February/March 2011: Remembering My First Time in Saudi Arabia

This month I am traveling to Saudi Arabia and Qatar. During my two-week trip, I will visit Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam, and Doha. My relationship with the Middle East began more than 30 years ago, when my husband accepted a position as a Cardiologist with the Ministry of Defense and Aviation Hospital near Khamis Mushayt, then a small city located in the Asir Mountains, at an elevation of about 2,060 metres, or 6,758 feet, and a two-hour drive from the Red Sea. I lived in this region for one year, before returning to Canada in 1981 to set up my company.

I have probably romanticized the expat life in Saudi Arabia during the early 1980s, but it was the best time to be there.

Jeddah had no street signs. As a woman, I sat in the back of the bus. After we landed, we stayed at the Sands Hotel, where Idi Amin, the notorious, deposed former leader of Uganda was also staying. At the hotel pool, my two young sons were fascinated by Amin and the bodyguards who surrounded him and his suitcases (full of money, or so my sons said). The shopping in Jeddah was wonderful: authentic copper trays with Arabic calligraphy, straight from Iran, magnificent rugs, and so on. Since there were very few Western people in the city, we always spoke to each other if we met on the streets or in the shops.

Khamis Mushayt (which means Thursday Market) was an old town with crooked sidewalks and narrow back alleys filled with shops which sold all kinds of products: gold (of course), rugs, Arabic-style clothing, and the tastiest fruits and vegetables I have ever eaten (especially the cucumbers). Because Hepatitis B was endemic in Saudi Arabia, I soaked all produce for 20 minutes in a mixture of water and bleach.

The hospital staff lived in a specific area on the military base. We had a pool, squash court, and tennis courts. I played tennis for an average of four hours each day. We had a tennis team that competed with teams from other expatriate companies in the region: Ballast Nedham (a Dutch company, which had strong players who became grumpy if they lost); British Aerospace (which, of course, were a bunch of jokers); COFRAS (a French company, and most of its tennis players couldn't - or wouldn't - speak English).

And ah, the Red Sea! This was the greatest, and most memorable social outing. First, the coral reef, with its thousands of exotic fish, is the most spectacular reef in the world. On the weekends, families would go down in groups, and we would catch and eat the most divine fish. We had a Zodiac in which we used to race around the sea. For security reasons, private boats were not allowed on the Red Sea coast, but we knew the exact times that the marine police patrol drove along the coast, so we hid the Zodiac behind the sand dunes. Speaking of the sand dunes, they were as high as ski hills, and we used to climb them and pretend we were skiing down.

At the time, there were few Western people in Saudi Arabia, especially in the countryside and small villages. So when we hiked in the escarpment or the desert, Saudis would invite us into their homes, and question us, mostly on personal topics, such as how many children do you have, how old are you, etc. If they spoke English, we asked them questions about their lives. Always we were treated as a special guest, and served cardamom coffee, and sometimes dates.

My favourite part was the hiking in the spectacular escarpment. We would see families of baboons, deserted mud houses, and on the sharp peak of one especially steep mountain, we found high cairns made of huge boulders which we decided no human could have constructed.

Every trip I make to the Arabian Peninsula makes me sentimental, and leads me to reminisce about my first adventure in the country. I am not alone in this. I have talked to many people who have worked in Saudi Arabia in the 80s, but have been returning to positions over the years. They all say that the early years were the best - especially for those of us who like exploring countries which, in the face of the Western onslaught, have maintained their own culture.

Helen Ziegler

February 2011

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