Filipinas in the Global Care Industry
Nursing the World

My Arabian nights

SURVIVING SAUDI. The author clowns with friends, fellow migrants to whom Saudi Arabia’s conservative culture is alien and unforgiving. [photos by Jose Torres Jr.]

THERE WAS no saying no to Ramon. He invited me to his one-room apartment one day in the middle of the holy month of Ramadan. There was no work for a week and most shops were closed during the day. There was nothing to do but watch television. Ramon, a Filipino who had worked in Saudi Arabia for 10 years, was my driver, guide, and friend. He said he wanted to show me something that I would enjoy.

He turned on the television and inserted a videotape in the VHS player. On the screen appeared Ramon in all his naked glory, and an equally naked woman on his bed. The video was obviously taken from a camera hidden somewhere in his room. My friend was laughing. “Can I pass as a porno star?” he asked, grinning.

He said the woman, a Filipina with a daughter and husband back in the Philippines, had been his sex partner for the last two months. She had been working in the Kingdom as a domestic helper for six years and went home to the Philippines only once every two years. Ramon was also married and had two children back home.

“We do it once a week,” Ramon said. But he added that she wasn’t his girlfriend. “We just spend time together to fight the loneliness,” he said. “We love to experiment and we’re looking for someone because she wanted to have two partners. Are you interested?”

I wanted to laugh but Ramon was serious. “I make do with lotion,” I said quickly. Fortunately, he left it at that.

But reality was harder to shake off. We were in a place so alien that the word “loneliness” did not even come close to capturing what one ended up wallowing in for days on end. That’s why the need for physical contact was so acute, and that’s why many OFWs like ourselves sometimes did things they wouldn’t even have thought of doing back home. I hadn’t gone as far as Ramon had at that point, but I felt the need just the same. And by then I knew that even in a very conservative country, there existed, for OFWs, a seething sexual scene underneath a seemingly placid surface.

A British pilot was supposed to have been jailed after he told passengers in jest to set their watches 500 years back when they were about to land in the Kingdom. It was a story I had heard from friends, and I had dismissed it as an exaggeration. That was before I went to Saudi myself and saw and lived the kind of life OFWs were enduring in the middle of the desert, where time seemed to have stood still.

SAUDI ARABIA is home to Islam’s two Holy places, Makkah (Mecca) and Madinah (Medina). It is a country where women are still fighting for the right to drive and unmarried couples who mix in public risk the anger of the mutawah, the stern-faced religious police armed with thin wooden canes. It is a country where words like alcohol, sex, rape, mini-skirt, prostitute, Christmas, communism, and anything that connotes Christianity, “immorality,” or godlessness are taboo and not allowed to appear in newspapers and magazines. It is also a country that has hired fun-loving and eager Filipinos by the hundreds of thousands at a time for the last three decades. Up to now, no day passes without a Filipino boarding a plane to work there.

Many OFWs spend several years working in Saudi Arabia. But they never get used to its culture. All alcoholic drinks, for instance, are prohibited in the Kingdom, not exactly comforting for Filipinos used to the delights of San Mig after a hard day’s work. Yet these delights can still be had, although very expensively, including the sadiqui, a concoction of rice and yeast that tastes like lambanog (a fiery drink made from the nectar of coconut flowers) and that Filipinos have managed to source secretly.

For most Filipinos, the Kingdom is a confusing country of contradictions. While drugs are prohibited, for example, kababayans say it could be had more easily there than in Manila. “And it is cheaper,” one Filipino told me. Multiple partners would also seem common in a place where the law allows a man to have up to four wives at anyone time, so long as the women are given equal treatment — from the size and design of their respective homes to the number of visits each gets from their husband. But even as intimacy with other women outside of marriage is high on a long list of taboos, some have figured out ways to wriggle out of the rules. When I was there, some “marriage brokers” offered men “trapped in unhappy marriages” an easy and safe escape — the so-called “marriage in passing” or zawaaj al-misyaar in Arabic.

