Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Expat Effect

As part of my job I get to visit Riyadh a lot. Now for those who are not too familiar about the ethnic distribution in Saudi Arabia the thing you should know is that Saudi Jawas (and other naturalized non-Arab ethnic groups) are almost unheard of outside the Hijaz region. Which is why I get plenty of stares when I'm wearing Saudi clothes and dismissed as just another Pinoy expat when wearing western clothes when I leave the comfort of my home region.

I admit, at first this bothered me to no end. Why should I be judged differently just because I look foreign?

But being the ultimate optimist that I am, I soon learned to have fun. Imagine the following scene:

Interior shot: It's a fast food restaurant. Saudi Jawa enters, wearing a pair of jeans and a Metallica T-shirt. The Egyptian clerk smiles and starts speaking in English.

Egyptian Clerk: Good afternoon, sir. How may I help you?

Saudi Jawa (in perfectly accented Saudi Arabic): وعليكم السلام أخوي. ممكن الوجبة رقم 3 الله لا يهينك (Wa alaikum assalam, brother. Can I have meal no. 3, may Allah never humiliate you?)

Pause and double take.

Egyptian Clerk (surprised Egyptian Arabic):!ده انت بتتكلم عربي حلو أوي (Hey, you're speaking excellent Arabic!)

Call me mischievous, but I just love the shocked looks I get when people get confused over exactly what I am. I once opened the elevator door for a Sudani guy and he thanked me in English and I voiced my "you're welcome" in Arabic, in a friendly attempt to inform him of my linguistic skill and preference. He didn't get the hint, or else he was just too confused. We had a whole conversation during the elevator trip where he spoke in English and I replied in Arabic! I loved it!

Another perk that has more practical merit is that when people think you're an Expat from a developing country you get better prices. Yes. Better prices. I remember the first time I came to Riyadh on business I had to stay longer than I planned to so I went to a nearby clothes store to get some extra changes. I piled my purchases in front of the Indian clerk and when I was informed of the total cost I did a half-hearted attempt at haggling (more out of habit than anything else). The clerk surprised me when he said: "Sadeeg*. You are not Saudi. Don't worry, I'm giving you the best price. I would never dream of over charging you."

To this day, whenever I'm in Riyadh and I happen to be shopping I always cheat and wear western clothes and stop speaking Arabic.

I love being a Jawa :)

*"Friend" in pidgin Arabic.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Cake Mix

"Would we still be in love five years from now?" she asked me.

I could feel a sense of dread behind that query. Just a hint, bravely disguised as a joke question, but it was there. I could feel that it was bothering her, that it bothered her to even think about it. A waft of bitter poison in a tranquil icy lake.

"Oh I know we'll still be in love." I assured her, then added: "But it would be different. A different kind of love."

That bothered her. "Different?" she asked, a tinge of fear poking its ugly head around the corner.

"Have you ever made a cake?" I said, "You know how good the batter tastes even before it gets baked? Our love right now is like that. Delicious, spontaneous, exciting and slightly messy. Five years from now the batter would be baked. It's a cake now. It's still delicious (some would say even infinitely more delicious) but now it's more mature, solid, comfortable ... more real somehow."

She laughed and we shared one of those rare Zen moments when every little thing feels perfect. A moment where you sing and feel the world singing in harmony with you for once. I felt the heavy air of trepidation lift, and I laughed back as the fresh breeze played with my hair.

"You think a lot about food don't you?" she giggled.

Yes. Yes I do. Damn this diet...

Monday, May 14, 2007

Saudi People vs Religion Police (Round 1)

Arab News reports on this Saudi first:

The Court of Grievances in Riyadh yesterday postponed until July 2 the first ever compensation lawsuit against a member of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice filed by a Saudi woman after commission members failed to respond to a court summons.
Al-Lahem is representing a mother and daughter who were stopped by commission members in 2004 in front of a Riyadh shopping center. They accused the women, who were waiting in their car together with their driver, of not conforming to customs of decency.

As you can imagine I'm watching this very closely, and I have to say that it fills my heart with joy that this brave lady is not willing to back off despite the setbacks. I remain only cautiously optimistic though. Should the Saudi Vice lose this case then it would set a precedent. The flood gates would open on full blast and somewhere out there a boombox would be playing "Who Let the Dogs Out?". It would signal that the Mutaweens are no longer above the law and are in fact answerable to it. Are they really going to let go of all that power without a fight?

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Oh, the Pain .... The Agony

"This will be over very soon." my torturer informed me in his infuriatingly calm voice, "Just a little more."

