© Mark Lowey 2022. All rights reserved.
Photos by Srinivasa Reddy Karri
In this piece, we are introduced to Dhahran’s Boy Scout Troop 966. The troop of 10–15-year-olds venture into the Saudi desert under the guidance of famed Bedouin, Quriyan Al Hajri.
From British Columbia to The Middle East
A Canadian, Nicoli Garner was born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia, a city known for its abundant parklands, outdoor activities, and the cool, damp weather of North America’s verdant northwest. Always drawn to the outdoors, he would grow up to become a geologist, eventually moving with his wife to Denver, Colo., in the Rocky Mountains of the United States.
In 2010, just four months after the birth of his son, Albert, Nicoli accepted a job offer to join Aramco as a geologist. The young family moved to Dhahran, and, over the years, they spent time exploring the desert, often camping in the wilderness for several days.
Asked what attracted him to the open desert, Nicoli explained, “It’s not just the desert, but the wilderness. Perhaps this is how British Columbia and Saudi have similarities. I love to be in a peaceful place away from manmade distractions. There is nothing more enjoyable than stars and a campfire.”
Love for The Outdoors
As Albert grew older, he learned to share his father’s love of the outdoors and overnight camping. Eager to encourage this, Nicoli discovered a clever way for them to enjoy the outdoors together. Two years ago, Nicoli volunteered to be an Adult Scout Leader for Troop 966 of the Boy Scouts of America (BSA), Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, Transatlantic Council. “I support my son’s passions,” said Nicoli. “We both enjoy camping, and the Scouts provide a structured opportunity to do that together.”
Meanwhile, From Indiana
Simultaneously, the librarian at International School Group (ISG), Dammam, and her family were becoming avid desert campers. Betsey Hawkins, originally from Decatur, Indiana, relocated to Saudi Arabia in 2017 with her husband and four children.
Upon arrival in Saudi, the open desert beckoned. “We've camped as a family many times,” explained Betsey, “but only since we moved to Saudi Arabia. We lived in Hong Kong before and, although it had great hiking, we didn't camp much.”
“My husband participated in Scouting as a young man and had a positive experience,” Betsey said. “When my daughter asked to join the troop, I said that I would volunteer to help.” And so, daughter Nora, 15, and son Calvin, 12, joined Troop 966.
A Common Focus Among A Diverse Group
Troop 966 comprises two groups: a female section, “Cherry Blossom,” led by Betsey, and a male section, “Fire Panda,” led by Nicoli.
Nearly all the troop members are children of Aramco employees. Notwithstanding the various nationalities of the Scouts, the troop focuses on building a foundation based on BSA core values in accordance with the Scout Law.
The Scout Law: A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.
Most Aramco geologists somehow eventually cross paths with desert legend Quriyan Mohammed Al Hajri. Now retired, Quriyan spent his 36-year career in Aramco’s Wellsites Services Department. He is well known for his knowledge of desert terrain and remains an enthusiastic ambassador and communicator of Bedouin traditions and culture.
“I was acquainted with Quriyan,” Nicoli said, “and I heard that he had hosted the Girl Guides at his farm. I asked him if we could arrange a BSA visit. I figured it would be a great way to kick off our camping season, a nice safe environment for everyone to get their desert ‘sand legs,’ as it were.”
Meet at The Farm
Quriyan welcomed the troop when they arrived at his Junayah farm, near Fardaniyah, on Saturday, November 5, 2022, a little before 4 p.m.
The group of 27 people, 17 Scouts (five girls and twelve boys), and ten adults, traveled to the farm in eight vehicles. Among them were several members of the “Arrow of Light,” or AOL Scouts, who are 10- and 11-year-old senior Cub Scouts, also known as Webelos, soon to be promoted to BSA Scouts. The AOL Scouts are mentored by and learn directly from the BSA Scouts.
Upon their arrival, The Scouts and adults were greeted by Quriyan, who welcomed them with a taste of Bedouin hospitality – a brief reception of Arabic coffee and tea, fresh fruit, and snacks served by Quriyan and his son, Nasser.
Quriyan serves his guests.
Quriyan’s son Nasser, right, welcomes Nicoli Garner.
Troops 966 at Quriyan’s farm.
Camels and Stuck Vehicle
It was now late afternoon, and the Scouts needed time to prepare camp before dark. The guests got into their vehicles and, with Quriyan and his Land Cruiser in the lead, the convoy ventured into the open desert, five kilometers southeast of the farm. Quriyan had selected an area of rolling dunes for the Scouts to set up their camp. Along the way, they spotted a few camels returning to their owner for the night after daytime grazing.
Camels in the desert.
Nicoli described what happened next. “For some parents, this was the first time in the desert and driving on sand. Suddenly, one of the vehicles got stuck. Under Quriyan’s instructions, air was let out of all four tires. Once deflated appropriately, the car was freed and the caravan advanced.” This was an important first lesson in desert survival.
Upon arrival, the Scouts went to work setting up the camp. “Two or three Scouts were assigned to make the campfire immediately,” said Nicoli, “so the coals would be ready for dinner. We brought our own firewood gathered inside Dhahran camp from trees downed by a strong windstorm several years back.”
