Oran had stayed in Abqaiq on Tuesday as he was going to have weekend duty again, and I would be going with him to 'Udhailiyah on Wednesday. So we slept late, had coffee on the porch before a big breakfast, ran errands around camp, and got clothes ready for the trip.
That evening we went for a walk after dinner as it was a beautiful night. It had cooled down to a high of 95 degrees, tops, for the week during the day and the evenings were around 70.
We caught a taxi to 'Udhailiyah the next morning, Wednesday, October 22nd, stopping in Hofuf on the way to shop in the covered suqs. It was interesting, as usual, but the only thing we found to buy this time was a long-handled, metal coffee bean roaster.
Arriving in 'Udhailiyah at 3 p.m., Oran went to the office while I settled in at the house. That evening we rode around a bit, ate supper, read, then went to bed early. I was excited to be down there again and looked forward to seeing and doing some of the things we had done before. As it turned out, my second experience there was even more rewarding than the first.
On Thursday Oran left early to take care of his duties, while I slept until 10:30. Oran picked me up for an early lunch before we drove along the West Flank, past Station 961 (where the fire had been), then across to the Amine Plant, where we had tea with the crew. Later we drove on further south to the Bechtel Camp in Hawiyah to have dinner with Jack Hayes again. As before, it was fun to be the center of attention, and get some delicious American beef and other good foods served in the bachelor construction camps that we did not have in our Aramco camps.
Then the next day, Friday, October 24th, 1975, a very unusual thing happened. It started out in a regular routine of Oran going to work to take care of all immediate problems, then returning to the house to pick me up. After lunch, we left camp again and started driving out to what is called the East Flank, the road that connects all the Water Injection wells on the eastern side of the South Ghawar Oil Field. The black top road wound its way over and around some large outcroppings of rocks and the small, bare, crusty top hills common in that area before we entered a stretch of flat land covered with gravel, sand and clumps of salt bushes.
Then we saw it: the black, goat-hair tent, a "bait al-shaar”, or “house of hair", which is the home of a Saudi Arabian Bedouin family. It stood alone in a vast expanse of sand and rock ½ kilometer from the road. We could discern several one-humped camels grouped placidly near its open side, and a herd of the strange looking, black, long haired goats, called shoats, roaming nearby. We stopped and debated about driving out to the tent. Of course, we had heard that hospitality is an intrinsic part of Bedouin life, so we soon decided nothing ventured, nothing gained. The black tents, though not abundant, could be seen at different times of the year scattered among the sand dunes, the jabals, and flat sand plains of the desert. Oran steered the pickup off the road and out across the sand in the general direction of the tent. He guided it around clumps of small, green camel bushes dotting this desolate landscape, but soon decided to walk instead, while I waited in the car. He approached slowly, but an old Arab man left the tent, making his way rapidly toward us. Oran stopped then to wait for him, but after much discussion, finally returned to the pickup to tell me we had been asked to come over. (Al hamdu lillah - Praise be to God.)
the red scarf Colleen had given her.
The camels, sensing our approach, had lumbered off in the opposite direction, so we were motioned to go away from them, but soon arrived at the front of the tent. I was excited and apprehensive at the same time. The tent loomed quite large in magnitude; it was long and narrow, completely open on one side, and divided into three sections by a coarsely woven, black, white, and red striped goat hair drape. Other family members emerged from various areas of the tent. There were two younger men, and three women who wore black cloth masks with square eye holes, a large, gauze-like black cloth over their heads and shoulders, and long, colorful dresses beneath that. The younger looking woman carried a small baby, and two small boys and a girl peeked shyly around their mothers. The family seemed as pleased by the chance to visit as we were. Much Arabic chatter was continuous, as excitement had been generated by this time.
We exchanged the customary, courteous greetings and they motioned us into the reception area of the tent. Removing our sandals as we entered, we sat where they indicated on the sand. Except for a pile of bedding in one corner this section was completely void of furnishings, and it was evident the goats had as much run of the tent as the people. Oran was to the right of one of the young men, who seemed to be in charge, and I was to Oran's right. The others formed a cozy half circle in front of us. A mutual curious inspection took place as information was exchanged about children, animals, our respective countries, the weather, work, etc., using the small amount of Arabic we knew and a lot of sign language.
In a while, one of the younger women went to another section of the tent and returned with a large bowl of dates, which was passed around. After we each took one, the bowl was set on the ground and immediately covered with flies, which appeared mysteriously from nowhere. Then the young woman brought an Arab coffee pot into the tent and set it in front of the young man, along with a large bowl of water with the small, bell shaped, ceramic cups in it. The man swished the cups around in the water, filled one from the coffee pot and handed it to Oran, repeated the process for myself, then the others. Light conversation continued as the contents were sipped, noisily ( a compliment to the host), and the cups were refilled several times. Oran ate more dates, but I declined and remembered to say "bass" and shake my cup from side to side indicating I didn't wish any more.
Next, a metal bowl of water was brought in, handed to the older man who drank from it, then handed it to the younger men, who drank from it before setting it in the sand. I was so afraid it would be handed to us, as I had heard this was usually done, but not this time. (We later shared camel's milk like this on another visit to a Bedouin tent). A tea pot and cups, which looked like miniature glass beer mugs, were brought in next. The women were working with the goat hair that they use to weave the tents on their looms as we sipped the hot, sweet, and spicy tea. The woman with the small baby began to breast feed him. It was difficult not to look shocked, as this was a country where women were not permitted to be seen by members of the opposite sex unless they were family. But this seemed to be accepted as perfectly normal by everyone there.
We thought surely the visit should just about be over, however, and started to leave, but then a young, black, very plump looking goat was brought into the tent. We soon realized it was being offered to us as a gift in honor of our visit. Not wanting to offend them after their wonderful hospitality, Oran thanked them, but tried to explain that he was unwise in the proper Moslem way to slaughter and prepare the goat for a feast, so they would honor us by keeping it and using it for their own family. They all shook their heads in disbelief and said to one another that we were crazy, but nevertheless, accepted the animal back. Oran took this opportunity to say we would be very pleased if they would allow us to take pictures instead. We had heard they were very guarded about this, especially the women, but to our surprise and delight they agreed, in fact, seemed excited and eager.
So we left the tent, with "our" goat still tied up inside, with puzzled looks on the Arabs' faces about why we couldn't accept such a fine animal, and took pictures of the entire family, the tent, and surrounding landscape. Checking the contents of my purse, I found two colorful scarves and some cologne, which I gave to the women, and some chewing gum for the children. I felt they had given me so much more and would always feel grateful that we had been given this opportunity to know more about the Saudi Bedouin, a privilege I'm sure very few American women have had the good fortune to experience.
After much thanks to our hosts and handshakes all around, we left. As we drove back to camp, Oran and I agreed this exhilarating visit would be at the top of the list of outstanding events during our stay in Saudi Arabia. That evening we had dinner in the Dining Hall before going to a movie, but it all seemed very anticlimactic. After catching the plane back to Abqaiq the next morning I had coffee with Sharon right away to tell her about my weekend. Then I wrote letters to several people to share my experiences. By evening I started feeling sick, then Oran came home from 'Udhailiyah the next evening sick. We figured it had been all the things we had in the Bedouin tent, but still felt it was worth it.