Generations How A War in the Middle East Changed My Family in the Philippines Forever
Papa left the summer I turned eight. The emotional toll of a wife who blamed him was too much to carry along with the burden of repatriating thousands of Filipino citizens.
We talk but we don’t talk. This is what’s been between us for over twenty years. Two decades since my father left. The house, me. I was eight, fifteen, twenty. Now I am thirty, a mother, a journalist. Today, what is supposed to be the last day of winter, I sit down with my Papa at my sister’s house on Long Island so I can write about our events and people, our cause and effect, the Gulf War of 1990, the war that drained my parents of the post-Spanish wealth my mother inherited and the post-American money that afforded my father first-class flights, hotel suites, and a mansion on the outskirts of Manila. The Gulf War of 1990 was our deluge, the storm that brought down everything, the reason why I named my book Monsoon Mansion: A Memoir. Now I do what journalists do: interview. We talk about the storm.
Papa is sitting on the couch across from me, and I’m on the settee. Between us is an ottoman where I’ve rested the voice recorder. I wear a baseball cap to hold my hair but also to hide my face. “I’m a journalist, not your daughter,” I say, as I press the red button on the recorder. I ask him to state his name, age, location, and the date. I tell him his volume is good but he needs to enunciate, and, “Okay, ready.”
“ Why did you leave?” I finally ask. Even though what I really want to ask is why did he leave me.
He talks and I leave it to the voice recorder to listen. My mind is back in our house in Manila, at the top of the stairs where he said goodbye.
“ It was a good plan,” he says about his initial efforts to recruit Filipinos for employment in oil sites, plants, and hotels in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Emirates. “Our people needed jobs.” Between 1979 and 1990, Papa brought tens of thousands of under- and unemployed men from the islands to feed the Gulf with the labor force it needed to develop cities and dig for oil. He brought them over for a middleman’s fee, and brought them over village by village. He connected Arab entrepreneurship with the diligence and, as the employers called it, and as it had always irked me, even as a child, “relative docility” of Filipinos. He fought for better work conditions at the plants; for more comfortable beds, thicker blankets, ventilation inside barracks. He set up phone stations from where workers could call home. He had it, and they had it, good for eleven years.
Then Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States got involved, forming a coalition of thirty-five nations—the largest military alliance since World War II. I remember watching footage on CNN with Papa, scenes of explosions and automatic gunfight from cameras mounted on American bombers. My brother and I likened the siege to our Nintendo video games, the closeness of our faces to the screen and the closeness of the camera to the onslaught.
Papa says he left us because it was the only way he could save his workers from the effects of the war. When the war broke out, he says, 63,000 Filipinos were displaced out of their workers’ barracks and forced to wander in the desert, hide in camps, search for food, pray for water. Papa spent five hundred dollars to resettle each returning worker, totaling more than thirty million dollars from his personal checking and savings accounts, stocks, liquidated assets, and borrowed funds. Between August 1990 and March 1991, about 30,000 Filipinos were repatriated by him and local agencies. He says, “But what about the other 33,000? What about them? Nobody cared! Only I wanted to save them.”
Then he quotes headlines he remembers. He says that the Philippine government only sent 161 flights to the Gulf. “Do the math,” Papa says, “If an average jet can fit 250 passengers, how many— how few— can 161 flights hold?” I do the math on my steno. But I do it not because I’m interested in the figures, though I should be, but because I don’t want to look Papa in the eye. He leans forward, as if to make sure that the recorder doesn’t miss the next part. He talks straight into it like I’m not there, like I was never there, and recounts who he had to contact to rally support for worker repatriation. I remember this part. I used to sit at his feet, playing with my Rollerblade Barbie, while he dialed the hotline number for the Philippine Overseas Employment Administration, or POEA, on the rotary phone, while he begged for the other person not to hang up.
Papa repatriated nearly half of his workers, but the fight didn’t end there. Once they got back, they couldn’t find jobs, or couldn’t recover from the trauma. During the first month of rescue, 16,500 Filipinos returned home, but only one hundred of them secured employment. Those who were able to stuff their pockets, shoes, and underwear with Arab money brought home worthless currency—the Central Bank stopped its Arab currency exchange operations.
Papa left the summer I turned eight so he could, I know now, find new revenue streams in Niigata, Japan and developing island towns south of Manila. He deserted us and the mansion so he could travel to where there were investors and where his new ideas—fishing net technology and efficient farm irrigation—could become another million-dollar venture. He also left because the emotional toll of a wife who blamed him for the downfall was too much to carry along with the burden of repatriating thousands of Filipino citizens. He disappeared from my life when I was eight until I was twelve, remarried, got his footing back in Manila, but sent me off to live with my oldest sister.
Papa says, after glancing at me, “There were reports of Iraqi soldiers raping stranded Filipino women.”
I am not hearing the answer I want. Twenty years I waited, not for data, news reports, nor shocking headlines, but answers to the questions I’ve been dying to ask: Why did you leave? Do you know what happened to us after you left the house? Do you know what we had to go through?
