The lady immigration officer at Manila International Airport in Philippines scrutinizes my passport carefully, then glances at me suspiciously. She has seen a number of visa stamps into Afghanistan on my passport and can’t make up her mind if I pose a threat to her country because of that. She asks me wait and disappears for about five minutes; I can feel the glare of those waiting behind me, holding them up. She is all smiles and apologetic when she returns, says I am welcome to Philippines and whispers she has given me a months visa instead of 5 days I have requested. How generous I exclaim mockingly and she flushes pink, covers her mouth with the palm of her hands to giggle in fake complicity, my sarcasm completely lost on her.
The airport taxi drivers outside the terminal immediately seize upon me, offering me hotel rooms to massage saloons, money exchange to nude bars, teen virgins of either sex to cell phone chips... I hurriedly take refuge in a slightly more expensive airport taxi that takes me through very heavy traffic (and I thought nothing could beat Mumbai traffic!) to my hotel. The Diamond Hotel is surprisingly very opulent, belying the reasonable rate I paid online. The service is incredibly warm and friendly, with everybody ready with eager smiles and anxious to please; you would have to be an Ambani (at least) to get this kind of attention in India, perhaps. I am heavily jet-lagged and want to sleep but force myself to go to the modern and well equipped gym to run instead. Works like a charm as I sleep like a baby afterwards, ready for next day’s challenges and adventures.
Abu Mahdi comes knocking at 10AM; he is not a typical Philippine; rather I sense a bit of Malay in him. Abu Mahdi was given my contact more than 2 years ago and he and another head of a huge clan have been pressing me to visit them. Time and budgetary constraints restrained me until now. We talk for over 2 hours and I learn a lot about Philippine Muslims in general and Shia Muslims in particular. I am stunned to know that there are 25,000 Shia Muslims in the country, most of them in Mandanow Island. These converted to Shia Islam after the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and quite a number of them are Roman Catholics converts. Then, Abu Mahdi won a scholarship to study in Qum; he studied there for over 9 years, returned to lead a budding congregation in Zamboanga. Now, he is the Imam of a crumbling building that acts as a mosque and hawze that caters for 50 taalibs who live in miserable and pitiful conditions. I want to go visit Zamboanga so we go into town and purchase the air tickets to travel there tomorrow. For now, I go to an area of Manila where there is a sizable Muslim presence. Several halal restaurants and Muslim owned stores abound; I forget this is the Philippines for a while.
I am invited to the only Khoja family who have made Philippines their home the last 19 years, that of Shakera and Habeeb Janmohammed. They have a beautiful home in a sky-rise in Makati, an affluent area of Manila. Over an excellent dinner, I learn about life and living in a place of the world both alien and exotic to a Khoja layman. They have no complains; Habeeb has done well in business maasha'Allah, and they have 2 children who are born and schooled there. They give a good insight about the Muslim community, what to expect and caution me about the volatile situation in Mandanow, with kidnappings and sudden, unpredictable gunfights between the MLF, a "Muslim" separatist group and government forces. I become more aware of my surroundings as I return to the hotel but then nothing can be worse thanAfghanistan, right? Abu Mahdi is dismissive about the concerns, tells me I will be fine and that an armed Ahlebeyti policeman will guard me round the clock.
Sure enough, after a stomach curling bumpy 90 minute Philippine Airline flight to Zamboanga City, we are greeted by 5 managing committee members of Ahlebayt (A) Philippine Islamic Foundation, a smartly dressed armed policeman amongst them. We proceed to a modest home of a member for my first authentic Philippino meal ever; a delightful mix of colorful seafood that is superb. I learn more about the community and am quite impressed with the progress in their religious maturity, especially the nurturing of the young ones. Although there is the usual struggle for everyday survival within the poorer members of the community, the lament mostly is for a mosque. We head towards this now for noon prayers. Here, I get to meet the 50 taalibs who get educated and trained in Islamic studies; these are a subdued, varied lot, from different parts of Mandanao. I get a sick sinking feeling when I tour the shabby, rickety building; it is miserable, with 1 toilet being shared by all students.
I sit down with the community afterwards and we chat; I tell them about CAI activities and how we can perhaps help them in education matters in a shared, pooled resourced partnership. I also promise them I will try and spread the word on helping them with a mosque. They are all of the opinion that a mosque as their center will go a long way in consolidating and expanding their community.
