by Don Mustapha Arbison Loong
It has been five hours since my father died in WMMC hospital on December 7. He finally breathed his last around family members and when one of my Uncles whispered to his ear. “It’s alright Dr. Salih…you can go..” And he stopped breathing.
It started with a simple checkup of my fathers legs and stomach becoming big. It was later discovered to be liver cirrhosis. Cancer of the liver that is caused by exposure to Hepatitis B during childhood that has a high risk of becoming cancer later in life. My father died at 64.
Now that I am a father to a four year old daughter Angel and a son with my name and same birthday, I now know how limitless, or in legal parlance, how so not susceptible to pecuniary estimation, the love of a father is to his son or daughter. I am wondering, if my time to depart would come, on a future certain, how would my children feel. How would I be remembered?
As a son who had just lost a father, that caused me to shed tears for days…just three years after losing a mother which caused me to shed tears for weeks, in what I consider the most painful weeks of my life…I wonder how I could say thank you to my parents whom I loved so dearly.
Many could not imagine how my father looked like. If you have watched the movie “Coming to America” by Eddie Murphy, then you have seen my father, who looked much like James Earl Jones who was the King and father of Eddie Murphy. The serious look, the round face, the eyes and lips, and even the voice, I would mistake to be my dad, whom I called Baba. Even the personality, that the King Jones portrayed, personified my father. The strict, firm, far-looking, deep thinking, sometimes very imposing and demanding, yet actually very compassionate and loving behind the curtain of seriousness.
However, unlike the King, my father was born to a poor coconut farmer in Alu-Layag, Parang Sulu. He was one of nine siblings, six boys and three girls. His father supported his children through school from the copra harvests in our hometown. After highschool, my grandfather talked to my father to study college in Jolo since the harvest too meager to support the family. As one of the elder brothers, my father was persuaded to stay.
During that time, my father was courting my mother who came from the Municipality of Luuk, at the other side of the Island of Jolo. My father would frequently visit my mother and he would tag along like a stalker when my mother would go to school and come home from school. Since they were in grade school, my father had been infatuated with my mom, I call Mama. Rightly so, my mothers name was Angelita, from whom I named my daughter.
My mother, coming from Luuk, a slightly progressive Municipality, and a daughter of a teacher, always teased my fathers dream of becoming a doctor, considering the poor plight of my father, as “doctor laway.” Meaning, doctor only of “saliva,” as my mother could not imagine how my father would be able to study medicine when he didn’t even have money to buy slippers.
My mother was lucky to have been sent by my grandparents to Southwestern University in Cebu to study nursing. My father was left behind.
One day, my father decided to leave Jolo without asking permission from my grandfather, who insisted that he couldn’t support my fathers’ study outside of Jolo with the limited coconut income. My fathers dream of studying in a good school and finishing medicine was too great that he defied my grandfathers order and secretly slipped out of Jolo. All he had was a handkerchief of bills and coins that my grandmother gave him, in their conspiracy for my father to go and seek knowledge and see where his resourcefulness would bring him.
He was able to study for a few years, when a scholarship opportunity came in and he was chosen as one of the few Suluanos who was given a scholarship to Cairo University. With the grace of Allah, his dream was finally given “wings.” He teased my mother, that this, “doctor laway” will come home as a Doctor and marry her. My mother sweetly accepted the challenged.
As a boy who grew up in an isolated island, exposed a few years to a small secluded city, he was awed by the immensity of Cairo University. During that time, as it had been for more than a thousand years, Egypt was the center of academic and intellectual revolution, not only in the Muslim world, but, significantly, worldwide. Tens of thousands of scholars from all over the world was given scholarship from science to theology. My father described it as busier than a hive of bees. The dormitory buildings were like dominoes lined up with each other and you could see a rainbow of colors of different kinds of people.
I remember when I was in UP, during the freshmen orientation, where more than a thousand freshmen, the alleged “crème de la crème” were being oriented, and I observed freshies from all over the country, from Appari to Jolo, it was just so inspiring. They say that UP education is not good not only because of the esteemed professors and University resources, but it is actually because of the diversity of those whom you meet and interact that is an immense source of learning.
