Christmas decorations in front of a house in Dhahran Hills.
Christmas season in Dhahran is no ordinary tale — it’s the time of the year the cookie-cutter box homes are carefully decorated with lights, decorations, and wreaths. The vibe of the ExPat town is full of life and energy because the youth are back in town from boarding schools and universities for their holiday break. And yet, this simplistic joy of the company of loved ones, good food, and the comfort of your own bed makes Christmas season in Dhahran very ordinary at the same time. That’s the thing about ExPat life, people learn to live to be comfortable with less, and this minimalistic essence shapes the course of our lives.
My family’s Christmas Tree.
Decorating the Christmas tree with my family is something I look forward to for months. With Christmas music, chocolates, laughing about inside jokes, and spending grueling efforts to fit all the ornaments on the tree, it’s a very special time for my family. A parent’s greatest joy is to be in the company of their kids, especially during such a beautiful season, and I recognize this feeling every time I look at their faces. They lead busy lives, sometimes full of uncertainty, but always have enough energy and affection left to make the best of each day.
Christmas decorations in front of a house in Dhahran Main Camp.
Inflatables in front of a house in Dhahran Main Camp.
As I drove around the city, I saw houses with lights, wreaths, inflatables, and I thought to myself, how beautiful is it that so many religions and cultures live among Dhahran and yet during festive seasons like Christmas, Ramadan, Eid — we all come together to bring out the energy in the city.
A Persian Carpet at the Carpet/Rug Stall at the Plaza.
Rug and Carpet Stall at the Plaza, outside the Dhahran Commissary.
Traditional souk-type stall at the Plaza, outside the Dhahran Commissary.
Items on display at a traditional, souk-type stall at the Plaza, outside the Dhahran Commissary.
There are many additions to Dhahran that I observed this holiday season, and it was warming to see this city evolve in the past fourteen years. There’s now an open area outside the Dhahran Commissary, called the Plaza, that has booths that sell beautiful Persian and Middle Eastern Carpets, and another booth that holds precious emblems of Saudi Arabia in forms of souvenirs, shawls, wooden designs, etc. A few steps away, there is a Gelato stand that has many flavors, and has one of the best Tiramisu’s I’ve tried.
Area around the Dhahran Commissary
Cheese-bread and Za’atar in from Shallal, purchased from the Dhahran Commissary.
Shallal’s menu, located in the Dhahran Commissary.
The Dhahran commissary has an extended portion that holds various stores, from pastry, to nuts, to ice cream, coffee, and doughnuts. The eclectic and multicultural variety of these items truly represents the diversity in Dhahran, and the reach of globalism, with stores like Costa Coffee and Baskin Robbins. Saadeedin Pastry, a Saudi Arabian pastry store, is still by far my favorite store to enter when I come to town. Their coffee cake is simply delightful. The firestone area in the commissary where Shallal Pastry sells cheese-bread, Zaatar, pizzas, and various other items also captures my taste buds and heart. People wait in long lines during lunch to get a bite of their delicious snacks. It is truly an Aramco specialty in the heart of the commissary.
Items on display at the Desert Design store in Al Mujamma.
Imported spreads on display at the Al Munirah Commissary.
The commissary/plaza area bustles with lunch and evening crowds, whether its children grocery shopping with their parents or returning students hanging around — it’s become a vibrant place.
Across the Dhahran commissary, Al Mujamma is now home to a small art shop that brings in beautiful handcrafted items, paintings, notebooks, bags — and across from it there’s a Desert Designs store that holds all sorts of Middle Eastern souk-like items from shawls, to rugs, mirrors, coasters, decorations, etc.
The annual softball tournament, One Pitch, still occurs during the holiday season here and people gather up in teams for this game that holds a mark of tradition for returning students in Aramco.
Starbucks on opening day in Dhahran.
Dhahran also welcomed the opening of a Starbucks across the library at Kings Road this month. In a town as cutely knit as Dhahran, the opening of a coffee giant all the way here was a big deal to the residents, as Starbucks now became another option for food and leisure in the town. Café Najjar is still a popular spot for coffee and snacks, but the opening of Starbucks — a very pretty one with outdoor and indoor seating, glass design, and beautiful flowers outside makes the addition to Dhahran seem very special. Within a day of opening, Starbucks welcomed countless residents who were fawning over this new addition to the city. The simplistic joy of ExPat life truly brings together the community residents.
Dhahran Dining Hall.
Outdoor seating area across from the Dining Hall.
The lights on the palm trees across from the Dhahran Dining Hall also lifted the holiday spirit in town. The lights have been around for quite some time now, but it brightens up the spirit during the festive season, whether it’s Christmas, Ramadan, or Eid.
Dhahran during sunset.
This month has been quite warm in Dhahran, but it’s been the perfect weather to go for a run or enjoy a book in the gleaming sun out on the porch. A light jacket, sunglasses, and leggings will do for this month in Dhahran. And of course, a water bottle — must stay hydrated in the desert! I often went on morning runs this break, to the Third Street Track. While I was running, it was a time for reflection for me. I wondered about the future — thought what steps I have to take to reach my goals, hit replay on the past year, and I appreciated the beauty of the present. I let go of many things that were holding me back internally. With each run, there was a little more clarity in my life.
The modern, renovated room in Dhahran Dining Hall.
Waffles being prepared at the Dining Hall on Sunday morning.
Out of many, a memory I always cherish is going to the Dining Hall for breakfast with my family. They have a newly renovated room as you enter the dining hall with a modern touch to it. But it’s comforting to see familiar faces who work there. There’s an enterprising Bangladeshi man at the serving station who always knows that I want a Spanish omelet without the mushrooms, despite that he sees me once a year, and it always brings a smile to my face. Waffles, pancakes, Spanish omelet, shakshouka, falafel, manakish — the options for food represent the multicultural spirit in town.
Around Dhahran Heritage Gallery.
I spent an afternoon at the Heritage Gallery, across from Starbucks and Kings, and learned a great deal about Aramco history. I truly understood that the formation of this ExPat community in the middle of the desert is a reflection of a multicultural effort to appreciate the differences we all bring — through culture, religion, norms — and create life in this city.
Dhahran Hobby Farm
Entrance to Dhahran Hobby Farm/Dhahran Stables.
The Hobby Farm/Dhahran Stables is still a hidden gem in Dhahran, and I remembered to visit it this time. The outdoor seating from the snack bar (Chuckwagon), coupled with the green fields, the white fence, and the palm trees in the backdrop make it a beautiful spot in town. I’ve always wanted to learn horse-riding, and I decided this break that it’s something I would like to take on in the near future.
This Christmas season was a beautiful pause — the comfort and affection I encountered while visiting my family, friends, and home is unapparelled. The thing about ExPat life is that it’s not permanent. You build a life and home in a place that you know you’ll have to leave one day — you have to continuously say goodbye to people and places that come to mean so much to you. Yet, this tentative feeling that always engulfs you allows you to learn to live life with a sense of compassion, urgency, and curiosity. When the rug beneath your feet is so slippery, each day matters, and every person you meet teaches you something valuable about yourself. And I am sure I speak for all the returning students who come back to Dhahran during the holidays that these few weeks are full of beautiful moments that make it to the hall of memories in our minds, something to talk about for months and years down the road. There’s no joy like hugging your friend after a whole year, or more, and feeling like you just saw them yesterday. This is what Christmas is all about for me — about togetherness, family, good food, and the warmth of Arabian sun. Despite the political tensions in the region at the moment, the multicultural spirit in town brings everyone together during the holiday season and we all find a way to enjoy these few weeks of togetherness that breeds culture, warmth, and wonder.
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.