If I were to reveal one of my secret dreams, I would choose the one in which I imagined myself to be a legendary bird flying over the world. And if that miracle happened, I would start with those islands which make up the land of the Philippines, then descend gradually to this fascinating nature. I’ll fly until I reach the capital, Manila, looking at the jeepneys which are seen everywhere as a characteristic feature of one of Asia’s most crowded capitals, moving to the famous Manila Bay until I reach Santiago fort, in the historic district of Intramoros, a reminder of Filipinos’ heroic resistance to occupation. If I were to come closer to the people, I would see how very friendly they are. As nobody can escape their fate, and this country’s fate is heavy rain, that made me awake from my dream.
A people who create their wealth with a smile
Throughout the duration of our visit to the Philippines, whether in the capital Manila or in Cagayan de Oro on the island of Mindanao in the south, I had an increasingly strong feeling that Filipinos are one large family living in one country, a people who, in my opinion, are worthy of being awarded a Nobel prize in the love of life, presenting themselves as the happiest people in the world. They are so gentle and fond of social communication that when you meet a persistent hawker or a young beggar, you don’t get annoyed, thanks to Filipinos’ characteristic friendliness which makes you hear words and phrases such as “Sir, brother, friend, thank you, please, etc.” many times daily. As for alleged occasional lack of security at night or warning against walking alone at night for fear of assault, this may be the case in any community which suffers from widespread poverty.
It rained heavily as we reached Manila, but that didn’t affect the busy traffic which clogs Manila’s streets, except for the sudden disappearance of traffic wardens and policemen who took shelter from the constant rain. Bare-chested boys took advantage of this and moved begging among the cars.
A large city, one of 16 other cities which make up Metro Manila, where abject poverty and enormous wealth exist side by side. It is easy to distinguish poor areas with their medium-height, simple buildings and pale colours from affluent areas with their modern, American-style high-rise towers in a city which globalization has made a copy of the New World’s cities with no distinctive character.
Streets are congested with cars, big public transport buses, Japanese taxis along with popular jeepneys popular taxis, with their bold colours which look like minibuses with the front of a small American truck, and passengers sitting in two opposite rows in the back. The fare is very cheep (7 pesos) while the normal taxi fare is 30 pesos. (1000 pesos is equivalent to approx. $ 20). These vehicles are remnants of World war II American military vehicles.
Manila is a city which receives you with a warm welcome and invites you to get along with it quickly, particularly as almost all Filipinos speak English, which facilitates communication, in addition to Filipinos’ modesty whatever their class may be. A large city which has residential and commercial areas some of which are extremely clean and prestigious with luxury villas and magnificent houses surrounded by gardens, together with deluxe hotels and big shopping malls with their international restaurants and shops, as well as apartment blocks with very high rents. A few metres or kilometres apart, and in stark contrast to this enormous wealth in the Philippines – Manila in particular – there exists abject poverty.
Taxi drivers, often listening to music, complain about poverty and the high cost of living. Some attribute the acts of extremist groups led by Abu Sayyaf in the south to poverty. One may tell you that his sister embraced Islam to marry a Muslim man without affecting her relationship with the family. Others prefer not to talk and put up with the severe traffic congestion.
Manila Bay, relics of the past
The course of history begins the moment you reach Manila Bay on the South China Sea. This famous 65 km long, 55 km wide bay is one of Manila’s main seaports through which successive colonial powers invaded the country: Spanish, American and Japanese. The bay witnessed pitched battles during World War II and the destruction of a Spanish fleet by the American navy led by Admiral George Dewey during the Spanish-American War. There is a beautiful waterfront along the sea, opposite which there are a number of public parks and large squares with many memorials and statues of prominent Filipino symbols, one of whom is the Muslim Filipino hero Raja Sulaiman, a leading resistance leader during the Spanish occupation, known for his and his companions’ fierce fighting and great bravery. He was killed at the battle of Pangkosky in 1571.
José Rizal, a national liberation writer
We passed by the statue of the national hero and writer Dr José Rizal in Rizal Park. Born in 1861, he wrote two important novels: Noli Me Tangere (Don’t Touch me), which has recently been reprinted by Penguin in Britain, and El Filibusterismo. Our visit to Manila Bay on 19 June coincided with the city’s celebration of the 149th anniversary of Rizal’s birth. He was a prominent thinker and reformist who resisted the Spanish and urged people to revolt aginst them, which led to his arrest and execution in 1896. He was buried in Santiago fort, the farthest point in our tour of the bay at Intramoros area, which has many historical antiquities of the Spanish era.
