Father’s Day 1985

Riyadh_Skyline_NewFather’s Day 1985. I have good reason to remember that day: I was in Saudi Arabia when I called my father to wish him “Happy Father’s Day!” It was 9:30 pm Jubail time and about 9:30am in Chicago on that Sunday when I placed the call to my father. I had traveled to Saudi Arabia as an engineer/tech to start up some equipment that our company had sold to a Texas pipeline company. This new equipment would help Saudi Arabia pipe Saudi oil to waiting oil tankers on the Persian Gulf. I happened to arrive during the Saudi Islamic spiritual observance known as Ramadan. It was time of fasting, intense heat and scorched ground. It was the beginning of June and I thought I would be home by Father’s Day.

My journey to this Middle Eastern country was a long passage of connecting airline flights starting from Chicago. First I flew to Kennedy airport in New York and lay over there for several hours. Then I flew to Amsterdam and lay over there for several hours. Then I flew to the Dhaharan International Airport on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia. I arrived about 12:30 am. Our plane was greeted by short (they all seemed short to me) khaki uniformed Saudi soldiers who searched each passenger’s luggage for social and spiritual contraband, things like glamour magazines, Bibles, etc. (I had already learned that Christians were persecuted in Saudi Arabia). After going into customs, being questioned about where I was staying (I didn’t know) and where I was working (I gave them a business card that said, “BREDERO PRICE MIDDLE EAST LTD”. They understood immediately.), then finally having my passport stamped, it was 2:00 in the morning. I walked towards the front door of the airport with my small suitcase and saw a placard being waved with my name written on it. I was relieved and scared at the same time since I understood no Arabic and I couldn’t read any of the airport signs.  I could only read my name bouncing up and down. The man waving the card greeted me in his language, said something else I didn’t understand and then waved me over to his car, a 1980 Mercedes Benz 380SL, parked at the curb.

I loaded my small suitcase into the trunk of his car and then he had me sit in the back seat. He proceeded to drive almost sightlessly through the desert at 140km/hr (about 86 mph). The two headlights hardly made an impact on the night. Blowing sand and dust filled our vision on the road before us. I saw other cars when they passed beside us and sometimes I saw camel legs. I prayed to arrive safely to wherever we might be going. A hotel, soon, I hoped. I didn’t know what the driver was told to do with me.

We finally arrived at a hotel, a Sheraton Hotel, in Jubail, Saudi Arabia. Jubail is an industrialized city on the east coast of Saudi Arabia near the Persian Gulf. During the day, one could see petrochemical plants rising out of the floating desert heat. At night, one could see the glowing gold light of the petrochemical plants and black spouts with fire shooting upwards, fires that burned off excess oil. The rising smoke created carbon black pillars in the Saudi twilight.

Inside the hotel there was more lack of communication between me and the driver and me and the hotel keeper. I was given a key to a room. I felt slightly better. I found my way upstairs and then found my room. The room looked at lot like other western hotel rooms except for the bidet in the bathroom. I turned on the TV. On several channels people were shown praying in Mecca and others making their pilgrimage to Mecca. I learned, later that day, that it was Ramadan. Another channel had a British news service. I found an American channel that played Andy of Mayberry and I Dream of Jeannie reruns 24/7. It was a TV oasis of back home sitcoms. I set the alarm for six o’clock in the morning. Two hours of sleep is all I that I would get that night.

In the morning I found the hotel restaurant near the lobby downstairs. Because of Ramadan, the Muslims were fasting during the daylight hours, from dawn to sunset, so the restaurant was empty except for me. I ordered black coffee and Swiss muesli. This was my daily breakfast the entire time I spent in Saudi Arabia. As I was reading the menu, someone approached me, a foreigner, and said in English, “When you are done with your breakfast I will drive you to the work site.” The English words were comforting. I had pointed out my food selections to the waiter and he hurried back with the coffee. I felt dog tired with only two hours of sleep. I was still on my Chicago time clock. I should be getting ready for dinner and then for bed. I finished breakfast and signed the check over to my room number. Someone was paying the bill but I didn’t know who.

