It was the spring of 2009. I am a staff consultant with an Environmental, Health, and Safety consulting firm, sitting in my weekly meeting with my supervisor. We had been casually chatting, when she paused for a moment, quietly looked at me, and then asked, “Bob, how I would you like to spend April in Saudi Arabia?”
I wasn’t sure I heard her correctly, and I said, “Excuse me?”
She then explained that an associate of ours had asked her if I could join his team on an extended project in Saudi Arabia. He had been in on a recent teleconference of a presentation I gave one of our clients, and thought I would be perfect for an ongoing project with ARAMCO in Saudi Arabia.
I spent that evening discussing this with my wife. We were both excited about this opportunity, and yet I was amused at the irony at play– I have never been outside the United States, and was now planning an extended stay in a country as culturally different from America as a country could be.
Preparation (Sit, Stand, Shake)
This same colleague who recommended me for the Saudi project also mentored me on the logistics preparations required. He spent time cautioning me on the many opportunities this trip would provide for cultural missteps–missteps that at the least could undermine my project, and at worse, could land me in some serious political and legal troubles. I undertook the task of learning all I could about the customs in Saudi Arabia. Here are the basic steps I jotted down in my travel notebook:
You cannot take the following items into Saudi Arabia: alcohol, pork products, pornography, drugs, bibles, and guns. The immigration form I filled in on entry said in prominent, red letters: “WARNING DEATH FOR DRUG TRAFFICKER”. The delay can be an exacerbated if your final destination is not near the airport. Non-Islamic religious items, including Christmas trees and decorations, may be confiscated permanently. Interpretation of prohibited items can be surprisingly broad.
Note the prohibited materials. Magazines may be confiscated or have offending pages torn out and that includes magazines with photos of women with bare arms or legs. Even diet pills with banned ingredients have landed people in jail.
Prepare for searches. Baggage searches are usually thorough and not always orderly. Anyone with special equipment, books, or presentation materials may need the help of their Saudi employer or sponsor to clear customs. If in doubt, check with your employer, sponsor, or an expat familiar with the regulations.
Learn the rules regarding visas. Saudi Arabia does not normally issue individual tourist visas. Applications for business or visitors’ visas are frequently turned down if everything is not in order. The entry visa allowing you to enter and live in Saudi Arabia, does not give you the right to leave. Exit and reentry visas or exit-only visas are required by residents who wish to leave the country.
Carry your passport or “Igama.” You need ID to even to buy a long-distance bus ticket. Long-term employed residents must carry an identity document called an Iqama. Dependents can either carry their passports or a properly stamped and authenticated copy of an employee’s Iqama, listing family members.
Observe prayer time. Shops, offices and other businesses, including restaurants, must close during prayer times, which vary and are published daily in the newspapers. There are prayers five times a day, and all but the early morning prayers fall within shopping hours. When prayers are announced you must leave the shop for about twenty minutes. In some parts of the country, restaurant patrons are allowed remain inside, but no more food or drinks are served.
Watch for the religious police. The Matawan, or “religious police,” are accompanied by uniformed police and their function is to monitor public behavior and ensure that the Islamic code is obeyed. Things which might attract their attention would be inappropriate dress, physical contact between the sexes in public or eating in public during Ramadan. Never argue with the Matawan. Find out what you have done wrong, apologize and correct the error.
Practice restraint with your cameras. Many Muslims are totally opposed to photography, except for essential items such as passports. Never photograph people, particularly women, without first asking permission. Do not expect automatic consent. Military installations, airports, government buildings palaces should never be photographed without prior approval. Photographers who ignore these conventions risk confiscation of their film and possibly their camera.
#10 – Critical Hygiene Rules
Never show the bottom of your feet. It has been my lifelong habit of crossing my legs when I sit, and that always exposes the bottom of my shoes to someone. I had to tell myself to keep my feet planted on the ground when I sit.
Never use my left hand to pass on something, a glass, dish, paper. In other words, my left hand should never touch something that will come in contact with another person.
