Friday, July 20, 2007

Is/Not and the Human Security Act of 2007

Republic Act No. 9372, more popularly known as the The Human Rights Security Act of 2007, passed on July 15, 2007 here in Philippines. It is the Philippine equivalent to the U.S. Patriot Act. And in an equivalent sense to the U.S. Patriot Act, the facile promise of security manages to generate a great deal of insecurity among the very citizens it meant to reassure.

What the Act does not affect is the weather. It has been so blistering hot that going outside is not an option. I’ve tried the reflective umbrella approach to the sun. I’ve tried the damp towel approach. My sweat reaches an equilibrium point with the humidity such that I become one with my damp cloth – hot and damp. I’ve tried imagining the coldest Chicago winter that my memory chips could muster, and still I’m finding tiny patches of heat blisters coming to life on my ankles and knees. I even have a smiley face pattern of them on one side. The heat is aided and abetted by the furiously hungry black pavement that eats old jungle growth and coconut groves. I would love to lie down in the many green stretches dotting the city, except that I’d be in company to grazing caribou herds, stray goats, and the still water that hordes the much feared dengue fever epidemic. In my opinion, time and space warp under the weight of this intense hydrothermal energy, so people move slower with my perception of them even more so. It’s like when you press the search button on a DVD and the scene moves at a fractionally slower pace. Temperature and time bear an inverse relationship.

The Human Security Act of 2007 also does not affect the latest Akon song from haunting me in every car, public thoroughfare, and indoor facility here in the Philippines. (Even the provincial capital building, army officers have it blaring on a boom box perched somewhere in the jungle of the ballot boxes they are guarding! “Nobody wanna’ see us together, but it don’t matter, noooo…..!” It has become one of those songs that I would consider going deaf to avoid. To me, it’s the worse marriage of reggae and pop hip-hop that a New Jersey raised and Senegalese born artist could produce. I first had the displeasure of hearing it on perpetual rotation when I visited some family in California. My cousin had a nine-year old daughter whose gangstah style obsessed uncle burned her a mix of Top 40 hits. And since I spent about seven days there, and since spending any amount of time in California means that you are spending at least 80% of that time in a car, it means I become an involuntary audio prisoner to Akon. It was the most exquisite form of torture that could be doled out in a Ford Windstar minivan. So having that song follow me here to the so-called developing world, 7,000 miles away, and have it hummed by people in my cousin’s office as I try to write this; to have it chorused by a bevy of Catholic schoolchildren skipping out of school; to have it invisibly emit from rust-yellow ballot boxes in a state building lobby; or (my least favorite) screeched by the mall rat set on the crowded jeepney, I heartily curse globalization. I curse the hegemony of American pop music growing like a rot in people’s ears, forming a sort of insulation against the news that a chunk of their constitutional rights got hijacked. (Someone I don’t blame the artist Akon, because I liked his collaboration song with Eminem.)

What the Human Security Act does affect is the content of church sermons. For me, if church is a voluntarily activity it turns into ethnographic spectacle par excellence. I was herded to the upper row of concrete pews on the balcony just in time to hear the pastor somehow take one little phrase in the book of Ezekiel, “God’s fat pasture,” and somehow, in the usual mystery that is Protestant Christian logic armed with a powerpoint show, the phrase turned into an overt political diatribe that went something like this,

Love the Jews! You must Love the Jew! The United States is defending the children of Israel. We must influence GMA (Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo) to do the same.

Note: This sermon was given on Sunday, July 15, 2007, the same day HSA 2007 passed on the Philippine congress.

Of course, while there is every reason to applaud a call against anti-semitism, but I am not sure if anti-semitism is a problem in the Philippines in the first place as much as an anti-Bush administration sentiment coupled with a resistance to capitulation to the demands by aforementioned U.S. regime, like can we have a strategic base here again? But how would even the best preacher connect “God’s fat pasture” to a pro-America stance since America is not, in fact, mentioned in the Old Testament?

