One of the most beautiful privileges of growing up in the expat world in Saudi Arabia is that virtually everyone is different. A different race, ethnicity, religion. The main thread that ties us together is the expat culture, our shared experiences of growing up in a Mini America, with Californian-esque vibes, with the tall palm trees, sun-kissed skies, beaches, greenery.
The shared experiences of our time in the respective camps of Dhahran, Ras Tanura, Udhailiyah and Abqaiq are ever-present on the Facebook Aramco Brats page, where countless people share little figments of their past in Saudi, whether that is through finding an old picture or coming across something that reminds them of Saudi. It is in this context that I came across a post from Barb Harrington Pew. She shared a post that I found intriguing, and I ended up reaching out to her, for a potential interview.
Barb grew up in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s and early 1960s, a booming time for the growing western expansion in the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. I hope you enjoy her story; it is full of beautiful recollections from a very unique time period.
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Barb with her father, Charles Harrington.
When did your family move to Saudi Arabia, and what years did you live there?
My Dad went out to Dhahran in 1951, or early 1952, not long after I was born. Mom and I followed just before I turned two years old. We lived in Abqaiq for the first few months. I barely remember it, except for friends we often visited later. We then lived on Third Street for a short while, moved to 1198-1A before I was 4 and then finally to 4391-A, in 1958. That last house is primary in my memories. Memories are of my parents, holidays, storms, friends, pets. I can still see every inch of that house, and the faces of my friends and neighbors.
I remember when they put fresh oil down on 11th street, a few times a year, and my Dad would put tinfoil on my tennis shoes so I could play with my best friend, Nayna Lee Rees. I would lose the foil by the 2nd or 3rd step, and Dad would come to the rescue, picking out the shoe, and carrying me the rest of the way. I also learned to ride my bike there, going around in circles until I suddenly noted a car patiently waiting for me to notice.
We rode bikes through the paths in the neighborhood. One path had short hedges where you could see the houses; another path had tall hedges, 6 feet or more, that used to make me think I was in the jungle and nobody would ever find me. We played on the huge slide on the playground. I fell off, from the top on one hot day, when I didn’t want to sit down, and my shoe stuck to the hot slide. Karen Smith’s mom saw me go, called my mom to meet us at the hospital. I didn’t break anything, but mom showed up wearing a suit. Having had trips to the states for eye surgery between the ages of 3 and 5, I thought the suit meant more surgery.
Barb’s Girl Scout Troop.
Can you describe what it was like growing up there, in terms of culture and community?
We truly were in a bubble, as kids. There were the occasional trips to Khobar for clothing or the mad hunt for glasses frames. We knew our “house boys” and our gardeners (one who fed me fried locusts at the age of 2). But there were very few Arabs working for Aramco, and little cultural exchange that I remember. The American community was close-knit, mostly the same age and background, in either the Admin Group, or the Pipeline Group. I do remember going to a goat feed in the desert with my Dad. My mom must have stayed home with my baby brother. I am left-handed. My Dad sat on my left side and sat on my hand so that I would eat with my right hand, and not offend our Arab host. We camped in the desert, with Army surplus equipment, and with the Girl Scouts, at Half Moon Bay, with refrigerator trucks for our food. We also camped in those trucks one year, when there was a huge windstorm that blew all the tents into the gulf!
Barb with her brother, Bobby.
When we were there in the 50s and early 60s, even Dhahran was small, maybe 5,000 people. We had excellent schools, great teachers, and a lot of privileges. Santa on Camel or Helicopter. Fancy birthday parties; Horses. Great pools. Our folks had homemade booze and parties. As kids, we had the run of the town, no worry, playing all over town and coming home when the whistle blew for Dad, or Mom called the house where you were. It was a safe, comfortable place to grow up.
What are some of your best memories from your time there?
Trips to Half Moon Bay, the dune and the jellyfish. Playing with friends, bike rides around town, roller skating. Looking at the stars with Dad’s telescope, going pot-picking with Dad and his friend Harry Alter. Trips to Khobar for Arabic Bread!
What was your favorite food?
Arabic bread and hummus. We always ate what we were served but got shawarmas from Khobar. I learned to love that and other Middle Eastern flavors and foods as an adult. My mom was from the mid-west, and she cooked the same meals on the same days each week.
Barb (left), with her mother, Suzy Harrington (middle), and the airline stewardess (right) carrying Bob Harrington, nearly two months old.
Amsterdam, January 1956.
Barb (middle) walking between her parents, Suzy (left), and Charles (right), along with the stewardess carrying one year and seven months old Bobby.
Amsterdam, June 1956.
What feelings did you encounter when your family was going to leave the Kingdom?
Shock! Dad told us he had quit, in June 1963, as we settled on the plane, leaving for good. I didn’t get to say goodbye. I have some very distinct memories of that last trip back to the states, but they are like a string of flares against the darkness of sorrow, not to return, and not to see my friends again.
