Thursday, September 27, 2007

Chat with Wahyu

With the recent unrest in Burma and the Burmese military junta's brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, Wahyu, the journalist fellow from Jakarta I wrote about here last year, was all agog.
"Burma monks are now on fire for democracy," Wahyu wrote, obviously agitated, when I chanced upon him in my monitor.
"Yes, I read about it!" I replied.
"You don't want to go there?" he asked.
"No one will pay for my plane ticket," I lied.
"How do you look at the move of Burma monks?" he asked again.
"Will they succeed the way Cardinal Sin succeeded in leading the people power in the Philippines?"
"Sure!" I said. "To speak up against oppression is in keeping with their role as keepers of the soul of Burma! But don't talk to me about Cardinal Sin, Wahyu! He was such a disappointment! The Philippine people power at Edsa was a big disappointment," I said.
"Filipinos want real change, Wahyu, not a show!" I continued. "People power at Edsa was a fake revolution!"
Wahyu was silent for six minutes, so, it was my turn to be agitated. It was also my turn to seethe with fury. Then, all of a sudden, he scribbled again onscreen. "Hahaha!" he laughed, "I don't know why you are very pessimistic! I think the Filipino people power was an inspiring thing for peoples in other Asian countries struggling for democracy."
"Inspiring?!" I asked. "At the moment that it was happening, yes, it was really very inspiring! We looked up to Cory Aquino. We believed in her initial moves to broaden "democratic space." But what's happening now?
Where is the so-called "democratic space?" What happened to Hacienda Luisita, the big landholdings owned by Cory's Cojuangco clan, supposed to be subjected to her most touted land reform program? What happened to the farm workers there? Have the lives of the people improved after democracy was restored? How about the number of journalists and political activists getting killed everyday? How about the silent Martial Law in our midst, the Human Security Act--the law that allows the arrest without warrant of anyone suspected of being a terrorist? Edsa was really a disappointment, Wahyu. Please don't talk to me about it. People around the world who love the idea of the people power that happened in the Philippines more than two decades ago should not only praise and "get inspired" by it but should also study why it failed."
"Well," Wahyu replied, "We always get disappointed by things but I think the Philippines is still the most democratic country in Southeast Asia."
("Democracy, my foot!" I was about to say but I restrained myself!)
"So, what really is democracy, Wahyu?" I asked, instead. "Is it democracy when you are starving because the few who control the country's wealth are enjoying the fruits of your toil and selling your country to foreigners? Is it democracy when you get killed when you ask for a raise in wages because your pay is no longer enough to feed your family? Is it democracy when you'd rather brave being a truck driver and get killed in Iraq than die of starvation at home? Is it democracy when women have to leave their children at home to take care of the children of other people abroad? Is it democracy when you get raped in your own country by a US serviceman, get blamed for it and wake up the next day to find your own government scuttling the condemned criminal out of jail unscathed just to please the US government?!
What really is democracy, Wahyu? Please tell me, Wahyu, please tell me!"

(NOTE: The above photo was sent by Myo Zaw at the height of the September protests that rocked Burma while the Shwe Dagun temple (below it), still looked deserted when Wahyu took this photo during his Burma visit as a Seapa journalist fellow in 2006. Recently, the beautiful temple has turned into a site of riots and protests.

Lost in the Labyrinth

Everything is turning out to be a labyrinth for me these days. I enter and have trouble getting out of conversations, books, journals, blogs, youtube, magazines, diaries, dreams. The world in here is simply too exciting, too beautiful to ignore. I don't mind getting lost in this glorious maze even as another part of me is pulling me out of here, depriving me of the pleasure!

Monday, September 24, 2007

State of Blindness

Just a few weeks ago, on research assignment for Newsbreak magazine, the editors texted that I needed to send my picture while doing the interviews in the remote Davao del Norte town of San Isidro. This request somehow bothered me but I managed to say, yes, and sent them the picture of me with my back to the camera, revealing only a portion of my face. “How can we introduce you to our readers that way?” the editors complained. So, I sent some images of the unphotographable me and shrugged off the uneasiness that I felt. Then, going through the last debris of our home that disintegrated early this year, I came upon what I had written many years ago:

