Sunday, December 10, 2006

My own personal war against the Arabs.

~ byronius

I lived in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia as a child. My father taught chemical engineering at the College of Petroleum and Minerals to young Arabian men in long white thobes and headresses. I went to elementary school at Dhahran Academy, the American Embassy school where Americans were in short supply -- most kids were British, or Dutch, or one of the twenty other nationalities that outnumbered the American kids. Unlike the Americans locked behind razor-wire in the Aramco compound, where they had movie theaters and actual lawns, we lived in the South Compound, a collection of concrete housing open to the desert. I could drive at any age, because I was male; I used to take my minibike out into the deep desert, on the edge of the Rub' Al Khali itself. My mother and sister were forbidden to drive, ever, but I drove my sleeping father from Dhahran to Riyadh when I was ten years old. It was the Wild Life Of Freedom for a kid.

I and my pack of buddies from the North and South compounds would roam the desert at will, exploring the massive and empty world of 1960's Saudi Arabia. We would climb djebels, catch lizards, explore caves -- when it rained, which it did once a year, it would rain so hard the desert would become a shallow sea for a few hours. We would go out and splash around in it. The entire area would bloom profusely for a week or two after the rain, and then -- back to desert. Sometimes we'd find dead goats and camels, often surrounded by incongruent patches of green grass, growing in the middle of the rocky sand. It was an entrancing place to spend one's childhood.

It was also often dangerous. My friend Marco Porro, a kid from Portugal, got caught by the mullahs in Al-Khobar and had his head shaved with garden shears. They damaged his scalp in the process. His family left the country immediately, and I never saw him again. Similar events marred the otherwise tranquil landscape, but only occasionally. The Dean of the College was an arab, and was hauled off by Saudi police late one night -- his family lived on in the North Compound for years. No one asked about his fate. He, also, was never seen again.

One 120-degree day, I and my desert-rat buddies were playing outside the walls of the North Compound. We were a motley crew -- American, French, Austrian, Taiwanese, Nigerian. We suddenly saw a group of young arab kids about our age, slowly walking toward us. For some reason I now forget, we ended up in a giant Rockfight. For half an hour, we hurled deadly missiles at each other, dodging and leaping from bush to boulder to rise to wadi, trying to do as much damage as a ten-year-old with a sharp-edged rock could do. Blood flowed freely from most of us. I got hit on the head pretty bad; blood ran down the side of my face. At the end of the half-hour, all of us were gasping, bleeding, some crying. The arab kids had it just as bad, we could see. There was a momentary pause in the battle, while we all regrouped.

Suddenly, one of the arab kids stood up and held up his hands in an obvious gesture of truce. We held our fire; I walked out to meet him in the middle of the battlefield. As we approached each other, I could see that he was bleeding as badly as I was. We met in the middle, and just looked at each other for a few minutes, breathing heavily. He reached in his pocket, and pulled out a knife -- and then also pulled out some sort of desert fruit. To this day, I have no idea what it was. He swiftly peeled it, cut off a slice, and handed it to me. It was delicious.

The War ended immediately. All the other kids from both sides wandered out, took a slice of the strange fruit, and tried to communicate with each other somehow. Some of us spoke a rudimentary Arabic, but none of the arab kids spoke English -- we did our best. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the desert together, all thoughts of conflict forgotten. I remember my mother's shock at seeing my blood-encrusted face and shirt -- I had completely forgotten about it by then.

We never saw them again, but I've never forgotten the moment, or the look in that boy's eyes as we approached each other, or the swiftness with which the bloody battle was smoothed over.

And that is why I think it's never too late to make peace.