DeMISTYfied in Djogja: Turung and Women

The Turung and the early Melayu Muslim Sama women

…for my Inah, on her 79th birthday on April 14 2011.

My earliest and most vivid memories of my maternal great grand-aunts would be of three beloved matriarchs of Laminusa island of Sulu: Omboh Dindu’, Omboh Ua’, and Omboh Saning, who in the late 1960s upto early 1970s were then ushering into their ripe late mid-life age. These three sisters, my mother’s grand-aunts, would come to our home and spend some days with us as soon as my mother entered the onset of her last trimester of pregnancy. The great grand-aunts would be midwives and surrogate mothers to my three infant younger siblings until my mother had regained her health, gathered her strength and was back on her feet. While maintaining an embarrassed distance, I would always observe them in complete awe, these tiny dainty women like delicate china-dolls, who seldom raised their voices nor left their cloisters except for social functions and life-till-death ritual cycles that they would lead with confidence and dexterity, taking care to prescribe the right kind of food and the proper propitiations for both the living and the dead, satisfying the requirements in both the lair and batin worlds (i.e. seen and unseen worlds) in the specific rites and rituals of birthing, passage to pubescence, marriage and death. In the midst of their duties and social functions they were well disciplined and strong-willed and led the community firmly as a ship captain.

Before my young eyes, their elegance and nobility in the Chinese brocade silky loose pants knotted at the waist, called kantiyu, and the matching loose blouses made of Spanish lace or soft voile called sablay raised them above all esteem. Their tiny feet, that their mothers must have tried to impose into the pakkal , some sort of foot-binding sometime in their early age, were encased in delicate pairs of identical but different shades of sequined slippers still smelling of camphor and naphthalene, items that used to be supplied and carried by the junks that frequented our shores, journeying all the way from China, an endless odyssey and tales that my grandfather would love to tell us. These early Muslim women would often don a tube-like hand-woven silk cloth on top of their kantiyu and sablay, this piece of pakayan or walking garment was called ho’s tinahi-an, and was woven from silk thread imported from India. Otherwise, the ho’s would be of the highly-prized kain batik that, together with the particular brand of tea from Ceylon and the Lucky Strike and Dunhill filter-tipped cigarettes that my grandmother was famed to have fancied, and the air mata dhojong perfumes, a familiar scent that my mother wore to school, were smuggled in from Borneo and Indonesia. The Samarinda or Javanese batik, whose alleged tests of authenticity the women could  ascertain and I watched them literally ‘taste’ a genuine article by licking. The ho’s they wore as one would a shawl today, in such a fashionable way was called a saklay or salendang, it was casually draped over one shoulder, to the right, as both Omboh Dindu’ and Omboh Ua’ were once married and were now widowed while Omboh Saning would wear it on her left, announcing her then unmarried status.

On unusually warm and sunny days, while walking to the pasar (i.e. marketplace) or  strolling down the dirt roads after a visit to the ancestral tombs, the ho’s or tube cloth would be transformed from the shoulder sling into a bungkus, a body tent, spread-out with one end or upper seam of the cloth pulled higher and raised above the head like a canopy hoisted with the left arm slightly bent on the elbow, the cloth covered the arms, the head and hair, and left hanging loose over the right shoulder and arm that were left free and bare. The cloth thereby covered most of the women’s back and front, the pliant cloth hence let to fall over the bosom just above the knee. Thus was to be the earliest form of veiling or turong that these southeast Asian Melayu women would sport as part of the ensemble reserved for the formal public wear, mainly to ward off the bitter elements, rather than to discourage the male gaze as veiling is generally intended these days. When talking to distant acquaintances or strangers in the streets, married women would sometimes gather the left edge of the ho’s and gently pulled it across to graze the lower half of the face. Otherwise, when settled inside the house or within private spaces, the cloth was pulled back, wrapped around the waist or slipped under an armpit or slung to one shoulder as a shawl should go, and the women would freely socialize, with men and fellow women, their hair and face bright and lit – fully uncovered.

In the mid-70s I also got to meet more of my maternal grandaunts on the side of my Tausug grandfather. Omboh Assa and Omboh Ka’i, and the four cousins of my mother, Babuh Gim King, Babuh Gim Hong, Babuh Gim Sai, and Babuh Gim Hua. All these early Muslim women were ethnic Chinese and of mixed Sama-Tausug and Melayu descent from Bongao of Tawitawi, the farthest island southern tip of Sulu (i.e. ‘Moro’ was not yet popularly used as identity referent for Suluan ethnics then). They also wore the same kantiyu and sablay, but instead of the shoulder sash, Omboh Assa and her four daughters would wrap around their head, covering most of the hair and hugging a big bun tightly knotted at the nape but leaving both ears exposed, a long and narrow strip of transparent and soft lacy cloth, dyed a light patina or lungbus poteh, i.e. virginal white, sometimes embellished with tiny gems or gold dusts or sequins so much similar to present-day shawl, trailing from both ends were jazzed-up tussles, these were wound crosswise once or twice around the head just above the forehead and tucked in behind the ears. My curious queries were satisfied by my mother who informed me that Omboh Assa and one of her daughters had just came back from Makkah and were hadjas, hence, the cleverly made-up fashionable head-dresses. The hadja’s sulban (literally, head-scarf), as it was called, was worn all throughout the day whether in private or public spaces and was only shorn away on retirement to bed.

The only other time when women were required to cover their hair and face were during the five prayers, where they would wrap themselves in the white luku, a biased-cut piece of round cloth like a parachute with a hole at the pointed tip, just big enough for the face to pop out. The luku is worn as an outer garment on top of traditional clothing, it reached upto the calf or ankles covering the designated woman’s cleavages there as hidden parts or ‘aurat’ which were not supposed to be displayed during prayer. The white veil was a sign of purity and reflective of the cleanliness of our hearts and intention as we faced and communioned with the Great One, said my godmother, Inah Ka’ching – mother’s elder sister, who was also my guru or tutor in Qur’an and religious initiation. She never mentioned to me though that the luku or similar female veiling where to hide an atrocious and offensive sexuality that was lurking inside and within my body. I spent most of my childhood fetching water from the well or from a common tap; watching the earthen stove and making sure that the roasting fish or a dish in progress would not get burnt; tending her small shop or, practically the handy girl-Friday, running other petty errands for my guru from five to seven in the morning and from three to five in the afternoon for more than five years while I was at the same time multiple-tasking and doubling time inching to finish my basic public education, that is, in between fleeing from wars and living in evacuations. My guru released me when she decided that I was good enough and have mastered, meaning, read the entire 30 juz of the Holy Book without her coaching, whence she publicly confirmed me a ‘tammat’ (i.e. graduated); and that had been when I reached the age of puberty when I could now be qualified to publicly recite some verses during the tahalilan; adult and woman enough to properly mourn and honor the dead. My aunt who was my guru, then and until now in her old age, wore no head scarves except during her prayer yet she has never been regarded as less religious or diminished in faith and piety by the island youth who have graduated under her tutelage and prospered, as they continued to pay their respect to her.

