I had a rare upbringing. I know many people lament that they didn’t fit in, that they were the odd one out when growing up, but I think my case may carry a little more weigh than most.
I was born in Calgary, Canada and lived there until I was 5, at which point my family moved to Saudi Arabia. My Dad worked as an engineer for Aramco, an oil company in Saudi Arabia, and his job allowed us to live there for over 7 years. We lived in an American compound called Dhahran which was mostly Americans with a sprinkling of Canadians, Brits, and various other European and Asian nationalities. It was a privileged lifestyle that allowed us to travel to various places when we went on “re-pat” which meant to be a re-patriot and go back to your native country. We would often travel for a month or so as the company allowed, and even encouraged, lengthy vacations. By the time I was 12 I had traveled around the world 5 times. My family explored India and China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Singapore, and Greece among other places but that kind of thing was the norm among my friends.
To say Saudi Arabia is a conservative country is an understatement and when I lived there in the 80’s, before internet and satellite TV, is was very difficult to have real access to the outside world. We lived in a bubble of our own creation and the society that formed as a result was a close knit one. We often didn’t make it back to Canada for Christmas and so spent our holidays with friends instead. The relationships we formed back then were stronger than most I’ve had since. We had a common bond by living this same weird lifestyle. There were so many things that were normal there that would completely blow peoples minds here. Here are a few, as remembered from a 12 year old’s perspective:
- Dhahran was a town of about 10,000 people. We had 1 commissary to buy our groceries at or we could travel to the local Arab town of Kohbar which was a very different thing.
- A person was only allowed to live in Dhahran if they worked for Aramco. The entire town was surrounded by a fence and you had to pass a security checkpoint to get in our out.
- Women were allowed to drive cars in town but not past the gate. If you wanted to go to Kohbar, a woman needed to take the bus or have a male companion drive her.
- We had one TV channel, Channel 3, and it was only on from 4:00 pm to 11:00 pm. There were no commercials but TV stopped abruptly before sunset and after sunset for prayer intermission. TV was heavily edited to cut out any scenes of nudity or inappropriate activity. Entire scenes were often cut out and it wasn’t unusual for an episode of Dallas to be 20 minutes long and completely incomprehensible.
- We had a dining hall for fancy dinners or snack bars for lesser fare. We also had a bowling alley, movie theater, swimming pools, tennis courts, golf course, BMX Track, and arcade.
- Our school was second to none. When we had a gymnastic camp, naturally, Aramco brought in members of the US olympic gymnastic team to run it.
- School only went up to 9th grade and then kids were shipped off to a boarding school in Europe or the States. Teenagers coming back to visit their family on holidays or summer vacation were referred to as returning students and spent long hours doing not much but hanging out and getting into trouble.
- We would often go for school field trips to the arab community to see old towns or camel markets. One time an old Arab offered a teacher 3 camels for one of the red headed girls in my class. That’s actually a pretty good price but she refused to sell.
- Alcohol was forbidden in Saudi Arabia but it wasn’t unusual for people to have private stills and make their own. If you wanted to drink, it helped to be somewhat of an alchemist.
- We were not allowed to bring in many things that the Saudi’s decreed offensive. At customs they would search our bags and take anything they felt we shouldn’t have. Magazines were thumbed through and any offensive bits, like a woman’s exposed leg or décolletage were scribbled over with a sharpie.
- My family had a houseboy named Nevil. He was a kind man who cleaned our house a few days a week and helped with the dinners my parents hosted. Most people I know had a houseboy.
- It wasn’t unusual for it to be 110 F outside with 100% humidity. To this day a sauna feels like home.
I could go on and on and on about little details of Saudi Arabia that made it unique. I left when I was 12 though and I realize that many of my memories are fuzzy and incomplete. One thing I remember clearly though is that my family sold popsicles out of our house. My mom would make all kinds of Kool Aid popsicles, strawberry, grape, cherry or her specialty, the rainbow. It took days to make them and they were her pride and joy. With layers of every flavor, kids came from as far as R-section on their bikes (a 20 minute ride in blazing heat) for these unique popsicles. We would charge 1 riyal for a popsicle and donated all the money to an orphanage in Thailand.
I just attended my first ever AramcoBrat reunion this Memorial day. For the first time since I left Saudi Arabia, I was surrounded by people with the common experience of growing up there. 900 people converged on the Omni Hotel in Houston and, for the first time in a very long time, I felt like I truly belonged somewhere. These people were kindred spirits and yet many complete strangers. Some of us were only there for a few years, others were there for generations. There were people who lived in Dhahran in the 40’s and 50’s as well as people who live there still. There was a suq we could shop at with all kinds of Saudi paraphernalia, a henna artist, middle eastern food and of course, copious amounts of alcohol. I could walk up to anyone and start talking to them. I was fascinated by their stories of their experience as returning students, something I never personally experienced, or the way the compound was run before and after my time there.
And then there were all my old friends! Wow! When I left Saudi Arabia in 1986 it was mostly understood that I would never see these people again. It was a heartbreaking good bye and when I look back on the timeline of my life there is an abrupt break when I moved back to Canada. Thanks to Facebook I had reconnected with many of them but to see them in person, to meet them face to face after so long was amazing! The best part were the people I had never found on Facebook. I saw a slightly familiar face and then read their lanyard and…wow! It was like Christmas morning! People I thought were lost to me forever are hugging me with the same sense of disbelief that I felt. And if people were unsure of how they knew me, I could always mention the popsicles. I’m surprised by the number of people that remember them and really pleased to have been part of a cherished memory.
We were all largely isolated from the western world and our families, but we created our own home and sense of belonging instead. My childhood is no longer a distant grey memory that lingers only in my mind. It has been vividly illuminated, once again, through stories from friends, and a sense of understanding that permeated the reunion.
I feel like I found home again. I found my pack.