The beautiful thing about holidays is that it means something inimitably different to us all. While we all coalesce and come together during holidays, certain traditions and sentiments are unique to each person or family’s story. We know that each person who grew up in expatriate Arabia has a unique recollection of the holiday season, and in this article, Christopher Holder shares his unique experiences around the various holidays spent in Dhahran, as well as Adelaide, Australia, and how his family’s tenure in the Kingdom was affected by political and security concerns in the Middle East. Follow me as I share Chris’s story.

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Beginnings in Arabia

When did your family move to Saudi Arabia?

I was actually born in Dhahran and lived there for the majority of my first 12 years between 1962 and 1974 (There were extended stays in Adelaide, Australia, our home outside of Saudi Arabia, and Manchester, UK). I would have been part of the class of 1977, had we remained. My family moved to Dhahran in 1949. I guess this made us one of the second tier of pioneers. We certainly were not part of the real ground-breakers, those who went to the Kingdom in the 1930s, when there was essentially nothing there. The ones who had really suffered through the privations, the first small attempt to bring in dependents, which was quickly scuttered by the Second World War. By 1949, while Abqaiq and Ras Tanura could still be called quite primitive, Dhahran was quite comfortable, although probably more so to my father and older siblings than my mother. The Dining Hall and pool were already there, along with a small school and hospital. It was even possible to drink alcohol, whether bought at the pool or through the specially rationed supply shop. Apart from a short stint in Abqaiq over 1952 and 1953, we lived entirely in Dhahran while in Saudi Arabia.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Chris’s father, and company, enjoying food and a few bottles of beer on the pool patio in 1949.

What did your parents do in Aramco?

My father had mechanical and engineering training and worked in the Materials Planning Department, as well as being a volunteer fireman. Like many in Dhahran, he was an avid golfer, and also quite into tennis. My mother raised five children over our stay there, of which I was the fifth and born over 15 years after the oldest sibling. She was active in the women’s group, as well as various auxiliary groups, and was, together with my father, a keen equestrian. She was also famous for her multi-layered raspberry/grape/orange popsicles back in the day. In our last few years there, she also worked at the hospital.

What are some of your memorable times from your childhood?

I largely enjoyed my earlier childhood in Dhahran and the community I experienced. One of the best aspects of life there for me might be called the intimacy it involved, and holidays were a major component of this. I was always a big one for holidays like Halloween, Christmas, the 4th of July as well as the various fair days, and they seemed so terrific during my Arabian childhood. These were important markers throughout the year and tended to offer constant things to look forward to and get excited about way before they were scheduled. I sometimes felt I was playing a constant hopscotch game, jumping from one entertaining festivity to another. I suppose my life, as short as it had been at that time, basically just revolved around these. My family was, however, not big on Thanksgiving, which I suppose would have been relatively important for many others around Dhahran; it seemed more like a curiosity than anything else to me and was far less significant than Christmas.

Independence Day

The first important holiday and social event in Dhahran were the celebrations around Independence Day, which effectively marked the beginning of summer, at least as I saw it anyway. By early July, the school year was basically over, which was never a bad thing and there was summer to look forward to. The only downside to this time of the year were the ninth graders making the most of their upcoming graduation and movement onto higher levels of schooling and escaping the constraints of living in Dhahran, or alternatively Ras Tanura and Abqaiq for that matter and they would go out with a bang, figuratively. More than often, those of us in the lower grades, particularly those who stood out to them would try to keep a low profile. Egging was a bit of an old standard and one which terrified me. That was admittedly an ungrounded fear, but not an impossible one. In one instance that stood out strongly to me, Mark Orseth was targeted in late June, 1972, and wore that as a token of pride. I, on the other hand, would have gone around disguised as bush-like in cartoons, if I thought that would have worked. Regardless, I survived unscathed.

What sort of Independence Day celebrations took place in Dhahran?

