ZAMBOANGA CITY (MindaNews / 19 Dec) — I spent my childhood days mostly in Jolo, the historic capital of the once glorious Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo and now the trading hub of the Province of Sulu. These days, Jolo the town, has earned an unsavory reputation as the dateline for all kidnaps for ransom, beheadings and piracies that have lured bounty hunters to this part of the country.
Residents would tell us that while these are true events, they are not daily occurrences. Many shy away from discussing these matters because there is too much politics for ordinary Joloanos.
There was a time when there was so much pride being in Jolo. Why not? Jolo used to be the center of commerce and education. At this time of the year, school children and office workers were busy buying presents and new clothes to wear. Back then it was called Christmas party. These days it is called yearend party for sensitivity. It was nonetheless a party of games, giveaways and food feast that everyone enjoys. For most residents who are not of the Catholic and Christian faith, it is first of two parties before the year ends, the other one being the New Year. For Joloanos of Catholic and Christian faith, Christmas holds deeper meaning than just a cultural practice of gift-giving and food sharing. Catholics and Christians thronged around for daily masses and spent the so-called Christmas holidays to visit family, friends and even the departed ones at the local cemetery.
I remember as a pupil at Notre Dame of Jolo Walled City, our Catholic and Christian classmates would remind us to take a rest from our games to give us their Muslim friends time to attend sambahayang (daily prayer) and we would assure we would wait for them as they attend the afternoon mass. This was the Jolo we grew up in, where places of worship, regardless of faith, are within walking distance of each other; and religious celebrations are occasions for real-life cross-cultural education. This is the Jolo outsiders do not experience and read about in newspapers.
Aside from the Christmas or yearend party at school or in the office, many Tausug families get invited to attend home celebrations of their Catholic or Christian relatives and neighbors. When Muslims are invited, often there are two tables prepared. The first table is for non-pork dishes. I remember in school, when kids were just too many, the label “Mecca” and “Rome” would tell us the nature of food served on the table. The Muslims would fall in line at the “Mecca” table and the Catholics and Christians at the “Rome” table. Often, there would also be “carnival” in town, colloquially referred to as ‘karnabal” and Christian community would mount plays at the Buldoc Auditorium. Joloanos of local fraternities would also have their Christmas and New Year celebration at the beach. At this time of the year, children are fascinated by Christmas lights adorning Catholic houses and make comparison as to whose house is the grandest that year.
Many things transcend Decembers in Jolo, such as religious leaders cordial with each other, inviting each other, visiting each other and talking often with each other. We were not taught diversity and respect, we grew up practicing them. Through our differences, we learned about our Catholic and Christian neighbors as much as about ourselves as Muslims. We learned similarities and differences between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism from our Catholic and Christian classmates and friends as they learned about Islam through us. We learned them from our daily interaction in our family, in school, in our neighborhood and in our town.
Interestingly, there is no exclusive Catholic, Christian or Muslim barangay. Any family is free to choose which barangay to live in. Inter-religious marriage happens. No big deal. Some find it amusing to see many Muslim families living near the Catholic cemetery at Trece Martires or as the locals refer to it, Martiris; and Christians living and Carmelite monastery beside the Muslim cemetery at Kandang Maw-ag. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Noor Saada is a Tausug of mixed ancestry – born in Jolo, Sulu, grew up in Tawi-tawi, studied in Zamboanga and worked in Davao, Makati and Cotabato. He is a development worker and peace advocate, former Assistant Regional Secretary of the Department of Education in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, currently working as an independent consultant and is a member of an insider-mediation group that aims to promote intra-Moro dialogue).