The Shaybah oilfield complex in Saudi Arabia at night
LONDON - Arabstoday
The Shaybah oilfield complex in Saudi Arabia at night
When Ja'far's father went to work for SakOil, I asked my Dad about these oil fields everyone was talking about. He told me they weren't that
far from our village. That evening I kept on asking and asking him about them, and eventually he took me up to the roof of our house. He pointed with his slender hand to the eastern horizon, where five spots of light flickered uncertainly.
"There," he said gently, "under each of those flares is an oil well."
I was obsessed with these lights, staring at them like a moth which tries to steer by the stars, hoping that I could fly straight toward them. Over on the other side of the roof, the washing hung damp in the still air. An ant crawled over my foot, heading for a dark corner. I kicked it away – I wasn't going anywhere. I stood up and followed my Dad back down to our living room like a disappointed Sufi.
Yet my faith never vanished. All that hot, damp summer, I spent many hours looking at the flickerings of those flares as if I was some religious novice. They were like some great show, the gas squeezing up from the depths of the oil well to be consumed in flame against the intense black horizon, like some great dragon. I could hardly step onto the roof without looking to the east and counting those flares like a catechism. Every time one appeared I rushed to my Dad, a lucky astronomer who has sighted a new star in the sky. Dad never shared my excitement.
Every morning I would watch the men setting off to work in those oil wells. Some went in cars to the SakOil headquarters wearing suits, though whenever they were in the village they wore the local thawbs. Others gathered at the vegetable souk where large buses took them to the distant fields. These wore blue overalls and long leather boots and carried yellow safety helmets.
They were all enchanted for me, all heading for the mystical oil fields early in the morning and coming back at sunset. Out there they were subduing the earth, extracting oil, feeding those flares, discovering the impossible and mixing with Americans. In short, they were playing major roles on the world stage every day. And they weren't just setting light to those flares above the oil wells, they were providing fuel for our village as well. When they got back they were full of illuminating stories, stories I collected up in my mind as if they were relics of an immortal saint.
I treasured the tales cousin Sulaiman told when he came back from Bahrain for my grandmother's funeral. He had worked on the first pipeline project, when American women were roaming the streets without covering their heads. "People used to be more accepting," he said with a sigh. The men nodded.
Once Ali, our neighbour, said he was one of the workers crowded around the king in the black and white photograph of a recently-discovered oil field hanging proudly on his sitting-room wall. I didn't know he had been this close to royalty, so I asked which one was him. He said he was hiding his face because taking photographs is haram. My Dad said it was past my bedtime.
Ja'far used to live in the street opposite our house. His Dad would spend three days without a break in the oil field, and then come home to spend a couple of days with his wife and children before setting off again. Ja'far told me his Dad boarded a fast boat that took him from the port of Ras Tannura to an off-shore oil rig in the Safaniya field in the middle of the sea.
Ja'far became my best friend. Every day I heard a different story from him about his Dad. I didn't ask myself whether a story was true or not – anything was possible for his Dad. All I wanted was one day to work in an oil field myself, and to have a son who would be as proud of me as Ja'far was of his Dad.
My Dad didn't work in the oil field. He taught at the deaf and dumb school at the end of our street. He spent his day with children who could not speak or hear, and so I could hardly expect him to bring home any interesting tales. When Dad came back with a bag of fresh hamour from the fish market and a bag of cabbage leaves from the souk, I'd be at the other end of the village, playing football with Ja'far. When his Dad got back from the oil rig he would greet me with a warm handshake. And one day he gave me a small medallion stamped with SakOil. I guarded it like a jewel from Paradise.
One afternoon after prayers, Ja'far told me that he had some important news. His Dad would no longer be working in the Safaniya field. He was being transferred to a new oil field in the middle of the Empty Quarter. This meant that instead of boarding a fast boat he would be taking a plane owned by SakOil into the desert, translating him ever closer to heaven.
I asked Dad that evening whether the flares we could see from our rooftop were in the middle of the sea or in the middle of the land. He replied with a laugh, his hands thrown up as if he was surrendering.
"My boy, keep calm. One day you'll see them at our front door."
"At our front door?" I almost shouted.
He nodded, but he didn't say any more.
That night I dreamed about oil wells. I was up on the roof of our house singing the praises of the flares to a group of people down below, but I didn't recognize them. The flares came closer and closer, and I carried on praising them loudly like a devoted sorcerer. They flickered even brighter and came right up to me in a circular wave of stars and fire. I bent down to the closest flare and reached out to touch it. My hand pierced the flare smoothly. It felt so cold. I kept my hand within the flame.
I dreamed of the oil wells many times after that night, and it seemed as if my dreams were coming true. As the oil fields developed, the wells sprung up nearer and nearer to our village. Ja'far moved to al-Dammam – his mother muttering about the dangers of asthma and bronchitis – but I didn't mind. Soon the wells were so close we could see the workers moving around the base, or climbing up to adjust the machinery.
I was dreaming of the wells last night. My kid sister was coughing again, shaking and crying in the darkness as she struggled for air. She had woken up my mother as well, who came in with a drink of water and sat down beside her, stroking my sisters' hair and humming an old song. I lifted my head from the pillow.
"Do you think father knows anyone who could help me find a job at SakOil?" I asked.
She stopped singing and looked up.