The Gates Of Hell

by Jose Ma. Montelibano

Sometimes, we need a foreigner to articulate  a truth so we can confront it. Dan Brown, author of the bestseller, “Inferno”, a fiction and sequel to previous books like “Da Vinci Code” and “The Lost Symbol”, mentions Manila in ways not so flattering. In fact, MMDA Chairman Francis Tolentino reacted quite sharply to Brown’s choice of Manila and his choice of words to describe the city – or metropolis.

There is some basis for Tolentino’s objections for the book’s characterization of Manila as “six-hour jams, suffocating pollution, horrifying sex trade…” The six-hour traffic jams are true only if we have a tropical storm like Ondoy flooding Manila in 2009. The suffocating pollution depends on how pure an environment someone’s lungs have been used to. The face masks of MMDA traffic enforcers, though, indicate they are affected by pollution. And sex trade is present, indeed, but a billing that Manila shares with many other cities in other countries. I do not know what horrifying means – is the author thinking of volume or perversity?

Tolentino said that the book used terrible description of pollution and poverty. Too bad, because pollution is dirty and a killer, and poverty is even
dirtier and a greater killer. I cannot speak of other places beyond Metro Manila, but there is no denying that the metropolis is polluted. The pollution is not only in the air, which to me seems to have improved, but it is also in the garbage. Garbage dumps are way below standards, and garbage in the canals and rivers even worse. I think pictures of the big floods that have hit Metro Manila depict just how thick uncollected garbage is.

But Dan Brown was kind on poverty. The real poverty in the Philippines is indescribable. It not only affects almost 30 million Filipinos because that is
truly understated. Filipinos who know they are poor and honest enough to say it reach 50 million or half of the population. Thank goodness that “Inferno” was not meant to tell the story of poverty in the Philippines because the author could have been more graphic and voluminous.

Poverty has been reported mostly in statistics. These reports in no way come close to the reality of poverty, the pain, the hopelessness, the constant fear of not surviving, and then the greater fear of surviving in hell. Gates of hell? No, poverty is past through the gates, poverty is hell itself.

Brown did not even get to the hunger. If he had concentrated more on Manila, it would not have been a work of fiction anymore – it would not have used anything else but the truth to describe the dire reality of how poverty depraves the poor among our people. A storyteller tends to be more articulate and interesting than statistics. Numbers are cold, words are warmer, pictures are hot, and audio-video is graphic.

But Tolentino is concerned about the truth that had been conveniently left out by the author. There is beauty in Metro Manila, beauty not only in edifices but also the culture of the Filipino. Beyond beauty, there is opulence that can make many forget that there is poverty, too, horrible, terrible poverty.

My concern about trying to show the other side of Manila is that it shames us as a people for being most uncaring to the darker side of life. If we show the glitz, if we show the awesome food we can cook and present in restaurants, if we show the commercial centers, the condos and exclusive villages, if we show the wealth of the rich and powerful, these will become scandalous when contrasted with the pollution and poverty that “Inferno” referred to.

I know Chairman Tolentino is only trying to show a side that is also true, especially a new governance that is more sensitive and concerned about the poor.

The macro is even more outstanding, the aggressive economic growth, the surging stock market, the call centers and BPOs, the construction boom, the exciting tourist avalanche. I believe this is what Chairman Tolentino did not want to be just omitted because it is real as well, it is dramatic as well, and it is bringing the country where we want it to go.

We should not too concerned about good news being locked out this time. Look at the approval and trust ratings of the President – at 70% or more after three years in office simply says that the people know about the good news, even the poor. Even more than what Filipinos feel and say are what non-Filipinos feel and say. The financial institutions and rating agencies have been one uninterrupted source of admiration. The global business world is looking closely, and investing heavily. P-Noy is the darling of the world, and the Philippines the enviable host for both business and fun.

What we should be constantly reminded of are issues which keep us down, which hold us back, and for which we attract scorn. And these are poverty and hunger as the worst of them all. Corruption, primarily because of P-Noy himself, is viewed as being addressed, far from perfect but being addressed.

Dan Brown and his term, “the gates of hell”, are necessary reminders, even quite gentle ones. The discomfort that we suffer by being called so is, by far, incomparable to the suffering of our poor. Dan Brown is not a Filipino hater, and neither am I. But until we hate hunger and poverty as a people, we deserve to be confronted with the truth in its ugliest form.

Over and over, I have said this, and time has only made me more convinced that our journey to progress and a bright tomorrow will find serious humps and obstacles until we care more deeply for our own.

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