Women’s Travel Silver Winner: The Moustache Brothers of Mandalay

by Shauna Sweeney

It takes fifteen minutes to confirm I’m being followed. At first I had my doubts, kept second-, triple-, quadruple-guessing. I thought fear was playing tricks on me, making monsters out of shadows. But we’ve turned too many corners, switched onto too many new streets for coincidence. The car hasn’t left my taxi’s bumper since we pulled out of the dirt driveway of the Peacock Lodge at the other end of Mandalay. I can’t see my pursuers’ faces because their high beams are blinding. It doesn’t matter. The message is clear. They know where I’m headed.

My taxi, a miniature blue pickup with a cramped tarp-covered bed, splashes through puddles and jolts across potholes on the unlit street. The right side-view mirror catches the reflection of my driver, a sun-weathered Burmese man with a broad face and thinning black hair. His eyes dart to the reflection of the headlights. My chest constricts with a heady rush of fear. This is riskier than I had thought. Yet, I’ve come all this way. I have to meet the Moustache Brothers.

I shift on the rain-soaked cushion, grasp one of the steel handholds above to keep from bouncing out the back, and remember the American Vice-Consul’s warning that morning in Yangon: “Be careful. Watch what you say. Whatever you do, please don’t talk politics. You might be fine, but who you talk to could end up in prison, or worse. And if you happen to end up there yourself, I can’t get you out just because you’re American. Trust me; you don’t want to go there.”

I met his suspicious gaze with a wide-eyed, innocent one of my own and nodded yes, yes of course, no, no never at all of the appropriate moments. But my itinerary was already mapped out, the tickets purchased hours before. I’d be in Mandalay by mid-afternoon and if all went according to plan, at the Moustache Brothers doorstep by nine o’clock that evening.

The roots of my trip to Burma (renamed Myanmar by the military junta in 1989) began six months before, in my campus library. As the only daughter of a divorced sea captain, I’d split my childhood between Australia, France, Thailand, and America, depending upon my father’s work. But when I enrolled at UC Berkeley, the vibrant and expansive scope of my life shrunk to a cloistered campus and a towering stack of books. From almost the moment I set foot in my dorm room and inhaled the dull smell of lemon antiseptic, I wanted to escape.

When I stumbled across the “The Ghost Road,” my dream grew legs. It was the story of a man named Mark Jenkins who trekked through Burma’s off-limit zones on an abandoned World War II road. Jenkins revealed a jungle country that had been on the fast track to modernization before the gears had screeched to a halt and reversed. Burma was a country tightly controlled by a paranoid military junta, where child labor camps, opium smugglers, and slave traders thrived.

Never before had it seemed so clear that my life lacked purpose. I imagined a place lost in time, hidden from the world, waiting to be braved, rediscovered, saved. An epic story was underway and I desperately wanted a role. I withdrew from Berkeley and packed my bags.

The taxi bounces through a deep pothole and my head bangs against the tarp above, splashing tepid rainwater into my face and into my mouth. It tastes of silt and mud and heavy monsoon rain. On the street, a young monk gathers his crimson robe up to his knees as he wades across a flooded alley.

The dusty city of Mandalay has long been considered the beating heart of Burma. The last royal capital boasts a rich history of poetic celebration. Rudyard Kipling, stationed here as a soldier during WWI, paid tribute to the charmed city on the bank of the Irawaddy River in a nostalgic poem called “On the Road to Mandalay,” in which he fondly reminisced about the spicy garlic smells and the sunshine and the palm-trees an’ the tinkly temple-bells.” But it’s hard now to envision any trace of Kipling’s Eastern paradise in this flooded, ramshackle city.

It’s monsoon season, and thick, viscous sludge coats the roads. The men and women, whose full tawny faces are painted with thanaka (a white lime paste that doubles for sunscreen and makeup) stare at me with caution and curiosity from sheet-metal teahouses while a group of skinny children, no older than five or six, run after my taxi in a straggling pack, index fingers and thumbs connected in the Burmese sign for alms. Beside a giant speaker blaring a man’s harsh voice in continuous prayer, a baby elephant stands shackled to a heavy iron stake. Nearby, a woman lies supine on the sidewalk. There is a growth in her skull the size of a watermelon. Our eyes meet and she tips her head as I pass. A soldier in camouflage fatigues patrols a street corner gripping a glossy black AK-47. All throughout the dark and muddy city, the air holds the threat of imminent violence.