My mother, named after the Trojan queen Helen, was in her mid-30s then, and as public school teacher, she wore her hair short and spent quite some time teasing it with a long narrow comb and sprayed it stiff with hairspray. Most of the lady teachers in the island who were her contemporary also wore their hair that way or sported longer permed cut that was the latest of hair-do and came to school in their cheerful balloon and pleated skirt that skimmed their calves, paired wit three-fourth sleeved and sport-collared eyelet cotton blouses, that they either tucked into the wide band of the skirt or sometimes knotted at the mid-rib; or smartly dressed in their mini-skirted one piece, an A-line that was called a ‘straight-cut’, that my mother herself cut and sewed for herself and her sister, that was popular among young professionals during the time. On special community gathering and ritual occasion, these educated ladies brought out their best sablay and kantiyu or donned the gleaming silk blouse called badjuh sigpit with matching ho’s bat-tik or tinahi-an or tinen-nun and the sequined slippers.

Those were the days when Muslim women were not questioned about their intentions or suspected of immodest motives in pampering themselves and spending time to take care of themselves or engaged in beauty rituals to improve their looks and increased their self-esteem. These young Muslim women, who had high level of education, were gainfully employed and equally bore the family burden with their husbands and brothers, in case they were single, and were treated with the same respect and honor by their peer, both men and women.

Those days, too, women in my village equally shared with men the langgal – our village prayer hall – literally meaning ‘a meeting place’ where people discussed things of communal importance – that was open to everyone seven days of the week, in all of five daily prayers, and especially during the Jama’at or Friday congregations and during special occasions of Eid that were the sambahayang Hari raya Puasa and Hari raya Hadji. Taking their places behind a thin white lace curtain separating them from men, women entered through a common entrance with men. On Ramadhan nights, after the Tarawi prayers I fondly remember planked by my mother and my father on either sides and guided on both hands, we joined in the merriment, as with the rest of the evenings around the year, women and men folk used to linger around after magribh and waited for ‘isha to be performed, and took that brief evening break as occasion to socialize. The women formed an outer circle to the men’s inner circle in the tahalil and dhikr before or after congregational prayers, and seated, we gently danced and swayed to the rhythm of a dabbana, a drum, while reciting the shahada, i.e. declaration of faith. Then, later after ‘isha was said, we, young children, kissed the perfumed hands of every adult that we could catch, that we always exclaimed and swore ‘smelt of Makkah!’ or some argued it was the ‘smell of paradise!’ and freely mingled with them to share in the light snacks and refreshments that village men and women who were not able to join in the prayers would prepare and offer to the langgal.

No one could exactly date it, but I believe, it was only in the late 1980s or the nineteen nineties when the male population in most Muslim societies, seeming to have awoken from a bad dream, started taking a backglance and spent longer and hard second doubtfilled looks and saw with different eyes their female counterpart and, apparently alarmed by what they saw, or rather, at how they ‘felt’ about what they saw, hastened their wives, mothers and sisters to cover themselves up in veils and to lurk behind dark and drab Arabian cloaks and oversized dresses. At about this time, too, the mass exodus of skilled labor to the Middle East have peaked so that pilgrimage to Makkah to perform the hajj was no longer the exclusive privilege of the elite and the rich. At this time, the conflict between government and Moro nationalists would have heightened, forcing many young men into the hills and jungles to join the insurgents or go into self-exile and to migrate to less troubled cities or seek education abroad, usually in Egypt or Saudi. Upon their return, these young men who have turned into Allah’s soldiers or trained to become moral policemen would introduce a new theology that put much emphasis on the recitation and memorization of the revealed texts and less and less value given to the embodied celebrations of faith and the acted and ritualized devotion and remembrances of Allah [i.e. dhikr] that the Sufi teachers taught the folk Muslims. Banning altogether indigenous ceremonies as bida’a (i.e. innovation), they declared the rituals in reverence of ancestors as idolatrous. The modern Muslim religious leaders then privileged the literate and the well-travelled. The old imams and fakirs whose unarticulated and non-scriptural discipline of mysticism and indigenised Arabic incantations that the new religious men would find faulty were forced to retire and, relegated to the margins, retreated to old chores and devoted full time to their crafts – the fish-traps and bush gardens. Later, even the old langgal, would not be spared by the ruthlessness of the new-found religious authority and self-righteousness. Uprooted and demolished, in the langgal’s takas (i.e. shadow) was constructed a newish religious architecture of Arabian inspired masjid, complete with the big minaret, the Madinese posts and the upraised mimbal (pulpit).  To a sleepy island, the new mosque that rose up literally over night came sneaking almost like a new conqueror in the dark cloak of night that folk called this monument of modernity as having ‘dropped from heavens’ or masjid jatu .

In the meantime, in most big prayer houses and grand mosques in the migrant lands and big cities, one would seldom find thin curtain that used to mark where women should sit behind the men and performed their prayers in full sight of everyone, as in the old village langgal, in its stead, a mezzanine or loft was built into the structure, or a wall was erected as division, where women would now have to face a solid wall there or a blank space, to keep them out of sight and to restrain these supposedly dangerous species who were now considered seductive and overpowering devils themselves, preying upon helpless and innocent pious men.

In the modern cities, where Qur’an and the hadith books were hungrily read and  its tafsir (i.e. meaning and interpretations) discussed, transmitted and shared around among the modern Muslim religious men, new regulations and ‘teachings’ spread and were imposed saying that it was better for women to stay at home and performed their prayers in the closed quarters of their rooms. Sayings and traditions [i.e. hadith wal sunnah] allegedly attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, the beloved messenger who was also known as lover of women, of perfumes and of horses, and whom his young wife A’isha lovingly remembered his gentle moments swapping jokes and laughing with the women and thoughtfully advising them on sensitive issues such as taking care of their health, on their feminine hygiene and their fertility is alleged to have made a very chauvinistic and macho remark demeaning women, namely, that women were lacking in intellect and religion and would be the interns of hell. Others would say that the Prophet was heard uttering that Muslim community who entrusts its affairs to women were doomed to fail; and that woman, however faithful and pious, would not be able to fulfill her religious duties and gain the mercy of Allah and enter paradise unless she has fulfilled her ‘ta-at’ (i.e. obeisance) to her husband, whose satisfaction of his physical needs, if she refused or failed to deliver, she would be cursed by all the angels in heaven all through the night; and whose duties to her husband would not in fact be fulfilled by her even if she licked all his wounds oozing with pus, and that therefore she should immediately come to his bidding and satisfy his demands for intimacy even on the back of a camel. And so on and so forth.

Soon, the same virulent fever would catch up in the island villages as well, where, worse than the poison of rumor and fitna, less educated and illiterate folk, most vulnerable and prone to be struck with fear of the unknown and of the ambiguous, would bow in blind submission. The tahalil and dhikr were considered to be optional, if not, completely written off and so were the late evening ‘rabbana’ sing-and-dance rituals with its lively drum accompaniment. Henceforth there was no longer socialization or unnecessary lingering or public meetings of men and women to be allowed after evening prayers, to avoid falling to temptuous zina. Such that the mosque and everything religious it symbolized have now virtually turned into exclusively male property. Children no longer find the prayers as exciting and playful occasions as we used to look forward to in the past, of the dancing and singing of dhikr , of the warm family bonding and especially of the snacks and refreshments. And since grandmothers, mothers and sisters no longer walked to the masjid, the children, too, stayed home and stopped tailing adults and left them and their prayers alone. Soon, new idols and baby-sitters took on where the swirling rabbana dancing and singing and communal merriment have left, television and video games, like the pied pipers, have come to lure and enchant the children.

