Hundreds of Aramcon ExPat annuitants gathered recently in Asheville, NC for an unforgettable weekend spent renewing friendships, sharing old memories and creating new ones. Among them were James and Rita Maher, residing today in Las Vegas after Jim’s retirement in 1996.
When asked what drew him to Saudi Arabia back in 1973, Jim, an industrial engineer, cited the opportunity to work overseas in his field studying the multiple infrastructures that supported Aramco. He also gave credit for inspiring him to colorful stories told by his uncle who served with the US Air Force in Dhahran during World War II.
Jim remembers fondly his many former Saudi colleagues, especially Maki Al Ghaim who was his manager for a time. Scuba diving in the Red Sea and Arabian Gulf is one of his favorite memories of life in Saudi Arabia, along with Arabian dinners on the dunes outside Dhahran and Christmas pageants staged on the local ball field in the early ‘70s.
Hobbies that keep him busy these days include sailing his MacGregor 26 on Lake Mead and giving seminars on Apple computers in Sun City. Like many retired Aramcons, Jim continues his passion for simulated sports. He arrived in Asheville eager to play in simulated NFL football tournaments with fellow enthusiasts. He must have fared well, for he’s offered to chair a committee to organize simulated sports tournaments at future gatherings.
Jim and Rita raised their three children—Julie, Nora and Brian—in the Kingdom and have wonderful memories of the experience. Jim’s fellow annuitants can only nod their heads in agreement when he says that, “Only those who have been there and raised a family in Saudi Arabia can really understand how great it was, both professionally and in terms of the lifestyle ExPats enjoyed.”
When Jim was a child, he listened to his uncle tell exotic stories about the Kingdom. Now that he’s retired, he and Rita no doubt have lots of colorful stories of their own to tell their five grandchildren. In their own way, they are serving as active good will ambassadors to Aramco, the Kingdom and the Saudi people.
Note: Please send a photograph of Rita and Jim to firstname.lastname@example.org.
In 1956, an eleven year old girl in Mr. Floyd Wagner’s sixth grade class became enamored with geography, as it was called then, and she acquired a thirst for knowledge of the world that would take her to Uzbekistan in July of 2014. Uzbekistan? Fred and I hardly knew it was a country somewhere over there near Afghanistan and Pakistan among the other Stans under the influence of the old USSR and the new Russia. We spent three weeks among a most hospitable people with a remarkably rich history about which we knew almost nothing. Mongols, Genghis Khan, Hordes, Tamerlane—they were names we had heard bandied about, but had never studied in any world history class.
The Uzbeks make a Good Approximation of a Schawarma
Like many of you, Fred and I spent scores of years in Saudi Arabia steeping our beings in Middle Eastern culture that was uniquely Saudi Arabian. During those years we came to understand the ways of the Saudi Arabs, the hospitality and generosity, the family closeness, Islam, and a land whose ruggedness forged a determined lot of tribes into the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Our boys (now 45 and 43) and Fred and I remember with fondness the wonderful Kapsa that we shared with Hassan Al-Sultan’s family in al Mansurah, Hofuf . The many mounds of lamb and rice that we eagerly gathered into our hands and popped into our mouths—all the Kapsa occasions celebrating a number of promotions of Fred’s men in Udhailiyah. We still will go out of our way in the US to find a schawarma! I will slave for hours to make tabbouli that has the right combination of parsley and bulgur—lemony and good.
Alas, we retired in 2006 to the Florida Keys and New Jersey where there is precious little to remind us of our lives in Saudi Arabia. Yet when I hear Arabic being spoken, or see a hookah in a store front, or Arabic splashed across a sign in Paterson, NJ, or a woman in hijab my heart leaps up and I say “As-Salaam-Aleikum” to surprised eyes and ears. Our living room is a testament to our travels and our nearly 30 years in Saudi Arabia. When I am truly homesick I stand in the middle of that room to get the feeling back—a little walk down memory lane as I remember where I was when I acquired each item and where the items were placed in our homes on Qatif Lane, Golden Court, Hibiscus Court, 15th Street, and Udhailiyah. We are only missing the sounds, the smells, the sand and the people and of course Mother Aramco.
Back in 1987 or 1988, when Fred and I and Eric and Peter were living in Connecticut (getting the boys through high school) and I was teaching at Chester Elementary School, I discovered that Yale had an outreach program on the Saturdays for teachers. The workshops consisted of a Yale student from another country sharing their country with Connecticut teachers. Through these workshops I found out about Pier Summer Institute. I signed Fred, his sister and me up for a week’s workshop on the Soviet Union when it was beginning to break apart and “glasnost” was the operative word that had yet to appear in our local news. For some small amount of money the three of us along with several others sat mesmerized by speaker after speaker who educated us on the Soviet Union past, present and future—a future that was yet to be spoken of in the US nightly news but was as predictable as the rising of the sun. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and I knew we had been privy to some amazing information thanks to Yale and Pier Institute.
