Writing on Air

Writing on Air by Jim Paredes

Archive for June 19th, 2005

Warmth and Heat: Pinoys in Arabia! 19

Posted on June 19, 2005 by jimparedes

One can never visit even just a part of the Arab world and remain unchanged, unimpressed, unperturbed, or maybe even undisturbed. In my case, it’s a combination of all that plus ironically, a sense of euphoria and wonder during this last trip of APO to Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman. It is not strange to feel this way since this area of the world is a land of contrasts. There is a harshness everywhere that pervades. Perhaps it’s because the weather is so punishing. It can go up to 56 degrees Celsius or 110 Fahrenheit in the summer and bitingly cold in the winter. Their way of life, at least to me, can seem quite cruel and dogmatic. I talk especially of their attitudes towards women, sexuality, modernity, religion, etc. Life is hard period! And so live with its stringent rules! That’s what the whole scene seems to suggest to me.

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A mosque every few blocks!

But then, there is also a charming excessiveness everywhere. There is a mindblowing overabundance of gold, money, sand, heat, tradition, mosques, luxurious buildings, royalty, nice cars, rich people and really high end shopping malls. There is also an abundance of spirit, of faith as evidenced by the phrase ‘inshAllah’ (if Allah wills it) which they say when commenting about anything that is unsure in life. I am sure I am only touching the surface when I talk of life in Arabia in the way I do. Forgive me for I only stayed there for 10 days.

Bahrain is one of the Arab world’s nice free zones rivaled only by Dubai. They allow liquor, and people seem to be quite relaxed. There are discos, bars and there are sexy singers in short skirts, musicians with long hair, rappers, dancers, even hookers. No wonder they are regularly visited by the Saudis who simply need to cross the bridge when they need a break from their very strict Islamic society and get their fix of Western decadence! On weekends, drunken Saudis are everywhere! A high point for me was a visit to the grand mosque and a very interesting and enlightening conversation about Islam with a young female scholar.

Kuwait is the richest Arab state, and possibly the richest country in the world if we talk per capita. Its distinctive icon is the Kuwait tower which dominates its landscape. It is home to the ‘sweetest’, most easily extracted oil in the area. No wonder Saddam wanted to annex it.

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The Kuwait Tower which can be seen from almost any place in Kuwait city.

Oman is the prettiest among the three places we visited. It’s like a quaint ‘boutique’ country, if you know what I mean. For one, it is mountainous and has lush greenery. It also has old souks (markets) and like everywhere in the Arab world, one can buy gold cheap. Its charm lies in its look– buildings whose regimented white color stand out amid the backdrop of beige, jagged mountains everywhere.

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The luxurious Chedi Hotel in Oman. Simply fabulous!

One of the things I try to do when visiting a strange place is to touch base with the humanity of the inhabitants. With Arabs, this is not difficult. They generally are friendly, accommodating and honest. Just as Sting expressed it about the Russians, ‘the Arabs love their children too’, and they are like us and everyone else in many respects. Just don’t try to take stolen shots, most especially of the women. They have an aversion to having their picture taken. Almost each time, I had to ask permission first and was almost always refused. Sayang, because many of their faces are so ‘biblically’ dramatic pa naman. .But I still managed to get some good ones after I bluffed about being a correspondent for the Kuwait Times.

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The Arabs love their camel meat, too. This guy asked me to take his picture! I love this shot.

But the biggest imprint this trip has left me is still the indomitable spirit of the Filipino. Everywhere we went, we saw our kababayans exuding that great Pinoy hospitality and that drive to make something of themselves in this hot, almost inhabitable, alien world. We are everywhere—in Arab homes, hospitals, government ministries, entertainment centers, restaurants, hotels, malls, parks, etc. We are turning the cogs that run their industries, businesses, and all aspects of their lives. We are raising their children and holding the sky up together with Indians, Pakistanis, Moroccans, Egyptians, and other nationalities. But by and large, we do it with much more grace, competence, joie d’vivre, and humor.

Sure there are sad stories that also abound—-exploitation, violence, etc. Even so, we saw wide, appreciative smiles from 220 takas women who had sought refuge in our Kuwait embassy. Most of them had been physically abused, emotionally scarred, sexually beaten or raped, deprived of their salaries but they still managed to exude that child-like innocence and trust that characterizes us as a people. This is probably one of the reasons after economic ones why we so boldly seek employment in places unknown everywhere in the world. I was quite moved by the sight of all these women I actually wanted to embrace each one of them and promise them that things would be all right. Oh, if only I could really give assurances, I thought to myself as I held back.

We did one concert each in Bahrain, Kuwait and Oman and let me tell you, it was such an indescribable pleasure and an honor to perform for fellow Pinoys, in this part of the world. They laughed, cried, sang along, waved their hands as we brought them home to the Philippines even for just two hours. Perhaps it is easier to appreciate who we are when we are outside the country. Even as news about the Philippines was increasingly disconcerting while we were abroad, I could only see hope as I looked at our countrymen. I was proud, happy, and grateful to sing for them–and that I am not only one of them but also one with them. We are a hard, tough people who can smile and be happy in the face of difficulties and adversity. The politicians can all go hang. We are proving everyday that we have the right stuff as a people. The challenge is to behave at home the way we behave abroad.

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My name in Arabic!

Mabuhay tayo!!

  • June 2005
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