LIFE IN A SAUDI ARABIAN OIL CAMP
A wall of flames was shooting up in the background, outlining the oil installations and housing area with an eerie red glow. The air was unbelievably hot and filled with fumes. “Vic, what have we gotten ourselves into? This place looks like Hades for sure” He assured me the flames were a necessary part of the process at this camp for eliminating gas contained in the oil so it could be safely loaded in tankers for shipment. It continued 24 hours every day. So began our assignment in Abqaiq, Saudi Arabia.
At this point, we both wished we were back in our jungle camp in Sumatra, but after seven delightful years there, we had come to the decision, since the camp had become more and more Indo- nesianized, and our American friends had long since gone home, it was time to seek another overseas assignment before returning to the States to retire.
This seeking, resulted in my husband, a Chevron engineer, obtaining a contract with Aramco Oil Company, which is the Arabian American Oil company, and a conglomerate of four companies: Exxon, Mobil, Texaco and Chevron. Abqaiq is located on the eastern side of Saudi Arabia and north of the famous Rub Al Khali desert. We were one of several oil installations operated by Aramco on the Arabian Gulf. Dhahran, where the airport and administrative offices were located, and Ras Tanura, where the tankers were loaded were, our closest neighbors.
After my first horrifying impression of Abqaiq, I was really wondering what our living quarters were going to be. Our flight had begun in London. It was now 10:00 PM and we were totally exhausted. At this point, our escort pulled into a street of antiquated mobil homes. The dark, sparsely-furnished interiors were even more depressing than the outsides, with one NOTABLE EXCEPTION.....on the coffee table was a tiny African violet plant! Someone who had earlier felt like crying too, had anticipated my desperate need for encouragement. Maybe life in this strange new land was going to be OK after all.
Early the next morning, after my husband had gone off to work, the welcoming ladies, God bless them, who had been responsible for the
African violet and filling our refrigerator with necessities, arrived to
give us new recruits a tour of Abqaiq. They pointed out that the streets were paved, and especially wide in case we had to make a quick exit by plane some day, since this place is not very pro-American. With the exception of a few trees, the camp looked like a modern suburban area in the States with schools, business offices, club-house, theater, etc etc. The golf course, however, was entirely different. Instead of lush green fairways with manicured greens, one saw expanses of gray sand, dotted with white gypsum rock and black, oiled-sand “greens”.
We soon discovered blue Levis, an orange golf ball, and a piece of Astro turf for teeing up the ball were regulation equipment here. One day a friendly camel followed us around the course, but disappeared before we were able to get our cameras and that “perfect picture” to wow our golfing friends back home.
It didn’t take us long to realize that we were in a fanatical Muslim land. Their women were veiled and clothed in black and kept behind high walls. Religious services were barely permitted. We had to meet in the theater on Fridays instead of Sundays and disband if any Arabian came into the service. Announcement of meetings was “ word of mouth” only. In spite of these restrictions, the company provided us with both Catholic and Protestant ministers and we QUIETLY maintained a strong Christian community.
Our husbands had the opportunity to fraternize with the Saudi men at work and on the Aramco bus one of the young men riders asked Vic if he would consider driving him to his home in Hofuf, where he would introduce us to his family and we would have a meal with them and see his city. This was an unheard of OPPORTUNITY and one of our “Special Memories”.
A very high gray stone wall surrounding a stone courtyard was our first view of his residence. As we entered, I was ushered into the women and girls rooms to meet his mother, and Vic was led off to the “men and boys” section. The exterior of the building had been so grandiose, I was surprised by the austerity of the living-room I was in.
A single light globe hung from the ceiling to provide light. His mother was a frail-looking, dark-skinned lady in her late forties, who already had 12 children to her credit, and whose only purpose in this Muslim culture, is to produce and care for children and provide pleasure for her husband. How my heart went out to her as I compared my life of freedom and fulfillment. Presently, she introduced her seven girls and the eldest went off to help the servants with the meal preparation and service and we were left to try to communicate and keep the younger children happy until mealtime. I was especially grateful that we had a soft rubber ball to toss around, since we couldn’t converse. The meal was delicious–a baked chicken with saffron rice and a sweet melon, served on a large platter on a tablecloth on the floor and eaten by hand (as a special favor they gave me a spoon). Comparing the experience with Vic later, I found out that the men sat on pillows in a similarly austere room and he was given a lesson on “how to eat food with his right hand”. In both Indonesia and Saudi, it is a major faux pas to use the left hand for anything except toilet purposes. I wasn’t nearly as impressed with Hofuf as I was with our “special peek” inside the home of a Saudi family.