Friends said that they had tried calling the five telephone numbers listed in a fax message. Once they got through, a female voice instructed the caller to punch in a secret code “to learn more.” That done, this was what the caller would hear next: “My dear brother, may God help you find a wife to compensate for your troubled life. Know that the broker charges these prices. Five thousand riyals for a virgin. Three thousand riyals for a nonvirgin.” A leading Muslim cleric described the process to me this way: “The man can pass by anytime, in the morning, afternoon, or evening. And he does not have to stay over.”

“GUEST WORKERS” like the Filipinos, however, have to find their own means of salving their own tortured souls and aching libidos. Those who were married but didn’t have their spouses with them found bedroom buddies soon enough, partners without strings attached.

KILLING TIME IN A HOT PLACE. Karate lessons were one way to pass the time, even for non-athletic types, although friendships with compatriots were easy to make, even if there were few public places where men and women could be seen together.

For some single Filipinas, meanwhile, marriage to a male kababayan was the only way they could live outside their assigned quarters. But not all the men who made themselves available to these women were single; the “marriages” took place because some consulate or embassy official was eager to “help,” for a fee. It was not uncommon to have married Filipino men having another “legitimate wife” in Saudi.

In Jeddah, the shopping malls and restaurants in the Balad district became popular meeting places for homesick Filipino men and women who slipped each other bits of paper with their names and telephone numbers.

These days I am told they use text messages to arrange meetings in the family sections of restaurants, where the mingling of sexes is allowed.

Not everyone, however, sought racy outlets for their frustrations. Sports was a popular form of release; so were karaoke parties. The more artistic expressed themselves in poetry or theater. Although I wasn’t particularly athletic, I took karate and aikido lessons to relieve the boredom.

I also had my lotion, as I had told Ramon. I learned about the “lotion solution” three days after arriving in Saudi Arabia. I stayed with Filipino male workers in one of their “villas” while looking for a place of my own, and I noticed that all of them had big tubes of Jergens lotion beside their beds or inside their bathrooms.

“You’re becoming vain here with all the lotion,” I commented to a construction worker. He laughed, saying cryptically, “You will learn soon enough.”

THIS WAS back in the mid-1990s, when I had joined the hordes headed for the Middle East. Like most OFWs, I had been infected with the dream to work abroad and earn dol lars. I, too, wanted a house filled with the latest video and audio entertainment systems, a microwave oven, a washing machine. I wanted to have a room with pictures of camels and Bedouins on the walls and with large Persian carpets strewn on the floor.

I woke up from the dream when the first searing desert wind blasted my face as the aircraft’s doors opened in Dhahran, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It was just a stopover before the plane proceeded to Jeddah, my final destination, but Dhahran’s heat melted whatever dream was floating inside my head. By the time I landed in Jeddah, it had practically evaporated.

I should have known working in Saudi was going to be rather rough when, as part of the application process, a stranger made me part my buttocks so she could have a better look at my butthole.

There we were, about 15 of us, inside a small room in a clinic somewhere in Makati. The medical attendant had just finished taking two vials of blood from each of us. Earlier, we had submitted our stool and urine samples. Next was the required “physical exam.”

A nurse in her mid-20s entered the room. “Line up and face the wall,” she commanded.

“Remove your pants and your briefs,” she next said, still in an authoritative tone. Somebody giggled somewhere in the room. “Shut up,” the nurse said. Then she ordered, “Raise your shirts, bend forward, and open your asses.”

She peered into our bottoms looking for hemorrhoids.

Some of us could not hold our laughter, but the nurse wasn’t laughing. “Face front!” she barked. Then she pulled out a ruler, which she used to poke our balls. “Wala ba kayong luslos (Anybody has hernia)?” she asked. Nobody answered. “You can now put your clothes on,” she said.

