JOLOManila, May 28, 2003 By Tingting Cojuangco, (STAR) Photo courtesy of the STAR -  Jolo was a jewel in the center of blue seas with a backdrop of green mountains and streets lined with arbol de fuegos (fire trees), ylang-ylangs and acacias by residential and business structures. A plaza with manicured gardens was in the center of this Walled City beside a wharf, forts, a Catholic Church and a marketplace. It had an unusual ambience, thanks to a European setup amid kris-wielding Malay-Filipinos. The Arabs gave her the name "Suq," which means market. The Chinese called her "Suong." Chavacano-speaking migrants added another name, tiangge, and the Malays’ "laum tiangge in Bahasa Sug."

Once upon a time the ancient Kingdom of Cathay traded in its international port silk, tripang and human cargo. Natural Sulu pearls were coveted by Chinese and European nobility who traded there even before Legazpi arrived on our shores. In fact, Cebu and Manila were but small insignificant ports. The Kingdom of Cathay, the Court of St. James of England, the American and the French sent ambassadors to the Astanah in Maimbung, which was the capital of the ancient Islamic Empire of Sulu.

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On a happier beat, or so I thought, we looked for amusement in pearls which turned out to be a sorry sight. "Patay na ang pearl trade namin. Wala kaming benta dahil sa Abu Sayyaf."

The oysters cuddling these wonders of the Sulu Sea – white, golden, gray and black pearls – didn’t like pollution, dynamite fishing, oil spills. Even diving no longer interests the Moros who come up from under the sea with hardly a bunch to cover the expenses, effort and danger to their health.

We went to the Jolo market for embroidered sablays, their V-necked blouses, gold thread malongs and silk sawals, their pajama-like pants. Through the slippery alleys of the dry-goods section, sewing machines were humming as dressmakers rushed job orders. Inside the market, brownouts occurred at least six times a day which, we were told, was not unusual. Lanzones was sold at P350 a kaing, a bunch of mangosteen at P15, durian at P10 a kilo.

We passed through stalls with school bags, lace, clothes modern and native, and we ended up in the goldsmith section. They sold 10- to 22-karat gold bracelets, rings, charms and necklaces made right before us and from Saudi Arabia. Every jewelry shop had a goldsmith at work with their tiny torches. Speckles of fire lighted up the stores as jewelers sat, hunched over their creations laid out on hard bricks.

Maulo Dani Pahil showed me a flower-engraved gold lock which was going to be linked to a round antique turtle bracelet that was broken on both sides. The methods he employed for this fine workmanship involved gugo with water to clean his art pieces, lachon, muriatic acid and iron molds.

There are no gold pyramid-shaped buttons anymore but there are plenty of rough and gaudy metal imitations – another tradition lost. To the environmentalists: I saw only four turtle bracelets sold, but there were mother of pearl in the shape of dolphins, fish, hearts, birds, which the Taosug women set with silver or gold to use as pins to fasten the front of their buttonless sablay.

"Huwag ninyong bilhin yan," Marian pointed to a ready-made pendant. "Ang mga Samal lang ang gumagamit niyan." The attitude of looking down on Samals – boat and land dwellers who continue to be seafarers and were once retainers of the Sultans but brave "pirates" of the Tausog Datus – has remained since centuries ago. The Samals count notches below in the social strata of the Tausog hierarchy.

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Now for the second purpose of this column. Anang, our host at a wedding, was on her way home passing by the municipality of Patikul when six armed men stopped their vehicle consisting of four women and their driver. The driver asked Anang: Would he force his way through this human blockade? Considering that they had only one armalite, it was prudent to stop on this dark road and not speed through because each of the men had armalites. Identifying herself, she asked what they needed and the leader of the group answered that they had seen a fair-skinned person and myself in the public market and heard that we were attending a wedding. The leader said that in spite of the woman’s veil (who in fact was Peachie Prieto), it didn’t help because the color of her skin was evident. "I know Tingting Cojuangco was in the market with her and we know what she owns. We want to know who was the Melikan with her. She is the one we want." Anang quickly responded, "They are my guests and if anything happens to them it amounts to harming my family."

Anang is a woman of a delicate frame but she is tough. In her early 40s, she is an astute businesswoman shuttling between Singapore and Zamboanga. She carries a .45 pistol and she’s funny. She said to the Abu Sayyafs who had identified themselves, "If you try to kidnap any of my guests, I will wage war on you because I can. You know my husband." She got into her pick-up, told them to move aside for her to pass because she was tired and she wanted to go home. And they did. (Maybe we should have the women confront the Abu Sayyaf instead of the men.) The wedding date had come and she stayed as close to Peachie. It was also that day in the gym that we heard the bombs explode as the military was conducting operations against the Abus. In spite of that, the guests sat still and calm, looked at each other as the explosions were heard.

A few blocks away from the gym is where the celebrated victims were recently beheaded. We visited the Catholic Church for sentimental reasons. For many years, we would stop offering thanksgiving prayers after speedboat rides from Jolo to Siassi to Tumbagangan, Tawi-Tawi and vice versa. Eleven years ago, we carried from Manila to Jolo the statue of Nuestra Señora de la Milagrosa, which we gave to Fr. Benjie who was assassinated in Jolo.

To read documents on the elegance and role on governance of the Sulu Sultanate, which have disappeared, could make you cry. One answer for some defaults is that the Moro did not have to be educated by the Spaniards and Americans who interfered in their lives. They had a government system, a hierarchy of leadership, laws and customs that governed their actuations. The consequence of this breakdown is evident until today. Many Moros find themselves governed by a parallel sets of principles, that of the Qur’an with the Sultanate and that of the national government. In various instances, clashing with each other.

Yes, not much remnants of ancient Sulu... except the old revered tarsilas or genealogies to preserve the Taosugs’ purity of blood. In it, Sulu still retains her glory.

Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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