State of Blindness
"May 27, 2004---I consider myself the prodigal daughter of the Light. I am the one who could not be photographed, whose face light could not capture because, as a perennial outcast, I've always been condemned in the dark.
That’s why, I also call myself Zmira al-Zuddah---'al-Zuddah’ was the goddess banned by the Prophet because the Prophet said she meant trouble—-to remind me that long before the male Gods ruled, the Goddesses were already here. But it was in Davao that I first became aware that despite my having been raised in Mindanao, I didn’t know anything about the place and its people. Which could also mean I did not know anything about myself.
I was asked to take a trip to Iligan to interview a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (whom I wanted to think was a warrior woman), and was slightly shocked (and embarrassed) that the women only stared at me when I said, “Hello.”
Later, while we were talking, a young Maranao guy opened the door and seeing that the woman had a visitor, greeted me, “Assalamu Alaikum.” It was only a year after that I learned about the right reply, so, right there and then, in the face of that young man, I was stunned and didn’t know what to say. I only stared at him---a dark, shockingly handsome young man, so tall that he had to duck his head as he entered the door. I even failed to say “hello.”
On the bus on my way home, I realized that the women who only stared in reply to my greetings did not mean to be rude at all just as I did not mean to be rude to the man who opened the door. Probably, (like me), they just didn’t know what to say.
That day opened my eyes to the gap---the line that divided "them" and "us"---among the people/s in Mindanao. It was eloquently shown by a man, a Christian, I met on the road when he said, “Mag-unsa diay ka sa ilaha, Day? (So, what’s your business with them?)” I was amazed how the man came to recognize me as a "Christian."
The experience left me so shaken that at first, I didn’t want to remember it. Later, in Davao, I found myself riding a jeepney, and sticking my head out to look around, wondered if I can find mosques along the way. I was surprised to see a number of them, sticking out of the shanties near Bankerohan bridge, a grander one at the mini forest Boulevard and a white one in Sirawan. I was puzzled. How come I never saw them before? What kind of eyes did I have?
Then, the realization struck me. I was suffering from what VS Naipaul called---“a state of Un-seeing.” I only see things that my eyes were taught to see—-a mental blindness brought about not only by 400-year colonial rule but also by the kind of education that I had, a paralysis preventing me from seeing my own people.
Another thought struck me: If I failed to see the mosques, which are in themselves, architectural feats, how could I ever see the trees, caves and mountains that are the sacred temples of Mindanao’s non-Islamic tribes?
Thus, started my fascination for the different cultures of Mindanao, which, up to that time, remained invisible to me. Since then, I discovered many things. Leaving behind a loathesome eight-to-five job, I found myself in the midst of a dance of sagayan, a healing ritual performed in one of the war-ravaged communities in Maguindanao, and gradually found myself healed. One day, I found myself talking to a balyan--a woman! a priestess!--and got a glimpse of how she had kept alive her natural spirituality in her dance amidst the stringent Catholicism imposed on her by the Church.
Among the images of beauty I’m beginning to collect in my mind is a white onion-domed mosque in the midst of a green rice-field on the way to Sultan Kudarat. But because of the rampaging war in our midst, these images oftentimes get mixed up with the disturbing sight of military boots trampling down an open mosque in Buliok, Maguindanao and someone sneaking away the sacred Arabic texts inside.
Now, I find it funny to hear people complaining about the absence of ‘colonial Churches’ in Mindanao because (except perhaps for the coastlines of Caraga) this island is perhaps, one of the few places in the country where the Spaniards failed to leave their mark. "

Saturday, September 22, 2007

What could not hurt?!

I've been going over and over this disturbing short film "Ignorante" by independent filmmaker Jon Red posted on davaotoday website after it was earlier banned by government censors.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Collecting Ethel?!

