Sand breaks like a wave over the barricade of the trans-Arabian pipeline. Beyond, oil rigs perch on the horizon like primordial birds. They bend toward the earth, lancing through loam and sand, and the earth swells as though wounded. You break the heart of the earth, said al-Afghani, Why do you not break the heart of your enemy?
Though desert, Dhahran is no wilderness. There, just at the vanishing point, is a city unlike any other. It shimmers with electric lights, made blue by the night and the sea. Listen, there is radio static in the air. Those are cheers erupting from Saudi-camp— Egyptian, Syrian, Palestinian voices. Nasser has nationalized the Suez. The year is 1956.
Mage Reiber has draped herself over an armchair, pulled close to the wireless. The radio buzzes, transmitting a crowd thousands strong in Alexandria. Loosely, she swills brandy along the curve of her snifter. It is the last sip of their stock, alcohol only legal within the confines of American-camp. She would have to tell James to put in for another case. In her periphery, Mage catches angles of movement: another woman, all planes and points, pacing the length of a low couch.
“Helen,” says Mage.
Her guest pauses.
“Tell me again what he said.”
Helen Akkad is a young woman, a Palestinian-American, an engineer, first of her kind. Her father, Dr. ‘Abd al-Akkad taught Classics and Arabic Poetry at Penn; he had given her a palatable name for the inflexible American tongue, though pregnant with myth. Dr. Ah-kayd, the Americans say, was a good Arab.
Alexandria disappears on a wavelength, becoming only white noise. Helen stalks to the radio and switches it off. “This is insanity.”
“I doubt Nasser said that.”
“Mercy, Helen, do you listen to a thing I say?”
Helen softens, “He nationalized the Suez. ‘Some of your fellows have just taken over the Canal.’” She is still reeling from the nasal Arabic of the Egyptian president. He speaks like the working man, like you or me.
“Lordy,” sighs Mage. Raptures from Saudi-camp reach their windowsill. “You should be celebrating with your kinsmen.”
“It’s showmanship, arm-flexing. He’ll only bring the entire Western empire down on Arab heads.”
Mage whistles, “Listen to you, Western empire!”
Helen throws herself down onto the couch. She grabs her cigarette case from the windowsill and, upon opening it, finds the last one half-smoked. She can feel Mage’s eyes on her.
“Last cigarette, last brandy,” says Mage, still swilling her glass, “what misery.”
Helen lights the cigarette and inhales, steeling herself to the taste of stale smoke. She gazes out the window and listens to the celebrations. They are singing a Palestinian song. Helen has never been romantic about her exile.
“How is it that I hate when James smokes indoors and don’t mind when you do it?”
Helen shrugs, smoke tumbling over her bottom lip. There is something erotic about her mouth: small, yet swollen, revealing a hint of the gap between her front teeth. Her features are stark, jawline sure, curls outgrowing their bob. It is a disconcerting quality to appear ugly one moment and beautiful in the next.
“Perhaps it’s because I’m tragic,” offers Helen. She crushes her cigarette in the ashtray.
There is something resigned in the gesture, something which prompts Mage to arch like a willow over the armrest and extend her glass to Helen. “Here, you could use this more than I.”
Helen takes the glass, smiling. “I’m a good Muslim.” She knocks back the brandy, its taste sweet and sharp.
Just then, the front door bangs open. A stocky man in a sweat-soaked yellow oxford steps through. He hangs his hat crookedly on the coat-stand. Why anyone would have a coat-stand in Saudi Arabia, only Mrs. Reiber can say. The narrow foyer looked bare, so Mage sent for a coat-stand from an English catalogue. A gentleman needs a place to hang his hat.
“James! Darling, we’re all out of booze!” calls Mage, flashing Helen a small grin.
He harumphs past, head bent low, into the kitchen. A cabinet door opens, thuds shut; the exhale of the ice box; the tinkle of ice. James reappears in the living room, carrying a bottle of Gordon’s and two highballs. He pauses when he sees Helen on the couch.
“I didn’t know we had company,” says James, “We’re all out of clean glasses.” He takes the chair opposite his wife, depositing his bounty onto a small marble-top table between them.
“I’m leaving, anyway,” says Helen.