By the late 1990’s especially when the local social movement led by the Moro nationalists have forged peace with the State and were given the chance to run ‘our own’ form of autonomous governance, more and more women of my generation became active part of civil society, of public life and of politics. Now having replaced our mothers as community adults, most of us have been educated and moved into up-class and affluent villages in the cities and, there, started taking to the hijab as official attire for the elite, educated and the cultured and, mostly following the dresscode of women of Iran, Pakistan or Malaysian, we favored the shawwal ghamis and long dressy gowns and folded away our mothers’ kantiyu, badjuh sigpit and sablay. Many of the modern women would have never distinguished an imported batik cloth from the locally loamed hinablun or tinen-nun and tinahi-an and having lost the classic aesthetic sense, would not know on which side of the hip should the sarong’s punsa’ be oriented, nor would they even care a sliver. And still many would boast with pride of this ignorance of the past and of having rid off of cumbersome tradition as a fact of imbibing modern virtue and a sign of having moved up-stairs into civilization and having been ‘fully islamized’. Instead, as modern women we would invest on the new and foreign wardrobe, not a few of us wore the new dresses under a black ‘abaya’, with dark globes and black socks, drew the veils closer over the face, letting out only an eye or both eyes through a hole or a slit, as though to drown it in the dark shroud was to kill and annihilate the flesh and body that was so much dreaded and hated for its sinful beauty and sensuality.

But the older women in my village, mostly of my mother’s generation, who by now have become the octogenarians, continued to let out and left drying in the breeze their long cocomilk-groomed hair that had thinned but not grayed, and in public gatherings wore only the loose conventional turong of ho’s or sulban, as prescribed for the hadja, the way Omboh Dindu’, Omboh Saning and Omboh Ua’ and the rest of the grannies from the islands used to do.

On auspicious dates and social occasion, we took the opportunity to visit and renew ties with the folk, but with the prohibitive cost of journeying to the islands and the risk of being caught on the road in the raging conflict, less elaborate ceremonies have been mostly preferred and conveniently conducted in ‘instant and quickie’ rituals in private homes in migrant communities called ‘subdivision’ in the cities. Seated around cushioned sofa and cozy living rooms where a large LCD flatscreen TV took most of the space, we sometimes listened with half an ear to the droning sound of a duwa’a dryly mumbled by an imam,  while one ear and eyes are transfixed to the television noontime show. Thereafter, McDonald crispy fried chicken and bland cold sandwiches were drowned with Coca Cola. Such poor replacements, I declare, to the sumptuous panya’m , baulu and  ja’, and the scalding native black brew, kahawa. Where memories of these happy reunions were now recorded in compact disks and spun around the globe faster than the speed of sound through the internet, instantly made available to share with relatives abroad while still sitting in the convenience of your living room; the fancy bakery killer confections and inflated cakes laden with poisonous bromate and artificial sugar have arrogantly substituted the mounds of medicinal yet delicious turmeric coconut steamed rice or buwas kuning perfectly molded into a sampul or the sticky wajit naturally sweetened with honey that was manually extracted from sugarcane and laced in thick coconut milk – such loving preparations concocted by the same women now cheerfully chatting by the dirty kitchen.

Nonetheless, the solemnity and sacredness of these rare occasions seemed to have remained extant and hoping to linger on for as long as there were still daughters who pledged to a’ngentan [i.e. hold on]. In one such occasion, I and my sisters, who had come home for a vacation from their employment in the Middle East, would instinctively and self-consciously remove our tarha or hijab following the older women’s cue in an almost silent tableau of re-initiation, re-admission and re-unification with the mother coven. To insist on wearing the veil would have made us stand out like sore thumbs and made us feel like outsiders, for we were in supposed intimate spaces where, as once missing pieces of jigzaw among our folk and now back among our women, it was the same homing instinct that confirmed to us once again that we belonged to that almost forgotten village, was nurtured in its rustic traditions and had sprung from to the loving wombs of the matriarchs.  [14April2010 for Inah, on her 78th birthday]


DeMISTYfied in Djogja

Malam Panjang: Long Nights in Djogja

On arriving in the esteemed royal city of Yogyakarta (Daera Istemawa di Yogyakarta) in Indonesia, my first impression was that of ‘coming home’ to barely remembered past hovering among the ghostly cobwebs of childhood memory. Yogya’s  Jalan Kaliurang (Jakal), a modern thoroughfare transecting the city from north to south runs straight along three almost perfectly aligned mystical nodal points: the active volcanic beauty of Mt. Merapi as prominent landmark to the north; the Kraton palatial domain of power of reigning Sultan Hamengkubawana X comprising the midpoint; and, southward, leading to the open seas, is Parangtritis beach where Nya’i Ratu Kidul, Yogya’s mythical godmother and goddess of the South seas, is believed to dwell.

Heightened by the nostalgic appeal of its mystical nature, experiencing Yogyakarta and taking part in its social milieu has seemed like a home-coming to sounds, smell and ambience that are at once warm and familiar that somehow tells me my homeland and homesea in Sulu (south-western Mindanao) must have been distantly related, or perhaps metaphysically interconnected, with this dominantly Javanese abode in the ‘land below the winds’. And as I would soon happily discover, glimpses of this long-ago connection were still extant in a vanishing language and fast transforming culture.

Spanning at least a kilometer down the length of the highway of Jakal is a vast block of buildings housing various faculties of the famous Gajah Madah University where in its Pascasarjana (Graduate School) I attend a post-graduate program in Inter-religious studies. In the evening, the university belt blooms into life with a motley assortments of ‘toko-toko’ and ‘waroeng-waroeng’- shops and stalls – that offer all sorts of foods, light snacks on short order, fresh fruit juices, coffee and tea – mentionable among which, that I am sure my Filipino compatriots would be curious to try, is ‘teh botol’, bottled uncarbonated jasmine tea. All these can be had inside the make-shift structures that are instantly erected there ‘just for the night’ which is every night. Diners – mostly young professionals and students – sit squatting on reed or plastic straw mats and enjoy their ‘makanan malam’, the evening fare, eating with bare-hands while ever watchful of the early evening traffic of mostly single motorbikes and recent models of SUVs building up. Incredibly, this happens daily, rain or star-shine.

