Way of life

12:39 AM December 20, 2016

A Riyadh sunrise. A lazy December morning. A gloomy winter sky. People hurrying, hunching their shoulders against the cold. On the city highways, waking blasts of vehicles’ horns and squealing tires rise up to greet the mad rush of hardworking men on their way to work.

In the inner, smaller streets, sedans and SUVs begin to crowd the open spaces. In a minute, a legion of four-wheel machines—sleek, fancy, hulking, old, dirty, decrepit—will have invaded the business district of this part of this ancient Saudi city. From a corner, on the center island, at the back of the sprawling, towering Kingdom Tower mall, a smaller army is coming out in the open. The South Asian expats who hold lowly jobs—the Bangladeshis, Indians, Nepalese—are making the most out of their stay here in this ultra-conservative Arab kingdom. What they regularly earn is not enough for them to send to their beloved back in their homelands. And so, they moonlight as “car wash boys.” During summer, when the temperature soars to beyond 50 degrees, they are relentless, defying the harsh heat. The biting cold of the winter season, which at times sees the mercury level drop to zero, does not daunt them; they are still out there, their frigid hands continually mopping the dirt off the parked cars.


Inside the building offices, the “tea boys,” who are mostly Filipinos, are nonstop in shuffling their feet. They serve tea, coffee and other beverages to the office staff. In addition to their salary, they get handsome tips from their generous patrons for their excellent service. At night, some of them go out to work part-time in restaurants or supermarkets. The additional income they generate is about equal to, or at times even more than, the pay they receive from their regular work. They head home at midnight, completely drained. They get about four hours of sleep: They wake up at 4 a.m., shower, dress, and return to the office. On weekends, some are still at it. They clean the houses and iron the clothes of their friends or acquaintances—efforts that earn them supplementary bucks.

Outside the towering buildings, the cleaners, hanging from cables, wipe the dirt off the glass walls. They are kabayan, too, and they do not have a fear of heights. Some of them know how to do electrical works, to clean air-conditioners, to fix toilet bowls, to do plumbing. By word of mouth, their expertise reaches the knowledge of some of their compatriots who badly need their services. And so, on weekends, these gravity-defying warriors generate additional dough, which they direly need to send home to their loved ones.


In one part of the nearby residential area, there is a construction activity going on. The tough, hardened Pakistanis start their day in the wee hours of the morning, carrying hollow blocks, cementing walls, shoveling sand. It’s all business for them the whole day through, and they take respite only during prayer time and noontime meals.

Every day, these folks do the same thing. It’s their way of living. To be idle is to wither and fade away into the wasteland of oblivion, which to them, is hardly their fate. They will work and work from sunrise to sunset to midnight. They brave the harsh elements, the savage weather. They defy the nocturnal hours, ignore their rest hours, push themselves hard, to the limit. They do all this to win the battles they face every day, to slay their foe: the vicious enemy they call hunger.

This is and has always been the way of life for them. Actually, for all of us expats here in Saudi Arabia, which, according to an Indonesian expat some years back, is not only the center of learning, but also the “center of earning.”

Amador F. Brioso Jr., a lawyer, has been working as a senior legal advisor in a Riyadh-based bank for eight years. He is the author of several books, and his first nonfiction work published in 2015, on Arsenio Lacson of Manila, earned him the award for best nonfiction prose in English in the 35th National Book Awards.

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TAGS: Commentary, expat, Middle East, opinion, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
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