MOORISH AND MOORING IN TAWI-TAWI REEFS: The Flowers of Elopura

[Religiously Plural, Cosmopolitan and a Sama (Part 2)]

Flowers are born too even in precarity, cross-pollinated from seeds and pollens windblown or sea drifted. Their originary seedpods are clipped tightly in the beaks or restlessly balanced in the crooks of plumages of birds at flight, or smuggled in the interstices between strands and plates of scales and fins of homing fishes.

In this episode of this musing, let us digress a little bit in the storytelling to tell of how being a Sama and to be cosmopolitan are sometimes consequenced by his being broken apart by war and conflict, and thus, split in his identities and culture, it necessitates him to live in multiple existences in the same moment as diasporan and transitory migrant.

Such were of blooms – born in precarity – that once grew in the sand dunes of Tanjung Pasir in the heart of coastal district of Elopura. Oriented towards the Eastern rim of Sandakan in Sabah that part of the town conveniently faced the Sulu archipelago. The township to today still bears the old name of Sandakan as Elopura or Beautiful Flower that it used to be also touted as the Little Hongkong.

Our two enterprising women, ‘Mbo Dayang Hubbah and Bu’ Husna used to live in Elopura. After their kumpit had docked in Pelabuhan Imigresen in Sandakan the two women along with other traders who had come in that trip would then flag a Labuk Road Bus company to take them to their village southeast of Sandakan city.

Tucked in the cove close to the water-edge, had lain their blissful kampong, a community of Bajau Suluk. In the 1970s, this kampong, better known as the Kampong BDC (Borneo Development Corporation), nestled a homestead of around ten rumah panjang or longhouses interspersed with clusters of smaller huts that were interconnected by a network of wooden bridges that stilt-propped the houses above the water. The units of rumah panjang were called by the various ethnic resident families inhabiting there. There were the Bay Tawi-Tawi, Bay Basilan, and Bay Lupahsug , and one particularly called the Bay Karats that seemed to have been the central powerhouse in the cluster. Others, with one called Bay Ranaw, stood some distance away in Batu Dua. While Bay GS served as a community infirmary.

And like their common ancestral blood, the bay water below followed a course to the main vein leading to the mouth that emptied to Sulu sea, the mother sea that had provided both sustenance and the convenience of a hi-way for sea transport. In this sense, the houses were architecturally designed facing the waterway, with front courts [‘pantan’] spread wide towards the open sea as though sewn into its seams and perpetually longing to return.

It was in one such rumah panjang, that Awang, a bud in the midst of adversity, grew up and began to understand his world.

Early morning every weekday, Awang’s little feet trumped down the hard Bornean boardwalk that stitched and stretched into a bridge from his home. This walk carried him to a steep hilly part that served like a natural border between the seaside village and the larger suburban community out there. Awang had to hike farther for 30 minutes until it sloped down and opened into the highway where around the bend a Chinese cornerstore stood waiting. Ki’chi’s store was always a welcome sight and a respite for children’s tired feet. It was where the other children from various kampongs converged to wait for their schoolbus. This was a routine that Awang would repeat ritual-like for the next seven years.

Awang and the kids from Tanjung Pasir joined the score of other children from Kampong Bahagia, about seven kilometers from BDC, studying in a parochial cathechetical St. Mary School. The quite impressive school hidden behind the grand façade of historic St. Michael parish church was ran by catholic nuns and priests and was predominantly of penduduk (native resident) children of Chinese and Hindu-Buddhist descent. At school, the children of Elopura spoke in Bahasa Malayu, allowing them to naturally mingle among penduduk children as if one of them.

On walking home, the children when left among themselves, switched to Sinug. The older folk in the village also spoke the Sinug which, they learned from adults, was the language of Suluk. People in school and in the marketplace would know of course that it was the tongue spoken by the pelarian (migrants or refugees). But children need not burden themselves of such details, because, at home, Awang and his playmates then reverted to their mother tongue, the language of intimacy that they’d known since birth that was Sinama.

For children, if there had been anything queer in the village and its rather hushed existence, life was not as complicated as adults were prone to fuss with and seemed always making up things to be anxious about. Awang’s father went with the daily fishing expeditions in the Tarik Udang, while the father of his buddy, Ramil, was earning his family’s keep from burning tungug or bakkawan coal. Yakub had always been envious of the two, as he thought himself less fortunate since his father worked at Aqtal Jasmeg, a cacao plantation several towns away. He seldom saw his father, and when he did, it had been only on brief weekend visits once a month to bring their belanja.

