My first experiences of seeing Saudi Arabia were from the back of a CUCV. A CUCV, which is a fancy acronym, for what’s basically a suburban truck. They didn’t have enough room for all of us, so I ended up in the back area, like when we were kids and road in the back of the station wagon. So I saw Saudi Arabia as it fell behind me.
The streets had sort of what I call a wind-swept look, like the wind blew them clean. I saw the streets look the same in Los Angeles, and it’s because the sun beats down on the asphalt so much that it fades the colors. The cars that passed us by had Arabic license plates, but the translation in numbers was in English blow the Arabic. The signs on the roads were the same way.
I supposed I expected to see a city, but all I saw was a lot of sand on either side of the road. Even the buildings were sand-colored. Most of the architecture seemed more functional than anything else; the only buildings that were elaborate were the mosques. These were quite elegant and beautiful, with tall towers. We were told that the worshipers were called to prayer five times a day from that tower. In the days before modern technology, the man would use his voice, but now it was a loudspeaker.
The most striking thing about Saudi Arabia was the lack of color. I can go outside now, since it’s fall, and see the fiery reds and blazing oranges of the trees changing. Even in Los Angeles, which is a desert, there were still the vibrant colors of the flowers in bloom and the green grass. But in Saudi Arabia, it’s sand color and sky color. Add our sand colored uniforms and our muted green uniforms and tents (same color value family), and there wasn’t much variety.
We arrived at our destination at last, which was at the Dhahran Exposition Center. It was a large white building, and it was right on the shore of the Persian Gulf. A huge beach stretched out for a long ways. Unlike the California beaches I’d grown up with, it was quite flat, which made it the perfect place to set up our tents. We were still early in the deployment process, and ours was one of the first grouping of tents that would go up here.
The water was a shock of glittering blue against all the brownness. Just gorgeous.
This was what I wrote about it on November 3, 1990:
“We’re right on the beach with its powdery sand. The ground is very hard — we were breaking metal stakes in it. The ocean is beautiful from a distance, especially with the city lights reflecting off it at night. But up close, the water is dirty, polluted. The Saudis dump their waste into it.”
At low tide, the water receded so far back that I couldn’t see it any more. But low tide revealed that the sea was a trash dump. Garbage was embedded in the mud, and everywhere, there were tires. I’d later see Saudi men dumping tires from the back of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert. It was hard seeing that because it felt like people didn’t care about where they lived, and especially when it was so beautiful when it was high tide.
The sun was also coming up, and it was starting to get hot. We didn’t have temperature gauges to tell us how how hot it was, except that it was quite hot. In researching this, I was surprised that the average temperature for this time of year was only 96 degrees, and it would start dipping down into fall. Clearly, I’d been away from Los Angeles too long!