“You are not,” says Mage and pushes from her chair to retrieve another glass, “James, you goon, you’ve been holding out on us.”
“A joke,” says James, “Of course. How are you Miss Akkad? Don’t suppose you ladies know what all that shouting is about?”
Helen stares at him evenly. How she hates this spoonfed ex-football star. She hates his thin mustache, his receding blonde hairline, his pinched little eyes. James is from old Texas oil wealth; his father is Torkild Reiber, rogue CEO of Texaco, a Nazi-sympathizer during the War. Torkild’s progeny is the expected; he had sent his third-born son to the most barren corner of the world.
“I thought it was July 4th,” replies Helen.
“Oh, cut it out you two,” says Mage, appearing with a washed snifter, “We were listening to the broadcast. Helen translated for me.”
“Of all idiotic things!” fumes James, his sunburnt lips stinging from gin, “Eisenhower will flip a lid. You should have heard Clive! Man should never mix politics and drink.”
She agrees with James, but Helen is reluctant to second any opinion of his, lest he think she like him. Instead, she says: “At least Nasser is doing something, fulfilling a promise made by all that rhetoric. Israel will retaliate.”
“Yes, I’m sure you do feel that way, Miss Akkad.”
Helen accepts the glass; it is warm from washing, from Mage’s hand. She takes a sip, the gin too is warm.
“Well, I don’t know what to think,” huffs Mage, falling into her chair. Once again, she throws her legs over the arm, her stockinged toes grazing the floor. “Is it ever hot.”
“We’re in the goddamn desert, Magdalene,” grunts James.
“I hate when you call me by my whore’s name.”
“Jesus Christ,” says James, finishing his drink in one large gulp, “I’m going to bed.”
“I’m leaving,” says Helen.
“Goodnight, James. Helen, you haven’t finished your drink. Come, we’ll have it on the front stoop.” Mage stands and grabs her friend by the hand. Passing behind her husband’s chair, she plants a chaste kiss on his balding blonde crown.
Outside, the air is cooler, less stagnant. The stars are brilliant in the sky; looking down from Paradise, a billion blinking eyes. A short lawn stretches before the Reiber house, its grass coarse and browning. When they first arrived, Mage had tried a planter of marigolds until she realized the futility— her front yard receives a direct desert sun. Now, a few Cappadocian pottery bowls line the walkway, spilling over with succulents. Their street is recently paved. The Maxwells even have a picket fence and a dog. They are far enough away from the refinery that it is only a distant hum. Sometimes, when walking, Mage quietly harmonizes with the machines.
“You wouldn’t believe this is Lawrence’s Arabia,” says Mage. She sits on the top step and tucks her skirt.
“No, you wouldn’t,” agrees Helen, settling against the front door.
“This could be San Fernando Valley,” she gestures around them, “The split-level houses, the drugstore, the movie theater…”
“Come to Saudi-camp, I guarantee it looks nothing like California.”
“I still don’t know why you insist on living there, Helen. You know ARAMCO would be perfectly happy to set you up here.”
“I came to Arabia to be among Arabs.”
“This is not your home. You live in Philadelphia. Your neighbors are Ben Franklin, Tom Jefferson.”
“I am from Palestine. This is as close as I’ve been to home in twenty years.”
“What do you really think about Israel?” Mage has been wanting to ask this since she had learned of her friend’s parentage, which was testament to a good five months of success in keeping her mouth shut.
Helen swallows the rest of her gin. “I’m leaving.”
“You’ve said that three times now,” says Mage, standing, “Come on, you must have some confidante.”
“I’ve had too much liquor to talk about Israel.” Helen hands her the empty glass. “Good night, Mage.”
Mage leans in, but greets only warm air. Helen never kisses goodbye like most women do.
“Sing a Palestinian lullaby,” she calls, but Helen is already at the edge of the lawn.
Dhahran maincamp is nearly twenty-kilometers in diameter, though a newly landscaped park on the American side may add a square-kilometer or so. Regardless, Helen’s walk from the Reiber’s to her building is not far, 15 minutes at a fast pace. She has been meaning to buy a bicycle. Yes, though the walk is not far, it may as well be crossing worlds. There is a flimsy fence separating American- and Saudi-camp and there are security posts lining the meridian. As Helen approaches one, already she can smell cardamom from evening tea, frankincense from Bedouin-town, coalsmoke, human squalor.
