I lived in a foreign country for three and a half years when I was 9 through 12 years old. It was a fantastic experience I would never trade for anything and it allowed my family and I to travel extensively in Europe and some of the adjoining countries of the Middle East. It also allowed me to pilfer artifacts from my host country. In our post-modern, post-colonial world of BS, this activity is passé to put it mildly. Though I never bow in the direction of such non-concerns, I will offer one word in my defense before I explain some aspects of living in Saudi Arabia as an American ex-Patriot boy: the Saudis do not preserve their own historical sites and when asked if you can take their artifacts, they merely shrug their shoulders and assent—it is, without doubt, the best part of the country.
The country of Saudi Arabia only dates back to 1932, when the Kingdom of the House of Saud was proclaimed and recognized by other world governments (though official “Independence” probably dates back to the 1920s, the country was neither unified nor recognized politically until ’32). Before that date, the Kingdom was, like much of the rest of the region, in the state of a quasi-protectorate of Great Britain, dating back to its liberation from the Ottoman Empire during World War I. When I arrived two days before my ninth birthday in 1993, I knew none of this. My experiences in Saudi Arabia and the world around it changed who I was from an annoying, oblivious, pain-in-the-ass child to an annoying pretentious know-it-all teenager. This story is a component part of that larger development.
The Red Sea entrepôt of Jeddah is the main reception point of pilgrims on the Hajj. A city of over 3 million inhabitants (in a country of roughly 27 million) Jeddah is ancient—dating back to the sixth century BC. The city today extends broadly in every direction leading from the original settlement—lovingly referred to as “Old Jeddah.” Old Jeddah’s highlights include men doing their business on the sidewalks into specially designated “holes” that lead to some form of sewer system along with the omnipresent smell of the former activities, and the occasional beating of some offender of the faith—usually a woman—by the officers of the Saudi Ministry of Vice and Virtue, called Mutawwas. It’s a lovely place.
The rest of the city is “modern,” in the sense that it is covered by Western fast-food restaurants like Burger King and KFC, as well as traffic roundabouts displaying some sort of avant-garde sculpture including closed fists, 18th-19th century sailing vessels, and just about everything else you can think of in sculpture form. Western ex-Patriots do not generally live in and amongst the city’s population. Instead, they live in compound enclaves with all of the other “Westerners” including, it must be added, Indians, Pakistanis, Lebanese, and a host of other nationals not generally called “Western,” but who are also too afraid to live among the Saudis and have more in common with the Americans, Britishers, French, Germans, and other Europeans. Ah, colonialism!
Everyone on these compounds employs a maid. Why? Just like in 19th century America, hiring domestic help is really cheap in Saudi Arabia and there are numerous immigrants from places like Ethiopia and the Philippines that the Saudis allow to enter the country for this express purpose. We had several such domestics when I lived in Saudi Arabia, they were always afraid of our dog, Churchill, a pug we brought with us from Chicago. That dog died one of the most traveled canines in history.
Anyway, I attended a British Academy while I stayed in Saudi Arabia called Continental, where when we weren’t learning to keep women locked in our hotel suites with offers of champagne, we were always plotting nifty outdoor excursions into the Saudi wilderness. On one such trip, particularly emblazoned on my memory, we visited the old Turkish railroads. The Ottomans built a rather extensive railroad from Acaba (in the modern day Kingdom of Jordan) to Jeddah and points beyond to move soldiers and supplies around more easily and to bypass Bedouin tribesmen. During the First World War, the British sent in one of their most famous interlopers, T. E. Lawrence, to stir up the locals with false promises of independence from the Turks. He succeeded brilliantly, turning local Bedouins into a rag-tag “Legion” that he used to disrupt Turkish movements and destroy their rail system, eventually capturing Acaba and then moved on to Damascus, all thrillingly depicted in the David Lean film Lawrence of Arabia. On a side note, that film was watched annually in a debauched bacchanalian festival at the British consulate in Jeddah—as a child, I was not invited. Damn limey bastards!
The Saudis, being a country of Bedouins and fishermen, had no idea what to do with these railroads and, for some reason, no use for shuffling Turkish soldiers around. They never repaired them or stripped them for scrap iron; they just sit there, baking in the desert sun, year after year after year—much like the rest of the country. When I visited them, you could still see the remnants of Lawrence’s campaigns as sections of the track were obliterated and bits and pieces were scattered in all directions. When I and some of my cosmopolitan collection of young friends began picking up these pieces, we became aware that perhaps we weren’t supposed to. Someone asked the local Saudi guide if we could take them home as souvenirs and he indicated it didn’t matter to him and the hunt was on! All of us took several pieces and went home extremely satisfied. And to this day some of my greatest souvenir show pieces from my world travels are rusted over shards of the rail roads Lawrence destroyed in a campaign to take down a lame worthless empire built around putting your feet up!
If you’d ever like to visit Saudi Arabia and the railroads, you have to have a sponsor inside the country and some seemingly “legitimate” reason for doing so, if you’re not a Muslim pilgrim. Since there never could be such a reason to visit such a place, you cannot do so. Hundreds of seemingly worthwhile gentlemen, seeking to stone their wives to death, are turned away every year in the effort to rid themselves of horrendous nags—the Saudis are very discriminating.
Even if you could get in, I’d prefer you didn’t, each additional person who absconds with pieces of the railroads makes my story less unique—get your own damn stories!
Based off reminiscenses circa 1995.
For some great takes on the Mideast, see these enlightening books and David Lean's epic masterpiece: