"The desert of Arabia is America's last frontier.” The story of the cowboy oilmen who branded the Gulf and the Bedouin who followed in their footsteps.
Sooner or later the Middle East equivalent of the western is bound to show up on the gravel plains and sand dunes of the desert. Arab desert lore is filled with the great deeds of Bedouin heroes, and the vast desert itself offers possibilities of breathtaking panoramic backgrounds for some great chase scenes.
—Saudi Aramco World, May 1963
MUZAHMIAH WAS A BEDU HICK TOWN in 1968, when my father was nine years old, and it’s a Bedu hick town now. The one-truck farming outpost twenty-five miles west of Riyadh is best known as the home of the Reem International Circuit, Saudi Arabia’s answer to the Daytona International Speedway. But back in 1968, it was not even that. My father, Mohamed, remembers that winter as “the season of the television,” when his world was dilated by the arrival of a black-and-white Sears set on a ledge overlooking my great-uncle Saleh’s courtyard.
In my father’s telling of the seasons, that winter was preceded by “the season of the Hell,” when he’d encountered his first oil flare. He and Uncle Ali were hitching a ride to a relative’s camp near al-Hassa on the back of a postman’s truck. It was dusk, and the sun had settled deep into the reddening west. But oddly, there was also light coming from the east: a clean, yellow, too-bright light that threatened to bring the morning out to meet the night. My father and Ali climbed up from behind the shield of the cab and into the open, where they were buffeted by sandy gales. On the horizon there appeared a roaring flame, more brilliant than the sun. It was unfathomably large and impossibly high off the ground, exactly like a mirage—only there was no way this was an illusion.
This strange, unflagging flame was silent at first. But soon the wind lapped at Mohamed and Ali’s ears, and they heard its growl and felt its heat, if only for a whipping second. After half an hour the postman steered his truck north and left the roiling stacks of fire behind. My father and Ali would for the rest of their lives be drawn back to this desert, where at certain times of day, depending on which way you face, it is at once twilight and dusk.
Saudi Aramco postcard, 1964
BY THE TIME THE SEASON OF THE TELEVISION arrived in Muzahmiah, Dhahran TV had already been on air throughout the Gulf for more than five years. In those early days of broadcasting, a village ritual (punctuated by two breaks for prayer) was formed around the sequence of programming carefully calibrated by Saudi Aramco, the oil company founded in 1933 by Standard Oil of California with a concession from King Ibn Saud. Below is an early television schedule, as recounted by my father and uncles:
Maghrib prayer. By the time the kahraba (electricity) was switched on, the animals had gone silent, and the crackling hum of a generator filled the courtyard of Saleh’s house. If the kahraba kicked in early enough, the viewers would see the beginning of the broadcast: a screen of illuminated text and a Qur’anic recitation.
Cartoons, Looney Tunes or Popeye. Zeitoonah (Olive Oyl) became a common nickname for clumsy, lanky, cow-hawked girls.
Children’s hour: Mr. Ed, Lassie, or both. A few years later came Little House on the Prairie, which was a runaway hit. The settling traumas of the Ingalls girls struck a chord with Bedu kids being relocated to villages like Muzahmiah from scattered camps that had been caught in the drill lights of oil derricks.
News, with auspicious tidings of King Saud’s good health as the lead item.
Asha prayer, more Qur’an.
Perry Mason or Rawhide, the root of my father’s fascination with Clint Eastwood.
Musical interlude, sung by beehived Kuwaitis. One of them—but not just one of them—was the Syrian beauty Samirah Tawfiq, whose heart-shaped face and “cowgirl braids,” as my father called them, had every boy in the kingdom rearing. Her signature move was a wink directed at the camera—or, as it seemed, at the viewer. Each momentarily shuttered eyelid provoked a territorial skirmish between my father and his friends, all of whom believed she was theirs alone.
Years later, during a family gathering in the salah (ladies’ parlor) of my grandmother’s house, a favorite Samirah clip came on (see the following page); my father walked into the room, caught a glimpse of her, and began automatically forecasting each wink and wiggle the second before it happened. Recently, I found the video on YouTube and sent it to my father. He called me on the phone and let out a dreamy sigh: “Samirah…helwa.” Samirah…sweet.
Midnight marked the cutoff. The broadcast would fizzle into static with cool finality, whether or not the film had ended.
That universal hero, the cowboy, has found a home in the desert with an assist from TV. Saudi Arabs, like Londoners, Parisians and Romans, have taken enthusiastically to American horse operas.
—Saudi Aramco World, May 1963
THE TELEVISION WAS ALWAYS the sole appliance in the village that stayed on right until the electricity curfew. By the time the tube’s rubber band of black-and-white had disappeared, the rest of the desert was blanketed in darkness. Any firelight in nearby camps was canceled out by the wattage of the stars. The adults had all gone to bed hours before, leaving an array of boys and girls splayed across the gritty carpet of Saleh’s courtyard, long braids spread over bare feet. Some had been out cold since before Lassie had saved Timmy; some had zoned during the Battle of the Little Bighorn; the littlest ones had begun roughhousing after Yosemite Sam plunged down a mineshaft and had long since curled up in dog piles and fallen asleep. The elder children would each sling a sibling around their hip—my father taking Hamendi, Ali with little Saleh, Nora with Jameela—and shuffle along the moonlit treads of their uncle Saleh’s truck, a path strewn with camel tracks and barely dry goat turds, until they reached their two-room cinder-block huts.
Each night after my father crawled into his bed of wool blankets and jumbled brothers and sisters, he would imagine, through his bleary eyes, a silhouette loping toward him. This khayal, or shadow, stood over him all night, keeping watch from the back of his steed, distinguished from a Bedu only by the sharp slash of the Stetson’s brim cutting across the head. My father called him cowboy.
IN NOVEMBER 1955, THE FLYING CAMEL touched down in Dhahran with the dean of western writers, Wallace Stegner, aboard. Aramco had flown Stegner and his wife to the kingdom to chronicle the discovery of oil and the latter-day American frontiersmen who had traveled there to extract it. The Stegners were transplanted to Aramco’s camp at Dhahran, a soundstage replica of Anytown, America, replete with town houses and palm trees—a corporate state-within-a state. The author set to writing Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil, published serially in Saudi Aramco World magazine in 1970 and ’71. The book chronicles Stegner’s tours of the dunes with the “old-timers and pioneers of the 1930s.”
Stegner’s Arabia echoed the desert Southwest, “with its flat crestlines, its dry clarity of air, its silence. But it felt more mysterious than that.” The oilmen called to this virgin territory recalled the cowboys of yore, all grit and humility. “Seen in retrospect,” the job they came to do “has the nostalgic, almost mythic quality of an action from the age of giants.”
Bringing on Stegner as a hired pen was a masterful move by Aramco’s PR men. Though they were later called out for their reliance on “unctuous and cloying language,” which produced a landscape “tainted by sentimental illusions,” they succeeded in rebranding Arabia in the image of the Old West. The American frontier, by then vanishing beneath the sprawl of Phoenix and Las Vegas, was in the Gulf imagined anew, albeit in a landscape so dazing that even Stegner eventually deemed it “unreality.” But what better place than unreality to stage an encounter between the Aramco pioneers and the land that guarded their destiny?
Oh, friend, a little of the cold tea, please. —Dhahran TV translation of “Hey pardner, gimme a whiskey”
MUZAHMIAH’S IMAM, ALWAYS SUSPICIOUS of the broadcasts emanating from the American Dhahran Camp—surely they were meant to make his town’s children love the deserts of America more than their own—began an assault on the television after someone modified its antenna with a latticework of jury-rigged wires and metal scraps, which caused it to surpass the mosque’s minaret. At Friday prayer—and in social calls to village majlises, or men’s parlors, every other day of the week—the imam preached against “the flag of evil” flying over Muzahmiah.
Nevertheless, he, too, made the occasional pilgrimage to Saleh’s courtyard to watch the cowboys and Indians do battle. He smoldered at the perimeter of the TV’s blue-gray devil ray and secretly marveled at the similarities between his tribe and the bands of hinood hamr—“red Indians”—corralled by railways and mining camps, ambushing the white man from outcroppings and rock formations just like those surrounding his own town.
Before him sat the children of Al-Murrah, who were described in a 1964 issue of Saudi Aramco World as “the tribe of nomads which more than any other has given birth—and considerable substance—to the colorful image of the desert Bedouins.” The imam must have known that these children were unknowingly reliving the same tired arc played out nightly on the television. After all, the bulk of the oil found in
the early years of exploration lay directly under the tribe’s migratory routes; Aramco bought off the various clans with the twentieth-century equivalent of shiny beads and a beaver pelt: sacks of riyal coins and cinder-block huts on the outskirts of a town hundreds of miles from their ancestral hunting grounds. And yet the children cast their lots with the cowboys.
In the summer of 1978, a decade after the season of the television, and long after the cathode-ray cowboy had ceased haunting him, my father headed to “Montana, America” to see how he measured up. He flew out West into the sunset from Dhahran, traveling with the edge of night. He was wearing pants for the first time, and they were ill fitting; he carried nothing but a briefcase with his sirwal (long underwear) and some travelers checks. Ten, eighteen, twenty-four hours passed—Dhahran to New York to San Francisco to Missoula—and it was still night. He spoke no English and navigated JFK by matching the airline logo on his ticket with the logos on the gates. Jet lag set in. He later told me, “I thought the sun would never rise again.”
FORTY-FOUR YEARS BEFORE my father flew out West, Max Steineke abandoned it for the unbounded deserts of Arabia. He served as Aramco’s chief geologist between 1936 and ’46, discovering more than ten billion barrels of proven reserves during his tenure. “He was no son of a bitch for civilization,” Stegner wrote, describing him in a drawling panegyric fit for the campfire. “Burly, big-jawed, hearty, enthusiastic, profane, indefatigable, careless of irrelevant details and implacable in tracking down a line of scientific inquiry, he made men like him, and won their confidence. He was a very pure example of a very American type and heir to every quality that America had learned while settling and conquering a continent.” In other words, he was what all the boys gathered around Saleh’s courtyard hoped to become.
Steineke responded to the call put out by Aramco’s public-relations-and-marketing apparatus in the early ’30s, when the company began modeling Saudi Arabia after a John Ford set, a place where boyhood fantasies could be indulged and fortunes made. The groundwork for this romancing of Americans had been laid by Harry St. John Philby, the British explorer, Arabist, and confidante of Ibn Saud. Long before Aramco became a hundred-billion-barrel giant, it was a figment of Philby’s fertile imagination. He convinced the king that Arabia was “a man sleeping atop buried treasure” and that extracting it required the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company (which later begat Aramco). “Arabia is a mirror image of the Old West,” Philby wrote, “a wide, unfenced land where nature is unsubdued, religion is simple and fundamental, and the law of the gun prevails—the desert of Arabia is America’s last frontier.”
And so the American geologists and hydrologists and their wives began to fill the compound at Dhahran. The men trekked into the desert with guides who measured distance in “camel days,” while the women partook of the leisure activities delineated in Desert Venture (see below). By the time my father landed in Missoula, there were ten thousand of them there.
Robert Yarnall Richie, Desert Venture (1958): a Technicolor treat of a corporate film, calling for men who possessed the “pioneering spirit” to partake of this “venture by American capital in a strange and ancient land.”
