Tim Barger and Sally Onnen at Medain Salih - Art Clark 2012
Aramco Expats correspondent Grace Gail Malone interviews Tim Barger about his new book.
Your new collection of stories is entitled Christmas in Khobar. The name comes from one of your stories, but aren’t you concerned that a wider audience might not have even heard of the place?
Yes. The story was about an adventure I had in Khobar when I was very young. It incorporates years of youthful experiences on Prince Khalid Street. For Aramcons living in their orderly communities, Khobar was a wild place and their introduction to Saudi Arabian society. I hope they enjoy the tales. My readers know all about Khobar, so if someone doesn’t recognize the name maybe the book isn’t for them.
Between the two books, you’ve written almost 40 stories. Did you plan on writing so many of them? How did this start?
It was almost accidental. About six years ago, I was having bad insomnia. Tossing and turning in bed, my mind drifted back to an incident with Scott Miller when we were about nine. Thinking more about the event I started laughing out loud about the expression on Scott’s face as he sailed over his handlebars to certain doom. So I got out of bed and typed up the story.
The next day I cleaned it up and sent it to Brat Chat, the bulletin board for the thousands of kids who grew up in Aramco. A lot of Brats liked Scott Miller’s Invention – now published in Arabian Son. So I wrote more tales. They soon became too long for the Brat Chat format, so Vicci Turner at AramcoExpats.com graciously agreed to publish the stories to an audience of more than 10,000 Aramcons. They seemed to enjoy them too.
Every story generated dozens of comments. I learned that my readers most enjoyed the atmosphere of the stories: the scent of waffles at the Friday morning buffet at the Dining Hall, the beguiling chaos of Khobar, the continuous blowing sand of a three-day shamaal. They liked the stories and the characters all right, but what they really liked was that I was writing about an Arabia that they once knew many years ago.
Several of your stories involve near death episodes. Did you really experience these events? Or is some poetic license involved? Did you really lock yourself into a refrigerator?
It all happened as written. My only explanation for writing about these incidents is that moments of high peril tend to stick in the mind and make the nucleus for a good story.
Yes. It wasn’t even a standard size refrigerator. About four feet high, it was a mini fridge used to keep ice cream Dixie cups cool for sale at the County Fair. Even for a kid, it was a tight fit but I’m here today, so it turned out to be all right.
A thread throughout most of your stories is a deep appreciation for the untouched beauty of Arabia’s landscape. Especially Half Moon Bay. The region was barely developed then. Now a million people live there which would naturally affect the environment. Are you saying that you are against progress?
Not at all. I’m all for intelligent progress, but there are so many instances of the opposite. I think that the selling of private beachfront lots on Half Moon Bay was a mistake. Was it really necessary to build a giant radar dome on the pinnacle of Jebel Shamaal? The obliteration of Jebel Midra Al Junibi, once located just outside of Dhahran, is a major environmental crime. Generations of Saudis to come will never be able to experience its myriad delights. I’m just glad that I saw so many places like Wonder Bay in Sufaniya before it was destroyed by pollution.
I only recently realized that I’m almost 70 years old so that probably accounts for some of my nostalgia. Things will never be the same as they once were, but I knew how Arabia once was and can’t help but to recall its pristine beauty.
In your descriptions of Khobar and Riyadh, especially driving in Riyadh, you describe the scene as chaotic. Can you elaborate?
Almost everything at the time was chaotic to the American eye but it was mainly because the Saudis were moving faster than the infrastructure. Thus in the 50s the telephone poles in Khobar were festooned with dozens of freelance wires. In the 70s the number of drivers multiplied faster than mold on week-old bread. But it was an orchestrated chaos. At the used car suq in Riyadh, the auctioneers used ancient camel suq techniques to move hundreds of cars a day. It was messy but efficient.
Have you been to the kingdom recently?
The last time was about five years ago. I really enjoyed meeting many Saudi men and women of all ages. We talked, laughed and ate a lot of hummus. But I was depressed about the out of control urban sprawl, especially in Riyadh. I guess once again the people have outdistanced the infrastructure.
You write about different adults in your stories. Do you know what happened to them after they left the company?
They all retired from Aramco, so I imagine they were very happy in America - going to annuitants reunions and generally relaxing. They have all passed on. Martha, the Abqaiq housewife, was the last one to go and even at 83 she was still a firecracker.
You have written two collections of stories. Are you planning a third one?
Two is more than enough. Maybe too many. I’ve written almost 40 stories. I know more stories but I think that I’ve written the best ones. Maybe once in awhile, I’ll write a story.
For instance, there was the time that I almost gutted myself from head to tail on a dhow trip. Joking around for some friends, I impulsively slipped feet first off the bow of the dhow and barely missed the razor edges of the anchor, crudely welded out of angle iron, that was hanging below me. As I was dropping, I saw the anchor and pushed off at the last moment. I just cleared its rusty tines of jagged steel. They passed before my face by inches as I splashed into the Gulf. It has been quite a life so far.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
246 pages, $14.95