This article uses a multigenerational lens to address the tangible and intangible embodiments of the US-Saudi oil empire in the lives of the three sister authors. This multisited intimate geography of empire challenges national categories and recognizes that mixing and migrations, forced or desired, shape and define all families. It explores the look, feel, and sounds of lifeworlds in the US imperial outpost of Aramco using an immense archive of family photographs and Fadia Basrawi’s memoir, Brownies and Kalashnikovs: A Saudi Woman’s Memoir of American Arabia and Wartime Beirut (2009). It considers the geopolitics of oil and the worlds it produced in the intimate relations and domestic quarters of the Aramco oil camp in the 1950s and 1960s, in the authors’ childhoods in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war, which also involved US imperialism, and as embodied in their lives at present.
This article is academic and personal, produced by three sisters about their mother’s life and their lives as shaped by their grandfather’s employment with the American Arabian Oil Company (Aramco) from its early years in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. This multisited and generational intimate geography of empire challenges anachronistic national categories and recognizes how mixing and migrations, forced or desired, shaped and defined our family, as they do all families. We explore the look, feel, and sound of lifeworlds in the US imperial outpost of Aramco using a vast photographic archive built by our grandfather Fahmi Basrawi and our mother Fadia Basrawi’s (2009) memoir, Brownies and Kalashnikovs: A Saudi Woman’s Memoir of American Arabia and Wartime Beirut. We treat our mother’s memoir as a “point of memory” that mediates our understanding of a past we did not directly experience. Its publication reoriented our being-in-the-world, our desires, and our imaginaries. Her memoir put her experiences into words and into the world and motivated us to take up the subject of our intimate imperial US genealogy: pieces of us. In this article we consider the geopolitics of oil and the worlds it produced as embodied in the intimate relations and domestic quarters of our mother’s growing-up years in the Aramco oil camp and our own childhood in Beirut during the Lebanese civil war years, where the US empire manifested itself in different ways. We recognize empire as an intensely familiar place, with its traces in our bodies, hearts, and minds.
Ann Laura Stoler (2006b, xii; 2006a, 1) writes of imperial history that is “haunted by the real and the unseen,” as well as “the ambiguous zones of empire that refused or refuted colonial appellations.” This article circles around these ambiguities but also recognizes them as pieces of us that we should claim rather than disavow. We seek to interrogate the colonial process from a familial and feminist perspective, to get at what Stoler (2006a, 3, 2) viscerally describes as the “marrow” of empire that molds new “structures of feeling” and “habits of heart and mind.” Our work is conversant with feminist scholarship that redirects our sensibilities to the “domains of the intimate” in imperial and colonial contexts (2). Focusing on the intimate dynamics and spaces of empire acknowledges experiences often deemed irrelevant as well as usually ignored actors. Svetlana Boym (1998, 500) argues that intimacy does not inhabit the “outskirts of the social” but rather provides the terms of its definition. To study the intimate dimensions of imperialism is to probe the engendering of empire in the “closed space in which unspoken knowledge is shared” (Stoler 2006a, 16). In other words, it recognizes family life as the bedrock on which empire rests and through which it expresses and reproduces itself.
The intersections of geopolitics, imperialism, and petrocapitalism in our lives reverberate in multiple ways that are often difficult to name: gestures, affects, languages, relations, and silences. We probe the unexpected genealogical sources of ourselves as subjects, sisters, and academics. We initiated this project as a presentation for the January 2016 American studies conference “Fragments of Empire: After the American Century,” held at the American University in Beirut.1 We sought to plumb the sources of our “Americanness,” an identity that controversially—and somewhat dangerously—dogged us growing up in wartime Lebanon. We turned to our mother’s memoir, our grandfather’s photographic archive, and ourselves to illuminate the genealogies, affects, and silences that constitute us as imperial subjects. Such explorations of the tangible and intangible repositories of memory compiled beneath the radars of state and corporate control or sanction can be subversive in undermining authorized or taken-for-granted narratives. Our endeavor remains complicated by our closeness to the material we examine and its continuous mattering in our worlds and families as well as in us.
