MOORISH AND MOORING IN TAWI-TAWI REEFS: The Sea Owns Us, We Belong To Sulu Sea

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Ampa in ini hi Bianting Lee
Umalup lelleng ha elbiti
Minsan pungluh lelleng pipti
Hinangun niya salih kindi.
(Listen, as with Bianting Lee/ He boldly meets the tanks headlong/And the bullets from Caliber 50/He chews like candies)

Kiyugdan na hi Kumander Istarun
Hat da kuman baran piyupunung
Minsan kunuh in napas bugtu’un
Basta maksud in parulihun.
(The news came that Kumander Istarun was hit/But it was only the body that went unconscious/The soul meanwhile stood-by, though anytime willing to be separated from its twin, in defense of this cause)

Magtuy na sikatuna piya untas
Imatak hi kumander Arasad
In marines uwway minsan nakasilawak
Ha sulaban lelleng banta nasipak.
(As the tank briskly crossed the highway/Kumander Arasad rushed to attack/ The Philippine soldiers had not even the chance to cryout/ as glinting blades hacked the enemies into halves)

To the farthest islands, news about their feats were exchanged in the barter markets. The fascinating accounts kept the bata and maestro awake in the fishing trips, or trading boats. It is told and retold that Kumander Maas Bawang used to sit and said the tahayat on top of a hupi leaf. And just like how the waterproof surface would not get wet and so was the old kumander’s bullet-proof skin

Stories of mujahideen’s invincibility is far-reaching as carried by the winds and transmitted across the waves of Sulu Sea. Mythic or magical, anecdotal accounts of how the soldiers took aim, fired but their guns would not respond, because the mujahid’s body is protected by talismanic garments. The sacred texts of surah Ya’sin or Ayatul kursi written on a siyulatan muslin cloth, be they of piys wound over the head or cloaked on the body as shirt, repelled any harm to the body that they protected.

From a kampong in Sabah to a puh in Basilan and Sambuwangan, from dilaut to daleya of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, people are awed and inspired, for they so believed this magical phenomenon as of sacred knowledge. The tale of the bunut-basah (moist coconut coir) whose countenance would not catch fire, as it was then, and so it is still today remaining a lived tradition. Embodied. Embolding.

Tuyung lelleng daing ha Parang
In nagnakurah hi Kumander Nizam
Ampa in gawi nila mattan
In almi lelleng pa hinapusan. (The contingent from Parang was led by Kumander Nizam, their purpose is very clear, the reign of terror by Philippine soldiers must be seen to its end.)

In tuyung daing ha Siyunugan
Maharaja Abdullah iban kanakura’an
Dain ha Kulasi hi Imam Maldisa
In Muslim lelleng baugbugan
(Among the contingent from Siyunugan were Maharajah Abdullah and the valiant elders. And from Kulasi, came sailing the Sama Bajau Imam Maldisa. The Muslims they must defend.)

Tuyung lelleng daing ha Tapul
In magnakura hi Kumander Asmadul
Minsan lelleng baran mahansul
Umalup lelleng PC kumpul. (The group from Tapul was led by Kumander Asmadul. They have committed the body to perish and vowed to meet the State army headlong)

Pagkahula lelleng lisag lima na
Hi Imlana namisssara
In kita niyu umatu na
Insaawla kalu in maksud madawhat na
(Now that dusk had set-in/ it is five oclock, Imlana spoke/ We are now ready to fight/ God-willing our dreams will be granted)

It was Kumander Ottoh Salahuddin, as member of Ansarul Islam, who came to Parang and Kapual in Sulu to organize the first brigade sized Muslim Independence Movement (MIM)-Blackshirt before the Jabidah boys were even heard of. The clandestine revolutionary group was later renamed as MNLF after the alleged Operation Merdeka fizzled out. The Marcos-hatched insurrectionary invasion of Sabah outraged the Muslim young professionals in Manila and instigated the forming of the Muslim youth groups and underground movements. Under the elder brother Ottoh’s covert command, came his beauteous sister Norma Salahuddin Jakilan who trained the women in first aid and gathered and bound the sisterhood to be the pioneering auxiliary of fatimas. The siblings and score of others sailed all the way from Lamitan, Semut, and Maluso, Basilan. With them were Ilanun warriors, under Kumander Salipbungso.