Zamboanga is busting, noisy city, but perhaps it’s just me and my advancing age when tolerance for such city nuisances seem overwhelming while seem not to affect others? But all is forgotten, forgiven when we reach a local fruit market. My, what a fiesta of colors! We usually associate (tropical) fruits with Thailand - no contest! Jackfruits, mangastinos, papaya, mangoes, pineapple, custard apples, leeches, others I cannot even name, even the smelly, puke initiating durians abound. I am simply amazed at all these bounties from Allah (S), and delight in buying a lot of fruit to splurge and share. Bargaining is accepted and expected; the vendors are shy but delighted at the mock shock I express at the prices they quote, covering their mouth to smile and giggle, only to come down to serious negotiating of price. The city is a colorful, almost equal mix between Muslims and Catholics with Muslims now a majority due to a very high conversion rate.
I sleep at an inexpensive hotel overnight and go visiting several homes that my new community welcome me in. Some of the homes are literally built into the ocean, on stilts. I have to cross tiny planks, some with fearful rotten cracks in them, about 20 feet long to reach some of the homes and a tiny misstep or error will see me dip into the muck and open sever ten feet below; they jokingly call this crossing at various homes daily "saraat mustakeem" trails. Several of them live in such "homes"; I wonder how the children survive all the hazards. It would take very little for anyone to go flying off into the ocean below.
I visit the home of a Shakir, a slim fragile looking man, a father of 9 whose wife gave birth to their 10th child early this morning. He has no money, he says, to take the wife to doctor, so he assisted in the childbirth and cut the umbilical cord with home scissors. The house is just a few planks of wood nailed together, I see a number of children bundled together in a corner, all paused and look at me subdued. Like their father, they look frail and gaunt. Lack of protein, Abu Mahdi whispers to me. There are no chairs to sit, so we stand and engage in polite chit-chat. But there are books, many books, all in Arabic and Farsi, with religious writings and paintings of Aaeemaas (A) all over the walls.
Then, the eldest daughter comes running, navigating the wooden planks that I very carefully crossed earlier as if they do not exist. The newborn baby, who has gone for immunization shots, has been admitted to the hospital with an infection caused by the scissors that cut its umbilical cord. A gloom falls on the household and conversation is now in hushed tones. The doctors at the government hospital have apparently ordered the parents to bring in certain antibiotic shots but there is no money. I offer to help and the problems for this family get temporary relief.
I leave for Manila later at magreeb, accompanied by Abu Mahdi; we want to visit a large clan of Wahabi converted Shia Muslims about a 2 hour drive from Manila the next day. While we wait for the flight, it is salaat time and I join others in prayers; always a delight. We set of for the town of Meycawayan City, Bulacan early the next morning, about 2 hours away in heavy traffic. I am started to be greeted by about 200 plus people, men, women and children, who line up outside a flea market and loudly recite salawaat as they pump my hand in greeting. These are an extension of one single family, children and relatives of Abulrehman Macalolo, a burly (brave) man with 4 wives. He used to be quite wealthy few years ago, with many businesses. But the menaces of Wahaabi take a toll one fine rainy day. As he sits in worship with his extended family in a makeshift mosque in his village, they are attacked by Wahaabi elements that destroy the mosque, heir homes and kill one young son of his; the entire clan flee for their lives and end up here as refugees.
A sympathetic town Mayor gives them refuge in the flea market, where they open up small stalls selling cheap paraphernalia. They sleep in the tiny stalls at night and use it as a storefront during the days. Even here, they have not forgotten their religion; they rent a small space in the middle of the market, put carpets and prayers mats down and complete their religious obligations; pretty neat. Allah tests them further this year with 2 typhoons that destroy their businesses and wash away their merchandise. The entire family flees, leaving only Abdulrehman and his son in law to keep watch over whatever remained, perched high up in the roof of the flea market until water receded.
They have begun anew, with loan sharks charging about 20% per month for financing their inventory needs. Abulrehman tells me they need help, not aid. Give me karze hasena so that I can escape the loan sharks and help us with a small mosque, he pleads. I will repay you the loans, you, my brother sent by Imam Mahdi (A). He then embarrasses the hell out of me by hugging and kissing me profusely.
I leave them with a heavy heart after a hearty lunch equivalent of machi paka in Dar and the team drops me off at the airport for my flight toDubai.
You can view pictures of my visit here: http://picasaweb.google.com/booaliboo/Philippines#