I guess my father was like a sponge that just kept absorbing so much knowledge from science to social studies. During that time, was also the height of the upsurge of Islamic revivalism. International political science was a common topic and idealism and perhaps self-determination concepts were everywhere. It was an era where so many African countries where given independence. Being in an international community, I guess, aside from studying Medicine, my father was gravitated to also talking about home.
When I asked my father what was the most memorable time of his in Cairo University, he told me that it was when there was an occasion. All the flags of the world was waving high. Hundreds of Flags were displayed showing the countries that had a citizen that was studying in Cairo University. However, in my fathers case, as he scanned through all the flags, he became sad. He became so sad, that he cried. He kept crying and crying and just couldn’t get a grip of himself. He was so sad because he didn’t see the flag that represented him.
He was so affected by that experience that after that, he shared his emotional experience with his colleagues in the University and even to Al Adzhar University where other scholars were. After many small group meetings, he delivered a fiery speech regarding his emotional experience of not seeing a flag that he felt should have been there, just as the other countries in Africa and the rest of the world during that time.
Perhaps, it may just have been coincidence, that all over the world, there was a trend of calling for self determination. Although, in the case of the Muslims in the Philippines, the call had been for decades, and the struggle, for centuries.
My father had an out of the box experience being out of Sulu and out there a continent away and looking at Sulu as a dot in the Map. He became very passionate about issues. However, we was not only an activist. He was still, the infatuated boy, that was madly in love with my mother.
I think, what made my father stay focused and graduate in Cairo University and become a doctor was his promise to my mother, that he would come home and marry here. My father literally filled a “maleta” with love letters to my mom to Cebu and to Luuk, Sulu, where my mother worked as a Municipal Nurse.
After graduation, my father went home and visited my mother. Upon arrival, and in public, my father kissed my mother with the French kiss that was totally taboo in a very conservative Muslim community in the 60’s. So the family decided that they had to be married soonest.
After getting married, my father brought my mother, to Egypt again where my dad worked as a doctor and my mother as a nurse. They had a blissful and wealthy life, during the time of President Nasser of Egypt. There, my eldest brother was born and named Nasser. Thereafter, my parents moved to work in Saudi. Enjoyed the life of luxury and weekly picnics by the sea where fish were abundant. So abundant were fish that are a foot long that they swam just beside the shore and you could almost just catch them by the neck. So close were they with fish, that my fathers index finger was almost cut in half because a big fish bit it. I don’t know if they still ate the fish afterwards. There, my two sisters, Amina and Rahma, was born. They again lived the good life.
Perhaps there are things about the good life that breeds discontent and the longing for more meaning. Maybe because there weren’t many places to tour around in Saudi or it was too hot at times, my father decided to move to Sandakan, Sabah, Malaysia. A place, just a night away from home. My father worked there again as a doctor and my mom a nurse. Again, they lived well and rubbed elbows with important persons. One such person was Datu Tun Mustapha, the State Minister of Sabah. They were really good friends. In fact, there, a girl and a boy were born. The elder girl is named Fatma and the next boy is named Don Mustapha. My father really wanted to name the boy Tun Mustapha, but, thank God for the wisdom and natural common sense of my mother who argued that “Tun” would be quite odd in the Philippines. As a compromise, they decided to give the name “Don” which rhymes with the name “Tun.” Until now, I still give credit to my mother for defending me. I don’t mind the name Don. “Tun” may be a title in Malaysia, however, in the local tausug dialect, it also means “to swallow.”