I met my driver outside the hotel and he scurried me off to the work site several miles away. I was informed of the ‘rules’ of Saudi life and was basically told to stay in the car, stay in my hotel and stay at the work site. I had decided to dress and to appear as a male so that I wouldn’t receive many looks along the way, except, I believed, for my Swedish light skin and my short reddish-blond hair. I wore a baseball cap. As we drove, I saw Bedouin shepherds moving their sheep across the highways, highways populated with tall palm trees. We arrived at the work site, a collection of construction trailers and low open buildings, many with corrugated roofs and no walls, out in the barren sand field. The only shade was beneath the wavy silver roofs which deflected the sun.

I met with the site foreman and the rest of the crew. The foreman’s name was Rusty. He was from Ireland. The crew made up of all males, were from various parts of the world. There were several Australians, some Danes, one Austrian, some Germans, some Filipinos, some Brazilians and several Brits. They had come to Saudi Arabia to earn a lifetime of money in just a few short years of work. The oil company paid a high wage for foreign workers with good pipefitting/mechanical experience. I was added to their group during my time in Saudi. I was teased because of my appearance: I did look foreign (I’m Swedish and Dutch) just like them but I also looked somewhat male and somewhat female and I easily sunburned. I had to wear tee shirts because of the extreme heat. Every day I would become soaked with sweat. I just teased them back and we got along fine. Many members of this crew had been working at this site for several years. Several were getting ready to go home and retire – at 35 years of age! They had their “nest egg” as they called it. They would finally get to see their wives and their families. They weren’t being held hostage by the company or the Saudi people. It was just that the money they made working everyday, overtime and weekends was incredible. It sounded tempting to me except for the extreme heat and the fact that I was a woman in Saudi Arabia. I would only be working and going to my hotel and doing it under cover, at that. I would become a dried up fig, I imagined.

That first morning on the site I saw the new equipment which my company had shipped to the Bredero Price site. The equipment, a plastic extruder for oil pipe coating, had been installed by the crew under a corrugated roof out on a field of sand. The equipment, they said, was ready to start up. I spent the entire day reviewing the installation and getting my bearings in the scorching June heat. Noon came around and I was invited to the canteen for lunch. The food, basically variations of American food that I knew, was prepared on site. I enjoyed the taste of the hometown food and the camaraderie of the crew. It was during lunch that I learned about each of them and their families. I saw wallet tattered pictures of their wives and kids. After lunch we each grabbed two one liter bottles of water and headed back to work. The bottled water was necessary because the local water was undrinkable and each of us would sweat at least two liters a day through our clothes. The mid day Saudi temperature was 42 degrees C (108 degrees F). I also worked on the heated plastic extruder, so I was doubly parched. I couldn’t drink water fast enough.

The work itself was challenging. I was working alone on the equipment. I had come there to just push buttons but there were problems and parts that needed fixing. I couldn’t directly contact my office because of the difference in time. I had to fax my requests and wait for a reply over night. Someone had to deliver the faxes back and forth to me. All of this interposing communication delayed the commissioning of the equipment. The owners, Bredero Price and the Saudi government, were getting anxious. I didn’t have my passport. It was conscripted at the hotel by Bredero Price. As I learned, they controlled things via the Saudi government. I was more than a little concerned about my situation. I was the one who felt like a hostage. Luckily, as the days passed, I was able to bring the equipment up to working order and only after removing a key component that had failed at start up. I turned that problem over to our company’s sales department and I continued down my start-up path. After two weeks, I was able to create a four foot wide sheet of HDPE plastic, one quarter inch thick. The sheet of plastic exiting the die of the extruder coated a twelve foot diameter oil pipe as the pipe revolved and moved perpendicularly away from the extruder. I was delighted that things had come together. The customer was beginning to see results, too.