I am in the car with my uncle, Tito Eric, stuck in the usual Manila traffic. He is my favorite ride to school because he always has stories that give insight into my father’s otherworld—headscarves, dusty brows and beards, men working under the hot Arabian sun, their shoes filling up with just-as-hot desert sand. He was one of my father’s first recruits to the Middle East, and they worked together to build the barracks, canteens, and phone stations my father loved to boast about. Tito Eric is quiet except in the car, when he is clutching at the steering wheel, looking at the road, talking to someone but talking to no one. He asks if it’s okay that he smokes, rolls his window down and taps his cigarette, and he recalls: The day the Gulf War broke out and he stuffed his clothes with cash, his sweat damping the stash. That evening when, after many evenings without food, water, and protection from windstorms and the sun, he helped bury a friend in an unmarked grave. That time he finally crossed from Kuwait to Jordan, got through all checkpoints, got a seat on a rescue plane and slept the whole flight home, only to wake up to the realization that there were no jobs in the islands—it was why he left in the first place. He works for us now: a relative who is paid to drive me to and from school, soccer practice, or a school soiree. Papa promised him employment and this is how he could deliver on that promise. When he switched industries—from labor recruitment to construction—Papa regained some portion of the wealth he lost during the Gulf War, and when he could, he gave returning workers jobs.
Tito Eric lights another cigarette. “Don’t ever take up smoking,” he tells me. “This is for those of us who have sad stories.” I don’t mind him smoking, but I mind that he keeps saying he has sad stories. I mind because, right now, he is the closest thing I have to a father. I see him more than I see Papa, even though Papa is back in Manila. Tito Eric knows my friends and the boy I meet up with under the sky bridge, and he knows my jersey number. He sits through every game, smoking on the sidelines, and cheers me on, wheezing.
Papa has a stroke two weeks after the interview. I fly to New York at four a.m. I cry at the check-in kiosk, through TSA, and while boarding. My sister texts before I put my phone on airplane mode, HAVE YOU LEFT? DOC SAYS HE MAY OR MAY NOT MAKE IT.
I make it to LaGuardia, then to NYU Winthrop’s ICU. My sister hugs me and says, “He’s inside.” I walk into the curtained off room where my father breathes from a tank. He opens his eyes when I step closer, like he’s ready to talk—to talk more, to really talk.
He says, “Read to me what you wrote from our interview.”
I sit down in the chair next to the bed and pull out my laptop from my backpack. I open the seventh chapter from the memoir I’d been working on and I read. He doesn’t interrupt, doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t object or agree. My eyes are glossy before the chapter’s last paragraph, and still, he says nothing. The chapter ends and he asks me to read the preceding ones, the pages that introduce readers to our life before the Gulf War: the parties, the bedtime stories, the poolside picnics. The only sounds in our part of the ICU are my reading and his heart rate monitor’s beeping. We put a pause on storytime so he can eat his lunch of mashed potato and peas, and while he eats, I fall asleep in the hospital chair.
I wake up and it is almost midnight, and the nurses have wheeled him in and out of the room twice. He has had an MRI and his catheter replaced, the nurse tells me. She also tells me that my father is very talkative, “So many stories. You’re lucky he can still talk after his stroke.” Then she asks if I mind giving him a sponge bath, or if she should do it herself. I say I can do it, it’s the least I can do, convinced that my interview, my interrogation, my culling of the past, were the cause of his stroke. I take the washcloth, soap, and basin from the nurse and proceed to wash my father. He says, “Read more. Read to the end.”
And I read through all the chapters I’ve written as I give my father a sponge bath. It is the closest we’ve been since he hugged me and said goodbye at the top of the mansion’s stairs. I read from the laptop resting on the same hospital cart holding the basin of soap water. I read about the times when I had no food or water, my father having left so he could provide food and water to those stranded in the war. I read about what happened to the mansion, what and who it housed, what I had to endure while my father saved his men.
In the book, I never say that my father abandoned us. I say that he left to rescue his workers. In the book, I never call it absence, nor desertion, nor neglect. I use the words distance and loss . I paint it as though he was the 63,000’s savior, but I never say that we were the sacrifice, the offering, or in war terms, the collateral damage.
When I finish, he says, “You’re too nice.”
And this is the answer I’ve been waiting for—assurance that my father knew all along how many birthdays, soccer games, camp-outs he missed; that we lost him so he wouldn’t lose his men. That we needed a hero, too.
I cannot stand the transparency, this new clarity. It is not the language of our family. I fold my laptop closed and fit it back into my backpack. I sling the straps over one shoulder and walk to the door.
My father asks, “Where are you going?”
“Downstairs for a smoke.”
“But you don’t smoke.”
“No, I don’t.”
“Don’t smoke. Cigarettes killed your Tito Eric.”
“The smoking didn’t,” I say. “The sad stories did.”