“Salaam allaykum,” greets one of the guards, Joram, a Syrian.
“Wa-allaykum as-salaam,” replies Helen.
Joram waives her past the checkpoint. “No one needs a passport tonight.”
Helen nods, bids him goodnight.
Saudi-camp is further segregated into apartments for Saudi nationals and long cement barracks for all other Arabs or Indians. The Shi’a and bedouin live poorest among them, in tent cities outside the settlement. Saudi-camp has its own racial hierarchy. At least the Americans don’t discriminate amongst themselves. Though Helen thinks this has more to do with the fact that most of the Americans living at maincamp are from the same socio-economic circles— nouveau riches. And, they’re all white. If ARAMCO hired black people, Helen bet it would be just the same. It is an unspoken truth in this oil town. No one has broken its sacred silence. There have, however, been whispers among the Ba’athists and Arab nationalists that America had imported a new white imperialism on Arabian sand. Helen supposes they have. Flag follows trade.
Though never an outright activist, Helen still disagrees with segregation in the States. She knows black people and likes them no more and no less than anyone else. But, that is their fight. Helen breathes in the warm, dry desert air. This, here, this is her fight.
The road she walks empties into a kind of confluence in Saudi-camp where all four avenues converge. They call it, simply, the Square or as-Sahah. Here, on days off, men sit playing chess or sipping tea; weekdays see veiled women walking arm-in-arm, talking quietly to each other over wash buckets or orange crates or squalling children. There are no beggars in the Square, which makes it different from any other Arabian town. Occasionally, Shi’a migrants come here to make a show of their prayer or Bedouins come selling woven cloths or jewelry. Now, there are still many gathered in celebration, talking heatedly or passing around leaflets or singing. This is the political salon of Saudi-camp. Helen takes a narrow alley between two barracks, which leads her northeast toward the Saudi-national quarter.
Her apartment is nicer than most, she will admit. It is on par with Saudi elite housing, though unlike most of the men here, Helen is unmarried and lives alone. She knows that her circumstance is strange. Her contract with ARAMCO lists a structural engineering position. Yet, the closest she ever got to a drafting table during her tenure here was when she set a cup of tea at Clive’s elbow. Her duties have been strictly relegated to translating between Arab field managers and American foremen. Truth be told, Helen is confused by the subtle dialects of the Arabian Peninsula: Najdi from the central oases and Hijazi from the western coast. She has learned the Hijazis are charmed by her archaic Arabic; the Najdis think her boastful. Her father, of course, spoke the local dialect of Hebron, but had taught his daughter Modern Standard and Qu’ranic form. He wanted to be sure that Helen had the gift of Classical Arabic poetry, the very words of God as revealed to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon Him.
Poetry will not help her here. Instead, she stumbles over idioms and trips over slang. She spends whole hours in the night debating whether she should veil or not. If it would convince the women here to speak to her in her mother tongue, like her own mother had in Palestine when it was whole.
Most of the Arabs still view her as a Westerner, light-skinned, uncommon in her language and her dress. Wasn’t she the daughter of a Palestinian exile? ‘Abd al-Akkad, someone said, the poet.
Poets are celebrated among the Arabs; they are gifted with sihr halal, lawful magic. When a poet is born, a goat or she-camel is slaughtered in honor and a great feast is given. In tribal days, a poet meant documentation of their histories, the immortal blood of words. This is a relic of Jahiliyya, the Age of Ignorance. Now, they are sure to thank Allah most graciously for the gift of a poet.
Dr. Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Akkad was a poet of the highest caliber; he wrote of Palestine from exile. His Palestine exists only from the eyes of a wayfarer, a thin stretch of coast along the horizon line. Helen had grown up with this sliver of her country, always a brilliant white, a cut orange, a curled olive leaf. Since her arrival in Arabia, after living once more amongst real Palestinians, displaced from the war, Helen finds that the act of drawing near only discovers the dark contours of a thing once held brightly in the mind.
