Conversations with a former slave: the story of Sarah.
Friends often mock my failed attempt to visit Angkor Wat during my last trip to Cambodia.
Angkor Wat is the biggest religious site in the world, often named as the 8th wonder of the world. Today, Angkor ruins stand as a tourist and cinematic attraction. Lara Croft: Tomb Rider, In The Mood for Love, and many Youtube videos can show you the breathtaking ruins of the old world.
I’ve missed the ruins because of a tiny Halal restaurant off the dirt road. The place is squeaky clean, and the term “you can eat from the floor” comes to full applicable force. A smiling woman offers the menu. I realize she’s one of those people whom you can’t really guess the age. Her wrinkles are accessories to her spirit, and she can be 20 or 40 or any age above 18.
The order surely takes about an hour, but we’re not bothered. Sarah comes out apologizing for the delay, but we’re still not bothered. A raw connection happens while she speaks — that moment in eternity when you know your life is about to get an upgrade.
The story of Sarah is something I can’t process just yet. That’s the reason why I’m late to share her account. I’ve told myself I’m going to tell her story somehow, one day when I understand her better. And I’m not there yet, but this is her in all God's honesty that I can comprehend her existence.
Sarah is a single Muslim woman that has escaped modern-day slavery in Saudi Arabia to open up her restaurant in Siam Reap, Cambodia. The whole game of life is pegged against her. Sarah’s starting point is miles behind any other person I’ve ever met, and yet she’s a different story.
I can’t remember the exact words, nor the conversation, but I remember the story.
Sarah is a proud woman because she has never told the horrors of her existence to her family, so her parents don’t have to feel bad for letting it happen.
Sarah was born in Phnom Phen to poor parents and too many brothers and sisters. At the age of 11, a man approached her uneducated (formal education was a crime punishable by death), father. The man offered to send his daughter to a school in Saudi Arabia. He was to pay for the expenses. Sarah just had to learn and study, and be a good pupil.
In retrospect, you might say it was a dodgy offer. But if you understand Cambodia at the time, the senseless Khmer Rouge genocide, and prohibition of knowledge, you may understand the naivety of her parents, and the golden opportunity to send one child to a better world.
Sarah found a horrific destiny in Riyadh. She had received a mop and a broom, 7 days a week, and physical captivity. When she was of age, she had to start taking care of her master’s children.
She cleaned and scrubbed and raised the kids for 21 years. Sarah was beaten down, abused, and dehumanized. After more than two decades, she protested and fought to leave, she was threatened with police and the embassy and riots. The affluent family left her with a severance package of 1000 Rial (~$226) for 21 years of service.
When she finally had her documents back, she walked the streets of the Saudi capital. Sarah — a skilled house woman — had a series of employable skills. She continued working in Riyadh, saving every penny from various hospitality jobs and gigs.
Sarah saved enough money — $8000 — to pay for her father to Visit Saudi Arabia and attend Hajj Pilgrimage — mandatory religious duty for Muslims. You probably heard about the trek to Medina that Muslims do once in their lifetime, and that was Hajj.
Sarah never came clean with her father. And finally, after another untold number of years, she saved enough money to return back home to Cambodia. Her dream was to open a restaurant where she would be an owner — a boss of her private universe. Sarah persisted despite the social and economical complexities of being a proud, single, Muslim woman in a scary world of men.
When I met Sarah, she was already living the dream. Her little Halal place was neat and clean, even though the road outside was not paved. Sarah built a beacon of hope in the middle of nowhere. And she proudly kept her years for herself (probably the name too), but judging from the story, she was in her 40s.
I tried to remember her speak, but I couldn’t. I remembered her eyes and her passion. Sarah was not weighted by her past, she succeeded despite it. Her eyes didn’t carry pain, nor conflict, and she was truly at peace. She went through so much and never lost the smile on her face.
“I’m not bothered. I know Allah will put everything in its place.” — Sarah.
I’ve never forgotten this line, despite not being religious. I couldn’t deny that her belief in Allah offered closure, because she believed that someone had seen it all and that someone was to inflict the final judgment one day, in one way or another.
At that moment I forgot about Angkor Wat and the old world. The two of us were truly present, sharing an eternity.
Sarah is a glitch in the matrix. She’s undefeated by hardship and evil and everything that stands in the way of living her life. Sarah is not a story to make you come to terms with your privilege and how blessed you are, like many holier-than-thou spiritualist backpackers.
I know that I’m privileged. My privilege is painfully obvious, and it gets exacerbated in places like South East Asia or the US. Sarah is not a story to make you feel better for what you have. You should always be at terms with who you are.
Sarah is proof that you stand a fighting chance in life, despite the odds, and that your spirit can persevere even when the whole damn game is rigged against you. Sarah is an inspiration. Sarah is an idea. And Sarah makes the best Shawarma in Siam Reap.