Burma’s history is written into the architecture. Crumbling colonial buildings that have been uninhabited since Burma’s independence from Britain in 1947 line the streets amidst centuries-old Theravada Buddhist pagodas and stupas. I note with an odd combination of regret and relief the absence of gleaming skyscrapers and bustling financial districts that might have been, if the Tatmadaw (Burmese junta) had embraced capitalism. After all, Myanmar was once one of the wealthiest countries in Southeast Asiaso rich that Singapore initially modeled itself after the little kite-shaped country dubbed “the rice bowl of the East.” But in 1964, when the junta took power, the rice-producing powerhouse retreated into isolation. It was only in 1996, when the military government opened its doors to limited tourism to resuscitate the strangled economy, that the world realized how deeply the country had plummeted. In the short span of three decades, opium fields had replaced rice paddies, shop owners had boarded up their windows, and the formerly bustling ports stood still. Progress had halted.

The truck turns onto a road where dilapidated houses cram together, lining the narrow street. I wipe the sweat accumulated in my palms on my jeans and consider the facts.

Two “Brothers,” one joke, six years. This is essentially the story. In 1996, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw, two famous Burmese comedians, were sentenced to prison for almost six years for telling a joke about a general at a democracy rally in Rangoon. For six years, they lived in a prison cell with a bucket toilet, breaking boulders with iron bars clasped around their ankles.

I think of comedians like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert and the incredible license they assume in ridiculing the world’s most powerful leaders. In the United States, it is not uncommon for a well-aimed joke about the President to garner admiration and higher ratings. Here, the same leads to torture and incarceration.

I imagine the rush of exhilaration, the fear Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw must have felt as they stepped onto the stage and looked out at their audience, a sea of Burmese pro-democracy activists, waiting in anticipation. The Brothers knew there were military spies in the crowd. What must it have felt like to deliver that joke in the face of oppression? I reach for a comparison, but the thrill of running a red light seems inadequate and I find myself oddly jealous of these men, of the opportunities they’ve had to live bravely. Of course, I’m aware of the rights I enjoy, and I wouldn’t trade places with them. Still, I can’t help but wonder, what was it like to tell that joke?

At night the humidity in Mandalay intensifies, and the city turns into a steam bath. Hair plasters my forehead. The smell of wet earth and sour linen rises from my clothes while the mysterious car behind us follows from about five yards away. The taxi headlights illuminate another large, red-and-white sign carefully painted in both English and Burmese on a crumbling brick building with shattered windows. It’s the eighth sign I’ve seen that day and a different variation of the same message: tatmadaw and the people cooperate, and crush all those harming the union.

The taxi slows. The driver veers to the shoulder and stops next to a skinny two-story house with a cheerful neon sign flickering above the door: the moustache brothers. I’ve arrived.

My tailers slowly roll past us, then stop completely. Through the car window, the dark silhouettes of two men crane their necks to stare back at me. The moment drags on for ten, twenty seconds, pregnant with warning. It occurs to me that no one knows where I am.

When the brake lights fade and the car pulls forward to turn the corner, I release my breath, but can’t shake the fear. The driver hops out of the cab, hawking a thick gob of saliva and red betel juice that hits the mud with a splat. He unlatches the tailgate and our eyes meet. His thin lips pull back into a tight smile, revealing kitten-like teeth stained red. He extends his rough calloused hand to help me out and his eyes slide away. Here in Burma, anyone might be a spy. New acquaintances tiptoe around each other, ears pricked for any sign of allegiance.

As I walk in the narrow door, fifteen pairs of eyes, both Western and Burmese, swing my way in the tiny fluorescent-lit garage. I’m late.

It’s a tiny garage. A profusion of laminated pictures of Aung San Suu Kyi (the democracy leader whose image the junta has outlawed) crowd every inch of the walls. A group of middle-aged European tourists armed with camcorders and cameras sit on plastic chairs circling a small wooden-crate stage.

A small, full-moustached man with alert eyes and a thin, wizened face greets me from the stage. With a bright pink headscarf wrapped around his head like a pirate and a blue “Moustache Brothers” t-shirt hanging on his wiry frame, he asks in raspy, rapid English where I’m from as he wiggles his wiry, gray moustache up and down.

“California,” I answer.

“Ah, Arnold Schwarzenegger!” the tiny man says. His name is Lu Maw; he is the sole English-speaking brother of the troupe and the one who kept up the shows by himself when Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw were sent to prison. The audience, mostly European, laughs politely.

There is an impish quality to Lu Maw, an element of the ancient and absurd in his dark brown face and zany movements. He wiggles his sooty eyebrows and bugs his eyes as he speaks into a tinny, antique microphone, gesturing with a ringmaster’s panache toward center stage.

Lu Zaw beats the rim of a small skin drum while a middle-aged, heavily made-up woman that Lu Maw introduces as his wife cries out a rhythm. She holds a series of traditional Burmese dance positions, kicking the long train of her silk dress behind her, and I begin to see with dawning embarrassment that I haven’t come to Mandalay to commune with political renegades. I’ve bought myself a seat at a campy tourist show.