Along Jakal kilometer 5, mercilessly pushing nervous pedestrians to gingerly navigate the ‘devil and deep blue sea’ as forced to choose between muddy canal and the deadly highway where motorbikes roar and refuse to give way, these tarpaulin-canopied shops precariously balanced along the narrow sidewalk occupying every available parking space, and there, squeezed in-between HP (pronounced as ‘Ha-Pe’ for ‘hand-phone’) ‘pulsa’ (Filipinos simply say “load”) reloading and benzene fuel refilling stations, they cheerfully competed for attention mingling with laundry shops, electronic and IT stores, videos and movie compact disk sales and rentals, motor-parts supply and repairs, jilbab and hand-gloves boutiques, ‘juwal murah’ thrift shops of surplus items and used-clothings, and various other retailers of fancy goods of sweets and spicy snacks peddled in ambulant stalls and carts: martabak, rujak, bakso, krepes, gudeg, sate, boiled corn and bananas, steamed peanuts and green beans, and yes, toasted bread (roti bakar), hamburgers, hotdogs, and bak pao that sometimes opened onto the wee hours.

It would be in these ‘waroeng makanan’ (foodshops) and ‘toko’ thriftshops that I mostly learned and acquired my crude and functional bahasa. Although much regretfully, a year after to this day, my bahasa has remained ‘sirikit sadja’ (very little) and ‘tidak bagus’ (not refined). My passport and convenient opening spiels would, of course, be always an unembarrassed script of: ‘Maaf, ibuh/bapak, saya tidak bihasa bicara…dari Filipin’ (my apologies, madam/sir, I do not speak much [bahasa]…I am from the Philippines)  that almost always got the friendly ‘Oh…ya!’ sympathetic nod of understanding and a welcome that was followed by typical ‘how’s-the-weather’ questions such as where I lived in Manila, and requests that would I please say some Tagalog (that is musically said as to sound like “Taga Log”) that sometimes turn me slightly irate to curtly declare that I am from Mindanao and a  Moro. On really interesting occasions, that sometimes almost got their interest that “Oh…Ya!” would then be followed by less impersonal and more eager questions about Mindanao and how the Muslims there behaved or what they ate. On lucky days, I would encounter a more engaged audience that would indulge me with interesting gushes: hushed question about Abu Sayaf; Imelda Marcos and her fabulous collection of shoes; the infamous Philippine typhoons; and, yes, popular among the youngsters, Christian Bautista (young Filipino singer presently doing a movie in Jakarta). Otherwise, for the shopkeepers – old ‘ibuh’ or ‘bapak’, or young ‘mas’ or blushing ‘mbak’, I generally was just one of those mundane uninteresting ‘bule’ who was made even less interesting because I looked ‘just like us’ with my dark eyes, brown skin, turong and long loose blouse. At best, they might find in me a useful opportunity to test their proficiency in English. Notwithstanding those, the sure supply of kindly encouragement and gentle coaching from my friends and kost (boardinghouse)-mates from Sulawesi: mbak Ria, mbak Lia, mbak Tetenk and mbak Ani – constantly boosted my confidence that I could finish a generous bowl of richly spiced (or should I say, ‘spiked’, and I’d seriously translate this as ‘really hot’) soto – another famed socializing food here – and could still as cheerfully accept another serving, and make myself at home for the rest of the school term.

The bits and pieces of words and phrases I barely made-out and picked are those that clicked into what I meant to be that interconnection through sound and smell with home. Along Jalan Kaliurang, one of the more abundant snack-stalls would be the ‘gorengan’. The chunky fritters are famous street-food of vegetables, rootcrops and fruits generously spiced and fried deep in coconut oil as gorengan pisang (banana), singkong (cassava), ube (sweet potato), and, Indonesians’ chief source of protein, soya (i.e. gorengan tempe or tahu). A yummy special is an all-veggie recipe called gorengan sayur,  a potpourri of crunchy leaves (usually cabbage and spinach) mixed, salad-style, with thin stripped carrots and jalapenos. Peppered with fragrant spices and smeared in sticky flour and rolled into patties or neatly wrapped in thin dough, these are dropped into the sizzling oil and fished out as soon as one side turns a golden blush. This particular last piece reminds me of our Filipino ‘lumpia’ (with or without the wraps) and ‘ukoy’ and is especially taken with a bite of ‘pedas’, fresh chilli pepper, that Indonesians must be proudly notorious about.

The infinitive ‘menggoreng’ (to fry with oil) sounds near to our ‘ag-guling’, noting that the Sinama (language of ethnic Sama of Sulu) usually replaces r’s for l’s. Interestingly, these fritters for the Sama people are called ‘juwalan’ which then brings another connection between sinama and bahasa in ‘juwal’, meaning to sell, and of ‘juwalan’, goods, a place of goods or simply “store”. Incidentally, as in bahasa, the Sama also say ‘barang-barang’ (assorted things), ‘bungkus’ ( cover or wrap the food ’to go’ or take home), ‘halgah’ (cost or costly) and generally count the way Indonesians do: issa (satu), duwa (duwa), t’llu (tiga), m’pat (mpat), lima (lima), n’nom (nam), hatus (ratus), ibu (ribu). We also have the same words for house (rumah/lumah), sea (laut), land (tanah), village (kampong), fire (api), dance (joget), read (batcha/baca), hand (tangan), out (luwah/luwar), leader (penghulo/panglima),and so on. Although, I sometimes find myself ‘hang’ (as it means in computer-lingo) confused in connecting some words, like ‘rambut’ for hair since we say ‘buun’ in Sinama or ‘buhok’ in Filipino, except perhaps if I visualize ‘rambutan’, that hairy fruit that Davao city is famous for, or, subliminally connect this to silky soft hair that we say, ‘buhok na malambot’ (Fil.) which makes sense anyway since I usually encounter the word in television shampoo commercials! Of course, there are more of these words that must have become confused in the process of translation: pisang for banana (bahasa) is pineapple (sinama); bunga for flower (bahasa) is fruit (sinama), etcetera.

There are yet many other words and terms that Bahasa and Sinama share in common. For instance, ‘malam’ is evening in bahasa and usually said in Sinama to modify Friday as in ‘malam jumaat’, that,  in lunar calendar, is the eve of Friday and in Gregorian calendar is Thursday evening – is held to be most spiritually auspicious night of the week, such that where Indonesians say ‘malam panjang’ literally as “long night” to mean chronologically that ‘time’ spanning from magrib (sundown) and lasting until fajar (sunrise) the Sama take this to be “deep” formal and orthodox term mostly referring to psychological time, or the ‘space of experience’ of special nights associated with traditional and socio-religious observances.

Today, there is still considerable number of my clan, mostly of senior members, (and in fact, I could say generally, of the Sama people of Sulu) remaining traditional and continually maintaining what modern Muslims sometimes pejoratively call ‘folk’ Islam, which is a synthesis of indigenous monistic and Islamic theistic beliefs that the first sufi teachers must have brought to our shores in the 10th century CE (common era). While concretely manifest in their observance of universal pillars of Muslim faith (i.e. oral declaration of the One-ness of God, five-times-prayer, ritual cleansing of wealth through sharing and offering  of the ‘poor’s due’, performing pilgrimage to Makkah, fasting during Ramadhan, and the system of beliefs including belief in Allah, the Holy books and the prophets, belief in the angels and jinns, and in the last day of judgment), this so-called religion of ‘folk’, alongside, also has elaborated islamically-harmonized rituals of ancestral reverence. Whereas ancestral reverence was generally a form of myth and rituals of our forebears long before history, in contemporary times, these rituals have in time accreted and accommodated into Islamic beliefs that many Sama communities would observe this in its synthesized form  as commemoration of the silsilah/salsila where one’s clan and progeny is constantly reminded to link back to the house of the quranic/historic prophets, to the local saints and the holy progenitors of Muslims and to Islamic teachers.

