Thursday, June 24, 2004

Devoid of Inspiration... Removing Masks

One of my all-time favorites, written way back in 1991. The angst is dripping like venom. Today, I am devoid of inspiration and must go back to the memories. For Lonie P, who asked me to try.

Welcome to this masquerade!
Welcome to your daily world, children of God.
Welcome to your faces
Which you wear like clothes :
Different styles for differing purposes.

Voice out your greetings to everyone here,
For this is the side you present,
This is the profile you labor to show.

Welcome ! Welcome !
Don't be afraid of each other;
After all, everyone is hiding behind a mask.
What is there to fear?

Are you afraid that others will find
That you are not as strong as you seem
That you are not as cheerful as you pretend
That you are not as interesting as you intend
That you are not as you great as you dream?

Are you afraid that even with the mask
Others will find you unwholesome,
Or uninteresting,
Or a person below their notice?

You have the masks on,
So why bother to hide,
When the pretty image you present
Is what they too expect?

They expect that you'll be happy
When you're so torn up deep inside.
They expect that you'll carry on
When your soul cries out for rest.
They expect your cheerful countenance
When you want to cry and berate them.
They expect your willing hand
When it is all so bruised and broken.

And yet, these masks make you so happy,
Or is that how shallow you can be?

For your masks are like clenched fists
Which push through every obstacle
But punish every knuckle
With the pain of each hard strike.

Your satisfaction demands it.
Your self-serving wishes advise it.
Your blind expectations will it.
I will be what others want me to be,
Even if it hurts,
Even if it plunges me into self-hate!
I will lie to myself so I can lie to others...
I want to keep these smiles of companionship
So I will give them what they want
At the risk of being so utterly lonely inside...

Your yearning for truth asks for deliverance...
Must you always be what others wish for?
Can you not be yourself and thus be more?
More than that pale profile you must cast
Like an unseemly shadow in the world of bright light.

You are as bright as any illumination,
You are just like any star that shines at night
For every pain and hurt that scars your being
Is like the stroke of the blacksmith's hammer
That forges the sharpness of your spirit.
For every tear that you must shed
Is like the burden which hardens your sinews
That gives you the very power to stand.

Open your heart to yourself
As you open a hand to reach out...
This same hand that opens to its very palms
Can strike down any hurdle
A lot better than any clenched fist.

Yes, the pain would sear much further
For you do not have the protective wrappings.
All the better, for the pain which you dread
Is the very love which sanctifies your sacrifice.
The scars which would come forth from these wounds
Would be your trophies of growth,
As with seeds which must die in order to bloom.

You are what you are, your masks cannot change that.
Lies wrapped up in themselves fade away easily
Before that chance wind which breaks them all down...
You are what you can be, and yet you settle for less
When you can share in each other's pain
And give solace to each other's hurt
And pull down the walls of each other's fall
And reveal your true persons beyond the confusion.

Stop! And look at one another,
How ridiculous must people be to show beauty
When true beauty comes from the appreciation
Of each blemish and imperfection
Which you can change with the love of others...
Stop! Listen to the call of your souls...
Take the masks off, and take that risk...

On the Importance of Being Filipino

Before we take any pride in the thought that portions of the world would shut down if ever the Overseas Filipino Workers would disappear, I'd like to pause and think differently, just like a wise soul once said:

"We should stop kidding ourselves that we are important in this world. We are as ordinary as the Bangladeshis as they are as ordinary as the Americans. If we want to be recognized, we have to sweat it out like any other instead of making false claims. We should attempt to perform well as individuals. Let us feed our kids and send them to school. That we can do, and do greatly. Because as a race, we have been mixed up too much in the cauldron of opposing cultures. We are diluted as astreet hawker's buco juice in some aspect, and dense as Petron's motor oil in some others.

So, a world without Filipinos? I think the world might not even notice. Reality bites. So our recourse really is just to try to do well as individuals. If our kids notice us as good parents, well that's a greater reward."

