The stateside world I knew was bounded by the gentle hills of the Ohio River Valley. My grandmother lived just across the river from Cincinnati in northern Kentucky. My mother and father and I would fly into this cool and pleasant place every two years through the 1960’s to spend all our “long leaves” at her house. In its summer, the trees were adorned in bright, crisp green. It had a winter, when the maples and oaks were black and naked, the gnarled lace of their branches tatted against a sky of pearly gray. And come its spring, the ground was soft with moisture; the earth itself had a smell. Autumn was my favorite season of this climate when the hills trumpeted their colors of fire and the air was clean and sharp.
My home in the desert was not such a place. To call the land at the edge of the Arabian Gulf “flat” is to insensibly state the obvious. To call it featureless is to be lazy. This land does not beckon, it remains. It does not entice but stands unchanging, not caring whether it is appreciated or explored.
The American geologists who stepped ashore near sleepy little Jubail on a hot September afternoon in 1933 found a land unmade by the efforts of humans but worked for millennia. An ancient and unnamed sea had surged westward across the peninsula, covering the Arabian Shelf for hundreds of miles. The sea surged against the mountains in the west, embracing and retreating from a craggy bosom and finally departing forever, leaving in her wake the intricate carbons of life and multi-colored crusts of minerals. Far below, heat and pressure toiled to build the basement of rock and form the caches of stone that would hold in their microscopic mosaics the legacy of petroleum. Today, the mountains of the Arabian Shield remain in the west of the Kingdom and stretching eastward across the memory of the sea are broad flat shelves of sand and exposed under-layers of rock, the treasure only hinted by rolls, syncline and anticline, gentle north-south folds in an otherwise empty canvas of beige and brown. These are the echoes of the sea’s waves above and the earth’s turning and twisting below, a signature of their eons of intercourse with the land in between.
The geologists traveled some sixty miles down the Gulf coast to an intriguing limestone dome near the trading village of Dammam. The first six wells drilled there by the new California Arabian Standard Oil Company were commercial failures. For the first couple thousand feet down, it looked as though Number Seven was going to be the same but chief geologist Max Steineke, a Stanford grad who had arrived at the site in late 1934, told them to “drill a little deeper.” Dammam Number Seven started gushing from 4,727 feet down.
It was this family of rocky hills — the jabals — that were the most noticeable features of my childhood landscape. In Arabic, they were al Thahran, the “two-humped monster ” that gave its name to my hometown of Dhahran. Its hulk sat gruffly in the blazing light, an exposed geologic grandfather presiding over the empty expanse of sand and salt flat, the sabkhas, until even the steady beige gave way to the east, its faded color exhausted at the edge of the slow-moving water.
The sea, al bahr, was a timid thing at the shore, having surrendered the sand and rock millennia before when half of the country had been underwater. Swimming in the light-filled shallows, I remember its color was not the energetic azure blue of a hearty ocean but a pale wash of divine afterthought, a shy blue and green, bathtub-warm and safe. Its waters were clouded with fine silicate, the grains too round and unstable to build with.
The light and heat were the two constants of this world, the guardians of this place, retreating but not surrendering during the infrequent rains of December and January. The sky was bleached of its deep blue, and the greens of the oases near my town looked faded to an eye bred in easier climates. Even during the rains, the fronds of the date palms knew it was a brief respite, and the drooping needles of the tamarisk trees looked weary of their whispering war against the sand and wind.
There are no grand vistas in eastern Saudi Arabia immediately available to an upward and outward glance. The vast space is everywhere you look and nowhere does it offer a single point upon which to fix your gaze. You must focus closer in, much closer, on the small things. To the darting, mottled lizards that leave tiny tracks in the sand. They come in from the heat to take up residence in my house, living behind the refrigerator and at the side of the bathroom tub. Their rent is paid each month by the absence of bugs. You must look down at your feet to the tough little blossoms on the desert plants that push up rebelliously next to the puddles in the sand. In the yellow and gray days after a desert rain, I would ride my bike through the water, mesmerized by the track of my tires in the fine mud. These fragile dauntless blossoms would be the only color, the grudgingly given reward for enduring.
Somewhere in the desert, past the historic oasis of Hofuf, shards with centuries-old designs could be found, waiting to be carefully dug out on what we called “pot-picking” trips. Their snaking patterns were testament to the ‘Ubayd potters whose craft spread down the valleys of the Tigris and Euphrates toward the Gulf.
And you must go further inside the land. In the crumbling walls of the jabals near the treasure of the mighty Ghawar oil field is still more small history: digging away the fine sand with grubby fingers, I have uncovered “sand roses.” As the water was drawn away from the porous desert floor by the searing heat, it left its burden of calcium sulfate to work the sand into gritty petals and crystalline blossoms of selenite. These bladed bouquets graced the dusty patios and dinnertime tabletops of almost every home I knew.
I remember the breathless time between day and night. The sun silently plunges past the horizon and for a moment, the landscape exhales in relief and the sounds of the day stop. The heat evaporates from your burned skin and the light retreats and vanishes. And then it is night, deep blue night, still warm long past midnight like a good memory. I remember such a night on the unpeopled beach at Azziziyah. Climbing the wind-shimmered sculpture of a dune, I turned to see the moon rise and unsheathe a sword of light across the water. All color was gone save the midnight lapis above and the pale gold of the moon, shush-shushing the waves to shore. It was silencing to be in a setting so quiet, surprising to be content in such a place. There was the innate elegance of a few radiant features commanding your attention because there is nothing else and nothing else is needed.
Night evolves to day in a velvet surge, a time when dark and light hold each other close, neither wanting to give up the other. At the edge of waking, a sky of violet appears through the traces of bougainvillea outside my bedroom window. I have walked down the streets of my low and ordinary town on early mornings like this, the windows of the houses hazy under a curtain of condensation. The shadows are warm in the alley walks and the wide lawns are still silver green in the half-light, the Bahrain lilies perfuming the damp air. This is the only reprieve. It lasts for a moment an hour long, when the watchful dragons of heat and light still slumber before the battles of the day.
// music & Lyrics by Paul Simon / African Skies / © 1986 Warner Bros. Music // all photos by Bill & Shirley Ayers // Geology reviewed by Aramcon Ian Johnston, any errors mine alone.