It was late 1978. I pulled my truck up on an embankment to watch the spectacle. For three days, white C-130s with the Iranian tricolor had been roaring in to the American airbase at Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Every fifteen minutes, one came in, and another took off, heading back north. The Shah was tottering, and this was a sure sign of the end. Scuttlebutt was that these planes were clearing out technical assets from CIA listening stations in Iran. Iran had been a bulwark in CENTO (Central Treaty Organization), an arc extending from Turkey to Pakistan. A few months before, on the recommendation of a coworker, I and some buddies had bought tickets for Shiraz in Iran. They had Israeli beer, a few discos, the ruins of Persepolis, beautiful ancient mosques and gardens. Iran Air went on strike and Saudia was full, so we didn’t go. I got my money back, and given a last-minute choice between Oktoberfest in Munich, and Pakistan. I’d been to Munich as a child, so I went to Lahore on the recommendation of my Pakistani travel agent. There, one could – with a police permit – have a drink, and explore a city that combined a jumble of slums, markets, the British cantonment, and some of the finest examples of Islamic architecture anywhere. It beat Saudi all hollow. The change in Iran was spectacularly swift. And yet, although the old regime fell to the Ayotollah, the events were still couched in the familiar vocabulary of nationalism and Cold War alignments. Pundits ascribed the anti –Americanism to memories of the coup against Mossadegh, hence the prominent role of the Tudeh(Iranian Communists) in supporting the Revolution, and some geo-strategists saw it as a wash. While Iranian leftists were celebrating the end of American influence, it was unlikely the Ayatollah would align with the godless Soviets. The Tudeh, of course, are long gone, mostly murdered by the regime. At the time, I did see a little beyond this, thinking and writing that this was in a sense, “Ghost Dancing,” in that just as the Plains Indians on the verge of defeat and near extinction had put their faith in spirits, so here was Islam, lashing back at Modernism, in a violent death throe. I still think I was right, but at the time I would never have thought such issues would still be foremost in discourse today.
My road to Saudi Arabia had led through Indonesia. In 1975, the San Francisco based construction company for which I worked won a contract for an LNG project on the east Coast of Kalimantan(Borneo) My background put me up on the shortlist of candidates for an open position in logistics, and May of that year found me back In Indonesia after an absence of five years. Soekarno was gone, a general ruled, and for our reposes here, I could almost elide these years, as Islam, while present, was not ascendant. It was the 70s, and bell bottoms, short skirts, and big hair were as popular in here as anywhere else. There was still only one television station, state-owned, black and white, and it broadcast a prayer call in the evenings, but the local cinema ground out comedies that were thinly plotted efforts on which to hang chicks in short skirts and showcase local rock bands.
Jakarta was a roaring town. Oil and gas ruled. There were slot machines in the bars, and there were a lot of bars. Along the new thoroughfares, high rises went up, but from the roof top lounges, one still looked out over a vast, poorly lit sea of shanty towns. There was far more going on than I imagined. (V.S.Naipaul describes repressed Islamist sentiment in 1970s Indonesia in his “Among the Believers.”) Indonesia then, as now, was a supremely religious country. Nor were questions we would find cultural offensive of the table. “How old are you” “What is your religion?” I had long since taken up agnosticism, but I knew better than to answer that I had no religion. After 1965, Communism, and the entire left, by extension had been discredited and were beyond the pale, but this was not due to matters of economic policy or political organization, but rather the atheism considered fundamental to Marxism. So I answered, simply, Catholic, as I had been raised, and of which there were quite a few in the country, with the national Cathedral in Jakarta just across from the National Mosque. With the Indonesians with whom I associated, religion was hardly an issue. I was young, and so were they. Mostly we talked about the job, and of course, girls. A group might meet in a Chinese restaurant, where the westerners and Chinese Indonesians had pork, the Muslims chicken, and we all drank the excellent local beer ( now sadly diminished as successive hikes in the excise tax have forced the brewers to lower the alcohol content.)
After some months, the project build took off and I moved up to Balikpapan, an oil town not far from the job site, and later, towards the end of the project to the site itself. In all this time, working with local staff, no one ever broke off from his duties saying he had to go and pray. No doubt many managed to meet their devotional obligations, but it was never an issue. At evening one heard the call for prayer from the old town below the oil company compound, but as it had been in Sumatra for me, years before, it was a pleasant reminder that I had gotten out in the world and was someplace different, and exciting. At the site, the mess hall provided both Western and Indonesian food. There were separate lines, but all came from the same kitchen. The chef was German, and there was pork. And I was utterly delighted when as the operational team formed for the plant start-up but who should show up but Abu Bakar, from Sungai Gerong, famous for his wild boar barbecues. He was soon off in the forest banging away and put on a great pig roast for all, and as before, while not eating the porker, happily swigged on the bourbon that was his secret barbecue sauce ingredient. We had Sundays off, access to speed boats and free fuel, so we ranged up and down the coast, exploring the rivers and estuaries, stopping at small towns little changed from Conrad’s time( he had mucked about these parts)
These were Muslim settlements, each with its tin-domed mosque, but there were no head covers on the women and if we had run out, it was easy to find more warm beer to throw in the igloo coolers. There were thousands of Muslim workers on site, but no prayer times, and work continued through the fasting month, with no acknowledgment. When the work was done, and the plant dedicated, oil industry grandees, along with the President of the Republic, General Suharto showed up . It was quite a party. Two major headliners from Jakarta, stars of stage and screen. The late Benyamin S. the still revered Muslim son of West Sumatra, and Grace Simon, a Christian from North Sulawesi (Celebes) put on a show, singing duets half way to dawn, at a well lubricated party.
