Instalment XXVI – Wherein our little heroine meets a Muslim and rebukes religion

Tales from the Tropics

In the spirit of change and outrospection (is this the reverse of introspection?) Here is a piece I wrote, not in my sass voice but in my regular writing voice. Because one must practice being more than a one trick pony.


The sky is a hard steel grey. A typhoon has been passing over the country bringing menacing rain. The threat of storm lingers in the damp air. Inside the car the elements are tamed, the temperature is monitored and controlled. I’m being driven out of the city to meet with my mother’s friend, a young Muslim man who runs a dictator’s kitchen.

“This is where the heart of the siege in 2013 took place,” my mother narrates at me “you know the MNLF”. We have just driven away from the old town, from City Hall built in 1900. Away from colonial pine buildings, the last remains of Spanish rule not left behind in blood. We pass a McDonald’s in a heritage building, everywhere looks like a historic past rebirthed by that dirty word, progress. History, that vague memory the congressman only considers to keep as an afterthought.

Lustre is a predominantly Muslim suburb now. The two kilometres it boasts from the city proper was not tempting enough a capitalist investment to convince the good Christians to stay. The streets that dip are flooded; the water rises up to half of the car’s tires. “Don’t worry Mam the car is just getting a good clean,” the driver smiles back at us “not to worry”. Outside my window there are small stores patched up and pieced together lining the streets. I see only men sitting outside, sipping coke from glass bottles, staring at the still river reaching down the road. The kids splash through stagnant water laughing, getting dirtier. A spare tire bobs up to the surface. There are enough torn open buildings that I notice them. Hollowed out and growing nature I can see the scars of a one-sided civil war. Corrugated iron bandages the walls where fire burned through lowering the height of the houses.

Hassan is minding his sister’s fashion boutique “Fit and Best”. It’s air-conditioned and the floor tiles are white and spotless. A young man cleans the black Doc Marten footprints I leave as soon as my feet hit the floor to make them. Along the walls hang imported t-shirts. Knock off American designer polos. Hassan is gentle and relaxed. Warm. When he speaks he breaks often with wistful sighs that this is the way the Philippines is. Some sentences he doesn’t finish because the information becomes more true each time he is made to repeat it. He is devout Muslim but not in dress, he wears a white polo (off the rack), jeans and sandals and directs us to sit. It doesn’t seem much of a store but rather a makeshift office. There are volunteers out the back who are working on a campaign to raise enough funds for a truck. ‘We need to take the food to other places, the kids here you can see them filling up, they’re putting on weight, it’s nice to see. Very good. But there are so many that can’t come here. We need to help as many as we can, outward mobility. We need a truck’.

He is in the soup kitchen every day from midday; we are fortunate to have his undivided attention this afternoon. The typhoon has caused a ‘state of catastrophe’ and the government has cancelled school. Catastrophe- unorganized and uncertain, the correct label for the current state of affairs in the country. Public school closures are announced a day in advance at best. ‘We can’t afford the children who would normally be in school coming, best to leave it until it passes. Maybe tomorrow. You see, the kids that come they don’t go to school. We are open to everyone, anyone who’s hungry, Muslim, Christian, crazy. But you know, there’s only so much, we just get along as best as we can manage’. Each day he serves three to four large cauldrons of arroz caldo (rice soup) and feeds upwards of two hundred people this gruel of white rice, water and salt that they are grateful for.

The government here makes a lot of silent rules, lots of lines to read between. Each month he struggles, “I did get some interest from the City Mayor. She offered me the contraband fruit and vegetable that they took from the street vendors when they cracked down on illegal trade, but you know; you must understand that we can’t take their goods. It’s like stealing and you know, what if they come here looking for the food? It’s their livelihood too. We can’t have it taken away from the children like that. We don’t want violence. So I never asked her again for funding or assistance. It can’t be like that. That’s what we mean, that’s all they can offer”. He has the gentle disappointment of many broken promises and a willing heart.

We talk at length about NGOs (non government organisations), funding, his civil duty and his non-political alignments. “We named it Duterte’s Kitchen because we wanted to show we support his administration, it’s causing problems now”. The problem he refers to is the civil war in Marawi. The government declared war on Islamic terrorists. 500,000 displaced families. He was there two weeks ago administering aid. He tells me how he could barely stand it; they only had enough to distribute 600 care packages. He tells me it was the first time he asked his parents to loan him money, “you can’t turn around and walk away from a situation like that” I can see him still thinking about it. “The problem is, now the Muslims are angry with Duterte, there is… bad feelings”. “Do the Christians help you?” I ask. If he is disarmed by my western directness he never flinches. “Only your mother” he responds. A neat fact that reveals gratitude for any help rather than focus on lack of help. It’s a different time to when my mother grew up here; there was a reserved tolerance. Hassan gently suggests it is the spiritual leaders of today that both Muslim and Christian sides focus too much on what the other is doing instead of looking at the problems.

The sama-bajau are an ethnic group from the coast of the southern Philippines. Also referred to as sea gypsies, they are nomadic and impoverished. Fishing off the coast, living off the sea. A traditional lifestyle that cannot even begin to withstand modernization. When the former president passed a law that allowed large scale commercial fishing trawlers to fish as close as twenty metres from shore they were effectively starved out and pushed onto the streets to beg. Many moving inland to find themselves both culturally and physically displaced and discriminated against. These are the people that he serves in Duterte’s Kitchen every day. The Bajau are Sunni Islam. Even then, they are the lowest caste with thin religious affiliations. The Christians have nothing to do with them beyond donating loose change and candy to the Bajau children that dance at the traffic lights in the city intersections banging on drums made of washed up garbage. The Muslims themselves have to be cajoled into helping. Charity is not in fashion here.

He closes today’s meeting with an invitation. ‘I want to take you to Rio Ondo’ (direct translation ‘deep river’). Rio Ondo he tells me is the oldest suburb of Zamboanga City. ‘When the city was first established the Badjau worked very closely with the Spanish to set up trade and settle, they are the original people. Whether anyone wants to accept it is our city’s first suburb. You should see the situation’. On Tuesday, I’m going to his kitchen.

xx SJ

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