JEDDAH—Year after year, a few days before Feb. 14, the Saudi religious agency locally known as the Hai’a issues a warning against the celebration of Valentine’s Day because it is not in keeping with their Muslim traditions. The ban includes displaying any replica of red hearts, wearing gaudy red shirts or dresses, selling red roses and holding Valentine’s Day parties.
On Valentine’s Day, agents of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtues and Prevention of Vices, the official English name of the Hai’a, are expected to monitor flower shops and gift shops to see to it that they do not sell the proverbial red roses and any gifts wrapped in red, even if it is only a bar of chocolate.
But despite the ban on open celebrations of Valentine’s Day in Saudi Arabia, Cleo and his wife, Melga, will mark the occasion with a special dinner in a restaurant—as they have done for the past 11 years, nurturing a love that started aboard a domestic ship bound for Leyte and blossomed in Jeddah after many years.
Black market roses
As it is, the Valentines Day ban always creates a black market in red roses.
“I always give her three roses on Valentine’s Day which could be bought secretly from several sources,” said Cleo, who works as a technician in a printing press. The price usually doubles on Valentine’s Day. “Last year, I bought three long-stemmed roses for 40 Saudi riyals (about P420). On regular days, one can buy them only for SR20 or even less.”
The couple plans to dine in a Filipino restaurant on Valentine’s Day but in plain everyday dress to avoid attracting the suspicion of the Hai’a agents that they are celebrating the day of love.
“It would be just a simple dinner to avoid drawing the attention of the religious authorities. We have to respect the country’s customs and traditions,” says Melga.
The couple first met in 1996 aboard the MV Tacloban Princess, where Cleo worked as a reefer. Melga was on her way home to Burauen after graduating from a nursing school in Manila. It was fate that she had decided to travel by ship, which she seldom did, with a cousin.
Love at first sight
“We decided to travel by ship so it would be more fun and the trip much longer. When we boarded, my eyes caught this good looking guy with thick eyebrows, wearing a white shirt and white shorts, sporting long hair. He was tall (about 5’8”) with a well built body that told me he was going to a gym,” recalls Melga.
“In short, I found him handsome. My heart beat faster. I guess it was love at first sight. Suddenly, a group of women passed by giggling, one pointed to him and commented ‘ang gwapo niya’ (he’s handsome). I said to myself ‘not so fast ladies, I saw him first, he will be mine.’”
It happened that her cousin, Nancy, knew Cleo, who went up to them when he saw Nancy. “When Nancy introduced him to me, he extended his hand and I trembled when we shook hands. Later, he took us to the karaoke area where we sang a few songs, then played chess, danced together. He even introduced me to his chief mate. I had a great time. When we parted ways, I gave him a piece of tissue where I wrote my name and number.”
Twists and turns
When she went back to Manila to review for her nursing licensure exams, she took the MV Tacloban Princess once again but Cleo was on leave. “I decided to forget him and to concentrate on my review instead. Suddenly, he called up, saying he just tried to dial the number because it had faded.”
Love bloomed after they started dating—“with chaperon,” she emphasized. She eventually introduced him to her family. Like most love stories, there were breakups—once when she discovered that Cleo had another girlfriend; a second was when she rejected his marriage proposal because she had other dreams to pursue and was not yet ready to settle down.
Melga accepted another suitor when they broke up. In 1999, she decided to work in Saudi Arabia, but before she left she contacted Cleo’s brother by phone and asked him to give her Cleo’s number so she could say good-bye. “I felt I still loved him. But when we talked on the phone he seemed indifferent.”
Follow your heart
While working at the Magrabe hospital and eye center in Jeddah, she sent a postcard to Cleo’s family in Villaba, Leyte, although she was already carrying on a relationship with a new boyfriend Michael.
“Michael was a perfect man for any girl but I found it hard to forget Cleo,” she recalls.
But she did not get any word from Cleo or his family.
Their love got a second wind when one day Cleo called her up from Riyadh. “The first thing he asked me was if I was ready to marry him. I told him, ‘how can I marry you when you have done me so many wrongs.’ He apologized and confessed that he gave me the cold shoulder when I called him up before I left because he was with his new girlfriend at that time.”
Cleo’s call led to their marriage in Burauen, Leyte, first in a civil wedding on Dec. 14, 2001, and followed by a church wedding the next day at the Immaculate Concepcion Parish.
The couple has since been blessed with two daughters, Ameerah Mae and Mary, whom they have left to the care of Melga’s parents in Burauen.
“I did not want to be haunted by my love for Cleo should I marry another man.”
Melga has not regretted her decision. “We have not gotten tired loving each other and, for the past 11 years, we always celebrate our wedding anniversary and even the day we first met 17 years ago,” said Melga in an interview two weeks before Valentine’s Day. “In fact, we always say ‘I love you’ before we hang up after talking on the phone.”
Making music together
Over in liberal Dubai, journalist Jay Hilotin and his wife, Tweet, plan to celebrate Valentine’s Day with their two children, Tobit and Pietro, probably in a park, listening to their favorite music
They will mark the occasion sans red roses but for a different reason.
“Dubai celebrates many of the Western festivals, Valentine’s Day included. Malls, shops and restaurants are usually jazzed up for the occasion,” says Jay in an e-mail. Demand for red roses is so high that it’s always a challenge to find roses during Valentine’s Day here, despite the fact that roses are grown commercially in greenhouse farms nearby, he says.
At any rate, “for me and my wife, music defined our love affair. We met in a church choir. We made music together and that’s how we found love in each other,” adds Jay, who plays the piano.
“We usually find a quiet time together on the day itself or a day closer to it. Since she works with an airline as a ground staff and her work time shifts, we try to be flexible with the date.”
A Catholic, Jay, who works as an editor with the Dubai-based Gulf News, says faith and family play a big part in their lives. The couple have two boys, aged four and three.
“We try to go on a family date once or twice a week… We’ve been married for five years now and it’s been a great ride. She’s a real blessing for me,” he says of his wife who has a post-graduate degree in civil aviation.