Friday, February 16, 2018

Pilipino Pilipili, Marawi – Painful Experiences

Sometime in May 2017, the city of Marawi, Philippines, in the Muslim south, ISIS militants lay siege, causing death, mayhem, and destruction to the people of the city. In the aftermath of the counter-assault by the Pilipino army, thirty percent of the city saw almost complete obliteration. Those who were able to escape found refuge in the town of Manus. About 100 people, under the leadership of Khairydeen Dimasangca, found sanctuary in a remote village about an hour’s drive from Manus. Since their community and prayer hall in Marawi were completely destroyed, CAI funded emergency shelters for 6 families cum prayer hall for the displaced refugees in this village, and this is where I am headed. I want to inspect the center for compliance reporting, listen to the unceasing pleas from the affected families and see if and how CAI donors can further assist.

Welcome to the Philippines, Sirrrr, singsongs a pert immigration officer at Manila airport, baring crooked choppers that are covered in braces, and delicately, neatly, stamps my passport. Uber takes me to the hotel safely and in no time. The hotel and adjoining eating places have no halal food so I have to stick to unhealthy pastries and coffee to pacify a persistently growling tummy. Filipinos love their pork; it’s into everything, even in the fish they broil and fat they fry in! Early next morning, accompanied by Khairydeen, I take a 90-minute flight to the Ozamis airport in the South. Once on land, for breakfast, to be very safe, we have boiled, instead of fried, eggs, accompanied by the tiniest green pilipilis I have ever seen. Unbeknown to me, I am biting into deadly local chilies, known to make grown men cry in anguish if not consumed minutely, carefully. The effects are instant; I am on my feet, on fire, hopping about as if in a crazed ritual dance, much to the amusement of some customers and the crackling old toothless owner of the unkempt cafeteria, who erupts into uncontrollable mirth at my vocal display of agony. I worry about the effects it’ll have coming out later; toilets in the woods of Philippines are very rudimentary, at best.

Driving to the village reminds me of rural Malaysia or Thailand, the landscape is very alike. Tall coconuts and mango trees abound and the vegetation is lush green. I lose internet connection soon and become fidgety. Although this area is far away from ISIS infested Marawi, we are still in an area which is still under former rebel territory, controlled by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Indeed, the MILF and Philippine government were fierce rivals until very recently. To underscore this reality, Khairydeen points to a MILF flag fluttering from a coconut tree.

It is off limits to the military from here on, he points out to me, MILF rules apply here. They used to kidnap Western foreigners for handsome ransoms. He laughs dourly, but I feel a pang of apprehension nevertheless. I may not look ‘foreign’ with dollar signs about me, but some unthinking or hothead renegade fighter might fancy a grab anyway. As if sensing my anxiety, Khairydeen smiles at me reassuringly. Still…

The sanctuary Muslim village is no more than a ragtag collection of drab timber homes on stilts, very common to SE Asia. This is primitive living, where people exist eating what the earth grows and domestic animals have no growth hormones or antibiotics fed or injected into them. The CAI sponsored center and refuge has 25 individuals living in it, sharing one bathroom and a toilet. The community of a few men and many women have gathered in the prayer area to meet and greet me. They relate stories of woes and litany of complaints and requests. Although I am seasoned in these matters, I still feel anguish and melancholy at their plight. These people were, until a few months ago, happy and prosperous, most with their own flourishing businesses. They minded their own business, took care of their families, educated their kids and practiced the very moderate and peaceful creed of Ahlebeyti Islam. And one day, it was all gone, to rampaging hoodlums disguised as Muslims.

All I can do is sympathize with them and promise CAI will try and get aid for exceptional student’s college or university education. They say they want no handouts, they want to work and appeal to CAI for a loan for about $25,000. They will acquire a coconut farm and work the trees. This will provide instant employment to several of the men and be able to readily sell the product in the market, repaying the loan in about 6 years. CAI will try to find donors willing to invest in this very worthy project, insha’Allah.

Spoiling the serene background of our meeting are several roosters, who feel it their duty to loudly crow away incessantly; it is maddening after a while. Aren’t they supposed to do that at dawn only? I feel like chopping one’s head off and having it for lunch. Well, my wish is granted, since a super meal follows, with coconut milk flavored chicken, shrimp, vegetable stews and local sticky rice; I have a feast of sorts. Since there is only one flight a day to Ozamis from Manila and the village has no hotels, I have to drive 4 hours to Cagayan de Oro for my return flight to Manila. After spending 2 working days in Manila, surviving on vegetable pizzas and more boiled eggs – no pilipili, I head back to Mumbai via Bangkok. It has been a positive experience in the Philippines, my third time here. I find Filipinos laid-back and amiable, ready with their smiles and exaggerated R’s, so that a simple Sir becomes Sirrrr.

Contrast this experience to the incident in transit at Bangkok airport, on my way to Mumbai, where my carry-on bag is flagged for extra scrutiny. I think nothing of it and open it for inspection to an obese, dour female inspector. She opens my toiletry bag and without uttering a word, tosses less than half tube of toothpaste into a bin. I feel blood rush to my face and want to protest but bite my tongue. She then rummages through my bag and pulls out my power-bank. She examines it minutely before that too, follows the toothpaste into the bin. I protest spontaneously, loudly, drawing the attention of armed security officers sitting nearby. I complain to Miss Unreasonable, in a more controlled manner, that she cannot confiscate an innocent power-bank without telling me why. Not allowed, she growls in a heavy accent, irritably waving me away, not unlike someone shooing off an irritant fly. I don’t budge and insist I speak to a supervisor. She grins evilly and pushes my bag to the concrete floor, spilling and scattering the contents on the floor. 

We are the center of attention to perhaps over a hundred people waiting in line behind me and the idling security officers who all burst out laughing. I break out into an icy sweat, my fingers ball up into fists and I am milliseconds away from tearing into the grinning mass of wobbling lard in front of me. I am hardly, ever, prone to violence; I prefer shutting off people who offend me from my mind; its easier and takes less emotional effort. But I swear I am about to pelt her face. She senses the impending punishment, for her face changes into that of fear, disbelief. I am convinced Allah saves me from a dire situation that instant, for the anger suddenly drains from me. I crouch down, recite Soora Ikhlaas in my mind, recover my stuff and quietly leave the security hall.

Away from the hall, two Australian girls who were behind me in line catch up to me and roll their eyes to the heavens. What a bloody son of a bxxxx, one of them says. I am glad you did not do anything rash to her. You’d be cooling your heels in a stinky hole someplace otherwise.

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