Christmas in Dhahran
We were not yet married a year when we touched down in the fall of 1972 in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. We were in debt and we were pregnant. A baby in the new year in Saudi Arabia! How exotic! How full of problems our lives would become! But we didn’t know it that Christmas. We were young, in love, and open to the future. Marilynn would look after the baby. I would teach English to the Royal Saudi Air Force recruits I met six days a week, off Fridays, and we would repay our student loan debt.
Our social circle was quite small, a grad school classmate who taught with me as did three more men we befriended. Men, the operative word. There were no women teachers to male Saudis. In fact, there was not a single woman in the large white-washed cement building in which we taught from morning to mid-afternoon. The headmaster’s female administrative assistant was housed in a nearby building: she could not set foot in ours. Our students were eager, but mostly semi-literate, many of them were Bedouins from the interior desert that makes up the major part of Saudi Arabia. During the Christmas season, as through the rest of the year, my friendly students urged me to convert to Islam. On our breaks and in the mess hall, fervent students pressed the Koran on me.
There was no Christmas spirit in the air. Saudi TV allowed no Christmas music, no Christmas specials. In fact, it was against the law to engage in any overt religious activities beyond those of Sunni Islam. Bibles were illegal. Yet we weren’t religious. We were two people who liked to get caught up in the Christmas spirit: buy presents, find the perfect tree, have big family dinners, play Christmas music, and pretend that goodwill toward men permeated the public space even though we knew that the U.S. was bitterly divided over Vietnam.
So, we prepared our own private Christmas. I scoured the suk for anything resembling Christmas music, but found none. But, I had a guitar and picked out “Silent Night” and sang along to “The Christmas Song,” yet there were no chestnuts roasting on an open fire in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. The roasting was done when one stepped outside an air-conditioned house into the unceasing heat and humidity of the day.
Marilynn tried to cope with a dish my Italian-American family loved to eat on Christmas Day. It is called timballo because it looks like a drum. It is a molded casserole with a sweet pastry crust. Into the casserole goes penne in red sauce, little meatballs, slices of sausage and other savory bits. I had asked Marilynn to make the dish. It was something she had never eaten, and the ingredients were not exactly common in Saudi Arabia. No pork for starters. The dish required a mountain range of flour surrounding a couple dozen eggs. The cook would cave the mountain walls into the caldera of eggs, thus creating a very rich flour to which sugar was added. There was no recipe. One learned by eating the dish to know what it should taste like, and watching the cook go about her business. In our family, that was a maiden aunt on my father’s side.
Marilynn tried her best to make a tasty timballo, but she wasn’t sure about the whole enterprise. I will say, these many years afterward, that the crust was ample and delicious, and I hope her memory of the ordeal I put her through has long faded.
Then there was the matter of a Christmas tree. First of all, there are no trees in a desert, save for date palms at oases, and certainly none were for sale in Dhahran or the local urban center, Al Khobar. What to do? A ha! We had a pole lamp. We had wire clothes hangers. We got crepe paper somewhere, and we made ornaments. Thus, a Christmas tree was born in Saudi Arabia. I think I still have a photo of it. As Touchstone says in “As You Like It,” it was “an ill-favored thing, sir, but mine own…”
On Christmas morning Marilynn, belly swollen with the child she would bear in January, and I, sat next to the Christmas tree-pole lamp to exchange presents.
I remember little of what we gave each other, save for one thing: a beautiful fountain pen Marilynn gave to me. It soon got lost and was never found. Even now, I mourn it, me being a lover of fine writing instruments.
And so we celebrated Christmas together in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. We did it unlawfully, without the slightest hint of Christmas spirit from the town, and the only snow we saw was from the fridge defroster. Christmas in Saudi Arabia. There is no such thing. Yet there it was.