Stories often have the power of bringing dormant feelings and faded memories back to life. The words ricochet off of some figment of our experience and take us back to a very special place, where nostalgia wakes up and finds itself in a portable home.
It is with that conviction that I like to hear others’ stories — not only do I want to learn about their experience, but it helps me stay connected to a very special part of my life.
A few weeks ago, I interviewed Linda Ziegler Perniciaro, a former Aramco resident. Linda moved to Dhahran when she was nine years old, and spent the 80s living there, with visits back during her years away at boarding school and college.
This article reflects my interview with Linda, recounting her experience in Dhahran through her childhood, and her family’s unique experience during the Gulf War.
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Linda’s Dhahran Jr. High Graduation
How long was your family’s stay in Saudi Arabia?
We moved to Dhahran during Summer 1979. I was nine years old and in 4th grade. I left in 1985 for boarding school, and I graduated from University of Florida in 1993. My parents left in 1994, so our entire say encompassed fourteen years and nine months.
Jebels of North Camp, circa 1980. Joey, Linda's beloved brother Joey (left), Linda (middle) and Vanessa, her sister (right).
What was it like growing up there, in terms of culture and community?
Moving to Saudi was an interesting experience. I was going into 4th grade, and I did not want to leave my friends in Houston, Texas. But I met some fun kids my age in my orientation group in Houston and we connected over fun kid activities in the Galleria shopping mall in Houston. This made the transition more fun and made me look forward to moving!
At this time, Aramco was hiring many people, and the overflow camp, called North Camp, was full. We stayed a month in a cinder block concrete hotel with an empty dirt and rock lot next door. We mingled with the local kids playing soccer in the empty lot in their thobes. A month later we moved into North Camp.
Hanging out at the Third Street Swimming Pool.
We stayed in North Camp for over 18 months, and it wasn’t the best. North Camp was a desert, there was not a single plant or tree. To compensate, they did build us a rec center with game room, playground, and swimming pool facilities. I joined the swim team and met lots of kids there. We often rode our bikes around North Camp and played on the Jebels. All the other kids in the area made transitioning much more memorable.
While in North Camp, my mom found beautiful fabric in the Khobar and Dammam shopping districts and did lots of sewing of our clothes to stay busy. Her hobbies expanded greatly when we moved to The Hills. She joined the women’s group where they made crafts to sell at the Christmas Bazaar. She learned to play golf, bridge, and had luncheons.
My dad took us to Catholic church each week and he became a CCD teacher. There are lots of interesting church stories like rosaries taken during Customs.
We rode a school bus to school, but not quintessential American yellow school buses. They were Mercedes Benz and Grey Hound buses, every one of which had air conditioning fitted with a water dispenser — so important in the desert!
Eventually, we left North Camp, and to leave the temporary stays at North Camp, there was a system in which you can select a home for “Main Camp” or pass on “Main Camp” and go straight to the new section called “The Hills”. My mom wanted to go straight to The Hills.
Linda (wearing pink) hanging out with her friends at the Third Street Snack Bar.
Once in the Hills, most parents allowed us kids to freely jump on the 30-minute circuit buses to take a ride to friends’ houses, swimming pool areas and youth center. As we got older, we took the circuit buses to Khobar and Dammam shopping districts.
Life as a teenager was somewhat normal. It was interesting because we were in this conservative country, but we had the amenities and lifestyle of an American suburb. We had six swim teams within our compound, including one elite swim team which traveled, and three swimming pool complexes. There were more than enough tennis courts, and kids on every street. I played soccer, softball, basketball, swim team until 7th grade, and volleyball. My sister danced in a very nice dance company.
At that time, we had only a few Arab friends, as most of Aramco employees were ExPats. Teachers were American, swim coaches were British, nurses were Filipino or British.
As a kid, we had to get used to having only one highly censored tv station that started at 4pm (typically Sesame Street) and ended with the nightly news at 10pm. We had no commercials, but instead, we had “Prayer Intermission” which lasted about 30 minutes. It was a great time to inhale some dinner or take a bath and not miss your show. Some of our favorite shows were Magnum PI and Dallas.