This article proceeds through several archaeological and genealogical layers centered on sites where the imperial and intimate are simultaneously generated. We begin in Beirut, where imperial traces materialize and haunt everyday life in ways that orient us toward silenced histories that unsettle the naturalized dimensions of the present. The second layer coalesces around the memoir of our mother, Fadia Basrawi, which gave narrative shape and voice to what had remained gestural, spectral, and loudly unspoken in our growing-up years. She wrote the memoir between 2004 and 2007, after her children had grown and flown. The memoir brought to light her early life and formation in the oil camp of Aramco, which we had strongly sensed growing up but had no tangible access to. At least legally and publicly, our mother had given herself to our Lebanese father’s family, allegiances, identifications, and nationalist commitments by the time we were born. The patriarchal law of nation-states, in this case Lebanon, as Suad Joseph (1999) has shown, claimed us even though we were also our mother’s children, and we passively succumbed until we found the tools and means to critique and subvert patriarchal orders and forms and to recognize and reclaim to some extent the maternal part of our genealogy. The third layer of this article engages a portion of the vast photographic archive left behind by our maternal grandfather, Fahmi Basrawi, whose desire to document every moment of his life was quite extraordinary. When he died in February 2012, a portion of his massive and meticulously compiled visual archive passed to us. In this article we draw on the photographs he made and collected throughout his long career with Aramco, which employed him from 1942 until his retirement in 1975.
Worth between two and ten trillion US dollars, Aramco is one of the world’s richest companies and the site and source of the “special relationship” between the United States and Saudi Arabia that began with the Concession Agreement signed by the ruler of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Standard Oil of California (Socal) on May 29, 1933. This world-changing agreement between a king and a corporation allowed a subsidiary of an American oil company to explore for oil in the eastern desert of Arabia. In 1938, after several years of exploration, Socal finally struck oil when drill site Dammam No. 7 gushed forth with black crude, immediately producing fifteen hundred barrels a day. A new fossil-fuel-driven global order was ushered in with the discovery of the world’s then largest reserves of oil. Al-Hasa, a formerly sleepy eastern coastal (largely Shiʿi) province of the Arabian Peninsula that was dotted with a few oases and tiny fishing towns, was harnessed as the “hinterland of the capitalist world economy” (Vitalis 2004, 153). Robert Vitalis (2007) has written prolifically about the special relationship of the United States and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as it unfolded with the creation and consolidation of Aramco. He argues that this venture is continuous with the US imperial projects that came before it. His account of big men, corporations, capitalism, geopolitics, and labor is important. Ours is about the everyday, lived dimensions of oil imperialism over multiple generations.
Family Photographs as Archive
Marianne Hirsch (1997, 13) traces “the intersection of private and public history” through family photographs, which “offer a prism through which to study the postmodern space of cultural memory composed of leftovers, debris, single items that are left to be collected and assembled in many ways, to tell a variety of stories, from a variety of often competing perspectives.” Hirsch insists that, rather than straightforward recuperation of a lost past, these image assemblages are a haunting return, producing “postmemory” that is neither memory nor history because of “generational distance” and “deep, personal connection.” Postmemory, she argues, “is a powerful and very particular form of memory precisely because its connection to its object or source is mediated not through recollection but through an imaginative investment and creation” (22). We use our grandfather’s photographs to connect to him and to imaginatively create the lifeworld into which our mother was born. In the process, we acknowledge this strand of our imperial genealogy.