Passport and Visa in hand, expensive plane tickets secured, practicing my pronunciation of “Naaam” (yes), “Iaa” (no), “Min faDilik” (please), and “Shukran” (thank you), I am ready to go.
To the Far Side in 24 hours.
As I drove to the airport with my wife and daughter, we prayed for the safety of each other in our absence – especially that I would not lose my passport — a very real concern of my wife, as she knew my knack for misplacing everything from camera’s to car keys to wallets.
The time of prayer was foreshadowing.
I was already checking in when my daughter frantically ran up to me to retrieve the car keys I had walked away with before I took them half-way around the world. An omen of things to come? We shall only see, “In-shallah” (Arabic for “God Willing”.)
I couldn’t help feeling a little guilty passing all the long lines in economy as I breezed through in business class. But the guilt quickly faded as I settled into the comfortable guest lounge with a croissant, juice, and coffee and waited comfortably to board.
After taking a quick course in how to adjust the 24 variable position seat from straight up- reading to 180 degree recline/sleeping, I settled in for the long flight to Frankfurt.
Soon, I was ordering a four-course meal from the menu. I could not help feeling guilty again as I thought of the tiny packs of pretzels offered in economy, the only class I had ever flown in until today. This guilt was quickly displaced by the enjoyment of stuffed jumbo shrimp placed and after dinner chocolates and coffee.
19 hours later I land in Dammam, Saudi Arabia, on the Mid-eastern seaboard of the Arabian Sea. I have flown through 11 time zones with only three hours of darkness between the 31st of March and April 1st. I slept about three hours total, spending about six hours reviewing training materials I received just hours before my flight.
Like a wrinkled Zombie, I groggily file into the customs line at the Dammam airport. I am abruptly surrounded by the cultural differences of another world, as if I was thrusted 3000 years back in time. Men in their Thobes (long white, loose fitting robes) with their red checkered headdress and black headbands mulled around in animated Arabic conversation, while women in their black Niqab(a head covering and scarf that covers all of a woman’s face except for her eyes) and Abaya (long, loosely fitted garments worn by Muslim women to cover the shape of their bodies.), gathered in their circles paid close attention to their children.
Even in line formation, cultural differences began to emerge. The visiting European/American workers in my line kept a good three feet distance between themselves, whereas the Middle-Eastern and African nation foreigners in their lines packed themselves tightly up against each other.
I was told the Middle East culture demands much less “personal space” -here was evidence of that within 10 minutes of landing.
I was met by a cab-driver who had become a little impatient with the wait. We took off for Dhahran, home of the Aramco expatriate compound, but were soon stopped by armed guards. The guards said something in brusque Arabic to the driver, and he in turn told me I must get out of the car. The apparent nervousness of the cab driver suggested this was unusual for him, which caused me to get anxious as well.
He pulled ahead about 25 yards to park, and they shouted at me to come over to the guard gate. Visions of the movie “Midnight Express” ran through my mind as I walked up to the guards.
They demanded my passport. I was to learn then that once I turned over my passport, I was at the mercy of the guards in charge. They could hold on to it as long as they liked. In this case, it was over 60 minutes. They looked up and down at me with stern looks, mumbling in Arabic, carefully inspecting my passport. Finally the guard handed it back to me, saying “Thank You”.
I walked back to the cab past a carload of Saudi’s who were laughing as they were watching this scene. I failed to see the humor in it all.
26 hours after saying good bye to my wife and daughter, I am missing them. I try calling, and cannot get through for some reason. It is 1:30 am and I just want to sleep for two days. Checking in to my room, a drop my bags, clean up a little, and crawl into bed.
Saudi Arabia – Land of Paradox
When I landed in the Dammam airport three weeks ago, I thought I had prepared myself for the cultural shift I was sure to experience. But the immediate effect of seeing the vast majority of men and women dressed in clothing dating back thousands of years was startling.
It seems hard for westerners such as me to accept that other cultures have been able to hold on to their traditions over millenniums, in spite of what the rest of the world does. And yet, there is ample evidence of Saudi’s move into the modern world.