Back in Arabia in 1991, I wished for the time to attend more Pier Institutes as I was tempted by fliers from Brian Carter each year with enticing subjects. Our school year in Dhahran ended late in July which precluded signing up for the Institutes since they took place early in the month. As years went by, Pier forgot me as I am sure the fliers were returned. I did not know if Pier still existed. Enter the Internet. In 2011, I decided to see if Yale had anything like the Soviet course available in the short format for teachers during the summer. Now I was free to sign up. To my delight, of the several course offerings that year was Islam and Politics. I signed up Fred and me and Carolyn Parks for the course. Carolyn had taught 5th grade at Dhahran Academy and Saudi Aramco and was currently teaching at a Muslim international school in London. The course was taught by some of the most well informed scholars of the time and again we, along with about 30 other teachers and interested parties, were treated to an education on the history of Islam and politics as it played out from country to country. We came to understand that each country, people and history varied widely causing vastly different results and that one could not paint the whole Muslim or Arab or Middle East world with one brush stroke. Very different tools were available to these “countries” as they dealt with their realities and we should not have in mind that they will come through their “Arab Springs” looking like Egypt or Turkey.
This year I Googled Pier Institutes and was delighted to see that, again, they were offering a course on the Middle East—Worlds of Islam: Unity and Diversity. Fred was keen and so I applied on line with the caveat that we not exclude any teacher from the course. Much to our delight we were accepted. Waiting for the acceptance, I noticed that there was a link to an associated trip to Uzbekistan called Heart of the Silk Road. Fred was at his computer paying bills when I suggested that we had never been to Uzbekistan and the price seemed good, even cheap, and if we couldn’t go to the course at Yale, we could at least go to Uzbekistan. In addition, the tour was to be accompanied by Yale professor, Frank Griffel, who, if you can believe a Google search, will know the answer to every question about Islam and the history of this region that we could possibly think to ask. And he did. However, the Pier Institute workshop gave us a grounding in Islam, its history and practice that set the stage for a once in a lifetime trip to Uzbekistan. A country whose history is indelibly interwoven with the Silk Road in the faces of its people, its food, its architecture, its literature, its languages, and Islam.
On July 14th, the day after our 46th wedding anniversary, we set off on our adventure with passports, visas, $2,000 dollars in various denominations strapped to our bodies in money belts, various confirmations of airline tickets, hotel reservations and tour vouchers, insurance cards, two carry-on bags and two small backpacks for nearly 3 weeks of adventure Uzbek style. We had Uzbekistan—the Road to Samarkand and our various pills for everyday and just in case. After about 33 hours of travel from home to Hotel Uzbekistan in Tashkent, we fell into our bed for a few hours of sleep before breakfast and venturing out to get our bearings in our new surroundings. The bell boy insisted that he help us to our room, although we packed so that we could handle our own luggage without help per tour directions. Once in our room, he offered to change money at what we knew was a better rate than the bank. We agreed and he gave us a whole fistful of 1,000 som notes for $100—270,000 som all together. Yes, that is 270 bills. Later we would get 300 notes.
Tashkent proved to be a challenge for us. We took our first walk past Amir Timur Square, a place that has had a number of dignitaries grace its park over the years, but the latest and current hero is Amir Timur. We were on a mission to replace the ‘sim’ card in our old Nokia telephone that we bought in Khobar near the turn of the century. It has come in handy for our travels to China, Thailand and South Africa as it does not work on the American system. We found Bee Line (a company that sells phones and time) and were able to make our desire for a sim card known. Somehow they managed to scare-up someone we could communicate with. After that we continued on our foot tour of the Hotel Uzbekistan surroundings. Much to our delight we found a well-appointed grocery store where we stocked up on fresh fruit and nuts and lots of bottled water at a reduced price.
Metro Station from an Anonymous Tourist
Our second day in Tashkent took us to Chorsu Bazaar where, of course, they sold everything. We were amazed at the huge fruit and vegetable markets, the stalls of clothing and tons of stuff. Although it was over 100 degrees, people were bustling and we were dragging. We did manage to meet another money changer with bags of money. This time we got 300,000 som for our Ben Franklin and were lucky to get some 5,000 som notes. We negotiated the Metro (33 cents a ride) without getting lost. The metro stations and trains were remarkably clean and each one had a theme artistically illustrated on the walls. On the train we were never without a seat as young people jumped up to give us theirs at the sight of our gray hair. No pictures permitted here.