She unlocks the door to her apartment, then locks it behind her. She doesn’t switch on the lamp, but makes a batlike path to her couch and lies down. There is a bedroom, but she hardly uses it— there are no windows. Kicking her shoes off, Helen pulls an afghan over her legs and stills. The darkness heaves around. A body in motion… what does a body want? She is drunker than she thought.
“Goddamn it, Mage.”
She throws off the afghan and wriggles out of her trousers. Already, Helen is sweating in an oppressive heat that lay dormant in the apartment all day. A brief thought is given to a cigarette, and upon realizing that she is out, another given to venturing to the Square and bumming one from those still celebrating. Even the poorest Arab would spare a cigarette on a night like this.
Today we will rid ourselves of the past.
Some of your fellows have just taken the Canal…
A poet is born, thinks Helen, close to sleep. We shall have great feasts.
Mage has begun a letter to her mother three times now. Each one is a variation on a theme: it is hot; James is well. She sits at the dining table, which hadn’t been dined at by either herself or James since they had thrown a dinner party during their inaugural week. A glass of Ayran—a Turkish yogurt drink Mage had developed a taste for—sits untouched by her hand. The clock ticks audibly from the kitchen, second-by-second, time attenuated by heat and boredom. She pulls a clean sheet forward and begins again:
I’ve met a woman engineer. Her name is Helen Akkad. She is most strange, yet clever too. She makes me wish I had gone to college and not married James. I hope Torkild shoots himself. I do not love my husband.
The pen quells; she watches the ink distend, words censored by oil stains. Is this madness? Mage caps her pen. Yes, it is always madness to write the truth. Well, why couldn’t she?
Mother, I am going to travel with the bedouin and marry one of their camels and bare demigods out on the dunes of Rub al-Khali. Mother, I love the rolling r’s of tashar-rafna, the throatiness of sadi-yuk, the shape of the woman engineer’s mouth around Arabic words. Mother, I miss the cherry tree and the birds in your garden.
Mage crumples the letter and tosses it in the bin. Her reality is nothing like the daydreams she had entertained back in Austin. She had read Arabian Nights out on the porch over a sweltering southern afternoon. The heat remained, and out of the haze, a scimitar, an arrow. Having read Scheherazade, Mage knows that Fate appears at the beginning of every adventure. It is only natural that Mage seek adventure to find her Fate. She too would one day gallop on the back of a horse, holding fast to a turbaned warrior, beneath a full desert moon.
Damn James, she thinks, damn him for bringing me to this prison of cut lawns and swimming pools, of little league and women’s clubs, when the real Arabia lay only just beyond the gates. Damn him for secluding me and not giving me children to care for, giving me nothing to do but sweat and drink and shake sand from the bedsheets night after night. No matter how much she shakes the sheets and beats the mattress, there is always sand.
She had complained once, so James hired help— a young Indian woman, unmarried, beautiful with her curt broom sweeps and black eyes. Arooj comes on Mondays and Fridays. It is Wednesday, so Mage doesn’t even have her to look forward to. The truth is, beyond mooning over her distant fantasy, Mage is bored. Plainly, simply bored.
She wishes Helen was just another wife, another bored wife with nothing to do but lunch and chit-chat and stroll the Commissary. Of course, then she would be more available to socialize. Yet, more than that, Helen’s unavailability during the day draws the most excruciating envy from Mage’s veins. Helen has a career; she is needed, valued. She works for a living, lives independently. Helen Akkad is a modern woman.
The beach! Why hadn’t Mage thought of it sooner? She will go to al-Khobar on the coast, peruse small markets and alleys, buy something frivolous, wade to her knees in Gulf waters, become flotsam. Saturday, that’s when she would go. Helen would be free then and might like a little escape. She’d like to see salt dried in Helen’s dark curls.
Quickly, Mage sets about writing a note to her friend. Energy renewed, she fixes her lipstick in the mirror by the door and slips on her low heels. Briefly, she regards her reflection: Mage had never more wished to be less blonde, less white, less American.
Outside, the landscape irradiates spades of light and Mage can only see shapes and glints: the mailbox flag, bicycle spoke, garden spigot, a shivering tuft of kikuyu grass. The refinery hums. The security post is merely an angle against the sky.
“Marhaban Joram!” says Mage, blushing.
The guard smiles. Joram knows why Mrs. Reiber is here.
