MIDSAYAP, North Cotabato”•The Latin-surnamed heirs of an 18th century Moro sultan have the key to continuing dialogue between Muslims and Christians in old Cotabato Province, amid threats of terrorism smashing into the existing peace like the current siege of Marawi City.
Both born Muslim, the couple Datu Yusuf Fernandez and Bai Tessie Jolila Dilangalen-Fernandez had spent most of their lives in places where there are mostly Christian residents and a few Muslims. To their Christian friends, he is simply known as Datu Bebot, and she, Bai Tessie.
In retirement, Bai Tessie, who works at the Davao City Hall, says she intends to come home for good after a planned vacation in Australia, where two of their children have settled.
Their common dream is to work for the restoration of community peace and the old atmosphere of mutual trust and respect they both grew up in, where Maguindanaon Muslims and their neighbors among families of Christians and indigenous tribes have lived together in harmony.
Three years ago, Datu Bebot was unanimously acknowledged by his kin as the rightful heir of his father, Sultan Mohammad Dimasonsang Fernandez Tambilawan II, who in June 2006 inherited the royal title of his 19th century grandfather, Sultan Mohammad Tambilawan.
Datu Bebot has been anointed as Sultan Ameer Yusuf Fernandez, while Bai Tessie was crowned 11 years ago as Bai-a-Labi Amira Jolila Fernandez Dilangalen-Fernandez, along with her father-in-law. Datu Bebot’s father was the big brother of Bai Tessie’s mother. So they are first cousins, and their marital union is allowed in Muslim tradition.
Two of their children have established a chain of restaurants”•the Tambilawan Restaurant in General Santos City and in Koronadal City”•that is slowly gaining its share of business-name goodwill in the local food industry. The restaurants have employed Christian and Muslim individuals evenly.
“Sad,” “unfortunate,” “un-Islamic” is how the Fernandezes would comment outright on the militants’ social media uploads of photos or videos of gory, deplorable acts of beheadings and bombings committed in the name of Islam”•and on the resulting reactions of bigotry against Muslims in other places.
Weeks ago, extremists from the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters attacked two nearby villages, and reportedly desecrated a chapel, as they briefly held but later freed mostly Christian hostages.
Moderation is key
The royal couple’s moderation is their “open secret” in “dealing with people of any tribe or religion, because the true teachings of Islam are “made of compassion, forgiveness, perseverance in unfavorable situation, and of being grateful in fine times,” they told the Manila Standard.
Friends and kin to Christian and Muslim residents here, the Fernandezes lived in Davao and Manila but were raised in Midsayap, partly because of the teaching and military careers of their respective parents.
Datu Bebot’s parents were both public school teachers, and her father was a ranking military officer of the World War II United States Armed Forces of the Far East (USAFFE).
But beyond that, their parents were known for generosity to early Christian families of settlers from the North. Bai Tessie’s father, Colonel Datu Manteel Dilangalen, was described as an “astute, landed rich old man,” and many still remember he had given away vast tracts of land in Barangays Salunayan and Kapimpilan to families of farming settlers in Midsayap.
Datu Bebot’s father, now deceased, was the firstborn son of Tato Fernandez, son of Sultan Mohammad Tambilawan of Cotabato Upriver Valley, known as the Kingdom of Bwayan.
Why Fernandez? The first Christian man to have stepped on the soil of Kudarangan—an interior village in Cotabato Upriver Valley—that is part of the kingdom of Sultan Mohammad Bayaw (father of Sultan Tambilawan), was the Jesuit Padre Jose Fernandez Cuevas in 1860.
In his book, “History of Maguindanao,” Dr. Najeeb Saleeby, 19th century American scholar, decoded (from Farsi-Arabic Maguindanaon text) the Tarsilan (Royal Genealogy), sometimes called the “Book of Kings.” In his English treatises on the genealogical narratives, Saleeby attested to the royalty of Sultan Mohammad Bayaw, the 18th century forebear of the Fernandezes.
It was said that, passing off as a teacher amid mostly bladed male Moros, the priest was known here as “Señor Fernandez.” He was looking for a place where he could establish a school as a community gift from the Queen of Spain.
The priest had wanted for that purpose the elevated Kabalukan Hills, ideal for a monastery retreat, which he called Reina Regente (“The Queen’s Country Administrator”). But Sultan Bayaw declined Fernandez’s offer to buy the hills, because it was the old dominion of their great grandmother’s brother, the Sultan Sa Kabalukan.
Then, “Señor Fernandez” instead talked to the very young heir-apparent of Sultan Bayaw, later crowned as Sultan Mohammad Tambilawan, who then gave him a portion of Kudaranggan, now an interior village in Midsayap.
The territory was soon considered to have been ceded to the Spanish colonial government in Manila. The American colonial government later made the area into an agricultural colony, and at its core was the Kudarangan Integrated School of Agriculture, the first center of Western learning in Cotabato Valley.
The anecdote goes on that as a gesture of friendship, the priest asked the young Sultan Tambilawan that if he could not anymore witness the ceremonies of his marriage when he returned to Spain, then the Moro leader would at least “honor his cordial visit by naming his firstborn male after Fernandez.”
The second version is that Sultan Tambilawan named his firstborn Tato Fernandez after Don Luis Fernandez Golfin, the military commander of Mindanao in 1872, when Cotabato (Kuta a Wato, that is, “Fort of Stone” to locals) was referred to in old official Spanish maps as “El Tercer Distrito de Central Mindanao” (The Third District of Central Mindanao).
A second territory ceded to Spain by Sultan Tambilawan was Salunayan, which the American government much later designated as a military camp during the Moro-American War.
In 1940, President Jose P. Laurel Sr. awarded the same camp to Major Froilan Matas, a leader of the then-Philippine Constables, which backed up the invading foreign forces. But this was fiercely opposed by the USAFFE Philippine Army Guerrillas under Colonel Dilangalen and his cousin, Colonel Salipada Pendatun.