Aramco had a movie theater, but again, highly censored, and it always lagged by one year. To combat the social red tape, many of us were part of a VHS/Betamax movie club. We would have large libraries of movies and have a checkout system similar to a Blockbuster.
Christmas in the camp was a great time. My dad even overdid Christmas lights one year — so much so, that Aramco docked him 1-day pay to take them down! It was very Griswald/Chevy Chase like. My parents would also win Yard of the Month all the time!
9th Grade Hallway at Saudi Aramco Schools.
The most significant change to our life there came when we all had to go to boarding school after 9th grade. It didn’t feel different to us at the time as all of us did it, barring 1 or 2 people each year. Those families would send their 10th grader to the US with family or would quit Aramco.
Moving back to the USA for boarding school was a bit of a culture shock. I think there is a book written called Third Culture Kids that narrates this experience. We were part of the US culture, but partly different. When we, as returning students, would fly back to the Kingdom by ourselves during breaks, we would land and call our parents from an airport payphone. They would then wait an hour or two and then head to the airport, knowing it would be up to 2 hours to make it through Customs. Every sock would be turned inside out.
Flying around the world by yourself at the ages of 14-18 on Air Italia, Lufthansa, and KLM was one big party. They served us great food, and you always had a few other returning students on the flight with you. We had a great time! Too good. It was common for us to hang out in Amsterdam during layovers, but some could not as they didn’t carry a passport of a reciprocal country.
My experience was slightly different than that of my sister, she was only two years old when we moved to Saudi. She didn’t know differently.
What was your experience like during the Gulf War?
I was away at college in Florida at the time, but I would still visit my parents during the war. My brother was in boarding school, and my sister, Vanessa, being the youngest, was twelve at the time, and the only one at home with my parents. Everyone was issued facemasks in fear of chemical warfare. When the sirens would sound, the families were instructed to go into their “safe room” put on facemasks and seek shelter. Many of her friends had already evacuated with their moms. School shutdown. Vanessa’s saferoom was her closet. She would grab our poodle and sit in her closet with pillows and blankets.
Linda (in white sweatshirt) and her sister, Vanessa, posing with US soldiers. December 27th, 1990.
Eventually, Vanessa flew out on one of the emergency planes, with one of our neighbors. This entailed taking a bus from Aramco to the US military base (a few miles away). But with so few seats on a C5, we had to be on constant stand by.
When my parents dropped her off at the tarmac, for her to be evacuated on a C-130, they asked “Where are you taking her?” To which, the military personnel responded with, “we cannot tell you until we land,” and my parents said “ok, have a nice trip!”
The plane made its landing in a city in Europe, and my sister continued her journey onward to the United States then continued from there. She made her way to Florida, to stay with our Aunt Roby in Orlando, and continued her schooling there.
1990 Christmas Visit
I would still visit Saudi during the war and met many members of the US military during my visits back. My family, and many other families in Dhahran, hosted Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners for US soldiers during Desert Shield.
1990 Christmas dinner with US soldiers, pictured in Linda’s family’s living room. Linda is in the middle back (hands crossed), and wearing a white sweatshirt.
Linda’s family’s backyard. Her mom (far right), her sister, Vanessa, standing (left), Mrs. Gilroy (far left), and US soldiers in the middle.
Returning to Saudi during the Gulf War started off the same as any returning student trip — looking forward to seeing family and friends you haven’t seen in months. But this particular returning student trip in 1990 had the added excitement of meeting the US soldiers, in the thousands, coming to the country. The United Service Organization (USO) did a great job connecting the Aramco community with the soldiers; they organized the soldiers, plucked from the desert where some had called home for four months straight, to come and eat dinner with the Aramco families for Thanksgiving and Christmas. I was at boarding school during Thanksgiving but came home for Christmas.
