It was November when we stepped off a very long flight from Houston, Texas. When, I managed to get my bearings, my first thought was… Brrrrrr and then, Um, I thought they always said this was a desert.
To say that the weather was dreary was a tad understated. It was raining, and while Houston had included me wearing shorts and t-shirt sleeves, I was really wishing at this point that we hadn’t packed away winter clothing. Seriously… I swear they said it was a desert. However, my excitement about a new adventure almost overrode the jetlag and general psychological dissonance that Saudi Arabia was not sunny with palm trees and sand dunes like all the artwork I’d seen in the bibles and the Tales of the Arabian Nights floating around various family abodes in my youth. Aside from the shock that it just didn’t look the way I expected, I suppose it answered pretty well for an adventure. It looked in all other ways very different than where we’d started the journey.
It was beige. I don’t mean a little bit here and there. I mean it was varying degrees of a tan color that embraced buildings and surrounding land. It was also flat. Coming from mid-Atlantic United States and the Appalachian territory, I was more used to hills and green. This was another clue that we were no longer in Kansas… or in our case Tennessee.
We crossed the wet tarmac with spots of standing water… I swear they said desert… and made our way into the immigration and customs hall. I don’t recall a whole lot else. I possibly wrenched a neck muscle trying to take everything in, but for the most part, it was all a blur. Once we were through the technicalities of visas and luggage search for contraband, we made our way to receiving where our employee liaison met us and escorted us to our temporary lodgings. It was called the Babtain Building. I think it was originally built to encourage the Bedouin to come to the town/city and forgo their nomadic lifestyle. It went over about as you might imagine. The indigenous tribes of nomads were quite pleased with life as it was (thank you very much) and the very nice accommodations remained empty. This is how we came to be living in what would probably cost in the 4-digit pricetag in any city in the United States: Fully furnished with a full bath, huge tub, marble floors, full kitchen and two bedrooms with very high ceilings… and completely alien. The fixtures were European (and the bathroom included a bidet). I might also say that the elevator was an adventure in itself, since it frequently wanted to stop between floors. I thought it was a hoot. My parents were quite as impressed. Additionally, we were smack in the middle of Al Khobar. Talk about your culture shock. Our guide did take us around to local markets and out to eat at what was soon to become one of my favorite restaurants, The Gulf Royal Chinese Restaurant (home of the best hot and sour soup, EVER).
Returning home, I was excited. This was an adventure to me. The company had provided a box of basic supplies to start us off until we could do some shopping (though, to this day, I always wondered if the Campbell’s Cream of Asparagus soup was some sort of hazing ritual). I was exhausted and despite the jetlag, I found myself falling into bed… only to wake up to the sounds of what I knew to be crying. My mum. Unused to the marble and amazing carrying power of sound through the apartment, she thought she had escaped to cry in the solitude of the amazing bathroom. But I heard. I didn’t understand why she was crying, but I listened from my bed. To be honest, I didn’t even have a clue how to address this issue. Years later, I finally found out what prompted the tears. My mother thought she would never be able to navigate this alien world and find food and manage to keep us from famine and pestilence. I blame it on the jetlag and the immense amounts of Dramamine that was required to keep her from puking on the plane.
The next day, the cure for all my mum’s ills presented in a trip to the commissary (post exchange). The Dhahran Ladies Group managed to dispel all the woes and terrors my mother managed to concoct in her mind by the astoundingly western market. We were saved. There were shelves stocked with food items that had labels… in English. I know it sounds silly, but this was a serious fear of hers. After a couple of decades, she could go downtown and shop in the souk without blinking, but that first week, surrounded by tan landscape, unfamiliar smells (not all of them pleasant), and foreign fixtures, my dear mother who had never left the United States was suffering from some acute traumatic issues.
As it was, we managed to get through the end of November and Thanksgiving without any of the imagined concerns of dysentery or starvation. However… the month of December loomed with additional concerns. During orientation, we had been drilled on the customs of this new country we were calling home. We were informed of their religious laws and the fact that as a theocracy, there was no separation of church and state. Additionally, we had been told that anything that hinted at non-Islamic faith could get us into trouble ranging from deportation to execution.
Prior to the move, our family had a full calendar at Christmas. Aside from cantatas and choral shows, there were family gatherings. Christmas was a constant flow of lights and family and friends from mid-December through New Year’s. Now, we were in a country that we had been told might throw us in jail for a “Merry Christmas.” Queue the waterworks again. I heard mum in the night. This time, I had figured it out. We had packed away all the ornaments collected and crafted for years. There would be no smell of evergreen filling the home. In fact, I could read her thoughts, “We aren’t even going to have a tree!” Queue more involuntary ocular leakage.