If Filipinos were to disappear from Saudi Arabia, we would open the labor market to engineers from places such as India or Indonesia who are just as qualified but maybe not as skilled in communication or not as savvy in learning. The Saudis have done just as well with Indian surrogates for positions once held by Filipinos, and in the general labor market Filipinos have been overtaken by Bangalis (Bangladeshis) and Pakistanis. After all, the Saudis can live with the mediocrity of their citizens. They can live with the mediocrity of others less qualified than Filipinos.

Besides, many Filipinos who have been here a long time have become rather arrogant. I shared this thought with some of the veterans in this place: “Cast your net about in the Philippine labor market, and see where you do stack up. Better transform yourself into an entrepreneur, and you would be a bigger hero than you would think.”

I think the more important question is to focus on what can be done in the Philippines. We’re famous as a cautionary tale, and making the change seems to be an impossible task. I don’t propose any quick-fix solution within one post, or even thousands. We must however, as individuals, do our best to change our situation without hurting others. This is the best thing we can do insofar as our desire for “societal change” works, at least as a common denominator.

Putting forward a hypothetical situation:

"A Filipino (X) in Sydney toiled hard and saved about 50,000 Aussie dollars in 6 months. He plans to invest it in a house for his family. Then another Filipino (Y) comes along and asks to borrow half of that money for a business he would like to start up. Y promises to pay X back with 20% interest in 6 months. Meanwhile another Filipino (Z)wants to borrow the other half as his wife is sick.

If you are X, what would you do if you deem yourself a true Filipino?"

For me, there is no way on Earth I would lend that money out without a decent return on my money. I’d say to the guy to wait for another six months for me to lend him the cash. As to the other Filipino, if I don’t know him from Adam I’d say no. Sue me, life really sucks. I can always pass the hat for him and his wife in the office, where I’d give a normal share just like everyone would. But me to shell out 25 grand? Forget it. Making the exception means I would have to qualify the contribution.

As to this question gauging our Filipino-ness…. I’d like to add another (true) story just to drive home the point about where we are in terms of our civic responsibility:

A college professor asked his class of working students, mostly professionals in night school, this question:

“Do you really consider yourselves Filipinos?” The class said yes in the strongest terms.

“Would you do anything if you think it helps your fellow Filipinos?” The class, sensing the cheery note in his voice, said yes again.

He took a more serious mien and said, “Really, this is a serious question. You said that you consider yourselves true Filipinos? I’m asking again, would you do what you can in helping your community because you take pride in being Filipino?”

The class settled down, and after a while, all of them gave their assent.

“So let’s see… let’s just say your mayor and the city council call for a public hearing on re-zoning the place where you live, and let’s just say you attend because it is very important. The DENR, the MMDA, and the city council have come up with a study for a landfill to be built near your home. The studies point out that your location is ideal for logistics in setting up the landfill, and that in four to five years they will be able to build a recycling center near the landfill. They have also conducted a serious study in which the landfill will not contaminate ground water. It will essentially be a receiving area so that the recycling center could do its work.”

The professor paused and looked into the eyes of his students. Then he asked, “Would you agree even if it means you will have to live with garbage everyday?”

The class looked at him in stunned silence. Just then the bell conveniently rang, and before the class started filing out, the professor said, “Just a thought for all of you before you say you take pride in being a true Filipino.”

Saturday, June 19, 2004

Detroit Pistons, Dan Brown, and the State of Affairs


The Detroit Pistons win the NBA title!

I couldn’t agree more that the Pistons deserve the title. Great to see that Kobe “I Never Met a Shot I Didn’t Like” Bryant could be shut up about being compared to Jordan. Or Shaq could shut up about being “The Most Dominant Ever.” Bunch of overblown windbags.

