This is the fourth instalment of Matthew Thompson’s account of his 2014 journey into the Sulu Archipelago, a violent, beautiful and contested region of the southern Philippines, where US colonial troops first faced Islamic warriors and suicide attackers more than a hundred years ago. In the aftermath of September 11, which like the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was largely planned in the Philippines, American forces were sent back into the Sulu for a dozen years, the mission ending only months before Dr Thompson’s recent visit. Nevertheless, violence and lawlessness continue in this declared theatre of the ‘War on Terror’, where instability and stability can be different words for the same thing.
Roderick ‘Oric’ Furigay is buzzing as we enter barangay Limo-ok, an obviously wealthy semi-rural neighbourhood where the streets are well paved and lit, lined not only with improvised wooden shacks but also spacious, clean and well-painted houses. There are a few stately abodes set back from the road and it is a comparative mansion that we approach. Armed men secure the street around and fan out into the bushland opposite.
‘Matt, I am very happy that you can meet Lamitan’s council of elders,’ says Oric, twisting in his seat as we pull in. ‘They are a source of wisdom that I consult regularly in my effort to deliver good governance.’
‘Who are they?’ I ask, as Oric nods Sam, the jaded military intelligence officer who talked about the bull market in kidnapping foreigners. Sam nods and keeps an eye on the operation to secure our visit.
‘Old men who are full of experience and who love this place,’ Oric says. ‘Former mayors and councilors who have lived here all their lives, raising families and keeping farms and sometimes taking up arms to protect Lamitan in her darkest hours.’
They also turn out to be a troika of Furigay’s octogenarian uncles: fellow descendants of Datu Kalun. Laminated copies of old photographs and stories about the Datu have been posted in this open-air sitting room below the house’s upper floor, which projects forward. It’s a charming area, busy with windowed book cabinets and old armchairs, memorabilia and china.
The afternoon light comes dappled through ferns and palms close to the house. One photograph from the turn of last century shows Datu Kalun on board a ship with future US Army Chief of Staff General John C. Bates, a veteran of the Civil War and campaigns against Native Americans. Bates was sent to the Sulu Archipelago to negotiate peace with the Moros, enabling the US to concentrate on crushing its new colony’s independence fighters in the Catholic north before turning its guns on Muslims, most infamously in Jolo. The caption declares Datu Kalun to be ‘the most powerful man on Basilan’, also noting that he is ‘a Christian convert to Islam, formerly known as Pedro Cuevas’.
An uncle, Bill Pamaran, shuffles up beside me. ‘Our grandfather; he was an outlaw leader here,’ Bill says with pride. The photograph was not to be found locally, he points out, but comes instead from archives in Washington DC.
‘The founder of Lamitan and a great hero of all Basilan,’ Oric says, launching into their tale of a young idealist from Cavite, near Manila, who became a rebel against Spain’s rule and, for his part in the death of a Spanish soldier, was sent to prison in Zamboanga. A daring escape, his descendants explain, took him across the strait to Basilan where he slew the original Datu Kalun and took his name, married into the Yakan tribes and united them, became their ruler, outfoxed the Spanish and assorted pirates, freed the island from the yoke of paying tribute to the Sultan of Sulu, whose seat was Jolo, and in 1886 founded the great city of Lamitan, ultimately gaining the recognition of both the Spanish and their successors as colonial overlords, the Americans.
The uncles paint a picture of pre-martial law Basilan as having the odd bandit but being a peaceful, beautiful province where the Yakan people wore traditional dress and led non-confrontational lives weaving and farming rice, corn, cassava, and other crops. After the declaration of martial law, however, the Yakan started getting their hands on firearms – sometimes buying them from soldiers looking to supplement their pay – and paradise slipped away. ‘That was the beginning of the problem: the weapons,’ says Bill. ‘When there were no weapons they were farmers and the women didn’t go to school much.’
Another old uncle, Wilfrido Furigay, explains that around the same time as weapons were reaching the Yakan, Manila was dividing Basilan into more municipalities. Due to demand for qualified officeholders exceeding supply, he says, a pack of uneducated, illiterate, local heavies came to hold local office: people hugely less qualified for discerning stewardship of the island than the descendants of Cuevas and associated families. And, as in Jolo and Mindanao, there were more and more signs of an insurgency looming.
