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A Garland of Alev Stories

I’ve decided to post my translation of the Khmer language “A Garland of Alev Stories” that I helped collect as part of a group folklore and publication project out of the Buddhist Institute of Cambodia, which resulted in four illustrated, published volumes, that we worked hard to make affordable to everyday Cambodians (about $1 each at the time of publication, which isn’t ‘affordable’ but better than the alternative of publishing one single volume primarily aimed at non-Cambodians). Those volumes are also available for free PDF downloads from my BePress site.

Alev is a trickster character (this story can be found in Vol. 3 of the Folktales Collection, “Tricksters.”

The short stories included in this ‘Garland of  Alev Stories’ are “Dogshit Cakes,” “Alev Kills His Parents For Soup,” “Alev Pimps Out A Monk,” “Alev Sells Farts,” and “Alev Steals The Girl.” Please enjoy.

A Garland of Alev Stories[1]

As told by Mr. Sū Ḷān, Siam District, Kaṃpang Cām, in 2005, as printed in Davis, Erik et al. 2006. Roeung Ālev (The Story of Ālev). In Tossanavddey roeung preng khmaer tmey (The magazine of new Khmer folktales: Tricksters). Phnom Penh: Buddhist Institute.

Translated by Erik W. Davis.

 

Introduction.

“Grandfather, have you heard the story of Alev?”

“That story’s been around and told forever!”

“Do tell this story to me please!”

“Please grandfather, let the younger generation listen and read this story; I want to know it. How does it go?”

“Alright, Alright! Alev was half-lazy: sometimes too direct, and sometimes too tricky.”

 

Dogshit cakes.

Once upon a time, a family had a little boy named Alev. When he got to be seven or eight years old, his parents took him to serve the monk at the temple, so that he could learn and study a bit.

Whenever the monk went on his alms rounds, he ordered the young students to guard the temple grounds, and keep the dogs from shitting all over the place.

When it was his turn to stand guard, the monk told Alev, “Look: guard the temple well and don’t let the dogs shit in here at all! If you fail, I’m going to make you eat every last bit of shit.” Saying that, the monk left, and left Alev to do as instructed.

Alev went home to his mother, and had her make Sesame Cakes which he told her we would eat at the temple. Once he had the cakes, and while he waited to fool the monk, Alev mashed the cakes into small lumps shaped like a thumb, and scattered them all around the central sanctuary of the temple, in groups of two and three.

When the monk came back from his alms rounds, he couldn’t see anything but dogshit covering the temple grounds. Infuriated, he beat Alev and forced him to eat the dogshit. Alev, of course, wasn’t afraid to eat the cakes, since they were really Sesame cakes. Every time he ate one, he’d say, ‘Delicious!’ The monk would give a blow for each turd he ate, until there was only one left.

The monk exclaimed, “Wow! Alev, are they really delicious?” And Alev gave a piece to the monk to eat. Placing it in his mouth, the monks exclaimed a second time, “Wow! This is some sweet dogshit! No wonder you’re eating it!”

The monk asked Alev, “So….which dog’s shit is this? Go get some more.”

“It’s the black bitch’s shit.”

The monk ordered Alev, “Give that bitch lots of food to eat, so that we’ll get lots of shit in return,” and then he tied a bowl under the dog’s butt, so it would shit into the dish.[2]

One day, the monk had a few visitors, and had nothing to offer them, so he had Alev fetch the dogshit cakes from full dish that he’d tied behind the dog.

After the monks had talked for a while, they drank some tea, and one of the monks ate a piece of the dogshit. He immediately vomited violently, because, of course, dogshit is disgusting.

The monk was furious with Alev, and expelled him from the temple, beating him as he went, and forbade him from living there any longer.

 

Alev kills his parents for soup.

So, Alev went back to live with his parents. One day, he wanted to eat some Spicy Chinese Soup, but didn’t know how to get any.[3] At that point, his father had gone to build a hut near the rice-fields, to guard the rice, and his mother stayed at the house. Taking advantage of the situation, Alev told his mother, “Mom! Mom! Dad is dead! You should make a soup to offer his spirit; make it a Spicy Chinese Soup, if you can.” His mother never asked many questions, and she did as he asked.

When Alev had eaten enough bread and soup, he walked to his father’s hut near the fields, and told his father, “Mom’s dead! Daddy, go offer some soup to her spirit!” In this way, Alev managed to keep his belly full.

