I start to count the years since I came to Manila for work. How the walls in my rented room went through five repaints of eggshell white. The paint can only attempt to cover the fact that I live in a building where my mother used to stay when she went to college. It is a different structure now, having gone through several refurbishing, including changes in the establishment’s name. But it is still situated in the same area as in 1981 when my parents, who were in their late teens, were wed.
I listen to Fleetwood Mac, trying to interpret the lyrics of “Landslide” in my head again. Stevie Nicks’s voice has a certain calmness to it that makes me want to sit down and ponder about being bolder in my decisions.
I learned to adapt by myself. True, I was born in Quezon City. We left for the province for good when I was going on four after my father completed his degree. However, I have been living on my own these days; no longer the kid that I was when we lived in Lerma Street.
I was fifteen when I actually left Malabang for university in Davao. I have never come back home permanently. I carry around with me my father’s enthusiasm and my mother’s prudence. These virtues make me constantly remember who I am as a daughter of Malabang and as a descendant of one of Lanao del Sur’s oldest families. Tucked in my pockets are faint memories of my early childhood in Sampaloc. There are fleeting moments when I cannot decide where to put my loyalties—in the city of my birth or in the region of my heritage. Whatever happens though, I will tell myself I may come from different places but at the end of the day, I remain a Maranao.
People say I speak with a Manileño accent now. I say I may have some occasional slips. I casually walk the streets with my hijab on. I can tell when a tricycle driver overcharges fare. I became friends with the LBC attendants in Bustillos. I go to the same street in Quiapo where you can buy sasati at a cheap price. I know when is the best time to leave Roxas Boulevard before you get stuck in the traffic rush. I look forward to January and February when it is the coldest.
My first language was Tagalog, just as it was for all of my younger siblings. It was most likely the environment that influenced my parents to make me speak Tagalog first. It is quite different for my younger siblings who were born in Iligan City. Three of them still use Tagalog as their primary language so do some of my younger cousins. Although it may not be the Tagalog that is spoken here in Manila, those siblings and cousins still speak Tagalog.
I certainly speak Maranao on a regular basis with my parents and the rest of the family, friends, and strangers who speak to me in our tongue. I also speak fluent Bisaya just like everyone in my hometown. In Malabang, we have cultural harmony. Maranaos there speak excellent Bisaya as if it has always been our first language. Our fellow Christians on the other hand talk to you in Maranao so flawlessly you would think they were born as Maranaos.
One time, a friend insisted Malabang is “christianized,” and therefore is some sort of a half-breed municipality. I did not understand because I was raised in a town where fiestas and beauty contests are held flamboyantly but the adhan is heard consistently and beautifully at the designated hours of the day. Bisaya was also the same language spoken in Davao and Cagayan de Oro where I studied my undergraduate course and law school. This is perhaps the reason why my “occasional slips” are mostly caused by “binisaya accents.”
At the office, the fondest thing told me was that I am a “Bisayang Muslim.”
It gets tricky though when I switch from one language to another. For instance, I answer “Oway,” which means “yes” in Maranao to somebody who asks, “Kumain ka na ba?” or “Wala pa lagi,” which means “not yet” in Bisaya. Let me throw in some “Wen ngarud” for constantly hearing some friends and officemates speak Ilokano. I have discovered that some Ilokano words are quite close to Maranao terms, including emphasis on some syllables that sound angry to ears not used to hearing passion and force in phrases and sentences.
Language is very much fascinating to me. In UP, I had Nihongo and French as course electives. I can still understand some “hai” and “yokatta” here and there or a little bit of “oui, s’il vous plait.” I wish I pursued learning Japanese and French harder than just getting a passing mark. I am likewise learning Italian through a phone application that reminds of progress by the day. Juggling letters and words in different languages is exhilarating, offering me windows where I can explore beyond the “5 Ws and 1 H” of Lanao del Sur.
On the other hand, Arabic is closer to home. It is expected of Muslims to know how to read Arabic in order to recite the Qur’an. I can fairly read verses and scripts, having gone to Madrasah during my elementary years. However, I quit Arabic school too soon to learn diacritics. I rely on familiarity in order to identify phonetics, vowels, and consonants. Mastering diacritical marks takes time.
Please do not ask me about speaking Arabic. I have not yet learned to speak the Islamic language. I think it is not too much trouble if I leave it all to my brother, Alrahji, who studies at the Islamic University of Madinah. He mastered guttural sounds and speaks like a true Arab man it makes us giggle.
I remember my professors in the UP Creative Writing program who suggested I write in Maranao. I fear my knowledge of the language is not enough. I cannot even manage to say the “proper” words in specific situations. I gave in to my Omie’s sharp criticism of the expressions I thought were correct but turned out mispronounced or simply inappropriate. Once, I told my Abieof my plans to write in Maranao. He firmly said it would be difficult for me and that I should not venture into matters that are outside my capacity as a writer. Especially not at the expense of the basa-a-Maranao. But while I admit to being linguistically impaired on the subject, it is my hope that I will not be seen as a traitor to my own heritage. When I was growing up, my parents forbade me to read Tagalog materials for my leisure. They instead fed me English books and magazines that filled my stomach to the fullest, I burped with pleasure.
When I was around nine, my maternal grandma said in one of her family speeches that Islam encourages continuous learning—one that is beneficial to you and to others around you. I kept that in mind as I consciously left Malabang to satiate my yearning to learn anything that nudges my curiosity.
-to be continued-
 fish nuggets
 call for prayer
 Arabic term for “mother”
 Arabic term for “father”
Arifah Macacua Jamil writes short stories. “Weave” is her first essay.