By Daniela Duran
Hiraeth (n.) A homesickness for a home to which you cannot return, a home which maybe never was; the nostalgia, the yearning, the grief for the lost places of your past.
The most complex question you can ask a third culture kid is “where is home?” Because the truth is that we cannot give you a simple answer. We belong everywhere and nowhere. It is only by spending time getting to know us that we will reveal the places that shaped us, the people we truly miss and the stories that make us who we are.
For me, living in Saudi Arabia was of one of the most exceptional and life-defining experiences. It is the country that when I list among the places I’ve lived, people stop and ask “Saudi Arabia?! What was THAT like?” and my response is always the same “extraordinarily different”. If there is one truth about Saudi Arabia that all expats can agree with is, is that the hardest part of living in KSA (Kingdom of Saudi Arabia) is leaving. Saudi Arabia is one of the hardest countries in the world to get a tourist visa especially if you are not Muslim. This means that once expats finish their work assignments and their work visa finishes, they can never (or at least in most cases) go back. It is perhaps this very fact that makes KSA so hard to say goodbye to.
Growing up we always joked that we lived in a “bubble” but it was only until I left that I realised how true that really was. My experience in Saudi was different from what most locals experience or what I myself had experienced anywhere else. I was an ‘Aramco Brat’, a term that we all refrained from using, but admittedly exactly what all of us who have lived within Saudi Aramco camps are. Saudi Aramco is the largest and leading world oil company, and due to the country’s conservative Islamic law, the company created separate gated communities to accommodate foreign workers. Within these closed communities people have access to private schools, hospitals, restaurants, pools and even cinemas (even though cinemas are prohibited by Islamic law inside the kingdom). The strict laws imposed by the Kingdom simply do not apply inside these communities. Women can drive (before it was legal), they can go out without abayas, religious police do not monitor the area and boys and girls are free to share public spaces. Saudi principles are respected but there is flexibility for western culture inside the gates. I lived inside two of these communities, Ras Tanura (3, 200 residents) and Dhahran ( 11,000 residents).
There are certain moments in life that you remember so vividly that you almost feel like you can re-live them. A lot of my experiences in KSA feel that way. For example, ill never forget landing in Saudi and feeling overwhelming fear-both for the unknown and for the little I actually did know about the country. I was used to moving around the world (well as much as one can ever get used to it) but I knew Saudi would be different. I was made well aware of that when I was packing for the move and I was instructed to get a permanent marker to cover the faces of all the actresses on my DVD covers. To top it all off, I landed in KSA on Christmas eve and my 12-year-old self was very confused as to why my family would move to a place where my favourite holiday was not celebrated. The journey from the airport to my new home on December 24th was not one filled with Christmas lights and Christmas carols. It was one with miles and miles of sand until we reached massive gates with an excessive amount of armed security.
There is something intimidating about seeing so much security in front of your new neighbourhood, I mean ARAMCO security does not mess around. ARAMCO is funny that way, it makes you feel safe in a very unconventional almost threating way. In fact, the moment I first entered an Aramco camp, I was no longer identified personally, I was instead my badge number. Aramco monitors their employees and their dependents with badge numbers. I know, it sounds very much like a science fiction type of world. But to me, that’s almost what it was. It was like it was all made belief. After passing the gates you enter an entirely different atmosphere than life outside. It was no longer desert, it was palm trees, a beautiful blue ocean, kids on bikes, signs of a life I was more familiar with.
Getting adjusted to Saudi Arabia is something I don’t think ever really happens. You just get used to living with unusual events constantly occurring to you. Despite living inside the gates, going out of camp was essential. Our trips out of camp consisted mostly of shopping trips or visits to restaurants. It did not take me long to realise that KSA was not just a desert, luxury is a big part of Saudi culture. Its architecture made hospitals and shopping malls look like palaces. Saudi law, however, was very strict and we had to adhere to the regulations. We had to wear abayas that covered our bodies and occasionally head scarfs. It was not uncommon to have Mutawas chasing you and screaming at you for not covering up entirely. It was a crazy culture shock.