Then, Alev figured out how to convince his father to take another wife.

His father, however, said “And where will I find this wife? I’m already old!’”

Alev responded, “Leave it up to me, dad, and I’ll get one for you!”

Then he went to his mother, and told her, “Mom! You should take another husband; life as a woman alone is too difficult.”

His mother replied, “Son, I have always acted according to your plans, child. Do as you see fit; I leave it up to you.”

With this, Alev seized the opportunity, and went to his father, saying, “Dad! Daddy! I’ve found a wife for you, but she says the wedding has to be tonight! Agreeing, they prepared rice and water for the offering, and when night fell, they went.’

When they time came, and they saw each other at a distance, Alev’s father thought, “Wow, she’ looks just like Alev’s mom!”

And Alev’s mother thought, “Wow! He looks just like Alev’s dad!”

Wonderingly, they lit a lamp, and saw that indeed, they were both Alev’s parents, though each had thought the other dead. Both of them hollered,

“Damn! Alev’s tricked us again!” And then they chased him away from their home, beating him the entire time.

Alev pimps out a monk.

So Alev rant back to the monk and asked him for permission to live at the temple again. The monk allowed this because he was no longer angry; too much time had passed.

One day, Alev asked the monk, “So, grandfather, do you want a woman?”

The monk retorted, “Don’t talk like that! I’m ordained, and must shun all women; don’t say anything more.

But of course, in reality, the monk did want a woman, and was simply concealing his desire.

“And any way,” continued the monk, “even if you did bring me a woman, you’d only go and tell everyone all about it. If you did that, I’d stop feeding you entirely.”

Alev denied this, saying, “That’s not true; I will help hide her only for you, grandfather, as long as you pay me.”

To this the monk replied, “How much do you need?”

“Just one Baht,” answered Alev.[4]

But of course, Alev had no idea where to procure a woman. So he went to find a Chinese man.

Alev asked the Chinaman, “Do you want a woman? If you do, I can get you one.”[5]

The Chinaman did want a woman, and said so.

The two closed the deal, and Alev returned to the monk, saying, “I’ve found a woman; she wants you to meet her in the temple.”

At around 7 or 8 at night that night, Alev took the woman to the temple. But of course, he was really bringing the Chinaman.

Since it was dark and they couldn’t see very far, the monk confused the Chinaman for a woman. The Chinaman confused the monk for a woman as well, and the jumped forward to grab each other. Struggling at first, each tried to get the upper hand, until finally, because the monk was weaker, he fell down with the Chinaman on top of him. The Chinaman lifted up the monk’s robes, and saw they had the same tools. Suddenly ashamed, he realized that the monk was a man, and they ran away from each other.

Afterward, the Chinaman went to demand his money back from Alev, but Alev threatened to spread the story around. When the old monk realized he’d been tricked, he went to go beat and expel Alev from the temple again. But Alev threatened, “If you dare to beat your humble servant, I’ll tell everyone, telling them that you, grandpa, really do want a woman.”

Defeated, the monk began collecting a begging bowl’s worth of money to give to Alev as payment for his silence; not just one coin, but a full bowl of coins. When he gave the money to Alev, Alev left the temple and returned to his home.

Alev sells farts.

Along the road back to his house, Alev found fragrant kleum wood used to make perfume. When he got back home, his father asked, “Alright, you: where did all this money come from, and why do you smell so good?”

Alev replied, “I’ve been selling farts to Chinamen, and getting money that way.”

His father asked again, “And how do you make your farts smell so good, Alev?”

“I really stuff myself full of candy, rice gruel, and sweet desserts, and when I am packed full, my farts smell great.”

So Alev’s father imitated his son, and stuffed himself full of sweet things, so that he could sell the farts of his packed belly to the Chinese. When he was finally so bloated that he was near bursting, he ran all the way to the marketplace, screaming, “Who wants to buy my farts?”

The Chinese in the market thought to themselves, “Whoa. If Alev’s farts are so fragrant, how much more fragrant will his father’s farts be?”[6]

“How much?” the Chinese demanded, as they gathered around him to buy his farts. When it came time, the buyers brought a box to collect the farts, and Alev’s father pressed his ass to the box. Suddenly, the shit came flooding out, because he’d been stuffing himself with sweets and rice gruel. It was not farts, but entirely shit, that filled the fartbox.