As to Karl Malone, he is just unfortunate to be playing for another Finals losers. Might as well retire. He should take a cue from his buddy John Stockton, who apparently has no ego problem about not winning a title so his legacy is safe and secure. What a bad end for a guy who has redefined the power forward position and probably would be its benchmark for years to come (of course Tim Duncan would have something to say about that, but then again, I’ve always thought of Duncan as a center masquerading as a forward). As to Gary Payton, the guy shouldn’t have shown up in a Laker uniform with that kind of ego and without the game he has played until about two years ago.

Even during Showtime, I was never a Laker fan, excepting for the year the 76ers made it to the finals in 2001. Shame that Boston imploded and has not come up with a competitive team in the past few years. Go Pistons! Consider:

- Though the third pick in the 1997 draft (tops was Tim Duncan), Billups got bounced around through four teams (Boston, Toronto, Orlando, and Denver) before signing with Minnesota for two years, and then moving two years ago to the Pistons.
- Hamilton was traded by Michael Jordan for Jerry Stackhouse (?!) With the kind of game Stackhouse has and his recent injuries, and of course his lack of desire to part with the ball, that was such a DUMB decision.
- Ben Wallace was undrafted, and was part of the Grant Hill trade to Orlando (The others I think were Bo Outlaw- a well-traveled dude who's played for Phoenix and Memphis and should see another team on his resume anytime soon, Chucky Atkins – now with Boston because of the Rasheed trade, and another player named Derek Strong, who is now off the NBA map). This guy was cut by Boston because they were trying to make him a swingman (?!). He also got traded by Washington. Considering what a monster he is in the paint … no further comment.
- Joe Dumars passed up on drafting Carmelo Anthony and put his faith in Tayshaun Prince. Seems he is a genius for doing so, but only time will tell if Darko Milicic pans out.
- Rasheed Wallace was traded by Washington to Portland for Rod Strickland (it seems dumb now, but Strickland was one of the best point guards at the time), and of course was the NBA record-setter for technicals and DQs, and received the harshest penalty for a non-fight incident ever given by the NBA. Looks like Larry Brown is a genius in coaching ‘Sheed, though I am not a fan of Larry Brown.

Hmmm… three guys formerly from the Wizards. Should make them wonder. Oh, by the way, the Wizards let go of Chris Webber too. A bit of trivia: I only found out today that Grant Hill and I share a birthday. Some guys have all the luck (he got a whole of it, I should say).

There is a buzz about Dan Brown and his books being considered for a run at Hollywood adaptation (Best of luck, Dan…) Have heard good things about Da Vinci Code and it's refreshing to read him since I haven't picked up fiction in ages since I read a lot of HR books these days and am catching up on labor regulations and all that stuff.

Hope things are not too tense back home in the Philippines. The peso saw another slump and more investors are on “wait-and-see.” Both sides are spooking up their own conspiracy theories. Problem is, will the military side with either one or take the reins themselves?

Dan Brown is a slam-dunk in “Angels and Demons,” the first Robert Langdon book (it was published three years before Da Vinci Code). I picked up both books and passed on “The 48 Laws of Power” and “Dark Tower V: Wolves of Calla.” I also got a vampire story collection that was on sale but I have a feeling I've been shortchanged on this volume.

Dang... guess I could still go on forever reading from 6:30pm last night to almost 4 a.m. in the morning. The girl in the book was such a FOX. Who wouldn’t want to be Robert Langdon? I guess I have to spend a few hours in the swimming pool and get hormone shots, while of course fry my brain on reading and learning so I can be an art geek and an athlete at the same time while being able to pay my bills.

I suspect though, you would find the “Angels and Demons” verrry similar in treatment if you have read “The Da Vinci Code” but the stage is just as expansive. I won’t say more because it might be a spoiler to everyone still wanting to read the books.

For me, the key points that I think Brown is making in the books are:
  • There is no time in history than right now where our spirituality and faith will save the planet from implosion (internal decay) and explosion (wars and environmental destruction).
  • Everyone has a need to believe, even in the religion of science and the humanist philosophy. Otherwise there is no order on which we can base our conduct.
  • History is always written by the winners. But… it doesn’t always pay to win if you have a skeleton in your closet.
  • Keeping things in perspective is sometimes more important than finding out the hard truth. And as Frank Herbert said in Dune (I paraphrase him loosely): the way we see, understand, and accept the “truth” can very easily change if we acknowledge that “truth” can be very fluid.