Wilfrido noticed a big shift in attitude among the poor tribespeople he encountered when travelling between Lamitan and his landholdings elsewhere in Basilan. Previously, the folk along the way ‘out of respect were avoiding my presence because I was a councilor but eventually, little by little, they become very brave.’ He shakes his head and laughs. ‘There was a time when they accosted us and said, ‘We are now following a new kind of government.’’
Wilfrido had met rebels.
In the 1980s, with the insurgency entrenched even in Lamitan, he and other politicians in the clan took up guns and joined their militias in the defense of their turf. ‘If you have to lead, you have to shoot,’ says Wilfrido.
Henry, the policeman with the invisible support squad of jinns, wants to help expose me to the views of Muslims during my stay in this protected enclave. Indeed, he expresses the hope that I will embrace Islam, the way of the Sunni, and convert. Yet, he worries that because I once spent time in Iran, I might be under the sway of Shiite Islam which he considers a polytheistic cult posing as the true faith. In order that I receive the ‘correct information’ about religion and its place in the Sulu region, Henry has arranged a meeting with no less than the Mufti of Basilan, Sheikh Alim Usman Mankabong. It was meant to take place this morning but I woke in the grip of gastro, so Henry called into the hostel with medicine, bananas and water.
By three in the afternoon I am weak but mobile; Henry now has other duties but sends an SUV loaded with police. We drive into a Muslim sector of the city. It is poorer than the places I’ve been frequenting with the vice-mayor: more piecemeal construction of houses, more rubble underfoot, less finished paving and drainage, narrow tangles of roads. More like a lot of the Philippines.
‘Sir, we walk from here,’ says a cop up front as we park on the broken edge of a street. Police fan out cradling rifles to shepherd me past gawkers of all ages, around a corner, down a lane that opens into a mud lot with trikes and motorbikes parked here and there, weeds and grass clumping up from the base of the wall ringing the square. A gazebo stands in the far corner where the greeting committee awaits. A cop stays with me while the others look around. The mufti is a lean mid-60s fellow in a white batik shirt and black fez-style hat.
I touch my chest and give the Islamic greeting but the grinning mufti reaches for my hand and holds it between his. We are shown to some chairs in the gazebo, around which builds a crowd of wiry young stone-faced men and curious kids. The mufti maintains eye contact, his warm smile cocooning me until a chunky man in his late-fifties with a glorious head of black hair and bursting with the energy of a televangelist grips my hand, announcing in a voice loud enough for the entire barangay to hear that he is the mufti’s assistant and he is here to enlighten me to the truth.
‘Shukran,’ I say, using the Arabic for thanks. We sit.
‘You are welcome,’ he almost yells, pulling his chair square to face me and hunching forward like he’s about to launch. ‘Are you Islam?’
‘No. I was raised Catholic.’
‘Catholic!’ he shouts, as the mufti murmurs and nods like a doctor who has identified the ailment. ‘Sir, better you embrace Islam.’
‘Yes, Islam is the excellent religion of the world.’ He refers me to the Bible, citing the opening of Genesis where god creates heaven and earth, pointing out that Jesus didn’t do it – he wasn’t even there – so how can he also be Lord? ‘In fact, he came late! He was born in this world. That’s why it’s very conflicting,’ he says, adding that he knows Christian theology well having graduated in it earlier in life. ‘When you enrol in theology they will define Christian as this: a Christian is a person who deeply believe in the principle and teaching of Christ. I am right?’
‘Yes! Then we get Biblical support in John three verse sixteen. It says, “For god so loved the world he gave his only begotten son. That whomsoever believes in him shall not perish but enjoy eternal life.”’ Spit sprays, the man is so worked up. He jumps to Exodus and its injunction against making graven images or likenesses of anything in heaven or earth, saying that clearly proves, amongst other things, that making images of ‘god the father is really forbidden; angels is really forbidden.’ Furthermore, he argues, as Jesus was a being of the earth, he is not to be depicted either. ‘It is forbidden for us to adore his images. Or Mary’s.’ Again he quotes the injunction against bowing down to images. ‘You get me now?’
‘I get you now.’
‘You get me!’ Due to such fundamental errors, he says, when children raised Christian reach legal age they should split away from their parents’ idolatrous ways. ‘Do not go with them!’ he says, arguing that if the god we worship is a great power then there is no way we should disobey his commands. ‘You get me?’
‘I get you.’
‘You get me.’ Again he quotes Exodus: ‘“For I the Lord God am a jealous god.”’ Why is he jealous, the man asks, before launching into an account of god creating our spirits, sending them down to be conceived in our mothers, giving us precious air to breathe and rain to drink. ‘Then a foolish person, they are worshipping images of he who is not the one who give you all these things in this world. Now that is the principle of Islam.’