I had always enjoyed the festivities at and around the pool on every 4th of July. The AEA held a parade and then a party at the pool patio with games, drinks, gourmet food like Sloppy Joes or the famous (infamous?) square hamburgers, accompanied by sodas and music. It was a case of eat, drink, sunbathe - all while waiting the mandatory 30 minutes to avoid the cramps of course - and then swim. One could spend the whole day there, even into the evening. For me, few pleasures were as wonderful as swimming around at twilight or later. There were always plenty of people there I knew, so the company was also great.

All that, and we got to be patriotic as well. This was always followed, within a few days, by the Abqaiq Fair, another terrific day to look forward to. Everybody knew of and loved the Zain Train. It is overused, but the word halcyon comes to mind when I think back to these, and then I remember the sunburns and mosquitos, which helps balance things.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
1965 Independence Day Parade, Kings Road, Dhahran
(The Dining Hall is just visible in the upper right corner).
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
1965 Independence Day Parade, Kings Road, Dhahran.

Although I was destined to never be a subject of one myself, I looked forward to the annual graduation ceremonies for the departing students in late July, and imagined the day when I would be one of those up on the stage. Every year, the routine seemed the same, pomp, circumstance and a performance of Yesterday, and it was an uplifting way to end both the school year and one’s school experience in Saudi Arabia.

And so, with that, in the words of another clichéd song from that time, school was out for summer, and out forever. Dhahran, despite its quite clear insularity and small size during the 1970s, did offer a large range of options to help keep non-adults like me at least mostly amused or entertained. It was first and foremost a chance to socialise.

Friendships

What about social life, did you have a group of friends you would always hang out with?

My group of friends did tend to fluctuate, due to the inevitable squabbles, or because I was found to be too boring. The former category included, for instance, Tobb Dell'Oro and Maad Abu-Ghazalah; in their defence, I have to admit I could be really annoying at times. In terms of the latter, I did tend to fixate on tedious points around military aircraft, palaeontology, geology and mythology; somebody, possibly John Martin, once asked me how I managed to squeeze so much boring into such a small body. I did have some kindred spirits in this, like John Rappaport who was terrifically knowledgeable about commercial aircraft, which was a great match to my interest in military aircraft. I suspect I may have unintentionally afflicted classmates like Baldo Marinovic and Peter Manson with torrents of uninteresting and irrelevant facts. However, I mostly hung out with a wonderful core ensemble of friends that included the Bowlers, Aslans, Hejazis, Marcianos, Currys, Greens, Pipers, Grignons, Rebolds, and el-Rafeys.

These families held quite different positions or roles within the ARAMCO hierarchy, and interacting with them did rather reinforce how certain privileges were uneven. The most blatant example of this concerned the sizes of both houses and yards. The first two houses I can recollect living in (1198-6 and O38-2B) were quite diminutive in respect of both house and yard space, but the final one, 1223-B, was admittedly appreciably and significantly larger, in terms of inside and outside. Even so, the space enjoyed by some families was astounding and sometimes quite enviable. On the other hand, though, we all shopped at the same place, went to the same pool and I already had a sense that, as company towns go, the ARAMCO townships were relatively egalitarian.

Activities in Dhahran

Since Dhahran was a tiny establishment, how did you spend your days there?

Certain amenities were crucial for helping to make Dhahran more tolerable and I made extensive use of the pool, the theatre, tennis courts, the bowling alley and library. As mentioned already, swimming at dusk was especially enticing. I was an avid movie-goer, and went at least monthly, and would almost always see any given movie twice. I had my absolutely fave spot where I would almost always sit; the aisle seat of the row on the left side that was immediately before the central exit door, and close to where the word “cobb” had been graffitied. In my opinion, it provided the best view of the screen because the next row of seats in front were at a distance and therefore there was no chance of an obstructed view, which being on the tiny side, was a problem I constantly faced.

I would always have popcorn from the fresh batch that would be popping from the wonderful metal monstrosity situated right next to the ticket counter. That is until it was unfortunately mothballed in 1972 in response to the horrendous mess that was nearly always left by the less scrupulous. The experience definitely suffered from that action, but at least the movies obviously remained, and if a film were missed, one would probably only have to wait a year to have it offered again.