Our visit to this historic site invites us to give a brief account of the Philippines’ history. The fleet led by Ferdinand Magellan was the first to reach the Philippines in 1521. The country was named after King Philip II of Spain by the Spanish explorer Roy Lopez do Filalopos as he landed on the islands of Leti and Samar, and all other 7,000 islands carried the same name later. (The Philippines consists of three main large islands: Luzon in the north where Manila is; Visayas in the middle, the name also refers to a number of islands in this area, with the towns of Cebu and Boracay; Mindanoa, in the south, with the towns of Bohol and Davao. Manila was founded as a capital of the Spanish colonies in the Andes region in 1571.
A huge wall surrounded by an old fence built in the 16th century. It was the stronghold of the Filipino Muslim hero Raja Sulaiman who fought the Spanish invaders. He was killed and the fort was demolished by the Spanish who built their own fort in 1571 which was the seat of 333-year Spanish rule. There is a wide area inside the fort with small houses and a large garden surrounded by tracks and fountains in the middle built after the start of running water supply to Manila in 1882. There is a prison in the inner court where the national Filipino hero Rizal was imprisoned and executed. The prison is a visitor attraction which houses his remains and belongings and the cell where he was executed in December 1896, in addition to his statuette sitting on a chair, waiting for the moment of execution.
However, the revolution continued and the Filipinos succeeded in expelling the Spanish two years later and declared independence in 1899. But soon afterwards a war broke out between the Philippines and the USA in Cuba ending in falling under American rule, and in 1935 the country became part of the Commonwealth. It continued attempting to gain independence until WWII broke out leading to Japanese control in 1942. A bloody war followed in which about a million Filipino warriors were killed in what was later called the “Massacre of Manila” in which the Japanese committed many war crimes. At last the Filipinos achieved independence in 1945. On my way out of the fort I followed Rizal’s footsteps which Filipinos kept on Santiago fort’s floor as a constant reminder to later generations of his last footsteps on his way to execution in the firm belief that freedom is dear, not less than the price of life itself.
In the vicinity of Santiago fort there are still many buildings which date to the Spanish era, including San Luis Complex which combines a number of houses for the Spanish. Magnificent Spanish-style bedrooms, living rooms, kitchens and dining rooms reflect a special culture which influenced the city for over three centuries. The complex is a tourist site now with guards in Spanish military uniform receiving visitors and giving information about the place.
Muslims in the Philippines
Our investigation into the conditions of Filipino Muslims began in Manila’s old China Town, a popular area where there are many shops which sell a variety of goods, including domestic appliances, handicrafts, CDs, gold, in addition to restaurants which attract many tourists. It is a long, narrow street, which is bustling with life and always full of hawkers, customers, tourists and local roamers, with visible signs of poverty. People’s features area a mixture of Filipino and Chinese. China Town was first established in Binondo in central Manila near Passij river not far from the historical Intramoros district in 1594, and is thus the oldest such town in the world. It was founded by Chinese immigrants from Fiji who formed a large community later, earning the place its wide popularity as a commercial centre before it moved to Makati in central Manila in recent decades.
Occasionally, we saw girls or women wearing headscarves, an indication that there are Muslim residents, confirmed by the Green Dome or Golden Mosque built in the heart of China Town during the time of the then Philippino President Marcos in 1976 as part of preparations for a visit by the Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi which was cancelled later. At first the mosque was a small building. A number of young men sit at the entrance and some prayers sit in the court or sleep. The dome is in clear need of restoration, and the whole place in general is in need of a lot of attention not only in the court but also around the mosque where dirt accumulates in a slum area.
We wanted to visit the mosque as we were told that the person who holds a position equal to Minister of State for Islamic Affairs in charge of the capital area had an office next to the mosque, Kim Idris, who also manages the mosque. As he was not available at the time, an appointment was fixed for the following day. He outlined the historical background to the Philippines and how Islam entered it which is commonly reported to have taken place in the 13th century by Arabians and merchants who came particularly from Indonesia. This is confirmed by the fact that many fighters who resisted Spaish occupation were Muslims, including Lapu Lapu, who killed Magellan in a battle at Cebu, and Sulaiman Raja.
Muslims, contributions and beneficiaries
Kim complained bitterly about Muslims’ conditions in the Philippines, a veiled accusation against the state, saying that Muslims are neglected, contributions from Muslim countries to religious institutions do not reach beneficiaries, there is prejudice against Muslims and others in jobs and senior positions. In addition, there are no Muslim MPs, as most voters are Christians. However, that concerns trust rather than the Muslim-Christian relationship, as many Muslim members of local councils are elected by both Muslims and Christians, and governors of some predominantly Muslim provinces are Muslims.
