Communion with the “Presences” in Lami Nusa

Nonfiction by | December 20, 2009

The tiny crescent island in Sulu where I was born and learned my name is unknown and hardly even visible in a map of the more than 7,000 islands of the Philippine archipelago. In the sixties or even earlier, when it started getting the attention of some anthropological researchers, it occasionally got briefly written about or sometimes mentioned in passing by Western authors in some ethnological studies for its famous pandan [reed] mat of exotic designs and riot of colors or else for the katakata, stories and story-tellers of never-ending amazement and deep mysticism. Allegedly, weavers and chanters fell into trance and met their muses in dreams.

But in this age of global hegemony and conflict where peace-and-development has become a sociopolitical byword and Sulu archipelago has become synonymous with war and terror, the narratives of traditional communities and stories of vibrant indigenous life have suddenly banished in significance and lost their place in history and society where it has become more fashionable to describe “life” and “community” by means of various theories and development paradigms, or, worse, hijack these into the discourse of politics. Warped in cold jargons and illustrated in dry statistics, the “good life” becomes a scholarly and well-articulated idea that is, however, narrowly understood in terms of only material (i.e., economic) consumption and political security and often only by the few and privileged.

Lami Nusa, my Island of Joy—and the many other invisible Sulu islands that remained un-plotted by cartographers and un-scoured by curious researchers because the language there was incorrigible to outsiders schooled in the literalist and logical way—was sensed and understood only by its progeny, the ondeh lahat, who remained angentan and “faith-ful” to it. With many of the latter having gone old or else passed on, and with fewer among the young ones having chosen to “hold-on,” the island and its stories retreated into the margins deep into the cobwebs of memory, never really becoming known for its people—at least, not in the way that my Western-educated female elders (i.e., my mother, godmother aunt and grandmothers) knew it, and they were also schoolteachers in the island from whom I learned and inherited the sensitivities as well as sensibilities for experiencing Lami Nusa—the way of the “old folk.”

The Lami Nusa of my time would never be experienced by this present generation, even by those of Sama descent who describe themselves simply as “Muslims from Sulu,” or by the few who prefer to partake of the political privilege that come with the ethnic referent “Tau Sug” or of the asserted nationality of “Bangsamoro.” Yet they would not know of the folk Muslim Sama community where, early in childhood, my inner being was first initiated: delicately shaped, silently rendered, and pulsated into life by mesmerizing rituals and traditions, and inspirited by mystical and ancestral presences whose comforting embraces were felt, especially at dusk and daybreak, sometimes as a shroud, at times, as mist, of shifting shadows protecting the slumbering village and shielding it from the eyes of marauding piratical mundu of the then decaying Sulu economy in the early seventies.

Gently blown in the chilly winds that teased the canopy of palm fronds, or else ringing with the laughter of the foaming seas, these Presences were also borne in the hallowed echoes of sacred grounds of coral-crested tampat and across the graveyards and in the hushed whispers of the tahalil and dhikr wafting from a prayer hall we called Langgal. And without any tinge of self-consciousness or pretense, we paid respect and obeisance to the Presences, Who in supplications we addressed as Omboh Tuhan and Allah; in Whom we sought refuge from the mischief of both jinn and men; to Whom—both ghaib and ba’tin, the seen and the unseen—we offered our thanks for the bounties of a new harvest, asked for intercessions from calamities and pestilence, and beseeched blessings for both spirit and the flesh. Thus was how we believed and how we submitted.

Sadly, Sulu has since become famed (or defamed) through the flamboyance and vulgarity of its economics and politics, a fertile ground indeed for some social commentators and political analysts who loved to appropriate, exploit, and tell the untold stories of marginal peoples in narratives their way. Many of the Tausug-inhabited islands and of the mainland have succumbed to such framing and discourse, which has earned for Sulu the reputation, as popularized by development actors and scholars, of being a challenge to development, an opportunity for investment for a politically motivated peace agenda, or a hotbed of militant Islamism, rather than as a place of cultural interest for orientalist academic studies, and, much less, as a site for an esoteric experience of profound spirituality and mysticism.

Fortunately, before being swallowed into the whirlpool created by the prophets of global hegemony and modern development, I have lived in and witnessed the Lami Nusa of the folk with the unadulterated heart of a child—full of awe and wonder, warmed only by the tail-end of its sunset, before the tide of Philippine government gunships, tanks, and helicopters came to invade bearing the banners of the New Society in the seventies until the eighties, and before its Peace-and-Development flagship programs and bilateral and multilateral development aids in the nineties came flooding in at the heels of all-out military counterinsurgency that vanquished and caused to vanish into oblivion this facet of Suluan civilization.

Perhaps more significantly, I could count myself among the few lucky ones to have been in communion with those Presences before the fresh batch of village boys—our very own, and who will become eloquent in Arabic than Sinama and turn into jurists, scholars and soldiers in the name of Islam after returning home from Saudi, Egypt, or Pakistan—purport to deliver us from any form of bid’a in the course of building some new hegemony based on religion, and who now censure us and accuse as un-Islamic the ancestors, us and this (so-they-charge) falsehood of jahili faith.

Mucha Arquiza heads a Sama community NGO in Zamboanga.

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