O.K - Time now to remove the “book critic” hat and put on my “good office worker” hat – I used to love Saturdays but since we have a different schedule here, I have certainly learned to hate it.

Thursday, June 10, 2004

Learning of Faith

I have said so much but want to commit so many things to memory - so that one day I can look back and see what I have done.

Just a short lesson for those out there not living the life in Saudi Arabia: The muezzin (mosque crier) makes the invitation to prayer or adhan (azan), which is called out five times a day. Small note: these guys are well-paid for their regular gigs. Oft-times, the mosque gets one of the young people to make the adhan, or if you are a convert, part of the lesson is to do this for around two weeks with your fellow students: "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar." This means: Allah is the Greatest. (repeated four times).

This is followed by: "Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah. Ashhadu al la ilaha illa-Ilah." I bear witness that nothing deserves to be worshipped except Allah (repeated twice). I’d rather not repeat the rest of what they do in prayer. By the way, don't be too impressed, I've just cut-and-pasted most of this stuff. It makes for informative reading, don't you think?

The five Islamic prayers are named Fajr, Dhuhr, Asr, Maghrib and Isha. The timing of these five prayers varies from place to place and from day to day. It is obligatory for Muslims to perform these prayers at the correct time. They face in the direction of Mecca (this is called the qibla). Dammam is a coastal city on the Persian Gulf and we are about 776.68 miles or 1249.68 Km northeast of the Black Stone (or Kaaba) in Makkah (Mecca) and when people pray, they face southwest. The prayer times for any given location on earth may be determined mathematically if the latitude and longitude of the location are known. However, the theoretical determination of prayer times is a lengthy process (which used to be computed by the best of Muslim scholars). Now this tedium has been alleviated by using computer programs. There’s already a screen saver/alarm clock that precisely alerts you when to pray, and another program that tells you where Mecca is based on your coordinates.

Prayer times

  • FAJR starts with the dawn or morning twilight. Fajr ends just before sunrise.
  • DHUHR begins after midday when the trailing limb of the sun has passed the meridian. In other words, this is sometime before or right after noontime, or zawal. Dhuhr ends at the start of Asr time.
  • The timing of ASR depends on the length of the shadow cast by an object. According to the Shafi school of jurisprudence, Asr begins when the length of the shadow of an object exceeds the length of the object. According to the Hanafi school of jurisprudence, Asr begins when the length of the shadow exceeds TWICE the length of the object. In both cases, the minimum length of shadow (which occurs when the sun passes the meridian) is subtracted from the length of the shadow before comparing it with the length of the object. Asr normally happens beginning 3:00pm or so.
  • MAGHRIB begins at sunset and ends at the start of isha.
  • ISHA starts after dusk when the evening twilight disappears. In winter this is held almost as soon as Maghrib is over. When I arrived it was about 7:30pm, now it’s about 8:00. During the height of summer it may be as late as 8:30 or 9pm.

It is interesting that I still remember the old lessons from high school about the five pillars of Islam. Apart from the requirement of prayer, the four other pillars are:

  1. The Shahada or profession of faith (There is no God but Allah and Mohammad is His prophet)
  2. Abstinence from fermented beverages (alcohol) plus other dietary practices (such as eating only halal food and abstaining from pork)
  3. Zakat – or giving of alms to widows and orphans. Otherwise known as works of mercy. Because of this, orthodox Muslims do not practice usury and banks here charge little or no interest. Great especially if you have a credit card, where the APR is 2% per month. (On the other hand, the documentation for an expat Filipino to get a credit card is so frustrating so the effort is not worth it).
  4. Making a pilgrimage (Hajj) to Mecca at least once during adult life.

