“It was No Arabian Nights at All”: Coming of Age in America’s Kingdom

By KEIJA PARSSINEN 

This was Arabia as a romantic imagination might have created it; nights so mellow that they lay out under the scatter of dry bright stars, and heard the silence beyond their fire as if the whole desert hung listening. 

—Wallace Stegner, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil

“When we arrived there [Aramco], it was no Arabian Nights at all. It was just a kind of shack, it seemed to me.… Air-conditioned shacks with a great big swimming pool in the middle with a canvas over the top.” 

—Mary Stegner to her husband’s biographer, Jackson J. Benson

My father took many compelling pictures during his decades in Saudi Arabia. One particular collection, found recently in a closet and labeled Interviewing in Saudi Camp, is dated 1979, when he and another faculty member at the Kingdom’s flagship University of Petroleum and Minerals (UPM) worked with students to document daily life in the camp.

Saudi Camp began as a thatch-hut slum abutting the ritzier “American Camp,” which was built for the white American executives of the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) in the middle of the twentieth century, when Americans flooded into the Kingdom as part of the first big oil boom. Thanks to a system of Jim Crow-like laws that governed Aramco, which was until the early 1970s wholly American-owned, Saudi employees were for years denied the many benefits that Americans enjoyed in their desert-bound suburban fantasia. In Saudi Camp, Saudi and other non-Western employees created their own community just outside the American Camp fence.

I had never seen the photographs before: young Dad squatting in a majlis, a cushioned sitting room, next to a group of Saudi men and boys, his notepad and pen forgotten on the floor as he listens to the bespectacled patriarch; a boy on a banana bike, thobe hitched around his knees, as he and his friends mug for the camera; a young man working the counter of a dry goods store, shelves laden with canned food tilting precariously behind him; and my favorite, two teenagers swaggering in front of what must be a thousand bottles of Pepsi stacked case upon case. 

UPM was not officially affiliated with Aramco, but it served as a kind of feeder institution. Many of my father’s students were the sons of Aramco executives who would themselves go on to work for the company. My father, a social sciences professor, had undertaken this particular research project because, by the 1970s, Saudi Camp was considered a blight and was set to be bulldozed to make room for new UPM dormitories. 

My father had earned his doctorate in international relations from the University of Southern California, where he met my mother, who was working as a secretary for the IR department while earning her master’s degree in psychology. Dad has always had a strong sense of justice, as well as a soft spot for underdog causes, and in the Saudi Camp project, he was able to satisfy both aspects of his personality. 

As my father and his colleague wrote in a scholarly article titled “The Development of Saudi Camp as a Community,” “Because the outsiders who controlled the Camp’s destiny could not, for a variety of reasons, identify the community with their own, it was torn down.” The article describes Saudi Camp as a tight-knit community, its narrow alleyways bustling with grocers and coffee shops, the large mosque with its distinctive egg-shaped roof dominating the landscape. 

Though the camp was a byproduct of Aramco’s discriminatory early housing system, it had become a real neighborhood that provided affordable housing to immigrant and Saudi workers alike. In polls, my father and his students discovered that most residents considered the camp a good home and found it both safe and well-functioning, despite a rat problem. In Dad’s black-and-white photographs, Saudi Camp is neither beautiful nor orderly, but it hums with life.

I like to imagine my father doing this scholarly work. Tall and handsome, he moved through the world with an easy confidence, his difficult personality not yet made intolerable by the mental illness that would later plague him. As with many white men of his generation, there seemed to be no limits on his mobility, no place in the world where he felt he didn’t belong. Whether in Saudi Camp or in a mountain village outside Beirut, on the backroads of Iran or in the university classrooms of Tunis or on an archeological dig in Jordan, my father felt at home. 

This comfort, I understand now, was the result of not just his affability, but also his racial and national privilege. In 1979, though the age of European colonialism was coming to an end, its aftereffects were still rippling out to most corners of the globe. In places like Saudi Arabia, American corporate imperialism, a highly adaptable and insidious cousin to its European counterparts, was alive and well. 

Born out of a concession agreement struck between King Abd al-Aziz and California oil company SoCal in the 1930s, Aramco later became a conglomerate of four American shareholding companies. The concession agreement stipulated that Aramco employ a certain percentage of Saudi workers and prepare Saudis for future executive roles. Out of necessity, the company trained thousands of Saudis for low-level jobs, but it was slow to train Saudis for the plum jobs filled by Western expats. For decades the King accepted the racialized status quo that dominated day-to-day company operations, content with the percentage of the profits given to the Saudi royal family, which increased with each new oil field discovered.

Although Aramco would gain its first Saudi CEO and become wholly Saudi-owned in 1980, after a slow and much-contested process of “Saudization,” Americans still effectively ran the company for years afterward.

Because American skills, innovation, and elbow grease at Aramco had pushed the Saudi state into modernity, for decades Americans enjoyed a privileged status at the company, and in the Kingdom. 

