By Grace Malone for Tim Barger’s stories about 1950s Aramco evoke a bygone era that defined a certain Aramcon spirit of doing more with less and having a fine time doing it – from a kid’s point of view. His collection Arabian Son: 21 Stories was released last month and I interviewed him about the book by telephone and email.

Arabian Son by Tim Barger Tim Barger

How long did you live in Saudi Arabia? I was born in Dhahran in 1947 and lived there until 1968, although I went to high school and college in America. I returned in 1973 to work at the embryonic King Feisal Specialist Hospital in Riyadh. Four years later I started a major video electronics business in Jeddah and left in 1980. When did you start writing these stories? Did you plan to make them a collection? About three years ago I had some killer insomnia. So I’d be tossing and turning for hours and eventually my mind would attach to some early memory – half of them involving Smith or Milt. Still unable to sleep, I’d start filling in the details of the particular escapade. Maybe even make myself  laugh. Finally, I’d get up at three in the morning and write the story out. Then I could go to sleep. Through the good graces of Brat Chat and I was able to publish these memories to a receptive audience but never thought about them other than as some small stories. One day I realized that I had written a lot of stories and some people who enjoyed one story didn’t know that there were others, so I decided to compile them into a paperback as well as an e-book. I especially like the paperback because somehow words on paper take on a life of their own. Arabian Son joins a long line of books of adventure in Arabia, including Out in the Blue, the lovely volume of correspondence between your mother and dad. What other works have been your favorites? There are a lot of good books about Arabia – past and present, unfortunately most of them are out of print. Bayley Winder’s Saudi Arabia in the 19th Century and A.T. Wilson’s magnificent The Persian Gulf  immediately come to mind. There are very few books about the ordinary lives of the Americans in Aramco. Larry Barnes’ Looking Over My Shoulder is definitely the best book to capture adult life in the 50s and 60s and certainly the funniest. Dhahran Fables: Fiesta Room Tales is the same era from the view of the kids and teenagers. You don’t say much about your little sisters in your book. What kind of big brother were you? Would they have the same answer? As a 4-year-old kid I had the tremendous luck to be followed by three little sisters spaced two years apart. My mother had her hands full with the girls, and I could discretely slip away into the oleanders to plan the next episode. Of course being a big brother I tried to introduce them to hedge caterpillars and lizards, how to get chewing tar out of the tar machine and other important techniques but they didn’t seem to share the same enthusiasm that I had for matchstick rockets and earwigs. If your youth in Arabia were a film, what song or songs would be the soundtrack? When you’re thirteen in Khobar and you miss the company bus back to Dhahran, you have to take a cab. You step into the back seat and the entire interior is papered with postcards of Indian movie stars, the dashboard is covered with imitation brocade, the rear view mirror is festooned with prayer beads and wild Bozuki music is blasting through a blown speaker. There’s nothing better. Are you still friends with any of the partners in mischief featured in AS? If so, who (real names not required) and why? Last year in Tucson I saw Jimmy R., the famous Scott Miller, Ben Michaels and Stephanie among many others. It was great – all of us knew the great Mohammed Hampton and loathed Mr. Bricklin. It was a real pleasure to reconnect and tell the same dumb sheet cake jokes we told fifty years before. Did you ride a bike off a roof into the hedges? I wish that I had. What a great thing to brag about. I didn’t see it but that was the event that made Dennis S. a legend. He had an amazing brush cut that was about 5 inches high and always rode his bike like the devil was chasing him. Did you actually know a kid who handled a deadly poisonous sea snake until it bit him? I was there that day. Ben and I were hanging around the yacht club at Half Moon Bay when his brother Roger came out of the water and said "I’ve been bitten on the fingertip by a sea snake." What? And then he told us that he had caught the serpent and was fooling around when it turned on him. Ben and I started to freak out. Should we ice the finger? Should we pre-emptively amputate? How much time did we have to get him to the hospital before it was too late? Then we looked at Roger standing there holding his finger but otherwise