Almost 700 years before, in the 1300’s, the same route was taken by the Bangsa Yakan’s Tagimaha forefathers. Described as sagacious though subtle, the Tagime or Tagimaha (later ethnically transformed as the Yakan), were mobile people occupying the hinterlands of Basilan,Sambuwangan,and parts of Baganyan.Their agricultural nature brought them exploring the waterways of Sambuwangan, moving along the veins of downstreams and trysting with the Ilanun and other native brethrens occupying the riverine banks of Lawum Luuk Sambuwangan until they reached north-westward further into the plains of mainland Baganian. This explains how the Bangsa Ilanun became intimately related with the Suluk of Basilan and Sulu (and Tawi-Tawi).

By the 12-13th when the Ottoman kingdom was on the rise, and Muslim traders and missionary Sufis began embarking towards the East sailing to Southeast Asia. They were met and escorted by the Sama and Tagimaha. Among the droves of traders and sufi missionaries who passed through the sea corridors from the Indian passage, in one of those portentous sea-caravan was an illustrious campaigner, who was to become our great ancestor, Seyyed Shariful Hashim, from the house of Alawi from Yemen.

Enroute the crossings of Indian Sea to Java and Makkassar strait, they were accompanied by the Sama maritime people who were mostly gleaning and fishing the waters of Malakka and Johore. The Muslim missionary convoy progressed towards the eastern coasts of Burni (or some accounts also believe to have taken the western fringe of Kalimantan Burni so that they would have stopped by and had brief interludes with the then flourishing Champa kingdom). Sulu salsila of the Lumpang Basi that relates the narratives of the Pitu Wali or seven mystics, point to this route and speaking prominently of a Hui Chinese saintly figure Lannang Hui-Hui as among the seven. In the Javanese account of the wali songo or nine mystics, however, one who started the progeny in Cirebon, Sunan Ampel, was also said to be of Chinese or Champan racial origin. There is also one known as Sunan Abdurahman. Either or both were believed to have been among the seven who came to Sulu. Moving northward from Java sea, the contingent would have took an eastern turn and passed by the strait of Balabac (Palawan) and from there crossed the trench of Sulu Sea to Basilan.

On reaching Basilan, the mystic voyagers were feted by the nobles of Tagimaha. The close association of the Tagimaha and the Champas is inferred in many accounts and traceable to be in their common ancestral link to the progeny of ‘Mpu ‘Mbo Awang (or known in Philippine ethnohistory as Dampuan or orang dampuan). These ancient ethnics together with the Dyak people of Burni, indicated the long association and habitual trading interactions between these communities. The Yakan ancestors then escorted the visitors southbound to Sulu where the holy men settled. Sheikh Shariful Hashim married to the daughter of Raja Baginda, and soon established the first Sulu sultanate around the late 1300s. or early 1400s. It could be noted that the same route of Burni-Palawan-Basilan-Sulu had been the path preferred by previous makdumin missions and mukali teachers who came on the legendary Lumpang Basih. Sheikh Karimul Makdum, who established the first masjid in Boheh Indangan, Simunul of Sulu (this municipality is now in present province of Tawi-tawi) is believed to have used this path too in 1380.

Sulu Sea is borderless and porous, Yakan, Sama, Ilanun, and Tausug are united by its waterous world.

As favorite colonial triumphalist theme, however, the Sama subject was wrongly stereotyped as “coward, meek, subservient” that religious campaigns aimed for their conversion into Christianity basked in its success in the Jesuit reports transmitted to the European principals. Contrasted from the more hot-blooded Tausug, the Sama was as of the gentler stock, according to this myth, while the Yakan were of a different mould, described as of the middle, milder but brave.

True, Sama communities might have not figured much to be fated in places of active combat, in the activities and encounters of MNLF versus the Philippine soldiers. Especially for the seabased Sama Dilaut, their more contemporary narratives have profiled them as “peace-loving”. But really, being peaceloving does not necessarily mean that they are detached or alienated from the struggle, in the same way that it will be downright inaccurate to say that a display of strong will is not of being Sama. (In the not so few occasions that I am questioned of my authenticity, and doubted if I am genuinely Sama for exhibiting some temper and undaunted will, I could only but smile at the silliness.)

The Sama Bajau, where the Sama Dilaut branches out, are the bangsa’s historians. They sing accounts of the Luwas-lungsad, and as they owned the texts of the oral narrative, so did they claim the struggle as theirs.