Blue and White Tiles
That night we splurged at an upscale restaurant called the Ariston Park. It was situated in Uleg Bek Park where there were amusements for families. We were there at sunset and many families were among our fellow diners breaking the fast of Ramadan. Although there are plenty of signs that Uzbekistan is a Muslim country, this was one of the first indications to us that Islam had a loyal following. We never heard the call to prayer and few people seemed to break publically for prayer. As-salaam aleikum is the universal greeting, but after nearly a century of Russian control and prohibition of religion, the outward signs of Islam are mostly revealed in the architecture. Beautiful blue and white tiles and geometric designs abound in the restored mosques and madrassahs that were constructed by those who held power over the centuries—right up until the 1920’s.
Metro Station from an Anonymous Tourist
After a day’s tour of Tashkent with our newly formed band of travelers and Laziz, our Chief Experience Officer, we were off on a cross country trip to our first city on the Silk Road, Samarkand. The land is barren steppe with little to recommend it. But now and then water is brought to the land and green appears in the form of corn or cotton. Our vehicle was a Toyota coaster bus with a very able driver, Rostrum, who did his best to negotiate the rutted and bumpy roads. Lunch was at a roadside restaurant with welcome facilities. The air was dry and we all downed bottled water and green tea. Some even had beer. Lunch was almost always meat with salads from the fields we saw as we drove—kababs, pilov, tomato, cucumber, onion, carrot. After many hours of driving we arrived in Samarkand to a riot of tile work and dazzling architecture in the form of restored mosques, minarets and madrassas.
Interior of Madrassah in the Registan
Samarkand is an ancient city that traces its existence to the time of Babylon, Rome and Athens. It hosted such notables as Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan and the Uzbek national hero, Amir Temur (Tamerlane). Genghis Khan leveled the city in 1220 as he did to many others in this region. Temur revived Central Asia by creating a great empire at the turn of the 15th century. Ancient Arab manuscripts describe it as the gem of the East while Europeans refer to it as the land of scientists. It is both and more. The most magnificent landmark in the old city is Registan Square. The square is lined on the three sides by sparkling turquoise tiled buildings—Ulug Bek Madrassah, Shir Dor Madrassah, and Tillya Kari Madrassah. Interior and exterior facades of the madrassahs are decorated with glazed brick, mosaic and carved marble. The Square is considered an architectural gem representing the finest in Islamic Art. These beautiful remnants of ancient grandeur can be directly attributable to Amir Temur. Tamerlane, although he claimed Mongol blood (probably for effect), was a local boy who gained supremacy of the Transoxiana in 1370. His deadly campaigns are well documented. Less well known is that Samarkand was Temur’s choice of capital and he embellished it with master craftsmen and the finest minds and hands from all of the lands he conquered including the Persia, Syria, Asia Minor and India. These achievements grant hero status upon Amir Temur in Uzbekistan.
Madrassah in Arabic means school and these were universities in many senses of the word. They were renowned for teaching not only about religion, but also promoted studying about the sciences, mathematics and medicine. Foremost among the scholars of this time was Ulug Beg, the grandson of Temur, who ruled at his father’s discretion in Samarkand. Here he facilitated all the intellectual pursuits—mathematics, history, theology, music, medicine, astrology and poetry. He constructed an observatory that allowed 1,018 stars to be plotted much more accurately than had been done by Ptolemy. We owe much to the efforts Mirza Uleg Beg for setting the stage that led to a state supported university education system.
Woodworking in Tashkent
Today Samarkand’s importance to the history and the culture of mankind is being recognized by the UN, UNESCO and the WTO, which are helping to promote tourism to the region. Several of artisans that we discovered on our explorations had shown their works and craftsmen skills at a number of workshops worldwide in such cities as Houston, Cairo, Phoenix, New York, etc. I have touched on only a few sights in Samarkand; we saw so much more. To truly take them in you would need weeks.
Gigantic Shadows on the Sand
The Golden Journey to Samarkand
We are the Pilgrims, master; we shall go
Always a little further: it may be
Beyond that last blue mountain barred with snow,
Across that angry or that glimmering sea,
White on a throne or guarded in a cave
There lives a prophet who can understand
Why men were born: but surely we are brave,
Who take the Golden Road to Samarkand.
Sweet to ride forth at evening from the wells
When shadows pass gigantic on the sand,
And softly through the silence beat the bells
Along the Golden Road to Samarkand.