fine and realized that if the snake had injected him with venom he would still be in the water convulsing in his death throes. Ben went to the cooler and said, "Here Roger, have a Pepsi." Seriously, how could a teenagers raised in Arabia not know it was crazy to hitch hike miles out into the desert without water, shades or hats to go to a party? We did that all the time. The trip from Sufaniya to Dhahran was only a few hours, but that day we happened to hit a very flat spot in the traffic. We never wore hats and had never heard of sun screen – we were primitives. Which years were best, grade school or high school? Why? They were all equally good except for that miserable period in the aftermath of the walkie-talkie heist. Other than that I was usually able to find something fun to do at any age with the able assistance of my colleagues like Milt or Smith. There are a few stories I can’t tell because the statute of limitations hasn’t expired yet. When and how did you find out your childhood was poles apart from Americans stateside growing up in the 50s and 60s? I remember that I was about eight, visiting my cousins in North Dakota, when I was truly surprised to find out that they didn’t know where Khobar was, what a hamoor looked like, how to kill sea snakes stranded along the beach by the high tide or any of the hundred things that I took as completely obvious. What has been the reception since you released Arabian Son? As I wrote these stories people would write to tell me how much they liked them and on Brat Chat they would post their own stories. Mike Grimler wrote a story about an exploding clay pot that he and his buddies devised that had me in tears. Mike Polhemus gently goaded me into expanding Walking to Ras Tanura. More than a few girls complained that the boys had all the fun – which was probably true. Since the book was released I finally realized the readers liked my tales well enough but what they really liked was the way these episodes triggered their own memories of long ago when we didn’t have a care in the world. What feedback have you about 21 Stories from your Saudi Arab friends? A good Saudi friend about my age told me that when he was a kid everyone speculated at the mysterious going-ons behind the fence. After reading it he realized that what was going on in Dhahran was the same thing he was doing, growing up in Khobar – trying to duck parental scrutiny so he could mess around with his friends in the streets or down at the beach. Apparently "Boys will be boys" is a constant regardless of which language is being spoken. I never lived in Dhahran, but reading through your book I noticed terms like GOSP or places such as Abqaiq used without any further explanation. Do you plan to release an edition explaining these things to the reader? One of the joys of writing for a specific audience is that you don’t have to explain that GOSP stands for Gas Oil Separating Plant. You can just write Half Moon Bay without having to explain that it’s an estuary just south of Dhahran. You can write along without interrupting the flow to explain what an ice chit is. It’s a sort of patois that we all share and I only wrote these stories for those of us fluent in this secret language. I noticed that in your introduction you refer to the children born or raised in Aramco as Aramco-Americans rather than the usual Aramco Brats. Was that on purpose? Oh yes. Places like the pool, the Dining Hall and the movie theater were the key locations of our lives but our parents had their memories of these places too. We were all in this together and almost everyone who lived in Arabia more than a few years became an Aramco-American in a deep way that changed them forever. Anyone who awoke to the prayer call of the muezzin and went to lunch at the company whistle for a few years was never going to be a normal American again. Compared to a man who spent his whole life in Wichita for instance. I don’t think they have the Ramadan cannon in Wichita. In a bow to listicles – what are the top five truths, life lessons, whatever you call them, that you gleaned being an Arabian son?

  1. Never run at the swimming pool – as if.
  2. Four empty bottles will get you a cold Pepsi.
  3. Front row, center is the best seat in the Dhahran theater.
  4. When driving in Arabia, right of way goes to the largest vehicle.
  5. And of course never walk down the street when you can use an alley.
Grace Malone has been interested in the Kingdom since she worked there in the mid-70s. She is an author, critic and freelance writer based in Key Largo, Florida.


ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories by Tim BargerARABIAN SON: 21 Stories by Tim Barger E-book: $4.95 Paperback: 142 pages ~ $12.95ISBN: 978-098820505-5