This topic is special to The Pink Tarha. However, it took us this long to write about Batha, the famous hang-out place of Filipinos in Riyadh. We’ve mentioned Batha a few times in entries yet we stall writing about Batha itself. But even though we’ve procrastinated for so long, we cannot not write about Batha. And this article, which detaches from our usual light, funny way of writing, will tell you why.
How do we capture the spirit of Batha? On its own, it emits a rhythm different from the rest of Riyadh. And the Filipinos know the tune by heart. Some say that you haven’t been anywhere unless you’ve set foot, immersed in, and left Batha. For the other nationalities, Batha is just a place but we Filipinos give it an extraordinary meaning. This labyrinthine souk gives a sense of exhilaration; both jaded and hopeful. For us, Batha is a culture.
|The place, the way of life.
There has always been an inevitable pull, a need to go to Batha because most Filipinos go there and you need a place to grow roots in. It’s a place where you find yourself hopelessly lost in the pockets of the familiar and the unfamiliar. You see it and you remember what it was like in the Philippines – busy, crazy, fascinating… nostalgic in a way.
On a Friday night, especially during the salary weekend, Batha is filled to the brim. You cannot go in because police cars are stationed in every entrance forcing vehicles to find other entrances to no avail. They close the place. Seriously, Batha is like a shop that they can close on hours they like because once Batha is packed, you’ll wonder how on earth will you survive a stampede. Just in case there is one. Once the onslaught of vehicles containing Filipinos and other nationalities arrive, you cannot find a tiny spot in the huge parking lots that is empty. Not even for a half of your car. The sidewalk no longer caters to the masses but is an extension of the parking lot. You must be nuts to enter Batha at a time like this but Filipinos who know the drill, like die-hard fans, arrive as early as 4:00 in the afternoon (after the asr
prayer) and never leave until the place empties out well into the night.
|Goodies from the homeland.
What will you do in Batha? A lot, if you’re up to it. For one, you’ll find the familiar brands of grocery items in your list. The Pinoy Supermarket, one of the more familiar ones, offer a lot of products that are embedded into your soul, brands that you grew up with and settled in your taste buds like Oishi and Jack n’ Jill. Or maybe choco mallows and krunchies. Lily’s peanut butter and Star margarine perhaps? Or Philippine mangoes, saging na saba
, and durian
. You can even find these in the Arabic-named supermarkets like Al-Rajhi
. They cost an arm and leg but what the hell. They’re comfort food and comfort is scarce thus expensive in this side of the world. Freshly baked bread (oh heavenly pan de sal
) and rice cakes are available too. Fresh meat and seafood can be found in small alleys and unpaved streets at the outskirts. This alley keeps a Quiapo
. See, a Quiapo
in Riyadh. How can this be? Quiapo is a restaurant though and just one of several restaurants that offer Filipino food in the area. All your food cravings are satisfied but of course, you will still feel incomplete: an ingredient missing, a sauce tasting different, if not far, from what you were used to, a gustatory experience losing its bite. Everything is from the Philippines but they’re not just the same. You expected better but you take what is there. At least they’re there.
|Quiapo right here!
Everything seems to be cheaper in Batha, except the Philippine brands, that’s why Filipinos go there for cellular phones, laptops, and appliances… you name it, they have it. Most salesmen are Filipinos too so you can discuss and ask for opinions and, more importantly, discounts. They will almost always give you presyong kabayan, even under the glare of their ibang lahi (other nationalities) counterpart. You can buy pasalubong for your vacation – from perfumes to slippers (er, flip-flops), sneakers, clothes, and chocolates. You buy them from your suki or from those perennial irritating but somewhat amusing ibang lahi shouting “Suki! Suki! Bili na, suki!” in their unique accent. They try hard and you try hard to stiffle the laughter because you’ve never bought anything from them yet they call you suki. Do they even know the meaning of the word? Nevertheless, it’s really interesting so you go on your way with a smile.
