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Shadow Cities (After André Aciman)

There is a new structure by the old river in my old city. It is a two-story building awaiting verdict – will it be a hotel or a gathering of expensive stores? If one is to judge how dark the river it looks over, the building cannot be wealthy. It will attempt to look handsome in the first and second year but it will finally succumb to the squalor nearby. Or, maybe not. Maybe the city will move on the next millennium, sanitizing its surrounding and banishing the squalor of poverty.

On that site was a huge house, which became a merchandizing store. It sold furniture, among other things. Every time the product changed, the edifice underwent more decay. There seemed a correlation between change and decomposition. This was true of the other homes in the city. A cozy house became a repair shop and the balcony fell apart; a vast storage was turned into a grocery store and was partitioned to accommodate migrants from other towns.

The said huge house by the river had something going for it – the remains of what looked like an ancient wall. You know us, when we see old walls, we determine it to be “historical” and immediately declare it as heritage. No one really studied the wall and yet in a city that is changing rapidly, any element that appears to belong to the past is always a treasure.

As the new building rose and with the old one demolished completely, the collective neurosis for the vanishing old walls started to bother a segment of the population. This included the many of the belief that heritage meant ancient architectures.

We really do not think of heritage by way of thoughts or style of writing or even new poetry and prose. We cannot even reconcile heritage with a new bookstore or of a university that enables students to question their uptight deans and department heads (maybe because the latter does not exist anymore). Heritage has to be old. Always.

We love to talk of progress and development in our sober days. But, in the wicked witching hours, we contemplate our navel and despise any kind of change.

This is true particularly for those who are not anymore in the city, those who have travelled far away from their hometowns, or those who, for reasons unknown, have not returned to their birthplaces. Their dreams of their towns and cities are those of the past. This past is always golden and the silver spaces of those memories are peopled by kind, gentle, genteel people.

Andr Aciman, who lately has become popular not so much for his book, Call Me By Your Name, but by the film version of that novel, has an essay anthologized in a collection he edited himself. The anthology is titled, Letters of Transit. Reflections on Exile, Identity, Language, and Loss. In the essay, “Shadow Cities,” he takes off from his observation of New York. That megalopolis may be vastly different from Naga but the words of Aciman, as he contemplates the vanishing sites around him, are dangling gems of confession. He writes: I wanted everything to remain the same. Because this too is typical of people who have lost everything, including their roots or their ability to grow new ones. It is precisely because you have no roots that you don’t budge, that you fear change…”

Going around the city, one finds many old things gone. Our city, as with many other cities, is not into retention of locales. This is not necessarily bad because, as I said, the past is not the only repository of ourselves, our cultures and identities.

Take the case of the “Ibalong Festival.” By the photos that appeared online, the festivities has gone beyond gayness and tackiness. It has exaggerated all the elements of design the festival cannot be covered anymore by any existing aesthetics. Unless one considers Bakhtin’s notion of the “carnivalesque,” which is the subversion of any acceptable sense of the artistic and beautiful. But this is much too ethnocentric.

We can only fault the “Ibalong” Festival if it claims authenticity, a tendency common to tourism leaders. What is authentic if there is no extant record of what was the original? What this fiesta has achieved is an invention or reinvention of cultures. If they want to claim tribe as kinship unit so be it. If the costumes are a glorious mix of Hollywood, the Imeldific gross and dross and the remnants of Senaculo, so be it. If the men in the parade resemble gay bar strippers more than the putative heroes of lore, let them, for heaven’s sake, be.

In many ways, we have, after colonization and skewered cultural programs, become exiles in our territories.

Our complaint that we are always changing things is true. That house, which started this lamentation is on the street named after Ferdinand Blumentritt, the Czech intellectual and friend of Jose Rizal, noted for his ethnographies – description of peoples and their cultures – of the Philippines. The reports were written by him without even visiting the country. This is not rare: Ruth Benedict is famous/notorious for her ethnography of the Japanese at the time of war. She could not visit Japan but proceeded to do a national character of the people of Japan, which up to now, is still the basis for the many misconceptions about this country and its inhabitants.

How much do we know about Blumentritt and his writings?

Running parallel to Blumentritt is the street of misery, Misericordia, which hits the hidden street of “Tinago.”

If one continues on from Blumentritt up to Colgante Bridge, the street changes its name. It becomes Dayangdang. Is this a tree or a fruit or a shrub? I do not know. It is not, I am certain, the name of a politician. We pray no one erases the name, “Dayangdang.” As I contemplate this street, I would look at the bridge that once had fallen many fiestas ago. I could see the newly built road that has no provision for humans to walk on. Aciman’s words are true – We are exiles and “an exile reads change the way he reads time, memories, self, love, fear, beauty: in the key of loss.”

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