The contrast between the traditional, ancient culture and the development of modernity can be confusing to the outsider. Take for instance on any day in Dhahran, you will see men dressed in the Saudi traditional Thobes and headdress driving huge Toyota and Chevy SUV’s down the road with an IPod to their ear. Or women fully covered in an abaya and niqab texting on the street corner.
One day, while traveling on the highway between sites, my cab passed a Saudi Man dressed fully in his thobe and headdress while puttering on the shoulder of the highway in a moped—with his robes flapping behind him.
The Paradox of Saudi is nowhere more clear than in the stark difference between urban and rural life. Ninety-five percent of the Saudi population lives in the major cities, while the remaining Bedouin shepherds live off the barren desert. The Saudi’s have changed the geography of the urban landscape with extensive watering and irrigation of the city landscape, creating beautifully landscaped parks and modern buildings—yet immediately outside the city limits lies a harsh land of desert sand devoid of plant life, the roadside littered with decades of discarded tires and other trash.
I had workshops scheduled up and down the Eastern seaboard of Saudi for a stretch of three-hundred miles. My only way from one work site to the next was the local taxi driver. One day as I rode to a workshop to the south of Dhahran, the taxi driver stopped to allow a herd of camels being driven across the road by a solitary Bedouin shepherd. 10 minutes later, I would be in a beautifully landscaped city with all the modern amenities.
Another paradox is in the quiet, soft nature of public interactions and the vibrant, expressive interactions in smaller private gatherings. There are expected behaviors for both public and private settings. Weekends in Dhahran—(Wednesday night) the Dhahran theatre square is bustling with citizens gathering in the cool of the night – women and teens in their Abaya’s, and teen-age boys not yet dressing in Thobes. (Note_ picture is from Encyclopedia–it is forbidden to photograph women). The young women have put on their “weekend-best” abaya and veils—displaying only their eyes to the public.
Yet, like all teens, they have found a way to set themselves apart and be distinctive. Their black abaya’s are decorated elaborately with all sorts of gold, silver, and black sequined trim. This is definitely “dress-up” time for a night out in Dhahran.
However, during this social evening, the girls and boys remain apart from each other, and the night ends rather early in comparison to western standards -by 10:00 pm.
More paradox? The slow, quiet meditative their clothing (influences walking style of the Saudi?) compared to the frenetic, impatient driving style.
For you golf enthusiasts–who “Fear” the dreaded sand trap–what if your entire golf course and putting greens were all of sand? Golfers carried with them a 3 foot square swath of astro-turf with which to lay their golf ball on and swing. They would then pick up the swath and carry it to their next shot and repeat.
How’s that for paradox–
Or how about the way important business is put on hold for either religious of social responsibilities? Class instruction is stopped abruptly for prayer. It is also stopped for latecomers as they are warmly greeted by each participant individually.
I was talking to a security guard at a large complex, and almost in the middle of a sentence, he stopped, took his shoes off, rolled out his prayer rug in the lobby behind his desk, and began to pray.
And then, there is the shopping—the great sign of the modern-day consumer culture. In Saudi Arabia, shopping is a chief past-time, not just for the women.
I caught the bus to go to Khobar Rashid mall. It is a modern, three story mall that can rival any of the malls in America. I happened to be the only male on the bus of over 40 women and children. It dawned on me only then that the men can drive to the mall, but the women (and expatriates who are not allowed to drive) must take public transportation.
All the women were dressed in their abaya—even the American and European. This to avoid the Matawan – the Saudi Moral Police.
I witnessed the work of the Matawan while at dinner in Khobar. The restaurant was a little slow in pulling down the window shades during prayer time, and the Matawan were right there, firmly tapping on the restaurant windows to let the owners know the error they were committing. All shops must stop serving the public during prayer time.
The Mall was a mixture of modern western fashion stores and stores that sold the traditional Saudi garments. It was filled with Saudi’s seeming to have much fun as families.
Today, my friend and fellow Saudi blogger Ted went into Khobar with a few of his co-workers. We went into the traditional “Souks” of the Saudi market place. It was an area large area of narrow streets lined with shops, shoppers, and automobiles.
