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Vignettes from a Past Life

I grew up in Saudi Arabia.

And this perfectly normal picture of me on my thirteenth birthday is I, growing up in Saudi Arabia.

It’s been a while since I last wrote about this. I just felt like putting these memories down for good, lest I forget.

By “grew up,” I mean that I stayed in Saudi Arabia for five years, from my eighth to 13th year. I also mean that I hit puberty there, and that there, I slowly learned what it meant to be a Filipino living in a fundamentalist foreign country.

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My dad took my family — my mother, my two younger brothers, and I — to Riyadh when he finally could support us there. He’d been working in the Kingdom for about a decade since. For months prior, my mom had been telling me that we were going soon — in a month or two. This went on for about a year, I think. Looking back, I think we had many visa problems, and it might have been quite a stressful time for her.

We finally arrived on a chilly January day in 1993. My thin white Snoopy jacket, which my aunt had purchased for me right before my family left, was rendered useless. It was warmer in the car, though. That was my first time in a car with a heater.

I was impressed by the airport terminal, the highways and bridges, and the curious-looking Ministry of Interior. The city couldn’t be any more different from our eventual hometown.

We lived in a compound in the town of Ha’ir, which in the 90s was a sleepy (and probably poor) town south of Riyadh. The compound was also near a canyon where a semi-abandoned mansion stood. Papa worked as a manager in the carpentry factory of a company that sells high-class furniture. The compound was like a small village that housed the “barracks” where the workers lived, the houses for the workers’ families, and, of course, the factory and warehouse.

To my young mind, Ha’ir seemed like one avenue lined with stores that sold dusty merchandise.

Because we were so far away from the city proper, I was more or less kept away from toys and restaurants. There was hardly any to come by, anyway, contrary to what I’d been led to believe in all those years that Papa brought me toys as pasalubong from Saudi. I like to believe it was there in Saudi Arabia that I learned how to be less materialistic.

Since I was just a kid when we arrived, I was excused from the requisite veil and abaya. I could still freely roam around the compound with my brothers. That’s where we (they, actually) learned how to bike and roller-blade. For some time, we even kept rabbits. And yes, even Saudi rabbits could not stop reproducing.

Just earlier, I tried Googling Al Ha’ir. The town doesn’t have a Wikipedia article. Except for an aerial view, there’s nothing else on it on Google Maps.

Even my memory of Ha’ir has become hazy. Quite literally. When I try to remember it, it’s as though everything is covered by a fog, or blurred by a sandstorm.

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It was a 45-minute drive to my school. This, by the way, was a place that did not know what Manila traffic was. Going to school in Riyadh meant a long ride on our secondhand Mazda (and later, a secondhand Renault). The aircon always failed us during the summer months, when temperatures went up to more than 40 degrees.

For five years, I was driven across deserts that bloomed after the rare spring rain, by junkyards of cars, by farms that strongly reeked of dung fertilizer, and in view of the most brilliant orange sunsets only the desert can provide. We also passed by what looked like a wide place bordered by pink walls. My dad told me that it is a prison. You might not have heard of it, but a few years ago it was on the US news.

During one of those rides back home, I memorized the Arabic alphabet. A few weeks later, I learned how to read and write along with my classmates.

I studied in a Philippine school which followed the then-DECS curriculum, plus Arabic. There were as many as 35 and as few as 15 students in a section. We conversed in Filipino — I had a classmate, a pretty Eritrean, who could speak Filipino better than many of my students now. In such a microcosm, we had our own “in”-things: volleyball, boy bands, snap pants, Doc Martens boots, roller blades, the tamagotchi.

Many of the lessons in my school took the form of rote memorization. We might have had a competitive math program. There was plenty of talent and resourcefulness, which came out during school-wide performances almost every week. But there was hardly any room for critical thought. Perhaps it had to do with my youth, but I had no fully-formed idea of what freedom of speech was.

When we reached fifth grade, we were segregated from the boys, with a gate acting as a barrier between two sides of the school — which is silly, now that I think about it, since what we’d do is just walk through different hallways and thus be able to make eye contact with our crushes. That was the extent to which we flirted till age 13.

You could say that I was a big fish in a small pond — I graduated from elementary as the top student in a group of a little more than 80 students.

I can still read and write in Arabic, almost 20 years after I first learned it, and I still know some basic rules (e.g. pronouns). I remain hopeless in translating anything.

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Staring at me right now, here in our living room in Manila, are volumes of encyclopedias with a 1991 copyright. These educated me outside of school in Saudi Arabia, especially as TV couldn’t.

