My parents joined the growing number of bachelors and bachelorettes living in Quonset hut dormitories along bleak hot walkways. The sand blew in everywhere and the only vegetation was an occasional tamarisk tree, hastily planted oleanders and hearty periwinkles – they call them vincas, Stateside — a blossom I consider to be the corporate flower of Aramco. My parents were perhaps the quieter members of an otherwise freewheeling population of Americans that bounded into the poor and somnolent Eastern Province, known then as al-Hasa.
But by 1953, there were already more civilizing elements in the small American society in Saudi Arabia. My mother met my father, singing alto next to his tenor in the small choir of the Ras Tanura Protestant Fellowship. Time wasn’t of the essence in their courting until my father found out that my mother’s two-year contract was almost through and she wasn’t “re-upping.” His hasty proposal gave her a reason to stay with him and the advent of married housing gave them both the option of staying in Saudi Arabia following their stateside wedding in October 1956.
Life was always just the other side of normal, though. It wasn’t until the following March that my mother was able to return to the Kingdom. Before she left the States, an Aramco friend approached her for a favor: since she was traveling through Amsterdam on her way East, could she pick up the baby they had just adopted? Here’s my mother, a bride of only five months, walking down the aircraft stairs with a baby in her arms — how people must have talked! But life with Aramco was like that. As a foreign place became your place, necessity mothered many schemes.
A respectable nine months later, my mother traveled from Ras Tanura to Dhahran, the oil company’s administrative center and the only Aramco town at the time with a hospital. She checked into the “Mother House” to spend the last few days of her pregnancy a short walk up the hill from the hospital where I was to be born. It was a tough delivery, and she nearly died. Years later, a family friend finally told me there were five friends at the hospital that December night, donating blood for the infusions that kept her alive. I was to be my mother’s only child. The Certificate of Live Birth was issued. One copy is now stored in Washington, DC, in the files of the U.S. State Department under “Children Born Abroad to U.S. Nationals.”
According to the Aramco handbook, by 1952 the American oil workers and their families in Saudi Arabia made up the largest single expatriate population the U.S. has known. But the routines of their daily lives were to be conducted in a sparsely populated region that had never known a resident foreign population. Caravans from the north and from Arabia’s west would pause in their endless cycle of travel, the local merchants would offer their pearls and fresh fish, and sailing ships from Persia brought goods from the east. Its only indigenous treasures were the deep artesian wells of fresh water, giving life to the oases of Hofuf and Qatif.
The Bedouin? They were not wanderers, but purposeful life-long travelers. They moved from oasis to oasis guided by mental maps dictated onto their collective memory of where water was; the times and direction understood from the travels of their fathers before them. The features of a town were not something they claimed: a town was but one more stop on the never-ending journey of their lives through time and space. Theirs was not a history of settled place but a tent-and-blanket tapestry of family and events that stretched uninhibited across a land without boundaries.
Daily life was always simple, always uncompromising. Even the holy revelations that sparked the fires of the great Islamic eras were like the land itself: straightforward and stark, directly accessible yet demanding all of your effort. Its tenets did not broker the foolish and weak. The social energy of its people was focused inward on family, on survival, for the land was unconquerable. Its favors were few, and grudgingly given.
For Aramco and its Americans, we lived in a place we could not claim but in recognizing that, we could share it for a while. It began as a simple life and I suppose we and the Saudis thought it would stay that way, but it didn’t. We lived in quiet towns in an unexplored land that would finally see the untidy commerce between peoples of vastly different cultures. For both, it would be a progress rewarded and marred by the time-travel of a country — in forty short years — from the twelfth century into the twentieth, evolving from the irreducible struggle to survive to the complex life of the modern age.
After my parents retired to upstate New York, my mother and I talked many nights about Arabia, past the late news with the snowdrifts climbing higher toward the windows of my parents’ house, the numbing cold erasing all but the memory of the intense Saudi heat. Her eyes would become brilliant with tears, and the ending litany was always repeated, a benediction to the bedtime conversation.
“That was home,” she always concluded, “that was all you knew.”