© Mark Lowey 2022. All rights reserved.
In this series, Mark Lowey, known as “Abu Jack” (Father of Jack) to his Saudi friends, tells the story of Bdah Al Hajri, whom he first encountered in the desert as a baby in 1979. Reunited in 2013, Abu Jack and Bdah have become close friends.
The story of the Bdah’s life continues through candid conversations with Bdah that took place in 2019 and 2021.
In Parts 1 and 2 we learned about Bdah’s family history, the marriage of parents, Faleh and Masturah, their growing family, and Bdah’s childhood years.
In 2021, Bdah shows Abu Jack some of his boyhood hangouts, including this camel trough on the outskirts of Old Ain Dar where he swam with his friends on hot days.
In 1986, Bdah was seven years old, and his two older sisters were already attending elementary school at Salasil. It was time for Bdah to begin his formal education.
Eight-year-old Bdah, center, with close friend Muhammad and, at right, younger brother Mohammed, age 4.
“My father, Faleh, had a good family friend, Aiydh Saeed Al-Zakhnouni, also from the Al-Hajri family,” recounts Bdah. “Aiydh proposed to Faleh, ‘Why don’t you bring your children to my house? I will take them to school.’ He was living in a house close to the highway and across from Junayah. Not a village, only two houses. A sort-of compound with animals.”
“Faleh gratefully accepted this arrangement and dropped us at the house early each school-day morning. Al Zakhnouni or his eldest son, Rashid, drove us to school every day with the younger Zakhnouni children.”
Locations of Zakhnouni house and Salasil village.
Bdah continued, “Al Zakhnouni had five or six children around our age, Faisal, Naif, Nouf, Nasser, Jaber and an older sister. Around eight kids all going to school every day. Yes, we went together, boys and girls in the same vehicle, a red two-door Toyota Land Cruiser jeep.  We were treated like one family.”
“Often, when we were at school, Aiydh and my father would sit together back at the house and take Arabic coffee and discuss things. My Father enjoyed that because this house was modern. The house is still there now, but it has been long abandoned. The family moved away after the passing of Aiydh in 1991, may God have mercy on him.”
Now uninhabited, the main entrance to Zakhnouni House in 2021.
“There was a mosque and a water well with an elevated storage tank. They had camels, sheep, and gazelle. It was like a resort for us. On weekends his relatives would visit from Al Khobar and Dammam. Al Zakhnouni was very well known.”
2021: The Zakhnouni house is now abandoned and half-filled with sand.
Bdah stands where the front yard once was.
The water well and storage tank still exist.
Aiydh Al Zakhnouni
Bdah told me about Aiydh Al Zakhnouni. “He was an import-export trader and very successful in the Al Khobar and Dammam markets. He was well-known and admired for his generosity. He was a kind and brave man at the same time and he loved helping others in any way he could.”
“Also, we remember him in his house. He hosted many visitors. It was the first time we met a Shiite Muslim. Often, Sunni and Shia keep apart. But in Aiydh’s house, we saw Sunnis, Shias, Saudis from different tribes and even some foreigners. He treated them all like brothers. He accepted everybody.”
“We had never met a Shia before, because the Shia live in Qatif and parts of Al Hasa. I was young, but even my father had never met a Shia. He had heard about them, but there are no Shia in the Bedouin environment. None at all. You would never find a Shia with a camel in the desert. Al Zakhnouni knew everyone in Khobar – Sunni, Shiite, Bedouin, and non-Bedouin.”
“One Eid holiday, Aiydh asked my mother, ‘Did Faleh give you something for Eid?’ My mother said, ‘Al Hamdulillah, my husband gives me a lot.’ Aiydh said, ‘Here, take this SR 500.’” This would be the equivalent of US $135 today.
Of course, this was completely unexpected. Such a generous sum of money! What should Bdah’s mother do in such a situation? “My mother refused. Then Aiydh said, ‘Don’t tell Faleh, take the SR 500. If you tell Faleh, maybe he will not give you anything.’”
I asked, “Why did he want to give to your mother?” Bdah responded, “So my mother could buy something in the market for us. Like a new thobe, new ghutra, sweets. Because he gave his family money on every occasion, Ramadan, both Eid holidays, and at the beginning of the school. Maybe he knew Faleh didn’t have a salary so he could not give too much money. Faleh could only give small amounts.”
