Palace of Emir Saud bin Jiluwi, Hofuf - John Lunde 1952
This is a dramatized narrative based on actual events and characters. The last line is a verbatim quote from my dad Tom Barger who was there.
Until 1953 it was legal for Americans to drink alcohol within their compounds. HM King Abdul Aziz ibn Saud granted this privilege to the oilmen in appreciation of their heroic efforts to extinguish the runaway oil fire at Dammam #12 in the summer of 1939.
So Aramco operated a liquor store based on a monthly ration coupon basis and served beer in the Stag Club where the guys gathered to relax, play cards, shoot billiards or the breeze. It was a men’s club, not entirely by choice; for most of its history there were fewer than a dozen single women in the whole camp.
So it’s a late Thursday afternoon in 1952, and two of the foremen in charge of building Dhahran’s air conditioning network are playing cribbage in the club, enjoying their day off. I’ll call them Don and Paul. Don is a stout, brash plumber who is sensitive about the bulging spare tire saddled around his waist. Paul is a tall, slouching electrician with a hangdog expression like Walter Matthau. They’re both from New Jersey, having a few cans of Iron City beer — the only brand that Aramco served — talking about baseball, minding their own business, when Burt Simmons, the crusty, old-timer camp foreman appears at their table.
“Do you want the bad news first?”
“What’s the good news?” asks Paul.
“Well, from what I could patch together, I think the AC unit has probably blown a fuse. It should be easy to fix.”
Don says, “The bad news…”
Apologetically Burt says, “It’s in Dammam.”
“Dammam!” they blurt out together.
“Yes Dammam. At bin Jiluwi’s palace. Quint says to get it done.”
The son of Abdullah, one of the most famous warriors in Saudi history, Emir Saud bin Jiluwi is the governor of al Hasa, the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. He holds absolute dominion over the desert east of Riyadh, from Kuwait in the north to the boundless dunes of the Rub’ al-Khali.
Quint is a grasping, always-well-dressed assistant to the district manager who is on short leave in Beirut. As the acting district manager, there isn’t a thing in this world that he won’t do for Emir Saud bin Jiluwi.
Quint calls Burt, “Bin Jiluwi’s palace has gone down. There is no air conditioning. Get someone to fix it.”
“Wait a minute. What are you talking about? Why should I care?”
“Because. Because it’s bin Jiluwi.”
“Do you have a number that I can call back and figure out what’s exactly wrong?”
“Never mind. He said that the motor stopped. It’s probably a blown fuse. Get going. I promised him that we’d have some guys there in an hour.”
“His name is Selim. He’s the emir’s top guy. Ask at the palace when you get there.”
“No, them. Find some guys. Gotta go.”
Burt buys another round of Iron City, convinces Don and Paul that it will be a snap and offers to authorize two additional vacation days. This plan probably isn’t Burt’s best idea, but he is low on options and has other things to do.
Paul hops into Don’s completely fitted out Dodge Power Wagon, and they depart the Stag Club on the way north about 20 miles to Dammam. In 1952 there is nothing between Dhahran and Dammam except a few rocky ridges, a lot of flat desert and a lonely, two-lane asphalt road, barely populated by cabs, pick-up trucks, jitney buses and Kenworths. The Dodge doesn’t have AC, so the windows are down as they drive on.
Twice Don has to stop to let herds of camels cross the blacktop. In town, he is stalled on a narrow street behind a donkey cart heavily laden with sacks of dates. It has a flat tire.
Finally they pull up in front of the palace gate. There is an older, stone-faced guard in a khaki uniform holding a rifle with a fixed bayonet. Paul walks up to him and asks for Selim.
He glowers at the electrician and says, “Selim?”
“I don’t know. Selim. Selim!” Paul says loudly as he waves his hands in frustration.
As the alarmed guard raises his rifle and bayonet, Paul blurts out, “Selim. AC. Fix AC.”
It’s a funny thing, but almost immediately after the Americans arrived, AC became an Arabic word. The sentry relaxes and says, “Selim. Condition?” ( the Arabic synonym for AC )
“Yes. Condition. Selim.”
The guard is all smiles as he whistles up his youngest, scrawniest recruit to guide the guys, not to the palace, but to a low-lying building next to it. It’s the barracks of the palace guard. Before they can get out of the truck, a thin, middle-aged Kenyan with a sunken chest and thick, slicked-back, black hair, wearing a white polyester short-sleeve shirt and a ready grin, greets them in a broken English accent.
“Sahib. So good to see you. I knew you’d help.”
Don says, “Selim?”
“At your service. Yes sir, Selim. I’m company clerk for Abu Jumbia,”
“Yes sahib, Abu Jumbia – it means father of the dagger. He’s the governor’s chief body guard and commander of the company.”
Don thought he was driving out to fix the governor’s AC, but he is suddenly eager to please the Father of the Dagger.
Paul interjects, “How come you speak such good English?”
“Yes, sahib, I was a hotel clerk in Nairobi for many years. But then I came here.”
Don wants to know why, of all places, Selim came to Dammam, but he doesn’t have the heart to ask. Instead he asks where the AC unit is located. He and Paul quickly figure out the problem. A rodent has chewed into the mains power cable and shorted out both himself and the AC. It’s easy to repair, and less than an hour later they are driving back to Dhahran as dusk descends over the desert.
For some reason, almost lost to posterity, Don and Paul start bickering, then arguing with each other. Maybe it was the special bottle of Swedish Solvent in Paul’s toolbox that was talking. The two men start screaming at each other, louder and louder. Bubbling with anger, Don steers off the road, across the gravel shoulder and screeches to a halt ten yards away in the hard, packed desert sand.
The truck is still running as both men burst out the cab and attack each other before they even clear the hood. They grapple and fall to the ground. Paul gets stabbed in the side by a sturdy, desiccated twig half-buried in the sand. His distress allows Don to stand up and call him out. Paul staggers to his feet and says, “Give me your best shot, Doughnut Man.”
It’s on. They exchange wide, slow punches, charge and curse at each other in front of the Power Wagon’s headlights, which act as a stage-right, directional spotlight on a desert stage amidst the blackness of night. From the road, Don and Paul appear as silhouetted stick figures engaged in a stroboscopic, slow-motion Punch and Judy act.
This is a strange story based on actual events, but it becomes even stranger when a Saudi I’ll call Adnan comes driving by in his uncle’s ’49 Chrysler on an errand to Dhahran. Most every large family has an Adnan. Unmarried, late-twenties, he wants so many things but hasn’t the ambition to earn them. Plus, even his cousins find him a bit unreliable.
Inexplicably, Adnan screeches to a halt and launches himself into the fight. Nobody will ever know why he did this, but from the road now it looks like three stick figures grappling like Kabuki wrestlers in the desert.
Unfortunately for everyone involved, Corporal Aziz has checked out early from his post at the Dhahran police station and hitched a ride to Qatif in the cab of a dump truck filled with scrap metal bought surplus from Aramco. He is dreaming of a quiet Friday with his wife and kids when he arrives at the scene. As if you could miss it. Three guys panting and stumbling in the headlights of the idling Dodge truck.
Still in his uniform, Aziz wades into the exhausted scrum of three men, separates and talks to each one of them. Neither Don nor Paul nor Aziz understand a word spoken between themselves. Adnan is aggrieved. He tells Aziz that the two Americans robbed him of two hundred riyals.
The beauty of a dump truck is that it can always accommodate three prisoners in its bed and quite elegantly deposit them in front of the Dammam jail if necessary.
Friday morning, my dad Tom Barger, who works in Aramco’s government relations, drives to the Dammam jail. He brings the guys bottled water and rations of sardines, oranges, cheese and bread. Don and Paul, beat-up and hung over as they are, won’t say what the fight was about and neither of them had the slightest idea how Adnan appeared. All of the sudden he was brawling with them. They certainly didn’t rob him of 200 riyals.
Two days later, with his witty, well-traveled translator Suliman, Tom drives back to the courthouse in Dammam. It’s a wide room with a tall plaster ceiling and two languid fans barely rotating from above. The perimeter is lined with sturdy, upholstered bolsters to accommodate a crowd that isn’t there today. In the middle of the room are more than a dozen folding chairs in front of a battered teak desk that was probably new when T. E. Lawrence led the raid on Aqaba.
Behind the desk is the qadhi or judge. I’ll call him Shaikh Hassan. Close to 70 years old, he’s a small man with narrow shoulders, a long head, close-cropped grey hair, and four-day stubble. He’s wearing a white knit qaffieyh, skull cap, and a high collared, white thobe with a Mont Blanc pen in his front pocket. As the courtroom settles, his light grey eyes sweep the room like a magnet picking up iron fillings.