When it was time to go a couple of months later, I joined a buddy and I embarked on a long-planned trip across the interior of Kalimantan and into Malaysia. This was an epic in itself, but has little bearing on this narrative other than that we were surprised at how far up the river the reach of Islam extended. It was week and more before we came ashore at a long house settlement of the native Dayak people, and finally a town, without a mosque. Months later, we stumbled across the border into Malaysia and made our way to Singapore. So,I left Southeast Asia, and returned to California, where I stayed only briefly. I had left a girlfriend in Jakarta. It was far too early to make a commitment, but I needed time and money to go back and forth to Indonesia.
There was work in Saudi Arabia. So it was that in May 1978, from 25,000 feet, I looked out into the night and saw as far as the eye could see, the gas flares of the Saudi fields. It was as a small cog in the vast Aramco effort to capture those flared resources that I was employed. Saudi Arabia. No women, no whiskey, but so what, I thought. I had known Muslims the better part of my life. No problem. I bought Lawrence’s “Seen Pillars of Wisdom,” Douty’s “Arabia Deserta,” and “Thesigers “Arabian Sands.” These famous men had found adventure and fulfillment there; so might I. Arabia!! Like China and India, one of those fanciful lands from childhood tales.
In the event, Saudi was, as you might expect, awful. The visible population was overwhelmingly male. The Aramco television station showed “Love Boat” Reruns, which we watched assiduously, just for the pool scenes. There were some echoes of the sleepy kingdom in those slides my father’s friend had shown us back in the 50’s In downtown Al_Khobar , where the old whitewashed houses had jalousies in the upper stores, from which women might look out. Down the road was the town of Qatif, with winding alleys, a mud-walled Ottoman fort, and dhows at the quayside.
The strange and anti-human segregation of the sexes was difficult, indeed, for me, impossible to adjust to. Friends of mine in Riyadh told me of getting random phone calls from women, who passed around expatriate telephone numbers among themselves. They would talk yearningly, for hours, but never meet.
A Safeway opened in Dhahran, and it was soon thronged by veiled women who made a great show of examining produce and reading ingredients on cans. For this they had to throw back the veil over their faces, and one saw, as they glanced away from the lettuce, towards you, great dark eyes, perfectly made up, deep pools in which hid shadowed souls. It was here that I saw what remains the single most erotic vision in my life. Late one day driving along a road crowded on both sides with mid-rise apartments, the street empty, and the sun sinking in the east filled the corridor with orange light. Then a woman, all in black, but clearly young, for the light pierced her dark cloak and illuminated the full curves of her body, as if she were naked., She was faceless, and magnificent.
There was a train line from Dammam to Riyadh, and once I rode with some friends as a lark. Sitting opposite us was a jolly fellow, in his thobe and dishdasha. He was a trader of some sort, had traveled extensively, and spoke his own variety of expressive and quite amusing English. As he regaled us with stories of his travels, he continuously cracked a variety of nuts, and passed the meats s around. A stand up guy. Next to him was , I presume, his wife, all in black and with a leather mask, something one saw among the Bedouin. She might as well have been a piece of uninteresting luggage. Yet, while I knew this was a consequence of Islam, I saw it as Islam practiced in Saudi Arabia. I was not at all ready to write off Muslims in general, or even Saudis, although I learned they weren’t all that popular among Arabs.
There were still those touching human interactions that are part, or even the main reason, that some people seek out time in other cultures. The kind of contact that says, yes, we are, in the end all just people, and such differences as we have,are worthwhile in themselves. Shortly after I arrived in Kingdom, I realized I was going the wrong way while out working one day, pulled off a very a narrow road and got bogged down on a deceivingly solid shoulder. A Caprice slowed down and stopped. The locals loved these behemoths: they were hardy and up to all the crap the desert could throw at them. A portly fellow in Arab dress got out, smiled, pointed to the tow hitch on the back of his car, hitched me up and pulled me back to the road. Then he gave me a cake. An enormous chocolate wonder in one of those pink cardboard boxes. His card said he was a baker, from Kuwait. We shook hands and he took off.
Then there were the middle-aged and elderly merchants who dealt from their stores in the old towns, while their MBA sons ran huge warehouses on the outskirts. It was a pleasure to sit with them, exchange intricate pleasantries, and sip tea and coffee, before getting down to business. One of these guys was a cat fancier. Islam prohibits dogs
but the human love of companion animals will out. He would had me a cup of cardamon infused coffee and – a cat. While exchanging praises to god for he good weather and our fine health we would sip our drinks and pet our purring friends.