‘Yes, one god!’ he says. ‘You try to see in the Ten Commandments. For I am the Lord god there should be no other god beside me.’ He rocks forward, the eye contact almost bruising. ‘Let us be serious for this because we can repair our faith now!’ After death, he says, it is too late. The man leans so far forward that his thighs strain to catch his weight. ‘While we are still here let us focus ourselves how we can go the straight way of our lord god. Let us try to see the position of Jesus Christ: he is not a god.’
Praying that the gastro medicine doesn’t wear off, I resist checking the time; it’s exhausting being the sole focus of this man’s muscular conversion attempt. On and on come quotes from the Bible, the Koran and the Hadiths, bludgeoning me with a case for expunging spiritual life of art and ambiguity, contradiction and privacy, and so much else so close to my heart.
Holy shit. I don’t know if being so washed out after today’s gastro attack makes this easier or harder: the sky changes colour and still he goes on, now about Prophet Jesus desperately trying to warn people that he is not god and not to worship him and how anyone who does will not be saved.
‘Do you get me?’
‘I get you.’
‘I hope you get me.’
‘I get you.’
‘You get me.’
‘I get you.’
He stares at me.
‘Now what is Islam?’ he asks. ‘Islam’s meaning is total peace,’ he says, launching another attack on Christianity’s inconsistencies or pluralities or whatever it’s called when one faces a variety of metaphors and myths. Plus, eating pigs is forbidden and, as a bonus, Allah grants men of true faith a woman (or women: ‘Countless if you want’): ‘You can take her as a wife; you can take her as your servant.’
‘I am a priest! I am a priest,’ he says, now 27 minutes since he first opened his mouth. ‘I was a priest for seven years.’ Before I can ask about this minor revelation, the priest slams on, while the mufti, as ever, smiles and murmurs. ‘The prayer of Christianity is useless! Useless!’ says the priest. He turns his attack on the Hail Mary, reciting: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the lord is with you, blessed among women, and blessed the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”’ He almost comes off his chair at me as he demands to know, ‘What is wrong there? “Blessed among woman” – but men? Never blessed. Only woman,’ he says, his voice low and grave. Now his pitch jumps almost in distress: ‘Your prayer? Very bad. Very defective.’
Thirty-seven minutes and no sign of letting up, although his voice has grown a touch hoarse. The police sit with their rifles across their laps, staring at the ground or off to the side while the priest now details the transformative purpose of Islam’s seven prayer positions which must be performed precisely five times per day. ‘Allahu akbar,’ he chants while demonstrating. ‘Prayer of Islam is a prayer of angels. When you are praying you are no longer a human being; you are angel.’
‘I was a priest and best-Christian before, and now I am a best-Muslim,’ he says as I pick at a loose strand on my pants. He explains that as an agriculturalist he must get things perfectly right and his study of religion led him to the perfection of Islam. ‘That’s how I have given you this faith.’
At last a pause.
‘How do you compare Islam and Christianity?’
‘Islam is very strong,’ I say.
‘And Christianity? I don’t think it’s so strong now.’
I nod. ‘People battle with their personal beliefs. Islam has more momentum.’ Nevertheless, I tell him I was raised Catholic and, as far as gods go, Jesus still has a certain something.
If the priest was a door to door salesman he would need to work on his closing; he folds at my noncommittal blather. His chest deflates and for the first time he looks at me without a commanding grin.
‘So,’ he says. ‘I came here because they informed me that you are bringing some pamphlets of the Shia.’ A murmur goes through the surrounding crowd.
‘No.’ Henry might have gotten the wrong idea, I explain, while wondering why, even if I were a propagandist for Shiite Islam, that would spark an interminable harangue about Christianity. ‘I don’t have any pamphlets and I’m not Shiite.’
The priest tells the mufti that I am not here for Tehran but rather as a kind of anthropologist, and then abruptly arcs up, accusing me of not asking questions. ‘What is your purpose?’ he says, vexed.
As simply as possible, I explain that I have come to hear the mufti’s views on the nature of this place and its communities, what the role of religion is, about violence in the islands and if the violence will go away. ‘Where does the conflict come from?’
‘Conflict,’ the priest says slowly, his voice huskier than ever. He sinks back in his chair, tired.
‘Yeah, and what’s the solution to the conflict?’ I ask, wishing I could have presented my shopping list of questions 45 minutes ago.
