MAGUINDANAON we are in the heart of Maguindanao, and we act accordingly. Every day of our family’s lives, we wake up before 4 a.m. to pray the day’s first prayer out of five. This is called “salah.”
After that, we do our chores in the house according to gender and family roles. At one point, my mother shouts, “Pegkan ta den!” It means “It’s time to eat!” in our tongue.
It is tradition that we eat together at the table. My father always emphasizes that eating elsewhere is disrespectful to the food. “Bismillah” is uttered before eating; a spoken word for any activity we do, it means “In the name of Allah.”
We eat. Suddenly, the stomach of a boy, my stomach, is feeling full. I tell everyone I may have gotten more on my plate than I can eat. But leaving anything edible on one’s plate is the biggest no-no in our culture.
So I have no choice but to eat. My mother rants about angels crying if the food is not eaten, and of how it is against “Agama Islam” or the Islamic faith. All the while I’m forced to finish my meal. I say I’m done, but my father gets angry and I don’t know why. He says I still have grains of rice left on my plate. I am shocked. He really, really seems furious, and I am dumbfounded that our culture is this strict. He insists that not even a grain of rice should be left on the plate.
This incident ends up in the most glorious reserves of my memory bank: of how three grains of rice resulted in my father’s shouts. I went to school as a Grade 4 student with this thought in my mind and my stomach more than full.
Time flies fast after that incident.
Maguindanaon I am in the heart of the capital, and I am trying to fit into a place considered a melting pot of cultures. The quest for a college degree has forced me to leave my rural homogenized Muslim community. A scholarship makes it possible, and this is the best chance for me. No more wooden huts but high-rise buildings.
My circle is now filled with “conyo”-speaking people, mostly of fair complexion beside my brown. At one time I have just finished eating in the cafeteria with my classmates, and I notice something: They have leftover food on their plates and I have nothing left on mine.
These people have become my friends even though they are of different descents. We often hang out and share thoughts and experiences. In one occasion at the cafeteria, although we have hung out for a considerable amount of time, for the first time they express curiosity as to my ethnicity. They ask me questions while we wait for our food orders. The questions come out harsh and blunt. Do you experience bombing and gunfire every day? Why are your tribes very poor? Why are you so unhygienic and dirty? Why are you starving in your area?
I think these questions are filled with prejudice. But in our teachings we have “sabar”—patience. I am starting to boil inside because of the words they choose to come out of their mouths. But I don’t have to dodge the bullets. I have the responsibility as a Muslim and a Maguindanaon to correct myths and misconceptions. So I explain our end to them.
Then one of them asks, “Why do you embrace terrorism?” I cannot contain it anymore. I am now overrun by surging emotions that translate into my muscles and vocal tone as anger. I break from sabar and utter remarks as harsh and blunt as theirs. Not everywhere is there violence, I say. Not because we live in small nipa huts do we consider ourselves poor, because we are rich in identity, culture and contentment. Every day we start our morning washing parts of our body and rewashing these four more times for prayers. We are certainly not starving, with the rich resources of our land.
They are silenced by my unusual tone. But I just cannot believe how negative is their view of us. I remember how smiles fill and dominate our humble home. How we are content to see and be with one another. How peaceful we aspire to become in the teachings of Islam.
Our food orders arrive. There is an extended silence while we chew on our food. The anger I feel slowly transitions to sadness. I am sad about how misunderstood and unknown we are to the rest of the country. I cannot start to imagine my sweet mother turning into a terrorist. On the other hand, I know that some of the things they say are true. But there is one thing I certainly know: These are not all true. And at least now I know how they think of us.
These thoughts regarding my roots are racing through my mind when I see breaking news on the flat-screen TV. I realize this is a primary contributor to the demonization of and misconception regarding my kind. I read the headline “Muslim kills neighbor in Parañaque.” It has a mind-conditioning effect that contributes to stereotyping. I believe it doesn’t make sense to suddenly affix one’s religious affiliation to a nonreligious event or motive.
I can’t recall the times when our natural wonders and our hospitalities are featured on TV. But we are heavily featured every time there are bombings, killings and the sort. Yes, these are a reality in our land, but what’s the difference when these are the reality everywhere? I’m close to thinking that the media are mostly responsible for the disparity in view and the marginalization of our kind. But apart from the media, there are many more challenges, including historical and cultural injustice.
My classmates and I are almost done eating when I in turn ask them about my observation: Why do you always leave food on your plate?
One of them says leaving food on one’s plate is a social act that depicts grace and finesse, or delicadeza. Oh, I see. I respect that. So we finish eating and I note that their plates have leftover food while mine is clean. Not a single grain is left, according to my father’s teaching. I realize that this teaching is an extension of the absolute preservation we must do amid our being marginalized and deemed uncultured.
Our culture is inherently different, but it is rich and it has lived even before the Philippines’ colonization by Spain, Japan and America. It has lived on untarnished, and it is something of which I am proud.
Maguindanaon in the heart of everywhere I might be, and Maguindanaon I am by heart. We leave the cafeteria and I steal one more glance at my empty plate. I still have no delicadeza, and never will.
D.N. Abubakar A. Murray, 19, is studying biology at the University of Southern Mindanao.