Thursday, October 8, 2009

Saudi Sojourn

Camels have a reputation for spitting but they don't, it would be a waste of water. What they are actually doing is vomiting on you.

Whenever people find out that I grew up in Jubail, Saudi Arabia, they ask if I went to school on a camel. And sometimes… they’re serious. So for the record – we did not travel via camel to school. We actually had a school bus, the same bright orange one with the green seats that bounced when you went over a speed bump. The next question people ask is what I was doing in Saudi Arabia, camel, or no camel. Well, I moved to Jubail when my father, a civil engineer, was transferred there for work, when I was four. So, in the mid 1970’s, my family packed up our house in San Francisco bay area and moved to the Arabian peninsula, a newly industrializing country, flush with oil wealth.
Overall, there were pros and cons growing up in the Middle East, but the pros heavily outweighed the cons, and my memories are of an idyllic childhood -- we lived on compounds next to a long stretch of turquoise beach, where my girl-scout troop camped out. For kids it was wonderful – we had our own commissaries (with local and imported goods), swimming pools, tennis courts and dozens of playgrounds. We kids ran around like banshees from sun up to sun down, with school slotted in the middle. Our school, Jubail Academy, which I attended from Kindergarten to ninth grade, had the latest equipment (we were programming on an Apple IIe in the sixth grade), bright, motivated teachers and a library full of books (something I’ll have to talk about some other time). It was a very safe place, no one ever locked their doors – so it was kind of like Mayfield, USA – Leave it to Beaver right the middle of the desert. My best friend from the first grade is still my best friend, and we recently had an elementary school reunion, her in San Francisco, which over 130 students and faculty in attendance.
There were cons, of course – the ruling family of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, ran the country with a firm hand – especially since it was undergoing modernization and changing at supersonic speed. The Saudis have a culturally rich, and proud history and the rapid development of the 60’s onward was advantageous and traumatic at the same time. Taking a largely Bedouin society into the 21st century overnight was fraught with complications – we used to see Bedouin tents decked out with satellite dishes and range rovers parked next to them. Gas was 50cents a gallon and the highways were littered with broken down, luxury cars. Sadly, the expat community was segregated from the local population, though we did get to make friends with some locals who lived in our compounds. There were many rules and regulations, especially pertaining to women – you heard true, women could (and still cannot) drive. But in the end, it was an experience I would never trade in.

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