Aramco ExPats - Beneath the Oasis
Qatif - Les Snyder 1939

There is stupid, and then there is another category even dumber than stupid. At seventeen, I was pretty much the poster child for beyond stupid though it wasn’t entirely my fault. I was more than six feet tall, weighed maybe 170 pounds and had the body fat of a praying mantis - except for that gram of fat on the pathway between my frontal lobe and my cerebral cortex.

The frontal lobe is where all your senses are integrated with your experiences to judge any situation and pass the info back to the rest of the brain: the street light is red, the main brain is signaled and you stop. Unfortunately for me, this misplaced gob of fat sometimes garbled the message – "Maybe I can pink the light," and other times blocked the message completely and I jumped off the shed roof, when I was seven, with an umbrella because it would make a perfect parachute. Today was one of those days.

A sprawling oasis on the shore of the Gulf, north of Dammam, Saudi Arabia, Qatif has produced and exported premium dates since Babylon ruled the world. Roughly three thousand years later, Ben and I are in Qatif, watching an artesian well bubbling up clear water into a small pool that flows off into a web of canals. The well shaft is about four feet wide.

We have decided that it is an excellent idea to dive into this hole with scuba tanks to see how deep it is and where it goes. So we have masks, fins, air tanks and regulators, diving knives, depth gauges, underwater flashlights, and a stunning disregard for the fact that this is one of those plans entirely devoid of an upside. Maybe the only upside is that you might survive.

We're checking our gear, cycling our flashlights, scoping out the well and discussing what special technique we'll apply to this dive. We decide that we'll flip a ten quirsh piece to see who goes first. Suited up, fins in hand we splash over to the well and, before the coin flip, a problem arises.

Ben is a wide-shouldered, big-chested guy; add the geometry of his scuba tank and he is basically the same size as the well's diameter. But I'm skinny rather than wide, and I use an unusual scuba tank. Made out of spun aluminum, about a third smaller in diameter and a little longer than the standard size, this light-weight tank once held some kind of exotic industrial gas and was salvaged out of Aramco's reclamation yard. Though it held less air, my techniques of breath control were superb and I could outlast anyone with a regular tank. We don't need to flip the coin and I pull on my mask, sit in the pool to slip on my fins, put in my regulator's mouthpiece and plunge headfirst into the shaft. I have about ten inches of space all around me as I head downwards.

The water is flowing over me like a gentle breeze. It's lukewarm and clear as gin when I turn on my flashlight. I'm surprised how clearly I can see the wall around me, engraved with the chisel marks and gouges made by some tireless men working about the time of Hammurabi. Foot after foot as I submerge, the scratches and counter-chiseled hatch marks begin to speak to me, much as I imagine the brush strokes of an original Van Gogh might do to a perceptive viewer. Of course, at this time I'm a total clod and have no such sensitivity - I know that Don Martin of MAD magazine is a way better artist than Picasso.

I'm head first, about ten feet down when it occurs to me that I might have some difficulty getting out of this tube backward. I stop and see if I can swim backward. It's not really efficient, but using my hands I can push myself backward. If I need too, I can jettison my weight belt and float up like a cork. When I surface Ben can pull me out of the hole by my ankles. Okay. Problem solved. Let's see what is down here.

Following the beam of the flashlight, I go deeper. It's really quite soothing. The water wafting by, the total quiet only punctuated by a burst of air bubbles. There is really nothing else to see but the gray interior of this stone pipe. There's no silt or visible organisms in the water. It's so clear that it is almost not there.

I check my depth gauge to see that I'm down to thirty feet. Looking at the rock intaglio on the wall, I think about the original excavators digging away with crude tools in a cramped space, filling a hide bucket that is winched to the surface, never knowing when, or if, they would strike the aquifer.

Then I start to reconsider this backward swimming thing. Maybe this isn't the greatest idea. Oh well, go a little deeper. A few feet later I'm startled by the low tone of a gong when my tank bangs into the wall. Sound travels well in water and I float there as the tank resonates. It is close in here after all. Did I damage the valve? What if I did? Better check. I snake my right arm over my shoulder to check the fitting between the air hose and the tank with my fingers. It seems good. There is no air leaking out. It's okay.

I descend another ten feet to discover a wonderful thing.

The shaft expands into a bell-like grotto about five feet wide. I swim into it and turn myself around facing the surface. Now, whatever happens, I'm good to go. I pan the flashlight around the chamber's wall carved with the handiwork of men that maybe lived two thousand years ago. The floor is bare rock with a few stones lying around. Breathing softly, I'm relaxed and feeling pretty good, so I turn off the flashlight.

Caressed by the artesian water in total darkness, I ease into the fetal position suspended in the chamber like a pea in a pod. I'm free-floating forty feet beneath the surface of the earth in an ancient well shaft. I put out my arm and feel the wall, reading the etched surface as if it were a language that I didn't speak, written in braille. It's very relaxing like a total immersion hot tub. I drift off a bit, then get this strange feeling as if I'm a kind of embryo gestating beneath the earth. At this age, I‘m totally insensitive to any kind of Zen-like sensibility, but it was that kind of moment.

Oh, oh. I better check my watch. I turn on the flashlight to see that it's twelve minutes later, time to go. I swim upwards. About five yards from the surface, I standby for ten minutes just to be safe.

When you standby to decompress in the Sufaniya field, after breathing through a long rubber air hose for two hours, you are usually hanging onto a length of barnacled pipe attached to an offshore well. As you float there waiting, your throat dry as a fly's eye, you start to see a world of tiny neon fish and tinier marine organisms that dart around the maws of the barnacles. With their shells partially open, bivalves the size of pearls strain the water for biota. Weird little anemones dangle their languid limbs in the current. Poke towards them with your finger and they retract into a ball before you can touch them.

So now I'm standing by in the well, 15 feet under, checking out the wall around me. It's perfectly round. In a way, this entire shaft is a sculpture worthy of Henry Moore. I can see where a hard edge was rounded taking a pit of rock behind it. Here a vertical gouge of a pickax scours a mark two feet down the wall. I pull out my diving knife and scratch at the rock. It's pretty hard stuff. It must have taken forever to dig this thing. Time is up and I surface.

A worried, agitated Ben is pacing around surrounded by half a dozen Qatifi farm workers when I pop out of the hole, pull myself into the pool, remove my mouthpiece and lift my mask.

"Where have you been?" Wildly pointing at his diving watch, "You were down there more than forty minutes." Suddenly Ben stops being frantic, breaks into a grin and says, "Jeez am I glad to see you."

I blink my eyes a couple of times. I hear the palm fronds rustling in the wind and the chitter of field sparrows. I'm dazzled by the thick blue sky, the verdant colors of the date oasis. Green fronds and brown tree trunks in every hue. Golden ripe dates clustered overhead. A fat bee slowly buzzes right past my eyes. The fresh air and faint scents of the garden delight my lungs. The lean, wrinkled farm workers are all smiles – relieved that I hadn't drowned. A cold claw scratches down my spine as I finally realize that I am relieved too.

"Barger? Are you okay?"

"Oh. I'm fine," I say and looking back at the dark mouth of the well, "I'll never do that again." And I didn't.  

Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.

ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories by Tim Barger
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
E-book: $4.95

Paperback: 142 pages ~ $14.95
ISBN: 978-098820505-5
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