruins, badly damaged in the four-year battle for the former opposition stronghold. But for Ali Shami, hanging up his apron was not an option.
“I never stopped making soap throughout the war — even if it was just a little,” says the 44-year-old, who fled his home city during the fighting.
“But this workshop is special,” he tells AFP. “It was here that I started more than 30 years ago.”
Shami reopened his soap workshop last month after shutting it down in 2012, when Syria’s second city became a main front in the eight-year-long conflict.
The scars of war are still visible on the building, its walls punctured with holes caused by shelling. Rushes of wind gust through the gaps.
Shami carried out limited renovations — just enough to produce more than half of his pre-war output of around 800 tons a year.
He installed a new metal door and refurbished the main rooms where the soap mixture is heated and then poured out to dry.
He watches as five workers stir a thick mixture of olive and laurel oil in a large vat.
Beside them, another five workers slice cooled and hardened green paste into cubes and stack them in staggered racks.
Shami says he was able to resume operations quickly because Aleppo soap is handmade.
Its production “relies on manual labor, a successful mixture, the passion of Aleppo’s residents, and their love of the profession,” he says.
After closing down in 2012, Shami tried to continue his work in other major Syrian cities. “My existence is tied to the existence” of soap, he says.
He moved to the capital, Damascus, and the regime-held coastal city of Tartous, but Shami says the soap was not as good.
“Aleppo’s climate is very suitable for soap production and the people of Aleppo know the secret of the trade and how to endure the hardship of the many stages of its production,” he says.
Shami, who inherited the soap business from his father and grandfather, boasts about the superior qualities of Aleppo soap, the oldest of its kind in the world.
“Aleppo soap distinguishes itself from other soaps around the world as it is made almost entirely of olive oil,” he says.
“European soap, on the other hand, includes animal fats, while soaps made in Asia are mixed with vegetal oils but not olive oil,” he says.
The Aleppo region is well-known for its olive oil and sweet bay oil, or laurel.
Shami says the Aleppo soap industry was hit hard by the fierce clashes that rocked his home city, before ending in late 2016 when the army took back opposition districts with Russian military support.
While conditions are less dangerous today, soap producers still grapple with shortages of raw material and skilled labor, he says.
“We are struggling with the aftermath of the battles,” he says.
Dozens of soap producers are still waiting to complete renovations before reopening their workshops. Hisham Gebeily is one of them.
His soap-making center in the Old City of Aleppo, named after the family, has survived for generations, dating back to the 18th century.
The three-story stone workshop covers a space of around 9,000 square meters, and is considered among the largest in the city.
But the 50-year-old man was forced to close it in 2012.
The structure still stands, although damaged by the fighting: Parts of it have been charred by shelling and wooden beams supporting the roof are starting to fall apart.
“Before the conflict, the city of Aleppo housed around 100 soap factories,” he says.