Cotabato demystified

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Saturday, March 22, 2014

THAT will be exaggerating. You can’t demystify a place in just a day-trip. This will be more like, just going around, seeing the sights and explaining them like they’ve not been explained much before because most of those writing out of Cotabato are writing about conflict and thus only show the images of strife.

Let’s call this the civilian view.

Like the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)’s Camp Darapanan. Scary, isn’t it?

Not when you’re in the company of respected leaders. I was tagging along with Sun.Star Davao columnist and Al Qalam Institute for Islamic Identities and dialogue in Southeast Asia executive director Mussolini S. Lidasan. I had access to interesting places. Cheers!

Anyway, Camp Darapanan is not in Cotabato City. It’s in Simuay in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao. But it’s just a few minutes before reaching Cotabato; thus the reason why in reporting conflicts in Central Mindanao, Cotabato will always be the jump-off point.

Back to the MILF camp, if you’re imagining a fort surrounded by high fences with higher watch towers for armed guards whenever you think of an MILF camp that is reported in the news, then you’re imagination is wrong.

Like Camp Darapanan, where the big bosses are – the likes of MILF chair Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim and Ghazali Jaafar, it doesn’t even look like a camp. It’s a community.

You enter through a road that is now cemented most of the way. It used to be just a dirt road, the type you see in quiet barangays, well-graded, not bumpy. The only clue you get that you are actually entering MILF area is because of a… billboard sign. How obvious, right?

Then, if you didn’t quite see that billboard before you turned the corner, one other feature will tell you that you are entering a camp. It has a checkpoint. There are uniformed guards. In fatigues. With long firearms. But they are not wearing Philippine Military uniforms. They are not.

Inside is like a cruise on a quiet barangay with some single-storey structures looking like small offices with signs labeling what office they are. Otherwise, a military camp complete with living facilities looks more populated.

The tour done, we proceed to Cotabato.

If you’re riding a bus, then you will be entering through Salimbao-Delta Bridge-Poblacion 1 road. You get off Poblacion 1 road, since buses cannot enter the city through the streets feeding traffic to Delta Bridge – the roads are simply too narrow for big buses. If for some strange reason you are riding on a tanker or cargo truck, then you pass through Matalam-Datu Paglas road. If you are riding a regular vehicle – jeep, van, SUV, then you pass by the main entrance: the Quirino Bridge. This is because Quirino Bridge is already structurally weak and can now just accommodate upto 2.5 tons, nothing more. Thus, the Department of Public Works and Highways, even set up a vertical bar on the bridge to make sure that no vehicle exceeding 9 feet in height can pass through.

Cotabato is quiet on a Sunday.

The major bustle is on Sinsuat Avenue. Everything’s there it seems. Food, shops for malongs and brassware, and everything else. If it’s not along Sinsuat Avenue, then it’s just off Sinsuat, like the Alnor Hotel and Convention Centere where you are met by the ever familiar sight of Bo’s Coffee and Calda Pizza.

The idea of peace being spawned by the peace talks between the MILF and the government seem to be fanning new life in this city. Let’s pray that it keeps on that way.

Now, for the must-see in Cotabato, The Sultan Haji Hassanal Bolkiah Masjid, also known as the Grand Mosque. This one is in barangay Kalangalan, which is far from the poblacion. It’s around three kilometers from the Bus Terminal on the road going to Awang (Awang is where the airport is), and that by itself is already away from the poblacion. Just take the route going to Awang, there you’ll see the bus terminal.

Everyone knows where this terminal is, so that’s a good benchmark. There are no jeeps nor taxis. You get a motorcycle if you don’t have your own vehicle. If you have, then just ask for directions. It’s a quiet ride. There are barely houses along the road. But there are several small mosques. Like two for every barangay.

Back in the poblacion, browsing through their stalls near the market for malongs is a must. This is where you will find the handwoven Maguindanaoan malongs that Aldevinco Shopping Center stalls in Davao City rarely carry. They may be a bit expensive, but definitely, these malongs are not the types you will use to take a bath in the river. These are malongs for formal wear. But then, if you really feel you like using it to take a bath in the river, no one is stopping you.

Walking along the avenue to browse through the shops, you might be startled by the sight of mannequins whose faces are covered with paper or masking tape. The first mannequins I saw as I stepped off our van were roughly covered with cardboards. Some other shops took greater effort in covering the eyes and noses of the mannequins, but these first three that greeted me just had those square cardboard from some magazines of pamphlets taped on the faces.

This sight generated some conversations on what is shirk in Islam. I will not dare go into that here, since I cannot profess vast knowledge about Islam and shirk is a totally foreign idea to non-Muslims. It’s best to read up on it and ask your Muslim friends for more details. Just remember, if you do happen to be in a place where mannequin faces are covered, the word is shirk. From Wikipedia, it says: In Islam, shirk (Arabic: ???? širk) refers to the sin of practicing idolatry or polytheism, i.e. the deification or worship of anyone or anything other than the singular God. This is followed by a long discussion on what are forms of shirks.

For food? There’s a lot. Except that it can be very quiet on a Sunday.
Our host brought us to Aling Precy which looks like it’s a popular turo-turo restaurant, like the turo-turo portion of Yellow Fin Restaurant in our part of the world.

It pays to know some locals so you can get to visit the places where they make their wares.

On our visit two weeks ago, we saw how brassware is made at the Cotabato Brassware Association at M.B. Kalanganan, still in the city.

My friend Aveen said that I should have squeezed in time to see weaving in the neighboring town, which is just a short ride from Cotabato City.

We call it malong because it is already in a form of malong that we see them. They call it inaul, referring to the fabric. It’s a traditional Maguindanaoan handwoven fabric, and there is a center that showcases and sells this at Datu Odin Sinsuat town, just off the border of Cotabato City. That is definitely in my must-go list now. As Aveen described it, the Al Jamelah Weaving Center is walking distance from the Tamontaka Bridge. Next time.

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