The first home our family moved into, on Safaniya Drive in Dhahran Hills. We lived here for 11 years before moving to 6th Street in Main Camp. I still write down the Safaniya address on many forms as an instinct.
Exit gate signs near the Third Street Track.
I have a feeling that ExPats know a thing or two about closure. Closure is our mind and body’s way to be at peace with something we have lost—a relationship, a job, a move. For Aramcons, we all have to depart from the Kingdom at one point or another. The goodbye process entails not only packing up your home, but visiting your favorite spots one last time, collecting souvenirs, saying goodbyes to familiar places and faces. Through these departure rituals, we are able to engage in closure. It happens all very fast. Experts say that closure is a healthy component of endings of all sorts, as it is meant to bring peace to the loss.
The last home we lived at, on Sixth Street. The location was so great!
For me, closure with Dhahran wasn’t a possibility because of COVID. I was meant to travel back to the Kingdom one last time in March, as I knew my parents were retiring not long after that. It was meant to be my “goodbye trip.” However, COVID took that possibility away as international travel became risky.
A parked golf car on the back corner of 6th Street. Aramco is full of golfers!
Outside our home on Sixth Street in Dhahran.
My parents departed the Kingdom for good a few weeks ago and I can’t help but feel conflicting emotions. Somehow, my subconscious always knew that life could always present a reason because of which I couldn’t go home. After all, the geopolitical tensions and the Kingdom’s bureaucracy with dependent visas make the situation a bit tricky for ExPats. For that reason, I treated every visit as if it would be my last. I took countless pictures, enjoyed every moment of togetherness and comfort, but I left every visit with cautious optimism that I would be back again.
As my travel plans got cancelled, I realized I’d never be back again, not in the same way anyway. I find that many ExPats will be able to relate to the idea that home is a place in time. Home isn’t a place in and of itself because, without the people and memories, I am not sure how connected one can feel to home. While I plan to one day go back to the Kingdom as a visitor, I know it won’t be the same. The closure that I needed was less with the place, but more with the memories associated with the place. That’s what I will miss the most. The food, the breezy winters, the simple lifestyle, familiar faces, friends, visits to Khobar and Bahrain, and most of all, the togetherness of family. Who knew so much happiness could find itself in a community in the middle of the Arabian desert?
Tandoori House—many nights were spent here chatting away with family and friends. Chicken in garlic sauce, Saudi “champagne” (fruit cocktail) and Chicken Tikka Masala were always my favorite items on the menu.
At Dhahran Heritage Gallery, December 2019.
However, I don’t want this to be a story of sadness. The more we get stuck in the feeling of something being taken away from us, the harder it is to accept it. I don’t like feeling that powerless.
As I write this, I also find myself to be at a loss for words, which is strange because I usually have so much to say! I will try to briefly narrate my feelings.
Above all, a lack of closure is a small price to pay during a pandemic, and closure does not necessarily take away the momentary nostalgia that will inevitably pay us a visit in the future. Instead of feeling like something was taken away from me, my heart is filled with gratitude. I will treasure the memories, the lessons I learned, the people I met, and so much more. I will carry on the legacy of sharing stories about the westernized bubble in the Kingdom that alluded to a contrasting life in Kingdom, almost like the community was shielded from the rest of Saudi civil society.
Outside the Dining Hall on a rainy day in December. It rains so rarely that it must be documented!
It is a struggle to navigate how much of my story I want to share when people ask the dreaded “where are you from?” question, but I view that as an opportunity to let them know of the beautiful and contrasting life I spent in the Kingdom, if they show an interest of course. It is a story that sparks curiosity for many, and by talking about it, I am able to allow a part of me to continue to live. I am also grateful to have left the Kingdom seeing women driving and knowing that women are slowly being granted the opportunity to advance their personal and economic freedom.
I have made peace with my goodbye, and maybe the pandemic is to thank for that. The lack of closure is in no comparison to the collective grief the world is facing at the moment. When lives are at risk, you suddenly become hyper-aware of what matters the most, and right now, what matters most is everyone’s health and well-being.
Breakfast at Dining Hall with my parents on a rainy day, one day before I left Dhahran.
The fresh juices at Dining hall breakfast were always something to look forward to!
As December approaches, the holidays have also crossed my mind. Last Christmas, I was putting up ornaments with my parents on our Sixth Street home, listening to Feliz Navidad, and enjoying a warm cup of tea. But this holiday season will be different, and not just for me. Many can’t be together with their family because they are halfway across the world, and many can’t gather with family that live in the same city because they are sick and more susceptible to COVID. For me, this is my first holiday season not being in Dhahran.
But as I sat down on the couch with my cup of coffee on Thanksgiving morning, sending and receiving messages of gratitude, I realized two truths: 1) Yes, this holiday season is different, and it might feel lonely at some points. 2) Love and gratitude is not sanctioned because we can’t see one another. With video calls, pictures, writing letters, sending gifts, there are so many ways to stay connected. Can you imagine if the pandemic was happening in the 90s or even the early 2000s? We wouldn’t have technology to help us stay connected. The “Aramco Brats” Facebook group wouldn’t exist! I cannot imagine that group not existing. Every day, I scroll upon a post from an ExPat sharing a memento they found from their time in the Kingdom, and how that sparks up joy for many commenting. These stories help the community stay connected and grounded, and the legacy lives on through those posts.
I will miss Shallal Pastry so much! My favorite was their Vegetable Za’atar bread, Labneh Bread with Honey. My dad would often bring these items home on his way back from work.
My dad took this picture a few days before he left.
Some of the best cakes can be found in this Saadeddin Pastry Store in the Dhahran Commissary! We always got slices of cake from here, especially during the Holidays.
My dad took this picture a few days before he left.
As I make peace with my memories from the Kingdom, I am so thankful for the lessons I learned, whether they were good or bad. Among all the lessons, the best takeaway is the importance of simplicity and the fleeting nature of time. I will aim to cherish the minimalistic nature of life and of being content about little things, like eating toast with za’atar on a weekend morning, sunbathing with a good book, or listening to Arabic music while I do chores. I’ll also remember that life is a fleeting thing in and of itself, so it’s in our best interest to cherish each day and the people in our lives with love and connection. Lastly, I am immensely thankful that I get to continue sharing my own legacy and that of others through Aramco ExPats. Writing for this platform will always be an homage to my tenure in the Kingdom. A tenure full of cultural exploration, memories, and growth.
And lastly, I want to end on this note, in case anyone needs to hear this. No matter how difficult it feels to let go of the past, we must keep moving forward because our present and future always needs us more than our past. Getting suck in the past is a recipe for heartbreak and it will take more from you than you can imagine. You will realize that no matter how much you try; you can’t get back to that past. It existed in a place in time, not in reality.
With that note, I will honor my nostalgia will always keep my memories of Dhahran very close to me. Not only are they something to cherish, they are an anchor to help me sustain some of the more challenging days.
Ma’a Salama Saudi Arabia, you have given me lots to smile about. Shukran with all my heart.
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.