While the battle in Marawi, a Muslim city in the Mindanao island, rages on with government forces fighting the Maute, a local band of ISIS extremists since May 23, 2017, a travelling exhibit showcasing Muslim history and culture has quietly been making its rounds in malls, schools, government offices and other public spaces.

Spearheaded by Anak Mindanao, AMIN (Child of Mindanao) a tri-people, multi-sectoral and multi-formation party-list organization, I had the opportunity to view the exhibit when it launched its first leg late March of this year. Amidst the hustle and bustle of SM North Edsa, one of Metro Manila’s most popular malls, the sound of kulintang gongs rang loud and clear as Muslims wearing their colourful traditional attire and guests assembled to open the exhibit to the public.

The exhibit showcased a visual montage of photos, illustrations, videos and artefacts celebrating Muslim art and culture. Photographs of contemporary Muslim Filipinos in Maranao, Maguindanao, Iranun, Sama and Tausug garb graced the panels of the exhibit. Textiles and weaves with indigenous patterns, swords and brassware, musical instruments like the gabbang, a Muslim bamboo xylophone and dabakan, a single-headed drum, were on display, giving the public a glimpse of the intricate art and handiwork of our fellow-Muslims. A well-researched timeline with pictures and succinct text depicted the arrival of Islam in the Philippines and described the Filipino Muslim experience dating as far back as 500 B.C.E, tracing its history all the way to contemporary times.

The Muslim spirit resonated thanks to the inspiring musical performance of Aga Mayo Butocan Kanapia Kalanduyan and Kinsu Dalgan as they played traditional Maguindanaon rhythms and guests were treated to the flavours of typical Muslim delicacies.

For a Catholic-bred Filipino living in Manila, the exhibit gave me a rare glimpse into the life and times of fellow-Muslims, as opportunities to immerse in Muslim culture are few and far between. We in Manila grew up with preconceived notions and stereotypes. This depiction of Muslim history in the Philippines can indeed be an eye-opener for many.

Since then, AMIN has toured the exhibit both in and outside Metro Manila to various venues such as local malls, educational institutions, and workplaces, over the past few months. The second leg of the traveling exhibition was held at the SM Aura Premier at Bonifacio Global City on June 26, 2017. It marked Eid’l Fitr, the feast ending the observance of Ramadan. In the words of Congresswoman– the Hon. Sitti Djalia A. Turabin-Hataman at the Opening Program:
“This exhibition is actually just, again…a product of a beautiful friendship, a product of endless talks, me being a student of history and culture. This is… we always say that whatever misunderstandings, whatever misconceptions we have is really because we don’t know each other. We’ve had so many talks, we just keep on talking, we’ve had different dialogue tables, peace tables, but there’s still so much that needs to be said. So we thought that maybe, if we are able to let people experience who we are, through this exhibition, especially in a venue like SM, you know we cannot just leave the dialogue to the intellectuals, or to those who are in government, or to those who are doing peace work… peace needs to start with everyone – the ordinary people, the mall goers, the fish vendor, the farmer. And we think that being able to show you the history and culture of the Muslims in the Philippines can somehow bridge and connect us to each other. This should not be strange to the Filipino people, because this is part of the Filipino people. We want you to know us, because in knowing us you will also know yourselves. We want you to claim this because this is ours. This is what makes us a nation, this is what makes us a people, this is what makes us a community.

This is also for the Muslims as much as it is for the non-Muslims. Because really, we also need to know, re-know, relearn, who we are as Muslims. We have been here, Islam has been here in this part of the world for the last 650 years, and we made this place a beautiful beautiful place. The Islam of 650 years ago, we need to know that. The Islam of our ancestors, the beautiful Islam, the peaceful Islam, the Islam that embraced culture, that built on culture instead of destroying it. The Islam that was tolerant, the Islam that valued humanity… we are lost, and we cannot afford to let foreign ideologies steal that Islam from us. It is the Islam that our ancestors fought for. It survived for 6 centuries, now we have all the opportunities to live it.

So I hope with this exhibition, we all learn, from what we see, what we hear. And as we engage and interact with each other, also learn from each other, really be just one community of peace-loving, beautiful, wonderful people. And as I always say, if there are differences among us, let these differences only serve as something that makes us even more beautiful.”

The exhibition was designed to bring to the forefront information not readily accessible to the mainstream, aiming to add to the knowledge base about Muslim Filipinos as a unique population segment, and about a culture and history that has persisted through tremendous conflict and challenges.

According to Curator Marian Pastor Roces, the exhibit was envisioned to foster cultural understanding, aside from addressing some negative stereotypes. Furthermore, the exhibit gave a platform to the arts and culture which has been destroyed by armed conflict in Mindanao. “The question is: Is there room for memory? Can memory mobilize understanding?” she asks.

For the second leg of the exhibit, the curator added a section dedicated to Marawi. Materials included photos of places and art in Marawi destroyed in the ongoing conflict. The exhibit is one way that these memories can be preserved for the future. Included in the Marawi section was a literary piece written by Elin Anisha Guro, a Marawi native now living in Melbourne, Australia.

She starts with, “Good night world. And my beloved Marawi City profusely burns, like a sacrificial woman offered to the monster…” And ends, saying, “Like the Phoenix, you will be reborn from your ashes to a new Marawi. Or to your old glory – Dansalan. Though broken, betrayed and bleeding, you will overcome all of these to be with the loving embrace of your sons and daughters… “You will rise, my beloved city. Your true sons and daughters and your adopted children await you. Those who have set you on fire will one day rue that they were ever on the wrong side of your story.”

The city of Marawi, the lone Islamic city in the country, is in ruins after months of intense fighting. Martial law is in force over the whole of Mindanao. The battle has claimed heavy casualties, including civilians, soldiers and ISIS militants in what has been described as the heaviest urban fighting in the Philippines since World War II. Looming over the whole country is the possibility of ML being extended nationwide should the conflict spill over to other parts.

This turn of events, as the conflicts facing Mindanao is pushed into the consciousness of many Filipinos, makes this travelling exhibit especially relevant, a small but significant effort towards deepening our understanding of our fellow Muslims history and, yes, its beautiful culture.