Pond at Qatif
Photographs by Nestor Sander
One Friday morning in the blue-tinted bedroom of our Dhahran duplex we awakened very early. We planned a picnic, not to Half-Moon Bay where everyone went, but to an artesian pool, a small lake north of Qatif, a seacoast town. Long before I had visited the site to locate exactly the point where the water upwelled, but the calm beauty of the place remained fixed in my memory. I described to Georgia the delicate gradations of color — from pale green to aquamarine to turquoise to deepest blue as the pond deepened, and the pink and white blossoms of the oleanders mirrored and shimmering in crystalline waters reflecting the fronds of palms — broad, olive-green sickles — that dipped gracefully toward the limpid surface. It had been a quiet, peaceful and secluded beauty spot nestled in the serried rows of tall date palms. A rare jewel set into the harsh yellows and browns of the barren desert.
I was always on call, and when I could be sure of a free day we usually got up late for I needed a break in routine. So we had planned this occasion well in advance, I awaiting a time when none of the wildcat wells would require my presence. The weather was still mild in early March with daytime highs only in the eighties. We didn’t fear showers, for the next rain was nine months away.
Georgia Sander in 1950
Georgia prepared a hearty lunch of sliced ham, a whole roast chicken and canned peach-halves for desert. A gallon thermos jug kept water cold, and a box filled with ice insured that the pickles, peaches, soft drinks and sandwiches wrapped in foil would stay cool.
So we set out, leaving the compound with our picnic lunch stowed well out of sight in the trunk of the red Ford sedan. If anyone asked, but no one did, we were going to Khobar to shop, for the Saudis did not allow women to drive and the company discouraged their travel in the interior. I swung the car left off the paved road as soon as the guards and wide gate in the high wire fence at the entrance of the camp were not in view. After a short run we intercepted the well-marked track paralleling the huge trans-Arabian pipeline and started north toward the oil- loading terminal, Ras Tanura, where we had lived for nearly a year. The town of Qatif was on the shore, almost a mile east of our route, but the palm groves and the pool where we planned to lunch were north of the town and much nearer the track. The twenty odd miles from Dhahran to the pond went by without incident, although heavy truck traffic had rutted the sandy track and slowed us down.
Georgia was dressed in her raw silk trousers and cotton shirt, with a long white scarf wrapped turban fashion around her head. This was a precaution: if we met Bedu men unaccustomed to unveiled foreign women, she could draw one end of it across her face. I was in my usual khakis and long-sleeved white shirt, with my trusty Brunton compass hooked to my belt in its case.
I drove off the track toward the shade of the groves, but could not enter them with the car because of the row after row of shallow irrigation ditches running along each alley of boles. I suggested that we get out, walk to the pool and select a place to set out the luncheon. I would return to the car and bring the food while Georgia admired the view.
We set out, comfortable in the shadows of the tall palms with their clusters of unripe dates some forty feet above our heads. It was pleasant walking, for the earth was trodden firm and did not give way like the soft sand of the track. The pond came into view and Georgia gave a small gasp of pleasure and surprise. “It’s beautiful. I’m glad we came.”
We walked around the pond to find a good place to spread the blanket for lunch. We had just decided on one when I heard a shrill voice, and turning my head, saw a small boy running toward us, his white nightgown fluttering in the breeze. As he approached, he sang out the familiar and unwelcome plaint, “Baksheesh, Sahib, Baksheesh!”
I was annoyed. We would have to give him something to get him to leave, for his presence in this pleasant place would destroy its serenity. So I found a silver half-riyal, about fifteen cents, and held it out, saying, “Imshi. Roh!” To my horror, another boy appeared, and another, and another... When I had visited the pond before it had been a week day, that is, not Friday. The children of Qatif had a school, madrasah, that obviously was not in session on Friday.
I said to Georgia, “We can’t stay here. They would pester us continually. I’m sorry. We’ll have to go elsewhere for our picnic.”
