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. "