Jolo, Philippines 1993
10 Feb 2002
by Gregg

Looking back at my journals from February 1993, I find no mention of the World Trade Center bombing. I have some recollection of reading about it in a Manila English language daily but I guess my head was somewhere else. South of Manila, in Legaspi, Mt. Mayon was erupting. That's what grabbed my attention. I departed the next day for Legaspi.

At around the same time, a smaller item in the newspaper caught my notice. Something about kidnappings and the Moro rebels in Mindanao. Something about how the island of Basilan was the rebels' base and that it was unsafe.

I already had it in mind to explore the islands that stretch south from the city of Zamboanga to the southernmost island of the Philippines just shy of Borneo. The Sulu Archipelago - of which Basilan is one of the larger islands - is situated in the Sulu Sea, a region as remote from Manila as Timbuktu; a region of pirates, sea gypsies and stilted houses above verdant under water seaweed farms. I scribbled a note in my guide book to avoid Basilan.

As I would learn months later when I finally got down there, avoiding Basilan was not a problem. Boats from Zamboanga conveniently bypassed the island going directly to Jolo. That's safe, I thought. There was nothing in the newspaper article about Jolo.

I bought a ticket for the journey and then picked up a newspaper. Damned newspapers. There was an in depth expose in that day's paper covering the dangers of travelling by ship in the Philippines. The article referred to a Sulpicio ship that sank a few years prior after its engines failed; 4000 perished. I thought about the engine that had failed on the ship I'd taken to Zamboanga. A ship operated by Sulpicio. I boarded the ship bound for Jolo.

Ten hours later I walked off of the boat and into the Jolo morning. I was tired and alone but invigorated by a sense that this place was oddly different than anywhere else I'd been.

I got myself a cheap room right on the town plaza. From my window I watched as the plaza filled with Muslim men. Apparently an annual religious gathering was getting underway. I washed up and headed down to the plaza.

I stood out in Jolo in general but especially so in this crowd. There was no being discrete. But that was okay because the attention I got was warm and friendly. Going with the flow I asked if I could accompany the men as they walked en masse from the plaza to the edge of town where a large open space would accommodate their gathering. They replied that I was most welcome.

I walked with Salek. Salek was a Filipino but he told me that men had come from many countries - Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia. We were heading first to a mosque. Learning this I pointed out to Salek that I had no head covering. No problem, he said, and gave me his cap covering his own head with a scarf.

Catching the group stride and thinking of my new beard and Salek's cap on my head, I started to feel as though I fit in. Judging by the looks I got from bystanders along the side of the road, I realized I did not.

Arriving at the mosque I was greeted by and introduced to a dozen or more friendly men. I joined in a seated circle that had formed around the community leaders. Planning discussions were underway. There would be three days of prayer, teachings and discussion.

I was then surprised to be told there was another American there. Soon we were introduced. Rashid was a Filipino man who had lived in the States for many years. For sixty years he had been Catholic, but then, six years prior to our meeting, had embraced Islam.

Rashid lamented that he hadn't been able to convert his son and told me he had to divorce his wife. He was looking for a "good Muslim wife" during this visit to the Philippines. And he seemed to think that since he couldn't convert his son, converting me would be the next best thing.

Many of these men expressed their eagerness for me to embrace Islam but stressed that they weren't forceful in their proselytizing. I told them I was there simply to observe and learn and they seemed to think that was fine. I didn't mention that I am Jewish.

Rashid pulled a pile of small note papers from his pocket and started rifling through them. He wanted me to look up his friend in Manila and was looking for the address. He stopped at one of the slips of paper. It wasn't his Manila friend's address however, it was an address for Yusef Islam. Cat Stevens.

You know Cat Stevens? Rashid asked me. Well, I know his music... Rashid said he was a friend and that he was expected at this gathering. And that he would introduce me.

While we were on the topic of celebrities, others chimed in to make sure I knew that Muhammad Ali is Muslim. And then told me that when Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon he heard the voice of Allah.

Leaving the mosque I was lead across the road to a large open area where tent camps and a stage had been erected. A voice could be heard over a scratchy PA system. I met dozens more men. More often than not, when engaged in a conversation with someone, we would become surrounded by a small crowd.

Presumably I was the only non-Muslim there and I saw no other white people. The gathering, I was told, would soon reach 70,000. An exaggeration perhaps but suffice to say I was an outsider. I was too distracted to think about the proximity of Basilan.

The ongoing conversations seemed harmless. I was like a debutante at a ball being passed from one dance partner to the next. I was told I would be given a seat on the stage during the noon prayers and was invited to move from my hotel to the camp for the duration of the gathering.

The precepts of Islam were explained to me but nothing was asked in return. I was told again and again that embracing Islam is easy. You declare your devotion in front of a witness, wash, and start praying. I told them I'd need a little more to go on.

At this point there was sort of a competition to get my attention. Thus I found myself confronted by the more aggressive individuals. They didn't understand the problem. Embracing Islam is easy. Repeat after me. Let's go to the mosque. A man pulled me by the arm.

As I turned to look at him, I pulled away. But I was surrounded by a sizable crowd now and couldn't go anywhere.

The conversation was turning into an argument as I tried to spin my thoughts. I have too much respect for Islam to convert so casually, I explained. I wouldn't want to belittle the precepts. Never mind, they seemed to say, just repeat after me and the rest will come.

The crowd grew and the rate of change of my dance partners increased. I soon found myself face to face with a short man with a long beard and wildly penetrating eyes. But those eyes didn't look at me much. As he spoke of the greatness of Allah, his eyes kept drifting upward towards the heavens.

Half in English and half in Arabic he went on. And then somewhere in there, as if it had greater meaning, he told me he was from Basilan. Something clicked. In my own head, I was about to be kidnapped.

Someone asked me why I was wearing a Muslim cap. Out of respect, I told him. A murmur of acceptance rippled through the crowd but the wild-eyed man said some might think I was in disguise. Suddenly I felt that my beard looked like a silly attempt to look like a Muslim. I took off the cap,

The wild-eyed man disappeared and things mellowed a bit. I was asked to leave the compound and was escorted out to the road. I was told I could observe from there but at this point I had no intention of hanging around. I felt that at any moment the wild-eyed man would reappear with a bevy of henchmen.

I was alone now, at the edge of the compound. The adrenaline was pumping. In my hand I held Salek's cap and felt its symbolism. To depart with it would be my greatest crime. But how could I find Salek in this sea of tens of thousands of men all dressed alike.

I headed determinedly back into the gathering and made my way to the stage. There I found the PA system and thrust the cap into someone's hands. I have to return this to Salek, I said. Can you make an announcement? Yes, okay. I turned and bolted.

copyright ©2002 - Gregg Butensky

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