Desert Wind in the Southern Philippines

(From time to time, I will write about happier times in my wanderings and residence in Dar ul Islam.)

The PhilippinesPhilippine gunmen snatch US citizens on Tictabon (BBC) 13 July 2011
“Two Filipino Americans kidnapped by “Islamic insurgents.”  This is another skirmish in a very old theatre of the oldest war of all.  I’ve been thinking of these two Filipino Americans, and the southern Philippines since I read the headline.  Long ago, I traveled the area where they were taken.

Over a long life things change, and not always for the better.  In 1969-70 I was twenty, and spending a year in the Philippines going to classes at Ateneo University, living with my parents in Manila.  My father managed a fertilizer plant  on the Bataan peninsula across the Bay.

During school breaks I took trips around the islands. At the time of the last free election before the Marcos regime became semi-permanent, I went down south to Mindanao and Jolo.  Before living in the Philippines, my family had been for many hears in Indonesia, and later Costa Rica.  In the Southern Philippines  I found the Muslim Malay culture that I remembered from my Indonesian childhood and still longed for, and remnants of the Spanish colonial era.  It was a fascinating and satisfying blend,

I flew to Davao where I was the guest of a an old mestizo  family I knew from Manila.  They had extensive plantations and copra processing works.   And a cute daughter, but very well watched over. These old families were very Iberian, with the young girls strictly chaperoned, and now I wonder if this in itself is a remainder from Moorish Spain.

After a few days of huge meals, beach parties , and  what little  light flirtation was allowed, it was time to go further west and south towards  the last islands of the  Philippines, and the beginnings of the Malay Archipelago.

It was a tough journey over dusty roads, crammed in with passengers whose main hobby was spitting, and a boat that became a sweatbox when the crew sealed it up at night.  Like many in Southeast Asia, Filipinos fear the night air.  Unhealthy they say, and home to unseen things that mean people no good.

It was a relief to reach Zamboanga, stretch my legs and enjoy a shower and a walk about town,  “The monkeys have no tails in Zamboanga,” the old navy song goes.  I saw no monkeys, but instead a  sleepy town, streets of white sand and crushed shell lanes off the few bits of macadam.  Venerable trading hoses built of coral block with signs saying  “Hnos Gonzales Manila – Zamboanga – Madrid. “And there were Moros, the Spanish for moors, Muslims  of various groups, the biggest the Taosug and the Bajo, the sea gypsies found there and in Indonesia ,and as far as the Mergui Archipelago in SoutheastBurma,  Small compact men with turbans, short flapping trousers,  buttoned tunics, leather belts, and small short curved swords.  The sultan of Sulu, on Jolo Island, not far away, had once been suzerain of a good part of Borneo.  I had to go there.

1969 Philippine Military outside Jolo Great Mosque. From the time of the Spaniards, through the American occupation, and on to the present, Sulu has never been pacified.

Waiting at the airport for the small island hopper, I ran into an American guy, a Peace Corps volunteer.  He recommended a hotel, and said he’d show me around.  He was working in malaria control, still spraying DDT in those days.

Aside from him, I never saw another westerner.   It was the election of1969, the one in which Marcos won a second term, the first in Philippine history to do so, and than stayed on indefinitely,  I had been warned that elections were a dangerous time to travel, but encountered no trouble.  Danger would have come from being caught in a crossfire between rival parties.  Local races, dealing  with matters of power and influence were particularly hard fought, and still are.  Islamic terrorism was an unknown term

Grand Mosque, Jolo Town, 1969

The Mestizo population of Jolo has a unique language, Javocano, a pidgin Spanish without much in the way of grammar, very easy to understand,  So I was in a town with wet markets, a waterfront where the Moro sailing craft, vinta, unloaded plenty of fresh seafood, ready for feasting on at the restaurants built out over the harbor on pilings, and all centered on a grand mosque,  Perfectly exotic, and exactly what I was looking for.

Vintas

Jolo Island coastline

A malaria education team arrived in a jeep at my hotel the next morning, without the Peace Corps guy, who was at a government meeting. We took of into the hills, climbing switchbacks until we could look back at the city, the fringing islands and the sea glittering to the blue horizon.  Then on into the interior valleys, small holdings hacked out of the jungle, and tiny hamlets, the little stands selling food and sundries, just like the ones called warungin Indonesia.

Moro village headman with wives and children, malaria team right and left.

Village snack stand Jolo Island, but it could be many places in Southeast Asia, to this day. Borders dont always mean a lot.

We stopped at one for lukewarm cokes.  The young man in charge  suddenly gestured for silence.   In the distance up ahead we heard some popping.  Gunshots, from two directions.  He went over to the jeep and tapped out a sequence of long and short toots,

Smuggler with son and a tool of the trade.

The shooting stopped, and we heard a jeep coming down the road towards us. It was a unit of the Philippine Constabulary, a paramiltary police force founded by the Americans in 1901, and which had been mixing it up with the Moros off and on ever since.  This bunch had been having a little shoot out with men they described as smugglers.  The team leader bought them cokes and handed out some literature on malaria, and then they drove off towards town.

Philippine Constabulary after a morning's exchange of potshots with smugglers.

