© Anushka Bose. All rights reserved.*
A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to speak with Carina Rourke Burns, an American published author and expatriate who spent seven years of her life growing up in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, before relocating to Paris in 1975. Carina and her family embarked upon a transcontinental road trip when she was 15, through which she was exposed to the contrasts of cultures and history unfolding in front of her.
Carina’s adventurous life came to conception with the intercultural marriage of her parents. Her father, an American, met her mother, a German, while he was working as an accountant for the United States Air Force in Germany during the Cold War. Her mother’s journey was influenced by the trauma of World War II, during which her family’s home, located in East Berlin, was terribly bombed, leading their family to relocate to Southern Germany. Carina explained how her mother wanted to leave behind the chaotic memory of the war, and that she never spoke much about it. After the Berlin Wall fell, her mother, Renate, had told Carina that she never thought that day would come.
After her parents married and moved to the United States, Carina spent four years living in Massachusetts before relocating to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Here began a blissfully innocent time in Carina's life, one that she recalls as full of childlike curiosity and lightheartedness; an oasis in the desert where the joys of play, laughter, and life were unfolding both in front of her and within her.
Her story is wonderfully unique as it not only encapsulates the larger journey of being an expatriate and third culture kid, but it also is placed within the context of her family’s beautiful adventures, trials and tribulations, and an unearthed family secret that forever changed Carina’s life at the age of 15. Carina’s book, The Syrian Jewelry Box: A Daughter’s Journey for Truth—which is currently in development for a future film— uncovers the tethered story of the evolution of Carina’s life through three continents and her expatriate adventures under the backdrop of the quietly kept secret in her mother’s forbidden jewelry box. I highly encourage you all to give her book a read, as it is a confrontation of both the macro and micro themes we encounter in our lives—the trials and tribulations that exist in our own personal lives under the backdrop of living in a foreign land, which in and of itself is an adventure. The merging of the inner experience and outer experience produces a story that is unique to each of us—and it is the merger that defines our idiosyncratic personalities and the eventual footprint of our lives.
This interview focuses on Carina’s grander, macro experience as a young girl growing up in the Kingdom and a series of family adventures that marked this time in her life. While it touches briefly on Carina’s personal journey as it relates to the family secret, I find that the readers of Aramco ExPats will be able to relate and appreciate the broader themes of curiosity, adventure, and identity. I hope you enjoy this interview, and that it inspires you to learn more about Carina and her story. All pictures provided in this article are copyrighted to Carina, and I’m using them with her permission.
Carina, age 8, in Jeddah town, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Carina's brother, Dennis, age 6, in Jeddah town, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Carina, age 8, in Jeddah, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
How did your journey in Saudi Arabia begin?
It began in 1968 when I was eight years old and my brother Dennis was six years old. My father asked my mother if she wanted to move to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, as my father had obtained a job with Raytheon Company. She had no idea where it was, so they pulled out a map and made a collective decision to uproot our lives.
How did you feel when your parents announced this decision to you about the move?
Dennis and I were very sad as we didn’t want to leave our friends and have to make new ones in a foreign land. It sounded scary at first until my father mentioned that the Raytheon Compound was like a giant playground, and we would make many friends very soon because of all the other American families living there.
Carina, age 8, with her brother, Dennis, age 6, in Jeddah's souq, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Covered souq, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Clothes section of Jeddah's souq, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah during Hajj, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
How did your perception of what Saudi Arabia would be like compare to the perception you formed after arrival?
I had no idea about what life would be like in the Kingdom as I only understood the Middle East from what my parents told me and from reading children’s books like Aladdin and The Thousand and One Nights. I had landed in the hottest place on earth, everything seemed foreign as I was surrounded by the desert sand everywhere with no tall buildings. We had to walk to the main arrival in a small flat building with fans circulating hot air. I was curious about how women and men dressed, asking my father many questions. However, Jeddah soon became my home and the place that hallmarked both gains and losses in my life. I lost my identity after discovering a shocking family secret; and when we left for Paris, I lost my home. During our transcontinental trip from Jeddah to Paris, I had two traumatic experiences in a row: one, losing my identity, and one, leaving my home. Leaving Jeddah was like leaving my huge, warm, cozy sandbox to the concrete architecture.