The mufti cuts in in a delicate, reedy voice, saying, ‘Thank you, I got that,’ before switching back out of English for an exchange with the priest. He looks at me again. ‘I am the mufti of Basilan,’ he says.
‘Head of all imams!’ roars the priest.
‘And also Islamic visionary,’ adds the mufti. He says his English is not good so his brother will help, smiling at the priest, undoubtedly meaning brother of the faith not flesh. The brother has learnt much about society from his experience in forestry, says the mufti. ‘More than me.’
The priest squares up on his chair again. ‘Before, Basilan was very peaceful. Very peaceful.’
‘Before the Spanish?’ I ask.
‘I do not remember about Spanish,’ he says, pointing out that, as a kid in the 1960s, he came along later. The modern widespread conflict broke out because of Manila’s post-independence policies in the 1940s and 1950s of encouraging Christian Filipinos from the central and northern regions of the Philippines to become ‘settlers’ in Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago, lands that had been ‘100 per cent Islam’, he says. ‘These people are already educated. The natives are not educated.’ It is colonialism within a country, he says, and it made the Muslims oppressed. Basilan’s oppression started even earlier, however, when someone came from Batangas in Luzon. ‘He colonised all people. Whatever he want, it should be followed.’
‘Who?’ I ask. ‘Who came here?’
‘He is Pedro Cuevas,’ says, letting the sound linger in his mouth. ‘Pedro Cuevas,’ he says again. ‘The first Christian getting rich in this place. Pedro Cuevas.’
‘The one with the statue in the town plaza?’ I ask, prompting a laugh from the mufti.
‘Yes,’ says the priest.
‘With a different name?’
The mufti chuckles again. ‘Yes, sir: Datu Kalun,’ he says.
‘That’s Pedro Cuevas,’ the priest tells me, his voice once more at a boom.
‘Pedro Cuevas,’ says the mufti, still laughing.
‘When he arrived here with his shotgun’ the priest says, ‘he start to colonize the people of Basilan. And he try to marry as many as he can so that he produces offspring from Cuevas. That is why Cuevas here are dominant.’ He names another old Christian family as sharing the spoils and then, with an indignant expression, shifts on the chair and takes breath for another blast. ‘They don’t give any liberty and priority to the natives! They are inviting all other Christians to come to Basilan. That is why Christian now is dominating – because they control huge land, the political, economic. They control Basilan. That was the start of the problem in Basilan. And when some Yakans start to get educated, they start to revolt.’ The Christians were dominant but few in number, he adds, so Manila tried to even the score by arming and aiding the Christians. ‘Until now, the natives are trying to struggle. The situation is not yet normal.’
Oric’s guard with the amulet and strange eyes comes to mind. ‘Were the Ilaga here?’
‘Yes, it was here. Invading here.’
‘Still Ilaga here?’
‘No more. There were so many but I think all Ilaga were killed in Basilan,’ he says, making me wonder how close these guys ever get to the Furiguys, given that that guard wasn’t exactly hiding the amulet.
‘Is the Cuevas family still in control?’
‘A portion,’ the priest says. ‘And the natives are still engaged in poverty.’
‘What’s the solution?’ I ask.
‘The solution? Giving the native people priority to education. To agriculture. To fishery. To employment.’
‘So there’s no priority now? No affirmative action or quotas?’
‘No priority. Totally depressed.’ Meanwhile, says the priest, the political elite siphon off vast sums of government money. ‘If the money was distributed to the people properly, I hope the living condition of this people would become better.’
When I ask if Lamitan’s government and the Muslim community work together on economic problems, the priest says that the problem now is not a divide between Christians and Muslims but rather the greed of the ruling clans. ‘All opportunities go to them. It is not a religious thing,’ he says. ‘It is a power thing.’
With the weapons that we’ve been drunkenly posing with safely back on a side table and everyone settled, Oric signals for another round of San Miguels and asks if I am making any headway arranging a visit to Jolo.
‘Tan’s happy to meet but I still can’t get any protection,’ I tell him. ‘Think I’ll head back to Zamboanga and work on it, try to meet some people who can help. But I might have to just go, you know. Just go to Jolo.’
Oric stares, his expression queasy.
‘Thanks to you,’ I say, ‘the army here’s been very helpful, but as for there? No. Ignoring all my requests. What have they got to hide? I should just go anyway, I guess, or I’ll run out of time.’