In ritual observances called ag-maulud, these are celebrated coinciding with Muslim maulid/eid and are beheld as ’long nights’ such as the nights of the month of puasa (Ramadhan), the eves of eid where offertory and commemorative festivities are held i.e. amon jaded, birth of the prophet, nisfu shaban, isra wal mi’raj, feast of shura, eidul fitri, eidul adha, among others. More traditional and indigenous Sama Dilaut of Sulu (ethnically akin to orang bajo in Indonesia), have these Muslim calendrical observances integrated into traditional auspicious days such as the premier days of harvest of grains, corn, banana or major food-crop; the waning and waxing of the moon; the full moon; and ‘musim’ (monsoon). Interestingly, secular yet social matters such as ‘ag-hinang’ (lit. ‘event’ or prayer) for the dear departed (janazah), ‘ag-jaga’ or vigils accompanying labor of an expectant mother or awaiting the birth of a new baby,  and ‘ag-libuhan’ pre-nuptial and post-wedding rituals  are conducted into the long nights, also beheld as malam panjang.

Indeed, much of bahasa-derivative words may already be lost or else considered ‘old’ by today’s modern standards and no longer colloquial as to be comfortable for use in ordinary conversations. Besides, most of us of the younger generation would have already been ‘born to’ to modern and purist Muslim religion hence preferring to be called mainstream Muslims that looks upon the Arabist rather than Melayu cultural expressions as manifest forms of our faith. Many of us believe that to be true Muslim is to have conveniently rid ourselves of ancestral reverence and its attendant ‘fancy rituals’ that many would now denounce as ‘shirk’ (idolatry) or regard social celebrations such as ag-hinang and ag-maulud as frivolities, if not islamically censured as ‘bid’a’ or innovations. Consequentially, on the other extreme, many among the young ones would not be familiar anymore as it has long replaced with the Filipino or western counterpart such traditional concepts as ‘malam panjang’ that in modern consumerist capitalistic contexts would now translate to this generation’s notion of long nights as ‘Sabado nights’ (from Spanish-Tagalog ‘Sabado’ or Saturday) or to its more west-oriented version of TGIF (“Thank God It’s Friday”) nights  which many yuppies (young professionals) would look forward to in long fun-filled evenings of ‘gimmick’, of “bottomless” fun and of “seamless” good-time, promenading and dancing, shopping and socializing, that commercially-driven new generation paradoxically consider a form of rest- and-recreation and a respite from a week’s hard work.

Mucha Quiling Arquiza

11 November 2010, Jakal 4.5, Yogyakarta

*This and other articles on my life in Yogyakarta are also found in Mindanawon Abroad section of

Support RH Bill, Support children’s rights to be free from want and to live in dignity

Reproductive health is NOT a moral or religious issue

DeMISTYfied in Djogja

Gender and politics of spirituality and power

Javanese Kekuwatan and Kesaktan

Power is equated here not only as political, but also economic,social and cultural elements that one employs to dominate, control, conduct and manage the self and others – dominating, controlling and managing being techniques of governmentality (Foucault in Lemke, the Birth of Biopolitics 2001). Governmentality is all about subjection and control whether the object of subjection be the self i.e. subjection of the personal conduct; or others and the environment i.e. subjection of the conduct of society (and nonhuman environs). Hence, both the act of exercising (i.e. deployment) of and the possession of the tool and techniques ( of governmentality is called power. Power is seen as something both ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ resources. As external, power emanate from material sources that one must possess and accumulate and apply to the objects and subjects of subjection. In most cases, external power is derived from wealth and economic means, social prestige, and heredity [i.e. Moro political philosophy refer to political assets as bangsawan (race and descent) and ilmawan (wealth and wisdom)]. Internally. power is beheld to be intrinsic within the self but dormant and potent that one need to search within often through the rigors of certain rituals and acts (i.e. the Javanese, laku, i.e. steps towards enlightenment) to stimulate its efficacy for it to deliver desired ends. And those internal resources are found by immersing oneself in theology (i.e. power as spiritual potency), and in philosophy (i.e. power as knowledge potency). The issue of power also brings to fore the issue of use of force or of its nonviolent benevolent dispersion (i.e. deployment of mercy and virtue) as the ‘source of strength’ where externalized power is often of the former and the interiorized power (i.e.potency) applies the latter. There is also the question of intention of power as malicious and malignant or altruistic and service-oriented.

Our heritage from Western theology and philosophy has resulted to a worldview of false dichotomies and dualisms: Matter/spirit; human/nonhuman nature; male/female; culture/nature; political/spiritual that the degradation of nature is attributed to the dominant Euro-American worldview, Carol Adams in her introduction to the book, The Ecofeminism and the Sacred (1993) considers indigenous and nontechnological cultures as sources for the creation of syncretic feminist spiritualities with earth-based spiritualities seen as alternatives to dominant (patriarchic) theologies with the belief that ‘incorporating diverse cultural and religious traditions within feminism is an important ethical/political question to raise about this syncretistic efforts’. Some ecofeminists among indigenous and ethnic and religious minorities would even push this line further and promote a belief [i.e. what other ‘rational’ feminists accuse as ‘myths’] in indigenous mindset as holist and non-dual, illustrating this through a supposed egalitarian economy and the naturally integrative and nonexistence of class or gender divide in indigenous and traditional cultures.

The ethnological study of Javanese power as kekuwatan (i.e. human potency) by Ward Keeler  (1987) and as kesektan (i.e. power of rulership) by Mark Woodward (1989) are interesting studies of power that draws out observations seemingly antithetical to the indigenous ecofeminists’ optimism of egalitarian power in tradition and indigeniety as necessarily liberating to women and nature. Most astounding (although not surprising) among Keelers’ findings have shown that power in indigenous Javanese spirituality bear traces of the same patriarchic and male-dominated view of dualism of politics and theology of power. The kebatinan (i.e. secret wisdom of Sufism or Javanese mysticism) tradition that considers the kekuwatan batin or potential power (also, potency, referring to the secret, hidden, interiorized or mystical power) in some categories of power as ‘good’ and therefore theologically legitimate power are categorized  as male power such as those acquired through asceticism, prophecy and mystical revelations  (i.e.appearance of saints or divine figures to a gifted) or sourced and access through the mastery of sacred wisdom or ngelmu (wisdom or knowledge of the sacred) by a male potent self, a magic specialist or wong tua. Powers accessed and exercised by female such as the prewangan (i.e. possessed and spiritual mediums) and female healers are however categorized as profane, malevolent and vulgar. Note this parallelism in Calvinistic Christian and purist Muslim traditions of denigrating female ecstatic spirituality and maladizing it as a form of medical psychological disorder to be cured and ‘normalized’ or as spiritual impurity and satanic working of witch-craft that should be exorcised or burned to death. Ironically, a male version of such experiences of spiritual ecstasy is considered as a saintly or prophetic capabilities and a divine gift to be encouraged through asceticism and piety. And even as Keeler, of course, would show and describe the power of male potency, to be autonomous and even inconsistent with godly benevolence or having no theological basis (i.e. potency as amoral and atheological), the genderedness of power  and the inequality in its male-female agency, access and deployment of potency holds true as I argued.