My father, first as a professor at UPM and then as a management trainer at Aramco, undoubtedly benefited from his American status, not only in his ability to secure a well-compensated job, but also in more abstract ways. To put it crudely and in language he would probably reject, he was a sahib moving through spaces created specially to fit white bodies like his. 

He also had charm and good looks on his side. I can picture what is happening outside the frame of those photos in Saudi Camp: Dad, quick to crack a joke, easy with his warm, bellowing laugh, always ready for slapstick hijinks. He probably pulled some funny faces to spark the open-mouthed grins of those kids by the Pepsi bottles, enjoyed clowning as the “stupid American” by spewing ill-pronounced Arabic curse words. 

Though Dad didn’t know it at the time, his years at UPM and Aramco from 1974 to 1992 would be some of his most fulfilling work, and one of his longest periods of gainful employment. 

ras tanura

My father did not, I think, connect himself with the caste system implemented by the early American “pioneers,” the executives of Aramco, though his father-in-law, my grandfather, was one of them. My grandparents arrived at American Camp in 1951, my four-year-old mother in tow, agents of and witnesses to the region’s modernization, and members of a privileged class of white, Western expatriates who enjoyed a quality of life not yet available to the vast majority of Saudis. Years later, Dad landed the job at UPM in part thanks to my mother’s long-standing connections to the Kingdom’s power elite, both Saudi and American.

Perhaps Dad did not connect himself to Aramco history for the simple reason that he did not arrive in the Kingdom to work at the company. He was first and foremost a teacher, an academic who enjoyed engaging with young people. Though never a hippie, he was shaped by that era’s politics of resistance. As an instructor at the Air Force Academy in the sixties, he had taken a stand against the war in Vietnam and was promptly fired. 

Indeed, a mild righteousness smolders subtextually in his writings about Saudi Camp. While hardly a polemic, the article tartly summarizes the unfortunate irony of the camp’s history: “Simply put, then, it was the process of modernization that caused Saudi Camp to come into being, and it was the same process which was to cause its destruction.”

It was not just modernization that resulted in the birth of Saudi Camp, of course, but Aramco’s inherently unequal system of modernization. In addition to receiving free and better housing, Westerners were also paid more, which Aramco attributed to “cost-of-living” differences in respective home countries. And for years, whites were the only ones permitted to use recreational facilities such as swimming pools, golf courses, and tennis courts in Dhahran, Ras Tanura, and other Aramco camps.

Despite his lefty beliefs, though, Dad never betrays his caste in the Saudi Camp article, focusing the critique on economic inequalities rather than racial or ethnic ones, dancing around issues of culpability with vague language, so that the white American executives become only “outsiders.”

While I would prefer to view my father as a kind of Fielding, the teacher in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India who defies Anglo India by siding with the “natives” over an accusation that reveals the ugly nature of power and race relations between the British and Indians, the colonizers and the colonized, in truth Dad did what many white expatriates had done before him: he plugged into the system that existed, and though occasionally critiquing it from within, he largely played by its rules.

 

The year scrawled on the envelope containing those Saudi Camp photos, 1979, was a turning point in modern Middle Eastern history. That year, the Iranian Revolution violently unsettled the region, inspiring the November takeover of the Grand Mosque in Mecca by Juhayman Al Otaybi and a small army of militants. 

To quell the uprising, the Saudi government brought in French special forces, who engaged in a two-week battle that killed hundreds of militants and hostages on holy ground. After executing the leaders and hanging their severed heads in the Kingdom’s four corners, the Al Saud appropriated and amplified the movement’s hardline religious messaging in order to counter their accusations of apostasy and hypocrisy. 

Clerics sympathetic to the militants were empowered, and the fearsome Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, or religious police, were sent into the streets of Saudi Arabia to enforce, often with violence, this severe brand of Islam. By co-opting and spreading Juhayman’s radical vision, the Al Saud were unwittingly sharpening the sword that would later be used against the Saudi government, the United States, and many other countries by Al Qaeda.

But on the placid streets of Aramco’s camps, life remained quiet. The company was, for the most part, adept at shielding foreign workers from regional tumult. Dhahran had always been a cultural bubble, a Westernized enclave where women could drive, men and women could eat together in the dining hall, and people could exercise in shorts. In many ways, this separateness from the local culture extended to politics. Outside the Aramco fence, Saudi Arabia was undergoing a significant transformation toward an authoritarian Islam, but inside it was business as usual. 

UPM was outside the Aramco bubble, though. Because of the political shifts happening in the country, the administration came under pressure to scrub the faculty of Westerners, and so urged my father and others like him to seek jobs elsewhere. Dad took a management training position at Aramco in 1980. By the time my nuclear family moved to American Camp, it had long since been scrubbed of its official national—and racialized—identity and was simply called Dhahran, or “Camp.”