Fascination with Rocks

The city’s relatively small size meant practically every square foot of it could be explored, and I probably did a few times over. Even so, summer offered a great opportunity to re-explore it, and I must have traversed every small alleyway, every nook and cranny. I especially liked searching through the bits I charitably called desert. Before Dhahran’s massive expansion from the mid to late 1970s onwards, perhaps 20 to 25 percent of the area enclosed within its perimeter fence was comprised of undeveloped rocky ground.

In 1972, it was possible to see all the way to the Dhahran Airport, practically without any single structure getting in the way, from the cul-de-sac on what was then Bluff Street and at the top of the path leading down to the school. I could and did spend hours scouring that whole area bordered by Bluff Street, the school and the perimeter road, which we called “Bottleland”, satisfying my amateur geological and naturalist side. I would rummage for both rocks and insects or arachnids, not that my parents were especially impressed with either activity. I once returned with a coccyx or tailbone, and they were definitely unimpressed about that.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Chris rock collecting in 1972.

Halloween

After summer, Halloween was the next great holiday. It was a wonderful combination of being excused to dress up or wear fun disguises, even at school, which held parades each Halloween.

What sort of events took place around Halloween?

For example, at school one could join with one’s fellow pupils, variously and cleverly costumed as ghosts, hobos, devils, nurses, cowboys, ballerinas, again and again, year after year, made possible more likely due to the sweat and toil of dedicated mothers, and perhaps the occasional father, than that of the costume-wearer. A fair portion of outfits were somewhat undecipherable, a hodgepodge that meant a lot to the wearer, but not so much to most others; my costumes frequently fell into that category. A mixture of elements that made little sense, save to the wearer, see pictures below (Your guess is as good as mine with the first one, at this point).

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Chris during Halloween, 1969.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Chris during Halloween, 1970.

I remember being told a story in 1970 about Halloween being the day when the dead on the Moon could rise from their graves. Sadly, I actually believed it, and my imagination ran wild about skeletons rattling around on the lunar surface; I thought this was spooky, but still simply brilliant. Far more common, though, were the inevitable cautionary fables about poisoned or tampered sweets, all, of course, to add some scare to the day.

Halloween and UNICEF: Communal Responsibility and Fun

Halloween was also largely inseparable from UNICEF and being given cute little plastic jack-o-lanterns, or small paper boxes (the memory is rather vague) as part of “Trick or Treat for UNICEF” to collect money for UNICEF and its commendable operations.

What is the significance of Halloween and UNICEF?

In 1967, President Johnson officially tied the two together, and by the time I started trick-or-treating, I saw them as inextricable. I think I was glad to mix the altruism of collecting for less fortunate children with the debauchery of begging sweets from other accommodating households. Not all houses were eager to participate, but I do not know of any instance where the trick aspect of trick or treat was ever applied; there certainly would not have been any tolerance for such actions in my family or any of the families I knew. Following the trick or treating, I might go to the AEA Halloween party at the pool patio with the family, at least once I had seen the 1960s out anyway.

What are your fondest memories from Halloween?

Few days could match Halloween, with dressing up and a school parade during the daytime, staying in costume and going to a multitude of houses, collecting a bounty of chocolates and sweets with friends and/or family in the early evening, and finally attending the community pool party, to enjoy more company, food and turn over the UNICEF donations. It was the perfect combination of communal responsibility and fun. Over the years, I variously pretended to be some odd cross of cowboy and squaw (as I can now best presume), a ghost (naturally), a clichéd tourist, a fireman, with the help of my father’s way over-sized auxiliary fireman helmet, and a cowboy, for which I was later severely ridiculed and mocked by classmates who pointed out I was at least two years beyond that sort of outfit.

In the following days, and perhaps for the following week, our fantastic booty of candied apples, chocolate bars, pastilles, gum, other homemade treats, lifesavers, Tootsie Rolls, etc, would be slowly consumed. Thus, the pleasure of the one day could be extended for up to a week, and certainly well into November. In essence, the last two months of the year were a wonderful series of celebrations.

Did you celebrate Thanksgiving?