Three weeks into my visit in Saudi, and I am beginning to understand that, like any society and culture, in Saudi Arabia there is a mix of the beautiful and base—of the divine and the human. Of the quiet side of our nature, and the stirring, restless side.
Taken as it is a wonderful, mysterious land that I can learn much from.
Driving in Saudi Arabia
I was told before leaving that there would be no need to drive in Saudi. All my transportation would be provided, and besides – getting a driver’s license would take an act of Congress (or should I say an edict from the King).
And while I am looking for the best in the country I am visiting, in the area of automobile safety, Saudi has much work to do.
I had a two-day workshop in Jabail, 65 miles North of Dhahran. Leaving at 6:00 am in the morning, we would drive a three lane stretch of highway that had deep 6-12 inch shoulder drop offs. I noticed cars whizzing by my cab on the shoulder and then swerve back into the lanes when clear. Many times cars would straddle lanes trying to get past a car.
I asked the driver if drivers were ever stopped for speeding. He told me that there are stiff jail penalties for speeding -anywhere from one to seven days. But there were not enough police to stop them, so it made little difference.
The next day, the same thing. About half-way to Jabail, we came upon a traffic jam. I couldn’t see anything, and then suddenly, to my right I saw what I thought was a burned out car with papers strewn for yards. My first thought was I had witnessed a road-side bomb.
As we slowly got closer, I could see three bodies lying motionless on the side of the road, and one more moving his arm slightly. Apparently the vehicle had flipped several times, throwing the passengers and everything in it.
There was an officer standing over the seriously injured man, just standing their, looking at the suffering man–no effort to provide any first aid. I turned to the driver and asked, “ Why does that officer not help the victims?”.
The Driver replied, “They can do nothing until ambulance comes–nothing. It is the law”.
I was nauseous and unsettled for several hours after this.
That afternoon, on the same road going south, there was a four-car crash with injuries. Dozens of drivers were so impatient with the jam that they completely left the highway, drove down into a deep ravine, and across the desert sands for about three- hundred yards to another road.
The following night I was having dinner in Dammam with some US citizens from the compound.
We sat for two hours at a corner window in the restaurant, looking down on a four way stop. We saw cars in the right lanes of the road making left turns at intersections. In those two hours, we never saw a car come to a stop. In fact, it seemed to be a competition as to who would get through the intersection first. Even pedestrians entered the gauntlet. I would have bet the price of the meal there would be an accident. I would have lost the bet.
Had I not witnessed the horrific accident the day before, I would have thought it a little humorous. I saw nothing funny about it.
What is perplexing to me is the amount of safe driver education and promotion I have seen, particularly around using cell phones and even hands-free phones while driving. There are large billboards discouraging the use of phones, as well as frequent and sometimes graphic television infomercials around auto safety.
Automobile fatalities is the largest cause of death, including workplace deaths, in the Saudi Arabia. Yet, there is only a fraction of the cars on the roads as there are in Europe or the United States.
I have decided to look into the bus system from now on. At least they are bigger than cars!
The Call to Prayer
In traditional Sunni Islam, the Five Pillars of Islam (أركان الإسلام) is the term given to the five duties incumbent on every Muslim. These duties are Shahada (Profession of Faith), Salat (Prayers), Zakat (Giving of Alms), Sawm (Fasting during Ramadan) and Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca).
Salah is the name for the obligatory prayers that are performed five times a day, and are a direct link between the worshipper and God.
There is no hierarchical authority in Islam and there are no priests. Prayers are led by a learned person who knows the Qur’an and is generally chosen by the congregation.
Prayers are said at dawn, mid-day, late-afternoon, sunset and nightfall, and thus determine the rhythm of the entire day. These five prescribed prayers contain verses from the Qur’an, and are said in Arabic, the language of the Revelation. Personal supplications, however, can be offered in one’s own language and at any time.
To a visitor to Saudi, it is the pillar of prayer that is strikingly obvious in the daily life of the Saudi people, and the millions of Foreign Muslims as well.