The problem was, where? And it was a real problem. Ras Tanura was not a pleasant place. Although the beach at the end of the spit where we had lived near the terminal was beautiful, at mid-day on the open sand the flies would be a torment, and eating in the car with the windows closed would be impossible.
I remembered the company house in Jubail where the pioneering geologists had landed in 1933. There at least we would be screened from flies and sheltered from the sun. It was an additional forty miles added to the twenty we had come, but the road would be in better shape because after the turnoff to Ras Tanura traffic would be minimal.
“It’s another hour on the road,” I said, “Are you game?”
So we started out again heading north on a track that in some places had been obliterated by the wind. The sky was pale blue, the sun was high, but in the car at forty miles an hour our movement kept the flies away and we were comfortable. The swish of the tires on sand, the rush of air by the open windows and the subdued roar of the motor soothed our disappointment, and I looked forward to a quiet meal in the deserted Jubail compound. It was not to be.
We passed a small encampment of Bedu, the five black tents slightly wavy in the mirage that in March had not yet become the breeder of shimmering pale blue false lakes and bizarre elongated images of far-off camels and sheep.
I said, “Someday I’ll take you to a camp and we’ll have coffee with them.” In my work I had often stopped to announce that we would be working in their dirah and had been received with every courtesy by the nomads, once by his women alone when the master and sons were away.
Georgia questioned, “Why not today?”
“Why not? The next one we see near the road, we’ll stop at a distance downwind and wait to see what comes up.”
As it happened the next tent we passed was near the town of Jubail about a kilometer west of the road. It was by itself, an unusual circumstance, and I could see that it was small with but two rather closely spaced poles in the miniature circus tent.
I said, “Maybe we should look for an encampment and stop near the biggest one. They will be more likely to want guests.”
Georgia answered, “I’m getting hungry. This tent will get us out of the sun, at least.
So we turned back, stopped a good fifty yards from the tent, and waited. After a time a young man in the usual dirty white ankle -length smock came toward us. He looked as most of them did: lean, rather short but well-muscled, his head covering a red- and white-checked cloth held in place by two black woolen rings, the agal, his tan face framed by black plaits hanging to his shoulders. His features and dark eyes smiled as he said, “Tafadhalu.” (Welcome. Come on in.)
His eyes widened when he saw that Georgia was an unveiled woman, but he remained courteous as she pulled the end of her scarf across her face and pinned the end to the turban. It was obvious that he found this Nasrani woman odd, but she and her man were welcome. A brown and white-striped goat-hair hanging walled-off the guest portion of the tent from the remaining two-thirds. Rugs covered the sand and a few pillows framed the camel saddle which lay between thin mattresses to mark the place of honor. A camel dung fire was already burning with smoke-blackened brass pots ensconced in the ashes. An older man greeted us with the “Marhaba” of welcome and motioned us to sit. As a guest, I squatted to the right of the saddle and then sat with my legs folded so that the shoe-soles were not visible to anyone in front of me. I motioned Georgia to do the same on my right.
The customary coffee ritual began. The brass mortar and pestle were made to ring in a rhythmic clangor as the coffee beans roasted carefully to a rich brown on a flattish ladle were crushed to powder then poured into a brass pot filled with boiling water and allowed to boil again for several minutes. Then a few seeds of cardamom were crushed in the mortar and added to the brew. The younger man, probably a son, poured the brown pungent liquid into small handleless china cups while standing and then offered them to us. Georgia knew that politeness demanded that we drink three of the minute servings and then refuse more by shaking the cup gently.
Conversation had been nearly absent during this half-hour ceremony because my Arabic was completely minimal and Georgia knew even less. However, I plucked up courage after drinking the three cups and ventured a question that I knew would not have been made by an Arab guest that was not a close friend.
I asked, “Schlon umm al aiyal?” How is the mother of your children? for I knew my wife would be pleased to see the women’s quarters. The older man took the hint and made a remark that I did not catch. Shortly thereafter a young unveiled girl child came into the guest area, took Georgia’s hand and led her away.
