Two Worlds: Growing Up Both Muslim and Catholic in the Philippines

I’ve always said that my feet step in two worlds.

In one world, I inherited the Catholic heritage of my father, a native of Zamboanga, a former seminarian, and the person who had always reminded me to keep, in Chavacano, el temor de dios. Fear of God.

In another world, I wear this hijab in a tradition passed down from generations from my mom, my grandmother, my grandmother’s mother. In the small town of Siasi, Sulu where my mom grew up, Islam commingled with Tausug customs to create a culture that respected faith, bravery, and compassion.

Because my parents wanted to keep their religion, they decided to start a family that identified with both, respected both, and lived with both.

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My dad, Armand Nocum, and mom, Annora Sahi

As a result, I had a very odd childhood growing up in Zamboanga then in Manila.

On one side of the family, I had Catholic relatives who strictly observed Lent and did not even allow us to laugh during Good Friday; grandparents who welcomed their parish priests frequently to their homes for merienda; and aunts and uncles who would pull out all stops for noche buena.

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Hosting delegates of the National Youth Day celebration – the biggest gathering of young people from various Catholic dioceses all over the Philippines – in Zamboanga City in 2017

On another side, I had cousins bringing in delicious Tausug delicacies during Muslim holidays; tall uncles who, in their Eid outfits, looked like dashing Arabs with their beards and tall noses; and aunts and lolas I would silently observe as they would lay down their mat in our house and get ready for Salat (prayer) five times a day.

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Celebrating with family from my mother’s side in Zamboanga City

As for our my own family, we did not have any religious symbols because our home was a neutral ground. No one was allowed to eat pork – except my dad. And, when I get into big trouble, I would sometimes have two lectures from my parents – one based on what Jesus taught and another on what is written in the Quran.

But what I loved the most growing up in these two worlds was the fact that I saw more of the common humanity across these two religions rather than their differences.

In both sides, I had cousins studying, graduating then taking boards, attending interviews, and toiling in hopes of getting a job in Manila or abroad.

I had aunts who got pregnant relatively young. Some had to raise a child or children mostly on their own.

I had relatives from both sides Skype-ing us from Dubai, Qatar, California, London, bringing chocolates when they stay in Manila, and becoming teary-eyed when they talk about being away from their kids.

I’ve been to countless hospital visits to old relatives stricken with diabetes or a heart condition, young cousins with dengue, and dying loved ones. In sickness and in death, in any island in the Philippines, the family comes together to support and keep each other strong.

So, this week, as the holy month of Ramadan comes to a close, I write these words as an appeal to peace, an appeal to empathy.

Every Filipino can do a better job at remembering that the Philippines is a country of many faiths and cultures – each one as vibrant and worthy of admiration as the rest. The next time we think of stereotypes, belittle or ostracize, or label a person because of what we see in the media, I hope we can think twice.

My feet stepped in two worlds, and I know am a better person because of that.

Because of the way I grew up, I learned that, Muslim or Christian, the same stories – stories of poverty, success, failure, sadness, happiness, hope – bound us together.

And this makes us only stronger as a people.

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A fellow peace advocate from Manila (on the left) chats with my cousin (on the right) on a boat ride to Sulu for a volunteer mission

Ramadan Mubarak!

(This piece was also featured on GMA News Online on May 29, 2019).

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