But, is there real discrimination against Muslims? After visiting Kim we went to the small village of Feerbio in the town of Quezon close to Manila, where many Muslims under the poverty line live in slums surrounded by wastewater. Our companion, Abdul Aziz Salim, founded a small school on his house roof for children to learn the Glorious Quran and Arabic but couldn’t afford to build a ceiling to protect them from heavy rain. However, asked about their problems, a woman said they had none except for their children’s inability to continue learning after preparatory school because of school fees, resulting in a high dropout rate. Children then find any job to be able to get married. Amazingly, average marriage age in this poor village is 18 and 20 for females and males respectively. Therefore, we call on Muslim charity organizations to support these private Islamic schools to create better conditions for learning and provide religious and Arabic teaching books.
Not far from these people, a number of Christian communities live in the same standard of living, but they at least maintain a minimum standard of cleanliness. The problem, therefore, is lack of awareness, not only in this village but in China Town as well, as most of those who sell CDs and porno movies are Muslim young men, in a country whose national income depends heavily on agriculture and Filipino expatriates’ remittances.
Our dialogue with Kim revealed many important points, including the fact that many of the contributions which indirectly reach some Muslim individuals are misspent. An example of this is the mosque itself which has been blacklisted for failure to spend the contributions on restoration and renovation works. For this reason, the government now receives the contributions and give a small portion to the party concerned until the latter proves their seriousness. According to Kim, then, many officials in charge of Islamic institutions in and outside Manila receive the contributions, which is not in favour of many Muslims, except interest heavyweights who are paid by name. Raising Muslims’ awareness and standard of education should be the target of Muslim Affairs Council committees, as stressed by Kim, who established a school for Arabic and Islamic studies in the mosque, where he teaches the 156 students how to behave properly and instil Islamic moral into them. He is also planning to demolish tumbledown houses round the mosque and provide replacement ones. He received financial aid from the UAE for renovation and restoration works, he added.
We had to decide whether or not to proceed to the south, as we were advised by the Philippines embassy in Kuwait and the Kuwaiti embassy in Manila to follow security precautions. That morning, newspaper headlines carried the news of the murder of a journalist in Davao, as reported by Philippines Daily Inquirer, which said Nestor Bilido was the third such man to be murdered within five days after the murder of a reporter in Mandanao and of a radio commentator in south Luzon 24 hours later.
Mandanao, the beautiful south
I didn’t tell my colleague Hussein Lari the news lest he should refuse to travel south, but, as he told me later, he had known the news already. Abdul Aziz Salim, who comes from Marawi where he did Islamic studies in its university, volunteered to be our companion. We decided to proceed to the city of Cagayan De Oro to investigate Muslims’ conditions there as it has an airport and is near Marawi. As we were having breakfast at Mcdonald’s I noticed that security men were in military uniform. I emembered that bomb attacks in 1990s usually targeted restaurants frequented by Americanas. As I felt calm later I realised how fascinating the south is as green spaces strech as far as the eye can see and heights with valleys and plains in between, in addition to mango and banana trees in gardens and shops.
Like most Filipino cities, its population belongs to various religions mostly Catholics, with 15% Muslims. We visited Lamba mosque in a nearby village whose imam, Sheikh Yassin Imam, established a school affiliated to the mosque where he teaches Muslim children Islamic principles and memorizing the Glorious Quran. He is assisted by three young men who learnt Arabic and memorized the entire Glorious Quran at Zaid Bin Thabet Institute in Marawi: Hassan Ali Buarwas. Abdul Tawab Abdul Hamid, and Amanuddin Alama, who astonished us with his complete mastery of Arabic. Sheikh Yassin originally comes from Marawi, and he built this mosque after moving to the area in 2002 and established the school later. It is a boarding school funded by contributions, and the 46 students pay modest tuition fees. He hopes charity workers and Muslim preachers support the school and provide an appropriate place for learning and as a dormitory to save students from mixing with the jobless and wasting their spare time.