The Nasif House, in the historical center of Jeddah, al-Balad, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Southern region of Saudi Arabia, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Jeddah, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Mada'in Saleh, Al-Fareed Palace, circa 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
How many years were you there, and what was life on the Raytheon compound like?
We spent seven years in the Kingdom. The compound was a community of families living in houses next to each other surrounded by four giant ten-foot walls. The compound was located on a peninsula that jutted into the Red Sea. It was adjacent to the Saudi Arabian Air Defense Complex which consisted of an air defense school, central maintenance point, and support facilities. There were over a hundred one-story, rectangular, flat-roofed houses, with an outdoor patio on each side of the house, arranged in six rows parallel to the shore of the Red Sea. There was a guard desk where we had to sign in before entering the compound. There was a huge swimming pool, tennis courts, a basketball court, and even a baseball field. In the same area, we had a movie theater with free movies and a recreation center where we could play ping-pong. There was even a snack bar next door. We had been sucked into an exotic adventure in a foreign land set in a giant playground.
What cultural contrasts did you contend with while in Saudi?
Life appeared quite different than in America on many levels, firstly, by having to pray five times daily with the beautiful call to prayer in the minaret heard ubiquitously. All shops closed during prayer time. The hot and muggy weather took some getting used to. Seeing the desert sand everywhere was unusual as were all the camels and donkeys led on rope by young boys. Horn honking was incessant and only men drove cars and trucks. My favorite and most beautiful, scenic memories would have to be of the stunning sunsets and, once, when I witnessed Bedouins appearing out of the distant sand dunes on camels. It was as if time stood still.
Transcontinental Road Trip: Jeddah to Paris
Roadmap of all the cities visited on the trans-continental trip from Jeddah to Paris. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Original map used on the road trip. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
I’m intrigued by that—Bedouins appearing out of the distant sand dunes?! Can you share more?
Yes, that incident took place early on during our cross-continental road trip from Jeddah to Paris. In Early 1975 we left Jeddah in our brand-new Mercedes and drove through the exotic Middle East and Europe on our way to Paris. In two months we traveled through eleven countries and twenty-three cities. This was also right around the cusp of when I had discovered my family secret. My inner turmoil consumed me, so I had to fake my emotions as I embarked upon our family odyssey. I wanted to lose myself in these amazing cultures and forget my personal troubles.
Anyway, going back to the Bedouins. Our car got stuck, and I’m freaking out, thinking we are going to run out of water, and we were in the middle of nowhere. I was scared.
Where exactly was this in the context of your road trip?
It was before Badr, before we got to the "White City", so it was early on during our road trip. It was a distressing situation, and mind you this is a time well before technology and cell phones. But suddenly, out of the distant and vast arid desert two Bedouins approached us on camels. It was straight out of a Lawrence of Arabia scene.
Wow! How did they help you, and how did you guys communicate with them?
At first, my mother was skeptical and scared. She was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed woman next to her husband with two children in the car, stuck in the middle of the Arabian desert. She suddenly found herself observing a stark contrast in front of her. The confrontation with the unknown elements of the moment was followed by sharp relief when the Bedouins offered us water and then directed us to collect a few twigs from the surrounding area. That’s what got us out.
Wait, the twigs saved the day?
Yeah! I can’t recall exactly how it took place mechanically, but in theory, if you put the twigs into the sand, they can go deeper into the sand and hold up against the tire; whereas asphalt chunks are fat/thick. They basically said don’t do that— do this instead. Through their help, full trust, and twigs, we soared into freedom and were back on the road. My father thanked them for their generosity and tipped them 100 Riyals each (about $25).
Carina's dad, Joseph C. Rourke, age 22, circa 1955. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
How did he communicate? Did he speak Arabic?
My dad taught himself Arabic. He could communicate on a basic level. He was always self-taught. That’s how he learned German for my mom!
What do you think would've happened if the Bedouins didn’t come?