We travel not for trafficking alone;
By hotter winds our fiery hearts are fanned:
For lust of knowing what should not be known
We make the Golden Journey to Samarkand.
Poem by James Elroy Flecker
Article by Laurie & Fred Swanson
Next Week – Part 2
ca. 1981 – Udhailiyah Women’s Softball Team – ChampionsFront Row: Annie Hourie, Sherry Jarvis (Schumacher), Cheryl Simpson, and Cindy Werner Gates.
Back Row: Karen Huggins, Sylvia Ahearn (deceased), Brenda Taylor, Myron Fogle, Trish Major, Vicci Turner, Mary Lero and Valarie Head (deceased).
Missing from Photograph: Jane Stead, Laurie Swanson, Carolyn Baker and Doris Jarvis
My fellow Aramcons no doubt remember how sports helped bind us together during our time living in oil patch camps scattered across the Kingdom. High on my list of favorite memories from those years are the softball games that filled so many of my hours away from work. I played on a stellar softball team, Udhailiyah Falcon’s, as short fielder in my heyday in Udhailiyah, for those of you who wonder—all sixty-six formidable inches of me. Added to that in my memory bank are the countless little league games I attended, watching my sons Rusty and Brad cavort on the diamond with friends and friendly foes. Teams from the Arabian Little League have competed numerous times in the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. In short, baseball has long been an integral part of the Aramco ExPats’ experiences living in Saudi Arabia.
Henry Cook waits for his pitch at Dodger camp
Now living in Bellingham, Washington—an hour-and-a-half drive north of Seattle—I have adopted the Seattle Mariners as “my” team. Rarely do I miss a televised M’s game, and several times a year I take in a game in person at Safeco Field. A few weekends ago, in fact, freshly returned from the annuitant’s reunion in Asheville, I caught a game between the Mariners and the Oakland Athletics that had play-off intensity, with both squads battling for a place in the post-season. However ardent a Mariners fan I may be, my devotion pales when compared to the passion that the late Henry Cook showered upon his beloved Los Angeles Dodgers. Henry’s dedication to overseeing drilling for Aramco was unquestioned and his devotion to his family unparalleled, but his absorption in all things Dodger was nearly as powerful. Henry was “Dodger blue” through and through—just ask Bonnie.
Cricket may be the national game of Britain, Pakistan and other countries, and soccer (“football” to non-Americans) may be the world’s game, but baseball remains unquestionably America’s game. During my recent visit to Safeco Field, I witnessed the phenomenon first hand as a voluble participant in the ritual.
Courtesy of a friend, we secured Diamond Club seats for the game, placing us six rows up from the visiting team on-deck circle with a direct view straight across home plate and first base down the right field foul line. I’m certain it’s not a reflection of my age when I say that I can’t believe how YOUNG the players appeared. They all seem bigger than life on television. Amazingly, however, when viewed up close from spitting distance, they’re actually life-sized, not the giants of the earth I had supposed.
Our Diamond Club tickets came with all the fixin’s—free food, free drinks, free everything, with personalized service that saw servers bringing our orders to our seats during the game. Pre-game, we feasted indoors at an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord offering a dizzying array of food choices. Our biggest challenge was not eating and drinking too much before the first pitch was thrown. Otherwise, we would not have had room to sample the full range of ballpark foods (hot dogs, hamburgers, pizzas, nachos, peanuts, popcorn, you name it, it was ours for free!). By the time the game ended, neither one of us had a room for another bite or sip.
Sports teams are well known for their colorful mascots, and the Mariners are no exception. Their mascot is a moose—or, to be more precise, an amazingly agile athlete dressed in a moose costume. Starting during batting practice and continuing non-stop over the length of the game, the Mariner Moose entertained fans with his antics. Somersaults, back-flips, wild and wiggly dance moves and more—he was a hyperkinetic dynamo expending boundless amounts of energy.
The Mariners came away with a 4-2 victory, adding to the afterglow that lasted late into the night. Sports bring us together, whether it’s Aramcons tossing softballs on a sandy field in Abqaiq or million-dollar super heroes like Robinson Cano blasting hard ball home runs at Seattle’s Safeco Field. I’ll long remember my night at the Diamond Club; I’ll never forget my nights shagging softballs on Udhailiyah’s well groomed diamond or the ones hit nightly into my backyard!
By Mark Lowey
Photographs by Keith Belcher, Ann Lowey and Mark Lowey
In this personal look back, Abqaiq resident Mark Lowey reminisces about the lasting impressions of his desert encounters over 35 years ago at a remote GOSP site, the Bedouin family who had befriended him and his first taste of authentic Saudi hospitality. Thanks to a chance encounter, Mark recently reconnected with the family and found that remarkable changes have taken place.