Again, I’ve got to give it up to the Dhahran Ladies Group. First, they dispelled the horror stories pretty vehemently. While, our host country was not big on evangelism, they were not opposed to celebration of our Christmas holiday. In fact, in the main camp, people decorated much as people in the states did. There were tours of houses in the camp and their decorations. At night, for the houses lit up, many of the Saudis would bring their families and drive around looking at the lights. So… no jail time for having a little holiday cheer. Good to know.
But we still did not have a tree, much less ornaments to put on a tree if we had one. Queue the tear ducts. It was a rather depressing time. However, that is when we heard a rumor about a miracle worker and procurer of rare articles, Mr. Al Swami. That was the name. I’m not kidding. I never knew whether that was his real name or not. It was the name of the store. The best I can describe it is a cross between Hallmark and the convenience stores with tourist crap packing the shelves. It was a curiosity of Al Khobar that you might find Legos and Waterford crystal side by side in any given establishment. Well, the rumor was that you might be able to go to Al Swami’s and find, not a Christmas tree, but a Holiday tree. In my head, I had this scenario of sidling up to a swarthy man and saying “Psssst… know where I might get a… *looks around*… holiday tree?” As it happens… that is sorta what it worked out to be. My mother’s heart sank when the man looked at her with pity and shook his head. We were in danger of a flood… when, all of a sudden, the miracle occurred. Someone came from the back and it seems that a customer had returned shrubbery just that afternoon. Christmas… I mean Holiday… was saved! We were in possession of a lovely 4-foot fake tree. While there, we also managed to obtain some white fairy lights and a few ornaments. For whatever reason, it seems we also came away with something labeled “Real Plastic Snow.” Yes, we bought it for the comedic value (and I have it to this very day… yellowed through the years, which makes it even funnier than it was originally).
Our tree traditionally had been filled with colorful lights (those hot ones that blink and make patterns on the ceiling… and fire hazards), memento ornaments, handmade ornaments, and wrapped in gold garland, icicles (probably giving us lead poisoning), and popcorn and cranberry chains. It was a homey tree. It had tradition and memory on every limb. It had a star made of cardboard and aluminum foil, and a wreath made of computer punch cards sprayed gold hung on our door. It was a tree that spoke of lean pockets, but rich hearts.
Now, that was gone; packed away in a storage facility somewhere in the U.S. We had a short tree with no attachments to the past. Since there was no way to replicate our traditional tree, we elected to go a completely different route. We purchased ornaments in white and gold. It would be tasteful and generic, but it would work. We had managed to find cassette tapes of holiday music (very likely pirated). The little tree looked almost classy with the white and gold. One of our finds during the mad dash for holiday spirit was some needlework ornaments. Mum and I worked on the tiny little canvases and their intricate stitchery framed in brassy-looking plastic frames. It was a far cry from clothes pin toy soldiers and painted wooden animals, but it was hand-done and something to tie tradition to this new tree. It was our first Christmas in Dhahran. Through the years, the little gold and white tree gained new ornaments (always keeping to the gold and white theme). Soon, we ran out of room, and after moving into camp and having more space, we found a larger “holiday tree” that became the new gold and white tree in the main entertaining area of the house. The original fake evergreen moved into the den upstairs where it started collecting a new plethora of mementos from travel, friends, and family. Eventually, even those overcrowded the small, well-loved holiday symbol. It was packed away to possibly be a gift for another family that may arrive in kingdom without a “holiday tree” too close to the season. However, the old friend found a more important purpose in 1990.
That Autumn changed our lives in many ways, but most of you may remember it as Operation Desert Shield (see, I told you it was supposed to be a desert). I worked with the 85th Evac Hospital and 28th Combat Support, Candlelight Base, and the Desert DOGs with the military to provide support and MWR efforts during that and the Storm and Farewell that followed. During that holiday season, our little tree got a new life. We dressed it up in the finest, and it traveled into the field (sometimes even by Apache helicopter). It brought a symbol of spirit and warmth to the men and women of our armed services standing between “Iraq and a Hard Place” (as we sometimes said). We carried the tree to every base and encampment we could. We may not have been able to send those soldiers, Marines, and sailors back to family and home, but we could bring a touch of it to them. Not bad for a little tree that someone returned to a shop in downtown Al Khobar so many years ago.
Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and may all of you have a Prosperous New Year!