Vignette from 'Life in the Camel Lane'

Prior to arriving in Arabia I had a conversation with a friend already in Kingdom about the possibility of us getting a pet. We understood it might take a few months before our large shipment from the US arrived with our personal belongings. Having had a miscarriage while on the short assignment in Japan, I had the notion that we needed to heal, and a pet would be an important addition. Our adage had always been “home is where the pet lives.”

My friend Mary did some great research and recommended we contact the Ras Tanura local Kennel Club, which was staffed by a Western vet a day or two per week, upon arrival in Kingdom. Mary had discovered that puppies were going to be born in Ras Tanura and the family would be looking for homes.

On a bright and early Christmas morning, a real live Western Santa Claus rang the doorbell carrying a crate with a huge gold bow with red trim (which we still have). Inside was a wriggling bundle of puppy energy. Lynsey was overjoyed and for a lifetime convinced that Santa Claus is for real. The puppy received a Japanese name, Satchi, in honor of our time in Japan.

About ten weeks after we arrived in Kingdom, Ramadan started. We had been prepped during orientation and by neighbors and friends upon arrival and were well aware of the rules. It is considered extremely bad form to eat or drink in the presence of someone participating in the fast. Foods were not to ever be eaten outside, and even in the corporate offices one had to be circumspect about drinking from the water fountains.

One morning upon returning from our regular walk I bent down to remove Satchi’s leash prior to opening the front door to our home. Just at that moment, the young Saudi fellow who lived across the street emerged from his house and headed toward the bus, his thobe billowing with the wind. In the split second before I opened the door, Satchi caught a glimpse of him and bolted as fast as his tiny legs would carry him.

When the young Saudi neighbor caught sight of the dog chasing him, he took off, which, of course, lured Satchi into believing he was involved in the best game of chase ever. There we were, a strange parade of a twelve-year-old Saudi boy chased by a small black furry ball with brown ears and me, a forty-something Western woman, in hot pursuit.

All I could think was, It's Ramadan. Are dogs bad luck during Ramadan? Is this kid really terrified of little dogs? What the heck is happening here? The kid arrived at the bus stop as the bus arrived and leapt through the air into the bus. Fortunately Satchi was too short to jump onto the bus, and while he danced around on his tiny back legs, I scooped him up to shuttle him back into the safety of our four walls. It took me some time to process the incident.

Eventually I shared the story in the Commissary with another expat, who explained that while many Arabs tolerated dogs and on occasion would keep them as status symbols, the majority of Muslims saw dogs as impure or dirty. If Satchi had touched our neighbor, he would have had to perform ablutions to cleanse himself prior to prayer. Thus, the flight response.

Clearly there were historical and cultural belief systems built up over hundreds of years that were all brought to the surface by a small incident. Usually it’s the tiny behaviors that bring the invisible beliefs to light. One of my first cultural sensitivity lessons was that in order to maintain harmony with the local population, I would need to control my dog at all times.

And yet, a similar incident occurred ten years later while living in Dhahran. A well-spoken, Western-dressed Pakistani taxi driver come to the door to collect one of us for a journey downtown. Satchi bounded to the door and attempted to bestow his enthusiasm upon this hapless driver. The fellow took one look and took off, goose-stepping all the way around our cul-de-sac.

I always regretted both these incidents. They really demonstrated the programming that our cultures have around animals and beliefs relating to custom, tradition and religion.

Yet there are exceptions to every rule, and just when I would come to understand something was not quite a stereotype but more like a traditional behavior, I would be proved wrong. In fourth grade, Lynsey had the opportunity to write a paper on salukis, a beautiful type of sighthound who hunt by using their sight rather than scents. Historically they were carried on camels and used by the Bedouin to catch game animals. Frequently people alluded to the fact that they might have been treated better than women. Salukis can run at recorded speeds of up to forty-two miles per hour. It was not uncommon for expats to fall in love with the breed and bring several salukis back home with them.

The community and compound sheltered hundreds of Arabs from many different nationalities and backgrounds, and one of the invisible barriers was their perspective on dogs. Many times we would be out walking with two dogs and be approaching a Saudi couple dressed in traditional garb of thobe, ghutra, abaya and niqab. Our instinct would be to shorten the leashes and keep the dogs away from them unless they made an active move to engage with us or the dogs. Many would engage, but one never knew what the reaction would be.

One day Lani was out walking with her beautiful golden spaniel. A Saudi couple were walking toward her, and the fellow started to holler and wave his hands in the air, gesticulating that she stop. Her reaction was, Oh, here we go again, more Saudis who hate dogs. However as she got closer she discovered there was a scorpion in the path and the Saudi fellow was seeking to protect her dog from danger. How easy it was to jump to conclusions, pigeonholing each other on the basis of previous encounters. A conversation ensued and a British fellow on the way past in a golf cart grabbed a club and took care of the scorpion while the Saudi couple petted and cooed over Lani’s dog.

Whether a Saudi would react to a pet, or whether they wore traditional or Western dress or if in fact they were practicing a behavior based on custom, tradition or religious belief was often a mystery.

In actual fact there was a terrific culture of support for the animals on the compound since Aramco hired two foreign vets to supervise the Kennel Club and offered services to all residents. We were the beneficiaries of those vet services throughout the care and keeping of four dogs and two horses.


Arrivals: Vignette from Life in the Camel Lane

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About the Author

Doreen Cumberford

A native of Scotland, Doreen Cumberford worked for the British Government in London and Cameroon in the mid-1970s, then an American corporation in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates immediately after. She has been an entrepreneur, coach, writer and speaker while traveling these last four decades.

Doreen has lived in seven countries on four continents, including the Middle East for 18 years. Doreen coaches, speaks and writes about using travel as a tool for transformation, together with the necessary mindset to process international transitions and constant travel with ease and grace.

Life in the Camel Lane, part memoir part primer, reveals stories from her time in Saudi Arabia, and is her 2nd book.