As already mentioned, Thanksgiving was little more than an afterthought. We might be invited to a friendly family’s Thanksgiving and enjoyed that as another night out, but it lacked any actual emotional significance. That did not matter, though, because Christmas loomed so large by November that not having Thanksgiving as a day of note for our family barely registered and there was hardly room for any sense of missing out.

Christmas in Dhahran

Tell me about Christmas in Dhahran, and your memories from it.

I was almost 7 months old at my first Christmas, and I apparently loved it from that point onwards, not that this is especially surprising. I was avaricious from the very beginning. Of course, Santa Claus became a major part of this, and I, through the succeeding years, was eager to hear and see him variously arriving by camel or helicopter, as well as visiting him, with my youngest sister, at the Dhahran Theatre and receiving the obligatory gift. My other siblings were already teenagers when I was still a toddler, so were obviously beyond bothering with that.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
With Santa Claus at Dhahran Theatre, Christmas 1964.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
On Camel Saddle by Tree, Christmas 1964, Dhahran.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
With Santa Claus at Dhahran Theatre, Christmas 1965.

The gift shown in the 1964 photographs was a sort of bee on a cord; I apparently immediately loved it and had it for at least two years. As is apparent from the second photograph from 1964, what passed for a Christmas tree for us in the 1960s was only about my height. A living Christmas tree was naturally not feasible, so we obviously had an artificial one. It had the advantage of no messy pine needles being shed from the tree, but we made up for this by using a white cloth meant to represent snow that had sparkling glitter which instead constantly fell off, causing both a mess and an itching hazard. But Christmas without both was unthinkable. We decorated the tree with ornaments from West Germany, and complemented it with a musical nativity set, which played Silent Night. We had the latter for close to half a century in the end.

The Christmas Tree

Our short tree would be replaced in the late 1960s by another artificial tree that was about twice as tall. In any case, the act of taking the tree from the box around mid-December, getting all the pieces out, assembling it, putting the lights on, inevitably finding they would not work, spending hours individually checking each bulb to see which bulb or bulbs were loose or needed replacing, at which point the string of lights would finally all be lit. Following that, on would go the tinsel, the baubles, the icicles, the candy canes and finally the angel at the tree’s pinnacle.

Although the pictures show otherwise, this all made the tree’s fake foliage look luxuriant and dense. The idea of a real Christmas tree was not even something I would even think about; it was simply beyond my experience and I had no reason to think it could be otherwise. Come nightfall, the tree lights would be put on and all other lights turned off. They would blink green, blue, red, etc. and made for a beautiful and serene display that I could look at for ages, mesmerised and spell-bound by the fantastic effect.

Christmas and a Sense of Community

During Christmas, was the holiday spirit present in Dhahran?

Of course, once the first wrapped-up gifts showed up under the tree, everything became quite real and the excitement started to really rise. It was not all simple avarice and fixation on the presents, however, for Christmas also meant much more socialising and catching up with family friends, which was always terrific. The fact that this also meant another opportunity to be showered with presents was purely coincidental.

The sense of community became pervasive and everybody seemed happier at that time. Decorations went up all over, reinforcing the communal element of Christmas. The perfectly named Christmas Tree Circle naturally tended to be at the heart of this, but a friendly rivalry and competition spurred households to attempt more ornate decorations, and helped make Christmas ubiquitous, even if they were not exactly elaborate.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Christmas decorations, possibly at the Mail Exchange, circa 1955.

Festivities Around Christmas Day

What are some of the festivities that occurred around Christmas Day?

Everything culminated on 25 December, or actually on Christmas Eve, with the midnight mass, and all of the pomp and rituals associated with that. My mother threw herself into the behind-the-scene arrangements that always accompanied these festivities, and indeed pretty much all Friday services. Flowers were a fundamental part of the preparations, with the stage being festooned with cut flowers, especially orchids and carnations. I would typically be dragged along while the preparations were handled; rows of flowers laid out in the changing room to be trimmed. The scent arising from the process of cut flowers would become quite pungent, even to this day, I cannot enter a florist or otherwise smell that scent without immediately being transported back to that room and the sight of a long pristine counter adorned with flowers and glass vases. After that, the other feature that helped make Christmas so wonderful were the songs. It felt like they tied everything together.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Christmas Tree #1.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Christmas Tree #2, with gifts and Musical Nativity Set.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Our Wonderful Musical Nativity.

