ESSAY

Ramadan in Sitangkai, Tawi-Tawi

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
totalITemsFound:
maxPaginationLinks: 10
maxPossiblePages:
startIndex:
endIndex:

With 1.9 billion Muslims steadfast in this Ramadan, the food and culture associated with it in each country and province in the Muslim world is colorful and varied. Photo from the MUNICIPAL TOURISIM OFFICE OF SITANGKAI MUNICIPALITY

EDITOR’S NOTE: Amir Mawallil is a former journalist and a writer who has published a number of essays and stories about Muslims in Mindanao. He authored two books: “A Constant Retelling: Exploring the Bangsamoro Narratives,” about the narratives of the Bangsamoro; and “Sumangsang Sug (Going Against the Current)” another containing stories of the Tausug in the Sulu Archipelago. Mawallil worked as the director of the public information office of the defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) for almost seven years. He is now member of the interim parliament of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).

In the last 10 days of Ramadan, Muslims around the world anticipate the end of their fasting in prayer and reflection. While we still abstain from food and drink during the daytime and we continue to refrain from negative deeds and thoughts in a fast that is both spiritual and physical, we know our holiest month will come to a joyful end.

The observance of Ramadan follows a standard from the Islamic tradition, and Muslim communities have their own unique ways of making this month more meaningful. With 1.9 billion Muslims steadfast in this holy month, the food and culture associated with it in each country and province in the Muslim world is colorful and varied.

I grew up in the island municipality of Sitangkai, where houses are perched on stilts, and the people enjoy the bounty of the sea.

A welcoming sight in the island municipality of Sitangkai, where houses are perched on stilts, and the people enjoy the bounty of the sea. Photo from Photo from the MUNICIPAL TOURISM OFFICE OF SITANGKAI MUNICIPALITY

Sitangkai is one of the island-municipalities in the province of Tawi-Tawi. It is closer to Malaysia and North Borneo than to the nearest urban center of the Philippines: Zamboanga City in Zamboanga del Sur, Mindanao. Most of the products and goods here are imported from these two neighboring areas. In fact, I can recall that while I was growing up, our T.V. antenna picked up Malaysian T.V. channels, too.

More than anything, my memories of Ramadan in Sitangkai resonate very strongly with me now.

Although Ramadan is a month of fasting, it is also a month during which some of our favorite foods are served during iftar, or the breaking of the fast at sundown. Our tables are sometimes turned into communal feasts in the spirit of giving and sharing during this month of fasting and prayer. Such communal feasts provide us with the opportunity to strengthen our bonds with the people in our communities, as well as remind us that we always have something to share, no matter how difficult times may be.

Sitangkai is abundant in harvests from the sea. I recall that sea urchins, or tihi-tihi, were a staple during iftar in Sitangkai when I was growing up. This delicacy is sold by locals directly from their bancas. We also cook rice in sea urchin shells, and eat sea urchin meat tossed in a salad with unripe mangoes. We sip kahawa (our native coffee) or Green Dragon tea bartered from Malaysia, as we savor local confections like juwalan (banana fritters), biyaki (corn pastries), and santan (sugared coconut milk with egg and rice). We enjoy the bounty from the abundant sea, and from the fruitful land as well as goods obtained by barter, with much gratitude. We share these joyfully with one another.

Sea urchins or tihi-tihi. Photo from the MUNICIPAL TOURISM OFFICE OF SITANGKAI MUNICIPALITY

As most houses here sit partially over the sea on stilts, the market has its own distinct character: It floats past our homes and through our communities. The vendors sell the seafood they've caught straight out of their colorful boats. Other goods, such as vegetables and fruits, are sold on the sidewalk.

Unlike other seasons, Ramadan is a month during which these floating and sidewalk markets are abundant with everything — from all kinds of fish and seafood to sun-ripened seasonal fruits and dry goods obtained by our traditional barter trade. It is during Ramadan that we feel even more connected to each other, especially the people who provide us with access to goods and food that we find especially comforting during our holiest month. They, too, are part of our community, and they contribute to the sense of solidarity we celebrate and focus on throughout Ramadan.

Ramadan is a month during which these floating and sidewalk markets are abundant with everything — from all kinds of fish and seafood to sun-ripened seasonal fruits and dry goods obtained by our traditional barter trade. Photo from the MUNICIPAL TOURISM OFFICE OF SITANGKAI MUNICIPALITY

At night, people in Sitangkai gather in the mosques for Tarawi, the evening prayer, which is only performed during Ramadan. The Tarawi prayers are usually performed an hour or more after iftar. When we come together for Tarawi, the spirit of our community is felt with that much more strength.

Ramadan in Sitangkai doesn't end with prayers and food: Before suhor, or the meal before the day breaks, teenagers roam in groups around the island, strumming their guitars and singing, "Sahul na, sahul na anduh batih na (It's suhor time, please wake up)."

Never mind that these teenagers sometimes sing out of tune. It is the idea that, as a Muslim, one must remind the community of their obligations to fast and pray during Ramadan. It is this homey sense of comfort that a neighbor feels with another neighbor, the general permeation of goodwill at 3 a.m., and the strong feeling that the community is, ultimately, an extension of the family that makes Ramadan so special in Sitangkai.

As a Muslim, one must remind the community of their obligations to fast and pray during Ramadan. Photo from the MUNICIPAL TOURISM OFFICE OF SITANGKAI MUNICIPALITY

Sitangkai may be distant from its neighboring areas, but the spirit of ummah, or community, during Ramadan is strong and unshakable, like the houses we build on stilts. Our faith as a people is kept steadfast by our community spirit. Sitangkai is a reminder that faith bridges physical and emotional distances, and brings us together no matter what distances may separate us.

As we persevere in our ibadat, or acts of worship, during this sacred month, we also look forward to the indescribable euphoria of Eid ul-Fitr that marks its end. This is a yearly gathering of loved ones who have scattered in search of greener pastures. It is a reminder of our primordial oneness as a family during this sacred time in our home, Sitangkai.