My dad said he always carried enough water, and we had food. I think someone would have eventually found us, but I’m grateful for the Bedouins—that’s a scene that will never be removed from my memory.
That’s truly amazing. It sounds straight out of a movie! What were some other highlights of this cross-continental trip?
For me, this family odyssey was the beginning of the “planting of the seed” of adventure, so to speak. My parents taught me that the beauty of life sprouts from supporting one another through the good and bad, and appreciating our different and interesting cultures. The beginning was when we left Jeddah and drove through Badr, and I still remember my father stating that there was a very important battle that took place there. I’ll never forget that because all that remained was a huge pile of rubble. I wondered, why we do have to see this of all things.
Now, as an adult, and having researched my history for the book, I understand the value of it. After a Google search, several photographs brought me back to that precise moment. I found myself gawking at a similar Mercedes sedan making that exact turn, just as we did, entering the white city of Badr. I remember my father telling us about a famous medieval battle that occurred there.
Wow, that’s beautiful how you connected your memories by researching history in the present. I’m curious, this is the 70s. How did you guys navigate?
We navigated with Michelin maps and Lonely Planet travel guide books. We carried passports and traveler's checks.
Carina, age 15, at the Temple of Hadrian, Ephesus, Turkey 1975. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Rock-hewn churches in Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey 1975. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Hagia Sophia, Istanbul, Turkey 1975. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Why did your father want to make this road trip instead of traveling by air?
My father was a history buff and I believe that he wanted to see history unfold in front of his own eyes. He wanted to witness history firsthand, not through a book. He had read about all of these areas and had a keen interest in them.
Which countries exposed you to sharp contrasts to life in Saudi? I remember you mentioning being shocked by Soviet-controlled Eastern Europe.
Right, I felt a sharp contrast in Romania, while encountering an imposing gray stone monument of Lenin. I sensed a compelling and cold starkness from the black stone monument. Behind him stood an imposing wall painted in red and white and dotted with several of the Communist hammer and sickle. Gray and sand-colored high rises surrounded us and reminded me of the bleak and gray apartments I’d seen in East Germany.
Matthias Church in Budapest, Hungary, 1975. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
How difficult was leaving Saudi for you, even though you knew you were relocating to a glamorous city like Paris?
Leaving Saudi instilled two identity losses. Losing home, and the discovery of the secret. I grew up as a young, innocent child—nothing is wrong with life. And at your fingertips, you’ve got the sun, sand, and the Red Sea; that’s pure happiness for 365 days. In a second, it’s all taken away. Your identity as an innocent child is lost.
My true identity was discovered 7 years after living this incredible life. That’s all I knew. This is where I matured and developed.
Transition to Life in Paris, France
You transitioned from living in one of the most conservative countries in the world to one of the most liberal cities in the world. Can you describe that contrast for me? How did your worldview change?
The five-thousand-mile journey from Jeddah to Paris—it’s the most extreme cultural shock one can experience. Going from the vacant and vast arid desert into the cultural heart of Europe, straight into the Louvre!
For me, it was unreal as I devoured all of the French historical sites after learning about them in French class. They became alive for me. While I enjoyed our life living with the sun, sand and Red Sea at our fingertips year-round, I welcomed Paris’s culture and haute cuisine as I was becoming a young lady.
What was life in Paris like at the time? What did you love or not love about it?
I loved discovering the cultural city of light, lovers, exquisite food, history and architecture. I loved ogling all of the beautiful Hausmann buildings, the glamorous boulevards, the Champs Elysees, and many other famous avenues bedecked with glamor and ritzy shops and hotels. French pastries became my accomplice in silence.
Are there any lessons from Saudi that stayed with you through your time in Paris?
The genuine kindness and generosity of the people —especially the Bedouins. I won’t forget the simplicity and uncomplicated nature of hospitality there.
How did the story behind The Syrian Jewelry Box, your time in Saudi Arabia, your lived experience in Paris, and your familial cultural heritage (Germany/US) impact your identity?
