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.
Fazran 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.
Faleh 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.
An invitation 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.
Dune bashing 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.
Follow Mark Lowey on Facebook @bedouinconnection.