Dad with upm

We lived in a ranch-style duplex, P-304 Prairie View, where Dad spent hours coaxing perennials from the unforgiving soil, and Mom prepared our simple meals on the kitchen’s laminate countertops, with ingredients purchased from the company commissary. Kids roamed freely around camp and spent long hours swimming at the company pools. Dads came home for lunch every day. The schools were excellent and diverse, drawing from South Asia and around the Middle East. It was a “mini United Nations,” as one former principal joked. From time to time, my parents hosted large dinner parties for their American and Arab friends, erecting folding tables beneath the ficus tree in the backyard and passing around coveted bottles of moonshine (“white” and “brown,” in the company parlance) that my father had cooked in his garage still. Some weekends, I’d pile into an old white Nissan piloted by my best friend Lisa’s father, Bill, and he’d drive us far into the desert. On those trips, I remember being awestruck by the desert’s immensity, its lonely grandeur. We built fires in caves of white rock, watched palm-sized black scorpions swim in and out of the sand, slept beneath a sky white with stars. In the pre-internet, pre-shopping-mall Saudi Kingdom, we had each other, and we had the land, and from this we forged an entire world.

Perhaps this is why Brats, as the children of oildom are called, are so protective of their memories. As one recently wrote to me, she doesn’t ever want to return to the Kingdom, because “I prefer to keep the wonderful untainted memories I have in my head and also to read other people’s memories of what was then a magical place and childhood.”

Brat loyalty to time and place is powerful and enduring, and there are reunions every year so people can bask in the warm light of nostalgia. Sometimes the pull of memory is so strong that Brats seek to reclaim the past by returning to Saudi as adults, like my mother did. Mom helped Dad get the job at Aramco, and relished the chance to go home—to camp. 

I was born that year, 1980, and my brother John followed four years later, much to our eldest sister Tarja’s dismay. Dad worked nine to five, and Mom started a ballet school for the company children, putting on elaborate performances in the Dhahran Theater: Scheherazade, The Tin Soldier, and The Little Mermaid. I recall the devastation I felt watching from backstage, behind the heavy velvet curtains, as my sister, in the starring role, turned to sea foam at the end.

Summers, the company paid for us to go on “repat,” repatriation to our countries of origin. En route to see family in California, we would stop each year in a region of France called Haute-Savoie. There, my parents rented an ancient, ramshackle farmhouse with green shutters in the foothills of the Alps. My siblings and I would play naked in the icy waters of the animal trough out front, staining our mouths purple with ripe plums and cherries plucked from the trees across the street. In the afternoons, we would wander up the hill to our landlords Henri and Madeleine’s house, where we kids picked produce in the sprawling vegetable garden and antagonized the sheep and chickens while Mom and Dad had aperitifs on the patio. 

 

In 1992, we left Saudi Arabia “for good.” Tarja had graduated from the ninth grade, the terminal year at the company school, and while my sister’s classmates headed for boarding schools across the world, my mother was determined not to subject Tarja to the fraught prep school experience she had endured three decades before. So Dad took “early retirement,” and we moved to Austin, Texas, a place popular with Aramco retirees but which we had never visited before. 

Though the move had been intended to keep our family together, back in the States, we fell apart slowly, almost luxuriantly. Dad made the mistake of quitting Aramco with no job lined up and, at fifty-two years old, struggled to find his footing in the American economy. To help keep us afloat, Mom delivered “Welcome Wagon” baskets and sold ads for the local newspaper, while Dad stayed home, doing endless loads of laundry and brutally landscaping our yard, hacking at scrub cedar, planting a nostalgic date palm in the middle of the circle drive. Mom even tried to resurrect her ballet business, but without the captive audience inside the Aramco fences, it floundered. 

From the moment we touched down in Texas, I felt alienated and resentful. My classmates had never heard of Saudi Arabia, and I was galled by their Dooney & Bourke purses and Cole Haan loafers, their obsession with shopping malls. I missed the rugged simplicity of life in camp and wrote hundreds of letters to my friends back in Dhahran. Neil’s dated every girl in sixth, my friend Marlo informed me, snitching on my old fifth-grade boyfriend. I started writing a novel about a Bedouin girl who rides her horse into the desert and gets lost. Temporarily returned home in those pages, I found a balm. 

After four hard years in Texas, my father hatched a scheme to keep our family afloat financially and alleviate some of the strain on the marriage: we would rent out our suburban home and move to France, where we’d live on the top floor of Henri and Madeleine’s chalet. Never mind that Dad had no income prospects, or that I wouldn’t be able to enroll in school on a visitor visa. To my dad’s optimistic—and perhaps delusional—mind, these were logistical impediments that would work themselves out. The point was to get to France, where we had been happy; more specifically, where he and Mom had been happy. 

A couple of weeks before we were set to leave for Brenthonne, though, the cockeyed plan proved too much for my mother and she balked. We broke the lease agreement with our renters, I re-enrolled at Lake Travis High School, and the dream of France disintegrated. 

Because, in the end, it wasn’t a dream of France at all. It was a dream of Aramco and the days when company money had flowed easily into Dad’s pockets; when the five of us could clamber aboard a 747 and fly across oceans as easily as we caught the bus to school every morning. Without those petrodollars, we never would have had France.