On the long trip home she described what she had seen. Apparently, two families were living in a single tent, which I thought rare, for Georgia found an older woman, obviously in charge, and a younger one who, when Georgia was seated on a red quilt, opened her black cloak to show a tiny infant cradled on her arm. It was swaddled in cloth, its grape-fruit size head covered with dark fuzz, its eyes rimmed in black kohl. It neither cried nor moved during the brief time that Georgia saw it, but she heard a faint mewing later as she examined the tent furnishings.
There was a primitive hearth made of shaped stones on which were metal pots of various sizes and alongside a supply of firewood and brush. Attached to the tent pole were several ornamented saddle bags of wool, one of which held flour, another dates and a third, rice. On a wooden tripod a goatskin bag hung on cords to swing freely as a churn for making butter from camels’ milk. (Learned by pointing with a questioning look and a prompt reply that imitated a camel’s grunting roar.) Filled and empty skins and the ropes and buckets for drawing water from wells lay just outside. The bedding was mainly quilts.
The younger woman showed Georgia her treasures, a small wooden box which held saffron, tea and sugar, henna, a bracelet of cabochon-cut amber beads and a necklace of black and white beads with frontal drop chains of silver. My wife expressed admiration for the jewelry and was rewarded with a shy smile.
While this visit to the women’s quarters was under way I remained seated in the guest section and attempted to make conversation, difficult because of a meager vocabulary. I learned that the family belonged to the Ajman tribe, herded sheep, had a flock of goats and planned to move north to the vicinity of Hafar al Batin for the summer. Georgia returned to my side, smiling. She was welcome. I had exhausted my small talk.
The older man suggested that chai (tea) would be in order and the miniature beer mugs in which it would be served were brought out. A quantity of tea leaves were poured into boiling water and brought to a boil again, an unholy procedure. I had drunk tea like that before, syrupy with sugar but bitter and very strong.
I said, “Hai akhul.” (I have food) I went to the car and brought back our picnic lunch in its cold box. It was already after two and I was sharp set in spite of the coffee.
The small amount of ice was fingered, for freezing temperatures are rare along the Gulf, and the water with it was pronounced, “Haloo” (sweet) They recognized the roast chicken, but I did not tell them that the sliced ham was from an animal forbidden to them. Although curious, the men waited for us to finish our repast without asking for a share. For themselves they called out for dates and clarified sheep fat (ghee) to dip them in.
A brown hand passed the dates and a bowl over the top of the goat-hair partition dividing the tent. But when we offered them peach halves from the can they did not refuse. The exclamations of pleasure caused the hand to reach out over the partition. I held the can within reach of the hand which closed over a half peach and disappeared for an instant only to return. We decided to abandon the peaches to the women folk, but we had to sample the dates as politeness dictated.
The dates were delicious but when we dipped them in the ghee, a greasy clear liquid with drowned flies floating in it, we found the taste less satisfying to our unaccustomed palates. So we dipped only rarely but consumed enough of the fruits to make our hosts aware of our appreciation.
It was getting on to four when we finished our repast and we had sixty miles to go before dark so I shook hands with both of our hosts while repeating the phrases expressing thanks that I had learned: “Allah i kathir khair ak,” and added for the benefit of the hand, “Allah i kathir khair ich ya ma’aziba.” (God give you plenty, my hostess.) A throaty voice behind the curtain replied, “Alaikum al a’fiah” (May you be satisfied.)
The journey home was uneventful. We discussed in detail what Georgia had seen in the women’s quarters. That was the only time we visited the black tents together. Now, fifty years later I regret that fate so ordained. Today such a visit could not be experienced, for every nomad family has a pickup truck, although camels are still reared and sheep pastured.
Originally published in 2003, this article was written by the late Nestor "Sandy" Sander, a geologist who arrived in Saudi Arabia in the 1930s. Nestor was an early contributor to Aramco ExPats.
Read the obituary. https://www.aramcoexpats.com/obituaries/nestor-j-sander/.