Without hesitation, we decided to hold it at Dennis Coffee Garden in Block 2, Lot 8, San Jose Road, Baliwasan, Zamboanga City, because we thought poetry is best experienced with cups of deliciously brewed native coffee. My friend Marj Imran was to join us in this poetry session. Marj Imran is my high school classmate and our valedictorian. She and I already discussed the idea a few days before when I handed over to her my book ‘Sulug in Sabah’ with a message in Bahasa Sug - ‘mataud kahanungan ha gulangan’, which means ‘more peace in the wilderness’ in English. Her brother, my friend Atty. Adzlan Imran was also there and shared his insights during the discussion.
Girillia Tarasul or Poetry Guerrilla was to be the title of our poetry-reading activity that night. The invitation I posted on my Facebook wall featured Prof Nur himself as the Tausug poet who has written many poems and short stories in Bahasa Sug using his pen name Lahir Batin. During the activity, friends from different backgrounds came to join us, including the author of ‘A Taste of Culture’, Tuan Hadji Alfrazer Ahalul.
Prior to this activity, I had been visiting Dennis Coffee Garden to share thoughts with many friends. Some of them were old friends, some I just met in person after befriending them on Facebook while campaigning for ‘Right to Hijab’ a few years back.
Dennis Coffee Garden has been in my heart since it started its operation in Zamboanga City in 2015. Its branch in Jolo, Sulu has been known to me since 1994. It is perhaps the only coffee shop in town (or perhaps in the whole of the Philippines) that allows customers to order a half-cup of coffee. There, people enjoy their coffee alongside delicious Sulu pastries called Bangbang Sug.
During my recent stay in Zamboanga, I’d visit Dennis Coffee Garden almost every night. I consider the place as my own Coffee University of Thoughts. It has become so familiar to me now that even if I close my eyes I could see every tiny details of its furniture and decors, even the light green and violet colors of its facade on a black-and-white photo, which I took through my smart phone.
Many people, even those that are not Tausug, visit the place too. Some of them come for the coffee; some for the many other unforgettable delicacies the place offers: Tiyula' Itum (black soup), Piyanggang (roasted chicken), Satti (saucy dish), Apam (grated-coconut pancake), Daral (flour omelet) and Jualan (banana fritters).
With its furniture and interiors carefully crafted by skilled Tausug artisans, Dennis captures the pride of Sulu. Visiting the place, one could catch a glimpse of the history, culture, tradition, customs, arts, music and social world of the people of the Sulu archipelago.
I can easily relate to the thought of Raz Itum, a Tausug musician-lyricist who posted this line in his Facebook wall on 22 April 2016: “Time will come when everyone in my tribe will declare themselves as Tausug instead of being Filipino. The gap is fast widening.”
He pointed out that “The Filipino identity might soon become a point of question followed by crisis and ultimately, amnesia. Filipinos are more divided now in almost all aspects and axes of society - values, income, perspective and life goals. The resulting difference is slowly compounding towards indifference which slowly kills patriotism and soon, humanity.
He ended his post with the short statement of prayer, “Thank God, I still am and ever will be, Tausug.”
The thoughts shared by Tuan Hadji Alfrazer Ahalul while chewing his mama’ (betel-nut) reminded me of something from the past--that the Sulu archipelago once had its own self-government and statehood. Hadji Al, as he is known to me and other friends, is the in-charge of Dennis. He shared to me how Dennis started as a coffee ambassador in the past. The venture was started by an eight-year-old girl, Ubbaisa from Patikul, who was born in 1920s. Ubbaisa spent her childhood near the village with lumbaan or pasuhan kura’, a horse racing field. As a young girl, she started picking coffee berries in their backyards.
As the first child, she was taught the knowledge of coffee by her mother. She came to learn how to prepare coffee after boiling, grinding and filtering them with a piece of cloth, and then serving them to both local and Japanese horse racers and coffee enthusiasts before the Second World War. Back then, she didn’t see the need to commercialize their coffee, as it had been part of their culture to drink coffee every day. It took time and a lot of effort to establish Dennis and get it to where it is now.
Today, Dennis Coffee Garden is not just Zamboanga’s best place to enjoy coffee but also the city’s best place to experience authentic Sulu culture and tradition. With a staff of young people from different religious background wearing light green and violet uniforms to represent diversity, Dennis continually makes me proud as a Tausug.
And one thing that makes me smile is the fact that behind this amazing kahawa sug venture is a woman. True as what everyone here believes: ‘misan biyadiin kusug sin usug, aun pikilan sin babai’. No matter how powerful a man is, there’s always a woman’s thought behind him.
To Grandmother Ubbaisa who started it all, to my mother, and to all mothers out there on this special day, may you continue to be strong for your families and those you love. And may you continue to succeed in whatever venture you’re doing right now. Happy Mothers’ Day!
I love you, peace! Let’s sail together. Layag Sug!