“A few Scouts were assigned to build a latrine a short distance from the camp that included, according to BSA rules, the requisite hand-washing station. The rest of the troop erected their tents and prepared their sleeping bags.”
The BSA camp.
Learning Activities For Merit Badges
Nicoli described the Scout merit badge activities. “After camp setup, parent Reggie Palmer taught the First Class Scout candidates, Zell, Lauren and Zii, how to tie complicated knots and lashings. Other BSA Scouts taught the AOLs how to tie basic knots, such as the square knot, half hitch, and the taut-line hitch. The AOLs learned the uses of each knot. They were also shown proper rope care by learning how to whip and fuse the ends of different kinds of rope.”
Scouts refer to the Boy Scout Handbook and discuss knot-tying techniques.
Let’s Cook Dinner
“Each Scout was responsible for his/her own meal and had brought their own tinfoil dinner prepared in advance,” said Nicoli. The Scouts cooked their foil-wrapped food over the hot coals. Betsey described the Scouts’ menu choices. “Most of the meals were potatoes, veggies and chicken with some sort of sauce. My kids prepared rice, broccoli, and BBQ chicken. They cooked the chicken in advance to ensure it was completely done. It was not the most authentic cooking-over-a-fire experience, but it’s best to avoid the possible consequences of undercooked chicken!”
Nora and Calvin offered Quriyan some of their dinner. Betsey said, “Quriyan especially liked the broccoli in our packet. But he was not a fan of the chocolate chip cookies I brought to share with the troop. He said they were too sweet!”
After dinner, Quriyan was invited to address the Scouts. “I spoke to them about the Bedouin culture,” said Quriyan. “I told them about how it was when I was a boy their age. My family lived in a tent in the desert, we traveled around according to the season with our herds to find grazing. At first, we had no car and traveled by camel. Our area, from Naeriyah in the north to Haradh in the south, was much greener then. Many trees. Now there are very few trees and shrubs.”
“Back then our diet consisted mainly of dates, flat bread, and camel milk. On special occasions, or when we had visitors, we ate rice and meat – either goat or camel.”
“The desert was clean, there was no litter, no plastic bags. When we packed up our tent and belongings and moved on, we left nothing – no damage to the desert or the environment.”
“To water our camels and goats we had to extract water from wells in the desert. These wells had been dug painstakingly by other Bedouins. Some wells were ancient. We used rubber buckets connected to ropes over a pulley erected on top of the well. A few men pulled the rope over the pulley to bring the water to the surface. As we worked, we sang simple songs to help us work harder and faster. One song I remember goes like this, ‘Four men carrying camels, camel not carrying them.’”
“We had no plastic or steel containers, so we stored water in goat skins stitched together with thick wool thread.”
He continued. “The Scouts listened well and were interested in what I had to say. Some of them asked me questions to learn more. They thought about the life I had and wondered what it must have been like. Maybe they could relate to being in the wilderness, camping in the open.”
“I told them about how we are now trying to protect the environment. We are designating areas for conservation and prohibiting grazing and camping there. I asked the Scouts not to cut wood or destroy any trees when they come to the desert.”
“Finally,” said Quriyan, “and mainly for the adults, we discussed desert driving and how to avoid getting a vehicle stuck in the sand. I told them to deflate the tires, to maintain speed in soft sand and not turn too quickly.”
Quriyan spoke to the troop after writing in the sand, “One million welcomes for you. Quriyan 11/5/2022.”
Later, Quriyan departed and returned to his farm. The troop cleaned up and, as darkness fell, the camp grew quiet as the Scouts retired to their tents for the night.
“First thing the next morning we performed our flag ceremony with Cameron assisting the AOL Scouts,” Nicoli said. “Quriyan and his son, Nasser, returned to the camp and a ceremonial Troop 966 neckerchief was presented to Quriyan by Senior Petrol Leader Nicholas Guzman.”
Preparing for the flag ceremony.
Sunrise flag ceremony.
Nicholas Guzman presents Quriyan with a ceremonial neckerchief.
Nicoli, Nicholas and Quriyan.
After the ceremonies, the Scouts made a breakfast of pancakes and scrambled eggs over the campfire that had been lit at first light. “They also had fruit topped with whipped cream which, of course, the Scouts enjoyed,” explained Nicoli.
Finally, the troop finished with all their Scout work for the AOLs, cleaned up the area, picked up litter, and packed all trash and garbage. The tents and equipment were then loaded into the vehicles.
The caravan, again led by Quriyan, retraced their route across the sand to where the paved road begins near Quriyan’s farm. Everyone stopped and opened their car windows to wave goodbye to their host, Quriyan.
Later, back in Dhahran, Nicoli sent a message to his friend Quriyan (Abu Mohammed) about their memorable campout.
“Fantastic! Abu Mohammed, you are, without exaggeration, a great ambassador of Saudi Culture and Bedouin traditions to the American people and other foreigners who come to visit Eastern Province. I wish you all the best! Thank you.” - Nicoli
Nicoli and Quriyan continue to stay in touch, thanks to their shared love of the desert. Betsey Hawkins adds, “Nicoli works hard to build and maintain a strong relationship with Quriyan. Nicoli is a great supporter of and connection to Saudi Bedouin culture, and we are grateful and fortunate to have him, and his son Albert, in our Scout troop.”