My family, with the help of a few other families, hosted fifteen soldiers for Thanksgiving, and twenty-five for Christmas. When the troops came to our home for Christmas, many had been in the desert for four straight months. They were full of sand, and my mom refused to let them in her nicely decorated home. My dad sent them all in the garage and had them change into his workout shorts and t-shirts. He also made them all shower, and they had dinner in his clothes while we washed all their uniforms at our house and neighbors’ homes. They changed back into their uniforms for a final picture in our living room.
It was truly a Christmas to remember.
Linda’s father, posing with US soldiers, in an undisclosed location near the Kuwait border.
Linda’s mother, at the undisclosed USO tent site in the desert, near the border with Kuwait.
The USO also organized a trip to the Kuwait border to meet up with the 2nd Marine Division. We were a caravan of about twenty cars heading north towards Kuwait. Then, in the middle of nowhere, there was a soldier on the road, pointing for us to turn left into the desert. We turned heading into the desert to find a sprawling military tent city with tanks, humvees, and other military equipment all covered in a camouflage netting material. The soldiers were excited to see us and produced a show called the 1st Annual Desert Storm Talent Show. They were happy to entertain us for the day.
From the USO events, we exchanged many addresses, and I made a point to write to the soldiers after.
Scud or Patriot Missile Shrapnel that Linda’s family found. Photo provided by Linda’s father.
Another memorable event from the war is what my mother gave me for Christmas. When the scud missiles were shot towards Dhahran, the patriot missiles were successful in intercepting them midair. The shrapnel from both would rain down on our town, including hitting cars while driving. This reality caused some to book the next flight out of Saudi with their families.
For others who were a bit more enterprising, they would collect the shrapnel and made them into earrings, pendants for necklaces, and a brooch. That Christmas, I opened a gift of shrapnel earrings and a brooch — but I told my mom I couldn’t accept them.
You see, despite my wholehearted support of our troops, some as young as my 19-year-old self, I just couldn’t accept something that may have killed our American soldiers. In fact, I supported their morale in any other way I could, from encouraging letters to USO events, to protesting at University of Florida, as to why we even needed to send our troops in the first place.
Did your parents leave or stay in Dhahran through the Gulf War?
Even though most spouses and children were evacuated during the war, my parents both stayed. They would always carry their gas masks with them. If the sirens blared, it meant a SCUD missile (with possible chemical warhead) was headed toward Dhahran, and they had to put on their mask and seek shelter. Shelter on an open golf course, of course! My parents played golf with their gas masks on!
My parents both witnessed and lived in Vietnam through parts of the Vietnam War, so I guess they had a lot of fight in them.
Linda’s mom (second woman on the far right) at Brown and Root in Vietnam.
My parents met in the Human Resource Department, where my mom was an HR Secretary, and when my dad was checking into his new engineering job with Kellogg Brown and Root, circa 1968. They got married in January 1970, and my mom flew alone to the USA in August of 1970 to stay with my paternal grandmother and gave birth to me in Fort Lauderdale, FL, on September 9th, 1970. My brother, Joey, was born in 1972 in Saigon. We were evacuated, along with all other civilian American expats in August 1972.
What emotions do you feel when you think about your childhood in Dhahran? Do you look back and smile, or is it full of mixed emotions?
The majority of it lands in the smile bucket! I have very few mixed feelings. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but I would definitely do things differently if I could go back. For instance, lots of people took scuba diving classes there, and at the end, they take a trip to dive in the Red Sea. I recall one time that I didn’t want to miss a party, and thought the Red Sea dive could be done another summer. Eventually, the summers ran out, and I never dove the Red Sea.
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Stories like Linda’s represent the cornerstone of ExPat life: the appreciation for simple comforts, culture keepsakes, and great memories, even amidst the challenging moments. Through this interview process, I learned so much about Aramco and Dhahran during the 80s and the Gulf War.
Through these interviews, I continue learning a great deal about expatriate life in Saudi Arabia, spanning different decades and context. I find a small home in each of these stories, and I am incredibly thankful for those that share their unique experiences about ExPat life in the Kingdom with me.
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.