Maher Mohammed Al Raee spends his afternoons in calm contemplation. With a mug of tea in one hand and a cigarette in the other, he settles comfortably in his chair, surveying his idyllic neighbourhood, and taking in the afternoon breeze and figures that flit through the streets: Tricycles, cars, the occasional passerby. A look of contentment and impassive ease resides on his face, disturbed only at the mention of certain words, which includes, of all things, alcohol: “Me, I really don’t like it. I prefer coffee, tea,” he says, taking a sip from his mint leaf filled mug.
He started gardening a number of weeks ago, so that now what surrounds a side of his house are little beds of curry leaves, potatoes, turmeric, and mint leaves. Breaking off a leaf from one of the shoulder-high plants, he talks of garam masala, biryani, and halal meat.
Much later in the day, Maher usually heads to Dilaks Shawarma Snack Stop, a modest stall found a few blocks away from his house, where, as the owner, he takes on the role of both cook and host. “The customers really like me,” he explains, half in earnest, half in jest.
On Sundays, things are a bit different. Friends of his come for a visit and Maher prepares a few dishes over which he and his friends can laugh and gossip. At times, they opt for cups of coffee at McDonald’s, where they wile away the hours with good conversation.
Though lately, Maher has not been able to follow this routine as well as he’d like. Calls, texts, and lengthy interview requests made in person have taken over some of the precious minutes he’d normally spend working.
“This is my eighth interview!” he tells The LaSallian.
He had just recently said no to a request for another interview. “This will be the last one,” he hopes, chuckling at the ridiculous idea that he may have to recall yet again (for the ninth time, and to a group of strangers) stories about his life in Palestine and in Yemen, details as to how he fled those war torn places and ended up in the Philippines, and of course, the gruelling process of securing approval for naturalization. And so for what will hopefully be the last time, he recounts these stories.
A brief description of youth
Maher is a Palestinian man born almost 10 years after the Israelis came to claim his home as their own. It was 1967 when his family fled Palestine–right before the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict entered its most violent chapter. He was understandably mum about his time in Palestine, saying that the darkest times are often best left in the past.
“Let’s forget about that. Let’s forget about that because it was all war. Life was hard, there were so many people killed. Until now, there’s still war there, right?” he says in Filipino. His family then made its way to Yemen which, they soon discovered, was a place of famine. “Life was hard there because it isn’t on par with the likes of Saudi and the Emirates,” he says, recounting a difficult life in Yemen.
Eventually, he made his way to the marginally less poverty stricken Philippines. It was 1980 when Maher, in the prime of his youth, first set foot in what would become his happy home for the rest of his life. From a chair in his picturesque suburban home, Maher spoke of the humble beginnings of a wide eyed man in yet another foreign land. He recounts in Filipino “When I first got here, I couldn’t speak a word of English. But I learned slowly. Then because all of the friends I made were Filipinos, I forgot some of it. I became more fluent in Filipino instead.”
Like many of our foreign friends in DLSU, Maher chose the Philippines as the venue for his scholastic pursuits. He had come to pursue Mechanical Engineering as his chosen craft, although his true passion was in the culinary world.
He would go on to open a string of restaurants across the length and breadth of Metro Manila and even contemplated opening one a stone’s throw away from the institution from which this publication takes its name. According to Maher, what would ultimately dissuade him from opening a restaurant near DLSU was the pity he felt for his potential competitors. A burst of mischievous laughter came shortly after.
Can you tell us about the process of filing your petition for naturalization?
Maher squints at the question, smiles momentarily, and admits to having forgotten the specifics. “I really can’t remember. I’m already quite old,” he reasons out. All there was that was worth knowing and talking about was the mass of requirements—the paperwork, the long lines, the fact that he had to be featured in newspapers; and after having gone through all of that, the immense joy that then took hold of him, drove him to tears, and lent him the ease with which he now speaks of his identity.
“I’m now a Filipino citizen. My family’s happy, I’m happy. Our life is great,” he shares.
The seven year fight that began in late 2010 and concluded with a tearful and triumphant naturalization ceremony and oath taking of allegiance on January 25, 2017 was the long overdue affirmation of a 37 year residency in the Philippines: After almost four decades, Maher Al Raee is now officially a Filipino citizen, the seventh Palestinian to be granted the nationality status under the Philippines’ naturalization laws.
Plans have already been made since that momentous day. First on the list: More applications. It is only natural, Maher insists, that he apply for a passport and a voter’s ID. “Maybe next week. I just have to take care of a few more things with the immigration. Then they will give me an ID. That’s when I can finally apply for a passport.”
Then, a trip to Singapore or Hong Kong with the whole family. And after that? “I’ll keep working…keep improving my family’s life while I still can,” the 64-year old says, jokingly expressing dread for the impending consequences of turning a year older.
Maher Al Raee, Filipino citizen
Another thing that disturbed the calm in Maher’s face was being asked a certain type of question. Questions which, in his opinion, were always answerable in the affirmative. Asked if his wife were here right now (in their house, as we spoke), he answers with, “Well, of course!” It wasn’t that these queries were unnecessary or tactless, it just happened that when matters about his family, his restaurants, and his friends were brought up, Maher could not help but answer with overt excitement.
And then there were the words that elicited silence, conjuring up a flicker of what at first could be mistaken for something as simplistic as sadness, but later on proved to be a feeling of profound empathy. It was a period of absolute adversity when Maher and his friends travelled to Tacloban. The city had been wrecked by typhoon Yolanda, and the group of friends, with their stockpile of relief goods (purchased out of their own money), became witnesses to the most unfortunate of circumstances.
“I don’t even want to think about this anymore, but yes, we went there three times. I really felt so sorry for the people there. There were dead bodies on the streets,” he recounts.
Almost immediately his eyes adjust to the figure approaching us. His eldest son brought us refreshments, and Maher throws out a question none of us could answer: “This is my engineer! Handsome, isn’t he? Who wants to apply?” He goes on to talk about his three other children: Abdullah is 22; Sabrine, the only girl, is 20, and Ibrahim is 17. He is very proud of them, saying that all he really has to do now is to even better their lives.
And then he stands up to leave, circling his garage and crouching down behind a motorcycle where he struggled to collect something. After a moment, he comes back carrying a beautiful Persian cat. Cookie, Maher calls her. He coos at the fidgeting ball of grey fur, calling her pet names in cadenced Filipino slang. Almost two hours have gone by, and a point had been reached in which it was decided that we end the interview. Dilaks will open in a few minutes and his friends will be arriving soon, and so Maher, with his innate amiability and 37 years of adapted Filipino hospitality, said his goodbyes.