"To collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object, lightweight, cheap to produce, easy to carry about, accumulate, store."
--from Susan Sontag On Photography

The Sadness of Deers

On the walls of Marco Polo hotel's Eagle Bar are petrified figures of deers. Below the one nearest the glass window are the words in bronze: Sable (Hippotragus Niger) taken by Xavier A. Dominguez on 21 August 2005 in Usangu, Tanzania using a Weatherby Mark V bolt action rifle caliber .378 WBY magazine. The window looks out to the driveway that curves towards the hotel entrance. Another one, on the wall near the door, is a Fallow Buck (Dama Dama) taken by Carlos C. Dominguez on 9 March 2006 at the Manuka Point in New Zealand using a Winchester model 70 bolt action 308 caliber. This shot won the hunter a gold award in the European Fallow Deer Estate competition in New Zealand. I keep looking at the eyes of the fallen deers. They are very sad.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Elegy to the Laua-an Forest

Near the boundary of the land, where my Pa has left his imprints in the last 50 years, stands a lone Bunwang tree, known for its softness (a liability in the world that is obsessed with hardwood, the unquenchable demand of which fuel the wholesale devastation of timber forests.)
“It’s the only tree that is left of the logging,” says Pa. “No one wants it because it’s soft.”
“It’s a big tree, with broad leaves,” he keeps saying, as if, until now, he is still amazed by its uselessness. “It’s not durable and it’s not good for furniture,” blurts out Ma, who thinks I merely want a nice bookstand for the books we carried home in a jutesack.
So, I stand there, too stunned to say a word, unsure whether to feel glad or sad, about the lone tree that is left standing because people couldn’t find any use for it.
When my father arrived in this part of Davao from his hometown in Capiz in one of the islands of the Visayas, the forest that would later turn into his copra farm in Upper B’la had been teeming with Laua-ans. Later, these magnificent trees that littered the land for hundreds of years were cut and fed to the sawmills by logging concessionaires who had stripped the land of trees for lumber.
“Over a hundred Laua-ans in every hectare of land,” Pa estimates. “Trunks as big as drums," he says, "Maybe, even bigger. So tall, you have to cut them down many times to make them easier to handle.”
I find it hard to grasp the tragedy that had befallen the forest.
Afterwards, when the land was stripped bare, settlers like my Pa began buying parcels after parcels of land from the Bagobos, and planted them with crops. This is ironic because the Bagobos, whose ancestral land covers much of the Mt. Apo areas that stretch from what is known today as Davao city's Toril district down to the boundaries of North Cotabato, never used to believe in that foreign concept called land ownership.
“They’d sell the land, then, move deeper into the forest,” says my Pa, who thought that the sale of the land was as real as the buy and sell of goods in the market. He bought one parcel from Ayok, Bagobo. He bought another parcel from another Bagobo named Bansalan, and so on.
Again, I was too stunned to say a word, as I try to grasp the complexity of what happened: the betrayal, even the sell-out, of some members of the tribe of their own ancestral beliefs just to extract a measly sum from the equally unsuspecting (albeit ignorant) settlers.
For according to the Bagobo’s worldview, the land is not for sale.
For a Bagobo wise man, it actually sounds stupid and hilarious for a man to claim ownership of a piece of land.
“How could you claim to own the land?” I remember an old Matigsalug Datu named Salumay, explain to me the worldview shared by most indigenous tribes in Mindanao.
"Long after you die, the land remains," said Datu Salumay, “So, how can you be in a position to own something that outlasts you for over a hundred years?”
He used to live in Davao’s Marilog district before he passed away a few years back. Now, I wonder if there are still enough Bagobos who still think like Datu Salumay.
For the coming in of settlers from the Visayas and Luzon had saturated the population of the Moros and the indigenous peoples of Mindanao and had brought about the dying of a totally different culture. Later, wholesale destruction of dipterocarp forests after the World War 2, coincided with the huge demand for lumber exports to Japan and other markets. At the time, the Parity Rights agreement between my country and the United States, had accorded equal rights to Americans and Filipinos in the exploitation of the Philippine forests and other natural resources.
Pa, who arrived in Upper B'la about a decade after the signing of the Parity Rights, gives me a vivid picture of how it was to live in the time of the logging.
“There were no chainsaws, then,” he says, as if to stress a point. “People used axe and the curtador.”
He leads me out of our house in B’la to show me what the curtador (cutter) looks like. As I stand there, trying to reconstruct the devastating event, I can feel my hair bristle, as I watch him draw out the instrument, bequeathed to him by the former cutters, that had once ravaged whole forests.
All that I wanted that morning was a pleasant conversation with my Pa. But I ended up hearing about the wholesale destruction of the land teeming with Guihos, Apitongs, Narras, Dao, Tugas, and other trees, the likes of which, I may not see anymore.