NASHIZA SPEAKS: In spirit and in the flesh

Revisiting Darapanan

On June 10, 2009 at 2:00PM I was at the heart of MILF camp in Darapanan, Parang, Maguindanao in southern Philippines. Face to face with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) luminaries, Dr. Mohager Iqbal, Datu Michael Mastura, Datu Jun Mantawil, a top-rank MILF secretary, a young technical assistant, and a couple of elderly mujahideen whose names I missed to catch, it was the second time [the first time being in 1986] and would probably be the last that I’d get the opportunity to be that breathing distance to the MILF leaders. Alhamdulillah! All praises be to God! The sleepy village of Darapanan has not changed much in the last 23 years, except for the civilian houses that have became more sparse now and the nipa palm thatches and woven bamboo sawali  of the old ‘activity center’ having given way to the concrete walls and galvanized iron roof. The muddy fields and parade grounds were now replaced by patches of cemented driveway and manicured lawn leading to the complex, housing the offices and quarters of the MILF and the Bangsamoro Development Agency (BDA). An airconditioning unit in the meeting room, turned off for that afternoon, was an indication that electrification has already reached the community. Indeed, development has crept into this once bombs oft-targeted village, now boasting of Japanese-style flush toilet facilities and generously flowing tap from the faucets. The sprawling cultivated lands surrounding the camp also bespoke of some lull in war and military activities. The growing crops and fruiting trees were signs that there had been no major evacuations so far, at least in this area.

I first came to Darapanan in 1986, tugging among journalist-friends in now defunct Media Mindanao News Service (MMNS), a greenhorn writer freshly dropped-out from the State University engineering school. I was to be teetered for the next three years as volunteer stringer with alternative people’s press based in Lanao, the Moro Kurrier, then ran on a shoe-string resource by the Moro People’s Resource Center. Lovingly pasted in my album now is a faded picture taken that fateful day, of myself in a purple loose wrap-around pants, kantiyu, and a white banggala minulu. I had inherited the virginal cotton eyelette banggala traditional fitted blouse from a professor friend, her wedding dress, I was told. I had always been ‘proudly Mora’, as my colleague, Jack, would nudge and tease me then, with my kumbung traditionally worn, the head-scarf wound twice around my face then running down the back of my head to gather my long hair knotted in a bun, and then crossed over on top of my head, the shawl’s loose ends trailed down to cover the neck and nape the way the Maguindanon women at the Super in downtown Cotabato would have donned. In that photo, 23 years younger, I was holding a microphone powered by a car-battery and speaking before the gagandilan of MILF, the mighty tandem of Hadji Murad Ebrahim and Ustadz Ghazzali Jaapar. Though I don’t remember now the questions I had asked, if it were stupid and silly then, I knew, I wouldn’t have been half as embarrassed now as I stood there this second time, painfully self-conscious, debating if I were perceived to be a friend or a foe by my hosts.

I had to quickly change from what I had previously worn to the morning forum that day at Notre Dame University where I earlier sat around with some twenty or so academicians from Mindanao and Manila, belonging to a network of universities for Peace and Development in Mindanao who were there to discuss options for ‘Reframing the GRP-MILF Peacetalks’. The forum was organized by University of the Philippines (UP) Law center. Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) spokesperson Atty. Randolf Parcasio and University of the Philippines (UP) Islamic School Dean Prof. Mashur Jundam shared their insights on principles and practices in Bangsamoro governance and I was batting for civil society participation and constituency-responsive governance, invoking lessons from the old practices of people in Sulu islands, of pagpanglima and pag-botang matto’a (‘Council of Elders’ among the Sama and pag-tau-maas, among Tausug); of multistakeholders’ participation through the process of pagbissala or miswarat (i.e. process of people’s consultation, from Arabic, shura) and of institutionalizing the concept of raayat as conscienticized and organized masses into civil society. This, I concluded, were our indigenous ways of building the pamarinta a’dil or just and equitable governance.