“Al Zakhnouni had two wives, the first was Sara and the second, Hussah. When the Dammam-Riyadh highway was opened in the mid-1980s, a lot of people would pass by and ask for cold water. Drivers and people traveling. Sara, Hussah, and the family would offer water and sweets. They were very kind.”
“Al Zakhnouni passed away in 1991, after the Gulf War. The family then relocated to Shehel, a small village near Salasil, where they stayed for a few years before their final move to the State of Qatar.”
“Around that time, in 1992, my family moved from the desert to a permanent house in Al Fardaniyah village. We traveled to the Salasil School with other children of Al Fardaniyah by Chevrolet Suburban.  That ‘school bus,’ was first driven by a Pakistani, then an Egyptian and, finally, by one of the students named Muhammad Salem Al-Marri, a resident of Fardaniyah. He was older than me and skilled in driving.”
“Sometimes we spent weekdays in Salasil at the house of my aunt Najla (my mother’s sister), and her husband, a virtuous and generous man named Ali Al-Mansha Al-Samahin, also from the Al-Hajri tribe. From their house, we could walk to the nearby boys and girls schools. I remember my aunt and her husband were generous with us and very cooperative.”
“Uncle Ali passed away, may God have mercy on him, in the late nineties and Aunt Najla moved to Ain Dar, where she still lives, close to her daughters and grandchildren.”
Sara and Mastura’s Surprise Reunion
“Al Zakhnouni’s wife, Sara, was a close friend of my mother and a little like a mother to us. The Zakhnounis treated Faleh’s children like their own. They told their children to share equally, ‘Don’t differentiate. Whenever you have sweets, you must give equally to the other kids.’ It was a good lesson. We never felt like outsiders,” explained Bdah.
“In 2019,” recalled Bdah, “I took my mother to Qatar to attend the wedding of one of our close cousins, the granddaughter of Faleh’s sister, Ratha’a.”
“Sara Al Zakhnouni had moved to Qatar many years before. I coordinated with Sara’s son, Faisal, to bring together the two old friends. I did not inform my mother that she would meet Sara. Faisal prepared a tent at his house and told his mother, ‘We will have a visitor.’ I brought my mother and when the two women met, they were surprised and delighted to see each other. They had not seen each other for years. Then Sara invited me into her house and treated me like her son. We had a wonderful day with them.”
2019: mother Masturah is thrilled to visit friends and relatives in Qatar.
Bdah’s First School
All the children of Faleh went to the Salasil schools for primary and secondary school. As is customary, the girls and boys attended separate schoolhouses, approximately two kilometers apart.
Bdah explained, “I went from age 7 to 18, 1986 to 1997. We studied math, science, history, and how to read and write Arabic. We had some books for Islamic religion, how to follow the Islamic customs and protocols like hajj and salah (prayer).”
“The first three years focused on reading and writing Arabic. It was the pure Arabic language. You know, sometimes classic Arabic is different from the spoken language. Just like English. Sometimes you have original English and common English. The classic Arabic is in the Quran and books on religion.”
“I remember geography and history. In the first three years, we learned the history of Arabia and the Gulf region. How Saudi Arabia was established. Then world history from the fourth grade.”
“Math, physics, and science also started from the fourth grade. I loved math and science. We had teachers from Egypt, KSA, and Tunisia. The Tunisians were outstanding teachers. They worked from their heart, the Tunisians,” recalled Bdah fondly.
I asked, “Did your father have to pay for the schooling?” “No, he paid nothing. He just gave us one or two riyals for a sandwich and a Pepsi each day. Every morning around 9 or 9:30 a.m. we had a break for a light breakfast. I loved falafel.”
What time did you start school? “We arrived around 6:45 a.m. and school started at 7. During recess we played football, and there was a teacher from Egypt who was responsible for sports – he was our P.E. teacher. All the Saudis in those years loved football – they focused on football. Our Egyptian P.E. teacher also loved football.”
“We studied until 12 noon and then had Salat al-Zuhr prayer. After prayer we had one more class. Around 1:30 p.m. we finished, and we went back to the Zakhnouni house. Sometimes we took lunch with his kids there.”