Our grandfather’s collection of images is an “archive,” a “repository of materials” (Zeitlyn 2012, 462) that intimately and alternately documents larger structures, dynamics, and realities. We read the photographs with and against the large grain of state, nationalist, and corporate narratives that tell authorized versions of events at the expense of thousands of unseen lives. These hegemonic stories deliberately forget to tell or tell differently the unspeakable aspects of their projects. As Michel-Rolph Trouillot (2001, 26) elaborates, “Silences enter the process of historical production at four crucial moments: the moment of fact creation (the making of sources); the moment of fact assembly (the making of archives); the moment of fact retrieval (the making of narratives); and the making of retrospective significance (the making of history in the final instance).”
We can study our grandfather’s images in the historical context of their production, as artifacts, or in their afterlives as visual archives, “postmemories” generated by his granddaughters, generationally and spatially removed from his experiences. We recognize that examination of his visual archive does not transparently reflect the past. We also realize that analysis of content depends on who considers the image, in what context, and when. Our grandfather’s visual archive is a means to enter and interpret or construct lifeworlds previously invisible to us. We are interested in the silences and ambiguities Aramco, a place of men and oil, kingdom and corporation, produced and shaped. We use Fahmi Basrawi’s photographic archives, among other sources, to illustrate how sleek and shiny oil refineries in the Arabian desert generated more than profits for US oilmen and Saudi royalty, though they certainly did that.
Beirut: Embodied and Geographic Traces of Empire
This section looks at the affects and infrastructures that shape the present and more recent past in the country of our citizenship and growing up, Lebanon, drawing on experiences, memories, family photos, and Fadia Basrawi’s memoir. Fadia had the same archival streak as her father, Fahmi. She meticulously documented our growing-up years in numerous photographs that she organized in chronological albums beginning in 1972, when our parents married, and extending to 2003, around the time digital photography usurped analog (and we left home). The albums, which line our family-room wall, traveled with us from Beirut to the Gulf, to Lebanon, to Austria, and back to Lebanon, where they rest today. The photo albums helped shape our senses of self, and their images intermingle with our memories. Our mother’s memoir, which integrated her father’s photographs in a similar analytic process, explained her “American” sensibility cultivated growing up in the Aramco camp.
Our intimate genealogy tracks with imperial and geopolitical events. Lebanon has a long history of infrastructural and demographic connection with the oil fields that mushroomed in eastern Arabia. Zahrani, just south of Saida, Lebanon, our father’s hometown, is one of the terminals of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline (called Tapline), a joint venture by several US oil companies. Beginning in 1950, it carried Arabian crude oil from eastern Arabia to the ports of the Mediterranean, where tankers shipped them to their destinations in the US and Europe. The infrastructures of neo-imperial modernity were put into place during this period, with configurations that transcended the “sovereign” national borders closing in on us all. These infrastructures nevertheless created new spaces and connections where lives thrived alongside pipes, tankers, and fossil-fuel refineries.
Fadia Basrawi, like many Aramcon teenagers of her generation, moved to Beirut in 1965 to complete her education because the Aramco school at that time went only until the eighth grade. Unlike her Aramcon-US peers, who could attend the American Community School in Beirut because of their citizenship, she became a boarder at the Beirut Evangelical School for Girls, where she completed her secondary education. She then completed a BA in sociology at the Beirut College for Women (fig. 1).
Beirut in the 1960s was full of student uprisings, labor unrest, Arab nationalist fervor spearheaded by Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, Palestinian resistance and solidarity, and wars with Israel. Fadia found her Aramcon-American identity orphaned and moored in Beirut. Her Arab classmates perceived her as a bizarre anomaly: an Arabian girl who was thoroughly American. Fadia quickly negotiated her way out of that lonely corner by rekindling her Arab “roots.” She writes colorfully in part 2 of the memoir, “Heartland,” of this difficult transition. She met our father, Adnan Khayat, on Bliss Street opposite the main gate of the American University of Beirut, where he was studying. A fervent Arab nationalist, he was taken by her kindness and beauty and besotted with what he perceived as her “true” Arabian genealogy. Their courtship and marriage, as well as our growing-up years during the Lebanese civil war, further obscured and eclipsed Fadia’s Aramcon identity.
