Friday, March 15, 2013
My family first moved to Saudi Arabia in the early ‘90’s. This was before the first Gulf War, before September 11th, before the subsequent entanglement in Afghanistan and second War in the Gulf. I had not yet turned seven when we landed at the Jeddah International Airport after 18 hours of travel from the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Ten meters of snow were replaced by the orange glow of street lights over the gardens that lined each street. Palm trees and flowers that looked so startlingly out of place in the expanse of desert that surrounded the airport, kept alive by a constant steam of water - itself a product of a constant stream of oil exported to the Western world.
This wealth pouring into the country from buyers abroad was to structure all of my experiences in the country. The Royal Family of Saud controlled the wealth and used it to beautify their cities, palaces, and care for native Saudis. The design and management of these works and support systems were outsourced to specialists from the US, Europe, and to a lesser extent other Arab countries. The labor was done by migrant workers; Africa and South East Asia provided droves of young women as housekeepers and young men for the mixing and pouring of concrete.
Most of my time was spent in isolation from the Saudis and with only professional contact with the foreign laborers. Western workers and their families were housed in walled compounds in which wives were free to walk without covering their exposed skin, a law enforced by the Mutawa – religious police that were always a reason to flee to the restrooms and wait for them to pass when we happened to see them enter a shopping center. Not having hair covered was reason enough for deportation should one of these officers wish to enforce it.
My friends were the children of my father’s coworkers or those enrolled in the British Continental School of Jeddah. Lebanese, Egyptian, Greek, French, British, and German playmates organized street hockey matches and a game called wall-ball which quickly degenerated into wildly throwing a tennis ball at whoever was closest. Waist bags full of marbles were conspiratorially opened and displayed to challengers before one of a certain perfect color was selected. Resting between the two competitors, the marble to be won or lost watched as a second flew past it until at last contact was made and the fight was over, the marble either returning to the safety of its pouch or being stolen away by its new owner. I lost a lot of nice marbles this way. I was never very good at it.
Back in the privacy of the Compound we would organize ourselves into battalions, working to build defenses and stockpile ammunition for a war against imaginary enemies. While some collected dates from the palm trees to be used as projectiles, others would climb the wall separating our compound from the bin Laden family junk yard. There Ethiopian and Filipino workers guarded broken bulldozers, discarded air-conditioning units, cement piping, scrap wood and a multitude of other necessities for any young army tasked with constructing a suitable fortress. We quickly learned the guard dogs there, scruffy German Shepherds, were more interested in human affection than protection, but that their playfulness would still give away our positions. The Filipinos were not fond of our pilfering and frequently chased off with sticks those of us not fast enough to dive into one of the many pipes or outposts we had scattered. There was no joy or terror like organizing the rescue party to climb back over the wall to find Ahmad after he had been separated from the group.
The school would periodically organize field trips to neighboring regions. One such excursion took us to Mada’in Saleh, a pre-Islamic city of the Nabateans. A city cut into the red stones of the desert, it is Petra scattered amongst the sand. Our route took us wide of the holy city of Mecca; the bus full of nonbelievers was not welcomed within city limits, and so our first night was spent next to a cliff face that did more to cut the loneliness of the area than the winds. After dropping us off, our Eritrean bus drivers left to secure us dinner. We played games in the sand until they returned with a goat which they butchered and roasted on an open fire that we were happy to help tend. After the first few bites of meat was eaten, a pick-up truck full of very angry and very armed Bedouin trained their weapons on our drivers and asked them, I would later find out, why they had stolen the goat. Papers quickly exchanged hands and the Bedouin, satisfied, departed. The goat was delicious and the games of throwing the removed testicles at each other was more than worth the price.
For a young American to be surrounded by that much diversity of religion and culture was something that made identifying with my peers stateside difficult after returning. I have not been back since our departure in 1996. Those who have been back since 2001 have spoken of Saudi Army presence outside of all Western compounds. I am glad I have not seen that.
By Matthew Rasmussen