After a few minutes,  another, and different signal on the horn.  And a quarter of an hour later, men in civvies, carrying M-1s  ambled down the rod and we had another round of cokes,  which they bought,

Islam's prohibition of gambling clearly ignored

Was my guide a Muslim or a Christian?  It didn't matter back then.

Was my guide a Muslim or a Christian? It didn't matter back then.

These guys were, in my guide’s words, respected men in the community, who preferred to conduct their business on their own, without interference from the authorities.  The constabulary and the government never showed up when they were needed, except at election time, to hand out favors, and hang around with guns at the polls, he said. In discussing the local politics and economy, religion never entered the talk.  I don’t remember if my guide was a Muslim or a Christian.

An old man came up to me.  I could only understand that he was asking if I were Amerikano.  He said, the team leader translated, that he liked Americans.  His father told him that the moros hated the Spanish who were sneaky fighters, cowards, and cruel to prisoners.  The Americans  they liked “ We killed them; they killed us,  Good sport, and good fun!” he said,

Later, walking around the town, I found a small brass plaque set into a concrete plinth.  In1902, it said, a number which I don’t’ remember of “brave Americans” had given their lives fighting “bandits“  The plaque had been erected in appreciation by the  business community fo the town, with the names of the subscribers being mostly Spanish, and a few American.

I met the Peace Corps guy that night in one of the waterfront restaurants.  He looked over his shoulder before having a San Miguel. As we tucked intoheaps of chili crab, he explained.  Although a Maltese Catholic from Queens,  he had married a local girl, and converted to Islam.   I’ve since wondered how he fared.  Many smitten young men take conversion to Islam – which is easy enough, especially if you are already circumcised – quite lightly.  Just words, they think, but find out that it is, as I did year after this, taken very seriously. His wife was at home, not comfortable with foreigners, he siad.   Thinking back, I’m not sure if I spoke to a woman the whole time I was there.

These village women put on their best sarongs to have their picture taken

I traveled around the island for the next few days

Sandy white beach and the usual friendly kids

by local bus and jitney.  I can understand why the kidnapped Americans would want to open a resort in the region,  The beaches were gorgeous, almost painfully white, dazzling, and stretching for miles.  The sunsets were nightly theatrical displays as the last rays illuminated the cumulonimbus towering above the sea into the stratosphere.  The people were courteous.  Sabah was not far away and many had some Malay, and there was usually an old man in any village who could speak Spanish.  I wished I had time to take on of the boats to Tawi Tawi and Jesselton in Malaysia, and the on to Indonesia.  One day, I thought, but returned to Manila and have never been back.

Village market. Plenty of fresh fish.

I’ve thought of that trip from time to time when there has been news from the Southern Philippines.  The news is uniformly bad, and at times shocking.  The violence by the Moro Liberation Front and Abu Sawwaf is nothing new.

After seizing the islands from Spain, the US fought the Philippine insurrectos who figured that since they had pretty much rolled up the Spaniards before eh Americans arrived, they had a right to an independent country,

The war in the south was quite different,  The Moros had never acknowledged Spain, and had always warred on Christians and animists, with rape, pillage and slave taking incidental in benefits in defending and advancing their faith. Jihad by sea, much like that of the Barbary corsairs, and in the Arab and Turkish tradition of razzia..

There the Americans encountered the juramentado,a moro warrior sworn to kill

"Institutionalized Suicide"

Christians until killed himself. In other words, a shahid, a Muslim martyr, a suicide slasher rather than bomber,  The .45 revolver with its massive stopping power was developed to replace the .38 which often had no visible effect on these enemies, just as asymmetrical wars with Muslims now push among other developments, drone technology.

The Americans did prevail, but the violence never disappeared entirely, and continues to this day.  The Philippine government has granted some autonomy,and continues to attempt to negotiate with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Jolo 2007. The mosque has been renovated or replaced.

2007: A Muslim woman in Jolo. Centuries after Islam appeared in Southeast Asia, arabization is eradicating local customs. The hijab began appearing in the eighties. This picture from the Navy Times, 2007, taken during US Philippine joint operations. Plus ca change...

 

Jihad  began in Seventh Century Arabia. The great tide surging from the desert wastes a few centuries  later had already reached the islands of equatorial Asia.  Today the hot desert wind blows again where the trade winds rustle palm fronds on coral strands.

 

 

(On October 3, 2011, one of the Filipino Americans was released, the BBC reported, on Basilan Island, not far from Zamboanga.   Her son and nephew remain captives.)

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7 thoughts on “Desert Wind in the Southern Philippines

    • Hello Neldy,
      Sorry to be so long in replying to your kind comment. No, I don’t have any further stories on Jolo. In fact, haven’t been back to the Philippines other than Manila Airport since that time. One of these days.

      During time in the Philippines I greatly enjoyed traveling around the provinces. I am working on a story about my trip to Mindoro and the Mangyan people back then.

      • Thank you very much..I hope could have to see more pictures you have. Hopefully you can share it and hopefully you will have a book for Jolo. Thank you so much,,,

  1. well why not pay us a visit again… sad to say that my fellow moro is still at war an now more sound of gunfire to be heard… here in basilan…

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