Every once in a while I decide to expand on some of the more telling anecdotes born out of my travels. This happens to be one of those times.
The Musmeah Yeshua Synagogue sits on a lively corner in downtown Yangon that opens up onto an alley where merchants tinker with a miscellany of metals and rubber piping forming ad hoc workstations that rob the already narrow path of its dignity. The steel bars that stand guard in front of the synagogue have business of their own as well: today a small group of them periodically give way creating a swing door that flaps open for Monday visitors, the relatively few that come to Yangon anyways. In 2010, 791,500 foreign tourists visited Myanmar, compared to Thailand’s 15.84 million. It was an all-star year that promises to be outdone by 2011 — but not by much. Until recent, the majority of news coverage coming out of this overwhelmingly Buddhist nation involved depredations of human rights. I had put off the trip for four years partly due to the pangs of moral conviction that would surface whenever I got wind of atrocities being committed in the country, harboring my Myanmar (Burma) Lonely Planet as I moved from Asian metropolis to Asian metropolis like a fugitive I wished to conceal — until finally I could hide it no more.
My Indian-American colleague and I had visited Myanmar’s solitary synagogue on the Sunday before our departure only to be told by a groundskeeper in an overstretched white muscle shirt that it was closed. The synagogue serves the approximately 45-person Jewish community in Myanmar made up of Jews with roots from Northwest and South India as well as Baghdad, a surprising find in my journey that competed with my preconceived notion of Yangon: A city of Buddhist temples purportedly rife with suppression of every kind. Initially, I abortively approached the groundskeeper in English, but only received a nervous stare of miscomprehension in return. He stood there for a second trying to make sense of me, raising the trimmed beard on his chin up as if to put more space between us.
“Ah!” he sounded off in a burst of sudden clarity to my colleague. They began speaking Hindi to each other. The groundskeeper, who gave his name as Mohammed, was a Muslim Indian whose ancestors came from Southern India to Myanmar some 70 years ago. The family maintained the culture and language. “Ah, yes” he sounded off. “The synagogue is closed today. So sorry.”
Curious about the odd pair of foreigners that had wandered his way, another man — also going by Mohammed — of similar facial features and complexion, yet half the body weight, came out of the adjacent workshop to add his opinions. He spoke with a deep, guttural voice as if he had to make up for his relatively smaller size and stature with the projection of his speech. The three quickly entered into an energetic conversation, like old college friends at a reunion. A common language coming from a foreigner has a way of defeating superficial barriers. But I had to interrupt: “Isn’t there any sort of religious tension in Yangon?” My colleague translated my question.
The taller Mohammed stepped forward to explain, glancing back at me intermittently. “No,” he answered quite nonchalantly. “We take care of each other here.”
There is an undercurrent of diversity and apparent tolerance in central Yangon that seems pleasantly misplaced to the unfamiliar. While Myanmar is still a stronghold for Theravada Buddhism – and represents pockets of animists intertwined with the local beliefs of the many ethnic minorities – central Yangon retains the cultural collage of a forward-moving capital. At a point in history, Myanmar was a beacon of prosperity in the region. The British funneled Indian workers to the colony from across the subcontinent, whose descendents today pay homage at the city’s Hindu temples and mosques, located just down the road from churches, Buddhist temples and — of course — the country’s sole synagogue.
Before the current military junta assumed power, Yangon was an open and raucous city, filled with a maddening din of expats comparable to today’s Bangkok. However, those days came to pass after the coup. Sanctions piled upon sanctions began to isolate the country and etch in trade boundaries and travel boycotts that would preserve the country in a time capsule of crumbling colonial British architecture and untampered traditions.
But there was still diversity. Even more once you start to discern the 10 major ethnic groups (not including the Indian population). And there was still tension. Ethnic groups in Myanmar have notoriously deep-seeded grudges against each other to this day. Standing between two Muslim Indian groundskeepers in front of a synagogue, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a some circumstances that history had omitted.
“No one troubles each other in our community,” the taller Mohammed continued. I was getting the sense that along with the ban of goods, the rest of the world had been prohibited from exporting prevailing animosities to Myanmar as well.
Just then, a short man walked into my peripheries – well, more like hobbled. He was wearing dark jeans and a bright white T-shirt. On the front, a large red square with a familiar symbol: the swastika of the Third Reich. He continued towards us, flashing a wry smile. This wasn’t the first time I had seen signs of Hitler’s insignia: T-shirts with the swastika were being sold along street corners; a vendor in front of a temple outside of Yangon had cheerily smiled at me while I fingered through his Nazi wear 48 hours prior; at a temple in Bago, a ticket seller had a helmet propped up on the counter displaying an iron eagle, the embelm of Hitler’s party. No sooner did I bring up this odd reoccurrence in my journey did the stunted man lurch over to us. “What do you make of this symbol? Are there many racists here?”
We all fought back uneasy laughter at the timely coincidence. Now closer, the short man was visibly a bit mentally disabled, his confused smile not sure where to guide him next. “This symbol,” Mohammed said instructively, waiting to finish his thought until after the man left, “it is a kind of fashion for crazy people.”
The German swastika and a vast collection of other Nazi merchandise had become “fashion.” Unaware of any deeper significance, people proudly displayed their T-shirts, pins and army accessories. Or perhaps they were feeding some grand unspoken enmity by promoting the leader of a former “Axis of Evil,” some possessed attachment to an ethos that stood in opposition to the West. But I wasn’t about to worry, at least not in this community. People take care of each other here.