 

When I landed at Princeton at the end of the millennium, I enrolled in Arabic 101 and an introductory class in Near Eastern studies, grasping for connection to Saudi Arabia. But I dropped out of Arabic midsemester, overwhelmed by the work and fearful of getting a B. With each passing year, I felt further from the place I had loved with such consuming tenderness.

Sophomore year, Dad quit his job stocking shelves at Sam’s Club and left Texas for parts east, sleeping for a while on a green La-Z-Boy in the living room of Tarja’s Queens apartment. He was waiting, he said, for a job to materialize in Turkey, where a former Saudi student of his, Nabil, was starting a company. By Dad’s magical thinking, moving closer to the ocean he’d have to vault across to take the job was progress, or maybe demonstrated his seriousness to Nabil. I can catch the next flight at JFK—just say the word.

Nabil sent Dad an ancient laptop—later, I learned he sent him cash, too—and Dad waited, first on that overstuffed green chair in Long Island City, and later at an apartment near the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study. He used to turn up at my quad in Witherspoon Hall to see if I wanted to go grab coffee with him and would grow aggrieved if I declined. While my friends loved “Big Jon”—he was affable and prone to grand gestures, like treating a large group of my friends to a Chinese dinner he couldn’t afford—they doubtlessly wondered what the hell he was doing on campus. For my part, I was mortified. 

Eventually my father abandoned that apartment and his job hopes and moved back to Texas to work as a sales clerk at Dillard’s department store. My sister, Tarja, ever the responsible firstborn, lived in that Princeton apartment for the remainder of Dad’s lease, commuting an hour and a half to her publishing job in Manhattan every morning.

Against this backdrop of familial decay, I clung ever tighter to my fading memories, burnishing the myth of us that had existed inside the Aramco gates. The comfort of this mythmaking saw me past the grief of that time—suicidal thoughts, an eating disorder, my mother’s alcoholism, Dad’s work struggles, the ongoing money troubles running a dark current through the years. Our family’s descent into what would be called ruin, if we inhabited an Austen novel. But in late-twentieth-century America, we were only dysfunctional.

But you’re the Parssinens, a friend from Saudi said in bafflement when I told her my parents had divorced. The perfect family. While we weren’t perfect in those days, we were happy. A happiness, I now see, that was bought and paid for by a company that well understood how to secure the loyalty and complicity of its annuitants and their families: make the golden handcuffs as comfortable as possible. 

 

The events of history, however, have a knack for eroding mythologies. The attacks of September 11 happened roughly two years after my parents divorced. I was just starting my junior year when the Twin Towers became first plumes of black smoke and then ghostly lights haunting the Manhattan skyline. Tarja was still commuting into the city from Princeton. On the morning of September 11, she had just arrived to her Midtown office when the first plane hit. 

When I learned that fifteen of the nineteen hijackers were Saudi, I was shocked. I was twenty years old, trying to find my way in the world, still reeling from the trauma of losing my family. Though I was aware that Aramco, as the linchpin of the Saudi-American relationship, might be somehow connected to the violence, I lacked the will to investigate. Perhaps because I sensed it might mean the destruction of my homeland myth. 

Instead, I turned away from politics and further into myself. I pursued unavailable men and rejected the available ones. I got drunk and danced at the annual masquerade ball. I attended lectures on Tudor history in wood-paneled rooms. I lay on velvety college greens with my friends, talking about nothing and everything, including September 11 and the war in Afghanistan. The conversations revolved around our shock and grief over the attacks; we spoke from a place of raw emotion, stripped of facts or history.

I’m chagrined to admit I laughed along when my friends jokingly called me Islamic fundamentalist because of my birthplace. I didn’t yet comprehend what had birthed that violent fundamentalism. And I still thought of Aramco as only a company, an anodyne corporate entity that provided jobs to my grandfather and father.

Of course, private profit has long been at the heart of imperial ambition, whether in King Leopold II’s Congo Free State, which amounted to a country-sized rubber plantation, or in the East India Company’s dealings that stretched from Iran to Hong Kong. History holds that Ibn Saud gave the oil concession to the Americans of SoCal in 1933 because he mistrusted the British, who were interfering in the domestic affairs of neighboring tribal leaders in Bahrain and the Trucial States (today the United Arab Emirates), then part of the Raj’s Persian Gulf Residency. 

Indeed, the American oilmen in Saudi were not guided by a traditional “colonial trinity” of state, missionary, and private company interests. They aimed only to turn a profit and enrich themselves and the shareholding companies. For years, the United States didn’t bother sending official representation to Saudi Arabia, instead relying on the company to maintain diplomatic ties. It was only during World War II, once oil became a precious commodity, that the American government took an active interest in the dealings of Aramco. Uncle Sam has been keeping close watch on Saudi Arabia ever since, even sending half a million American troops to protect the Aramco installations from Saddam Hussein.

Those troops, some of whom we hosted at our Dhahran house for our last Thanksgiving in Saudi in 1991, stayed for years after the Gulf War, galvanizing Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda, who viewed them as an occupying force. While Operation Desert Shield was not technically an invasion of the Kingdom, neither was it the Liberation of Paris, and many average Saudis objected to the American military presence in their homeland.

