Growing up as an American in Saudi Arabia meant spending most days behind the concrete walls of our compound in Al-Khobar. It was illegal for women to drive, or even sit in a car with a man other than her husband, so day trips outside of Al-Bustan village were limited to the one day a week when my father could take us on the road in his company car. So when my mother and her friend planned a trip for our families to Al-Hofuf, a city about an hour and half to the south, we were thrilled at the prospect of escaping the compound for the day.
On the Friday of our trip, my sister Alex, my parents, my friend Matt, his parents, and a friend from school, packed into two cars with our picnic coolers and set off for Hofuf. The highway outside of Al-Khobar was empty except for the oil pipelines snaking across the desert, and the occasional herd of camels. It was mid-March, and it was hot. The radiating heat created a familiar mirage, transforming the asphalt into a shimmering lake – one that looked so good in 90-degree temperatures. Although we weren’t on our way to the beach, the town of Al-Hofuf had the second best alternative- Al-Hasa- one of the world’s largest oases.
After roaming Hofuf’s souk and gold market, we made our way to the Jebel Qara, the eastern side of the oasis that housed Ghar Al Hashshab, “the cave of the arrow maker.” Narrow caverns eroded into the limestone rock allowed sunlight into the front sections of the caves, and here potters made simple, unglazed pottery on their wheels. As we walked further inside, the temperature dropped and we found ourselves wishing we’d brought sweaters, a rare thought in the Saudi Arabian heat.
Matt led the way through the caves, kicking up sand with his “LA Lights” sneakers as he searched for a spot to picnic. He rounded a corner at top-speed and nearly tripped over a Saudi man and woman on an Oriental rug. The man called out to my father, inviting him and the rest of our caravan of Americans to join the couple. The eight of us spilled out onto the burgundy rug, unsure of what to do with ourselves. The young man introduced himself as Karim, and his wife, Marwa. He invited us to stay for lunch, adding that a few friends and family members would be joining them shortly. Before anyone had time to protest, Marwa had already brought over bowls of snacks to share on the rug.
While Karim and our fathers chatted, Marwa shimmied over to our corner, clutching a bowl of dates and roasted nuts. Dates were not my favorite food, I couldn’t stand how sickly sweet they tasted and how gooey they left my teeth and fingers, but I gave in to her eager waving of the basket and took a handful, grinning my thanks as I stuffed one in my mouth.
Strong Arabic coffee, qahwa, was poured for the adults from a gold-plated dallah into tiny cups. Cans of Pepsi, the soft drink of choice in Saudi Arabia, were passed down the rug to Matt, his friend, my sister and I. At the time, Coca-Cola was still relatively unpopular in the Kingdom. The Saudi government had banned Coca-Cola products until 1989, due to the company’s business ties with Israel, and was only just starting to bring back limited quantities in the 90s. We peeled back the can tabs and saved them in our pockets to add to the chains we had at home.