He walked around the charred debris looking for something, a memento of the past, a keepsake of his childhood, something to remember before the horror that engulfed the Islamic city of Lanao del Sur province for five months last year. The bombs and the bullets had shattered the lives of the Muslim Maranaos when Islamic fighters tried to take control of the city and the military reclaimed it.
Assad found a wooden mortar, a sweet memory of the days in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother whipping up the best of the traditional Maranao cuisine. Out of the rubble he found a symbol of their sweet life when in April this year the military allowed families to enter ground zero in batches according to their neighborhood.
The Baunto home, what it once was, must have been scorched in the early days of fighting when soldiers were pushing past south of the bridges over the Agus river that divided the city. Assad remembered long-ago morning swims with the other kids, energized by the frothy rush of the cool waters. He collected the river shrimps inhabiting the stems of water lilies, bringing them home for the women in the kitchen to cook the biyaring recipe.
His youth in the ‘80s had filled him with the nostalgia of Marawi. He had left for school at the University of the Philippines in Diliman and then Oxford University in England to be an economist, visiting his mother when he could over the years. “But it is the cooking that transports me to my roots,” he said.
It may take a decade before Marawi could rise again. The main battle area below the river is a swath of utter destruction; everything would have to be crushed to the ground before the city could be rebuilt. It’s now a field of gray concrete rubble, an image reminiscent of the bombing of Manila during the Second World War.
“Marawi is probably lost, but our food is not,” Assad wrote in a recipe book that he put together while the fighting was raging in his hometown. The dishes of his grandmother gave meaning to Mga Tutul a Palapa (Palapa Stories), palapa being the spicy condiment that belongs to the taste bud of every Maranao, a hot combination of ginger, chili, scallion, and red onion.
Assad had braced himself for his return to nothing. He couldn’t cry as soon as he crossed the bridge, seeing what to him felt like being in the movies. The house, with broken plates and burnt objects left, seemed smaller than what he thought it used to be. A strange garden had sprawled around it, growing tomatoes, eggplants, and squash here and there – the only signs of hope post-battle.
The bustling wet market, called Padian, had been pulverized; in Assad’s memory from the 1980s, women made their rounds there dressed up as if they were going to a party. Weeklong feasts of any celebration were the stuff of grandiosity, meals of typical culinary repertoire that Assad compiled in his recipe book also replete with personal family stories.
Long before violent extremism came to Marawi, the commercial district of Banggolo – which saw one of the fiercest fights between rebels and soldiers – was a spectacular site of euphoria and extravaganza, merry-making that lasted until the wee hours of the morning, Assad wrote of his beloved city.
“Arrays of sweet shops, makeshift snack inns, meat grillers, vendors of rice noodles wrapped in newspaper cutouts, peryahan (mini carnivals), small areas for the traditional sport of sipa sa manggis, elevated spaces for kulintang performances and the witty women outdoing each other through literary and philosophical chants of the bayok tradition, Qur’an reading contests, and puppet shows for kids enthralled merry-goers.
“Everyone from all walks of life and beliefs was invited. It was a community of social weavers at its peak along a narrow street, on the cusp of the brewing Moro resistance movement.”
The carnival came to an end when Muslim scholars who traveled to the Middle East and elsewhere declared it haram, or forbidden, because it invited corporal contact. The fair didn’t stop outright, it simply withdrew on a much smaller scale along a stepped pathway beside the Rizal Park, which after the siege would not be recognizable. It’s a rectangular patch of green that had been turned into a launching pad for howitzers; cases of the 105mm shells littered on the ground.
The house where Assad lived belonged to his mother, Rocaya, who was the only child of a wealthy merchant. She was among the thousands who fled the city when gunshots first erupted on May 23 last year. Assad said she’s not ready to face what had become of it. It was all gone. There was no trace of the antique brassware and furniture they had. What Assad collected, apart from the pestle, were tiny mosaic pieces left on a ruined wall by the staircase now gone, reminding him of the deep green of a river moss.
When he was small he used to touch them, feeling the soft shapes of his imagination. Piece by piece, he removed them from the wall and into a basket folded from the hem of his t-shirt. He will create something new out of them, he said, for the sake of a home lost to the nonsense of violence.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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