"Postcards from Italy," Beirut, from Gulag Orkestar

Friday, July 13, 2007

Pagkain, or On Food

Filpinos eat meat. I never met a vegetarian one, although I heard about a Filipino chef in New York who claimed to be a vegetarian, except that (like a good Filipino) he ate pork. In spite of, or perhaps because of, my waning appetite due to some stomach bug that has been plaguing me, my relatives have been searching for things that I can eat. The latest solution is to present me with the most “exotic foods” they can find. I called for a limit of one “exotic food” introduction per week. This week it was chicken feet. In some ways, it is the analogue to pizza in the US, because deep fried chicken feet is the bread and butter of college students here. For three pesos you can get two feet. For two more pesos you can get puso, a little ball of rice tucked in basket-woven coconut husks. So for five pesos, about the equivalent of eight cents, is a New York “slice.” Next week it will be BBQ’ed one-day old chicks. For fifty-one pesos (about one dollar) you can get eight hatchlings nestled into a hot dog container. I think the idea is to work up to monkey brains or dog. After seeing Un Chien Delicieuse, I feel that dog has “been done” and I have to ante up with the monkey brains.

I’ve been getting a lot of herbal healing tips here as well. After a previous summer in the Philippines where I counted over one hundred bites, I had armed myself with all these organic anti-mosquito balms and sprays with me. One day I found my little second cousin being smothered all over with wild honey that came from my mother’s village. The baby started licking as furiously as he could, retaining a sticky brown glow on his face, like a bad self-tanner. The parents said that it helped with the child’s very sensitive skin. And sure enough, the angry welts left by bug bites disappeared. Furthermore, for some strange reason, despite the fact that it was honey, nectar of the gods and bugs alike, no insect seemed attracted to the honey. I immediately began dabbing it all over me. Whoa. If there was an infomercial for this stuff, I would be one of those gushing satisfied customers. Wild honey is an anti-itch balm, an anti-inflammatory, and probably a good pimple antidote as well. The other thing someone tried to convince me of is the super-miraculous healing effect of squash. Both my cousin and his wife said they had to use glasses at one time. So they went on serving a day regimen of squash. Sure enough, as the tale goes, their eyes improved and they no longer require any corrective lenses. I took the challenge on, and am gamely eating squash pudding every day, sometimes twice a day, for one month.

Stevie Wonder, "He's Misstra Know it All," Innervisions

And on the Seventh Day....

Friday the 13th marks the seventh day I have been in the Philippines. I suppose you could say it marks a Sabbath of sorts, but then it feels like that everyday here. The most popular non-sequitur you can overhear on the streets of the Philippines are “thank you Lord Jesus.” I wrote about the night of my arrival, because an arrival in darkness left a lasting impression on me.


I arrived from Japan into Cebu-Mactan in the evening. I shared a plane with about a million Japanese tourists, and sat next to one with quite possibly the most odoriferous feet I’ve ever been graced to spend four hours of my life with. Cebu is a major resort area, and my friend Jun’s assertion that it is a popular vacation destination for Japanese was confirmed beyond a smelly doubt. When I cleared customs, which magically happened in a matter of two minutes, I burst out into a melee of people gesticulating wildly with signs – which to my initial dismay were all in Japanese. I scanned the faces looking for my cousin, and instead of him my eyes fell on the lone sign in English,

“Welcome to Cebu”


(The misspelling of my name is accurate, or accurate in its inaccuracy.) I sheepishly approach the gentle looking man holding the sign. He has a placid countenance and features that recall a Chinese heritage. In spite of the tropical heat and humidity, he is wearing a heavy cotton, pale yellow, and starched collar shirt tucked into precisely creased and pressed pants. The man’s voice is as gentle as his face, “Are yew, Chrees-tee-na?’ Each syllable is so carefully enunciated and drawn out, as if he had been practicing this moment for weeks. When I answer in the affirmative, he follows a little more easily with, “Sir Jojo (my cousin’s nickname) is at the resort and they are waiting for you there.”

I remember Bonifacio “Jojo” Gomez, Jr. as a teenager when I first visited my mother’s tiny fishing village some twenty years ago. He was the least shy of the lot and seemed more thrilled than cowed by my (comparatively) brassy American personality. We played chess on the porch of a nipa hut, or house on stilts. We roamed around the neighborhood while a dozen kids followed us. I was that novelty not known by my name, but as “the American,” as if I were some new zoo specimen. He took me to the beach at low tide, where I squished around with the starfish and collected all the seashells my little hands could carry, until the adults would yell that high tide was about to commence and in the rush I would drop all my booty back into an ocean literally foaming at the mouth. My mom sent him to college. Now he is “Sir Jojo,” a fledging businessman on the move with hired drivers, a fleet of cars, and a resort waiting for me.

