Lami Nusa: Communion with the Presences

This tiny crescent island in Sulu [south of the Philippines] where I was born and learned my name is unknown and hardly even visible in a map of the more than 7,000 islands of the Philippine archipelago. In the sixties or even earlier, when it started getting the attention of some anthropological researchers, it sometimes got briefly written about or occasionally mentioned in passing in some ethnological studies for its famous pandanus reed mat of exotic designs and riot of colors that were woven by women who allegedly fell into trance and met their muses through a dream. But in this age of conflict where “peace-and-development” has become a socio-political by-word and Sulu archipelago has become synonymous with war and terror, the narratives of traditional communities and vibrant indigenous life have suddenly banished in significance and lost its place in history and society when it has become more fashionable to describe “life” and “community” by variously explaining it in so many political-economic theories and development paradigms. Warped in cold jargons and illustrated in dry statistics, the ‘good life’ is narrowly understood only in terms of material [economic] consumption and political security.

Lami Nusa, my Island of Joy, and the many other invisible Sulu islands, un-plotted by cartographers because its language was incorrigible, was sensed and understood only by those ‘faithful’ to it. It retreated into the margins and obscurity, never really becoming known for its people, at least, not the way that my Western-educated parents — both of whom became school-teachers in the island — fondly called the “old folk”. The Lami Nusa of my time would never be experienced as a folk Muslim community by this present generation of privileged “Muslim” and “Bangsamoro”.The once-Sinama speakers won’t feel the same awe   that this island-gem was delicately shaped, silently rendered and pulsated into life by mesmerizing rituals and traditions, and inspirited by mystical and ancestral presences whose comforting embraces were felt, especially at dusk, like gossamer protecting the sleeping village. Gently blown in the chilly winds that teased the palm fronds or ringing with the laughter of the frothing seas, these presences were also borne in the hallowed echoes of sacred grounds across the tampat or graveyards and in the hushed whisper of the tahalil or dhikr wafting from a prayer-hall we called Langgal. And without any trace of self-consciousness or pretense, we paid respect and obeisance to the presences; sought protection from the mischief of both jinn and men; offered our thanks for guarding us from both ghaib and ba’tin – the seen and unseen; sought for intercessions and blessings of both the spirit and flesh. Such was how we believed and submitted.

Sadly, Sulu has since become famed [or defamed] more by the flamboyance and vulgarity of its economics and politics that most of the Tausug-inhabited islands and the mainland have succumbed to, and as such, it has become more popularly perceived by development actors and social researchers today as a challenge as well as investment potential for politically-motivated development and peace agenda. Fortunately, before being swallowed into the whirlpool created by these prophets of modernity, I have witnessed the Lami Nusa of the folk, with eyes of a child – awed and full of wonder, albeit only towards the tail-end of its sunset years in the early seventies before the tide of Philippine government tanks and helicopters bearing the banners of New Society in the ‘70s til the ‘80s,  and, later in the ‘90s, with its Peace-and-Development flagship programs and multidonor development funds coming on the heels of all-out military counter-insurgency, aggressively vanquished and vanished this obscure Suluan civilization into smithereens. And, yes, I could count myself among a few lucky ones indeed to have communioned with those presences before the fresh generation of ulama and Arabic-speaking religious learned and scholars returned home from Middle East purporting to deliver us from a misguiding bid’a , so-they-claim, as falsehood and a jahili religion – this, our rope, our pangentanan.