The earth-toned lace Suluan sablay-inspired blouse I wore was with biased sleeves flaring wide to the wrist. It used to cover upto an inch above my knee then, but now, 15 years and three children later, I had out-grown the beloved dress. Paired with a tube-like cloth that indigenous women wear wrapped around their waist called holos,  palikat, or kantiyu, to uncritical eyes, it had always passed for a real sablay, our traditional loose blouse, to the satisfaction of colleagues in Manila who would always add, on second thoughts, a note in their invitations to ‘please bring your native attire’, short of saying ‘come in your autochtonous costumes’.  And so I had to sink, spirit and flesh, into a loose and long cheap cotton piece fetched from a poor-man’s pasar in a trip to Indonesia. Its sleeves that reached to my wrist gave me confidence as much as I needed, being aware of the dress-code and wanting to show my courtesy to the gagandilan, the courageous gentlemen, at least by coming properly dressed for the occasion. I knew, for most middle class Muslim Moro women today, a Pakistani shawwal khammis or an Arabian abaya or a loose gleaming one-piece dress that educated and sleek women in Malaysia wore, with the turong, tarha or hijab (i.e. variations of head-scarf), would have been considered the perfect choice of ‘Islamic female attire’, although not many of them would have guessed that even Coptic Christians in the Middle East in Saudi or the Arab emirates would also go about wearing the abaya in the malls and offices, and that young Arab women who fully covered their faces and bodies in those gauzy black gowns actually wore signature dresses with frills and sometimes from their stilleto-hilled open-toed shoes and step-ins peeped their lacquer-tipped and manicured red toes. I wouldn’t know for sure of the Pakistani ladies in shawwal khammis, as I have not been to that part of South Asia, although I’ve met, in some international events, two or three distinguished Muslim women of Indian and of Indo-Malayu descents, steeped in both secular and Islamic scholarship, fluent in both tajwid and tafsir of the Qur’an and confident in their knowledge of Islamic fiqh (jurisprudence) who hadn’t lessened in their scholarship and religiosity traipsing in traditional Indian sharee.  Had I the choice, though, the street-smart Malaysian long silk dresses with matching flower-embroidered mini-telekung would have been my best bet for the occasion. But by decree of poverty, unfortunately, I and the rest of my class had no such privilege to choose among the shawwal khammis, abaya or silky Malaysian gown and so, for us, the Indonesian ukay-ukay hand-down pieces would suffice. And besides, the martabbat of the Mora, proud of her culture and ‘folks-kind-of-Islam’, still rankled and hurt.

The roundtable lasted for about three hours and in all those period, sipping lukewarm coffee – that, by the way, reminded me of a cheerful attendant in a kadday  in Jolo [Sulu] crossing who would have politely asked what to serve ‘kahawa sug atawa kahawa Nescafe?’, ‘native brew or nescafe?’ seeming to anticipate that even our palate would have gone astray in all these wars and dislocations – paired with the Maguindanun version of our own ja, baulu, apam and patulakan , propelled by kindly elderly MILF comrades who I surmised must have been one of the proud young combatants in full battle regalia, robust then in their early or mid-twenties, who had marched in the muddy parade grounds the first time I came to Darapanan in the eighties. I did not properly savor the taste of the indigenous muffins and pastries though, which was rather unfortunate, as I was deeply and desperately praying to Allah to increase my wisdom, loosen my tongue and touch my heart to speak what ought to be the message I should deliver or question to ask had any ordinary Muslim or indigenous person in Mindanao had that rare chance I had.

And Allah Subhanahu wa Taala spoke to my heart. The message was a simple plea that I usually would not have trouble articulating in other forums and in many times I have issued in my writing. Yet my tongue was knotted and my breathing labored that instance. Only Allah knows. And so I went back to my hotel that night, a little euphoric but hurt and disappointed with my self for having wasted that opportunity. Yet, putting my fate in the thought that Allah knows best, I kept reminding myself that there are indeed things that seemed appealing to us but are better denied us for the time being, by Divine wisdom.

As it had been an academic event, of course, this kind of things should ordinarily have ended and faded as soon as the forum closed. But curiously the emptiness and restlessness lingered on and it was the same tortuous psychic battle I would always be going through each time I am confronted by situations that bring me back to scanning the past forty years of my life that I have become aware of my identity and of why people struggle to be freed, and having committed myself, spent twenty seven years defending rights, helping educate my people and organizing my community to make this dream of a ‘free homeland, race and faith’, a reality. All wasted time? And, then, this short three hours that I thought would have made a difference had I uttered the ‘message’ but instead let pass away. A wasted chance? …the palakaya and the tundan — the bigger boat and the smaller one being towed; this dialectic of the Bangsamoro struggle and my own personal quest for answers in that I shall call ‘my journey into my faith’ are synchronous, sometimes converging, at times seeming off-tangent, and each time coming back into a full circle, starting all over from this point zero again, or lingering on even higher plains. Resigned, I cried into the night until the early morning, feeble attempts at washing away bitterness and remorse, I knew. Then the adhan of subuh crackled in the distance, jamming the monotony of the soft pitter-patter of monsoon rain and the metallic humming of the unconditioned air-conditioner of that hotel. Why did Allah begrudge me that little moment? Only He knows, of course. And it was for some good reason, as He would let me find out later, else I would not have been able to speak-out as eloquently as I do now.

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About Mucha Q. Arquiza
Supports the preservation and promotion of indigenous knowledge systems

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