Dimatung tuyung daing ha Kabinga’an
Hi Pakirullah in tag nakuraan
Ampa lelleng in gawi nila mattan
Liberate un na in Timbangan. (The delegation from Kabinga’an has arrived. Pakirullah was on the lead. Their purpose is clear. They came to liberate Timbangan)

Dimatung in tuyung daing ha Taglibi
In nagnakurah hi Usman Sali
Wayruun hanggaw, dih na magparuli
Pagsabilan lelleng in Philippine Army.

(The contingent from Taglibi was there. It was led by Usman Sali. The fearless one, he cared for only one thing: he is going to parrang sabil against the Philippine army)

In tuyung daing ha Tiptipun
In nagnakura hi Kumander Allayon
In Timbangan lelleng panawun
In Marine lelleng papananapun.

(The reinforcement from Tiptipun was led by Kumander Allayon. They came to march to Timbangan. They swore to put the Marines crawling on their bellies.

Pagdatung nila pa Timbangan
Nag itung na pila in hangka bunyugan
Hi Kanding mag – ut iban Chairman
Siya lelleng in ha unahan. (So everyone then arrive in Timbangan. The forces were grouped by teams. Kanding was to alternate with the Chairman so he was on top of the pile.)

I remember in 2013 during the Zamboanga burning, of how the Sama Dilaut panglima (tribal elders) used to say, to assuage their predicament: “Pa sulindel na kami ni Parinta boh kami ahantap na pinabalik ni paglahatan kami (Mariki and Rio Hondo)”. In their desperate bid to be allowed to return to Rio Hondo and to their homesea of Hongkong Kampung Baru, as though owning to their conscription, they pleaded guilty and offered to voluntary surrender to the city government so that they could have their peaceful life back. This candid remark nuances the Sama Dilaut political mind, as to which side of the fence the Sama Dilaut locates themselves in critical circumstances of partisanship. The parinta is distant and alien, and the Sama Bajau is part of the tradition of recalcitrance, defiant against alien and colonial usurpers.

So the Sama Bajau have been confidently crossing the Sulu Sea, unfettered, heeding no protocol or rules. Because they have always known everything about the sea, for they belong to the sea, and Sulu Sea owns them.

That the Sama people, both of land-based and sea-faring lot are as much a part of the liberation struggle of any Muslim ethnics in the Philippines is attested by at least two trivias. One, the infamous Camp Sophia where the Jabidah boys were trained in 1968 is in the heart of Samalandia, in Simunul island of present Tawi-Tawi province. Second, the ‘gentler’ Sama figure is the long reigning chairman of the Moro National Liberation front Professor Nurullaji Misuari who hails from Kabingaan, Tapul, Sulu.

Although the Sama might not be the star combatant or famed warrior in the war narratives of Sulu archipelago, certainly he is in the thick of its history. The Sama is the storyteller, through his pathous ballad of lelleng and kissa, our history is written and forever crystalized and preserved in the tablets of collective memory. Take the case of the famous Kissa Kan Hadji Ban sang by Mullung whose excerpts I have rehearsed above. Mullung and the many other Sama Bajau balladeers are now homing in Tawaw, Semporna, Sandakan, KK, and scattered all over Sabah in North Boreno. But the Sama Bajau also consider Sulu archipelago their homeland. Kumpit, jungkung, pelang, boggoh regularly cross Sulu and Sulawesi seas, defying the artificial borders arbitrarily fenced there by modern nation-states. Some even dare swim, to reach the nearest island of Tumindaw in Sitangkay just to step on tanah-air and see the homeland. Again, such is a testimonial of Sulu Sea’s benevolence and protective porosity.

But these talismanic garments do not only our corporeal individual bodies protect. The piys and badjuh syulatan also places the entire Ummat Bangsa inside its protective powers by preserving its links and roots to the ancient chains of prophetic house. The siyulatan mystical tradition dates back to the 10th-14th century of Islamic culture in Sulu archipelago. In other worlds, the presence of these garments of Turkic-Mongol and Mughal origins and their current utility in our contemporary struggles is an undeniable cultural mark that does not only linking us back to the past, attesting to our belonging to the golden epochs of the Age of Empires, of the Ottoman, Mughals and Safavids whose memories were attempted to be erased by the Anglo-European expansionist adventurisms. But it importantly preserved the mystic potency that only runs within the bloodlines of the sharifin and seyyedin chaining us back to the lines of saintly nobles and the grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW), Imam Hassan (RA) and Imam Hussain (RA).