I first came to Abqaiq in 1978. Fresh out of university in California, I was deployed to Saudi Arabia for a two-year assignment on a project team constructing Gas Oil Separation Plants (GOSP) in the Ain Dar and Shedgum areas. Our most remote site was a small GOSP known as Fazran-1.
Back then, travelling 90 minutes each way and working in Fazran were eye-opening experiences. We were a team of Americans, Canadians, British, Filipinos and Thais. When we finished our communal lunch, the remaining food, usually rice, was quickly loaded into the back of a small Toyota pickup truck that disappeared into the desert. I later learned that several Bedouin families lived nearby, attracted to our permanent water supply and leftover food that they used for their livestock of goats and camels.
Eventually, we and the Bedouins became friendly with each other and enjoyed long discussions through translators. The Bedouin family patriarch, Faleh, would often sit with me in my tiny site office trailer, and we would drink tea and coffee and try to communicate. Depending on the season Faleh would be waiting at the door when I arrived at 6 a.m. – and wait for me to crank up either the heater or the air conditioner. Over the months, I came to learn about the healthful benefits of camel’s milk as well as many interesting aspects of the Bedouin culture. Faleh had a raspy voice, powerful build and huge hands. Rumor had it that when it was time to brand the camels, he could bring one down with one hand by grasping the tail and tugging sideways.
In the cool winter months, the invitation came for a meal at Faleh’s place. His tent camp was set up about an hour’s drive north of Fazran, over straight, rolling drillers’ roads of compacted marl. We were to arrive at midday on Friday. A fellow expat and I set off after an early breakfast in Abqaiq. Once clear of Fazran, the desert changed rapidly and became very green from recent rains. This was prime grazing land.
Meet the family
Upon arrival we were greeted by Faleh and shown to the main section of his family tent. Abdulhadi, Faleh’s elder brother, prepared demitasses of traditional Arabic coffee, dates were served, and we met their children and cousins. The tent section next to us housed the goats, and at the end was the makeshift kitchen. Faleh proudly held his tightly-swaddled infant son for a photograph. The others were eager to have their pictures taken, especially after we handed out instant Polaroid photos.
Finally, after the last minute arrival of several Bedouin neighbors, the meal was served, a large platter of chicken and lamb on a bed of flavored rice. Slightly curdled camel’s milk was poured over the mix. We sat on weathered carpets and ate in the traditional Arab style with our right hand scooping up the rice and meat. It was delicious. The grandmother and grandfather joined us, and the children watched and laughed with delight as we shared this unexpected bounty in the desert.
1978: A lucky photograph – in one take
The group photo with me seated between Abdulhadi and his two sons was taken with an Olympus OM-2 set on a mini-tripod. I balanced it on a barrel, focused, started the timer and quickly ran around behind them to sit down. As the shutter opened, Abdulhadi turned towards me, wondering what’s going on. No time for a second take. The two young boys in the photo are brothers, Suhaim and Saleh; more on that later.
Soon after the photos were taken, I left Saudi Arabia, not to return again for another 30 years. Over the years since 1978, I‘ve treasured the photos taken during those visits. I have shared them with friends and family and often wondered what became of the Bedouins of Fazran. It was not until 2010 when I joined Saudi Aramco that I found myself back in Abqaiq, exactly where my engineering career had begun.
Fast-forward to 2013
One day in October 2013 in the Abqaiq Mall I met Geraiyan Al-Hajri, the legendary Saudi Aramco explorer and road surveyor. My photos were part of an exhibition organized by the Abqaiq Art, Craft and Hobby Group, a self-directed group sponsored by the Abqaiq Recreation Services Unit. Al-Hajri pointed to Faleh in the photo and said, “I know that man. That’s my cousin!” I was awestruck — finally, a connection. From Geraiyan I learned that Faleh and Abdulhadi had passed away and that the small boy dressed in white, Suhaim, had grown up, attended university, and now holds a prestigious job in Qatar. His brother, Saleh remained in Saudi Arabia and resides in Ain Dar.
Days later I received a phone call from Suhaim inviting my wife and I to a party in the desert. With another expat couple from Abqaiq, we met Suhaim and his large family at a rendezvous point near the Salasil Bridge on the Dammam-Riyadh highway, greeting each other warmly after such a long time. After a quick glance at my four-wheel drive Tahoe, he beckoned me to follow his Toyota Land Cruiser as we turned off the highway onto the Fazran Road. Suhaim was happy to play tour guide along the route – his boyhood territory. Stopping at the wreckage of an ancient blue Dodge pick-up truck, he explained that this truck appears in one of my photos from 1978, and he knew the owner. He pointed out the now mothballed GOSP where my site office once stood. Nearby were the Saudi Aramco-built concrete water troughs for camels and goats that had attracted Bedouins around the time I was there. He was proud to show me a Qibla locator and prayer area made of large stones and rubber tires still visible in the desert sand after all these years.
