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Christmas in the land of Muhammad

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Christmases from my childhood were quintessential American events.  Each year could have served as scenes for Norman Rockwell and were wonderfully memorable. Of course, there was a fresh-cut noble fir, the plethora of ornaments, silvery icicles, and plenty of lights inside and out with cutouts in the front yard, including a manger scene and Santa-on-sleigh with Rudolph and eight other reindeer.

Nevertheless, there came a year when it was rather difficult to return home for Christmas.That occurred because the Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO) hired me to a job requiring relocation to Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.  My job entailed joining a group of other Americans with the objective to convert the workforce from mainly expatriates (foreigners) to Saudis (nationals), a challenge that proved ambitious by work ethic incompatibles but was granted anyway, the “old college” try.

As readers may imagine, it was a monumental undertaking just to get ready to depart for a long stay in the Middle East. The details could literally fill a book, including inventorying everything we owned and organizing the items into two piles: one pile to Los Angeles for “permanent storage;” the other, a smaller pile, for use in Saudi Arabia.  Incidentally, one of the toughest events occurred at the send-off in PDX terminal, a gathering of family and friends during which time my mother was inconsolable with parting tears that caused a welling-up even on my pretentiously macho façade.

We could take the most needed of things, mainly clothes and personal effects, with us. Those items filled suitcases and five foot lockers and accompanied us to eight days of ARAMCO orientation in Houston.  They then boarded with us on an ARAMCO jet along with other hires on a flight that stopped in Paris and then Dhahran.  My first impression of the place was a glance out the plane’s window as it banked in final approach and, looking down at a barren desert, I thought I’d probably make a terrible mistake.

We arrived in early March with the weather already sizzlingly hot and assigned temporary housing at North Camp, metal units located outside Dhahran in the open desert alongside a population of scorpions. While the ARAMCO orientation had been enlightening, it did not even come close to preparing my wife and I for a place as shockingly different as Saudi Arabia. Not to labor the challenges and difficulties of such a foreign destination as different from Oregon as anywhere in the world, the short of the story is that we survived multiple trials and tribulations exampled by daily first-of-five-calls-to-prayer in summer at 4 a.m. that used bullhorns from atop towers, 12-year-old Saudi boys who could barely see over steering wheels driving full-sized Buicks and Mercedes sedans, and the stick switching on  legs by mullahs, Islamic protectors of the faith, reminding women not dressed to Islamic standards to over up any exposed skin.

Then there was Christmas. We were discouraged from taking anything the Saudis believed made by Jewish-owned businesses but we were not advised regarding our fake tree, collection of lights and ornaments my wife and I had collected during the decade we’d been together before leaving. It took about two months for our items by ship to get there.  Well, low and behold, when our stuff arrived, not one Christmas-related item was among our things.  They had all been confiscated by the Saudi government.  My wife also lost her sewing machine which was made by Sears; the wooden desk into which it had been built arrived empty.

Two matters of good news: we had made a list of everything we sent so the full costs were reimbursed by ARAMCO.  Humorously and hypocritically, Saudi businesses in nearby Saudi cities sold the confiscated yuletide items back to ARAMCO employees (we never found our own stuff but that of other Americans).  It was our first time away from a Christmas celebration that we missed most but made the best of it by socializing with other American families who joined us in song and celebration. There was a small, unmarked, barren building known secretly as a “church” inside Dhahran where, without fanciness or fanfare, a Christmas service could be enjoyed. The Saudis ignored us as long as we were discreet and honored their rules, true even for swimming attire as we had our own American pools.

To its credit, ARAMCO provided good salaries, health care, housing and schools; Saudi Arabia provided extreme heat and, with few exceptions, a fairly hostile society that makes every Christmas in Keizer formerly taken for granted but a whole lot more appreciated nowadays.

(Gene H. McIntyre lives in Keizer.)