A few years before I was born, in 1976, there were so many events that happened. Before I left for college in UP Diliman, I kept asking my father what happened during those times. He always told me that I will tell you in due time, for as a highschool boy, you will not understand what I will tell you. After my study in UP and taking the board, and getting married, my father fell sick of cancer and asking him of history didn’t occur in my mind. I had always wanted to get a recorder to know exactly what my father did during those long years before I was born. I had met many colleagues of my father, from Cairo to Sabah, who had great respects for my father. Since my father already passed away, perhaps I may never know. Although I read in the history books that Datu Tun Mustapha was ousted from being State Minister when Malaysia learned that he supported the movement in Sulu…
One time when I delivered a half an hour speech to more than a thousand teachers during teachers day in the Provincial Capitol, after coming down to the presidential table, my co-guest speaker told me, “I thought Dr. Salih was already dead. All the time when you were talking there, I thought I was listening to Dr. Salih.” Coming from a very respected person who had also been active during the period before I was born, I consider it a compliment.
Why did my father resign in silence and would rather that the past be unknown, not only to his children, but more so to the public? After much thought, it was for the love of his seven children who had to go to school. It was to ensure that we would have a future that would allow us to attain our own self-actualisation and dreams.
Many colleagues of my father told me that my father recruited and organized his relatives to join in the struggle. His brother in Sulu, his first cousin in Tawi-Tawi and another cousin in Basilan. They were led to believe by my father that he had a say in the organization. However, when the leadership was finalized and my father did not become part of it, his relatives also became isolated from the movement. To include isolation from the logistical support.
One night, I asked my uncle who headed the magic 8, the group that surrendered during the Marcos time, why did he surrender. He said, we thought your father was part of the key persons in the group and it turned out that he didn’t get elected to it. And my group was also isolated, since your father was our key coordinator. We had no logistical support. We were all going to die since we weren’t considered part of the movement.
My uncles turned out to be Governor of Sulu, Governor of Tawi-Tawi and Congressman Tupay of Basilan. However, my father remain the silent, invisible and unknown figure. He wanted to stay unnoticed and live an ordinary life.
I may never know what the real story is or the real motives behind. However, I stumbled upon a book by Salih Jubair though, a “Nation under endless tyranny,” that mentioned my father. Other than that, memories of my father are just whispered to my ears in private with hush tones.
Whatever role my father played just years before I was born may never be known to me as a fact except for hearsay by his old colleagues. What soothes my heart is that I knew my father to be a very principled man. He would rather live a life of hardship and challenges, than live a life of luxury at people’s expense. He was enriched my his stream of ideas and passion and not by his material possession.
While his brothers and relatives were appointed to positions by President Marcos, my father was invited to Malacanang purposely to be given a position. From evening to dawn, my father and President Marcos talked. He was offered many positions, from a Presidential decree that he could practice his profession in the Philippines without need for a local board exam to an Ambassador position to any country he chose. Yet, he chose just to tell Pres. Marcos about the longing for peace and development in Mindanao.
He went home without accepting any of the offers. He never wanted to sell his soul for a few schillings.
As a doctor in Saudi, he was once offered a brand new Mercedes Benz just for one signature that nobody else would know about. He was asked to sign a death certificate that stated that the person died of a heart attack, when it was clear from his observation that it was not. He was persuaded twice. Later that day, he noticed one of his colleagues just got a new Mercedes benz.
I sometimes wonder what if my Father accepted the sparkling positions as Ambassador or the political positions or anything he actually wanted. Perhaps I would be living in a Mansion and my life as a kid would have been more luxurious and easy. Yet, I am not sure if I would have been as tempered and impassioned as I am now.
Disappointed with the reality that idealisms may be too ideal, my father resigned to private life and steered away from politics and material accommodation. My father was tempted to work again in Malaysia with my mother since he could practice there. However, my father gave in to the request of my mother to stay in Zamboanga City and make us study here. My father had to tame his socio-political ideas to become a father to his seven children who had to study which required a normal life with a normal father.
He channeled his international exposure to business and linked with his old friends. He established Zambo-Sulu Petro Mines, Inc. and asked Al-Babtain, a very rich Arab, to invest. Just as they were close to signing the contracts for oil exploration in Sulu sea, war broke out between Iran and Iraq that affected Al Babtain. As a child, my father would show me the picture of the daughter of Al-Babtain who was then six year old and told me that he would set me up to marry the Billionaire’s daughter. Well, destiny did set me up to marry a half Arab Ambassadors daughter later on.