Then Suhaim smiled and announced “no more information,” and we were off-road and heading northward across sun drenched dunes and hard packed sabka. It was difficult to keep pace with him and, from time to time, he had to stop and wait for us to catch up. Brother Saleh, in another Land Cruiser, suddenly appeared, joining us around halfway there. As I wondered how they could possibly navigate the featureless expanses – and actually rendezvous in the middle of nowhere – I watched my three-quarters full gas gauge visibly sinking towards empty as the car trudged through the desert terrain.
We found our way to the desert encampment several kilometers from the village of Airj. There we were warmly greeted by his extended family, around 50 people in all, and escorted to our respective sections: the women in a carpeted mobile home trailer and the men in a traditional goat hair tent, not unlike the one we had sat in 35 years ago.
Party in the desert
A low wood burning camp fire was heating brass pots of Arabic coffee as the group crowded around us for a good look. I was congratulated for having preserved the photographs since 1978, and many family members tearfully expressed their joy at seeing the first photographic images of their relatives, some of whom have long since passed away. As a gift, I had brought handsomely framed enlargements and copies of the photos for the immediate family members.
We were shown to the seats of honor on colorful carpets at the back of the main tent facing out and every one was introduced, including their honorific nicknames. I told them my nickname is “Abu Jack” (father of Jack) and there was lots of laughter. One man suggested that he would accept my daughter as his second wife, but hesitated, whispering that his first wife’s son was listening nearby. More laughter.
Lunch is served
A traditional Saudi meal on a huge platter was set down, and there was space for around ten of us to eat at once. I watched and tried to imitate my hosts as they mixed the delicious flavored rice and tender, warm morsels of lamb with labneh into large balls in the palms of their right hand. When someone finished and stood up, another would jump into the space and begin eating. Afterward, we removed small twigs from a special shrub to use as toothpicks; I was shown that in the absence of water, digging one’s hands in the sand will remove the food and grease effectively. In the end, I was grateful for the water being poured over my hands along with the offer of powdered soap.
Everyone was happy to pose for photographs and many mobile phone cameras were used. One memorable image that day shows Suhaim, Saleh and I, reunited after three decades, holding the framed photograph of us from so many years ago.
A spontaneous poem and dance
Suhaim’s brother, Mohammed, is a poet and announced that he would compose a song for me in my honor. He sat down with a pen and a scrap of paper and was lost in thought – gazing into the distance, mouthing words and counting cadences on his fingers. Soon he was ready. He arranged two rows of six men each facing each other. Arms linked and moving rhythmically in step, he led his row as they sang the first verse, and the opposite group would then repeat it. I could make out the words “Marhaba, Mark” (Hello, Mark) and not much else, but I sensed the power of the words and felt great honor. Then the real folkloric dancing ensued, led by the two pre-adolescent sons of Saleh who swayed back and forth with one hand held high and the other placed behind their back. One by one we took turns dancing this way between the two rows.
Curious to see what was going on, the women had quietly crept nearby behind several vehicles to watch. Being Westerners, our two wives were hailed to join us.
All too soon, after the mid-afternoon prayer time, it was time to depart, and we were bid farewell, but not before our tires were carefully inspected, gas gauges checked and stern road safety advice given by our hosts. The return trip was far less bumpy on the paved road from Airj. We enjoyed a short rest stop in Ain Dar, where Suhaim invited us to his family majlis for a final cup of tea before heading back to Abqaiq.
After all these years, the mystery of the Bedouins of Fazran had been solved. Reunited, I was pleased to see that this remarkable family has grown and flourished over the past three decades. It was evident that the region’s prosperity had touched their lives and provided education and modern comforts for their families. Balancing their Bedouin roots with the demands of a modern world, it was good to see that the boys have become men, strong and wise in ways that their father would be proud.
A photo taken 35 years ago had bridged past and present and brought me full circle to a place deep in the desert, where I found the Saudi traditions of hospitality, family and friendship not only endure but continue to thrive. It is a place where I will always feel welcome.
I’m so grateful to dear Linda Shearon, the co-chair of this beautiful and exciting 29th Reunion, for inviting me to say a few words about the next Reunion in Saudi Arabia which is planned for March 9th through March 18th, 2015. But I did warn her that I would also share some pleasant memorable experiences with Mother Aramco, too!