I had no idea what kind of jobs the others had applied for, but I was going to work in a newspaper as an editor, and I couldn’t figure out what my butt or my balls had to do with journalism. Of course, had I read “Lawrence of Arabia” or seen the film, I would have known about the predatory instincts of men trapped in the desert heat, and I would have probably pulled up my underwear and pants pronto and never even boarded that plane to Jeddah.

Intimate relations between men have long been illegal in the Kingdom. The punishment for sodomy is death. But even now there is no dearth of men looking for possible hookups, even in malls and supermarkets, where they are said to be on the alert for Filipinos. According to one news report, a street in Jeddah has become the most accident-prone area in the city because it is the most popular place to pick up gay Filipinos who strut their stuff on the sidewalk in tight jeans and cut-off t-shirts.

Some Filipinos actually find the Kingdom a place for the fulfillment of desires and lifestyles they could hardly afford in the Philippines. Gay men hold secret parties and fashion shows almost every other week. Most of them have foreign partners. Some even live together like family. Then and now, there have been OFWs who have made money out of these men’s attraction to Filipino males.

AS FAR as anyone knew, however, Isagani David, a contract worker from Sorsogon who was working for the Saudi Consolidated Electric Company, was not among such OFWs.

David was picked up by two police officers around one o’clock in the morning in October 1998. He was on his way home from a game of chess at a friend’s house. Fifteen minutes later, David was brought to the AI-Alaya General Hospital dead, his hands tied with plastic strips.

Hospital records on the cause of David’s death were not available. There was also no autopsy done, although the body was held frozen in the hospital’s morgue for more than a month.

The police officers were arrested, although they were later released after claiming that David accidentally died when he struggled to free himself from the grasp of the arresting officers. The policemen claimed that David “fell forward” and hit the ground, causing his death.

But the Filipino community in the Kingdom believed that the policemen killed David after he refused their advances. David was described by friends as “good looking,” the type that gay men wanted to have as partners.

I don’t think it was a story that ever made it to the papers here, but those of us in Saudi Arabia pondered over David’s tragedy for days. At the very least, it gave us something to occupy ourselves with, especially during the long stretches of empty hours we had in between work. With no bars, no discos, no movie houses, not even churches to go to, often there were just our rooms, which soon felt very, very small.

With a lot of time to kill, one could turn melodramatic, religious, or kinky. But with the second option hard to carry out in Saudi Arabia unless you happen to be Muslim, there really are just two choices left. If you’re a Filipino male, there is just one.

One old-timer of an OFW volunteered the information that “some women are selling themselves cheap.” At the time, the going rate for a night of clandestine fun ranged from 300 to 500 Saudi riyals, which was then equivalent to P3,300 to P5,500. Friends also confided that airline attendants “cost more” than domestic helpers, dressmakers, and illegal aliens.

For those who had no money to spare but were not content with the “lotion solution,” a relationship was easy to be had, both for men and women. A woman domestic helper I met at the Philippine consulate called me up at my office one day when she learned that I was about to go home for a vacation. She asked me to buy her a pair of panties and a bra. The “sexy type,” she said.

“One that you would like to see me wearing,” she added. When I asked in jest if she wanted me to put them on her, she said, “Sure.” I bought the underwear she wanted but I never got to see her wear them.

I’ve been home for the last seven years. I don’t think I’d want to work in Saudi Arabia again. These days some friends who are still in the Kingdom say they pass their time in front of computer monitors, having virtual sex with their wives or girlfriends. But Net access can cost quite a bit. Then again, there are still the pirated pornographic movies, kinky letters from home, and the ever-reliable tubes of Jergens.

Jose Torres Jr. worked as sub-editor of Saudi Gazette , Saudi Arabia’s national daily, for almost three years in the mid-1990s. While in Jeddah, he organized the Overseas Filipino Press Club and the Tanghalang Gitnang Silangan. He was an officer of Kasapi, an alliance of OFW organizations in the Kingaom that lobbied for the passage of the absentee-voting law.