They show the way to peace
MANILA, Philippines—This marriage between a Christian man and a Muslim woman works.
This is what Armand Nocum and Annora Sahia wish the Christians and Muslims in Mindanao, some of whom have difficulty living together, can learn from.
And now the couple want not only to show how they live together in harmony, but also hope to go beyond themselves and reach out to war-torn communities in one simple way—through books.
Specifically through the Books-4-Guns project, also known as the A-Book-Saya Group, which suggests the joy and enlightenment a book can bring to children who have known only strife.
But before the books there was food. And food, as people may well know, is a great pacifier, bonder, uniter—the way to go to assuage hunger and appease anger as well.
Armand, an ex-seminarian and a former reporter of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and Annora, a Tausug Muslim and a nurse, own the Satti Grill House. It is a small budget eatery in Ermita, Manila, and it serves food of Malaysian and Arabic origin indigenized by the predominantly Muslim communities of Zamboanga and Sulu.
The word “satti” is derived from the Southeast Asian “sate” or “satay.” The eatery Satti is also the name of a dish.
Satti’s bottled peanut sauce is now undergoing fine-tuning by the Department of Science and Technology. (The couple also have a stall at the SM Fairview Food Court plus other income-generating endeavors.)
Books, not guns
Armand grew up in Zamboanga City, and Annora, in Sulu.
“We plan to flood Mindanao with books and magazines, both old and new, in order to open the eyes of young Christians and Muslims there to the reality that they have a better future if they pick up a book rather than a gun,” he said, adding:
“We had a common childhood experience of seeing many guns, but we remember books to be very rare. It’s like you weren’t a full human being if you didn’t own a gun.
“If the books can stop even only one or two potential terrorists from bombing civilians, that would be fulfillment enough for us.”
Armand and Annora spoke with one voice: “What do we do to children who grew up thinking that the future depends on how they handle their guns? What do we do to children of war who grew up with guns, and not books? Kill them all?”
A variety of books have already been donated, Armand said.
These will be examined and classified, but he wishes that there were more books suited for the children of indigenous communities in Mindanao. (There are some available now, written and designed by writers and artists from such communities, courtesy of Pamulaan, but they are not easy and cheap to produce.)
Christian, Muslim weddings
Armand recalled seeing the fair Annora for the first time when he was a reporter for a Zamboanga paper.
Annora was then a student at the Jesuit-run Ateneo de Zamboanga.
He wooed her, but marriage was not immediate. She left for Kuwait while he moved to Manila and joined the Inquirer.
For the two of them, religion was not a big issue, but for some relatives it was. To make a long story short, when Annora came home in 1995, the two decided to tie the knot.
They had a Christian wedding (with Fr. Angel Calvo, a Claretian, officiating) and later a Muslim wedding (with an ustadz presiding) on Oct. 7, 1995.
Calvo, a Spanish Catholic missionary and known peace advocate, assured the couple it was all right for them to be husband and wife.
“I was a Claretian seminarian,” Armand said. “Fr. Rhoel Gallardo, who was kidnapped and killed by the Abu Sayyaf, was my fellow seminarian.”
Not too long after the wedding, Annora left again for Kuwait, where she worked as an operating-room nurse. “I wanted to earn a little more,” she said.
She did not know she was pregnant when she left. Their elder daughter, Arizza Ann, now 13, was born in Kuwait.
Annora came home with the baby but left again shortly. Armand continued to work as a reporter. Arizza was left in the care of Armand’s brother and sister-in-law.
“Those were pain-filled years,” Armand recalled. “I lived in a rented, rat-infested room and went to work in a beat-up motorcycle. But those years of saving up paid off.”
After a total of five years in Kuwait, Annora came home to stay. Their second daughter, Ashia Marie, was born eight years ago.
Ashia studies at Holy Spirit School, a school run by Catholic nuns, in Fairview, Quezon City. Arizza also studied there and graduated valedictorian. She is now enrolled at Philippine Science High School.
It will be up to his daughters to choose their religion when they come of age, Armand said. For now, they are exposed to the Christian and Muslim faiths as practiced respectively by their father and mother.
Peace and unity
Early in the marriage, Annora, with her good business instinct and Armand backing her all the way, started a car exchange business that expanded in no time.
Armand stayed on in journalism until 2006.
With their small businesses thriving, the couple now want to spend their energies on something else—peace and unity.
“Through food, we can break down the wall of bias that some of us Christians have put up,” Armand said.
“Muslim food appreciation may bring respect of the Muslim religion, culture and norms. We are happy that in our food outlets, Christians and Muslims are coming together to break bread daily,” he said.
However, Armand said with a sigh, “the recent outbreak of war in parts of Mindanao has shown us that we should do more than offer food.”
This is why, Armand said, he and Annora decided on the Books-4-Guns project and adopted the A-Book-Saya catchphrase to counter the damage that the Abu Sayyaf was doing to the image of Muslims in general.
Jolted out of comfort zone
The book project had long been there, but he did not push it hard enough, Armand admitted.
“Then the MILF-MOA brouhaha jolted me out of my comfort zone,” he said, referring to the scrapping in August of the memorandum of agreement on ancestral domain between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which had caused a resurgence of violence. “This time there is no turning back.”
Armand said he was “willing to sacrifice time, money and comfort” to keep the book project going—and thriving.
“When we stay silent we are contributing to the loss of innocence, dreams and hopes of the Muslim and Christian children being marched off to war as child soldiers,” he said.
“Today they may appear distant and fragile, like toy soldiers, but 10 years from now, these children will become deadly bombers and make us pay for our indifference and neglect of their miserable lives in Mindanao.”
The systems and structures of the project have yet to be put up, but Armand hopes that things will fall into place with the help of like-minded citizens in Mindanao and elsewhere.
“I nurtured this dream for more than 20 years,” he said. “Annora and I hope to show young Muslims that we care for them. We want to saturate schools and day-care centers in Zamboanga, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi with books in order to make young Muslims realize that there is greater hope in knowledge than in the barrel of a gun.”