Rising Political Tensions: Riots

The late 1960s were a period of rising political tensions in the Middle East. Did this reality carry an effect in Dhahran?

Yes. In mid-1967, just after I turned 5, a large group of non-local Arabs came together to protest the Six Days War, which had recently ended. There had been a series of violent protests around the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia, but, in perhaps the most furious of these, a very large number forced their way into Dhahran to riot and generally create havoc. They upturned cars, threw a few firebombs and caused damage around the Camp. Like a lot of families, we were huddled into the school gymnasium to wait out the disturbance; other families had to shelter in relatively safer parts of their housing, as in the bathroom. This understandably generated a great deal of anxiety within the community.

Were residents asked to evacuate?

Yes, some, like my family, were prompted to evacuate. For our family, this meant an approximately 20-month stay back in Adelaide, Australia, where we had long retained a residence.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Riot aftermath, House 1177, 11th Street, Dhahran.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Riot aftermath, Dhahran.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Riot aftermath, Dhahran.
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Riot aftermath, Dhahran.

Christmas in Adelaide

This meant I would have my first conscious experiences of non-Arabian Christmases. I had been there three years earlier, but naturally was way too young for it to matter or register to me. Adelaide was, back then, a city of about 350,000, and was different on many levels. Beyond the shock of so many more people and it being so much larger, weekends oddly fell on Saturdays and Sundays, which I think caused me to be quite indifferent to the matter of the Sabbath and was rather surprised when I found out that some people actually viewed this as a serious concern or point of faith. Most importantly, though, Christmas was to be fantastic.

How was the Christmas experience different in Adelaide?

For starters, confusingly, Santa Claus, or rather, to be more precise, Father Christmas, could be found simultaneously in many different places, as in, from every department store and shopping centre. He also made a far more dramatic arrival, through the John Martin’s (clearly no connection to the John Martin of Dhahran who would later be a classmate of mine) Christmas Pageant on 4 November, 1967, when he was, as in every year, ensconced in the Magic Cave at the John Martin’s store within downtown Adelaide. It drew crowds that were obviously unthinkable in Saudi Arabia and I initially found that many people all crowded together overwhelming and unpleasant but quickly adapted.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Father Christmas float, 1969 (City of Adelaide Archives).
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
Father Christmas’ arrival at John Martin’s, Circa 1965 (Adelaide Advertiser, 18/12/2014).
Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
The John Martin’s Magic Cave, 1965 (Adelaide Advertiser, 18/12/2014).

How Many Santa’s Are There?

I immediately faced that conundrum and dilemma that is faced by most, if not all, children with faith in Santa Claus, namely how can there be so many of them? Like a lot of other parents, I imagine, mine came up with some rather unconvincing explanations or excuses that only strengthened this puzzle, and ultimately led me to outgrow the idea of Father Christmas/Santa Claus. There is often an overly sentimental tendency to view this as a sad development within childhood, but there was nothing sad for me about this.

Instead, I felt I had crossed an important threshold and knew I was better for it. Even so, I still liked the theatrics of it and was no less anxious to also attend the next John Martin’s Pageant at Christmas, 1968, especially given it was clear we would return to Dhahran in 1969 and I would not soon have another chance to enjoy the spectacle after this.

The other major difference with celebrating Christmas in Adelaide in 1967 concerned catching up with more distant relatives who I effectively had never met or known. It became a much larger family affair that offered an entirely new dimension to Christmases, one which I really cherished, but which also rather spoilt me. The absence of family would subsequently become a bit of a regret once back in Saudi Arabia.

There were other novelties of Christmas away from Dhahran that were mostly enjoyable. Chief amongst these was that Christmas fell over summer and while Dhahran was hardly freezing in December, the days around Christmas in Adelaide came close to matching what Dhahran might manage in May or even June. And then there were all the toys and other neat stuff; paradise for an admittedly greedy child.

