A Bahrain Christmas

Al-Fateh Mosque in Bahrain
Al-Fateh Mosque in Bahrain

My trip to Bahrain is almost over. But the remnants of my husband’s smell, his touch, his laughter, our endless conversations on goodness, on hope, the memory of his smile, the twisted, silly smile, the joke: “This is my ‘hard’ face,” they have stayed with me. I hold them close, enough to dream them. There are things in life you cannot construct with volition or strength or force of will–and this attraction we both have for each other, it’s timeless, it’s natural, something not land or sea or time can take from us. How long have we fought for this love? When others look at us, they must see us as we are: children, young, 25-year-old Americans, but children in love nonetheless. And isn’t that love? A kind of falling into childhood. A falling into infancy, a falling into what makes us who we are, constantly, that one thing that cannot be unhinged, that which makes us ‘us.’

My husband has left me again. I flew here on the 17th of December, and he came the night of the 22nd. We shared four tensed, bittersweet days together. Before this, these beautiful, too brief days, it was 153 days of absence, of not seeing or touching each other’s faces, cheeks, lips, hands. There were things that never changed: the way we slept, laughed, kissed, held hands, leaned into each other for strength, to carry on. The were moments when the sun broke the corner window of our hotel room and we woke to sounds of Arabic filling the streets, and in this stillness, we spoke to each other in a guttural language that we both knew intimately, without the need of explanation or preface: Where are you going? Come back to bed. But there were a thousand things that changed, too: our thoughts, our constant growing into the humans we are becoming, his cynicism, my hope, his depression of the human condition, my steadfastness in great literature–which has saved me–his questions on goodness, on G-d, on Calvinism, predestination, on: Why art? Why goodness? We wrung out these ideas with our hands, our voices, our memories, and in three days, how could two lovers in another desert across the world talk of humanity and its demons with such brief a time? There was a day where we fought, there were days where we were numbed by our lovemaking, happily and in ecstasy of this love. Four days equaled this: a half day when he came, the joy; two full days of bliss, the hope; one day of ‘off-ness’, the sadness that he was leaving; the other half day when he left, the rage. The wanting him to stay, the anger of being left in a country in the Middle East where complications rose within and without. Could you imagine the range of these emotions? The rage is palpable, the sadness like the sea. I told Josh the night before we fought the next day: you can’t save others if you are drowning. We were talking about my distrust of Calvinism and predetermination and his long-age problem of vengeance, but the sincere want for justice in world so broken. We were talking about the racism rampant in the U.S. Navy, the dehumanization of its enlisted active duty members, its systematic oppression and culture, its use of old-age rapist and racist jokes to dehumanize, to create fractures, to keep their men and women low, drunk, angry, stupid, unforgiving, cruel. We fell asleep, both drunk from the night’s events of laughing and drinking and celebrating Christmas Eve in a foreign country with both our guilts rising in our throats. We fell in each other’s arms, we fell into each other. But when the sun came the next morning, the emotions stayed. We fought through them. We made love in our darknesses. We found each other, again, halfway across the world, and didn’t look back.

View from hotel room (18th floor)
View from hotel room (18th floor)
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When my husband visited the Al-Fateh mosque back in September.

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What can I say of my experience in Bahrain? Of walking through every hallway of my hotel and seeing between every nook and cranny a Filipino expat? The whole hotel’s staff were Filipino expats, the huge megamall and all their workers were Filipino expats, there were children running from their Filipino nannies, there were screaming children, laughing children, happy and sad children, with a loving Filipino caregiver by their side. Taking them to the movies, to the store, to the coffeehouse. There were so many eyes on my Filipino body. On my husband’s. Once, a day before my husband came, I was having lunch with two other Navy wives at the hotel restaurant, and I asked the Filipino waiter, with whom I’ve had some rapport: How long have you been here? Do you like it here? He gave me that smile I knew so well, a subtle shaking of his head: No, I don’t. But I am here because my family at home is struggling. I am here to sacrifice for my familia.

Then he answered: For too long, madame. Almost a year and a half. I don’t really like it here. Where are you from? Are you half [Filipina]?

It isn’t the first time that I have been asked if I am half, but this complexity of privilege and class comes into play every time. I gave him a similar smile: No, I am Filipina American. It’s really interesting here, isn’t it? 

I don’t know how to quite describe it. But there’s a darkness here. A complexity mixed with our families’ relentlessness to migrant from the Philippines to America, for a better chance at life. What have our families given up, what is at stake, so that we could look across the table to the Filipino waiter, Filipino barista, Filipino caregiver in the middle of Bahrain and say: we can’t speak our language, we’re not quite sure what province we’re from, we are American but we are also Filipino, but both countries will look us in the eye and question us–where do you come from?

There was a night when we hung out with another couple, and my good friend asked me: Why do they come here? Why do they accept to be treated like this? Another writer friend once asked me, as she was researching a story set in Beirut: But, why? Why do they come? The abuse, the sexual trafficking, the tricks, the lies, the want for a better life: why is it this possibility, of domestic servitude hinged on the loss of so many freedoms, the choice they follow?

It’s the same question I ask myself, that I ask my husband, it’s a question we know too intimately. To join the Navy was a sacrifice for our families, for ourselves, for a chance of a better life. These questions, these contradictions, we embody this intergenerational trauma. The countless layers in militarism, of American neo-capitalistic dependency and servitude, the conflicting oppressions within and without.