There is so much that I'd like to say but I had so little time to think in the beginning. Now all of these thoughts overflow like a river that has been dammed for so long. I hope the continuing discovery will keep me enthralled until I start growing roots here, because for one I don’t think I will be coming back to the Philippines for a long while except for vacations. But who knows? Things may change. For now, I am a willing exile, a stranger in a strange land, only to find that the strange one is ME.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Ablaze in Al-Khobar


The attacks last week in Khobar give me some room to pause. Two e-mails from a kababayan based near the center of the attacks tell it all

Circa 11:00am, June 29

Mga Kababayan,

Ngayong umaga umataki ang mga terorista dito sa Al Khobar Saudi Arabia. Tatlong westerner ang namatay basi sa latest briefing sa amin ngayong 10 ng umaga. Isang Filipino daw at dalawang Saudi na company security guard ang hindi pa tiyak kung nakaligtas sa tama ng bala.

Nakapasok sa Petroleum Center Building ang mga terorista dahil naka uniformi sila ng Saudi National Guard uniform so pinayagan ng guwardya na pumasok sa aming administration building. At simultaneous din na inataki ang housing compound na tinitirahan ng mga western expat dito sa kalapit na area.

Hindi pa kami makalabas at maka uwi sa aming familya hanggat walang clear signal sa autoridad at sa security team ng S. (his company, edit mine), dahil hindi pa tiyak kung nahuli or naneutralized na ang mga terorista. Bawat oras ang briefing sa amin to update on the what is happening and what to do next. Shut down ang company operation at possibling mag evacuate kami kung hindi ma clear ang security status sa alas tres ng hapon ngayon.

Wala nang putukan ngayon pero dahil sabay sabay ang ataki sa apat na location kanginang 7:15 ng umaga
malamang na marami ang miembro ng terorista.

Nag uulat sa Al Khobar...

Circa 5:20pm, June 29

Akala ko goodbye cruel world na, makauwi pa rin pala ako sa aking familya. Tumigil ang putukan at naghabulan ang mga terorista at pulis/national guard, kaso naka kuha pa ng police car ang mga terorista paglabas nila sa Oasiscompound. Hindi mo tuloy matiyak kung sino ang masama o alagad ng batas sa sumunod na laban nila. Napalayo ng kaunti ang action sa aming pwesto.

Hindi ko na alam kung anong sunod na info.....dahil naalis na ang police cordon sa aming building at makauwi na ako after 10 hours na tension!!

See you folks. I think I am safely on my way home now.

With that kind of reporting, I have nothing much to add. I was dumbstruck to think that our place could have been defenseless if we had been the target of an attack. Outside of the “kill zones” the rest of Saudi Arabian life went on with glacial slowness and sameness. Over the last few days, there have been reports of incidents in Riyadh and rumors in Jeddah, but they seem to dim with the boredom of repetition.

Americans and Westerners have much to fear from these attacks but most other nationalities I spoke with, especially the South Asians (Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangalis) just shrug their shoulders and say, “What’s new?” or even the Arabs from other nations (such as Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians, and Lebanese) just say, “So what? We’ve had this thing going on for as long as we can remember.”

I have to agree that the risks are everywhere and I could even wager that it is more likely for someone to lose a cellphone to snatchers and stick-up men in Metro Manila than it is to get killed in an attack while working for an Arab-owned company (as opposed to Western-managed or affiliated firms). At least we get paid (even if we don’t get laid as much as we would like, if at all, hehe) as well as we could imagine, given the current state of affairs back home.

Some other thoughts that come to mind:

1. There is no need to be lackadaisical with respect to the situation, but the situation does not demand an alarmist tone either. The general feeling particularly among those from countrieswhich have experienced periodic violence such as the Arabs or those inured in poverty such as the South Asians is that living here is a risk that is worth taking, considering what they have in their own countries. I would like to think that petrodollars and lack of opportunities back home are also the reasons why Filipinos come here.