Our morale was given a boost the day Vic came home from work with the magical announcement that we were MOVING! Instead of our humble, depressing mobile home, we’d be living in style, in a 2-bedroom, 2-1/2 bath, 2 story, 2400 sq. ft. stucco triplex. Abqaiq began to seem more promising.
Moving day was an interesting experience. A crew of Pakistaneans, who are the labor force in Saudi, unpacked our barong, which had been encased in teak-plywood boxes in Indonesia, shipped by boat, and stored in a local warehouse awaiting this day. Mid-morning, the movers seated themselves cross-legged on the bare floor for their tea break. Their happy chatter was contagious, and matched my mood perfectly. When everything had been put in place, we realized that we were going to have to replace the furniture we had so freely doled out to our children when we left the states. Aramco came to our rescue with an offer to pay the freight on any furnishings we needed–from anywhere in the world. What a bonanza that was! More experienced Aramco friends recommended ordering teak furniture from Taiwan, which we could get inexpensively and quickly. We’re still enjoying those intricately carved Chinese pieces.
Soon after we arrived, a brand new Central-Mall, including a Post Office, beauty shop and, a huge modern Ralph’s Market was opened in Abqaiq. We couldn’t help noticing people entering a section of the store behind closed doors. Our curiosity prompted us to investigate and, sure enough, the room was filled with hams, bacon, and sausage–all forbidden pork to the Muslims, but quietly available to us Aramcons from America. Another thing we noticed was a shelf with special yeast, sugar and fruit juices for making wine, beer and alcohol, even though it was outlawed in this land. It suddenly dawned on us, “Oh, that’s the reason for that little room in our detached garage that has electricity, running water, sink, floor drain, etc.” Strange inconsistencies in this land!
For items other than groceries, we women had two choices–both requiring us to leave the safe confines of the camp and dress very circumspectly with long skirts, covered arms and modest neck lines. It didn’t take us long to realize that a feminine version of the “thaub”, the slender, loose-fitting, long shirt that the Saudi men wore, was the smart way to comply with the rigid-clothing requirement and protect ourselves from the brutal heat and sudden stinging sand storms. We could shop with our husbands in the native Suks. They rather primitive stores, just outside camp, run by Pakistaneans. Or we could take the Aramco bus with girl friends into Al Khobar, our closest native city. There we could find almost anything we needed, if we looked hard enough in their dusty, not too modern shops.
By far the most thrilling adventure of our two years in Saudi was our Christmas trip to Riyadh to attend a performance of Handel’s “Messiah” inside the Riyadh Air Base, and experience a “Goat Grab” out in the desert. A group of Christians, attached to an American Fighter Group, who lived behind the protective walls of the base, had organized and invited us to this special weekend. Believers from all the Aramco camps in Saudi were flown into Riyadh and lodged with other Christians in the city. Our host, an AT&T executive and his wife lived in a tiny, doubly secured, high-rise apartment. Their life was more restricted than ours, where we lived under the umbrella of a company camp.
The familiar words and music of the “Messiah” never seemed more comforting than they did in this land, so far from family and loved ones. Never have we joined in more heartily on the “Hallelujah Chorus”. Little did we realize that an even greater thrill awaited us out in the desert.
The “Goat Grab” is a glorified Saudi Pot Luck. The goat had been pit barbecued ahead of time, and was the focal point of the long serving table and the main dish of the meal. Saudi Lebanese and American dishes completed the menu.
We had seated ourselves in small cluster groups on the sand, and after enjoying the delicious food, were just reveling in the beauty of the cool moonlit evening, when suddenly we saw fire leaping up from a nearby campfire. We were drawn to it, like moths to a light. We had no sooner re-seated ourselves, than we heard singing. Was it French? German? Filipino? A blend, we decided. The tune was Silent Night. The rest of the evening we enjoyed each other’s version of the many beloved carols. In this setting, so near where the first Christmas occurred, we could almost imagine ourselves as the shepherds of that familiar story!
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