War Diary: For Nana

Nana must have been on her mid or late-sixties then. She had not gone to any government school, neither finished any home-education on Qur’an but she knew how to read the Jawi, indigenous script of Sulu, with Arabic derivative. I was nine and just about to finish my fourth elementary grade in a barangay school when the war broke out in Jolo on February 7, 1974. That horrible occasion brought us, murid and guru – student and teacher – together.

After Jolo burned to the ground, my father had his hands full raising up eight children. The eldest being barely 20 and the youngest 2 years old, his lowly teacher’s salary of two hundred pesos per month could not possibly provide us with decent meals and clothes, much less ensure our schooling. Being girls and the middle children, I and my elder sister, Nur, were “loaned-out” to relatives, so we could continue with our studies in Jolo. Sister was taken in by my cousin to be yaya to her toddler son, while I was to stay with my aunt to help in her store.

I met Nana at the store. She was a distant relative of my aunt’s husband.  Having no family of her own, she too was on a ‘placement’, just like me.   This  arrangement was usual with families who had been pulak-kanat , disenfranchised and ‘dismembered’ by the conflict. Our main duties were to tend to the store, although on some occasions we were also cooks, laundry-women and errand-girls. During school days, I  attended elementary school, walking some two kilometers each day. On weekends I would spend an hour in the morning sitting-in at the local Masjid (mosque) where a madrasa (Islamic instruction) had just started. But of course the store was to be my priority such that my attendance at the madrasa had to be regulated, much to my dismay.

There were times, especially, at dusk when I would sit forlorn by my high-chair lookout from the store, and envied children of my age who freely played siyatung (stick-relay), magbalatin (patintero) or tapuk-tapuk (hide-and-seek); and on Ramadhan nights, proudly accompanied their elders to Tarawee prayers. But I was not to have such privileges. On some nights, Nana, seeing my predicament would give me a pat at the back and commanded me to run off and play a turn each of tapuk-tapuk or magbalatin, then advised me to be back before maghrib (evening prayer).

Come weekends, there were perpetual debates whether I could go to madrasa or not. My aunt’s advice would almost always prevail: the store was to be my priority. But whenever she could have her way, Nana would help me out. As soon as she had finished her morning ritual of soaking her hair in a concoction of coconut milk and lemon juice, she would breeze into the store and shoo me away to quickly grab my turong and speed off to the madrasa, which gave me much delight as I love to learn new songs in Arabic. One particular piece still lingers in my head to this day, it was to welcome the Hijrah new year, called Mauludin Jadid, that we heartily sang to the tune of President Marcos’s ‘Ang Bagong Lipunan’ hymn. Because those opportunities were rare, I relished my lessons. In only one sitting, I memorized the song of praise for the Nabi Muhammad – God’s peace and blessings on him – in Arabic and Tausug, that we had sang on the occasion of the Ascension of the Prophet to Heaven, Isra wal Mi’raj. My enthusiasm impressed my lady guru so much, so that, in a month, I was given the most coveted task of writing the Bismillahi rahman ir rahim   (In the Name of God, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful), in my cursive Arabic, on the blackboard. I was beaming with pride on the day I was finally able to recite the Al fatihah and a du’a (grace) before meals.

I suspect even kind-hearted Nana had her own personal motives for sending me off to madrasa. She knew the essentials or rukun of Islamic shalat (prayer), but she was not very confident with her Arabic incantations. Each night, before we’d retire to bed, she would ask me to write the dua’ sambahayang in Jawi. I would first read the du’a in its English transliteration from a battered prayer book.   Mustering my newly acquired writing skill from my sporadic training, I would then translate it as best as I could, roughly writing every word as pronounced and syllabicated, in Arabic-lettered Jawi.   Its thick chalky curls seemed to pop-out and float in contrast to the dark mahogany grain of the back of an old wooden chest that separated our sleeping quarter to that of the main store area.

On summers, I went home to my family who had evacuated and ‘temporarily settled’ in Christian-populated city of Zamboanga, and so I missed many of the madrasa classes. I spent two more years with my aunt in Jolo, graduating from the third elementary school I attended.   Sadly, I did not get to finish my 1st grade in the madrasa. When time came and I had to leave Jolo, my madrasa, and Nana, I was already skilled in writing the Jawi and could read passages from the Qur’an, slowly, by merely looking at familiar words and symbols, as though looking at visuals and images rather than at letters or syllables.   This enabled me to remember the ayahs (verses) by heart. For her part, I knew Nana had prospered from that little literacy class at the back of my aunt’s aparador.   She memorized some of the lengthy but important prayers: the Tashahuud, Ishtigfaar, Qunut and Ayatul Qursi. More than three decades had passed, and, today, I am still practicing my jawi,  for my unlettered friends. On dictation, I write their letters to Saudi, the UAE, Malaysia, and to loved ones overseas, as I did before, for Nana.

July 19, 2007

Mucha Arquiza

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

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