Desert Suburbia – Desert Kingdom

“In the Dhahran that we grew up in, women wore shorts and liquor flowed freely. We bought our food from the company’s ‘commissary’ that sold all things American, including pork products. We moved freely from one area of Dhahran to another on bikes and roller skates, hopped on and off the free bus service driven by Shi’a Saudis that the Americans (and we) were taught to call ‘sadiqi’ (my friend). While everyone living outside Aramco’s towns drank brackish water, we drank fresh desalinated water from our taps. Cold water fountains were stationed in all the public places of the camp complete with envelope paper cups and salt tablet dispensers to combat the intense heat.

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We camped out with our scout troops on Aramco’s private beach, Half Moon Bay. We competed at American football and basketball with Abqaiq and Ras Tanura. Our swimming pool area, ruled by a stern Indian lifeguard named John, had the air of a resort spa with its reclining sun chairs, and piped-in ‘muzak’ that ranged from country and western to classical to rock, never Arabic. My Catholic classmates attended Catechism, went to confession with a residing Catholic priest, and to Sunday school, which was actually on a Friday. That day of the week was the one non-negotiable where the line was drawn between Aramco and Saudi Arabia. Friday, the Muslim holy day, resolutely remained as the only day when everything closed down and all Muslim men attended prayer in the mosque, even in Aramco.

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My siblings and I addressed one another by the American mis- pronunciation of our names. I was ‘Fudgie’ short for ‘Fadjyah,’ Fatin was ‘Faahttn,’ Ghassan was ‘Gussaaaan’ and Marwan was ‘Moe.’ Growing up, we entered Brownies and Cub Scouts and graduated to Boy and Girl Scouts of America. On Halloween we went trick-or-treating with our friends dressed up as ‘G.I. Joe’ and ‘Cinderella.’ I joined the cheerleaders for one of Dhahran School’s American Football teams, the ‘Bears,’ Marwan played catcher for the ‘Orioles,’ Dhahran’s Little League Baseball team and Fatin was the star gymnast of Dhahran School on the rings. We hung out with our friends in the pool hall in the Recreation area in the center of Dhahran. There was a ‘Teen Canteen’ set up especially for young teenage Aramcons replete with a jukebox, soda fountain and a Filipino barman we all called ‘Mike.’ A short walk away was the ‘Snack Bar’ where we ate super-size grilled hamburgers and caramel sundaes prepared and served by Hussein and Ali, Shi’a Saudi Arab personnel, from the neighboring Al Hasa oasis towns of Qatif and Hofuf.

 

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On every American Independence Day, July 4th, Dhahran held a parade led by baton twirling, mini-skirted majorettes and a spiffily costumed brass band which included my sister on the clarinet at one point. Two Eagle scouts carried the American and Saudi Arabian flags as they led troops of Brownies, Cub Scouts and Boy and Girl Scouts. Floats draped with pretty girls in sun dresses rolled past clapping crowds followed by Americans on spirited Arabian horses and elementary school children dressed as Cowboys and Indians. To the rat-tat-tat of the drums and the blare of the trumpets, the parade moved triumphantly down King’s Road on to the County Fair spread out in Dhahran’s Recreation area. There we wolfed down hot dog buns smothered in relish and ketchup and washed them down with root beer. We bought rides on laconic camels, paying the outstretched hand of their equally laconic Bedouin owners before embarking. Then there were three-legged races and donkey races to join, and bakery contests to nibble from. We placed bets on races of tiny green turtles fished out from the water canals of the Al Hasa oasis that sported numbers on their miniscule backs. By day’s end, with our prize turtles still racing round in circles in a bowl of water, we were more than ready for a sound night’s sleep as we dragged our bulging stomachs and our booty home.

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My siblings and I led the rarified life of coddled westerners in one of the harshest of terrains on the face of this earth – except when the deadly shamals struck.” (Brownies and Kalashnikovs,p.12-14)

 

 

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All Photos are from the archives of Fahmi Basrawi. Copyright © 2016 Fadia Basrawi. All images, text and design on this website are property of Fadia Basrawi and are protected by the international copyright laws.

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