And this I shall never forget.
Salim was the proprietor of a busy machine shop. Black, he had been born into slavery, and when slavery ended in the kingdom, he had gotten work in the oilfields and eventually set up on his own. His crew was also black, from similar backgrounds One day, I was dropping off some drawings, when a commotion broke out. A worker had been injured – I don’t remember how exactly – but as his crew gathered around anxiously around for the ambulance to come, Salim cradled the moaning man cooing to him, and kissing his shaven skull. Salim was an excellent and reliable supplier, and he was also a good man.
Saudi Arabia was full of foreigners, from high paid executives to laborers, and many of them were Muslims .. I hung out with French-speaking Tunisians who made their own wine, and Pakistani guys who cooked up amazing curries and biryanis in their quarters. While I spent most of my leaves in Jakarta, I did see a little of the Middle East. Bahrain had alcohol, old British hotels, and souks filled with Arabs, Europeans and Indians. Syria, while under the thumb of Assad Pere,
was nevertheless a wonderful place to visit, Damascus a jumble of classical ruins, stunning mosques from the first Caliphate and an Oktoberfest at the Hilton. Jordan was a friendly, open place, with television in Arabic, English, French and Hebrew. Like Saudi Arabia, these were Muslim lands, but there the similarity ended.
Looking back, it’s bemusing – and discouraging -to see forerunners of today’s strife in the area. The Grand Mosque in Mecca was seized by rebels who thought the royal family corrupt and un-Islamic, and there were uprisings in the majority Shia Eastern Province where I was. The Press was tightly controlled and we learned the truth of such things via letters from abroad, although rumors and unease abounded in 1979.
One night I was driving home after a day visiting friends up north. Suddenly the light traffic piled up. The Army was checking everyone. Some vehicles were waved though after brief conversations, others searched. I had a load of homemade wine stashed behind the seat, and I thought I was in big trouble. Fortunately, my night class in Arabic paid off, as I was able to understand a demand for my license, and produce it with the usual polite pleasantries.
As the soldier and I talked, I heard distant fire, and looking back as I drove on, saw flashes of light to the East. Months later, I learned that gunships had been putting down a revolt in Qatif.
Plus ca change.
I was in the Kingdom for a little over two years( Well, two years, there months and six days. If you took extra days off to travel, without pay, it was added to your sentence, erhm, contract) I often took extra time, because I was going back and forth to Jakarta. The girlfriend and I decided to marry. She was a secretary at one of the UN affiliated international organizations in town, had friends among the embassies and foundations, and also knew quite a few people in music and film. Jakarta was in a certain way, a small town back them. In short, she was quite sophisticated for the time and place. We had never at all discussed religion. I had met her sister who was married to a hotel manager in a nearby city, but her father was a distant figure. She had always said they didn’t get along. My fiance’s mother had been his first wife, and had died young. He had had quite a few since then.
One day he showed up in Jakarta, on a mission. If we were to marry, I must become Muslim. So this man, in his floppy trousers and Muslim skull-cap, was the father of my fiancée, who had excellent English, some French and Dutch, and was an accomplished stenographer. He was from West Java,and his native language was Sundanese, but of course he spoke Indonesian. Nevertheless, I had great difficulty understanding him, at least in regards to the matter at hand, since a good deal of what he was saying was Arabic. This was a bombshell. I had not attachment to the religion I had been raised in, and had gleefully stopped going to church as soon as nobody made me do so. Nevertheless, I didn’t like anyone telling me what to do, and Islam, the religion of those difficult raghead over in the Sand Box, was not at all something I wanted to take up. I said no, and there was an enormous scene. I called the movers to pack up my stuff, Then, I backed down. I had sent out the invitations, liked the idea of being married, and well love and all that stuff. I went back to Dhahran with an Indonesian language booklet on Islam that told me how to pronounce the Shahada(the Islamic profession of faith), how to pray and so on. I chanted the payers until I knew them, and in the end not so resentfully. Just anther cultural exploration, I thought. So it was, on my next leave from Saudi, I went down to the mosque and recited the Shahada. First I had had to go tot a doctor, drop trou, and show that my junk was regulation. Wen I was born, circumcision was seen nearly universally as a hygienic necessity. ‘Nice work.” said the doc. The imam congratulated me,and we all exchanged a lot of “Alhamdullah,” Arabic for Praise the Lord. I was then able to marry in the Islamic rite. Then I shredded the conversion certificate, and no doubt the mice have since eaten the carbons. Some months after the religious wedding, we married at the civil registry and had a big reception with enormous amounts of booze: I returned to Saudi to finish out my contract. At the Jakarta airport,there were a large number of young Indonesians, dressed in a manner I had never seen before, the boys in skull caps and thobes, and tho women in white, faces visible, hair covered. They were boarding a Saudi flight, and they told me they were on the way to the Kingdom for religious education. I thought then, what kind of ideas will they bring back?