Oric looks concerned. ‘Matt, Jolo is not like Lamitan. Here I can protect you, but there? Sakur Tan? Look, I tell you honestly, do not trust politicians. And who is sending you the messages about going to Jolo to meet Tan?’
I scroll through my text messages. ‘Someone called Faht, his secretary. Guess it’s short for Fahtima.’
Oric orders a gopher to see if Tan really does have a secretary named Faht or Fahtima. ‘It could be, says Oric, ‘what you call a honeytrap.’
‘Well, she did say not to tell anyone where I’m going – just to get off the ferry and take a rickshaw out of town and –’
‘What?’ Oric is almost on his feet.
His smile is uncertain. ‘Matt! That is exactly how is has played before. Okay. So we will see if she checks out. But even if she does, of politicians you can only trust me,’ he says as more beers arrive. ‘Only me. I have no arrangement with terrorists; I make no money from ransoms; I want only that Lamitan is peaceful and prosperous.’
‘I trust you or I wouldn’t be here,’ I say. ‘But I’ve come here to see what life is like, you know. Not to embarrass anybody or impose some ignorant judgement based on how things work back home where there aren’t armed groups and terrorists and all that.’
He nods. ‘I know, Matt. That’s why I invite you here with us.’ He swigs a San Mig Lite. ‘But it will not be the same for you in Jolo.’
‘Can’t believe there’s not even one secure hotel like you have here.’
‘Matt, take my advice: if the military cannot accommodate you at this time then maybe you don’t go to Jolo.’
Sick of hearing this. ‘You’ve secured this city pretty well, right? I know there’s still attacks but at least you can have someone here and show them around and secure them at night. Why not in Jolo? Not even with all the security forces there, you know?’
The vice-mayor glances at the others chatting away and then leans in, gesturing for me to come close. ‘Look, Matt, it is a very dangerous time right now in Jolo. The military are under a lot of pressure due to the deadline for beheading the German couple, and the terrorists will be looking for targets of opportunity in order to create a diversion. I don’t think the military will allow any foreigners to go there just now.’
‘Well, what are you doing that Tan’s not? He’s got a private army of two thousand or more and he can’t secure one hotel? That’s strange.’
‘Correct,’ says Oric, very crisply. ‘But you know, Matt, we keep this city clean.’ He pauses. ‘Sometimes our problems, they disappear.’
‘Disappear? Like, ah?’
‘Six feet under.’
I nod and reach for a bottle.
‘Matt, one more time I give you my brotherly advice: don’t go to Jolo.’
‘You see?’ says Dan, showing me another digital photo from an ASG camp, this time of a short haired guy, eyes closed and mouth slack, who is missing his body. The severed head rests on a makeshift platform of wood, while back from it two men sit on a bench with guns across their laps and their heads wrapped to hide their faces. Behind them is a black flag with white Arabic writing. Dan pulls up another shot, this one showing the head with what looks like the contents of a wallet spread before it. ‘He was civilian militia captured a few weeks ago,’ says Dan. ‘This is what they can expect if they fall into hands of the enemy. It also happens when kidnap victims cannot pay their ransoms.’
‘OK,’ I say. ‘My wife said if I get kidnapped she’s not selling our house, not paying any ransom. Said if she wanted to spend any money on it she’d give a press conference announcing she’s putting up a bounty: kill one of the kidnappers and claim some cash.’
‘Ha! I like this lady.’
‘Well she doesn’t see why such parasites should get rewarded. So she’d rather avenge me than save me.’
‘Not so good for you,’ says Dan, laughing.
‘Neither would going home after she’d had to sell the house.’
‘Maybe it would not be your head she’d cut.’
While I kill time ahead of the next ferry to Zamboanga, the police let me use one of their computers to get on the web and check my emails (there’s no computers or modem at the hostel and when I asked to go to an internet cafe everybody choked and reeled out a series of excuses – too hot, too crowded, you wouldn’t like it, your legs wouldn’t fit under the table – until admitting the fear is that someone might see me and throw a grenade). Still no luck with military protection, dammit. Just plenty of news about troops pouring into Jolo as the deadline looms.
Nothing too recent on Furigay that I see, but here’s a story from last year about his brother getting shot. Men on motorbikes pulled up next to his car and opened fire, injuring him, his driver (who was a cousin) and an elderly relative. Jesus, it was after a family meeting in Limo-ok. No wonder the place was crawling with armed men and even Sam, the military intelligence guy.
The final instalment of Don’t Go To Jolo will appear on the Sydney Review of Books on Tuesday 15 December.