Like Jonathan Harker in Bram Stoker's Darcula I was trapped in that hellish chair, held down by the sadist's three lovely assistants as he looked over the tools of his trade. He picked a hook, a needle, then a scalpel, then a power tool; a friggin drill! Even as these instruments left their marks on me, I couldn't help noticing their excellent craftsmanship. Top quality stainless steel. The man might have been a cold calculating torturer, but he took pride in his tools. I wanted to yell at them, to stop, to have mercy. After all, what have I ever done to deserve all this pain? I was no saint, but to be subjected to this purgatory? But I didn't. I knew my pleas would fall on deaf ears. Not even the assistants, lovely as they were, would bat an eye at my supplications. In fact, they showed great curiosity and interest at my tormentor's work. Like apprentices learning their trade. I only prayed that none would be subjected to the horror of their care.

Just when I thought the man had done his worst, out comes the real instruments. A small rotary saw and, I swear I'm not making this up, a chisel and a pair of pliers as a makeshift hammer. "Open him," he ordered his assistants, as coldly as he might've done had he asked them to make his dinner. The ladies of the landscape of pain pulled my mouth wider than I ever knew was possible. It's not supposed to open that much, I could've told them with a nervous laugh. If my tongue and face weren't numb that is. If I wasn't staring madly at the new tools, my imagination running rampant with the possibilities. Curse my over active imagination!

The chisel entered me and the man started hammering. I could feel it all the way to my brain. Blood splattered. My blood I thought coldly. It stained my clothes, and sprayed the man's face. It filled my mouth with that oddly metallic taste. Iron I thought, trying desperately to fish inside my head for all those insignificant factoids they crammed into our heads back in school. Hemoglobin, red and white cells, platelets. Anything to keep my mind away from the rising crescendo of pain. It was a losing battle I knew, but one that I knew I had to fight or else go insane. Then I heard the crack of bone. The sickening crunch as my torturer's target finally gave way after three hours of work.

"Congratulations sir. We have successfully removed your wisdom tooth." the dentist said, looking at the x-ray, "It took some work but you can now finally rest. It won't trouble you ever again."

I sighed with relief so much that I was afraid I was going to blow my lungs inside out. It was over. It was finally over. I can rest now.

"Now, sir." he added with a malicious glint in his eyes, "Let's schedule another appointment for the other wisdom tooth."

I told you he was a cruel cruel man....

Monday, May 7, 2007

Jeddah Water Shortage - It's Getting Ridiculous

Here I am. Sitting in the modern cyberpunkish high rise that is Jeddah's newest jewel; the Jeddah Municipality. And there's no water in the bath rooms.

I'd laugh if I didn't really really need to go to the little boys room.


Farewell Prince Abdul Majid

The body of Prince Abdul Majid should be arriving in Saudi Arabia any day now. Like many Meccans and Jeddaites I am profoundly saddened by the passing of this great man. The first I've heard of the name was when I was a young lad living in Madinah, and Abdul Majid had just taken up office as governor. At that tender age I was more interested in cartoons and computer games than I was in the wellfare of my city, yet even my youth clouded eyes couldn't help noticing the changes going all around me ever since he took charge. My fondest memory was the complete overhaul of a public park that I used to pass on my way back home from school. I remember it was called Al Majd (The glory) park and I immidiately associated it with Abdul Majid.

Many years later, and after a major house move, I re-encountered him. This time as governor of Makkah. At the time the region (especially Makkah) were in a terrible state of stagnation. Once, Abdul Majid arrived things finally started to move. Thanks to his work, he earned a double edged reputation. The public adored all the reforms going on under his governance. The parasites who lived on the corruption of the previous government absolutely hated him. The latter is reason enough to saint the guy in my book.

A couple of years ago I had the honor of meeting him face to face. It was a graduation ceremony and my little brother (I don't care how old are you kid, you'll always be my "little brother"!) was to be honored as the top of his class. There was Abdul Majid giving away smiles, certificates and words of encouragement to our newest batch of Saudi auto technicians when my brother's turn came. Abdul Majid then did something I never expected. He took my brother to his side and sat with him, completely ignoring the protests of his aides and henchmen. They sat there for quite a while, Abdul Majid congratulating my brother and joking with him, playfully pulling his ear like a fond uncle. As I took photos I could feel my chest bursting with pride (and yes, royal loyalty). Here was my little brother, a young Jawa boy hobnobbing with the nobs. Made me wish my dad was alive to see it.

When Prince Abdul Majed returned from his vacation (just before his relapse) my mom took one look at his face on TV and mournfully stated: "Your brother's prince is dying". He wasn't just my brother's prince. He was ours. People will mourn him and remember him as a man who believed in change. Me, I'll remember the fatherly prince who pulled my little brother's ear.

Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!