As Lu Maw’s wife dances, I look down in my lap at my smooth uncalloused hands and see myself as a na├»ve American trying to buy a cheap thrill and easy answers.

A Burmese man with warm, wide-set eyes appraises me from the corner. His face is noble and unlined except for the crows feet that fan out from the corners of his eyesevidence of a lifetime of laughter. A prominent moustache, the telltale mark of the third and final Moustache Brother, sweeps across the top of his congenial smile. With his easy charm and bemusement, Par Par Lay bears some comparison to Mark Twain, if Mark Twain had a Burmese brother. He points to his chest, holds his finger in the air, and mouths, “Brother number one.”

They haven’t always performed like this, atop wooden crates in their moldy garage. Lu Maw speaks into his tinny microphone, “We performed all over Yangon, Mandalay, Inle Lake, all night on stage.” He looks down and his voice softens, “But not anymore.” He calls Par Par Lay and Lu Maw to the center of the stage and Lu Maw points to each man as he introduces them, “Lu Zaw, Lu Maw, Par Par Lay. We are comedians, we are blacklisted.”

In 2002, after Amnesty International and Aung San Suu Kyi led a campaign for their release, the Brothers were freed on the condition they never perform again. This might have been the end of the story, if the Brothers had learned the intended lesson to keep their mouths shut and their political opinions to themselves. But when the Brothers returned home to Mandalay from their prison cell, they held several shows in their garage to celebrate their liberation. Inevitably, these shows were reported to the Regional Commander, who demanded the Brothers put an end to the home performances. But the Brothers were both unflinching and clever. They shed their vaudeville costumes, washed off their face paint, and donned plain clothes. Now, the men were merely “demonstrating” a real show and therefore abiding by the Commander’s orders. It was a risky, dangerous move but had succeeded so far. And since that night, the Brothers had bravely “demonstrated” performances for foreign visitors every night of the week here in their garage in Mandalay.

Lu Zaw’s raspy accent and lightning delivery make him difficult to understand as he speeds through a canned slapstick routine that covers everything from the relative attractiveness of his wife to the quickest way to tie a headscarf. Then I think I hear Lu Maw call the junta the “KGB.” I strain to follow his words, but Lu Maw has already switched back to his goofball vaudeville routine. He talks of the friendly rivalry between himself and Par Par Lay: “Par Par Lay, he used to be Brother number one, now Lu Maw Brother number one!” Par Par Lay raises an eyebrow and shakes his head in mock anger, but the mischievous look on Lu Maw’s impish face disappears. He speaks gravely: “Par Par Lay spent six years in prison.” He pauses, before breaking into a toothy smile, “But, how do you say? Like water off a duck’s back!”

It’s easy to see why Par Par Lay once held the most famous position in the troupe. There is a magnetic, reassuring quality to him, as if he’s tallied the good and evil in life. His voice is strong and even, a silken tenor, and though he speaks in Burmese, his words flow together in a soothing waterfall of singsong syllables as he bows to the audience. He tucks and rolls his nimble body across the small stage then springs up to bow. “My name is Par Par Lay,” he says in crisp English, “and I don’t even know what I say.”

“He don’t know what he say! Poppycock, gobbledygook!” Lu Maw exclaims, shooing him off the stage. Lu Maw grabs a scuffed green military helmet that bowling ball armor worn by all Burmese soldiers and holds it high for everyone to see. The chuckles subside and the room quiets: “When you see this hat, run away, shoo shoo, very dangerous.” Lu Maw puts on the helmet and it slips down with a thunk, covering all but his wiry moustache and red mouth: “Police man, 50,000 kyat. You pay the money in the helmet, you go, you no pay the money, handcuffs.” He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a neon green plastic whistle, and holds it high: “Another one that’s very dangerous, like atomic bomb.” The shrill whistle echoes in the small garage: “Like nuclear. Saddam Hussein, he send it to me, we are friends. He has a moustache, I have a moustache. He is blacklisted, we are blacklisted. It is the Moustache Association!” The comparison is laughable but I know what Lu Maw is risking to portray the regime this way, and what these seemingly minor jokes could cost him. Almost no one in Burma will speak to foreigners about the political situation here for fear of imprisonment or worse.

All three Brothers crowd together in a madcap pose, holding hand-painted red-and-white wooden signs. They’re painted identically to the government signs in the streets. Lu Maw holds one that reads, the moustache brothers are under surveillance, Lu Zaw holds up kgb, and Par Par Lay’s sign reads most wanted. They preen in front of the tourists’ cameras, tugging and twirling their moustaches. “Tell your friends,” Lu Maw says with a flourish of his hand, “Tell your friends about the Moustache Brothers of Mandalay!”