Meanwhile in the modern times, the forces of the Filipino military and its State have witnessed right before their very eyes that the bunut-basah is for real, and that our culture and faith have been our most potent talisman protecting the Bangsa and homeland. Many accounts are even told of how the AFP (Armed Forces of the Philippines) generals even took to their services some of these brave Sulu warriors. So that when some Sulu elders and traditional leaders entered into treaties and peace agreements with Philippine national leaders, the latter knew fully well the capabilities and strengths of the defenders of our bangsa.

Our unwavering belief in the potency of the Quranic script etched in these objects and the testimonies of their efficacy is without doubt a living proof of the right direction that our ancestors had led and taught us to follow. But now looking at how some of us who on earning little knowledge and tasting status and prestige from their patrons among bureaucratic and documentary authority of the State, have not only divulged our forebears’ well-kept secrets, but also had revealed to them our biggest weaknesses. The State and its bureaucracy know very well where to shoot at us.

From bureaucracy, academe, business, and Catholic church, the Filipino elite know and have publicly affirmed the historical injustices done to us! But, look, instead of sincerely giving what is due to us and solving the problem in Mindanao and Sulu once and for all, the State and its apparatus of coercion still chose to shoot us at our softer parts where the talismanic magic could no longer protect: right in the most frail of human constitution — the Nafs. Greed and the intoxication for power, they corrupt us there where we are least guarded and most vulnerable. That earthly desire for wealth and power having taken the better of many a way-ward brothers, fathers, and sons are dragging along the elderly, women and children to their abased status.

NOW that a law is to be passed, be vigilant, Oh my heart, my Bangsa, look closely if it will it not be silver bullets dipped in shit or pig-blood? Will it not hit and damage parts very fatal to us?

So on that day when borders and boundaries shall be erected in our waterous world, we say NO.

When our waters shall be drained to be the “Bangsamoro waters” and Sulu Sea will be reduced to but memory, we say NO.

We say NO to keep Family, Home, Genealogy live on.

We say NO, to keep the name of Sulu Sea, that it be forever known and remembered by generations on and on. NO, because Sulu Sea and its waterous world is borderless and its porosity unites us.

Say NO because history and historical injustices are NOT “things of the past” to be dealt with, managed, appeased, compensated, the forgotten and discarded into insignificance as stone-dead and metal-cold monuments and texts.

NO, because the past still lives in the present, sang in our songs, enclothed in vibrant traditional knowledge that continues guiding our journeys.

NO, Because objects of the past are today’s heroisms, embodied by our traditional leaders, elders, teachers, and guides – our real WALI who never betray – and are still embolding us!

They continue to breathe and live with us, in us, for us. So NO, because we refuse to bury them alive.

As long as the Sama Bajau shall keep singing the lelleng and kissa, our stories shall be told and our collective tablets shall continue writing. We shall live on!

Our voices will ring from Semporna and Sandakan sending echoes to Sitangkay, Maimbung, Siasi, Lamitan, Sambuwangan, Baganian and Palawan!

We will reclaim our spaces. We shall keep occupying our homelands.

MINSUPALA. Sabah. Nusantara!

We say NO. Because the Bangsa Bajau Bangsa Sama Bangsa Sug are OF ONE bangsa nurtured inside the same pearlbed of one MOTHERSEA.

ONE AHLUS SULUK.

ONE LAUT SULU.

Pasintak ta bi banug! (Raise the sail!)

Pabantang ta bi leha! (Aim for the winds)

Sangsang ta bi s’llog! (Brave the waves)
ONWARD AND LONG LIVE THE LUWAS-LUNGSAD!

[Excerpts from TIMPU MASA AKTIBIS: Singing of Homeland, People, and Faith (2010, recasted in 2019). M. Quiling, Sama Studies Center, MSU_TCTO

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Prof. Mucha-Shim Lahaman Quiling is Director of Sama Studies Center of Mindanao State University in Tawi-Tawi. She is a researcher and advocate of traditional knowledge and the re-unification of Sulu Archipelago under the banner of the history of Sulu Sea and the One Suluk people in the unity of Bangsa Bajau, Bangsa Sama, and Bangsa Tausug).

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