After Saddam’s retreat from Kuwait, my fourth-grade class took a field trip to one of the oil spill sites he had left in his wake. I remember how angry I felt watching the birds and sea creatures struggling for life under layers of crude. For weeks, the fires Saddam set in the Kuwaiti oil fields blackened the skies over Dhahran. Now I have asthma, a small memorial to my Saudi childhood staked in the fleshy folds of my lungs. 

That spring, I always had my little pink radio tuned to the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service, or AFARTS, which I said with ten-year-old relish. Some Saturdays, the soldiers hosted big buffets on the nearby base for Aramcons and their kids. We Brats were eager to clamber onto the heavy machinery that had defeated evil Saddam, and to pose for pictures with the soldiers, who were like celebrities to us.

In Al Khobar, a neighboring city, shops sold shirts celebrating the victory. I remember one had a cartoon Saddam charging forward on a camel, brandishing a sword and yelling, “Holy War!” Then, underneath, a companion frame: Saddam rushing back, this time screaming “Holy shit!” That Saddam was member of the secular Baathist party didn’t matter—it has always been easier for Americans to digest the us-versus-them dynamic that animates the holy-war narrative. 

Bin Laden’s brand of political Islam, born in the mountains of Afghanistan, was brought to bloody fruition over America’s neocolonial presence in Saudi Arabia. Aramco’s oil apparatus was the root cause of the American military presence and empowered two entities bin Laden detested: American imperialists and the Al Saud, whom he viewed as apostate, like Juhayman had before him. There is a direct line that runs from the Khobar Towers bombing in 1996, just a few miles away from my childhood home, to the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings in Dar es Salaam and Nairobi, to the attacks of September 11. 

Inside the Aramco bubble, I felt none of this hostility, and could not have fathomed the coming violence—that sown by Al Qaeda or the American government, which used the attacks on U.S. soil to wage endless war on the Middle East. During the spring of 1991, I was simply proud to be an American, even while I felt my feet firmly rooted on Saudi soil. My two homelands nested comfortably in my child’s mind as allies, even friends.

 

In the summer of 2003, my father did finally manage to hurl himself back to the Middle East. I had just graduated and was planning to move to New York when Dad announced that Hamad, one of his wealthy Saudi buddies, was hiring him to work in Tanajib, a dusty outpost along the Saudi-Kuwait border. Instead of a manicured compound with a swimming pool, there would be a studio apartment with a hot plate and toaster plugged in beneath the television. But there would be an income, and that was enough.

While I was relieved that Dad had found work, I was also afraid for him. It seemed unwise for him to embed himself in Saudi with two U.S.-led wars raging nearby and anti-American sentiment booming. Within a year, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula attacked the Oasis compound in Al Khobar, the city where I was born, killing twenty-two people, mostly foreign nationals. A month later, the American contractor Paul Johnson was beheaded outside Riyadh. Several attacks on Aramco oil installations were thwarted. 

Thousands of miles away, I took trains to work in a New York City on high alert. Soldiers patrolled subway stations cradling automatic weapons that recalled to me the guards at Aramco’s main gate, the threat against American interests no longer contained to distant places like the Arabian Peninsula. The Aramco guards had been armed long before the Gulf War, and because it had always been that way, it had seemed normal to child-me. Now I saw that we American Aramcons had been a protected class in more ways than one. 

It was during these tense years that I started to read about Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-American partnership, burying fear for my father’s safety beneath piles of books checked out from the New York Public Library. It was as if I hoped this new knowledge might protect Dad from the desperation that had forced him to return to a place that American interests had lethally destabilized. 

Perhaps I was finally ready for this knowledge because by this point I had lost the things my ignorance had previously protected—my perfect family, my sense of a homeland. I didn’t want to destroy my personal memories of an idyllic childhood, but I felt compelled to understand how such an idyll could exist in the Saudi Arabia of the eighties and nineties, in the age when Juhayman’s extreme message resonated through mosques and issued from the mouths of firebrand clerics emboldened by the state; when bin Laden turned his warrior’s focus from the USSR’s presence in Afghanistan to the Americans’ in Saudi Arabia. 

While I galloped my horse at the hobby farm, dove for coins in the deep end of the Third Street pool, and ate pomegranate seeds for recess snack on the playground of the Dhahran Hills School, the wheels of fate were already turning outside the Aramco fence.

 

Recently, an Aramco Brat posted to Facebook: 

Let’s cut the bullshit: To all the brown people who lived with us in Saudi Arabia, our parents were payroll discriminated against and paid less than their white counterparts just because of who we were. We also did not get the same benefits and entitlements. Nobody created a hashtag or movement to save our ass. We just suffered and took the bullshit because we did not have much choice. 

Another Brat, named Osman, then shared his family’s story of discrimination at Aramco, lamenting the fact that his Pakistani father, who held a master’s in mechanical engineering, made less than the American high-school-aged Brats who took summer jobs with the company. 