Saudi Arabia is a place that is infamous for its lack of freedom, particularly for women. The women’s rights movement has a long way to go and a lot of the kingdom’s laws continue to jeopardize justice and liberty. Nonetheless, when inside the kingdom you start to appreciate the Saudi culture. People may not live following western values, but tradition is strongly valued. Living in Saudi made me grow fond of things far from my culture. I began to appreciate the holy month of Ramadan, of celebrating Eid, and days off school because of shamals (sandstorms). I also learnt to pair hummus with almost anything and yes I even got to do stereotypical stuff like riding camels in the desert. It was never an easy adaptation, but it certainly made me appreciate a different part of the world.
Inside the camp, my life was better than I ever thought it could be. It took me about a day and a half to make friends. Friends that 10 years later I would still be talking to. Everyone was from all different parts of the world, so beautifully diverse and yet also so astonishingly similar. Our greatest similarity was that despite living in a camp with more freedom than outside the gates, we all had very very little to do. This meant we saw A LOT of each other. You know how they say you don’t pick your family? Well, that’s how it felt. 90% of my teenage years consisted of the most common RT activity – cruising. Cruising in Saudi Arabia is pretty legendary. It is when your 13-year-old Lebanese friends steal their dad’s cars and drag all of your friends to listen to music while they drive around the same 4 streets the compound has for hours. I can still hear us jamming to Akon songs pretending we could relate to the absurdity of the lyrics. Cruising for us was liberating, it was a sense of false freedom. We could drive for hours yet reach nowhere. We were always confined by the compound walls… but because we were all together, this somehow always felt okay.
I always believed I was living a normal teenage life but thinking back that’s not quite how it was. School, for example, was a place where your teachers knew everything about you as they were also your neighbours. They could be punishing you one second (anyone remember 7ups?) and then saying “see you at the BBQ Friday” the next. Setting personal boundaries with anyone was almost impossible which meant that gossip and drama was rampant. To say we didn’t drive each other insane from time to time would be a lie. To deny that we often didn’t wish to get out of the ‘bubble’ and into the ‘real world’ would be a lie. Yet, like all great moments sometimes you don’t realise how great they are until they are gone.=
Another vivid memory I have of living in KSA was staying up to watch the sunrises. We were all way too young to be staying up all night (some of us sneaking out, others not), yet we would sit to appreciate the sunrise at the RT beach. We would talk all night about whatever seemed important to us at the time, but when the sun would rise we would sit together in silence. Saudi sunrises are unforgettable. Something about them makes you feel like you are exactly where you need to be. They make you realise how beautiful the Persian Gulf is, they make you view everything in new light. No one would say it out loud but as the sun would rise we all were very aware that we would forever be attached to this place. It was home and that was beautifully heart-breaking. We knew we were too attached to a place that was not our own. Our routine was always the same. The sun would rise and we would find our way to the dining hall to have our big ‘family’ breakfast where the servers already knew exactly what we wanted. Sleeping was a waste of time and it seemed like no amount of time spent with our friends was ever enough. It’s like by not sleeping we would somehow hold time still.
Eventually, as we grew older, things became more difficult. What we called ‘partying’ was someone with a great music playlist and some SID. SID is a homemade alcohol that you literally had to drink- wait 5 minutes to see if you went blind- then continue. It was not ideal (or safe) but hey, that was the Saudi experience. Drinking was illegal meaning having any form of nightlife was complicated. We couldn’t go on dates because going anywhere outside the compound was illegal (the opposite sex can’t interact unless its family) and anywhere inside the compound was pointless/awkward. Most families chose to send their kids to continue their high school years in boarding schools. As time flew by everyone began going abroad, parents began to retire and in a way, everyone was being forced to move on. We soon realised we could not live in our little bubble forever.
But here is a secret: Aramco Brats never truly move on. We always carry a part of our childhood/teenage years with us. It is what allows us to connect with the rest of the Aramco brats around the world. Its what creates that special bond. Saudi for us is the place where we made friends that we trust with our lives, where we were surrounded by people from all places, races and religions and we cared for each other unconditionally. Saudi is the place where we were raised not only by our parents but our friend’s parents. It is the place that taught us to add “wallah” “ mishwar” “ inshallah” to our vocabulary. It is where our hearts were first broken, but where we met our first loves. Where we experienced loss and grief, but also overflowing happiness. Aramco brats don’t forget Saudi Arabia because no one forgets what teaches them how to love. Saudi taught me how to love not only people, but cultures, and sunrises, and car rides. It made me fall in love with streets and routine.
I left over six years ago, and there is not one day where I don’t miss home.