What reaction did you get when you moved back to the US, and you told people you grew up in Saudi as a kid?
The Catholic school I went to the first 5 months of 7th grade was a shock. People didn’t want someone new, let alone someone from outside in their neighborhood. We moved again in April, and again, it was very difficult to be the new kid. I did settle in eventually, and some friends knew about my time in Arabia. I think, as teenagers, we were more interested in just what was going on around us.
Harrington Family Christmas Tree in Saudi Arabia.
What did you miss the most about Saudi when you left?
Friends, freedom, travel, warmth! I also miss the privilege we had to travel the world. I missed the rhythm of the 3 months on, 1 month off, school year. I never got used to the 9-month year for all of my last 6 years in school.
What emotions do you feel when you think about your childhood in Saudi? Do you like back and smile, or is it full of mixed emotions?
My childhood was very innocent. I heard later about issues but didn’t see them through a child’s eyes. Yes, I do smile when I think of my school days. On the other hand, now as an adult, I wish I knew more about the politics of the era. I wish I knew what led to my Dad quitting, and why he said he spent the rest of his career teaching as penance for what his function was for Aramco.
What was it like to visit Aramco 5 years ago? In what ways is it similar and different, compared to your childhood years?
I loved the opportunity for the trip, and I hoped it might be closure for the abrupt exit. I looked forward to it with such anticipation and began dreaming of “home” again during the months of build-up. There were problems with our visas, and I didn’t receive my passport with my visa until just a couple of weeks before the trip was to start. It was delivered to the office where I worked in IT, and I was afraid to open it. I took it up to the office of one of my favorite people and let him open it. He opened the envelope, looked for the visa in my passport, looked up and said, “well, it’s wrong, but it’s in your favor!” The visa was supposed to be for just the duration of the trip, but mine was for 6 months! I decided not to mention it to anyone until the trip was over, and I was back in Seattle.
Travel was easy, Seattle to Germany, then on to Dammam. I met another Brat, and his wife, on the flight from Germany. I had been a bit concerned about traveling as a single woman, but as we got off the flight, Jim said we should stay together, and we did. There was some major issue with the transfer of data from the fingerprint scanners to the computer system – at 2 a.m. – with 3 large flights arriving at the same time. They kept bringing one woman up and sending her back; then, they served tea to the workers, then they tried again.
Eventually, they said, “Women First” and Jim brought us up together. The guy tried over and over again, putting a napkin over my hand so he could push it down harder, like that would make it work. It could have been being up for over 24 hours, and so excited to be “home” or it could just have been the silliness of the napkin, but I had a very hard time suppressing the giggles.
Painting by Charles Harrington (Barb’s Dad).
Painting, via a palette knife, by Charles Harrington (Barb’s dad), 1961.
When I reached the hotel, there were some issues with lodging, but eventually, it was ok. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning, but the rest of the trip was amazing. I made new friends, younger Brats; I’d not known in childhood, teachers returning as annuitants. I was stunned at how Khobar had gone from a village to a huge metropolis. The noise, the traffic! And, the more things changed, the more they were the same – the morning the bus, stuck on the huge roundabout, was next to a pickup with a baby camel in the back.
Dhahran was the second shock, huge, different, and even the same was different. My old house was “there” but with a new house inside the yard, and a new address. When we were there, we were only 2 rows of houses from the desert perimeter fence. Now, all of North Camp is beyond that, and it seems to go out for miles.
The 3rd Street school was still there, but the entrance is on the other side, there’s GRASS instead of asphalt.
There was a day when the traffic was so bad, I missed the bus to the trip to Al Hassa. I decided to just drop my pack at the Reunion House and walk. I walked down to the school and to my house not far away. Walking down 6th street, past the seven units, and the spot where I caught a roller skate wheel in my bike chain and ran into the back of a parked car. I stopped there to admire how much bigger the trees were and think about the sound my exploding tire made after that crash – which brought everyone from their houses.
Paintings by Charles Harrington (Barb’s Dad).
Going to the post office, and the commissary brought back a lot of memories. They say things seem smaller when you revisit your childhood, but there was a strange mix of smaller and bigger in the familiarity of sites now serving so many more people, with bits recognizable from 50 years before. (Mars Bars!!)
The external trips were to both familiar and new places, our guides were amazing, and the trips fulfilled a need to see the area with the eyes of an adult.
I am not sure If I will return to the Kingdom again, but I will never forget the kindness of the people we met.
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Stories like Barb’s help us envision what life was like in the camps in 1950s/1960s. Through her story, I learned that much had changed, but a lot had remained the same. Her story reminds us that time spent in a place may finish its course, but the connections and memories are forever.
Note: If you are interested in having your story featured in AramcoExpats, please contact me at [email protected].
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.