But the most important thing why Filipinos go to Batha (and I’m appalled why I didn’t bring this up there before talking about food), is of course, remittance. If you combine the lines (or what seems like lines) in remittance counters in Batha every salary day, you’ll get a Wall of China. It’s crazy seeing the lines and it’s crazier lining up. The wait will test your patience but it is needed to be done first and foremost. Before you buy your groceries or make chismis with your friends over shawarmas from CFC, you line up at the remittance centers and you don’t care how long, how time-consuming, and how boring this task is. Not to mention, back-breaking from the start. You do it because it is the number one priority. Of course you can also pay your SSS, Pag-Ibig and what-have-yous here.
The crowd will soon swallow you by the end of the day. Whether you’re alone catching up with friends or you came with your friends, you soon discover that Batha is a piece of the homeland. In the midst of other Filipinos, you’re somewhat home. It’s not it but it sure feels like it.
Peeling Off The Charm
You feel at home in Batha because you see a lot of Filipinos, people like you. You share a lot of things in common. You see yourself in them and you see Batha as Divisoria
And then you see snippets of Saudi Arabia merge and interweave with what you know, shaking you to the core, and making you surrender within a call of the salah
. You’re home but not in your own house. It still retains the dry air of an Arabian city – different, suffocating, beguiling.
The notorious religious police roams Batha like hawks out to catch their prey – men and women flirting, a woman without a tarha (veil), a man in need of a haircut, a woman with too much make-up on, a man to be converted. They see you; they see right through you. You hear all the urban legend and you heed the pieces of advice. Don’t talk to the other gender. Don’t look at them in the eye. Avoid using your cellphones (or else they might think you’re in an eyeball of some sort). Don’t wear red lipstick. Don’t wear shorts. Stick with the group you came with. Don’t pick up a stray piece of paper crumpled to make like innocent piece of garbage; scrawled inside is a set of numbers. You get the drift. Just don’t, don’t, don’t. So many rules, most of them unwritten. Take everything with a grain of salt.
An infamous mosque in Batha sits in the corner, opposite the Pasalubong/Quiapo alley. Our Muslim friends thrive in the sacred ground and for the non-Muslims, it’s a place to be slightly avoided. Feared, maybe, but certainly not ignored. For one, there’s a huge television showing a sheikh, his Arabic speech resonating within a few meters of the area, preaching those who want to listen. You stare at it, listen for a minute and grasp what’s being said. Maybe you were raised on a different religion in the homeland so you can’t easily digest what you’re hearing and you go on your way and resume your errands. When you pass by it a second time, you’re enthralled with the whole set-up again; a realization on how really strong one faith is in this part of the world dawns.
And so you find telltale signs that no, you’re not in the Philippines. Not even close. The warm, dry air envelops your being and reminds you that you’re a mere visitor in this kingdom.
Wrapping It Up
A part of Batha is dedicated to the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis but the area hugged by Manila Plaza, Electron building, Telemoney building, and the Pinoy Supermarket is where you’ll see many Filipinos, a domain of some sort. This is where fear, faith, aspirations, materialism, humility, and pride meet. This is where the Filipinos’ hopes and dreams converge; making the place worth a thousand volumes of stories that render you speechless and that never end. Here in this bustling side of the hot desert you’ll find boundless hospitality and friendly faces. Your very own.
|Where to next?
Sometimes, you go to Batha, look at it, immerse a little and find out the crowd suffocates you, the dust gets in your eyes, the trash reminds you of the slums… you don’t like the place. But then you return because it already grew on you. And your roots have grown in the place. Either you come and leave, or don’t leave or return at all. There’s nothing like Batha. It means a lot to Filipinos in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. It means a lot to you. Even if you don’t admit it that much.
So the Pink Tarha loves the malls but when it comes to newbie Filipinos in Riyadh asking where to go first in the city, we definitely put them to the test, the same way each Filipino in Riyadh has been initiated with… “Go to Batha!,” we answer with a grin. We’ll applaud once this place gets under your skin.