Firstly, I want you to know how pleased I am to be with you, accompanied by my wife Amira. I see among you many familiar and beautiful faces with whom I have shared many enjoyable and fruitful times – over a period of 50 years, I kid you not! God Bless you, my friends!
I would like to share with you some memories of my early days with Aramco – just the funny parts. In 1947, I was one of about 10 students attending an Aramco- built Barasti School in Al-Khobar where we studied an English course at night. In the audience among you is my life-time friend, Saif al-Hussaini who was also one of the group.
We were selected to join a part-time program in Dhahran – the so-called “Jabal School”. While attending the Jabal School, we were offered a job with Aramco – in my case, I was offered an “Office Boy” position. The salary was 90 Saudi Riyals per month. By the way, that enabled me to buy my first watch!
But let me share with you my early experience with Aramco employment: when I shared the employment offer with my father, he gave me a few tips. The major one was that I should not cooperate with the company’s medical examination, especially regarding sensitive areas. My father continued that if the company insisted, I should just drop the file and come back home because it would be against our customs and religion.
Next day, I told the school principal, Vince Quinn. Vince smiled and reported the matter to Mr. Don Richards, the Superintendent of Schools at that time. Mr. Richards asked Mr. Vince James to accompany me during my entire employment processing, and I heard later that he told Vince to ensure the company adhered to my daddy’s wishes.
After 30 years, I met Vince James at one of the early reunions in the USA and I asked him, “Why did you take me around to complete my physical examination?” He said his boss, Don Richards, had warned him that if Ali drops his file and declines employment with the company, it would reflect on his work performance, including his next raise! Furthermore, Vince told me, a Saudi joining Aramco at that time with some education was viewed as a gift from God! And I was only a 4th Grade student!
Well, in my opinion, Vince did very well – at least, I remained with the company until I retired in 1990. Also, I would like to let you know, I told my first “white lie” by giving my age as 18 during the interview, instead of 13, otherwise I wouldn’t be hired! January 11th, 1964, the day my father died, I shared the experience I went through during my employment processing and the result that lead to my recruitment. My father said, “I know you did not tell me the truth, but I forgive you now”. Furthermore, he said, “Who are you, for the company to change its rules?” We both smiled and shortly afterwards, he passed away. God Bless his soul.
My father was a tough guy. At the time of his death he was the Head Inspector at the Al-Khobar Customs House. He met many expatriate Aramcons on the Al-Khobar pier when they first arrived to take up service with the company in the early days.
We should not forget that the early progress of the Saudis was slow. But over the years, we began to improve with the increase of Saudi natural development through education and better work exposure, and we learned from the Americans in particular how to be punctual and to accomplish our work on time. By the way, the Saudia Airlines is not a Yemkin Airline anymore!!
I experienced this slow progress myself for a while until some of the Americans started to recognize the lack of developmental opportunities. Advancement was also made difficult by some expatriates remaining in positions until they reached retirement age that might be a good company policy. Some expatriates were even tough and mean in handling the nationals, but they were protected since they served a certain purpose. It was a tough time, especially when I was working in Personnel and handling employee discipline and grievances, as I was supposed to protect and support the company’s interests and views.
I would like to recognize some Americans whom I directly worked with or for whom, over the years, I have retained a great respect, not just for pushing Saudi people to move forward, but for making major policy changes. Just to name a few – Larry Crampton, Les Goss, Bob Ryrholm, Dan Sullivan, Paul Arnot, Frank Jungers, and Fritz Taylor.
Now, let me shift to how I became interested in Community Services. In the fifties, when I was young, I became very much involved in the Dhahran community. I can still recall the long nights I spent with many volunteers in decorating Building 510 (the Quarter Meal Dining Hall) for various occasions, especially for the New Year Eve dances and some other activities, even some religious events.
The credit goes to three ladies, Mrs. Hauk, Mrs. Jean Dell’Oro and Ms. Marsha Naylor, my first boss. They were very kind and supportive. By the way, I experienced my first taste of coca cola with Ms. Naylor – she was also Aramco’s Beauty Queen of 1949.
In late 1965, I joined Community Services in Abqaiq. While in the ‘Friendly City’, there were several families who made me feel very at home through their hospitality, namely the Robinson’s and the Grimes’. In 1970, I moved to Ras Tanura. During my era in Abqaiq and Ras Tanura, I believe both communities were well-run and managed under Larry Tanner in Abqaiq and Jim Ehl in Ras Tanura.