Film taken by Tom Barger, CEO of Aramco from 1961 to 1969. The film shows Barger and Steineke wrangling a hedgehog in a pool of water. He was described in Saudi Aramco World in 1969 as a “lean young hunter bringing down a running gazelle with a .22 from the back seat of a car racing across the plains, or lassoing another from the running board…a bold young linguist inviting the King of Saudi Arabia to coffee in stumbling Arabic; the resourceful young geologist using whiskers to adjust a sextant; the earnest scholar studying Arabic and petroleum geology by lamplight in his tent; the desert botanist collecting and naming plants; the shirt-sleeve democrat making friends with every Arab in sight.”
WHEN MY FATHER FINALLY MADE IT to Montana, he bought a white Stetson and headed to the Billings rodeo. He bellied up to the bar, doffed his hat, and asked for “a little of the cold tea.” Right then and there, fate dealt him my mother. She was tall, blond, and blue-eyed—a berry farmer’s daughter, milk-fed and tough; Slue-foot Sue to his Pecos Bill. He lied and told her it was his birthday; she bought him a celebratory drink.
His English needed fixing, so she fixed it. He couldn’t cut it as a cowboy, so she steered him toward trucking. Within a month he was driving a cab-over-truck Mac up and down I-5, through the Cascades and all along Snake River, singing along to Red Sovine and Waylon Jennings. Now, when the sun is low in the sky over Al Riwais, he’ll gather the family into our Suburban and steer the car in the direction of Al-Hassa. When the road opens up before us, he’ll take a deep breath, adopt his best American drawl, and belt out a song by Tom T. Hall:
I love little baby ducks,
Old pickup trucks,
I love coffee in a cup,
Little fuzzy pups,
Bourbon in a glass
Toward the end of his stay in big-sky country—where, it seems, he never took off his white Stetson—a drunk old woman gave him a piece of her mind that struck him hard and low: “Hunny, yer too short to be a cowboy.” Not long after, he packed his saddlebags, bid farewell to my mother and me, and headed back toward the rising sun, back to the oil derricks, back to the flares of the hell.
In 1985, Abu Dhabi was a boomtown in full swing, its skyline rising in glass and steel. My father had swapped the shadow-man’s Stetson for his father’s red-and-white-checked ghutra, but even if he looked the part, he was too late to be a Bedouin; he had hoped to continue driving trucks—the Mercedes eighteen-wheelers that connected the ports and hubs of the Gulf—but was undersold by harder-up Bedu who had just left their own families in al bar, the wilderness.
He headed out again, this time to the sea, by helicopter, without expectations. He took up work as a watchstander on a rig twenty kilometers off the shore of Abu Dhabi, an eternity from the desert but with the same lonely vistas. Beyond the expanse of the sun’s splintered reflection, he glimpsed his future: the outline of the Sheraton, a gently eroded sand castle installed on the shore; the Corniche, with its volcano-shaped fountain spewing sandalwood-scented, magma-colored water into the air; and angled mushroom shade-casters marking every few yards for the weary workers. Here the desert venture was being consecrated, the Gulf visions of the Aramco ad men carved in stone. And here, finally, he had a role to play.
Captions: Page 2: Manal Al Dowayan, Howdy, 2010. Page 6: Chapter heading from the informational book Saudi Aramco World, published by Saudi Aramco in 1981. Page 14: Image and audio: Tor Eigeland, “Castaways in the Sand,” Saudi Aramco World, September/October 1969.
As with any folklore, there are untold stories buried beneath tradition. Some of the Al-Murrah boys fled the season of the television, rode off into the desert, disappeared into the widow-making dunes of the Empty Quarter. In a 1969 issue of Saudi Aramco World, photographer and writer Tor Eigeland captured these "castaways in the sand":
There they were, a boy and his camel, drifting along like castaways from a disappearing past and vanishing into a future where he, like stray gypsies, old prospectors and wandering cowboys, will have no deserts to cross, no plains to ride, no more open roads to tread.