All World Religions of “the Book” and of “Abraham” – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, have ageless traditions of regular periods of prayer. The Jewish tradition would have at least three periods /day, but Orthodoxy would prescribe an additional two periods. And while Christianity teaches one should pray always, the example of Jesus and the Apostles up to the modern day religious orders prescribe prayer periods of five times daily. In the Rule of Saint Benedict, written in the early 500s, we hear of eight prayer periods: Matins or Vigils, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, and Compline.
What is so strikingly different in the way Islamic prayer is practiced in Saudi Arabia is the radical obedience an entire nation submits itself to when the call to pray is heard. And it is heard in the urban areas—every neighborhood mosque – (one for every ½ square mile it seems) has a loudspeaker system with a cantor calling out at the times of prayer.
It was strange to hear at first as I walked to breakfast or lunch, but it has since become a soothing sound—a time that reminds me to settle down, and remember what is truly important in life.
It was the same when I watched the Benedictine monks drop what they were doing and move instinctively to prayer. But to see an entire nation stop to pray has left a mark on me I hope I don’t forget.
To be dining, and then see all the shades pulled down, and no one allowed in or out for twenty minutes during prayer–this is religion reaching into the market-place.
I am not talking about dogma or differing beliefs-I am struck by nothing less than a visual demonstration of a commitment to a particular way of life ordered around conviction and faith.
Although it is preferable to worship together in a mosque, a Muslim may pray almost anywhere, such as in fields, offices, factories and universities.
One day, I was at a large corporate office, bustling with important looking people. A large man was at the reception desk helping me find my cab. Almost in the middle of a sentence, he turned from me, pulled his shoes off, laid a small rug on the ground, kneeled on it, then prostrated himself as he mumbled words from the Qur’an ( I assume) and then repeated this several times.
My sponsor Ismail (you cannot enter Saudi without an official sponsor) was meeting with me about some very urgent matters-needing some action quickly. During our conversation he looked at me squarely in my eyes and said “Bob, we have to stop now—I have to pray. It’s 2:00 pm and I have not yet prayed. I have to pray now. Please, go and come back in 20 minutes”.
Each salat (period of prayer) is performed facing towards the Kaaba in Mecca
The Kaaba is a cuboidal building in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, and is the most sacred site in Islam. The building is more than two thousand years old and according to Islamic tradition the first building at the site was built by Abraham (Ibrahim). The building has a mosque built around it, the Masjid al-Haram. All Muslims around the world face towards the Kaaba during prayers, no matter where they are.
In every room in the housing unit I am in, there is an arrow on the ceiling with a picture of the Kaaba in the arrow. This is to aid Muslim visitors in their religious duty to pray facing Mecca five times daily.
I have purchased a prayer rug of my own. I believe that peace begins with a sincere curiosity, appreciation, and desire to understand the traditions cultures, and point of view of others, without compromising your own beliefs and traditions. That is why I point my prayer rug in the direction of Jerusalem. – Solidarity with other Faiths in prayer, while staying committed to my particular faith tradition.
Salat is intended to focus the mind on Allah; it is seen as a personal communication with Allah, expressing gratitude and worship. According to the Qur’an, the benefit of prayer “restrains [one] from shameful and evil deeds”. [Qur’an 29:40] I better get my rug out!
All prayers should be conducted within the prescribed time period (waqt) While the prayers may be made at any point within the waqt, it is considered best to begin them as soon as possible after the call to prayer is heard.
This would make conducting two-day workshops a little more complicated. Time has to be built into the schedule for noon and mid-afternoon prayer, or you will simply lose your class!
In every business building I have been in, there are designated prayer rooms. When you walk by these rooms at prayer time, you hear the gentle men murmuring prayers of worship and supplication to their God. You see rows of shoes outside the door, for they are now on holy ground.
Mosques are within walking distance no matter where you are in the urban areas. Even so, I have watched gardeners stop trimming bushes and drop to their knees to pray.
Today, I was relaxing at the compound’s pool after working out. It was 105 degrees today, and the pool was full of children. A group of adolescent boys were rough-housing around the ropes, and getting whistled at regularly by the life-guards’.