1969: Return to Dhahran

When did your family embark back to Dhahran?

My exposure to the broader world ended in March 1969, when, after several weeks on the sea, we again sailed into Bahrain and, from there, headed on back to Dhahran. We lived at 1198-6 at that time and I began settling back into life there. It took a few weeks to grow reaccustomed to the realities of being in a much tighter community. By Christmas, though, I had been fully “re-acclimatised” in all senses of that word, and enjoyed the more sedate festivities.

My one and final experience of Santa Claus was not his arrival at the Dhahran Theatre, but at a Dammam party that my mother took me to about a fortnight before Christmas Day. It was at the upper-storey flat of a British family; they worked for some other oil company and lived quite differently. Unlike us, they lived in a small compound. We overlooked Dammam from a small balcony where they barbecued. They delightfully served dried lambchops and room-temperature Pepsi. A rather sad-looking Santa Claus showed up, who I later witnessed removing his unconvincing costume. I was now presumably no longer considered a small child by the adults around me, although any attempts by me to (badly) play their piano were rapidly rebuffed on the basis of being too young.

Shopping for Christmas now involved shopping in Al Khobar, which tended to provide limited offerings, at least in terms of the special and greater expectations around Christmas. Al Khobar had a lot to offer for more normal needs, and we relied upon it heavily for fabrics, food, and books, as well as the occasional toys or electric appliances.

Montgomery Ward Catalogue

This was where the Montgomery Ward Catalogue became really useful —

What was the Montgomery Ward Catalogue?

The Montgomery Ward Catalogue was an American retail enterprise that has a mail-order service. The catalogue was important simply because the relative lack of shopping opportunities in Saudi Arabia. It enabled us to remotely have access to a much larger range of goods that we could have shipped to us. The necessities associated with this process unavoidably caused Christmases to become more drawn out and to loom large for close to half the year. Like a great deal of families in the ARAMCO communities, I suspect, a major part of my family’s Christmas routine began around August with the arrival of the Christmas edition of the Montgomery Ward Catalogue.

For me, flicking through this was like going through a treasure trove in print and it offered a veritable plethora of temptations encompassing mostly toys, but also electronic appliances and clothes. It was window shopping writ large, and obviously from afar. I eagerly looked forward to its arrival every year as a precursor to Christmas. I then faced the anguish of choosing between the few items I could suggest for ordering for delivery in time for Christmas.

Chris’ Story: Memories from Holidays in Dhahran
A genuine transceiver ordered for Christmas 1973; $67.26 in current dollars, from the Montgomery Ward Catalouge.

I could also be enticed by the many ads contained within the various comics I regularly read, which also highlighted another virtual cornucopia of ideal games, toys, electronic devices or LPs. I was, however, more circumspect about what was advertised in them, due to a friend’s negative experience with something they ordered. What arrived ended up looking quite different and a whole lot less impressive than what had been pictured in the comic. It was an excellent lesson, and I learnt to be cautious at somebody else’s expense.

Christmas Traditions in Dhahran

Did your family have set traditions for Christmas?

Yes. My mother and a few other ladies within the Dhahran Women’s Group arranged, or rather herded, a gaggle of children, myself included, to perform carols at the hospital on Christmas Eve. We started this at least as early as 1970, and I guess we were at least tolerated, if not enjoyed. We would then all come back and enjoy hot chocolate. I grew out of this after 1972.

I also recall my sheer curiosity about the presents. Patience was never my strong point and so I was never content to simply wait until the great unveiling on Christmas day. I instead did everything possible to determine what I had received. As a consequence, over the years, I became increasingly adept at guessing what was contained within the concealed parcels. It was all a question of carefully prodding the presents, judging their size, making sure their size was not too exaggerated for the sake of misleading, listening to the sounds made when shaken, feeling how the packaging changed between, for instance, the cardboard covering and what were likely the clear plastic bits for viewing. With a good knowledge of what was available as the possible range of goods and an equal memory of how various toys, games, etc., were packaged, or their sizes and shapes, I often could guess what something was, or sense when the sound something made did not quite jive with the apparent packaging and might indicate an attempt to ”throw me off the scent”.