My life experiences taught me that the beauty of life comes from supporting one another and embracing and appreciating our inherent and interesting cultures. Once this happens, we move closer to one another. Look at how the two Bedouins kindly and generously helped us out of love for humanity. I felt that I was a world traveler with no real “home” having to adapt to every culture thrown at me. However, I also knew that if I loved the place too much it would be hard to leave. I learned to understand that I was a traveler ready to move at a moment’s notice.
The Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jerusalem, Israel, 1975. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem, Israel, 1975. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Aleppo Citadel, Aleppo, Syria, 1975. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
ExPat Life and Its Impact on Relationships
Could you say more on that — that if you loved a place too much, it would be hard to leave. Were you grabbling with the desire to create meaningful connections and the fear they’d be taken away soon?
Exactly. After Paris, I eventually ended up in Eindhoven, Holland with my husband and three young boys. The expat community was somewhat nonchalant, superficial. You think you create friends, friends for life, but they forget you when you leave. At least that has been a lot of my experience. For instance, I have a few people who follow my journey, but you know, I don’t hear the phone ringing. It’s a casual connection—not profound. There are very few people who can sustain the distance, like the friend I spoke to today. She turned 60 today, and we grew up together in the Raytheon compound in Jeddah. She was actually my brother’s girlfriend! We remain very good friends, and I’ve known her for almost forty years.
That’s beautiful! I also have a handful of friends like that from Saudi that I still consider to be very close to my heart. Do you think expats find it easier to understand each other?
Certainly, yes, or at least they can relate better to certain challenges, which you cannot explain to a non-expat—to no fault of their own of course. They’ve grown up in a rooted, stable setting for the entirety of their lives, so they don’t get to experience the struggles that come with gaining and losing relationships and bonds with people. For example, my husband was the opposite of me — he didn’t move around like me, but he does love to travel and harbors a sense of adventure and curiosity about the world. He tells me, “I can take you anywhere in the world, and you don’t have a problem.” I do consider myself to be adjustable. But you know, I have to remind myself to not get too close to people, we might move.
I understand, it’s a dichotomy. On one end, you want to jump into the life right in front of you, experience it, go all in. On the other hand, you’re guarded and scared it’ll be gone soon. It’s hard reconciling the two energies. Do you pick and choose who you share your expat stories with? It’s a big part of your identity.
Absolutely! I don’t rub it in because sometimes others cannot relate, and also because of the reactions it sometimes warrants—some people feel less fortunate or feel that I am bragging. I lived in Paris during a wonderful time period. That’s a huge deal. My parents gave me a life that is hard to measure against—they gave me the ultimate adventure. There was a “wow-factor” in my life, that is the precise “wow-factor” that I intend to give back to my parents’ memory with the movie. To thank my parents for the unbelievable adventure and opportunities they gave me.
If you could go back in time, what moment in time would you want to revisit? What place would you want to revisit?
Those seven years of life in Jeddah. I only ever wished to be happy forever, like that young innocent girl that was me in Jeddah; to have enjoyed the ultimate freedom whenever I opened the door to sun, sand, and the Red Sea. The peace that surrounded me was the peace within me until that momentous day seven years after our arrival in 1968.
The Syrian Jewelry Box: Book and Film
What stage is the film in?
We have the synopsis finished, and we have to do a re-write, which might take 2-3 months. I’m closer to realizing my film as a director of photography working with A-list actors is already attracted to my story. We have international talent interested as well.
What sentiments does the film want to capture?
The beauty of life comes from supporting one another and embracing our inherent and interesting cultures; no matter the religion, culture or ethnicity. The Middle East often gets painted in a negative light — I want to shed a different light on that through my stories and lived experience. By watching my film, I hope that they are able to be in awe much in that same way I was and to experience similar feelings of appreciation of our inherent and interesting cultures.
Would love to get into your book a little here, as the film will be based on that. Can you take us back in time to when you discovered your mother’s jewelry box?
My mother had this forbidden and beautiful jewelry box sitting on her armoire all the time, enticing me and making me wish to go in and peek ever more so. The fact that I was not allowed to peek made it more intriguing. I had to wait until I had nobody around to catch me peeking inside. One day she had to visit her ailing mother in Germany, and I was home all alone. I’d always had an obsession to peek inside because my mom often removed her rings and placed them down next to her and each time, I wished to try them on as I stared at them. Irresistible urges to snoop inside of the Syrian jewelry box returned in full force around my fifteenth birthday.
