When I entered the gates of Dhahran Residential Camp on the pearly dawn of a summer day in 2006, I was barely awake. My eyes were shut asleep in the car from the tire of the long, international journey we had, but as the dawn light entered through the corners of my eyes, I woke up, squinting and wondering if I was dreaming.
I saw lines of beautiful, tall palm trees and a large, green golf course as we drove by Rolling Hills Boulevard, and I recall smiling to myself, like a child who was given an extra scoop of ice-cream.
It was a mini-America in the Middle East.
I fell in love with the peaceful, green, serene community from the day I got there. There was peace to it. The intercultural community in Dhahran now became my home.
Days turned into months and months turned into years and before I knew it, I was completely integrated into the expatriate community, a place where it was a mystery to understand where one culture ended and another began. The marriage between cultural keepsakes was so fruitful that you became sure that one culture could not belong without the other.
Growing up, I would often complain of the heat. After all, if you look at an aerial view of Dhahran, it is surrounded by sand.
But looking back, I cherish those hot summer days when my friends and I went to the Hills Snack Bar to get an orange slushy or a chicken burger. Life was so simple, just like the minimalistic desert landscape country we lived in.
I remember visiting the souk and entering carpet and jewelry stores with my family, where we would spend hours looking at different carpet designs and chatting with the storekeeper to learn about the origin of the item and bargaining the price. At the local hair salon, people were offered Arabic coffee and Turkish delight, and I remember thinking how the simple act of hospitality spoke volumes about a cultural norm to always offer guests food.
I also cherish those days when I played tetherball at Dhahran Elementary School, or getting in line to buy cheese-bread during recess at Dhahran Middle School, attending tennis lessons as part of DJTA, cheering the Wildcat pride through regional volleyball tournaments, Girl Scout camping trips the Jebels, 9th grade Beach Day, eating Shish taouk from the Hills snack bar grill on Thursday nights, waking early for waffles and pancakes at the Dining Hall on the weekends. Life was simple. And abundantly happy.
On weekends, I recall awakening during early morning to a series of aircrafts flying over from King Abdul Aziz Royal Airbase. Even though I was not happy to wake up like that, somehow, I felt safe.
As I write this, beautiful memories keep knocking my mind.
I remember the food stalls at International Day at Dhahran Academy, when students brought cultural dishes from their respective home countries and dressed up in their traditional attire. From Basbousa, Knafeh, Turkish Delight and Baklava of the Middle East, to Venezuelan Tequenos to Indian Chat to German Kartoffelpuffer to American Apple Pie to Malaysian Kue Lapis to South African Melkert, the food made us feel like we just toured the entire world.
I still walk to the local grocery store in town called the Dhahran Commissary to pick up Vegetable Zatar and Labneh bread with honey from the stone-fired area where they make several types of traditional snacks. It is also a family memento to stop by Saadeddin pastry shop from time-to-time to buy the Ferrero-Rocher and Chocolate Coffee Cake and chat with the enterprising and kind Pilipino baker who has known us for the last fourteen years. In a community where everyone leaves eventually, it is comforting to see familiar faces.
When I reminisce about my childhood while I’m away at school, I stumble upon the Aramco Brats or the Dhahran Academy Facebook Group Page and read stories from countless generations, people who are in their 80s, 60s, 40s, and people around my age. Everyone has witnessed the comfort and beauty of life in these expat communities in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia at different times, each with their own unique experiences and stories. Some speak of the evacuation during the Gulf War, others talk about remembering the opening of western chain stores, the favorite restaurant in Al-Khobar, etc.
There are multiple posts each day, and despite the variety of thoughts, you can arrive at one irrefutable truth.
We all miss the childhood we experienced as expat children in Saudi Arabia; and we all yearn for understanding and comfort on the days we miss it the most. We open the memory boxes of our minds, and ask of the contents of others’ boxes.
We talk about how we answer difficult questions. Like all expats and third culture kids, answering questions about your hometown can be a stressful experience. How can I speak of three different cultures that make up my life in a minute? I’m not one or the other, but I carry little parts of all of them. And that is my cultural identity.
Through shared feelings, comments and messages, people who do not know each other connect and find a home in one another instantly. That is the beauty of growing up as an expat in Saudi Arabia, which such few people get the exposure of the unique lives we lived, we are able to easily relate and connect on simple and complicated matters all at once. I like to call it the social marble cake effect, dense, with separate flavors that blend together to create the perfect balance of taste.
Honestly, the entire process of moving to Saudi Arabia and having to leave however many years later is heartbreaking and beautiful all at once.
The friends you made, the home you lived in, the food you ate, the places you visited, it all becomes a distant past that only your memory and shared conversations with friends can take you back to. The oasis for you and your friends disappears once you leave the community, and the reality requires you to coordinate with time and money to visit each other again, sometimes across the world.
At the end of the day, we have all moved onto new trajectories in our lives, made new friends, found new hobbies, but it is only natural that we remember our childhood. And thus we continue the legacy of being expatriates by sharing our stories, talking about the food we ate, the places we visited, the hearts we touched, etc.
Essentially, we hope to find comfort in knowing that someone across an ocean is feeling the longing and bittersweet feelings we are.
The Arabian Nights and Mornings we knew became the story of our lives, and we can hope that all the new souls we cross paths with will take an interest in learning what made our childhoods so special.
The temporary, expatriate life is bound by an end. The initial thought itself is unsettling, but the afterthought is beautiful.
How lucky are we to have experienced such culturally rich periods of our lives.
Anushka is a Graduate Student at Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. Her family moved to Saudi Aramco in 2006, and she has spent her youth growing up in Dhahran, where she attended Dhahran Elementary, Dhahran Middle School, and Dhahran Academy. She loves learning about new cultures and is fascinated by the diversity that brings us all together, especially the expatriate community, where the only thing that is common is that we are all different, in culture, religion, and the perspectives we hold. One day she hopes to publish a book on the third culture kid experience. In her free time, she enjoys photography, staying active, and exploring cafés. Dhahran holds a big place in her heart.