Desert Stories!

Desert sunset

Before leaving for Doha, Qatar, I had asked a few OFWs lined up in the embassy who were getting their visas what Qatar was like. The few I talked to said there were no theme parks, no cheap shopping and that it was a boring place compared to Dubai or even Bahrain. With that impression in mind, we landed in Doha.

While it was true that there was no ‘Disneyland’, everything else was underrated. Doha, though a bit laid back has everything. And it is a country in a state of frenzied construction since they will be hosting the Asiad Games next year. They are sparing no expense to spruce up the city and to build the biggest sports complex in the world. There are builders, workers, big machines everywhere working 24 hours a day to make sure this is all finished on time. Qatar is, to be sure, a country on the make.

And this is where APO’s producers had a problem. They could not find a sizeable venue to accommodate our kababayans who wanted to watch. All venues that were big enough to house thousands were in a state of repair. We ended up in a nice but tiny movie theater called the Doha Cinema and because of its small size, tickets were priced way too expensive—far beyond the reach of the regular OFWs. The ticket price was easily a quarter of their take-home pay. And even though we performed for a meager crowd, it was an extremely enthusiastic one. They wanted to make sure that they would enjoy every moment—and did.

Our producer Saeed Al Ghanim, who is one of the friendliest people I have ever met has promised that next time we come back, he will have a venue big enough so regular working Pinoys can watch. We are really looking forward to that.

As a visitor to Qatar, the most charming element I loved was its ‘Arabness’. I don’t think I have ever visited the Middle East and did NOT have a good time. The Arabs are a loud, warm, wonderful people who love good food and are quite conscientious about how they show their hospitality. And this combination of Arab and Filipino alaga which our producers showered on us was just great. We were housed in villas with a Filipino cook, Elmer, who made sure we were fed sumptuously. And almost every single wish we dared express was always granted. Thus, we were able to go to the desert and see sand dunes, ride a camel, experience an Arab feast, and dress up Arab style for pictures. We also had a chance to shop in their very modern malls and also their centuries old ‘souqs’ or markets where the no. 1 merchandise people trade is still gold. Next is precious stones.

I brought Lydia along. I thought it would be timely since she would probably never go there on her own anyway. It was her first experience in the Middle East and she sure took it all in, including the food (lamb, kebabs, humus, and other delicacies I can’t remember the names), the sweets (chocolates with almonds, pistachios, and Baclava pastries etc.). Then there was the shopping. She went crazy at the souq where she bought ‘old world’ stuff which included antique bells and bangles to wear and some pieces of gold jewelry which had me sweating for awhile–what with the Ilocano that I am. Ha ha! But what we enjoyed most together were the uniquely Arab experiences which were the excursions to the desert, the food and meeting Qataris who are very friendly.

‘I’ve been to the desert on a camel with no name..’ ha ha!

‘Lydia, queen of the dunes!’

One of these days, I will take the rest of my family to visit the Gulf so they can experince another type of culture that may seem alien especuially to us who have been way too westernized. I relish looking forward to enjoying another desert sojourn but this time, I want to meet Bedouins (desert tribes) who still live in tents and drink camel’s milk. I would like to stay overnight and watch the wind and sand reconfigure the dunes into ever new landscapes.

Bedouin heaven!

I don’t know how many readers of this blog can relate to the wonderfully foreign experience of driving though streets lined with date trees, and the sound of the call to prayers from minarets everywhere at different times of the day. Throw in the awe of looking at a centuries old people who are making the big leap into the 21st century with their satellite dishes, modern buildings, new cars, computers, and modern hospitals while still wearing their traditional clothes and adhering close to their traditional mores. I find all of it wondrous and exotic. Unlike Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states are quite open and tolerant of foreigners. In fact, they are often quick to embrace foreign ways but without losing their own culture. It’s the charm of the old world blending in with the new in a way only Arabs can do.

Can you tell the Pinoys from the Arabs?

A beautiful Qatari woman. A stolen shot since they do not like their pictures taken. I know I should not but I could not resist!

It’s good to discover that Filipinos are generally liked and respected in Qatar. Our resourcefulness, probably honed because of years of deprivation and our ability to make do with so little, is regarded highly. With the Filipinos running their transport system, supervising their constructions, starting up their small businesses, processing their oil, etc., the Arabs as a people will become less and less alien to us. A great many Pinoys now eat shawarmma, and have become acclimatized living there for so long. Someday soon, Kahlil, Mubarak, Saeed, Mohammad will have become names as common to us as Boyet, Jon-jon, Kimberly and Arnel. Who knows, in exchange they could be singing ‘Pumapatak ang Ulan‘? Ha ha!

‘Sheik Jaime Mustafa Ibrahim Paredes!!’