Indeed, my fathers idealism may have pushed my father to work hard and gave him passion to move, but, it also alienated him from many sectors. It may be true, an idealist would find it hard to work together with those who are pragmatic, or those who compromise or those who share different idealism.
He sometimes sprinkles me with his thoughts in his unguarded moments. It opens up a stream of thought bed time story that is quite difficult to grasp for a highschool lad who is just thinking of the next time he would see his crush.
Just like the case of Eddie Murphys father, James Earl Jones as King, one just have to understand that that is the nature of ones Dad and one would love him more knowing that that is what is experience and exposure had made him to be and I could not suddenly demand overnight that he become soft spoken, impassionate, routinary, compromising and layman.
During those times, I kept telling my father to stop thinking about oil in Sulu. People are laughing at you. There is no oil in Sulu they said. My father really believed there was oil in Sulu that he asked me to research in the National Institute of Geological Sciences (NIGS) in UP and we applied for a 1,500 hectare right over the Sulu sea for Oil
Exploration during the mid 90’s. People were literally laughing behind our backs saying that there is no oil in Sulu sea. However, now, the same people who had been laughing are seriously asking me regarding the papers, the oil samples and the documents of the oil exploration that my father had deeply believed in as one of the solutions that could solve the poverty problem in Sulu.
My father really loved Sulu that I sometimes wondered if he had loved his children. Now that I am a father, I do believe that he really did. He may have been very strict that almost mimicked the strictness of those in the middle east with whom he had lived with for more than a decade, I still saw that deep within he did love us.
I cried most deeply one time when I came on a boat from Manila and I saw my father full of sweat trying to change the tires when he and my mom fetched me at 4am. I saw the picture that exemplified how hard he worked for his family and how much he sacrificed all for the sake of his principles. He could have chosen to be filthy rich. Yet he chose the humble life or hardwork that allowed him to keep his idealisms burning and allowed him to speak with passion without biting his tongue.
He was always looking far towards the horizon, that as a small kid infront of him I wondered if he loved me. Now I know, as a father to my son, that he looked towards the horizon to continually imagine how he could make the horizon brighter and better for me and his children and the people he love. He always lived by the principle of leaving a legacy.
The millions he saved from his work abroad, he invested in building a mansion in a posh subdivision in Zamboanga City. Unfortunately, due to some intervening events, his millions diminished and he wasn’t able to finish his mansion that covers 1,600 square meters on a 2,000 square meter lot. We kept criticizing him why didn’t he just make a small Bungalow that was complete. He said, because, that is my legacy. I want 7 giant rooms for each of you. I know one day you will finish it and you and my grand children and great grand children will enjoy it. After more than 20 years since I started complaining, I realized the depth of my father’s wisdom. To leave a legacy.
He also bought a 12 hectare land, beside the road, in the economic zone of Zamboanga City. During the painful and difficult times in college, there was so much clamor to sell a portion of the land or the other so many properties that we had. My father never gave in. He always said, that is my legacy to you and your coming generation. He would rather live in hardship that reduce what he wish that would benefit his children and children’s children. Although we kept telling him that we could buy our own house and hacienda since we are professionals anyway, he kept telling us, by that time, it would be too expensive. True enough, it would be hard to spend tens of millions to buy property was a professional these days.
Having the countenance of an Arab father, I had always thought that my father didn’t need to be given affection to. Just like the commandant of the cadet, he appeared, more often than not, like a serious general. His Aura commanded obedience, discipline and formality. However, his is got to know what was going on in his head when the family went into a crises.
It was an ordinary night when I answered the phone and a girl wanted to talk to my mother. After talking to the girl, my mother was became furious because, allegedly, my father was with another girl he intended to marry. My mother looked for my father the whole night and found him and brought him to the house. I saw my mother become catwoman that night as my father ended up having scars from the nails of my mother that scratched his face and arms.