The show ends with the passing of the “donation box,” which is the same green military helmet Lu Maw wore earlier. I slip the last of my money into the green helmet and watch as the audience slowly files out the door into the night. I hang back until I’m the only visitor left.

“I admire you very much,” I tell Lu Maw. He nods and smiles vaguely, but he gives no sign that he’s understood. “You’re very brave,” I say. Lu Maw nods. His eyes flicker to the door.

His voice is light, but there is an undercurrent of something else, something steely. “Tell your friends about us; tell them to come and see the Moustache Brothers,” he says again. I nod, but it’s a lie. It’ll take something more than these three aging comedians telling jokes in their garage to get the world to pay attention to Burma. It will take a sacrifice of tragic proportions. Suddenly, I’m scared for Lu Maw. No one ever talks about the real cost of courage.

I gather my things to leave when Lu Maw mutters something unintelligible. The only part I catch is “500 children” and “labor camp” but Lu Maw has already grabbed my arm, and is leading me towards an old television at the back of the garage. “Cover the door,” he whispers to Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw. They saunter over to the doorway and lean against the sill, idly chatting. It’s impossible now for anyone outside to monitor the room. Squinting in the dim light, Lu Maw rifles through a thick pile of white recordable CDs labeled in loopy Burmese before he finds the one he’s searching for. For an instant, I feel sorry for this man, and the perilous life he leads, trusting a stranger like me with his safety. Who am I to deserve such trust? I could be anyone.

A grainy image appears on the TV screen and my attention shifts to the picture of Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw on stage in a yellow auditorium. They’re both dressed in white from head to toe, in far nicer clothes than the shabby muscle tees they wear tonight. The audio is crackly and the camera zooms in and out at awkward angles. Par Par Lay speaks in fluid, rhythmic cadences. His hands are animated. Then he crosses his arms and bobs his neck like a rooster: “Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw in Yangon, I couldn’t go, I stayed here in Mandalay,” Lu Maw says, staring at the screen wistfully.

He fast-forwards through scenes of a large laughing Burmese crowd until he stops upon the elegant face of a smiling older woman with cropped black hair and a long, slender neck. She’s simply dressed in a white cotton blouse, her shoulders thrown back like a dancer. It’s Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy. I look at Lu Maw. This video is a recording of the Brothers’ infamous joke!

Lu Maw’s thin face is only inches away from the TV screen. He mouths the words of his brothers. He has memorized them.

On the screen, Aung San Suu Kyi looks amused but tired. There are fine lines beneath her eyes and parentheses around her mouth. The camera switches to the stage, where Par Par Lay pauses, crosses his arms in front of him, and puffs up his chest. He crows something in Burmese and his voice trumpets across the auditorium. When the camera switches back to Aung San Suu Kyi, she shakes her head and suppresses a smile, as a mother might when amused by a mischievous son.

“She couldn’t control herself,” Lu Maw whispers proudly. “She couldn’t stop laughing.” A pan of the auditorium shows an audience doubled over in tears.

“What does he say?” I ask Lu Maw, imaging the possibilities.

“He makes a funny song,” Lu Maw replies, waving his hand in dismissal. His eyes don’t leave the television. I hide my bewilderment. The men spent six years in prison over a joke not worth translating?

Lu Maw pushes the stop button on the DVD player and the grainy video vanishes, replaced with a dark, blank screen. Lu Maw beams. At the door, Par Par Lay and Lu Zaw grin bashfully. Perhaps the junta didn’t imprison the men for the content of their joke, but for the fearlessness they showed in telling it.

Lu Maw slides twenty business cards into my hand as I leave. “Please. Tell your friends to come and see the Moustache Brothers of Mandalay.” His voice is solemn and determined. For the first time I see the purple crescents beneath his eyes, hear the fatigue in his voice. But even so, he’s smiling.

I came on this trip for adventure, for thrills; for all the wrong reasons. I came to escape the boredom of a privileged life. I suddenly feel embarrassed by my foolish motivations. The disrespect I showed for education, the ingratitude for my rights and freedoms to speech, to privacy, to laughter that many only dream of. Yet I will never regret meeting the Moustache Brothers. If every American could see these old mensee them step onto their wooden crate stage in their muscle tees night after night to speak up for a people too terrified of their government to speak for themselves they would see that heroes exist; that humor, real humor, is a choice. It is the decision to laugh rather than cower. The courage to make light out of darkness.

* * *

A native of the San Francisco Bay Area, Shauna Sweeney lives in Santa Monica and teaches writing at the University of Southern California. She has circumnavigated the globe on a ship, traveled extensively through Southeast Asia, and slept in more airports than she’d care to admit. She is currently finishing her first novel.

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