Several people responded to attribute Aramco’s payroll system, which paid people differently based on nationality, to “cost-of-living” differences. Still more said it was not racist but merely “market-based,” as if markets were not places where racism is deeply encoded; as if something couldn’t be both a product of the market and racist. Finally, some people took the line that Saudi Arabia had set the terms, so they were to blame for any discrimination. 

I added to the thread by sharing photo excerpts of America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, Robert Vitalis’s important 2007 history of racism at Aramco, to prove that the laws were set in place by American executives, in keeping with race-based divide-and-conquer labor strategies adopted by other American transnational mining and oil companies:

All firms paid miners, drillers, and other skilled and unskilled labor different wages according to race. And ending the racial wage became the issue that pitted the subordinate races against not only the white owners and managers but also the privileged caste of workers in strike after strike across the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The full panoply of Jim Crow institutions, from segregated housing and differential access to services to the degradation and humiliation of white supremacist thought, worked to buttress the labor-control regime. (Vitalis 19)

In the early days of Aramco, before and during my grandfather’s tenure, white bosses were often referred to as sahib, and in turn frequently dubbed Arab and South Asian laborers coolies. And then of course there were the starkly segregated residential camps: American Camp, Indian Camp, and Saudi Camp. White Americans enjoyed recreation facilities, air-conditioned ranch-style houses, and fresh produce at the commissary, while the Saudi and Arab laborers who constituted the bulk of Aramco’s workforce endured dirt floors, palm roofs, and no running water.

In 1945 these workers began to organize against the disparities, causing Aramco to eventually rename American Camp “Senior Staff Camp” as an attempt to reframe the segregation as resulting from skill level and not race. It was an example of the scrambling and rationalization that Aramco public relations had to continually engage in to make the company’s unsavory decisions more palatable to politicians and taxpayers back home, and to the Saudi King. But the fact that white female secretaries, who would not have received the grade code to become senior employees if not for their white skin, lived in “Senior Staff Camp” exposed the disingenuousness of this rebranding. 

To manage these inconvenient truths, Aramco built a formidable PR machine. Over the years, the company’s public relations produced a feature film, oversaw the publication of a glossy magazine called Aramco World, and published several coffee-table histories reinforcing the myth of Aramco’s exceptional benevolence toward the Saudi people. 

These hefty, full-color books remain scattered across my mother’s library and my own. The production value is high: the photographs are vivid, the writing sharp, even when animating dull subjects such as a history of training. Look! they declare. We built a railroad! We started a farm program! We provided healthcare! But the railroad and farms were largely built to benefit the King, not the Saudi people, and what Vitalis described as the “fly-infested” Arab hospital remained dismally equipped for years.

In the mid-1950s, the company solicited a frontier history of the early Aramco geologists’ “miraculous” feat from future Pulitzer Prize winner and writer of the American West Wallace Stegner, who churned out a manuscript in thirteen weeks, and who, at the request of then-Aramco chief Tom Barger, excised any references to coolies and sahibs. Stegner also conveniently ended the narrative in spring of 1945, before the labor troubles began: 

Many of their greatest accomplishments were still ahead of them, and the American involvement in Middle Eastern economic, cultural, and political life that Lloyd Hamilton had begun at Jiddah in 1933 would grow deeper, more complicated, and more sobering. … But that is another story. This one is purely and simply the story of a frontier, and the return of the seven war-exiled wives to Dhahran’s makeshift airstrip in February 1945, is as good a date as any to mark its passing.

Despite these hagiographic capitulations, Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil was buried for years afterward by the company brass, which could not abide even the mildest scrutiny. When the story was finally serialized in Aramco World, it had been heavily edited, against Stegner’s objections, which he had articulated to Aramco management via letter in January 1958: “The sort of editing that strikes the ‘God’ out of all ‘God damns’ and … wants all personalities ironed out to a Florentine flatness seems to me simply timidity.” 

He goes on: 

As you know, this kind of book may be either of two things: It may be frankly a Company history, written by Company employees according to Company specifications and published with the Company’s backing or at the Company’s expense. This makes it, essentially, a public relations job. Or it may be a book written by an outside observer, with more or less cooperation from the Company and with greater or less access to its records, but representing his interpretation of people and events and published under his name and at his responsibility. Done on this basis, its aim is the truth of history insofar as its author can attain it, and not the immediate and uncritical promotion of Company purposes and prestige. 

The copy of the book that I own is a compilation of the “abridged” Aramco World serializations and was published in 1971. It sports a pulpy cover and is inscribed PFM & AHM 1954–1968, Ras Tanura, Saudi Arabia. The original, unedited Stegner book, absent the corporate slashings, sits in an archive at the University of Utah.

 

On the Brat Facebook thread about pay disparities, one older Brat commented to me: “Try as hard as you want, you will not ruin [the memories] for us. We were all happy, we all progressed … if there is one group that can arguably consider themselves citizens of the world and extremely non-racist, it is Aramco Brats.”

