My mother, Irma El-haj returns to Burma after 44 years away
– by Jmayel
As a young boy growing up with parents from such different cultural backgrounds, it was inevitable that my mum and dad would have an unlimited supply of interesting stories to tell me. My mother in particular who loves to reminisce about the life she remembered as a girl in Yangon, Myanmar, had told me all about the old wooden house she was raised in with vivid detail.
When Sacha and I moved to North Thailand, a trip to Burma was an immediate priority. Sharing that experience with my mother was something that filled my heart with excitement. That personal connection would enrich the experience tenfold, so the plan was set into motion.
As we boarded the Air Asia Flight from Bangkok to Yangon, I hadn’t taken on board how much of an emotional impact this particular plane ride would make on my mother who hadn’t ever seen Burma from the air before.
She left Myanmar from the Yangon Jetty on a Cargo ship 44 years prior to the return journey as a young 19 year old girl. Sacha quietly tapped me on the shoulder and gestured to the seats behind us. I saw my mother sitting by the light of the airplane window in silence, tears streaming from her eyes as the Ayeyarwady river became visible through the cotton clouds we were skimming across.
It was a moment of silence for her to reflect on all her childhood memories, growing up with her father and mother in a country she was beginning to forget.
At 5:05pm on November 16th, the aircraft tyres made contact with Burmese tarmac at Yangon airport. We exited the plane and I watched my mother lose complete control of her emotions and break down. My father embraced her with supporting arms as the immigration officers came over to ask if my mother was unwell. Moved by her story they let her pass through the diplomatic gateway, we had arrived.
Minutes later we met with Cho Cho, Tin Tin and their families. These people were unmet friends of my mothers and were to be our hosts and guides for the most part of our journey into Burma.
I didn’t know what to expect when we arrived in Myanmar. I had blended memories of my mothers stories from 44 years ago with images of burgundy robed monks at ancient temples. So when we hit the streets in an airport taxi heading for Tamwe in Yangon, I started to drink in the new experiences. The driver honked his horn repeatedly despite there being no imminent danger or obstruction. The music from the streets was loud and seemingly uncoordinated. The smells were a mixture of ginger, coriander, spiced savoury dishes and drainage from the broken sewage channels by the roadside. I felt like we were back in India.
We arrived at Cho Chos family apartment where more of her family welcomed us with open arms. Strangely it felt as though these people had been expecting our arrival for many years. Even though I’d only had 2 email exchanges from us to them in the last month describing our itinerary.
There was a selection of familiar and unfamiliar Burmese dishes laid out before us. We sat down to eat with our hosts as the traffic from the busy road outside gradually died down and the night edged onward.
After dinner we went upstairs and bathed with cold water from a bucket and a tap on the wall. Yet somehow that managed to raise a smile from both of us. It felt like real travel again.
The next morning was the start of a real challenge for Sacha and I. We had set ourselves the task of creating a cinematic documentary of my mother’s return to Burma. In our heads we imagined the real emotion, the tears and the moments that can’t be missed. The reality of capturing all those moments was a touch more difficult than we had anticipated so our minds had to become fully engaged.
We set out early at 6:00 am to beat the crowds that would inevitably form at the famous Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon. My mother had been there before in the past and immediately noticed the extra structures that now surround it, giving the illusion that it had shrunk substantially. The sun was rising creating gentle pastel tones behind the pagoda as we filmed the events unfolding. Monks falling asleep whilst praying, people of all ages burning candles and incense for merit and a wall of broom sweeping citizens brushing away the dirt like a unified machine.
Heading back to Tamwe we stared from the windows of Tin Tins brothers car, watching the unfamiliar world unfold in front of us. Men wearing ‘Longyi’ skirts that you would imagine they had woken up from bed clothed in walked all manners of life.
Builders, Taxi drivers, office workers all seemed to be dressed the same from the waist down. The women smeared their faces with an ancient paste ground from bark to protect from the suns harsh rays and as a general beautifying product accepted by Burmese society. People everywhere were chewing the betel nut leaf mixed with various other substances to stimulate their senses. Spitting out streams of blood coloured liquid and smiling with red stained teeth and gums. I was told it was a cheaper substitute for caffeine based products like energy drinks or strong coffee.
The driving was more aggressive than in Thailand and all the vehicles were right hand drive, even though they drive on the right hand side of the road. As I observed the motoring habits of the locals it struck me that something was missing. There are no motorcycles on the roads in Yangon. Further investigation revealed that rumour states an important general’s car was crashed into by a motorbike causing him to ban all motorised 2 wheel vehicles from the city streets.
Just 4 hours into our first full day sightseeing in the city, it felt impossible to travel from one place to the next without gaining a film of dusty polluted grime on our faces. The roads are bumpy and the pavements perilously uneven. The traffic is continuous and the cars ill maintained. Yet it felt like a safe city for tourists, as long as you have the most basic of common sense. Yangon was busy, noisy, dusty and polluted, but it felt good to be there.
When we reached our home we had to force ourselves not to collapse into a pile of exhaustion. The itinerary was tight and we still hadn’t seen the area we had come to Burma to find. Kamayut – The town where ‘Irma Alexis Grace Hannay’ was born.
As the sun dropped lower in the sky, we set out to discover what was left of the famous landmarks and buildings that my mother had told me so much about. The taxi sat idle outside as we packed our cameras into whatever spaces were left in its interior. When the driver asked my mother where we wanted to go she replied. “Jhu Maa Kamayut Thwar Jin Dare.” The Driver nodded in acknowledgement and we began our journey to the home my mother left behind…
Jmayel El-Haj – 8 Miles from Home
Watch the Cinematic Documentary of my mothers return to Burma-
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