Suddenly the group, numbering around 8 boys between the ages of 9-12 jumped out of the pool, grabbed their beach towels, and in the corner of the pool area formed an area in the shape of an arrow with their towels. One of the older boys kneeled down at the front towel, and two rows of boys neatly followed in ordered rows behind. It took less than 30 seconds for these young buys to order themselves to pray.
They alternated from kneeling to prostrate several times in Unison. Then, as abruptly as it started, the prayer time finished, their prayer rugs turned back into beach towels again, and the youthful devout became wild-eyed boys in the pool .
Some may call the Saudi prayer life fanatic, others being more generous may say ”it’s a bit much”, but to the Saudi’, the Pillar of prayer is a core value—like getting dressed in the morning. “It’s just what we do”.
Traditional Saudi Meal
Six days into my visit to Saudi and I am beginning to settle into my assigned tasks and get a little more comfortable in moving around this beautiful country.
The first three days were a little frustrating due to a complete lack of connectivity to the internet and lack of cell phone signal strength. When I got my first call from Susan, it was as if I had been rescued from a deserted island.
The area around the Dhahran compound I am staying in is surprisingly quiet. No stereo’s blaring, boom boxes from SUV’s, and even the conversations in public are soft and reserved. For most of the morning, you hear hundreds of doves cooing at one another.
Friday morning, the Islamic Sabbath- all three mosques in my compound neighborhood are broadcasting over loudspeakers the chanting prayer of Islam. I felt a little jealous as I watched the throngs pour into the Mosque for worship—but then it reminded me that it was my Lenten Friday. No Middle East meat loaf today. It would be olive salad.
My own faith seems to be strengthening as I observe the widespread devotion and commitment the Saudi’s display around their own faith tradition.
I saw a man make the sign of the cross at breakfast today in the midst of robed Muslim men and women. I myself was a little reticent to do so– maybe he has witnessed to me more than to the Islamic men and women who saw him.
I caught myself laughing in my usual way in the dining hall with a co-worker, and realized I must seem boisterous. I would later learn that in less public forums, my Saudi friends could have a rollicking good time, for hours.
I have enjoyed watching the Saudi parents as they interact with their children at the dining hall and commissary. Tender and gentle, the mother and father are seem to dote upon their children and still maintain a level for firm control.
Ismail Al Ismail, manager of the specific project I have been assigned to invited Don and me to his home for dinner tonight, along with co-workers Mohammad and Guraidha Al Yami.
After treating Don and me to the delicacy of sheep testacles at a local restaurant the night before, I was a little wary—but opportunities like this do not come often, so here we go!
It was a fascinating evening, beginning with a shedding of the shoes, a welcome kiss on each cheek, and meeting Ismail’s’ three sons. Ismail’s wife and two daughters would not be seen the entire evening, according to the traditional Saudi custom.
We began with Ismail’s’ sons pouring tea into gold-gilded cut glass tea cups, never allowing the tea to get less than half-full. Fresh dates and nuts were passed around as casual banter flowed—Ismail being a master storyteller told one hilarious story after another in the tradition of the desert Bedouin.
When it was time, Ismail invited us into dining room, where two great platters of whole roasted lamb on rice were surrounded by plates and plates of sauces, humus spread, pickled grape leaves, watermelons, sautéed onions, and roasted garlic. This is called “Kapsa”–Where meat, rice, and vegetables are all cooked together and served on a large platter on the floor.
Sitting cross legged on the floor, being very careful not to show the soles of my feet (considered very bad manners-insulting in fact), and following the lead of my host, I began eating with the fingers of my right hand.
Balling up rice in a tight ball, shoving it in with my thumb, I felt two years old again. And when you saw the mess of rice and other debris at my place, it looked like a two year old had just eaten.
I sipped my drink and talked with Ismail as the other guests got up to leave. He then told a story of how he had an American guest who talked all through the meal, and when everyone was done he had barely touched his meal. In Saudi, the host cannot leave until the last guest has stopped eating. This little story was Ismail’s way of poking me and saying “are you done yet”. When the meal is over, the meal is over.