But there is joy here, still. I have come to know many of the Filipino staff members, especially down in the restaurant. When Josh finally came and we ate breakfast at the restaurant lounge on the first day, the Filipina waitress I’ve taken a liking to eyed me across the room with a smile. I knew what that smile meant, too. She came to me when my husband went to retrieve more food, and I told her happily: This is my husband! There was much laughter to be had, shared, so much joy. She smiled: He’s finally here! When night came and I wanted my usual white pasta with fresh tomatoes, my husband ordered it while I was still in the room getting ready. The waiter looked at my husband with a smile and said: Isn’t this what the wife orders?

Being here, in Bahrain, has been taxing, but it’s been a mix of joy, love, and bittersweet pain. Here, I’ve relearned the freedoms I have in America. The way the men look at me, at my body, this taxing idea of female ownership is, in some ways, more present here than it is in the West. But it is still similar, we are all still fighting this patriarchy everywhere. The Asian body is still an object to consume. I did see countless of ‘escorts’ here, I did hear much about them, how they infiltrated the clubs and hotel bars I did not want to see or frequent. I did hear Navy men and women demean and misunderstand the women who worked the night; I did hear them misconstrue, beyond the red light district, this beautiful, difficult desert culture.

There was a moment when I went to the Al-Fateh Mosque with two dear Navy wives, who are not those Navy folks I speak of, and when we donned on the abaya and placed our scarves around our heads, I looked at my friends and smiled: You look beautiful. The woman who helped dress us laughed and singed: You all look beautiful! When the older one was helping me, I asked this silly-Western-girl question: Is this okay? The colors on my scarf? She smiled and laughed: Of course! Allah does not discriminate against colors. We are all beautiful under Allah. I felt as if she could have been my mother, my aunt, my grandmother. It was the way she touched my cheek and smiled, looked me in the eye: you are beautiful.

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The feeling I felt: it was similar to when I donned my wedding dress for the first time, as my husband looked at me and I said, this is the one. I felt beautiful, truly. He wasn’t with us when we visited the mosque. But after years of turmoil and self-doubt, of hating my body and hair, or trying so hard to be beautiful–I felt a beauty that was sincere in the abaya, in my makeshift hijab. It was swift and coming, though. When I walked through the mosque and the tour guide gave us history lesson upon history lesson–he was truly a sweet, intelligent man–I realized that I wasn’t getting the same tour my husband received when he visited the mosque months ago. I wasn’t allowed to bow down before Allah in the same space as these men, I wasn’t allowed to pray in the mosque’s main room: I would be a distraction, an embodiment of carnal passion. Maybe I am getting it wrong. Our tour guide, sweet as he was, tried very hard to explain why Muslims separated men and women. Wouldn’t you be distracted? He asked. No, not at all, I said. I turned and looked at the luminous, grand chandelier, down to the balcony and the men lined below, facing Mecca, praying to Allah. Another tour guide said to my husband months ago that the women must pray in a separate room outside. Our tour guide said the women must pray on top of the balcony. The separation exists, the lies abound. It is something I must take years to understand and unwind. Islam is a religion that I do not understand, but in the subtle, beautiful moments, I saw how steadfast my tour guide held onto his beliefs, how everything–from the salah, the chanting, the sand storms, the call to come to Allah–is his way of life. Something he wants to protect, defend. I kept saying thank you to him, for being so thorough. He you could tell he was sincerely happy to hear this. He wanted to help us, to teach us about Islam, show us the human side of the veil. And it was beautiful, truly.

As I finish writing this long blog, I must return to why I started it all: I miss my husband. I miss his touch, his laugh, our knowledge of our bodies and souls like the back of our own hands. We fell into each other, without preface or strife. We had a day of catch-up, a day of getting-to-know-you again. We showed each other the different music we had fallen in love with these past four months, I talked endlessly about this new novel I might be writing, he talked endlessly about the pain of wanting justice in a world so dark, so bleak, and ugly. We held onto each other till the sun left. Our time in Bahrain was too brief, too respite. Like a blink of the eye. But this life, this hope, this love, what life would I have if I didn’t live this? I am sad, I am left wanting. But I have so much to write about, so much to dream, so much to do.

I’m a writer, I’m a lover, living a fruitful, exciting, unstopping life. It is with gratitude to Allah, to God, to that cosmic being I want to believe in for the sake of goodness, of hope, that I journeyed tirelessly to cradle my husband’s cheek in another desert across the world. And, maybe I would have it another way, but this is what I have, and I am so thankful for it, so in love with life, with my husband, with the grace that we have given each other. I am thankful. I am loved.

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It isn’t goodbye. It’s ja ne. See you later. See you soon. ❤

Tonight, I fly back home. Back to ‘The West,’ back to where the Filipino waiters and staff members won’t call me Madame, where I won’t feel the eyes constantly, but will still feel them at moments (nonetheless), where I can go to a familiar building and call it “home,” where I could sit on a bed and hear my nephew cry my name or my niece look for me or my father say, Welcome home, anak. I miss my husband. I miss him every moment of every day, but with all my hope and heart, I know he will return. When he is back, it will be my turn: Welcome home, my love. Finally, you are home.

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