In 1971, I moved to Dhahran where I remained in the Community Services organization until I retired on April 1st, 1990. If you ask me about Dhahran, I’d say everyone there liked to be the boss! While the “old-timer” Saudis say they still recall Abu Kabbos, meaning the person who wore the hat; this referred to the early Americans they worked with who wore hats to protect them from the sun. I still remember Ken Webster and Ned Scardino.
I was not known in Community Services for being tough on the behaviors of the visiting children (summer students) while some who were in the same position as me were tough and sometimes even mean in response to even minor incidents.
I still recall one kid was told to leave the kingdom because he was caught removing the hood ornaments from vehicles. I was really influenced by having my own children and living with their daily behavior and conducts. In other words, I was naive or very easy going!
Being involved in Community Services, I shall say, encouraged me to get involved socially, to know how to live and to enjoy the lives of others as a continuation of my earlier involvement and development in community activities. I did this through participation and involvement in areas such as being a member of the Recreation Library communities and various sports clubs, including tennis and badminton.
The fact remains that my interest and overall exposure has created a great deal of desire to share the lives of our expatriate communities, as evidenced by my life. It has been a learning school for a wide range of cultural exposure. The minute I became interested in community affairs, I also found myself wanting to attend the USA reunions. I believe I have attended all, except one, since 1958. I find the Reunions a nice way to cement the friendship with the people who physically and mentally helped us build our country, and we are very much indebted to them. That’s you.
That’s why in 1996, when many retirees expressed the desire to return to KSA, I promised my friends at the Reunion that I would organize the first in-Kingdom reunion in 2000. With the help of many dedicated Saudi and expatriate volunteers, and of course Saudi Aramco, we did and it was well-received, thanks to God.
As regards the 2015 KSA Reunion, various committees are working vigorously on some very ambitious plans and identifying many resources in order to successfully accommodate a large group of annuitants. We have received over 1000 expressions of interest to attend the reunion, while our plan is to accommodate at least 600 participants (in 2009, there were 503). By the way, we have also encouraged present company employees (around 40) who want to bring their relatives to the reunion to obtain the visas themselves, thus freeing up opportunities for others to come.
A big difference this time was the survey we conducted to identify the specific interests and expectations of people in returning to their second home. In response, we are putting together a varied program of activities and events for our visitors to help them better enjoy their forthcoming visits.
A brochure is available about the 2015 Reunion, including the tentative program planned for March 9th through March 18th, if you would like a copy. If you can’t find one, please look for Mrs. Connie Sutton who is also attending the current Asheville reunion.
By the way, today is Connie Sutton’s birthday, so let us all wish her a very “Happy Birthday”. Also attending is a dear friend, both of mine and the reunions – Mrs. Laurie Tanner Kelsch. Let us give them both a hand for the hard work they are doing.
I fully understand that some annuitants might not find their specific choice of activity due to low interest, and others might change their minds, which can be very disruptive to the planning process. I strongly recommend that attendees stick to their selections wherever possible.
As most of you know, the KSA Expatriate Reunions were established in response to your popular request of 1996 to bring retirees back to their second home. Furthermore, the Reunion has always been for the retiree, his spouse and the immediate family. However, many retirees misunderstood ‘immediate family’ to include the spouses and children of ‘brats’. Please note that the brats, and even friends and recent former employees, have only ever been included when and if space became available, and that rule will apply this time too.
Because of the overwhelming response, the 2021 Reunion has been forwarded two years and is now planned for March 11-21, 2019, so we hope that those who miss this reunion may join us then. This is also another indication that the KSA reunions will continue. Bay the way, we have been involving some younger leadership in the preparation of the next one.
I would like to draw to your attention that we have some merchandise available in the USA promoting the reunion logo. You may order it through the KSA-Reunion.com website. It also gives me great pride to let you know that Mrs. Marian Steineke Toffee has been asked to join us in KSA as a special guest to the 2015 KSA Reunion. No official word yet, we are still hoping!
We are anxiously looking forward to everyone’s visit and sincerely hoping the efforts of our organizing committee and steering committee will generate great satisfaction in meeting the expectations of all the dear participants.
I would like to conclude my remarks with special thanks to the President and CEO of Saudi Aramco, Mr. Khalid Al-Falih, for his total support in making the 2015 reunion dreams a reality. Also special thanks to Mr. Nasser Al-Nafisee, Executive Director, Corporate Affairs for his follow-up on our activities and personal interest.
Have fun and enjoy all the entertainment and activities put together by Linda and her various committees. Again, my personal thanks to Linda and her team – good night to everyone and may God bless you all! Massallamah!
Ali M. Baluchi
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