Our mother recounts in her memoir how, on one dark December night in 1972, she eloped with our father in London. This drove a wedge between her family of birth and her family of marriage. As a result, we grew up largely immersed in our Lebanese patrilineal family and at a spatial and emotional remove from our Arabian and Syrian matriline. Fadia devoted herself to us and spent her energy in producing a cozy space of normalcy in challenging and constantly shifting wartime conditions. She made few references to her family of birth or her growing-up years. Fadia’s sublimated true-blue American habitus found vivid expression, however, in the language, dispositions, foods, literatures, and music of our home space and in the way she brought us up. In her “domain of the intimate” Fadia nurtured and passed on her imperial habitus as familiar practice, which in turn fenced off our own intimate connection to our fatherland. Although Aramco as placeholder of US empire in Arabia (and the Middle East) and the source of our mother’s early formation and subjectivity was obscured by anti-American politics and patriarchal dominance during our childhood, she lovingly nurtured it otherwise in our home without ever naming it. The practices, temporalities, values, imaginaries, and consumables of our domestic space strongly reflected our mother’s “all-American” childhood world. She enacted and passed on a cultural inheritance—dispositions, orientations, mannerisms, habits—through motherly practice. Our home was an ordered and happy space of “American” childhood in the midst of the Lebanese civil war (fig. 2).
During the war our mother went to great lengths to procure for us US breakfast cereals (fig. 3). Arriving distinctly stale, General Mills monster cereals Boo Berry, Franken Berry, and Count Chocula cheerfully signified the wholesome breakfast world of white US suburbia, pointing to an elsewhere that was and was not also in our home. We ate our cereal with reconstituted Nido powdered milk, produced by the Swiss company Nestlé, a Lebanese wartime staple with a decidedly strong aftertaste. Our mother loved Kraft processed cheese and brownies, her favorite treat. Our mother tongue was 1950s and 1960s American English and slang, which we spoke among ourselves and with our mother. We read books by Dr. Seuss, Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Ezra Jack Keats, P. D. Eastman, Stan and Jan Berenstain, and others. We happily partook in cultural phenomena of that time, including rock ’n’ roll, Beatlemania, and country music, at home.
Our mother read glossy magazines from the United States, which arrived months out of date during the war: Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Ladies’ Home Journal, Architectural Digest, Vogue, Glamour, and House and Garden. She also read the International Herald Tribune, which arrived weeks late and represented dramatic events in Lebanon from a spatial and temporal distance—akin to our mother’s take on it all. Her family values were decidedly 1950s United States and her morals and work ethic quite Protestant. The rigidly disciplined nature of our domestic rhythms and schoolwork expectations was never in sync with our Lebanese peers, who in our view were indulged and allowed free rein. Our mother enrolled us at the American Community School in Beirut the moment it finally opened its doors to non-US citizens, in 1985, the year the US government evacuated its citizens from Lebanon in the wake of multiple attacks and kidnappings. The United States imposed a ban on US citizens traveling to Lebanon that remained in place until 1997.
During our growing-up years a thin Lebanese skin enveloped us, and a rambunctious extended Lebanese family to which we thought we belonged but somehow did not offered further camouflage. Our hidden America provided an alternative identity—imperial, yes, but affectionately and silently nurtured in the insular domestic space our mother constructed as a haven against the intruding war chaos in Lebanon and the Lebanese family into which she had married. Lebanon was the site of our formation, our fatherland; we had to live there for love of the country despite the terrible war raging. Our father constantly reminded us to be proper nationalists—to love and desire “our” Lebanon as war was tearing it asunder. By the time we were old enough to begin making sense of things, we were often confused by the loudly trumpeted Arabism and nostalgic Lebanese nationalism impressed on us by our father, in contrast to our mother’s American-Aramcon subjectivity and affect, which quietly and firmly undermined it.
