Sharjah: In a cozy apartment in a low-rise building block near Al Nasseriya Park in Sharjah, lives a Filipino Muslim family known for their generosity and hospitality.
The man of the house, Roy Tamano, 44, and his wife Noraisa, 39, stay in a two-bedroom unit with their two children ages 14 and seven, in a flat off Street 2, not far from Zulekha Hospital.
They are Maranaos, a proud “Moro” (Filipino Muslims) tribe who dwell in the verdant Lanao province, known as the “Baguio of the South”, in the Philippines’ mineral-rich Mindanao island.
Known for their graceful, and dynamic folk dances and colorful garb, Maranaos have a rich cultural heritage, which also extends to their feasts, called “piging”. These events are festive and sumptuous, which is no different to how the Maranao community in the UAE prepares iftar.
Reliving Ramadan atmosphere in Philippines
For Maranaos and the Tamanos, Ramadan nights are special, too. Each iftar (breaking of the dawn-till-dusk fast) is a feast and an opportunity for family and friends to gather.
As visitors started to come streaming one after another into the Tamano household, the mood turned festive. In the living room, there’s a Kulintang, a Moro musical instrument made of brass.
The kitchen, meanwhile, hums with several dishes being put together, the waft of aroma reaching the nostrils in the living room. The children and other women in the house help set the table.
Iftar is almost ready. At the strike of 7.08pm, the call for the Magrib prayers came — it’s time to break the day’s fast.
The Tamanos are used to being gracious hosts to gatherings like this in their brightly-decked up electronic access-controlled apartment.
“Ramadan is special to us. We try to relive the Ramadan atmosphere back home as much as possible with familiar flavours. What makes it special is the spiritual aspect, but also the food and family gatherings,” Tamano explains to Gulf News #Pinoy.
Though iftar time is at 7.08 pm, preparation started in earnest a few hours earlier.
'Our faith is important to us, so is our food'
On our visit, the person in charge of the Tamano kitchen is Hedjara Tomindug, 43, a government employee in the Philippine’s Cotabato City, and currently on a brief visit to the UAE. Originally from Tugaya town of Lanao del Sur, she gave us a crash course on preparing a few popular Maranao dishes.
“I’m super happy to be in UAE, seeing how well developed it is. Very modern, tolerant yet also deeply rooted in Islamic traditions,” said Tomindug. “Our faith is very important to us. So is our food,” said Tomindug.
By this time, scores of visitors had come for iftar.
We feasted on native Maranao fare — including “Pisasati” (pictured below, centre), tuna fishcake with grated fresh coconut, garlic onions, flour and eggs and black pepper spice.
“Lanao is a cold place, so some chili helps in spices up our kitchen,” explained the mother of four.
We also tried some “Beef Randang” (top, left), beef sautéed in “sakurab”, a Muslim Mindanao scallion similar to spring roll; and the traditional dish “Piaparan A Manok” (a chicken curry-like dish) cooked in papar, unpressed grated coconut meat, and onions. Click here for the recipe
We also tried the "Palapa", a unique dish that is both an appetiser and a condiment. It is made of thinly-chopped sakurab, mixed with bird’s eye chilli, pounded ginger and toasted grated coconut. When used in cooking, palapa is sautéed first and added with the optional spoonful of condensed milk before palapa is used as seasoning to a particular dish. Palapa is an essential ingredient in Maranao cuisine.
Meeting the Maranao community leader
Tamano, who comes from a well-known Muslim Filipino clan, is a community leader of the Maranao community in the UAE. Following his graduation from Mindanao State University in Marawi City, he became a young entrepreneur and was a millionaire at age 25 running a successful import business in the Philippines.
In late 2005, the business took a downturn and Tamano explored his prospects in the UAE and came to the emirates on a visit visa.
Weeks later, he found a job, and started as a human resource clerk at the Sharjah Cooperative Society.
He planned to stay only a year or two. But fate had other plans. Thirteen years later, his life in the UAE has taken a new narrative.
“We have been blessed here in the UAE,” said Tamano. “Our eldest daughter (Sophia, 14) was born in the Philippines, while the youngest (Shaikha, 7) was born here."
On many Ramadan nights, their home welcomes a gathering of relatives and friends to break their fast, share stories over sumptuous Maranao dishes and pray together.
Friday night was also a “Pagana Maranao”, a traditional welcome to new members of their community in the UAE. This week's new face belonged to banker Salimar M. Salomabao, who hails from Marawi City.
Salomabao recently moved to the UAE from the Saudi capital Riyadh as the new, Dubai-based Regional Manager for the Gulf of the Philippine National Bank (PNB).
The banker shared some personal finance-related insights with those gathered. He also gave a subtle reminder: “We are all migrants here, temporary workers. Sooner or later, we’re still going home to our own place, in our home province, in our own homeland.”
He added: “We have to prepare ourselves financially.”
In a comment to Gulf News #Pinoy, another Maranao expressed his gratitude to the UAE: “This Ramadan, we thank the people of the United Arab Emirates for their generosity, kindness and hospitality,” said Naif Mohd Ali, 32, a salesman who has worked in Sharjah for seven years. “We thank them for allowing us to work here (in the Emirates), so we can sustain and support our family in the Philippines.”
Giving back to the community
The Maranao community in the UAE has about 500 members ready to help each other. Each year, weeks prior to Ramadan, the group also gathers hundreds of kilos of dates and sends them back home to different mosques in their community.
Recently, the group worked with a UAE charity to send 500 copies of the Maranao-Arabic translation of the Quran from the UAE to the Philippines.
“We are closely-knit community. Because of our traditions of marrying from within the family, even in big province like Lanao, nearly everyone knows everybody else,” said Tamano.
He believes there are still several hundreds more from their community in the UAE whom they want to reach out to.
As for Marawi seige which lasted nearly five months last year, and left 1,500 dead, the Maranaos confront it with great sadness, but also with a dose of optimism.
“We lost our ancestral house, it was turned into ashes,” said Tomindug. “The Maute terrorists took over our house early on during the fighting. We are really sad about this episode. I really cried a lake of tears. The years of my parents’ toil were turned into ashes. I hope, the place will be cleared soon and we can start rebuilding.”
If there’s one fervent wish that Moros in the UAE have, it is this: “We also wish that back home in the Philippines, things would get better and we’ll also have the same opportunities so we don’t have to leave,” said Tamano.
Tamano was in Marawi on May 23, 2017, the day the Daesh-inspired Maute group combined with Abu Sayyaf fighters seized the city. He was supposed to speak at an homecoming event of MSU alumni members, but ended up driving his kin to safer ground.
Today, almost 70 per cent of residents had been allowed to go back to their residence, though the rest had not been allowed to return to the badly-damaged part — the so-called “ground zero” of devastation.
“What happened was the will of God,” said Tamano. “We must stop blaming each other. We just have to move on. Let’s just do that hard work of rebuilding. So we can live normal lives again.”