Mark Woodward’s (1989) study of royal kingship of Yogyakarta and the theory of royal power or kesektan, on the other hand delves on the synthesis of Javanese tradition and Islam and explained how the spirituality of Sufism has become the guide-book of good and just leadership for Javanese kings, at least after its revival by Ratu Pakubuwana, grandmother of young King Pakubuwana II in 1726 (Ricklefs 2006). The divine-blessings and approval of kingly rule is further legitimized in the Javanese spirit cults and theory of kingship as concerns the legality of marriage between humans and spirits, most prominent of which is the inherited brideship of Nyai Ratu Kidul (goddess of South Sea) by every reigning King of Yogyakarta throughout history. This may lack the  theological basis, as various contentions in debates among ulama continues until today, in that the Qur’an is not only  normative but Muhammad’s sunnah and hadith  may be ‘essentially one of rationalization and simplification’ of Quranic precepts that Sufism bears no basis in both primary sources of Islamic syari’a since both Qur’an and hadith-wal-sunnah are ambiguous if not silent on mysticism. But with the revival and appropriation of sufism as Islamic discipline and a secret science of spirituality coveted in Yogyakarta royal house and among the Islam Jawa (i.e. kejawen) practitioners, it provided the alternative spiritual legitimacy and rationalized divinity of the royal rule. (Woodward 1989: 63, also Ricklefs 2007). Central and, I believe, important implication in Woodward’s work is that divine-gift and favor is exclusive only to privileged and elite segment of society, i.e. the royal and religious-intellectual classes, particularly those who would trace their descent to a royal  or saintly silsilah that tries to link the kings to local saints, Arabian missionaries and the house of the prophet in Makkah. This is the main principle operative in royal rituals such as the celebratory ceremonies of kesektan (i.e. re-purification of royal pusaka) and observance of Grebeg Maulud, for example.  The royal kesektan is dispersed and disseminated to the lowly kawula (i.e.royal subjects) as a form of kingly mercy and power through the rebutan (i.e. free-for-all jumble) for berakat (i.e.blessing). The perpetuation of this traditions thereby, in effect, maintaining the notion that the lower and less privileged classes in society can only be mere receivers of royal benevolence and can not by themselves transcend their wretched situation as they are disempowered to do so.

It is in view of interrogating the two gentlemen’s theoretical assumptions that I would suggest a discussion of history, politics and spirituality in Indonesian Islam might be pursued through understanding the theology of power and its execution in politics as gendered (i.e. patriarchic) and conservative if not oppressive by virtue of its privileging a certain class as I argue that the aspects of contemporaneous spiritual and political ‘potency’ so far studied and made visible (i.e. by mostly male scholars and researchers) have commonly represented traditional Islam (i.e.Nahdatul Ulama) and the modernist (i.e.Muhammadiyah) in the present Indonesian society as paradoxically one and the same, in as far as women and the oppressed segments of society are concerned, in that both traditionalist and modernist organizations embody and preach patriarchal paradigm of power, therefore not essentially modern enough to be progressive and liberative but remaining classic and traditional, and, especially in the case of Muhammadiyah, neoconservative, in its merely employing modern forms and agencies in as much as it is a modern reaction aimed to reform what it perceives to be old and traditionally ‘primitive or ignorant’ therefore ‘impure’ Islamic forms.

An exceptional study done by Muhammadiyah young woman and scholar in gender and politics, Siti Syamsiyatun (2008), attempted to use the gender lens in showing how the Muhammadiyah women youth have formed the Aisiyah as autonomous ‘daughter’ of Muhammadiyah by negotiating their own place as women and youth living the challenges of their contemporary time, wading through the tradition of patriarchy and feudal culture (i.e. not only of male-dominance but also one that privileges tradition and seniority as represented by the older Muhammadiyah women patriarchs) and asserting their identity. Yet this kind of initial attempts have so far succeeded only in describing the operative situation of politics in its secular form as organizational practice, but not dared so much as interrogating the underlying value-assumptions of its theological and philosophical foundations that entrench patriarchal politics and inform its practice, hence succeeding only in affirming the rightness of the patriarchs’ projects and view of the transformative mission of modernism as a form of neoconservatism, that of reforming of the old by updating the ‘ignorance’ in practice and ridding Islam of its ‘impurities’ but not in interrogating and dismantling the structures of injustice so that Islam might thrive the best. This is bearing in mind that reformism while a modern thought is not necessarily progressive and liberationist. An alternative reading and study, as attempted by women scholars like Syamsiyatun, must therefore be advocated and pushed further to excavate another route to the politics and theology of power by reclaiming kekuwatan and kesektan as potencies and resources for liberation of the marginal and less privileged segments of society. This I believe is not impossible as the notion of power in both its traditional and modern senses have always been consistently demonstrating human persons – both male and female – as equally having the capacities of spiritual agency and possessing potencies akin to, although not the same, as of ‘divinity’: selfless, altruistic and humanist persons guided and favored by an All-powerful and All-merciful God. In this, the indigenous feminist voices that argue for egalitarianism in tradition and spirituality might afterall be right and deserve a fair hearing.

Carol Adams, ed. (1993) Ecofeminism and the Sacred. NY: The Continuum Publishing.

Thomas Lemke (2001) Birth of Neoliberalism Michel Foucault’s Lecture on Neoliberalism and Biopolitics

Ward Keeler (1987) Javanese Shadow Plays, Javanese Selves. Pp. 38-140

M. C. Ricklefs (2006) Mystic Synthesis in Java; M.C. Ricklefs (2007) Polarizing Javanese Society

Mark Woodward (1989 ) Islam in Java: Normative Piety and Mysticism in the Sultanate of Yogyakarta, pp.53-148

Siti Syamsiyatun in Blackburn, et. al. eds. (2008) ‘Women negotiating feminism and Islam in Indonesian Islam’ in a ‘New Era: How women negotiate their Muslim identities’. Clayton:Monash University Press.

DeMISTYfied in Djogja



Should new clothes be sewn for the emperors’ women I wonder who would take the challenge to do the task, and, if there are, are they in a position to force-dress the princesses?