Moreover, it was dangerous to be (or to be perceived as) American in wartime West Beirut in the 1980s, when assassinations and kidnappings were rife. Inhabiting Lebanon with a “foreign” mother socialized as an imperial US subject in a country and war that were and were not her own produced blooming silences and ambiguous zones of affect that we navigated differently in and outside the domestic circle. Our father’s loud Arab nationalist discourse and public claiming of our mother as an “Arabian” wife concealed the shards of empire embedded deep in our domestic viscera. Our world in Beirut, strange as it was, was as naturalized and taken for granted as Fadia’s was, growing up Aramcon in Saudi Arabia, strange as that was. Children make worlds their own, inhabiting them with exuberance, energy, and love. Today we understand better our sticky wartime “American” aura and affect without feeling cornered or guilty, as we often did growing up. It is simple, really: we are American imperial subjects because our mother is a (Saudi) Arabian Aramcon. The source of our hidden America, by way of our beloved mother and her father before her, was Arabian oil and the US corporations that wanted it.
Geopolitics and Imperialism as Family History
Petroleum, the black gold of the Arabian desert, has fueled the world we all know since the 1920s. We live in an endless exploitative cycle of seeking, extracting, and consuming nonrenewable energy, in the process reinforcing repressive governments, generating war, and destroying a planet that hurtles toward climatic catastrophe. Our family history, with all of its idiosyncratic complexities and intimacies, is very much part of these global dynamics. Wars and forbidding state borders divide the world and cut deeply across and into our human flesh. Life continuously exceeds and defies these borders, however, muddling, mixing, and transcending authoritative orders, categories, and understandings. Our family history tells another story of empire, rupturing silences at the levels of the intimate and imperial and bringing previous geographies and lifeworlds to light.
The Basrawis, like most families living in the post-Ottoman world, preserve in their familial configurations and in many other ways traces of vanished empires (fig. 4). They reflect a world with more fluid social and legal borders. The family is from the Hijaz, the urban province in western Arabia that is crisscrossed with historical pilgrimage and trade routes and where the holy cities of Mecca and Medina are located. The name indicates that the family originated at some earlier point in Basra, Iraq, an Ottoman administrative capital. Yusef, Fahmi’s father, never lived in the Hijaz growing up. He moved as a baby to Istanbul with his Circassian mother, a freed slave, after the death of his Medinese father, a landowner and teacher of the Quran. Yusef’s mother tongue was Ottoman, and he completed his education in Istanbul. When the Ottoman Empire fell after World War I and France and England carved it up between themselves, they also divided vast lands and peoples that had operated as a constellation of administrative metropoles and their hinterlands. Yusef, as the son of an Arab from the Hijaz, was no longer welcome in Istanbul, capital of the newly established ethnonationalist Turkish state. Following the cruel national logic that sovereign belonging should align with the ethnicity or race of one’s father, Yusef was compelled to “return” to Medina in the Hijaz. He married by arrangement a Damascene woman, Arabia Kotob, who traveled to Medina on the Hijaz railway, built by the Ottomans, to meet her new husband.
Arabia and Yusef had five children: a daughter, Bahija, the eldest, and then four sons, Farid, Anwar, Fahmi, and Bahjat. They lived a comfortable life between the Hijaz and the Levant. Farid and Anwar, with movie-star good looks, entered the diplomatic corps of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and led stylish lives as ambassadors in world capitals. The youngest, Bahjat, pursued an army career but died by drowning in the Sudanese Nile while completing his officer training. Fahmi Basrawi, our grandfather, sought the road less traveled. In 1942 he was an unmarried twenty-year-old trainee filing police reports in a stuffy office where his father was director general of investigations for the Medina police force. One day he came across an advertisement for single men to work in an oil company run by Americans in the Eastern Province. Nothing more was specified. Fahmi interviewed for the job and impressed the local recruiter with his handsome looks, urbanity, and Arabic literacy. The recruiter offered him a job as an English teacher. When Fahmi objected that he did not know a word of English, he was reassured, “Never mind, never mind, we will teach you.” The pay was thirty-five US dollars per month, more than twice his salary in Medina, so he took the offer (Basrawi 2009, 71).