“For Miss Akkad,” says the American woman, thrusting a small folded note into his hand. Joram shakes it in the air and nods his understanding. The two women had been passing notes through him for a month now. Not that their correspondence necessitates any caution, but they feel a measure of privacy this way. Everyone knows that all outgoing mail is read and possibly censored by some ARAMCO pencilneck.
As the American woman walks away, shielding her eyes from the sun, Joram unfolds the note and is pleased to find he can understand this one: On the page is a little drawing of a sun, a palm, a pirate flag. Al-Kobar Ahoy! it says.
The desert is holy exile. So says the Good Book.
Clive Lee snorts. There is nothing holy about this bleak plain, only the pipeline sidewinding like a snake disrupts its contour. Clive has made a living by knowing its shape. Ever since the War, he has been a comfortable infidel in various parts of the peninsula, acting as guide to Americans or Europeans. During the second wave of exploratory drilling, Clive hooked up with the oilmen, as they say; a tribal name, sealed with a thump to the chest. He possesses no expertise in the field, but he does know how to integrate local populations into large-scale commercial ventures.
His duties at ARAMCO are to oversee the hiring and management of migrants, to act as liaison between Saudi and American personnel, to seize passports under the kafala system, and to be abreast of any politicizing or unionizing. Displaced Palestinians from ‘48 gave him quite a challenge, as did the Saudi regime’s intolerance of Jews at ARAMCO. It has been the most tenuous of balancing acts. But, Clive has a routine and he considers himself effectual. Each morning, he will rise with the sun, drink a healthy dose of shai and bourbon, then go around barking orders in a pastiche of English and Arabic. Now, what to do about Egypt….
His mid-morning appraisal is interrupted by a knock on the office door.
“Enter if you dare!”
The door opens brusquely and Helen strides through carrying a tea tray. She clatters it onto his desk and scowls.
“Shalom, Doc,” says Clive. He notices the corner of a thin envelope peeking from beneath the tray.
“You’re a fucking libel,” says Helen and hurriedly shuts the door.
“Everyone’s a cocksucker.”
“Drink your tea.” Helen crosses her arms over her chest and leans against the desk.
Gingerly, Clive reaches across and pours himself a cup of tea, adding a cube of sugar and three good stirs. Helen is watching his every move.
“Have you heard from Ibix?”
Clive groans. “Damn, knew that was coming. And the answer is no. Had the shortwave out all night, all morning. Not a word.”
“So, what are we supposed to do? Nasser changed everything, you know.”
“I know. Christ, Doc. Keep your voice down. Radio silence is either real good or real bad. My guess is we do business as usual. Wait for instructions.”
Helen scoffs. “While our whole operation goes up in political smoke?”
Clive blows steam across the lip of his glass. “War’s good for the economy. Imagine the generosity of the US and Britain! Even the Soviets might send a few bottles straight from Krushchev’s private wares.”
“I haven’t a taste for vodka.”
Chuckling, Clive sets his glass down. He fingers the envelope: “A bit thin for a week’s work…”
“I was drunk.”
“Is there anything you’re intentionally keeping out of your report?”
“Of course. I need to know the afterlife of such a report.”
Clive sucks his teeth. “What’s going on in Saudi-camp?”
Helen straightens and brushes a wrinkle from her taupe blouse. “I’m going to evening prayer. Get in touch with Ibix, then we’ll talk.”
“Intel isn’t a poker chip, Helen. We have a duty.”
Helen is almost to the door. She pauses, hand poised on the knob. It looks as if she will offer some wisdom, perhaps issue some irksome comment on misplaced loyalty. Yet, instead, she pulls the door open and disappears from frame.
The Engineering building is a large, grey rhombus set on a bend of the Core Access Rd. It stands across from the Administration building, referred to simply as ‘the Tower’. If you have read any dystopian literature, then you may appreciate this tall, dark building full of many windows behind which pace very powerful men. Helen likes to imagine the Evil Eye suspended above a collection of radio antenna on the roof.