On Grebeg Maulud occasion, we visited the Sultan’s palace, or Kraton, in Yogyakarta excited to view the pusaka (i.e. royal heirloom) that were believed to be the source of the kingly power and sovereign authority over the kingdom up to the present (i.e. King Hamengkubawana X is also the present Governor of the State of Yogyakarta). For a small entrance fee, we were honored with a guided tour and admired the museum of wax dolls dressed in various costumes depicting the many personalities in a Javanese court. The main attraction was a vast collection of royal transportation. There was a line of kereta-kereta, of royal carriages and carts, mostly imported from England and Holland that dated as far back as the 18th century, and at least two vintage cars (a Ford and a Mercedes), shining and still in fine condition, we were told. On seeing the display of prince and princesses, a Muslim sister (jav. mbak) expressed shock to see that the women during the time of kingship, despite the wide Islamization in the royal house, were not modest enough. The married women wore see-through jackets and tight long blouses on top of their kain batik that were narrow and long and provocatively hugging the hips, while the single women were virtually ‘topless’ in their kemben, with only a string of jasmine garland hanging from the neck and a strip of the same unsewn fabric wound around their busts fastened by a wide band. Further, while the king went around town in large and comfortable kereta, a western carriage, the women’s ‘rides’ were wooden boxes. The interesting influences of Hindu and Buddhist art are also prominent in the box’s designs of carved posts and slotted walls brightly painted with flowers and birds and outlined and frilled with satin curtains and a gargantuan wooden Garuda (i.e. eagle) menacingly guarding the side by the passenger’s entrance. This ‘trip-box’ was hoisted on two long poles apparently to be borne on the shoulders by male slaves. With only few inches wider than a bird’s cage and no more larger than a dog’s house, a corpulent woman or one over 50 kilograms would have to be forcibly squeezed into it and therein bear being stuck rigid for the length of the trip. The roof was low that the occupant must have to assume a prone position or recline rather than sit erect. These were interesting insights into how gender (roles) was defined in the olden time, Mbak suggested, although she did not directly accuse of any practice of gender inequality but the women’s countenance was so much against Islamic modesty, she disapprovingly concluded.

My simple rejoinder to this is that skimpily-attired women were not anomalous with Muslim protocols during the time. Why? Because women were not even visible as humans then. However, one should not make mistake into thinking that women were not valued. To the contrary royal women used to be placed in pedestals, and were so adored and cared for, as one would in modern time, an adorable toy-cat, say a blue-eyed Siamese. But women generally were many notches lower in humanity than men notwithstanding their royal status. One might wish there were progressive hermeunetes around to re-read and deconstruct the ideals of the Qur’an which was already read during the time (i.e. sufi teachings and kitab were also read and translated into Javanese then by mystics and men freshly arrived from hajj in Mecca), but even if Amina Wadud, Ibuh Sitti Mulliah, Asma Barlas and Fatima Mernissi were born in that tempoe duloe, at best, they would have been resigned to be delivered in the same trip-boxes, as Qur’an was accessible only to a few, and meaning, men. Remember these were times when women and children were commodities pirated and sold in the slave-market. So the poeteri –poeteri pampered at the royal house were much much more privileged than their kawula sisters. And I think they enjoyed their status and felt glorified treated that way, too. Yet generally women did not befit the same honor of having too much religion as men or of possessing deep piety more than the basics required to be respectable members of the royal house, so there were lesser expectations from them in terms of fulfilling religious duties (i.e. to the exception of few women such as Ratu Paku Bawana, whom I so admire that I shall deal more lengthily in my next entry on her efforts to revive sufi literature in the 18th century). That is, if women ever counted as human at all, or if they ever appeared any more significant before the religious’ eyes. This could partly be, I suspect, having to do with the assexuality and ascetism of most mystics (i.e. in which Javanese Islam was molded in) and, mostly, in the general attitude towards female sexuality as merely biological and a reproductive function which single and dependent women were considered ‘unripe’ for. So aside from being dutiful daughters, single and dependent women guarded their chastity and primed themselves to be potential mothers and good wives to honorable (and rich) men, hence, on appropriate and proper occasion, they needed to show some skin and that was to be counted as performing religious duty, as well. I hope Mbak wouldn’t be so shocked, but even in present day where classical Islamic shari’a is still the ‘rule’ for many, this particular injunction on women has not really changed. Muslim woman is enjoined to be salihat (pious) by being ganitat , that is , to be subservient to men and to satisfy her husband. And all the above depended still in one important ‘if’: if ever women were at the slightest chance unveiled from the mists of social invisibility.

But note that this was not a ‘gender trouble’ as in the modern-day fuzz of Rutherford or Irigaray over unbridled freedom of the female body that is so much underscored as identity problem and a cause for alarm by liberal individual rights advocate. The feminist and individual rightist ideology maintain that being human is a fulfillment of individuality and self-hood, and freedom is founded in a completely autonomous self radically dismembered from the burden of historic tradition and de-socialized from the intimate links to primordial social matrices such as the clan and ethnic families. This can also be viewed in terms of the modern notion of the ‘secularized’ body, but I would not wish to pass any judgment on this so-called ‘secularism’ as either one of progress or decline of values in the time being, neither would I be prepared to debate if ‘godliness’ really meant the end to the selfish-ness of individualism. Anyway, the ideological context in the tempoe duloe was different, selfhood and individuality was not prized because people valued belongingness to the intimacy of the families and clans so they held-on to the integrity of the social matrices at all cost, more than they would trouble themselves searching for individuality and self-identity. Anthony Giddens (1991) and Daniel Lerner (1958 in Arquiza 1997) shared in the view that selfhood and identity were not a problem for ‘traditional man’(sic) as they had less chances for social mobility and had low self-projective abilities – which as was observed in the case of sea nomadic people in southern Philippines, self-projection and opinion-making (i.e. subjectivity) were multiplied by travel, and in more recent times, by information and media technology (Arquiza 1997)[i]. The ‘opening of frontiers’, that is, the East, by colonialism from the West, also “discovered” the individual and the self who was commodified as slave, owned and disposed in trading, and alienated and cast-away from her primordial ties and fully objectified – and therefore alienation became a great psychological burden of a traditional human person who was now in a liminal state transiting between tradition and modernity. Accordingly, social alienation gave impetus to the need for individuality and self-identity. So the social predicament of women were the same with that of children, the old, the differently-abled and generally the lowly kawulas (i.e. royal subject). It was simple economic inequality of class division and productive/reproductive role ascriptions with the politically and economically powerful on top of the ladder, and the religious and mercantile class coming next, and so on – a salient characteristic of feudal society.

Yet why do some modern women of today, many of them with much education and really good lives and claiming to be feminist and empowered, still believe that women’s real emancipation is in the bedroom, the nursery and the kitchen? Are they wrong or just terribly backward? My honest opinion is NO. It is just that there are at least two princesses looking at the same garden from different windows. And while one princess seems to be seeing only the flowers and admiring its beauty, the other also sees the weeds and worries that if those weeds would take up so much of the soil’s nutrients, the beautiful flowers will wither away. And while still debating how to make both weed and flower co-exist peacefully, princess two is fascinated by the fruiting trees and begins to wonder if she might climb it and taste the fruits. Meanwhile, all that princess one will need are her eyes to see, while day-dreaming about her prince charming, perpetually suspenseful, she is also hopeful that her prince would come to bring these flowers cut and beautifully arranged in a vase to brighten her bed-chamber or enliven the dinner table. She can care less about fresh fruits when a fruit-salad or ice-cream is sumptuously being chilled in the fridge by the chamber-maid (i.e. probably princess three being punished by the Emperor?). Meanwhile, princess two, despite having the eyes, nose and other senses open, is also thinking about acquiring the skills and building energy to be able to climb a tree and possess its sweet fruits. And even if she has all these, she still has to first figure out how to get down from her tower-room and step out into the sunny garden.