Why is it called the “Syrian” Jewelry Box?
My mother told me that she bought it in Damascus, Syria. Because the truth of the secret lay inside of the Syrian jewelry box which I discovered at age 15 after asking my mother the most important question of my life. At that time, I figured that I could handle anything thrown at me; but I never ever dreamed that it would be the answer given to me.
Reflection: Adventure and Advice
What word of advice would you give to someone who is about to embark on a journey that is going to change their life — maybe a massive relocation, across state lines or across the world?
The first proverb that comes to mind when you ask me that is: Change is forever permanent. Even though you don’t’ like change, you can’t do anything about it. If you have a loving family who supports you, that’s even better. Then it’s going to be okay. As long as you have unconditional love.
Having grounded relationships in your life is also important, people you can lean on, as is embracing cultures and the seed of adventure. If you’re willing to embrace possibilities and change, see it with open eyes, you broaden your horizons, and the adventures begin.
Carina’s dad, Joseph C. Rourke, age seventy-three, in Bremen, Germany, 2006. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
Your life has been one huge adventure, and I’m curious, what does the word adventure mean to you? How small or grand of a picture does the word conjure up?
In addition, to my above statement, my whole life with my parents was one big adventure. My dad opened up the whole world to my mom, who came from a humble background in war-torn Germany. She was just a farmer’s daughter. Together, they planted the seed early on in me. The discovery of the secret was another part of my self-discovery and tied to the broader journey of adventure, of constant movement. When does the adventure stop, I ask myself? I think it’s when I’m in the grave.
Would you also say adventure is a voluntary agreement with the unknown? That’s how I sometimes think of it.
Pretty much. Being afraid but being able to adapt. We also camped a lot in the desert as we headed to the awe-inspiring ruins of Mada’in Saleh and finally Tabuk — especially near the Hejaz Railway. We followed the path of Lawrence of Arabia. That’s a part I hope will be in the movie.
Carina, age 8, with her brother, Dennis, age 6, climbing on a locomotive which belonged to the Hejaz Railway; one of several of Al-Ula's station houses, 1969. Syrian Jewelry Box (Morgan James 2015).
What do you wish people knew about Saudi Arabia?
The exotica of the combination of gold jewelry and smelling frankincense is like stepping into 1001 Arabian Nights, the beauty of the Red Sea, the vast desert’s beautiful dunes and hidden treasures such as early civilizations, renders the cultural and inherent beauty. Most importantly, the genuine hospitality, generosity and kindness of Bedouins and Arabs. If they have one last piece of bread, they’d cut it up and would share it with you.
Talking with Carina about her adventures took me down through so many mental paths and memories of my own. Her book—The Syrian Jewelry Box, recounts the interaction of her inner experience—influenced by her memories and family secret—and the outer engagement with adventure, travel, and cultural curiosity. The heartbreak she endured as a result of the discovery of her family secret changed her life forever, all in the backdrop of the transcontinental odyssey; an exotic road trip through which she sat in a front-row seat for major historical and political developments in the Middle East and Europe. Not only did Carina’s journey inform me about her exotic travel adventures through the transcontinental trip, but it also informed me of the inner turmoil she faced as she departed her home in Jeddah, adjusting to a new way of life in Paris, gaining and losing bonds, and reflecting back on her spiritual transformations on identity, belonging, home, and family. I was grateful to speak with Carina and listen to her adventures, it was as though she gave me binoculars to view moments in time that stood still in her memory. I am beyond excited to see her book be transformed into a film in the near future.
I hope you enjoyed this article, and if you enjoyed it, please do check out Carina’s book, The Syrian Jewelry Box, and feel free to connect with her through the various links posted below.
Connect with Carina and her content:
Amazon: The Syrian Jewelry Box
Goodreads Author Page:
Anushka is a Graduate Student at Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. She 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. Dhahran holds a big place in her heart.
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