A few days later, my father got hospitalized. As a confused teenager, I shouted at my father while slamming the door, that if he would re-marry, that he should forget that he had a son named “don Mustapha,” in a crying tone and I slammed the hospital door shut.
When my father reocuperated, when I was washing the dishes, he came to me and talked to me. He said, I am too young to understand. That when I grow up I would understand. And I said in a crying tone, “But you should love my Mama.” What will happen to Mama when you marry again. Why? You don’t love my Mama anymore?
Then my father started crying like a little boy in an uncontrollable manner and he tried hard to talk in amidst the several tears that was flowing from his eyes. We were then both crying heavily. Yet, I tried to listen to what he said and I was shocked to know what he said.
He said that he wanted to marry again because he was sad. Very sad and lonely. He said, every morning, he tries his best to wake up earlier than us and sit in the garden set. He would see us kiss our Mama or hug our Mama each time we left for school. However, we always just passed by him as if he didn’t exist. He asked, why do you kiss your mother and hug your mother and why do you not kiss me too before you leave for school. You only love your mother and I don’t feel that any of my children love me too.
To hear a general who had always acted very seriously and seemed to be so strong that he doesn’t need any “lambing” , to suddenly say that he longed for that “lambing” from his children was an awakening.
The sad truth about life is that we are taught to be rigid, unemotional, strong and formal, yet the reality is that we long for the love, the “lambing,” the affection. And we were lucky that my father opened up his feelings.
My father finally got his daily dose of hugs and kisses from his children and he lost any reason for remarrying. More than that, he fell more deeply in love with my mother by having romantic times in our hacienda with my mom for a few months. My father loved my mom ever since he was a boy. She was the only woman he ever loved.
When my mother died, my father became so lost. He spent much time building a large fence on where my mother was buried. He said, I want to be buried beside my wife. When I die, pls. bury me beside you mother. He repeatedly emphasized.
When my father felt that he was nearing his time, he left the hospital and took his bag, with a catheter hanging on his stomach, and proceeded to Jolo by force and against all our efforts to ask him to stay in Zamboanga where the hospitals are much better. He never said a word, except the face of determination and the eyes that saw beyond the horizon.
When he was already very sick in Jolo, my brother was able to convince him to come to Zamboanga again to the hospital. Everyday, he just kept saying he wanted to go to Jolo.
A few hours ago, he was asked by a relative if it was ok for him to be buried in Zamboanga. Since he was halfway to eternity, he said yes. Yet, for us, his children, we know what was in his heart. We understood, that the reason why he wanted to go to Jolo, was to fix the fence of Mama’s grave, because he was going to join her. Because she loved her wife, our mother, our Mama so much, that he wanted to be with her forever.
In the façade of a chiseled faced that radiated firmness and seriousness, died a very loving father to his children, an eternally loving husband to his one and only wife, Mama, and a dreamer for his people, who, even in his deathbed, never surrendered is dream.
As I write this paragraph, tears are rolling down my cheeks reminiscent of when my father passed away on December 7, three years ago. Since I wasn’t able to clearly whisper to the ears of my father how much I loved him seconds before he passed away, tonight, after prayer, I write this tribute for him, hoping against hope, to seal an unresolved feeling of not having been able to totally and fully express my deep appreciation and love for my father. And that he didn’t pass away too silently and unnoticed…
Inna lillahi wa inna lilahi rajuun…
His life was not in vain, for he will continue to live on through those whom he had touched the lives and inspired, and those whom he left behind…
I love you Baba…
Don Mustapha Arbison Loong
ps. i will not proof read what i wrote…i don’t care if there are serious typos. its 2am. my apology if there are ideas that may be offensive to others. I beg forgiveness as I am only human prone to mistakes. I just talked with my uncle a few days ago and we realised that it is dangerous to talk idealistic these days..I guess, if it is dangerous to talk about the truth, then we will just have to seek refuge with Allah and May Allah bless us and have mercy upon us