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Compound Life

This week’s post is by 2017 OCH Fellow Keija Parssinen, Assistant Professor of English at the University of Tulsa and  author of The Ruins of Us, which won a Michener-Copernicus award, and The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, which earned an Alex Award from the American Library Association and was selected as a Best Book of 2015 by the Kansas City Star.

When people find out that I was born and raised in Saudi Arabia, their first question is usually, “What was that like?” My answer? Not as strange as you’d think. While Saudi Arabia and the United States are radically different countries in nearly every measurable way, I grew up on a compound called Dhahran, which was created by the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) for its employees and their families. Imagine a small American town plunked down in the middle of a forbidding desert landscape: Cookie-cutter homes nestled on suburban cul-de-sacs, swimming pools, baseball fields, kids careening around on bikes and skate boards. All of it enclosed by a twelve-foot chain link fence topped with barbed wire and guarded by Saudi police cradling AK-47s.

Ask any Aramco “Brat” about her experience growing up in the Kingdom, and she will likely gaze off into the middle distance, get a bit misty-eyed, and say dreamily, I had a perfect childhood. Every year, there is a “Brat” reunion hosted in some sunny, Southern locale, and the children of Aramco gather to swim, drink, and reminisce about the good old days. We are all friends on Facebook, our shared history making us members of a kind of club.

And yet, what did we know of Arabia? Many residents did not move outside the confines of their comfortable, Western-style existence and saw Saudi Arabia as a means to an end—that end being financial security and perhaps early retirement. We were expatriates, not immigrants; we didn’t learn Arabic in school. Our families were there temporarily so our fathers could provide necessary skills to a company whose homegrown work force was still developing.

The “special relationship” between America and Saudi Arabia touted by politicians was, at its heart, transactional. The Americans, starting with a few hearty and adventuresome geologists in the early ‘30s, provided expertise and technology to the emergent Kingdom. In return, King Ibn Saud granted the Americans a concession to vast swaths of the desolate Eastern half of the country, which would later prove to hold the world’s largest oil reserves. The Americans paid for the concession in gold bullion, and so Ibn Saud and his heirs grew rich, solidifying their shaky hold over the nascent country. Within a few years, World War II broke out and the United States found itself in desperate need of these newfound resources. 

Despite its benefits, the partnership with the Americans was a thorn in the side of the monarchy, which had to continuously justify the presence of thousands of non-believers to the religious establishment that helped bring the Al Saud to power, and who feared that the Americans would sow moral corruption in the heart of the Muslim holy land. To placate the clerics, the royal family assured them that there would be little to no cultural cross-pollination between expatriate employees and Saudis. Though the children of Saudi employees once attended Western-style Aramco schools, in the mid-80s the company removed all Saudi students to proper Saudi schools so that they could receive religious teaching, learn Arabic, and most importantly, stop fraternizing with their American counterparts.

As children, though, we Aramco Brats knew nothing of the politics underlying our families’ presence in the Kingdom. We knew nothing of our parents’ unrest and boredom. We could not yet define neo-colonialism or terrorism. But we knew the quickest way to the Third Street Pool, the best flavor of slushie to buy at the snack bar. We knew the grit of sand in our teeth during shama’al, the sound of thousands of locusts beating against our windows during plague-like infestations, and how to fall asleep on a trans-Atlantic flight. We knew the smokey flavor of chicken shwarma on our tongues and the sound of the call to prayer. We knew all of these things, and we loved them with an unquestioning, adamant child’s love. Despite its controversial place on the world stage, despite the fact that it didn’t really love us back, Saudi Arabia was only one simple thing to us: home.