This is part of a series called Stories Over Coffee, where I write about my memories of growing up in Bahrain and Qatar in order to preserve them. To understand why I do so, please read this anchor post.
Leaving a country is not a solitary affair, at least not according to the Filipino diaspora community in Bahrain. When a family will be “for good”–either migrate back to the Philippines or onward to another country–other members of the community step in to help out every step of the way. Packing, babysitting, whatever you need.
Furniture disposal? That’s the best part. Most of the furniture don’t even reach second-hand shops because they get claimed by other Filipinos, either for free or for a small fee depending on the exiting family’s financial need. Cleaning always turns into an informal despedida, complete with broasted chicken and fries in takeout containers and some last-minute chikahan while squatting on the floor. In years of clearing out homes and taking what is offered to us, our own flat resembles a living museum where each furniture or appliance is thrifted from people who leave Bahrain behind for a new life. A fresh start.
I was around six years old when we first helped someone out. We were at the flat of a family leaving for either the US or Canada. I don’t remember which family it was. The children have already been sent away; only the mom was left behind in Bahrain to dispose of the last of their belongings and to take care of other immigration-related matters. I can’t recall a single name or face, only that the parent who supervised the cleaning was kind and had a sweet voice.
The walls were too bright and too white, the wallpaper showing traces of where the furniture used to be. Most of it was disposed of before we arrived, and so the house felt more like a shell emptied of its soul. We all sat on the floor because the couches have been carried out the day before, and the kind lady offered me some juice and biscuits to keep myself busy while she and my mom sifted through boxes of belongings.
Dust swirled through the air whenever the contents are dumped on the floor for sorting, leaving puffs that kept me fascinated and numb to the adults’ chatter. But something caught my eye. I spotted a dash of color in one of the boxes and gingerly poked at its source: a long tube of soft velvet with layers of multi-colored frills.
Do you like it? the lady asked.
I stared at my mom, willing her to give me a cue on how to respond. She didn’t say anything and just looked back at the lady who spoke, waiting for her to finish.
It’s okay. The kind lady gestured to the box until my fingers finally unfroze enough to copy the gesture. Yes, you can take it out of the box. I walked to the box and tugged on the colorful cloth, unfurling a plush toy as long as my torso. I can’t remember if it was shaped like an elephant or a clown. Two straps dangled from each end, indicating that it also doubled as a backpack.
You can have it if you want it. My daughter outgrew that one. I hugged it close to my chest, silently thinking about the lady’s offer while I sat again and munched on my biscuits. I really wanted to say yes, but I felt awkward claiming something that used to belong to another kid. It didn’t feel right that a parent gave away her kids’ belongings simply because they couldn’t bring any more stuff to their new house across the sea.
I gave the plushie backpack a tighter squeeze and buried my face into its soft cloth, already smelling the dust settling in and erasing the scent of the girl who left it behind. Would my mom also give away my things when we go? That sounded so sad, I thought as I grabbed another biscuit and munched on it a bit faster. But she already did that before we left for Bahrain. Our toys and books couldn’t fit into our new life, and so they had to go.
Plushie had already been left behind. It couldn’t ride on an airplane. Though it needed a new home now, I couldn’t bear to take it with me. It was left for a reason, and it had to go, too, like our own Barbie dolls and books.
As I put the backpack back into the box, I spy my mom lifting another curious object from it. It was a dark green mask, small enough for a child but still a bit too large for my own face. I had never seen anything like it before. I held the hose with one hand and peered out the eyeholes. Was it a toy? It didn’t look fun to me.
My mom lifted the strange mask from my face, her fingers going white from gripping it too tightly. It probably wasn’t a toy if she reacted like that. The kind lady looked at my mom, her voice losing some of its earlier cheer. Oh, you can have that too. We won’t need gas masks where we’re going.
Gas masks? What are gas masks? I tried to get my mom to answer, but all I could hear her muttering under her breath was I have two children and this is just one mask. Two children. Me and Ate. But why would we need a mask?
Why wouldn’t the family need the mask?
What are gas masks for?
My mom refused to answer. I waited a very long time to hear her finally answer it.
She left my question hanging in late 2001 or early 2002. Months after 9/11 and early into the campaign against Afghanistan. Bahrain then had the largest US air base in the Gulf region, and bomb threats were always on the news. None hit any residential areas, but panic was sweeping the country and people were leaving for “safer” places. Supplies were running out, and none were really made available or accessible for expats with low-paying jobs. Expats who kept the country running while it is tensed for war. Expats who would likely end up as collateral damage on a land that promised to be sanctuary from any dangers that awaited them back home.
This is the kind of question you leave behind, willing it all to stay boxed up under the bed or removed to a new home. It was relegated to our early years in Bahrain, too far back in the past that I thought it a fever dream when I first uncovered the memory. A gas mask in a box for toys? This couldn’t be real.
But it was reality, and life was often stanger than fiction. It was a question that accounted for the number of cleanups we did, the abandoned plushie, and all the goodbyes over broasted chicken and last-minute chikahan.
What are masks for?
She finally answered my question in 2021 as we watched the news about COVID-19, Palestine, and masks. For that. For when the walls can’t hold us together.
These are the things we leave behind.
And leaving is a privilege.
If you’ve made it to the end of this post, I hope that you take at least the same amount of time to educate yourselves on the ongoing Israeli attacks on Palestine. What is currently happening there is but a sliver of my mom’s fears when she held the gas mask twenty years ago. This time, it’s no longer a matter of imagination.
At the very least, please pray and uplift the voices of people who do not have the privilege to flee or even get gas masks. They do not have the privilege to simply leave this life behind.