2. The war on terror, in theory, and the unequivocal stand set by the Philippine government with respect to terrorism, are things with which I can sympathize. Just a thought, though - we must be realistic as to what kind of true contribution we can do for the war - sending troops abroad or addressing the source back home with a clear program that will reduce the effectiveness of extremists in recruiting among our dispossessed and especially the young into their fold.

3. The less-protected are more obvious targets in this kind of crossfire. Haven't thought about that in quite a while. OTOH, the extremists are eager to get support among their countrymen, so killing one of their own is not halal at all. When they start wising up that the key to end KSA government support for the US is to get to the Royals themselves or killing prominent Arab businessmen, then there will be a lot of trouble (that would be the time to really go back home at the first available opportunity). Still, that would make them pariahs everywhere.

4. There should be an interesting correlation between the zakat (the mandatory tithing for charities which is one of the five pillars of Islam) contributions of top businesses and terrorism. Contributions may actually end up in the hands of religious organizations fronting for al-Qaeda and similar extremist groups. I remember this embarrassing incident (for both the US and KSA) wherein the US security agencies traced an al-Qaeda link to a contribution fromthe wife of the Saudi ambassador to the US. It was hushed-up immediately, but that possibility remains.

5. There seems to be a streak of apologia in the statement of the attackers - in the rush to get to the kill they shot indiscriminately. But dead is dead, no matter the explanation.

6. Just like everywhere else, the root of the problem is the glaring inequity between the rich and the poor. In just my short time here, I have seen many examples of the glaring disparity in the rights and treatment of women and the all-too tangible lack of readiness (in experience, education, and attitude) of many Saudis to handle the challenges of modernizing their economy. There, too, is the existence of a double standard - "since I am rich, I can do what I want" mentality among the young and the bored Saudis, while just some distance on open ground in some industrial areas, some of their countrymen still live the same way as they did centuries before - in tents, without adequate food, water, or opportunity for improvement.

7. There too, is the pervasiveness of religion which has not helped this country. No offense to the devout ones out there, but without a humanist slant on religion (such as what the Protestants did in Europe, fueled by the Renaissance), I fear there would be little progress in changing many attitudes which have remained static for so many years.

In the end though, I can not trivialize a potentially explosive situation and I can't pass off another act of violence with indifference. To put things in perspective:

1. All in all, many Filipinos are a bit jittery, but not more so when thinking of how to pay off our loans, payments on the house, tuition for the kids, etc. A colleague's daughter was very sad that her friends (the children of the ones who work for the American companies) have not come back for school. Her father, just like others like him with families, are considering returning to the Philippines, at least to send their wives and children home, because of the potential risks. One of the victims (a Feliciano Dizon, if I remember his name correctly) just had his wife and daughter brought over to KSA recently, which is supreme irony and what a tragedy (it is still hard to stay dry-eyed thinking of what they are feeling right now). But we like the majority here are determined to remain. As for me, I could now identify with those who returned from Iraq but were determined to go back after things blow over. It's tough, but somebody's got to do it, for the sake of our families and loved ones.

2. Nothing much has changed with respect to the Philippine government policy on overseas workers - "the less maintenance they need, the better" is the kind of vibe I get (and shared by many veterans over here). Sad but true, and were it not for the agitation of OFW groupsmany changes would not have been made.

3. Back to 3, our best source to rely upon in protecting ourselves and fellow OFWs is to stay low, to keep informed, and most of all - to remain on the alert.

4. Many would really be happier if we could just get back home, myself included. Bullets don't
have eyes, and the most violent sometimes don't even bother to aim.

I'll go off-tangent a little... there are stories waiting to be told about the OFWs all over the world. And what kind of impact the diaspora has made and is continuing to make in Philippine society among the children - what kind of values they learn from the parents who are parenting in absentia.

That may be an interesting project to get into if I get any takers.

Tonight I'll say one more prayer that peace will find its way into the hearts of violent men. And women.