We adjourned to the other room, where Ismail’s sons refilled our teacups and brought out the traditional Saudi incense for each of us to gently wave over our face. Then Ismail brought out perfumed oil that he poured on our hands. This being the Monday after Palm Sunday, I was reminded of the woman pouring expensive ointment on Jesus just before his passion.
Finishing our tea, it was now time to say goodbye, in the Saudi way–very long and very warm. I was touched deeply from the first moment to the last by this very powerful demonstration of Saudi hospitality.
My understanding of hospitality and human warmth and kindness grew because of this evening. My only regret is not being able to express my gratitude to Ismail’s wife and daughters for their part in this wonderful evening. I must accept that it was not a part of this very traditional Saudi night.
Easter Sunday on the Arabian Gulf
It is Easter Sunday, and I am beginning a four-day workshop on the shores of the Arabian Gulf(Persian Gulf to Westerners).
This afternoon after one of the workshops, I fly out 75 miles over the Arabian Gulf to the international border between Saudi and Iranian waters to spend the night on the largest sea platform in the world.
My new friend Fahad was in my class, and is hosting me on the trip to the oil platform. We arrived at the heli-port, and he bought me a coffee and box of chocolates -I have learned not to refuse Arabic hospitality-it is useless! He was able to breeze me through the tight security at the helicopter pad—having been a 28 yr veteran employee. He told me it was “Wasta”; Arabic word that loosely translated means “Who you know”.
Fahad continued to care for my well-being until I boarded the copter the next morning, making sure my bags were well taken care of, and I got the window seat on the helicopter.
Three other men in my workshop joined us, along with a large New Zealander. I say large, because it made a difference in this cramped aircraft. There were 12 of us in all, and we had to sit with staggered seating to establish balance within the copter.
We sat with staggered legs as well, my knee to the crotch of the man in front of me, and vice-versa down the row of seats. As we started the trip across the sea, one worker read the Quran, mouthing each word as he flipping pages left to right, while the New Zealander read a novel titled “Light on Education” turning pages right to left.
The man directly in front of me fingered prayer beads. I definitely needed a distraction. I thought of asking if he had another set. Fahad looked at me and his friend directly in front of him, and made a motion of “Treading Water” and pointed down to the sea, as if asking “How long can you tread water? I smiled, pretending to find it funny!
Looking out between the pilots, I watched closely as we approached the various oil & gas rig platforms. I would land on the third– the last, and largest one.
Upon landing, we went downstairs and immediately began eating dates and drinking Arabic coffee as Fahad greeted all his co-workers with kisses and long hello’s, as if he had not seen them in years—it was only a weekend? I am getting used to this custom, and find it charming.
Even while conducting class and someone comes in late, I must stop and allow the latecomer to be greeted in this manner by every other person in the class. I have since learned to schedule in at least 90 minutes / day extra for “Social Time”.
After a safety orientation, there was a presentation on the dangers of Hydrogen Sulfide exposure and fires on oil-rigs. Just what I needed to hear! I was then given a two hour “Golden Tour” by Fayad and his co-Supervisor.
I had some trouble even believing where I was and what I was doing on this Easter Sunday— things have happened so fast and with such intensity of energy these past few weeks, and now, here I am out in the middle of the Arabian Sea on the holiest of Christian Days. It certainly was not what I would have thought I would be doing just a few weeks ago.
We walked up and down and around some of the biggest cranes and lifts in the world, walking on catwalks hundreds of feet over the sea, and watching out in the distance the Iranian oil wells with huge fire plumes lighting up the eastern sky.
My hosts were thoughtful enough to take my camera and snap dozens of pictures of the tour—another thoughtful gesture, as I was prohibited from taking pictures myself. I continue to be humbled by the generosity of my Saudi hosts, wherever I may be.
After the tour, Fahad escorted me to my cabin, where chocolate bars and a bowl of fruit waited. He then invited me down to a “Kaspa” – the name for the traditional Saudi meal.
I came down to the dining room, and three large area’s were laid out with large decorated ground cloths covered with huge plates lf lamb and fresh caught fish on beds of rice, surrounded by plates of lemons, roasted garlic, lettuce and tomatoes.