Helen’s building is a house with many rooms: Pipeline, control systems, process and facilities, corrosion and structural. She and Clive hold offices in the structural engineering division. It consists of two consultants, Chief Engineer Robert Guest, her own position as Managing Structural Engineer, and a field manager, Clive. The Chief is a strange sort. Built like a fighter pilot, but with the temperament of a tunafish, Bob is a silent, often grumpy middle-aged man. He mostly keeps to himself outside of board meetings and delegations. He is Clive’s project, so Helen interacts with him only on occasion. They both know Bob is C.I.A. No one else seems aware, or so Helen gathers.
Yet, Helen is occupied by her own project: Saudi-camp. Clive was right to demand more from her. She has to be deliberate though, now more than ever. Overnight, Nasser had transformed her into a wartime intelligence officer. Of course, no formal declarations have been made, but war is never subtle, never sudden; it announces itself at every turn. And, at the prospect of imminent conflict, one must choose a side. That is what Helen is doing, though she is trying in the sober way her father had taught her in all serious matters. Have your stones in line, he said, before you step across.
Helen sits on a bus as it bumbles down Dhahran Blvd. at a camel’s pace. The bus is a peeled royal blue and sits on four mismatched tires. Rumor has it that ARAMCO had purchased parts in bulk from the RAF base in Bahrain; it certainly jangles like a mouthful of British teeth.
Slowly, industrial sprawl recedes into the neat residential rows of American-camp. The bus stops and a pack of white faces descend into the glow of an early suburban evening. At the next corner, Helen pushes through a throng of sweating bodies to stand near the exit. The door opens with a hiss and Helen steps down into a cloud of dust and exhaust. A few people step off behind her; a young Saudi man, Hassan, smiles at her.
“Good day, farawla!” he calls. It took Helen a while to understand that these were the only English words Hassan knew, and that farawla is not just a strawberry, it’s an endearment too. She smiles back.
Before them stretches a warped section of the northeastern fence. Joram and another guard stand before the security post and direct people to the back of the queue. Those in line check wristwatches, yawn, fan ankles. They present their passports mechanically and the guards check them mechanically. It seems they barely register official words on official paper, but look only for a brown face.
Finally, Helen steps to the front of the line.
“From Lady,” says Joram, slipping her a small folded note. Helen nods her thanks. Before she can slip the note into her briefcase, however, her body is propelled forward. In the commotion, Mage’s note drops to the ground and is kicked over with dust. Helen turns, surprised, and watches as a squad of Saudi soldiers push through the crowd. They are armed as if for battle and the mere presence of their weapons agitates the people. She sees Hassan throw his hands up and yell something at the soldiers.
“What’s going on?” Helen yells to Joram.
But, Joram does not answer. Instead, he raises his rifle and trains it on the crowd. The barrel is a mere foot from Helen’s chest. “Get back!” he cries, “Keep order!”
Helen crosses her hands over her heart and takes a step back. She feels the warmth of bodies press into her back, electrified by a current of panic. As the soldiers rush through, Helen is thrown to the ground. Dust swarms her vision, boots thunder past, she can taste the iron of blood on her tongue. And just when it occurs to her that she might be trampled to death, Helen feels her body lifting from the ground. A cloth presses to her face, smelling of oil and sweat.
“Good day.” The smooth, accented voice of her rescuer.
“Hassan.” She can’t help it, Helen clings to his body; it is wiry and solid beneath his thin robe. “Shokran, shokran…” she says, thanking him over and over, unable to stop. He takes his handkerchief from Helen’s hand and dabs her bleeding lips.
“Do not worry,” says Hassan, his words slow and deliberate as if afraid she will not understand his Arabic, “the soldiers are only making arrests in Saudi-camp.”
Helen pushes his hand away. “Arresting who, for what?”
“A few men were trying to organize a workers’ union.”
Helen can feel the burn of tears, but she will not let them fall. Those few, sparse words swim up from the page of her report: Rumors of labor union; no action required.
On her way home, Helen dazedly stops in the Square. It is silent and empty for the first time in Helen’s memory. The soldiers even cleaned up the pamphlets that had been strewn across the polestar. There, sitting on the ground near a broken crate, is an orange. Helen picks it up, remembering the Egyptian man who sells imported fruit. Was he one of the arrested?
Helen presses her nose against the smooth grain of the rind; it is cool against her cut lip. And oh, how ripe and sweet it smells.