Vitalis posits that Aramco’s mythology remains unshakeable in part because of “sons and daughters who want us to believe the best about their parents.” And the loyalty of the mostly white Brats is itself a product of structural racism. As Vitalis elucidates, the very benefits that made life in Dhahran so good, and people’s memories of that time so rich, were meted out by Aramco with calculated precision to a tiny, largely white minority to engender loyalty and secure labor stability. Not everyone was “happy,” as the chief beneficiaries of this system—white Aramco families and their children—would prefer to believe. Aramco’s discriminatory practices were painful for the people they marginalized.

After the episode on the Brats Facebook page, I reconnected with an old classmate who holds Jordanian and American citizenship. He recounted how a vice principal at our school once berated him when he was a first-grader, telling him he was a “terrible kid” who needed to be well-behaved “like the other American kids.” It was only years later that my friend realized the racism inherent to that statement. This casually inserted bias might explain his father’s lack of emotion when he retired from Aramco and left Saudi Arabia for the last time. My friend, who by then had returned to Saudi for a job, described his parents’ departure to me in a message:

We got to the airport. My mom was crying a lot. They checked in and I kissed and hugged both of them and they went to passport control. I stayed and watched behind the glass. My mom kept looking back yet my dad didn’t look back once after thirty-two years of living there. He opened up only after he retired, about the absurd favoritism, varying standards, and toxic environment in the workplace.

In this instance, “leaving for good” might be replaced with “leaving for better.” My friend’s parents were going home to Jordan, where they would no longer be treated as second-class citizens. I doubt that this man or his wife dream of Saudi every night the way my mother does.

 

Recently, my family gathered at a cottage on the banks of the Susquehanna River in belated celebration of my fortieth birthday and my father’s eightieth. My siblings and I held our breath as we watched our parents interact. Would Mom start drinking? Would Dad start shouting? A bad knee kept our father chair-bound, the hulk and loom of his large frame diminished. We fluttered around, bringing him cups of coffee and tumblers of whiskey, turning up the volume on his favorite songs, each humbled by the new roles that aging had assigned us. 

At some point, talk turned to Aramco and meandered to our “house boys,” the men who cleaned our home and sometimes drove us to school on the backs of their scooters. They hailed from India and Sri Lanka mostly, lived together in dorms, and sent money back to their families. 

“I can’t believe we called them that,” I said.

“Raja was great, but Cleetus was always on the make,” my mother said. “He never wanted to take his annual trip home when we went on repat. We paid his salary, but if we were gone, he could make extra cash working for other Aramco families.”

“But if he could make a little more money, why wouldn’t he want to do that?” I asked.

We sponsored his visa; we paid his salary. It was a huge inconvenience for us whenever he took leave while we were still in camp. We were his employer, and he should have done what was best for us.”

We went back and forth for a while, my usually progressive-minded parents united in their disgruntlement over Cleetus’s sneakiness, I indignant that they couldn’t see that prioritizing his own needs was perfectly normal in the course of employer-employee relations. “Cleetus made pennies on the dollar compared to Dad’s salary,” I protested. “It wasn’t exactly an easy life, being a servant in Saudi, away from his family.”

“He had it easier than most, being at Aramco,” Dad shot back, as if our community were immune to inflicting the well-documented abuses of the servant class in the Kingdom. I recalled how, when I returned to the Kingdom as an adult and stayed with a Saudi-Turkish family in Dhahran, their Sri Lankan maid had one day, in hushed tones, begged for my help to get home because her father was ailing and she hadn’t seen her children in years. But my stay ended the next night, and I departed not knowing how to assist her.

I realized I was not going to change my parents’ minds, so I excused myself to the bedroom, heart thudding from the conflict. My sister came in, rolling her eyes.

“It is what it is,” she said as she started to change out of her exercise clothes. “They’re a product of their generation.”

That afternoon on the Susquehanna, my parents were talking past each other. Because it wasn’t a question of employer-employee relations at all, but one of caste. Cleetus had refused to recognize his place in the caste system, which required the subjugation of self to that of his white American bosses. 

kids in Saudi camp

Tarja told me that once, when she was about ten, she was playing with a friend near the mini-golf course. My sister left to use the bathroom, and when she returned, her friend was crying. The friend said that a gardener had exposed himself to her. Later, Aramco security came to question Tarja. They gave her a thick book of photographs, and finally she pointed to one at random. She felt bad because she knew he was going to get into trouble, but she also wanted to help her friend, who had suffered. So she pointed, understanding even at ten years old that her voice mattered more than the South Asian migrant worker’s.

In his introduction to Albert Memmi’s The Colonizer and the Colonized, Jean-Paul Sartre writes, 

There are neither good nor bad colonists: there are colonialists. Among these, some reject their objective reality. Borne along by the colonialist apparatus, they do every day in reality what they condemn in fantasy, for all their actions contribute to the maintenance of oppression. They will change nothing and will serve no one, but will succeed only in finding moral comfort in malaise.

Aided by company propaganda and the easy comfort of good memories, white Western Brats and their parents have found many ways to reject the objective reality of Aramco’s role in the exploitive, violent history of Saudi-American relations, as well as the racialized dynamics of American Camp. 