For years, we were subscribed to only two channels on TV. Channel 1 was in Arabic. Channel 2 was in English, but it started airing only at 4PM on weekdays and 2PM on weekends (that is, Thursdays and Fridays). Most of the cartoons were Looney Tunes reruns.

To compensate, my dad bought us bootleg betamax (and then VHS) tapes. My brothers and I had years of watching Tom and Jerry episodes and Disney movies over and over again. That’s how I came to memorize songs from Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaidย and entire chunks of dialogue from The Lion King. I swear to those movies for teaching me English as much as books and my teachers did.

A few years later, my dad subscribed us to satellite TV. I finally got to watch MTV without my classmates having to videotape episodes of Singled Out for me. Seeing the Spice Girls in their bras and micro-minis felt almost indecent, as in Saudi stores , the sleeves of their albums had black ink covering their provocative photos.

Even All Saints wasn’t spared.

Because my brothers and I began violently fighting over the rights to watch TV, Papa pulled out the plug to the satellite. It was sad and we reverted to tapes and one English channel, but at least the house was quieter.

One day in 1997, I came home to find that my dad was watching CNN. He’d just plugged the TV back to the satellite. Princess Diana had died earlier that day.

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My dad had led me to believe that he was building us a mansion in a Riyadh suburb.

His company was often contracted to furnish the houses of sheikhs and princes. When I was still young, he brought me to these houses. They were huge. I remember that the exteriors were almost uninspired and lacked windows, but the interiors were glorious. They had high ceilings and pillars and all sorts of chairs and curtains. The rooms were very wide and well-lit. I sat on royal sofas and lay spread-eagle on king-size beds. One mansion had a full-sized soccer field in the grounds.

Papa took me to three houses one day. He asked me if I liked the house we were currently in. This had ten rooms. The way Papa recalls it now, I’d said, “No, I think the one with four rooms would be better for us.”

For a while, I waited for us to move to that house with four bedrooms, but only until I learned enough to know that Papa had been pulling my leg.

Briefly I’d wondered if the houses were symbolic of how the Saudi royalty lived. But I was a kid, and I couldn’t wrap those metaphors around my head yet.

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Every summer, we vacationed in the Philippines. I saw something new with every visit: SM Southmall, a renovated Alabang Town Center. My immediate environs were changing.

At the very least, my visits to the Philippines helped me never to be ignorant of local pop culture. Whenever I went back to Riyadh, I had stories to share to my classmates about new songs, TV shows, and the new cute matinee idol.

These vacations were also the only times when I could attend Mass and Bible school. Bible study and anything contrary to Islam was (and is) prohibited in the Kingdom, and anything like it was pretty much underground.

Whenever we came to the Philippines, we returned to the Kingdom with some banned stuff, deftly hidden. My mom would wrap a rosary or a crucifix with masking tape and hide it in the pocket of a pair of jeans placed in the middle of a balikbayan box. One time, my dad brought pork. He placed it under some daing, the smell of which turned off the customs officer so much that the officer didn’t bother checking the rest of our luggage. That was the luckiest we’d ever been.

There was hardly any book to buy for me in Riyadh, and a copy of Nancy Drew was hard to come by. So I bought as many books as I could whenever I was in Manila.

Once, when we were packing for our trip back to Riyadh, I mistakenly put about a dozen Nancy Drew books into a new school bag without covering them with gift wrap or packing tape. When the customs officer in Riyadh pulled them out one by one, I could feel the heat rise up to my cheeks. The officers showed each other those front covers of Nancy wearing a red sleeveless (!) dress and standing beside Ned Nickerson in the most inoffensive way possible.

It was this evil book.

Someone opened another book to the first page; I vaguely remembered that it was about Nancy embracing and kissing Ned goodbye.

They asked my dad to bring his iqama (the working person’s ID) with him, and took him somewhere out of sight. I was nervous. I still don’t know up to now if my mom was.

About fifteen minutes later, Papa came back. They had taken all my books.

I could have been the daughter that got her father punished by the Saudi government (and even then I already had wild scenarios in mind), but even up to now, I still find it strange than my dad hasn’t mentioned the incident to me, ever, much less berated me for it.

Maybe I should ask him about it soon.

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The muttawa, or the religious police, were men we feared. Only lately did I learn that they are an actual government arm and are officially called the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (CPVPV).

By fifth grade I was already wearing the abaya, and by sixth grade the veil. I didn’t think too much of the abaya. My classmates were wearing it, so much to the point of our school outright banning them in the classrooms. And anyway, being made of a silky material, it wasn’t too hot, and there wasn’t much to see in terms of fashion underneath anyway. I hated wearing the veil, though.

In theory, Muslim women wear the veil because only their husbands should be able to see them and their hair. Nowadays I find that idea quite beautiful, even mystical. That’s how valued women can be in a culture that practices such a tradition.