The other Dharan Christmas tradition we all eagerly looked forward to was the Nativity play, where realism dictated real camels and real sheep. These were always impressive and one of the highlights of the whole year. In 1972, I was fortunately selected to play a village child. It was a terrific and educational experience. During it, though, I found a way to throw a slight spanner in the works, albeit out of good intentions. It was a windy night and the prop door through which the village children, as well as the Archangel Gabriel, moved from backstage to front of stage was banging rather noisily due to the wind. I helpfully resolved this by closing the latch, ensuring the door remained locked shut. Of course, this also meant Gabriel was unable to get backstage to plan when faced with a door he could not open. He instead had to rap on the door, which fortunately was quickly noticed, and access was restored. Equally fortunately, nobody had any idea who had been idiotic enough to lock the door.

I also participated in the Nativity of the following year, but the festivities would be destroyed by the pervasive sadness of that time. I switched from being a peripheral stage player to helping with the lighting, although more in an observatory capacity. I got drinks for others and kept an eye on the stage directions sheet for the actual light operator and read it out to him. I really learnt a great deal during the rehearsals, but the attack on 17 December at the Rome Airport by terrorists ruined everything; it was the most horrible day. I learnt about it on the BBC that evening.

Terrorist Attacks and Political Tension

What effects did the Rome terrorist attack have in Aramco?

The next day after the attack, on 18 December, it was the topic on everybody’s lips around Dhahran about the scores of ARAMCO-related people who suffered, whether killed or injured, in this horrid incident. The dead included somebody I knew directly, a former classmate from around a couple of years ago, Russell Turner. I overheard various reactions around Dhahran the next few days ranging across both grief and expressions of anger. My father said I should be sad, of course, but also reminded me that when Russell was in Dhahran before going to school in the United States, we were hardly friends, not that we were enemies. He pointed out I was acting as if we had been close friends. He added that I should be sad, but in the right measure. I had instead been playing a victim, which was disrespectful to his family, the real victims. I knew he was right, and I felt so small in the face of this truth.

What emotions did you encounter while processing the recent events?

I felt shock and a burning anger that I don’t think I had ever experienced before, as well as profoundly insecure. I barely remembered the 1967 riots, which had so shaken up my parents and older siblings but had had no lasting effect upon me. I remembered the rise of airline terrorism, starting with the blowing up of the three commercial jets in 1970 in Jordan, the prevalence of hijacking, which even affected those I knew directly and I was very aware of the horror of Munich in 1972 (The image of the man on the balcony wearing the ski mask with the bob on the top was impossible to forget), all obviously resulting from much higher Arab anger and frustration over the “Palestinian question”. These were all burned into my consciousness, but none matched what happened in Rome. I suddenly grasped how extremely naïve I had been. I could not grasp why my community had been so horribly attacked; it felt like a betrayal. Christmas, in the face of this tragedy and political events, had become rather meaningless. We still celebrated it, exchanged gifts, and socialised with our closest friends, but it seemed we were just going through the motions and that it was all hollow.

Did these events trigger your family to think about leaving the Kingdom?

Yes, my family, perhaps in a similar vein, felt that we had outlived our welcome and we permanently left Dhahran eight months later to return one last time to Adelaide.

* * *

Although the residential community in Aramco thrived during the early years of establishment, the community’s security was somewhat tied to political events in the Kingdom and the Middle East. With each instance of a terrorist attack or war, many residents temporarily or permanently left the Kingdom. Thus, while our lives were full of simplistic pleasures, they were also affected by political events in the region, which ultimately shaped our story. Chris’s story is resemblant of this sentiment — his fond memories from childhood and the holiday seasons are surely something to be treasured and shared, but they were also impacted by the political tensions and events of the region over the years.

I am so grateful to share Chris' story, as well as those I interviewed in recent months. And I would love to hear from more of you and share your story. Please reach out to me at [email protected] if you are interested.


Arabian Nights and Mornings: The Emblems of an Expatriate Upbringing in Saudi Arabia

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.