Looking out into nowhere: the vast, empty expanse of Saudi Arabia's Arabian Desert
Is it possible to have a strong connection to a place without ever having been there?
Nearly every member of my family, other than myself, grew up in Saudi Arabia. My entire life I’ve heard countless stories about the Kingdom.
At age seven, during Thanksgiving dinner, I began a story with “One time when we lived in Saudi Arabia,” which sparked an eruption of laughter. That false memory was the first sign that I was, and always will be, inextricably tied to a land that I’d never seen, until several weeks ago.
Artifacts and Ancestry
Born and raised in America, both my mom’s and my dad’s fathers worked for the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco), known today as Saudi Aramco, the national oil company of Saudi Arabia.
Following my grandfathers’ employment, their families would expatriate to the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia – my mother’s family to Ras Tanura, my father’s to Dhahran. My mom and dad would meet in their teens, relocate to the states for college after having my sister, then my father himself took a job with Aramco which moved the family back to Dhahran where they lived until 1984, one year before I was born.
Since then, family gatherings have always involved reminiscing of years spent in Saudi Arabia. Stories of diving, sailing and desert exploration captivated me as I heard tales of a place that contrasted sharply with the images and headlines that the Western media associates with the Middle East.
My grandparents’ houses abound with trinkets and antiquities acquired from years of travel and adventure in one of the mystical places of the world. One of my family’s favorite activities was to venture deep into the desert and “pot-pick” by looking through the sand to find ancient artifacts such as arrowheads, pottery and other items left behind by Bedouins during nomadic crossings. Because the area in which they lived was so unpopulated, my family was able to acquire countless precious artifacts from as early as 2,000 B.C.
For years, these antiquities had been kept in excellent condition and proudly displayed under glass in my grandparents’ houses. Recently my dad and grandmother discussed the future of these precious artifacts. They realized that after they die and the artifacts are passed down to my generation, they will rapidly lose their sentimental value and are likely to be forgotten.
Fortuitously, near the time of this realization, Saudi Arabia’s Prince Sultan Bin Salman expressed an interest in collecting and preserving historical artifacts from his home country. In reaching out to the Aramco community, Prince Sultan’s employees contacted my grandmother, and over the course of several months she donated nearly 1,500 artifacts to the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, a museum in Riyadh that now houses an entire exhibit dedicated to the recovery of antiquities donated by expats like my grandmother.
In appreciation of her donations, Prince Sultan offered my grandmother the opportunity to travel to Riyadh to view the exhibit as well as other areas of interest around the country. For various reasons she didn’t feel up to the trip and suggested that my father and I go in her place.
The Trip of a Lifetime
This was it: my chance to see the land that had inextricably defined my life. I had all of four weeks to get a visa and prepare for a 12-day trip across the world.
After a bit of scrambling and next-day air packages, my father and I were set to take off for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) oversaw our entire trip and spared no expense in bringing nearly 30 people from all over the world to Saudi Arabia. The group consisted of other donators, professors of geology and history, and members of Interpol, UNESCO and the international press. Everyone was flown business-class from their respective corners of the world and put up in the Al-Faisaliah, a five-star hotel in the heart of Riyadh.
Walking from the terminal to the customs line at the Riyadh airport, I didn’t see a thing out of the ordinary. But as soon as I rounded the corner to get in line for customs I was met with a sea of people dressed in thobes and abayas. Despite all the stories I had heard about Saudi Arabia, it was still as foreign as it gets. Just trying to figure out which line we needed to be in proved to be impossible, as we weren’t able to find anyone who spoke English and all the signs were in Arabic.
After clearing customs, we found several SCTA employees holding a sign with our names who graciously welcomed us to the country and took us to our hotel.
The hotel was a monstrous marvel of modern architecture – a pointed skyscraper that stood several dozen stories high and sported a golden globe at the top. The concierge at the front desk told us that our stay included three meals free of charge at any of the hotel’s five-star restaurants.
I was too delirious to recognize that we were getting the royal treatment, and after making quick contact with loved ones back home, we went up to our separate rooms. That night I slept like a brick until about 5 a.m., when I was awoken by the morning call to prayer blasting from a mosque a couple of blocks from my hotel window. I went out onto the balcony to take in the city and the eerily soothing prayer call.
I was here, and ready to experience my first true culture shock.
Riyadh: Object of Spectacle
The next morning we briefly met members of our group, many of whom had known at least one of my family members while living in Saudi years ago. We were ushered onto a tour bus by our Saudi guide Jamal Omar who, along with other SCTA employees, served as a fantastic ambassador to his country.
The bus drive itself was a source of shock for me. Women are not permitted to drive in the Kingdom, and it shows in the testosterone-laden traffic. Lanes and traffic signals are only loosely recognized, as cars and trucks converge into a sea of automotive chaos. How we never got into an accident is a testament to the skill of our bus driver.
We arrived at the SCTA headquarters a bit nauseous. We were brought into a meeting room, asked to sit around a U-shaped conference table, and were soon introduced to Prince Sultan. The prince, who was very articulate, greeted us individually, and we thanked him for his help and for bringing us to his country. He briefly addressed us all and thanked us profusely for graciously returning so many artifacts to his country.
Following this meeting, a few of us stole away from the group to have lunch with Dr. Zahir Othman, the SCTA official who had originally contacted my grandmother and essentially formed this entire trip. A gracious host, Dr. Othman provided us with a delicious lunch at Farase Garden, a Lebanese restaurant near our hotel. During lunch, Elinor Nichols, one of the Aramco expats in our group, told a story about being stalked by a Bengal tiger while living in India. At this moment I realized that I was among truly interesting people.
Later that evening we went to the National Museum for the grand opening of the exhibit and were able to explore the massive space in its entirety. It was touching to see the section dedicated to the donations made by our group and especially moving to see my grandmother’s name on the wall next to one of her prize pieces – a nearly complete clay pot dating to 300 B.C.
After our tour of the museum, we joined a large group of Saudi nationals on a stage with Prince Sultan for a media-covered grand opening ceremony. It was quite an experience to be on the receiving end of hundreds of flashbulbs and television cameras. In the following days we'd see front-page articles about our group in all of the Saudi papers.
A Brief Reprieve
One evening following a conference we visited the al-Masmak Castle, captured by King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud, who established the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932.
Following a quick tour with the group, I ducked out of the castle and roamed the surrounding streets, hoping to take in the culture in less of a royal environment. In wandering around I found a souq (local market) lined with shops selling clothing, spices and rugs.
A few blocks from the souq, I joined in a soccer game with some children playing nearby and then found myself outside the entrance of a mosque during evening prayer. The silence and serenity of the mosque calmed me, and I began to understand how my family had grown so fond of this land.
(continued in Part 2)