In one shampoo advertisement I saw, a woman wearing the veil was talking in Arabic to the camera. Then, without the viewer seeing an inch of her face, she removed her veil and hair tie to reveal long, shiny brown hair underneath. And after the requisite close-up of the shampoo bottle, she appeared on the screen, and she was wearing the veil again. Both times, she was extraordinarily beautiful.

In practice, though, most of us wore the veil just because we were afraid of the muttawa. Also, the women couldn’t drive, and we couldn’t go anywhere without a male relative chaperoning us. One time when we had a birthday party in McDonald’s and the Filipino men and women intermingled, someone called the muttawa, and they came, turning off the music and popping all the balloons. My family went back to our booth. See, whenever my family ate in a restaurant, we had to be in a booth, sealed from prying eyes.

I grew up in Riyadh, so these were very minor inconveniences as far as I was concerned. I knew the rules. I also knew that I was in a different country and that I had no right (and was afraid) to criticize their culture. And anyway, there was no venue to criticize. Complaints that we told our teachers and friends were just those — complaints, easily dismissed by a shrug that says, “Ganun talaga.”

And it’s not as though everything was hard. Saudi Arabia, for a family like ours, was livable. We could still shop and buy groceries. There were female doctors who gave us shots on the butt that time when we had measles. We couldn’t watch movies in the cinema, but we had our Betamax and VHS anyway. We didn’t mind the salah, or prayer times, when shops would close. They were all part of life.

I didn’t know much about the Filipino maids and drivers, though I heard stories. A neighbor, the father of a childhood friend, apparently slept in the garage of the man he worked for. My father had been extremely luckier.

I can’t imagine going back there, now that I know what freedom means. I also can’t imagine how it had been for Mama, my very hardworking and independent mother, who has a degree in civil engineering and drove an owner-type jeep even when she was eight months pregnant with my brother.

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We broke some rules, of course. I’ve mentioned the smuggling of books, pork and religious items. I should also mention the prayer meetings, which we attended once or twice.

Because alcohol was banned, Papa and his co-workers occasionally turned our kitchen into a wine factory of sorts. I can still remember the scent of fermented yeast that did not come from bread dough.

Because Mama wanted to earn some more money on top of my dad’s salary (and probably because she was bored), she sold snacks and lunch for my dad’s co-workers. Every weekend was shopping and grocery day in the Bat’ha shopping district, a sort of Divisoria with more foreigners than Saudis and with fewer pickpockets. Every day my mom made sandwiches and pasta and sold Pepsi in cans and cigarettes inside our house. This went on for a few months. One day I saw her crying, and we didn’t sell food again afterward.

(I should ask her about that, too.)

Because she had to (and again, because she was bored), Mama drove our car within the compound. I imagine that she enjoyed short moments of freedom.

Because we liked dogs, we had two pups for a while, even though dogs were (I was told) banned in the Kingdom since they eat their own bodily wastes and are therefore dirty, dirty animals. Now I’m not so sure if they really were banned.

Because I didn’t know any better, I didn’t cover myself from head to toe in black. Sometimes my abaya was partly open from waist down. Once, going down on an escalator, a boy beside me said something in Arabic and touched my abaya before continuing on his way down. It was creepy. But he probably wasn’t used to seeing a girl wearing loose jeans underneath.

And because we wanted to be entertained, we had parties in the canteen of our dad’s compound. Technically, parties were banned. The gay dancer who gyrated on a pole to dance music would’ve been likewise banned (and more). And so would be the Filipino gay cook who “married” a handsome man in a ceremony in the same canteen.

But, you know. Filipinos would do anything to laugh. To survive.

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I was devastated when my parents told me we’d be returning to the Philippines for good. No, what they actually told me was that we’d be returning after a few months. They were probably hoping that I’d enjoy the Philippines after those few months. And I did, eventually, after a few months of being bullied by some classmates and slowly accepting that I had to grow thicker skin in my own country.

But before coming back, I was so angry in the way only a teenager can. I cried and didn’t talk to my parents for ages. I was of course too narrow-minded to understand what it all probably meant and how my parents felt.

My last memory of Saudi was sitting on top of a slide in the playground a minute’s walk away from our house. There were two slides; I think part of my growing up had been mustering enough courage to finally make it to the higher one.

And there I was, 13 years old, about seven or eight feet up, trying to commit to memory the sand dunes and wide skies I was never to see again.

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13 thoughts on “Vignettes from a Past Life

  1. Fil! you never told you went to serious blogging i again! i am going through your posts and enjoying every single one of it. i like your narrative. this is my fave post so far.

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