A noble project
A surprise lay in store for us a few kilometres away. We visisted the house of Mrs Jahira Sharif, who speaks classical Arabic with an Egyptian accent, as she was taught Sharia at the College of Sharia and Law, Marawi University by a number of Egyptian professors. She designed part of her house as an orphanage and a school called “The Grace of Faith” for teaching English and Arabic and learning the Glorious Quran by heart to orphan girls. She is assisted by a number of young men from Manila who volunteer to teach English and memorization of the Glorious Quran. This worthwhile project is this lady’s personal effort and is really worthy of support. She is totally dedicated to this charitable work as appears from the motherly manner she treats the girls as she bears all their living expenses and hopes to be able to continue this job.
After this tour we met Director of the Office of Islamic Affairs in Cagayan De Oro area, Mr Ati Ombra Gandarma, who explained the role of the office’s branches in the Philippines: improving Muslims’ social and economic conditions and solving their social problems. He pointed out that Filipino Muslims are subject to a special civil status law in force since 1883 which governs marriage, divorce, inheritance and related cases. This government office has a number of ancillary sections for culture and the spread of Islamic culture, annual pilgrimage arrangements and awqaf (religious endowments).
As Mr Gandarma pointed out, part of the office’s duties is to supervise Islamic and Quran memorization schools to ensure that students are learning the true religion. As a branch of what is similar to a Ministry of Islamic Affairs, the office attaches considerable importance to Muslim-Christian peaceful coexistence. He said he was occasionally invited to give lectures at Churches about Islam’s essence, teachings and tolerance and references to Christ in the Glorious Quran. This creates a positive image of Islam and is presented in the context of an education system designed to teach students all religions, including Christianity, in order to promote coexistence among all Filipinos, whatever their religion other than Islam and Christianity, such as confucianism and Buddhism, etc., may be.
Culture in the Philippines
During my stay in the Philippines I wanted to get acquainted with its culture. I watched a folkloric show at the “Amazing Show” theatre presenting Western, Asian and popular Filipino dances, including one which requires special skill in jumping between two bamboo poles, which I was told later is performed at Muslim weddings in Mandanao. As I knew later, the Philippines has a long tradition in drawa and audio-visual culture in general. Filipinos love folklore, music and cinema, and the country witnessed a surge in movie production in the 1960s and 1970s, but it declined later for political reasons.
I met Mrs Malou Jacob, Deputy-Director of the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, who is also a prominent dramatist, documentary film director and a lecturer at De La Salle. She won a number of local and international awards, and one of her plays was performed in Greece in 2000. She gave me a brief account of the Commission’s activities, saying six Filipino writers would share in a major Asian literary festival in Bali, Indonesia this October, including two critics who would discuss the works of Francisco Balgtas, an eminent 19th-century Filipino poet, one of whose masterpieces is Florante and Laura, an epic about Muslim-Christian cooperation in the Philippines, portraying Muslims as gallant, generous and willing to assist fellow Christian Filipinos, set in a love story between a Muslim man and a Christian woman. The festival will also discuss José Rizal, whose works have recently been published by Penguin in Britain, copies of which will be distributed at the festival. In addition, there will be poetry reading by two prominent Filipino poets: Margori Evasco, who writes in English but has recently written in the local language, and Ricardo de Ongria, who will also present papers on culture in the Philippines.
A rich oral culture
“We have a very rich oral culture. That’s why there are a large number of eminent poets, as well as a rich heritage of legends and epics. Don’t forget that there are over 100 local languages and dialects, and we encourage writing in them to incorporate them in school curricula so that children may know about their cultural heritage which can be translated into English later. Like ‘haiku’ in Japan, we have our ‘tanaga’ and ‘dalit’, poetry and song drama, which became famous during Spanish occupation. There are two well-known epics: Hud Hud in the north, and Darngen in the south,” Jacob said.
Asked about leading contemporary novelists, she said there are many, but with the youth the most popular is Miguel Sujuco, whose novel Illustrado achieved huge popularity and in manuscript form won an annual local award, and after publication won the Asia Man Booker prize. She said Manila had a successful drama season this year, including an international dance festival and a very popular performance directed by the famous film director Simon Malaya whose film “Brilliante Mindoza” won a Cannes Film Festival award.
A young film revival
As far as cinema is concerned, Jacob said a number of Filipino films would share in international festivals, particularly in South Africa and Brazil, referring to leading filmmakers, including Pepe Diokno and Ismail Bernar. “There was an active cinema movement then, but today there is a young film revival based on digital technology. Those young filmmakers depend on themselves alone with no government or private sector support. A new section will support new films and produce their first works without intervention in their nature or vision.” Jacob said.
“Music and cinema have in general witnessed increased activity in recent years. Thanks to cultural diversity, we have rich music, which in the south is similar to that of neighbouring countries, such as India, but is different from that is Manila. There is a revolution in music using traditional instruments like bottles”, Jacob added.