One need not be a rabidly addicted and obsessed feminist to play the second princess. Any toiling woman (i.e. one earning her keep) feeling the brunt of inequity in the social ladder would not be a fool to perpetually wait for a prince, who might just be lurking around the corner thrysting with a beautiful bad witch (i.e. a fourth princess who used to be roommate of princess two but was banished by the Emperor for attempting to usurp the throne) and both conniving to snip off Rapunzel’s long hair (sorry, she is not part of our princess characters).

In the final analysis, it all redounds to the issue of what the woman actually expects from the world, how she perceives her role and whether she chooses to act or not on that role. In our modern time, many women still consider themselves the emperor’s toys and keep themselves locked-up in their royal towers contented in being waited by the charming prince. But I would like to believe that it is a willing and informed choice (i.e. which unfortunately is more often not the case) and the women are happy with their choice. Or should new clothes be sewn for the emperors’ women? I wonder who would take the challenge to do the task? And, if there are, are they in a position to force-dress the princesses?

[i] Arquiza, M.Q. Mass media exposure and self-projection of indigenous communities in Western Mindanao. Quezon City:Ateneo de Manila University.1997. M.A. Thesis.

DeMISTYfied in Djogja

A Moro Woman Writing: Remembering Jabidah

What I am about to tell is a very personal story. It is a map of my own journey complete with the gallery of faces and people I have met and parted ways with; the panorama of landscape and seascapes, places I have strayed and tarried about and lain as a fallen seed basking under a moonlit night and shivering cold after a thunderstorm; there, I noduled, rhizomed, rooted deep and, there, my nascent buds were mercilessly uprooted from. And the relationships I have forged and have broken in the course of time, some I vividly keep in memory, others happily and conveniently forgotten. It is a personal story that I look back to and carry forward with pride and confidence, and one that I would be as enthusiastic to relive and to re-tell to my children and grandchildren when that opportune time comes [and I am sure you would recognize your self in this story, too].

As I speak before you now I am smiling to myself. Oh, I do admit, as I write, there is always mist in the eyes, yet I wish to tell you something mystical behind the smile: how profoundly embedded the self is in writing, in unhurriedly writing about her people and homeland, especially when one is not pressed to do so for the sake of frivolous art or of rigorous science or of leisurely discourse. The fact is, one does not always write for academic or economic reasons. To paraphrase a feminist invitation to write our bodies, I say, yes, let’s write, and when we write, we do not only our bodies write, we also do our lives, and write our very souls, all at once spread-out on the sheet, on the table, on the slate, in virtual space, in one stake, in one stroke and, then let fluorescent, let rupture. And, cliche as this might go: we write with our own blood, sweat and tears. Yet we write not because we want to communicate as in communicating to be heard or to announce ourselves and to be visible. Neither do we always communicate for the need to be recognized nor want of our identities to be confirmed – especially, not in how identities have been so flagrantly capitalized and peddled nowadays: objectified, compartmentalized, totalized, hegemonized, all the while vying to be recognized, placated, fund-raised, integrated with and mainstreamed into, surrendering to the multitude to be tolerated and asserting uniqueness yet willing itself to be pluralized – until one no longer recognizes which identity one carries or belongs to.

Writing is a form of expression, expressing not only for communicating or voicing out a stand or aiming to be listened to, as propagandists would to prospective advocates who would resonate and rebound with a form of solidarity. Writing as expressing is also creating. We write to create to burn a path to freedom: we sketch out fresh narrative as our new way of taking stock of ourselves. We write with intention of writing for our own eyes to see; our voice for our own ears to hear. Nay, but mostly, as we would always discover, when we are in the middle of it all, it is nothing ‘new’, really. The familiarity of landscape, seascape and self-scape that we write, and the ease of how words and descriptions come to our aid to reconstruct almost forgotten memories, makes writing rather like a solemn ritual of reclaiming, or the eagerness of home-coming of a sea-farer arriving in familiar shores, the ‘kota’ [i.e. Hispanic-time walled city or fort] and the ‘parola’ [i.e.lighthouse] notwithstanding. Or, for Suluan Moro-speakers among us, it is that ‘udjuk’ [i.e. marker] or ‘tanduh’ [i.e.a vantage] that an itinerant traveler retraces and retrieves either of a grave or a monument planted there [written there!] by the forebears who came before us. Yet we write not to retrospect, to be nostalgic or to wallow forever lost in the past. We write to re-energize a voice that has always been there; that we have always known and owned in the first place. So this act of creating is actually an invigoration of our ‘pusaka’ – ancestral resources – an incarnation of historical heritage. So that as we continue writing and reading of what we have written, we are perpetually generating energies from the re-enactment and re-interpretation of that past to fuel our journey further unto the shores of the present and the future. And for as long as we do so, we are self-determining. We are free.

Writing as creating is plight to freedom. And it is a kind of ‘fleeing to the side-doors’ because our plight to freedom is not always a headlong confrontation with the oppressor and not necessarily a demand to be recognized, to be listened to and to be included in their agenda. Our plight to freedom is flight from the straight-jacket of dominant themes, too. It is a freedom to use our power to refuse. A power to silence the master narratives that have arrogantly written us out — deleting our very agency and muting our participation in the making of our story, as thou it has always been there. History naturally writing itself even without us? We flee away from attempts to maladize our political questions and legitimate issues; we flee from diagnoses that look us up and declare us a ‘trouble’ or a ‘problem’ and regard us as a form of criminality to be penalized, a social anomaly terrorizing their civilized society that must be expunged out, bombed and banished into smithereens. We flee away from political doctors with ready-made prescriptions, we flee from suspicious solutions that propose to resolve our long-aching issues garbed in grand ‘communication plans’ purporting to carry out our consensus and speaking up for us. Alas, these are resolutions to their ‘problem’ seen from their eyes! Our writing to create our story is to reclaim the self-determination precisely to tell our story, from our vantage, from our ground. That makes this biographic writing political. Because in telling our story we write with power. But before we launch into that first stroke, a word of caution: since we write because we know, and having that potent knowledge at our disposal, it necessitates our careful handling of this power. Creating a path to freedom and creating-and-utilizing knowledge is dialectical. We struggle armed with knowledge to maneouvre and negotiate our terms into the power-play. At the same time we parry with knowledge that is spun up and worked out to subdue and subjugate us. As soon as we have recognized the ‘right’ knowledge, we reclaim and own it as our tool to work to our utmost advantage to seize the stage to put us back into our centeredness. And, lest we forget, writing to be a form of creating must start and stop with a transformed self. Every line, every page we write bears indelible markings of our own personal struggles, our process of transformation in the journey, a journey that – whether we like it or not – we are always co-creating with similar others who are also writing themselves. For that is the price for this freely expressing and claiming freedom; that, having known ours, we also are made aware of other’s freedom that is our responsibility. Writing is contemplative. Writing is power in silence, a potent quietude. In writing, the political is indeed personal, and personal is spiritual. To be political is then to be spiritual. And so, if courage and the spirit don’t desert me, this is how I wish to write and tell you about the story of Mindanao and Sulu and the 42-year old war.

Mucha Q. Arquiza, writing in Yogyakarta.

18 March 2010