One evening, the three boys went to ask Awang’s mother to solicit her help with a school assignment . It had asked them to fill out something about their family occupation. Bu’ Husna wrote that his amah, Pa’ Jandul, was a civil engineer while Pa’ Rajak, Ramil’s father, she said was a graduate of commerce and accountancy from a prestigious state university back home.

As for Yakub’s father, Pa’ Ikram had been active with the Constabulary when they had left their second home that they now knew only as Pilipin. This was the first time they had heard of each of their respective fathers’ “other” occupations, that was, aside from the usual tarik-udang, the tungug, and the cocoa plantation that they were quite familiar with. And because this was one much awaited moment that their mother and other female adults in the rumah panjang would mention of home in Pilipin, it always titillated the boys to want to know more.

Their second home was composed of many islands, they were told, and they had lived in small villages propped over the water, too, that the boys surmised were also like Kampong BDC. The names enumerated by the elderly as Isabela de Basilan, Malamawi, Bangingi, Marunggas, Pangutaran, Siasi, Simunul, Tabawan, Ubian were said to be troubled places that the children, barely having any memory of that conflict, had been left with nothing but to each his own puzzled imagining. Their young minds could but conjure up some abstract beyond, distant, yet something not unfamiliar they’d once known and were part of. The women often ended their narrative in a sad note and deliberately leaving their stories floating mid-air, punctuated only with a sigh or exasperated shrug, reassuring themselves that they need not have to return there. Not yet for now, anyway. And with that resolve, the children, just as resigned, accepted.

The women of Elopura were the more mobile and freer to move around and to travel far. ‘Mbo Dayang Hubbah and Awang’s mother, Bu Husna, had been among those seeming to be always about and traveling. They would come and leave with the kumpit, traded, and attended to some business back to that home beyond almost every other week. In contrast the menfolk were of rather measured movement and mostly just went about with their usual fishing, coal-burning, and planting routines. They took on one, two or the third jobs without really intending to settle for one in particular, as though in a perennial waiting for the final resettling. Then there were times when many of men in the long houses left in batches of quite sizeable contingent. Fathers who went out on these long trips had to be gone for many days. Mothers and the elder sibling just shrugged off the children’s queries and mumbled ‘Jamperas’ to be their parents’ destination.

Yet to Awang’s wonderm not all of the menfolk in the rumah panjang were to always have to be preoccupied with first or second jobs. One day, Awang came home from school and found his sleeping mat and mosquito net moved to the only other room in the house that his mother and sisters shared, because the one that he had been sharing with his elder cousin Abang Malik had to be tidied and lent to a visitor. The distinguished guest had been living for many months in a newish Hotel Shiraz in Kuala Lumpur and had come to stay with them in Kampong BDC to “be nearer”, as to what or where, there had been little said to elaborate. In the many months that came, Awang and the schoolboys became the only link between the visitor from the big city and the outside world of Kampong BDC since the stranger seldom went out. He stayed home most of time and entertained himself listening to cassette tapes or strumming his guitar.

Awang was often sent out to run errands, a task that he now started to love since it always earned him some ringgit bills to buy his favorite stickers and toys at Ki’Chi’s come schooldays. So he never tired sending and collecting his clothes to the laundry, fetching his groceries, and delivering small packages and letters for the stranger until the time came when he too had to join the other men – their fathers – and left for Jamperas.

Sinama-speaking children of Bajau Suluk in diaspora are like windows perforating the walls that divide worlds, and let us see ‘beyond’. Their gazes lead us to the rims where cultures and identities crossover and constantly negotiate, compromise and recreate new meanings shaping new understandings of realities and the world we live.

 

The lives of Awang, Ramil and Yakub – children in migration and diaspora – are the perfect metaphor of the cosmopolitanism of lives perennially in transit as they not only speak in multiple tongues but more importantly they see the world with their double if not plural visions. [Mucha-Shim Lahaman Quiling considers herself a cultural translator and political interpreter who has chosen to hover in the margins and live in diaspora. Having no permanent residence and academic affiliation for the last ten years, her searching allowed her to experience roaming and transiting in the littoral rims of NE Indonesia, and here at home, from Basilan strait to the waters of Sulu and Tawitawi, simulating as close as possible the traditional homes of Bajau and Suluk nations of Nusantara (maritime Southeast Asia).  Arung Mucha is a hybrid of the Sama and Suk; a daughter of the clan of Panglima Saipuddin from Laminusa island, Siasi, Sulu; with mixed-ethnic grandparents, of Suk minSilangkan, and Suk-Ilanun of Luuk, Sulu]

 

 

 

 

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