We also met Maricel Diaz, who is in charge of international activities. She pointed out that the Philippines shares in international annual cultural and art activities, such as “International Filipino Art Festival” held in February. It was local at first, but now a number of Arab and other countries share in it, including the UAE, represented by young film directors from Fujairah and Sharjah. Another festival is the “International Art Festival”, which this year celebrates 35 years of Filipino-Chinese relations through a biannual exhibition of modern arts in both cultures, with leading artists such as Dani Delena and Tony Alfardo representing the Philippines. Other festivals include music festivals, particularly traditional dance, and Redbalia international music festival. In addition, Manila International Book Fair is held every September.
As a matter of fact, my meeting with Jacob and Dìaz was the most enjoyable as they familiarized me with the aspects of culture in the Philippines, a country which we, unfortunately, reduce to an exporter of manpower and domestic servants.
The above remark made by Mr Badr Nasser Alhouti, the Kuwaiti ambassador to the Philippines as he received me in his office, pleased me enormously, pointing out that it is very distinguished in the areas of culture and art. “The Philippines is commonly known as an exporter of manpower, but in fact it is much greater than that, despite the fact that its income from Filipino expatriates’ remittances, estimated at $9 bn from the Middle East alone, comes before agriculture or even tourism. On the other hand, the case of the Philippines as a tourist destination leaves much to be desired, compared with other neighbouring countries. Filipinos are among the world’s first people in terms of openness to the outside world, friendliness and ability to communicate as, in contrast to neighbouring counties, they speak English. They also have a strong sense of social solidarity. The Philippines has some of the world’s most beautiful beaches,” he said,
“Filipinos are a very cultured people, and many Filipino immigrants in Europe and the USA hold senior positions. There is a number of prestigious universities in the Philippines. In addition, they enjoy aworldwide reputation in the area of medical care and nursing, and the government is planning to promote the country as a curative tourism centre and the cost will be lower than that in neighbouring countries, as reported by Kuwait’s Ministry of Health, which has sent committees to evaluate the standard of medical services in the Philippines,” he added.
Ambassador Alhouti referred to the strong relations between the two countries governed by many commercial, diplomatic and cultural agreements, particularly in view of the fact that the Philippines opened its embassy in Kuwait long ago, whereas Kuwait opened its embassy in Manila only in 1996. The embassy is encouraging a number of Kuwaiti entrepreneurs to invest in mechanized agriculture, commerce, food industries and logistics, as some Arab countries have been investing in agriculture, especially rice, following the disasters which have struck the world in recent years.
An Arab school
Two international private schools in Manila distinguish themselves from others by offering Arabic classes in which the children of the Arab community of diplomats and others are enrolled. The two schools are branches of New Horizon school established by the “Kuwait Reform Society” and are supervised by Abdul Aziz Alothman, and Abdul Aziz Ajiran, the man behind the plan to open the school as reported by its principal Ibrahim Almuqadam. The school has an approved education system based on Singapore’s approved curriculum, which in turn is based on the education system of private Islamic schools in the USA, in addition to a modern Arabic curriculum using teaching methods similar to those of English, as we were told by Kamal Makki Adam, teacher of Arabic and religion at the school.
It is worth noting that the situation in the south needs radical solutions, as extremism, which some attribute to poverty and poor living conditions, creates a negative image of Filipino Muslims. When I asked an ordinary Filipina to tell me her impressions about Muslims, she said they live in a ghetto, which contrasts with Filipinos’ sociability. “We live together as a large family, as appears in moments of crisis. When a woman marries a man she loves, she dedicates herself to him, particularly as we are Christians and divorce is prohibited,” she said. Another Filipina said,” Filipinos’ problem is that they think it is up to the governments to solve all problems. As a matter of fact, problems can be solved if all Filipinos, regardless of religion, are united in their endeavour in this respect. Everybody says the Philippines’ problem is corruption. True, but corruption is a worldwide problem. I therefore hope the new President brings about change together with people themselves rather than passively waiting for change.”
We bade farewell to the Philippines five days before the inauguration of President Noi Noi Aquino. We left Filipinos dreaming of a better future, with the people we met waving goodbye, and their kindness and friendliness making us feel as if we had been with them for years and not just passers-by. That’s why during the journey back to Kuwait I kept murmuring “My warmest regards to the Philippines and its people.” Truly, a country only looks beautiful with its people.
(Translated by Dr. Shaaban Afifi)
Alarbi- October 2010