by Mohammad A. Ghamdi

Riyadh — Some 55 years ago, when I was only 4, I recall some of my first and richest memories growing up in my village in southern Saudi Arabia.

At the time, we lived by the light of the kerosene bulb. When people prayed Isha, we turned the key of the lantern counterclockwise so that it would swallow the light, squeezing the wet wick and ushering in a pervading silence so everyone could enter a deep sleep.

After the lantern was extinguished that night, we heard voices coming from the edge of the village. The voices began to rise, and despite its dimension, it was echoing around us. Normally, such a fuss might have been attributed to a hyena or someone falling into a well or a quarrel, but this time, the sounds were completely different.

Everyone’s eyes turned to a glow coming from the far-off valley plain.

The villagers gathered outside on the dark path, afraid of this unusual and dazzling light. Quickly, the spacious valley become crowded with the people of our village and the neighboring villages sitting and squatting on the muddy ground, wondering what was happening. At the forefront of the valley, a wide glowing screen across a long trailer illuminated the night, animated cartoons playing as a movie for the villagers — a first in their lifetime.

A few minutes later, we saw what was the Aramco Oil Caravan and a traveling exhibition, a locomotive full of pictures and beautiful things.

At the front of the audience, a blond American looked out at our faces, which stared back in amazement watching the cinema screen for the first time. It was as if we were losing consciousness, our mouths agape. Some stood and nodded and moved away in fear, frightened that the bright creatures would jump on them from the screen.

I still remember that huge dog in the long cartoon movie with its slouching cheeks fighting with the cat, his saliva flying across the screen. The stereo sound that bounced off of our fresh ear drums was so alien.

When the cartoon concluded, a film highlighting the role of American firefighters responding to emergency calls followed. And though the film had nothing to do with our reality, we connected viscerally with the human beings moving in front of us on the screen with their flesh, the enormity of it all captured with our wide eyes.

Years later, when I watched the Apollo trip landing man on the moon, the spectrum of this scene from the Kingdom’s South would come to mind. I recall the Aramco vehicle with the huge front – perhaps resembling a spacecraft — and the locomotive doors opening from the side as if one was entering a portable house. There were spotlights and cameras and cinema projects, even a highly polished nickel metal structure and huge engraved black wheels that left their pitch on Earth’s soil, all similar to those the astronauts left on the moon.

After all these years, I still marvel in how Aramco’s caravan ran between villages, spreading joy and happiness to people who knew very little of the outside world.

— The Arabian Sun: August 26, 2020 | Vol. LXXV, No. 33