Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Honey and Onions: A Memoir of Saudi Arabia in the Sixties

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Honey and Onions: A Memoir of Saudi Arabia in the Sixties

Article excerpt

Honey and Onions: A Memoir of Saudi Arabia in the Sixties

For Americans who have lived in Saudi Arabia, this book will be like a relaxed reunion with old friends. Author Fran Meade was one of the first three teachers and later the principal of the Riyadh International Community School during the period when its enrollment was climbing from 30 to 150, more than a generation before it reached the peak of 3,000 students it had attained before this year's drawdown of U.S. official dependents there.

Her husband, Dick, went to Saudi Arabia as an engineer with Wilson-Morrow, the U.S. engineering firm that planned the first paved highway network linking the Red Sea coast to the towns of northern Saudi Arabia and the inland capital of Riyadh. Only a year and a half after their arrival he became the company's manager for Saudi Arabia.

Since the first year and a half of their 31 years in Saudi Arabia were spent in Riyadh, the next three in Jeddah, and the rest back in Riyadh, their experiences were in some ways different from those of the much larger group of Americans who have lived in the Eastern province -- site of the oil fields, the Arabian American Petroleum Company (now Saudi ARAMCO), and much of the Saudi industrial base.

The book will be equally intriguing for Westerners who have come much later to Saudi Arabia. As the author points out, even in the 1966-1969 interval the Meades were absent from Riyadh in Jeddah, the Saudi capital changed remarkably. And though for years she could not fully comprehend either how rapidly or how completely the country would continue to change, she makes a point now of describing the locations of the old central markets which have been largely replaced by decentralized megamalls, the rural buildings and landmarks, and the desert or seaside picnic sites that once were far out of Riyadh and Jeddah and now are well within the metropolitan areas of those sprawling, modern cities.

Although the book is largely confined to the Meades' first five years in Saudi Arabia from 1965 to 1970, the author cleverly begins most of the chapters with a bold-face paragraph or two drawn from contemporary life in the modern kingdom. Then, with a change of type face, she slips 30 years into the past to describe in vivid and poignant detail moments which are familiar to the expatriate experience almost anywhere. She has chosen not to write about her subsequent careers in helping set up the first U.S. Information Agency office and library in Riyadh, and then serving as U.S. embassy protocol officer, for a total of 11 years in Uncle Sam's service.

Instead her book is the story of the arrival in Riyadh of a housewife and her two young daughters, originally from Scarsdale, NY, and more recently plucked out of suburban existence in Arizona, to join the husband and father who had preceded them by a few months to start laying out the sites of the future highway network, and the construction camps from which it would be built.

Among their early experiences were the first days in the Riyadh hotel in a society in which the men and women lived segregated public lives, and Westerners still were a novelty. Meade's book vividly describes the hush -- whether from courtesy, curiosity or shock was not really clear -- that would fall over the hotel lobby packed with coffee- and tea-drinking men as she, her daughters Susan and Patty, and their dog, Woof, made their furtive way through the room to and from meals, and the roar of conversation that would resume as soon as they had passed.

Heartening for the children was the camaraderie among the tiny international summer community in Riyadh of teenagers who spent the rest of the year in boarding schools in a variety of other countries. It gave both children and parents an in-depth cosmopolitan experience that could hardly be duplicated in any other way of life.

Deflating to the parents, however, was the trip to Beirut to enter their two girls for the first time as boarders in the American Community School there. …

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