The intimacy and camaraderie was palpable. These men are like naval men at sea. They are on these rigs together in close quarters five days a week and see their family the other two—and most of those two days are taken up by duties that must be done before the next five day absence. When I asked how they do it, they tell me quickly it is for their family (hardship pay scale is very good), and that they do this now, so they can retire at age 50 with a very good pension.
I am improving on eating with my right hand – less on the floor and more in my mouth.
By now, I am exhausted, and feel like I have lived three days in one.
I drop into my cabin bunk, and notice of all things, I have my own little window looking out to the sea.. I look out on the fire plume of the Iranian well, and I am reminded it is Easter night, and that the words I have learned to greet every man I meet in Saudi are also the very first words Jesus spoke after His resurrection:
“Assalume Alaikum” – “Peace be with You”
Life on a Compound : Departing Reflections
I have lived on a Saudi employee compound for the past five weeks. I have had the fortune of being able to visit a variety of “remote” compounds up and down the eastern coast of the Arabian gulf, from just south of the Kuwait border, to within 100 KM of the “ Empty Quarter”—that portion of Saudi made famous in David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia”.
Compounds are Corporate-developed Oasis in the middle of dry and barren land within close proximity to petroleum and gas production sites. No expenses are spared to make these compounds comfortable and inviting for the employees and contractors who make this their home-away from home.
The typical compound is luxuriously landscaped-and has all the amenities of a nice resort—Pool, workout room with the most modern equipment, sauna /steam. They have game rooms, pool, table-tennis, and a library. Most have a soccer (football) field which would be used every single night. The dining hall is free in the remote camps. Just show your ID badge. There are signs however- “eat what you take, take only what you will eat.”
The life of an oil-worker on a remote site is difficult, especially in a culture that places a high premium on family. Seven 12 hr days on, and three off, followed by a stint of seven night shifts, and four off.
I have had several conversations with Saudi men who have several wives. One man had twelve children with two wives. When I asked if this complicates his life (or something to that effect), he said he keeps it simple-they live in different homes, and have separate lives. He felt the Saudi way of being faithful to two wives was superior to the American and European way of having a wife and a secret lover. I could not argue that point.
These compounds have men only—and the men are flown home from the compounds every seven days and then back to work again. While this is admittedly hard on these family men, they readily admit that the money makes it worth it- most able to retire comfortably by the age of fifty.
In the workshops I have conducted, the average tenure for the group was always above twenty -five years. In one remote site, it was my pleasant fortune to stay on a night a huge Arabic feast was being hosted by the company. There were nine large tables surrounding a vast pool, each table full of fine Arabic cuisine. The desserts were unbelievably delicious.
I witnessed a close camaraderie between these men—eating the traditional “Kapsa” meal on the floor in a circle each day—the act of being knee to knee and shoulder to shoulder with my Saudi friends as I ate with my hands gave me a feeling of earthy intimacy with these men.
I am coming to the close of my visit to the “Kingdom”, and while I am o-so-ready to be home with my wife (Happy Anniversary, Susan!!) and Abby, and all my family, friends and co-workers, I am finding it hard to say goodbye to this country -to the people I have met-to their graciousness and generosity, to their witness to me of a commitment to a faith and way of life that has withstood the pressures of change the modern world exerts on them.
And even to the dry desert outside the city. And yes, the camels and Bedouins.
It has been a privilege sharing this journey with you, my family and friends- getting to tell you about it has helped me to pay close attention, to not just look, but to try to see, and understand, and respond, and to allow this experience to shape itself in me.
As Thomas Merton wrote: “Everything depends on the quality of our acts and our experiences. A multitude of experiences only half-lived exhausts and depletes our being.”
As for learning from the Saudi culture – the commitment to prayer, the clothing, the ceremonials, the familial roles and customs, Merton also says, “The more I am able to affirm others, to say “Yes” to them in myself, the more I can discover myself in them, and them in myself, the more real I become. I will be a better person, not if I know how to refute everything different than myself, but if I can see what truth to affirm in every person, and still go further.”
I hope I have done that in some measure, InShallah.