Words and photos by Joel Pablo Salud
Published in the BusinessMirror, November 28, 2010
*Note: This piece on the people of Maharlika Village I wrote with the specific intention of helping the poor Muslims of Maharlika. Apparently, after this piece was published both in the BusinessMirror and the Philippines Graphic, there are people who are now out to take the reins of leadership from Blue Mosque administrator Ben Saudie and Al Ali Al Rahim. These two people have worked doubly hard to make the Blue Mosque the center of life for the people of Maharlika, and now they’re in a fight for the one thing they hold dear. I am posting this article on my blog to let Filipinos know that there are people who are dedicated to make life in Maharlika noble and well-worth the stakes. The government has neglected them long enough.
One can never have a particular notion of what no man’s land is until one has been there.
There is this one place in Metro Manila, aside from old Tondo, they say, that fits the bill. Rebellion and criminality, it is alleged, are alive and well in this part of the city. Predominantly Islamic in faith, the people had for decades received none of the attention given by government and the private sector to calamity-stricken areas. Financial support to restore dilapidated portions of the community and a state-owned mosque is close to nil, already bordering on utter neglect, had it not been for the people’s efforts to hold their own. The closest thing to government presence in the area is the sporadic raids conducted by the police in response to criminal activities there.
Rumors, however, can only go so far as to whet this journalist’s appetite for the truth, ergo this trip to Maharlika Village in Taguig.
My companion, Al Ali Al Rahim, a Christian convert to Islam, was the first to confess that Maharlika’s notoriety, to a certain extent, is true. More than a decade of living in the village brought him very little hope of finding some respite from its biting poverty, and the violence that has gripped the community for decades. It is somewhat ironic, he said, that Maharlika means noble blood or nobility when all one sees is a growing, swelling experience of need and unremitting privation. Yet for some strange quirk of fate, there are those living in Maharlika who are kin to some of the most influential and powerful families in Mindanao.
Bai Norma Otto, now a simple caretaker and sweeper in the state-owned Blue Mosque, is one of them. Powerful in ways one can only imagine, her family in Mindanao is perhaps one whose influence extends from the ordinary folk to the highest officials in the local government. In Maharlika, however, she is a nobody, nearly the nameless caretaker of a state-owned mosque that has seen very little improvement prior to today. What she calls home is a decrepit, ramshackle house pieced together by old wood, galvanized iron and the weight of stones. Located in the most flood-prone part of the community, life in her humble home consists of beating the rising waters during rains while sharing meagre portions of dinner to her family.
The same is true with Al Rahim, who related how black floodwaters would rise to neck levels while he and his family run to higher ground to save whatever food and belongings they could. This does not include, Al Rahim said, floodwaters brought about by super typhoons like Ondoy and Pepeng. Maharlika has a minimum four to eight families living in each house, sharing space no bigger than two spans of the arms. The frail walls, in fact, could barely hold the weight of people living there.
The notoriety of Maharlika as the city’s inviolable “ghetto” is matched only by the efforts of its own residents to fight violence whenever they could, Al Rahim said. Poverty is such that it has forced many residents to live a life of crime and gangland violence, earning for Maharlika the moniker “No Man’s Land.” Gun fights in the streets happen even at the most holy hour of prayer. One Muslim toughie was said to have been gunned down while entering the mosque by a gunshot wound in the chest. Al Rahim, however, was quick to relate that all possible efforts are being done by the local leader—Sultan Pangandaman—to quell the rising tide of violence in the area.
The most effective, though, is when they rally the people to a cause. And that cause is the reestablishment of the state-owned Blue Mosque as the center of Islamic life in Maharlika.
Ben Saudie Lumenda, former Libyan-trained Moro National Liberation Front top brass, has found a new jihad—the care and improvement of the state-owned Blue Mosque. Ben Saudie explained that prior to his arrival in the village, the Blue Mosque stood as to seem disrespected and unused, left to slowly decompose at the very heart of Maharlika. For decades, it had suffered the neglect of government, whose function was to oversee the maintenance of the mosque through the Office of Muslim Affairs (OMA). The Blue Mosque was first built during the administration of former strongman Ferdinand Marcos, but has seen very little improvement since the presidency of Corazon Aquino.
As such, Al Rahim quickly positioned Ben Saudie as administrator of the Blue Mosque with the help of friends in OMA. With nearly zero finances to go on, Ben Saudie took himself to task and made the first steps in the renovation of one of the holiest sites for Islam in Maharlika.
True to his holy vow, the once nearly empty and crumbling mosque began its transfiguration, beginning with a good paint job. Haggling for cash Ben and Al Rahim opted to raise the money for the repainting of the mosque. And raise it they did, through the support of some wealthy Muslims and private institutions. The reconstruction kicked off literally on the thin strength of makeshift bamboo scaffoldings as there wasn’t enough for the proper equipment save brushes and paint.
Ben Saudie himself braved the heights to paint the tower, which left Al Rahim anxious about his friend’s safety. Further efforts by the two brothers in the faith brought about the overhaul of the electrical wirings, the refurbishing of woodworks, and the raising of a garden around the place of worship. The people of Maharlika woke up one morning to a mosque fit for a sultan.
“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Ben Saudi explained. “The mosque stands at the center of a poverty-stricken community. And when I say poverty-stricken, I mean pounding and pitiless poverty. So, I looked for assistance elsewhere. But rarely will you find big institutions that are willing to help Muslims—though there are some who did including rich Muslims and international organizations.
The problem, however, with international organizations is this: The Anti-Money Laundering Act. They are afraid of it. That’s why they don’t shell out as much money as needed to help in our projects. They’re afraid that government might misconstrue their support to mean something else entirely.”
Al Rahim, on the other hand, is in the thick of seeking assistance for the Muslims of Maharlika directly. His initial efforts paid off one day when a medical mission in the area, to the tune of P10 million, was conducted by members of the Iglesia ni Cristo (INC).
Had it not been for Al Rahim’s level-headedness, the effort could have instigated controversy between the two faiths. Al Rahim disclosed that several Muslims in Maharlika have been fighting with leprosy and other debilitating diseases like syphilis all their lives, gaining very little support from government institutions.
The INC medical mission may be the starting point of a more affable relationship between the two faiths, but work in this regard had scarcely taken off the ground. Ambulances, medical supplies, doctors and nurses, and medical establishments are just few of the needed medical support in this place where disease has lorded over the populace.
Ben Saudie in the meantime said he has made efforts to bring his plea to the OMA, but his proposals to improve the state-owned Blue Mosque somehow fell on deaf ears at first as reshufflings in government were taking place. Being state-owned, he said, it should only be logical (and lawful) for the government to allot a budget for the mosque’s maintenance and improvement.
“This is not just wishful thinking,” he said. “I know my efforts will not go to waste. The Office of Muslim Affairs (now called the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos) might still honor the mandate of supporting the Blue Mosque and the people of Maharlika with the appropriate financial support.” And for the last three years he has been at it, moving around government offices until someone notices his proposals. His hope remains strong on the off chance that someone might, someday, finally listen.
As government assents to peace talks with Muslim rebels in Mindanao, it should not forget its mandate to improve the conditions suffered by Muslims in Manila. Theirs is a community badly needing help, and the little that government can offer by way of attention will mean a lot to these Filipinos who have long since suffered neglect. Talk is cheap, including that which borders on peace, if actual, tangible efforts to reach out are withheld for one reason or the other.
Joel Pablo Salud is the editor of the BusinessMirror’s newsweekly sister publication, the Philippines Graphic.