Shaikh Hassan states that there are two charges against Don and Paul: public disturbance and robbery for 200 riyals. Through Suliman, my dad, acting as a sort of defense attorney, explains that the fight was purely a matter of honor. Only between them, at night, in the middle of the desert halfway to Dhahran – as far away from the public as possible. As to the second count, they each made almost 200 riyals a day, so why would they rob Adnan?
Shaikh Hassan listens impassively, only his silver hawk eyes scanning my dad and Suliman, as they talk back and forth to make their case. Next, the plaintiff is called to testify.
Lean and handsome, wearing an immaculate, brilliant white thobe, ironed to perfection by his maiden aunt, and his red-and-white-checked ghutrah folded just right, Adnan states his case. After a few questions from the qadhi, he launches into a diatribe about Don and Paul that Suliman can barely translate fast enough. He rattles on until Hassan cuts him off with a nod of his chin.
Adnan’s story is that he was driving along, saw two Americans fighting each other, thought it was his civic duty to break up the brawl, intervened, and they robbed him of 200 riyals. Hassan asks him a few more questions and then calls on the first defendant.
Suliman beckons to Don who approaches the judge. The shaikh asks if he will testify under oath. “Oath?” thinks Don. He really wants to get out of the Dammam jail. So, sure, “I’ll swear an oath.”
The judge stares at Don for a long moment, rolls his chair back, reaches into his worn, wooden desk and brings out a thick, faded blue cotton bag. He lays it on the desktop, pulls out a large black book and motions to his bailiff who picks it up and delivers it to Don. My dad can’t believe what he is seeing. It’s a Bible.
Qadhi Hassan asks for the plumber’s oath on the Book of the Christians. With his hand on the Bible, Don pledges that he will only tell the truth. The bailiff retrieves the good book, and Hassan quizzes Don about the circumstances that night.
As he relates the events of that evening in a soft, hoarse voice, Don is downcast, haggard and weary. The shiner on his left eye is starting to mend – it looks much better than it did Thursday night. Whether it’s in Arabic or English, his body language speaks for a humbled, contrite man – who will certainly never do that again.
At the end of his testimony, Don states that neither he nor Paul in any way robbed Adnan. Shaikh Hassan silently considers his statement and then asks, “After this fight, is Paul still your friend?”
“Oh yes,” says Don, “He’s my best friend here in Arabia. We just had an argument about the Yankees and Dodgers.”
Suliman, the wiley and worldly translator, stumbles and falls at that last remark. Tom interjects in Arabic, “My honor, it’s called baseball, a game sort of like cricket for Americans. Professional players can make more than 50,000 riyals a year. The Yankees and the Dodgers are two famous teams who are angry with each other and bitter rivals.”
“And apparently their fans are hotheads, too,” Hassan thinks as he stares back at my dad. His youngest grandson Saif plays for a neighborhood soccer team in Dammam. He’s a bit of a soccer granddad and has a very low opinion of the team from Saihat.
The shaikh ends the proceedings without calling Paul. The three defendants are lined up in front of him as he announces that the count of public disturbance is dismissed. It was a private dispute until Adnan, who should have been minding his own business, jumped in.
On the second count the Americans are not guilty. He has asked around and discovered that Adnan rarely has more than 50 riyals to his name.
Hassan calmly looks at Adnan and says, “You have brought false charges against these men. Back to your cell for now.”
The hapless Adnan is dragged away by two guards. Don and Paul thank the shaikh before quickly retreating with Suliman to the company car. My dad lingers for a moment and approaches Hassan at his desk to thank him for his generosity to the AC men. They talk in Arabic for a few minutes before Tom asks the question he has been dying to ask – but probably shouldn’t, “Your honor, I was surprised that you have a Bible. Where did that come from?”
For the first time all day, the judge breaks character. Hassan’s face relaxes, a soft grin is almost a smile, those light grey eyes have a new liveliness. Looking up from his desk, he says, “Mr. Barger, you must know that we have been doing this for a very long time. We are all people of the Book.”
Earlier stories by Tim Barger are included in his collection Arabian Son.
ARABIAN SON: 21 Stories
by Tim Barger
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