Dewey’s Syrian Spy Who Could Have Saved Rizal

Put ‘Middle East’ and ‘Philippines’ in a sentence and the usual knee-jerk thought is ‘Aha – the introduction of Islam to the islands in 1380″ or, sadly “Oh-oh, ISIS terrorists in Marawi” and certainly “Muslim”. In fact, there was a flood of people migrating from the Middle East to the Philippines in the 19th century, especially from the Turkish-administered Ottoman Empire, Christian and Jew , bringing with them entrepreneurship and adding to the cultural life of the country. Plus at least one who played a role in efforts to seek Philippine independence from the Spanish and is regarded as the founder of American business in Manila.In his paper, Middle Eastern Migrants in the Philippines: Entrepreneurs and Cultural Brokers, (1), Professor William Gervaise Clarnce-Smith of SOAS says:

“Middle Easterners have made a significant contribution to the history of the Philippines, and yet scholars have ignored them. This contrasts with the substantial literature on Chinese and Japanese immigration into the islands, and some scattered research on South Asian, European and North American communities. Despite their small numbers, Middle Easterners have left their own particular mark on the Philippines and, thus, deserve to be rescued from obscurity.”

Najib Tannun Hashim is a particularly interesting example of a Middle Eastern immigrant given his connection with the struggle for Philippine Independence from the Spanish, possible friendship with Jose Rizal, his playing the Great Game for Dewey after the Battle of Manila Bay, his business interests like the still-remember Manila Grand Opera House, and his domestic tribulations, the latter often covered in law students textbooks.

NT Hashim shop in Escolta.

Hadhrami Arab Muslim influences were largely confined to the Southern Philippines while Jewish, Christian and Druze middle-easterners predominated in Manila. Most were in search of business opportunities and had first gone to the United States from Ottoman-controlled Syria and Lebanon. The opening up of the Philippines from the beginning of the 19th century created such opportunities.

So it was that Damascus-born  Najib ‘N.T.’ and his elder brother Sa’id Tannun Hashim, converts to Protestantism from the Greek Orthodox church and now US citizens, stepped onto the wharf at the port of Manila in 1892 with suitcases filled with watches and jewellery, to make their fortunes, which they proceeded to do during three moves of location.

Sa’id later moved to Japan. He was of different mettle to Najib – he denounced an unidentified person to Spanish diplomats for smuggling arms to Philippine revolutionaries. However, the diplomats considered him a rogue and ignored him (2).

He later returned to the Philippines and effectively became invisible, little more is known of him.Early in the American period a third brother, Aziz, also moved to Manila after running a jewellery business in Canada. One of the Hashim brothers appears to have been connected with Sayyid Wajih al-Kilani, a Palestinian who proclaimed himself shaykh al-Islam and was expelled from the Philippines by Governor-General Harrison in 1914.

An August 1923 Amerrican Chamber of Commerce Journal describes Najib as “… The real pioneer of American commercial establishments in the Philippines.” (2)

His interests were wide-ranging, from jewellery and watches to money-lending, motor vehicles, coal mining, a 400 metre round cycle track which became the site of the Manila Grand Opera House, owned ships,  a tailor shop, and a stone quarry – he even had a US patent for a stone-cutting machine (3). 
Syrians rather confused the Spanish, covering as it did, both Christians and Jews. A Spanish Secret Police, the Cuerpo de Vigilancia, report describes him as an israelito, possibly because of his money-lending activities. Their real interest in him was his Freemasonry. He was a member of Modestia Lodge 199 and had become Lodge Master in October 1896. The Spanish believed he was using his travels around the Philippines to promote ‘Philippine independence, separatism but they appear not to have pulled him in because he was a US citizen. 
That he was a freemason and working for Philippine independence may give credence to a story published in the American Chamber of Commerce Journal while he was still alive and for which he was himself probably the source – that he had sent a ship from Hong Kong to Dapitan to try and rescue Jose Rizal a diuade from going to Spain.  
Rizal, according to the story, dismissed Hashim’s advice and was arrested in Singapore while on his way to Cuba through Spain, Sent back to the Philippines, Rizal was executed on 30 December 1896.
A second adventure came after Dewey had sunk the Spanish fleet. It is claimed that between then and the 13 August 1898 Battle of Manila, the outcome of which was, as the WWF would say, predetermined, NT Hashim was able to stay in Manila, his citizenship unsuspected. With the help of US Consul Williams, who left Manila, he came under the protection of the British consul in Manila. It is claimed that by a ‘clever turn’ he secured a pass through Spanish lines and drew a map of the ground between Pasig and Cavite. He got a lift aboard the Smith, Bell launch the day before the Battle of Manila. On the day of the battle, he accompanied the Colorado regiment into Manila, identifying strategic point for them. There is no independent verification for either story as yet.
One would like to believe them to be true. 
Hashims other lasting legacy is less savoury. In February 1906 he went to Beirut and married Afife Abdo Cheyban Gorayeb. By 1912 the marriage had collapsed and the couple proceeded to live apart, with Hashim accusing Afife of adultery and she accusing him of concubinage. Due to an oddity of Philippine law, then and now, only wives can commit adultery while concubinage is a different thing for men. Both cases failed. Afifa sued for alimony and Hashim went to the US to get a Nevada divorce, only to discover it was not valid in the Philippines. Hashim transferred property to his brother Aziz and the business name NT Hashim changes to AT Hashim from about that. The courts nullified the property transfers and so it went on until at least 1927 when it reached the Supreme Court. Youll find the case commemorated under ‘Alimony’ in the Philippine Law Dictionary.
  1. Clarence-Smith, William. (2004). Middle Eastern Migrants in the Philippines: Entrepreneurs and Cultural Brokers. Asian Journal of Social Science. 32. 425-457.
  2. Clarence-Smith, personal correspondence.
  3. The American Chamber of Commerce Journal, August 1923, Manila, Philippines, 47-48
  4. US Patent US1565444A

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