This rejection encapsulates the privilege afforded by white supremacy not only in America, but also in the places where we exported this supremacy through imperial capitalism, such as Dhahran: White people can know that inequality exists, but refuse to digest its history or acknowledge our complicity in its propagation, and never let that knowledge act on our minds and spirits to create the kind of paradigm shift that would enable people, and countries, to heal. In this way, a man who served my family for years becomes, in memory, an uppity annoyance, a glitchy machine rather than a person.

In a recent New Yorker article titled “Operation Legacy,” Maya Jasanoff summarizes the postcolonial scholar Priyamvada Gopal’s assessment that Cyril Fielding, the teacher in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, realizes that he must become an ally to Aziz in driving the British out of India before he and Aziz can be friends. As I turned this idea over in my head, I recalled that Dad’s best working relationships at Aramco were with Saudis. My father had many Saudi friends, both in the workplace and out of it, and I don’t doubt the genuine affection that passed between them. But I also know that my father was in perpetual conflict with his white bosses and co-workers. Perhaps his relationships with Saudis lacked this friction because one of the unspoken and often nebulous effects of white supremacy is that a subjugated people learn not to criticize the dominant race; they must go along to get along and keep their heads down. 

Because of my father’s increasingly difficult personality, which we in the family have privately attributed to undiagnosed mental illness, Aramco was the only job he managed to hold down for more than a few years. Now I wonder if that fluke staying power was due to his whiteness and American passport, because of the power ascribed to those things and the latitude afforded their possessors in a deeply unequal system.

I also wonder if Brats’ unwillingness to face the facts of our existence in Saudi isn’t solely the unconscious refusal of a privileged population, but also the unconscious avoidance of a traumatized one. Most Brats were, after all, ejected from their homeland when their fathers hit retirement age and were no longer useful to the company. In that moment, they became people displaced by capitalistic and imperialist machinery, expelled without ceremony by the place they considered home. Many Brat friends and acquaintances cycled through boarding schools, never finding the right fit, or struggled with drug and alcohol addiction as young people. Brats have learned to gauze that formative childhood trauma in myriad ways, beyond a crippling nostalgia.

 

In the retrospective daydreams of my broken family, we often speak wistfully about what might have gone differently if Tarja had gone to boarding school and Dad had stayed on with Aramco for another fifteen years. Past the damp glisten of grief, visions of gold gleam behind our eyes. Money makes things easier, as anyone who’s ever felt its lack well understands. Though I am awakened to the truth of my Aramco childhood, I cannot forswear the benefits I reaped from it, chief among them my happy family. 

Best job I ever had, Dad likes to say. I know he’s remembering more than the work when he says it. In our nostalgia for a vanished way of life, we’re a little like Nabokov’s exiles, sitting in their fine but ragged furs in a café far from Saint Petersburg, lamenting their losses, or Scarlett O’Hara standing in the ashes of Tara. Like them, we have known a time of great material ease and happiness. Like them, we built generational wealth by participating in a stratified system of exploitation and unequal gain. 

Unlike them, we didn’t lose access to that system through revolution or civil war. Though Saudi Arabia did eventually nationalize the company, assuming control over Aramco and its profits, it was a soft transition that gave special prices and access to the American parent companies and maintained a substantial Western workforce. And so American Brats were able to continue their sheltered existence in camp, unaware of the shifting sands of power around them.

As for my family, my parents walked away from that life of their own volition, sure they could be successful back home in the States; that my father could plug into the economy and everything would be fine. But he couldn’t; he never did again. While the American economy is far from equitable, Dad had lost the sahib advantage, his troubled personality at last outstripping the privilege of his caste.

Like many white writers today, I am confronting privilege and reckoning with history, writing into my blind spots. At midlife, blaming one’s parents for the state of affairs, large and small, begins to fall out of fashion. For those of us who have spent most of our lives ensconced in privilege’s tower, it is time to come down out of it. To march, to phone bank, to canvass, to work our way out of systems of oppression upon which our towers were built.

My childhood myths were built to last by a multi-million-dollar propaganda machine, so it is not surprising it has taken me half a lifetime to unlearn them. But history, personal or otherwise, is not a set narrative bound in a book, but something organic and in flux, adapting as new information comes to light. Painful as it is, perspective shift is possible. 

Dad has spent the last decade in Vallejo, California. Afternoons, he takes long walks with a man he calls Crazy Mel, who smokes medical marijuana as they amble along. Lately, wildfires have rendered the sky overhead the hazy orange of a nuclear winter, and I wonder if it reminds my father of those long-ago Saudi dust storms, the infamous shamals, back when he was Dr. Jon striding into the Aramco offices, leather briefcase swinging at his side.

 

Keija Parssinen is the author of the novels The Ruins of Us, which received the Michener-Copernicus Award, and The Unraveling of Mercy Louis, which earned an Alex Award from the American Library Association. She is currently an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Kenyon College.

[Purchase Issue 22 here.] 

Photographs courtesy of the author.

“It was No Arabian Nights at All”: Coming of Age in America’s Kingdom

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