My nights in town were spent primarily in front of the TV reruns in my hotel room and in the hotel restaurant trying Middle Eastern food. I liked the lamb shish-kabob with minted yogurt sauce. I finally did venture out into the city in the cool of the evening. I was tired of sitting in my room at night listening to two Saudis making love in the next room. Apparently, it was nightly ritual not related to Ramadan. I dressed in a dark blue linen shirt, blue jeans and a black White Sox baseball hat. I had seen other Americans walking around during my car trips back and forth to the hotel and the work site. I decided to see what was going on outside. I left the hotel and walked down the palm-lined sidewalks.

The first thing I noticed were clusters of Saudi men sitting on the ground smoking water pipes. I watched them from the corner of my eyes as I just kept walking. I went to the market area and walked down the narrow market streets. The crowded little shops were open to the street with pull down shutter doors. These doors were shut during the daily prayer times. I could see the minarets poking above the city skyline. I could hear the loud speaker voice calling the faithful to their prayers. I could see the shop doors being pulled down and locked for half an hour. I would continue to walk and wait till prayer time was over.

The shops were a curious assortment of everyday goods which were sold one shop next to the other. There was a row of watch stores. Then a row of camera stores, a row of women’s clothes stores, a row of men’s clothes stores, rows of food stores, etc. There were little open air cafes along the way. I didn’t try any café food. There were too many flies buzzing around. I took in the smell of mint tea, of shawarma (lamb), grilled chicken and the deep-fried chickpea dish called falafel. I took in the aromas of things I never had smelled before. The heavy enticing smell of Arabic tobacco coming from the water pipes was especially exotic, floating along with other strange scents. I returned to my room for a good nights sleep. I began to feel comfortable being in Saudi Arabia. I would visit the market places again after that, with more courage and more casual curiosity.

Halfway through my stay in Saudi Arabia Father’s Day came up. I knew that I wouldn’t be home to wish my father my love so I decided to call him from the hotel that night. It would be Sunday morning in Chicago. I placed the call on what sounded like very thin wires. My mother answered the phone. I said “Hi” and she knew it was me. She was totally surprised to hear my voice. She asked about how I was doing and other mother questions. She was getting ready to go to church. She gave the phone to my dad. He sounded extremely surprised and very happy that I would call from such a distant place. I wished him “Happy Father’s Day” and told him that I wished that I was at home in Chicago to see him on this day. He was glad that I had called. So was I.

After several weeks of work in the oven of the desert my mission at the job site was completed. The plastic extruder was operating and coating oil pipes 24/7. I finally received my passport back from Bredero Price. I scheduled a flight home via the fax machine. When the day arrived to leave I said goodbye to my new friends. I wished them well. I gathered up my tee shirts and my few belongings, packed my suitcase and headed for the Mercedes waiting for me. I enjoyed the day light ride back to the airport. I could see all that I missed traveling on that first night in the desert. There were men riding camels, sheep and shepherds and goats. There were women in black abayas with their faces half hidden with boshiyas, and hundreds of pilgrims returning from Mecca. I was glad to get to the airport to be going home.

I boarded the direct flight to New York. It would be at least fourteen hours of flying. I found my seat and let my shoulders relax for the first time in weeks. When the plane taxied the runway and then lifted off I was even more relieved. I began to see that the Saudi women were more relieved than I. When the “FASTEN SEAT BELT” light went off most of the Saudi women, mother and daughters, all of them covered from head to toe with their black burqas, headed for the bathrooms. When they came out they were each wearing jeans and typical tops worn by western women. The western transformation took off when the plane no longer touched Saudi soil. I was amazed and happy for them. I felt liberated, too. Father’s Day had past and Mother’s Day was just beginning, for some.

© Sally Paradise, 2010, All Rights Reserved

(Author’s note: This is a true story. Just ask my dad.)

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