A Visit to School in 2021
Bdah took me to his old school during my visit to the Kingdom in 2021. The original building had been abandoned years ago, and a new school built next door is in operation today. We stopped in the administration office, and Bdah introduced himself as a former student. “Could we please visit the old school building?” “Of course,” came the response.
The new Salasil school.
An employee was sent to accompany us around the corner to the old schoolhouse. The large steel entrance gate had been padlocked so long ago that the lock had rusted shut. None of his keys worked. Wisely, he had brought an ordinary hammer with him and put it to good use. The banging sound was deafening. Finally, the lock gave way and the gate slowly swung open, its reluctant hinges squeaking noisily.
The gate to the old schoolyard.
It was an eerie feeling as we entered the schoolyard. The only sound was the crunch of our footfall as we walked across a carpet of fallen leaves from the enormous codocarpus trees. There were no other footprints. At first, we couldn’t see the school building for the trees.
Bdah reminisced, “I was just remembering that when it was time for our morning break, around 9:30 a.m., my friend and I took falafel sandwiches, prepared by an Egyptian, to the corner of the playground. These trees were very small then. We spent our time in that corner,” Bdah said, pointing to one corner of the property. “I should call my friend and see if he remembers.”
On a carpet of fallen leaves, Bdah reminisces about old friends and falafel sandwiches.
Beyond more overgrown trees we found the entrance to the school and entered the building, stepping across the threshold into another time. A layer of fine dust covered every surface. Bdah looked around as if he could hear the voices of his teachers and classmates. A flood of memories must have filled his thoughts as he stood at the threshold, quietly gazing in every direction.
The school had classrooms and offices surrounded by an enclosed courtyard. Bdah knew every nook and cranny. He remembered the math and sciences classrooms, the lunchroom, the headmaster’s office, the restroom. We stopped at the records office where a few files and books were strewn on the floor. Bdah dusted off a book and realized it was the textbook he had studied in Year Five or Six. Turning the pages, he explained that the subject was the Pilgrimage to Mecca.
The faded blue entrance door stands ajar.
The inner courtyard has been covered by an insulated roof since Bdah attended.
View from a classroom.
Bdah looks through old school records and books, all covered in a fine layer of silt.
The school restroom where Bdah experienced indoor plumbing for, perhaps, the first time.
“Al Fardaniyah, only” (Young people are proud to be residents of Al Fardaniyah Village.)
Bdah found a familiar textbook about the Pilgrimage (Hajj).
The Girls School
The final stop on our tour that day was the nearby school for girls. It has been similarly abandoned, and a modern girls school had been built elsewhere in the neighborhood. We walked to the entrance, past overgrown trees and cracked footpaths strewn with leaves. In an inner courtyard was a large inscription painted on the wall. Bdah translated the Arabic for me:
“When you prepare the good mother, the next generation will become the best among the other generations.”
“So, life depends on the mother,” he says knowingly. In many ways, this inspiring, and fitting, inscription stands as a guiding principle for Bdah. Just as he had been nurtured as a young boy by his mother and the Zakhnouni family, Bdah, in turn, acknowledges the women in his life by showing his support and devotion to his mother, sisters, wives, and daughters.
- - -
To be continued in Part 4:
- Bdah Graduates from Salasil School
- Aramco Training Center
- Faleh’s passing
- Marriage and children
- Family Tragedy
 A Toyota like this one was used by the Zakhnouni family to transport children to Salasil School.
1986 Toyota Land Cruiser Jeep.
 A Chevrolet like this one transported Al Fardaniyah village children to Salasil School.
1989 Chevrolet Suburban.
Bdah, Abu Jack and first cousin, Mohammed bin Abdullah and son Abdul Aziz in 2021.
About the Author: California-born and raised, Mark Lowey - known to many as Abu Jack - earned a degree in Construction Management and embarked on a career that started in Saudi Arabia and continued around the world. By luck or fate, his final project before retirement took him back to Saudi Arabia.
A self-taught amateur photographer, Mark documented his early days in Saudi while living in Abqaiq and working in the vast oil fields of the Kingdom’s Eastern Province.
Mark and his wife are now retired and have returned to California.