So the Chinese gathered together and drove him into the forest, beating him all the way.

As he was running away, the father ran past Alev, and angrily asked him, “Why did you trick me? They are chasing me and beating me now!”

But Alev replied, “Really? They’re beating you for selling farts? No: they are driving you into the forest and beating you because you showed off your cock! Your cut wood![7] His father kept running on.

Just then, two Cām (a.w. Cham) were walking along the road with packs on their backs, when they say the crowd chasing and beating something. Curious, they stopped and asked Alev, “Why is that man running?”

Alev told them that all those people were chasing a wild deer.

Excited, the Cām wanted to eat venison too, so they entrusted their bags to Alev and ran after the crowd, until they caught up with Alev’s father, who lifted his hands above his head in respect, begging, “Don’t kill me! I’m just a little circumcised!”

For he believed they were chasing him because of his circumcised penis, because of Alev.

Meanwhile, Alev took the Cām’s bags and disappeared to the river.

 

Alev steals the girl.

At the docks, Alev saw an old woman, with her beautiful young granddaughter, preparing to cross the river, to go collect firewood. He asked the old woman if he could ride with across with them.

“Child, where are you heading, where are you from, where’s your home, and- who are you, anyway?”

“My name is Āci Cav Prasār,” replied Alev, which of course means “Āci , Grandson-in-law.”

As soon as he’d said this, he ran and lept down from the docks into the boat with the granddaughter; before the old woman could get into the boat with them, he quickly rowed the boat with the girl away from shore, leaving the grandmother all alone at the edge of the river

The old woman screamed for help, shouting to the nearby village, “Good people![8] Please help me! Āci Cav Prasār has taken my granddaughter away! Āci, Grandson-in-law, has taken my granddaughter away!”

But why would anyone help her, when she’s shouting that her Grandson-in-law has taken away her granddaughter!

And that, children, is how Alev stole a wife.

[1] Many of these stories, collected in the four volumes of the New Cambodian Folktales Project out of the Buddhist Institute from 2005-2006, have languished in untranslated form since their publication in Khmer. I am grateful to a discussion with my colleague John Haiman, professor of Linguistics at Macalester College, for his stimulating questions and conversations about the story of Alev, which he is preparing for separate publication. Without these discussions, I would not have returned to translate any of these tales.

[2] cānsrâk, a “stack of four or five, usually metal, containers nested one on top of the other in an upright frame (used for carrying food)” {Headley, 1977 #2877, s.v.} In this case, however, it is clearly a single bowl, rather than the entire apparatus, that is tied beneath the dog.

[3] I am unclear on this dish; I have translated it as Spicy Chinese Soup on the presumption that the title is best understood as “Soup with tānhun, where tānhun is cognate with another, similarly-named, Chinese spice.

[4] The presence of Siamese currency in this story assists us in locating the origin or most popular reception of the Alev cycle in the Northwestern Cambodian provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, likely in the Late Middle Period of Cambodia (roughly 18th and 19th centuries).

[5] I spent a long time resisting translating “Ā-cin” as “Chinaman,” until a discussion with Professor John Haiman, which helped me recognize the connection between the persistent anti-Chinese sentiment within the Alev stories with the anti-Chinese sentiment in the Americas at roughly the same period, during which the derisive term “Chinaman” was in widespread use.

[6] There appears to be either an episodic or narrative elision here; in the recorded version used here, it appears at first that Alev is tricking his father into humiliating himself with the Chinese in the market, as indeed happens. But this trick is impossible without the Chinese believing, for reasons unexplained, that Alev’s farts genuinely do smell nice. Either an explanatory episode is absent, or else the logic of the story simply does not hold entirely together.

[7] This appears to be another confusing elision. There is no reason why Alev’s father, as a Khmer man from the countryside, should be circumcised, as circumcision is not a Khmer tradition. It does however, connect significantly with the next part of this episode, in which the Cām Muslim minority of Cambodia suddenly show up. It is further possible that I have misunderstood the final joke in this episode, and seen only word-play about circumcision, when jokes about the small size of Alev’s father’s genitalia are intended.

[8] Her appeal to Anak Sruk, has the resonance of “Fellow countrymen!”

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