The gentle-faced driver’s name is Liomar. He could have said that Jojo was waiting for me on the moon and I would have been nonplussed. My jet-lag was so severe as to dull even the most basic sense of reality. In any case, before heading to the resort, it turns out we had to pick up a couple other people; business associates coming in by ship from other islands. So I stepped from a surprisingly lukewarm if still humid Philippine night air into a white van that might as well have been a refrigerator on wheels.

The Philippines is infamous for its traffic patterns, or more precisely the lack thereof. I look at my notes from that first night in Cebu, scribbles clumsily penned in a darkened car, wherein I had written: “The images on the car window seem more like projections of a seedy dream.” I remember the parable of seeing the world through a car window that Slavoj Zizek referred to in his book Looking Awry. In short, the world of images exists not as a projection onto a scrim, betokening a Real outside the cave (or in my case the car), but that without the notion of “window” itself, the Real reveals itself as the perception of transparency itself. When you roll down the window, the neat categories of “inside” and “outside” are replaced by the threat of an encroaching void. Roll the window back up, and sanity is restored. Even though I began to shiver in my box with a window, for that hour I was resolute in keeping the distinction between interior and exterior. In retrospect it was probably the anxiety of what seemed like a thousand hours of travel that inspired the dread I felt as we circulated through the inner streets of Cebu. The more likely culprit was the play of light and dark. It disturbed me to think that the streets appeared to me perfectly lit for a Wong Kar-Wai film noir. Coming from Tokyo, where Tanizaki’s shadows have disappeared by the searchlight of capitalism’s flourescent glare, they have come to roost in a country with, as yet, dubious utility services.

Liomar was a native and knew the short-cuts through small alleys that impossibly doubled as two-lane roads. Trucks, colorfully outfitted jeepneys, cars, motorbikes, tricycles, bicycles, pedestrians, and dogs jumbled and swarmed about on the same narrow pathways, more often unpaved, unmarked and lacking signage or signal than not. Children barely old enough for pre-school went down the rows of cars, one by one, simply peering back into the car windows, their eyes speaking a silent request. But what constituted the most haunting series of images on my television, I mean, window, was the endless and unvarying dimly lit stalls. Each seemed to me like a little diorama box, and might as well have been made out of the same rugged materials. The outer shell of these shacks were incongruously fitted corrugated steel sheets with cardboard or discarded billboards slapped on into an industrial-material patchwork. The first floor often functioned as a small business enterprise, with children peering over the second story, bored or hypnotized by the activity below. There are three basic choices of business, as unvarying in their products as the rain. 1) Food stalls. 2) Lotto windows. 3) Auto Repair yards. The food stalls are the most common, as befits the culture of nonstop eating here. As we neared the docks, there was an almost unbroken line of tables, upon which skewers of meat were arranged into incredible bouquets. The centerpiece of these meat gardens was a flaming beacon. Imagine this garden of flaming flesh stretching out for several kilometers on a dark night. In my little hermetically sealed box, I waited to step out of the car.

Of course, that is a description of the first two hours. Since that first night, I have been party to a pastor blessing the purchase of new cars; had a lot of time to reflect on the nature of envy; and clumsily placed bets on the weekly neighborhood cockfight. And, in lock-step timing with my curiousity regarding the politics of audio transmission, the local paper announced yesterday that a satellite of Bombo Radio in Bogo City, just a half hour north of where I am, has received a bomb threat. The accused party are supporters of a congressional candidate who lost in the recent national election. The radio satellite is owned by the winning candidate. The accused haven’t exactly denied it, but cryptically responded, “If we were going to bomb the place, we would have done it before the election to shut them up.” Such is politics in the democratic Republic of the Philippines. I’ll be going up to the station next week. I hope to organize these latest notes into some kind of palatable narrative soon.

In a postscript to this set of notes, I’m assigning a song to each entry. I have this tendency to listen to a song almost obsessively for a few days, and then move on to another. I’ve found out that I share this with other filipinos, who are inveterate karaoke fanatics, and can be found singing the same song over and over again. I wonder if the song has any correlation to what I’m immediately experiencing or writing about. If nothing else, I’ll have a summer soundtrack by the time I return.

“How Soon is Now” – The Smiths, from “A Hatful of Hollow,” 1985