Fahmi, like most Hijazis, had never traveled east of Jeddah, although he had often visited the capitals of Egypt, Syria, and Lebanon with his family. Social and economic networks tied him, like many cosmopolitan Hijazis, to the other metropolitan cities of the Ottoman Empire but not to their “wild” hinterlands. “Separating the old cities of Arabia’s west and its backwaters in the east was the scorched desert aptly named the rubʿ al khali (the desolate quarter),” where “Bedouin robbers regularly ambushed and killed unprotected travelers,” Fadia Basrawi (2009, 71) writes in her memoir, perhaps echoing urban dwellers’ exaggerated fears. At a truck stop in the Jeddah port, Fahmi bought a ride to Dhahran, traveling for two weeks “atop sacks of wheat in the back of the pickup truck” with two other passengers and an armed Bedouin to fend off robbers (72). Fahmi was met at the Aramco oil fields in Dhahran by Vincent James, who would become his mentor, and an Iraqi, Wadiʿ Sabbagh, who was an Aramco translator, secretary, and instructor. Fahmi, disheveled and exhausted after his long journey, hurried toward an impressive “group of neat bungalows with air-conditioning units jutting out from each house,” as well as “ice water tanks and a communal mess hall” (72). Sabbagh gently explained to him that this well-apportioned complex was “American Camp” and for “American employees only” (72). Sabbagh directed Fahmi farther down the road to a ramshackle camp that “consisted of barren rows of tents and barastis, wooden pole-frame abodes with dirt floors and woven palm-frond ceilings and walls” where he was to live (72): “Arab Camp” (fig. 5). The image illuminates the infrastructure of a “Manichean world” of colonial racist practices and spatial logics that Frantz Fanon (1961, 31) described and that also reflected American imperial practices in Arabia: “This world divided into compartments, this world cut in two is inhabited by two different species” (30).
“Arab Camp” actually housed a multinational workforce and had entrance signs in Arabic, Swahili, Urdu, and Italian. Sabbagh explained to Fahmi that the Italians who lived with them were “remnants of the Italian army, 2,000 of them, who were stranded in the shambles of Mussolini’s retreat from Eritrea in 1941” (Basrawi 2009, 73). The Italian engineering corps was “employed immediately to design and build the major administrative buildings for Aramco” and, despite being Europeans, could not “share quarters with the Americans” (73). Fahmi had not “been expecting such blatantly unequal treatment from his new employers” (73), particularly given his elite background, but this was the situation on America’s Arabian oil frontier. Vitalis (2007) argues that US imperial projects, far from being exceptions, should be understood as extensions of the racist, violent, and segregated expansionist projects and labor practices that shaped capitalist-industrial modernity in the United States. Moreover, such imperial projects were similar in praxis and logic to French and British racist overseas colonial ventures. In Saudi Arabia, he writes, “American oilmen and managers re-created the world of Jim Crow in Dhahran and in the satellite settlements and pipeline stations across al-Hasa province. Norms of separate and unequal rights and privileges structured work and life inside the camps in the 1940s and 1950s” (Vitalis 2004, 154).
Regardless of the unexpected circumstances that instantly transformed him from a recognizable elite Arab urban male to a faceless rank-and-file colonial laborer, Fahmi threw himself into his work as a teacher, opening the doors of the Aramco Jabal School in 1944 with a class of seventy students aged eight to eighteen. The boys Fahmi taught were future Aramco laborers who flocked from the villages and oases surrounding the new American oil venture in search of employment (fig. 6). Aramco offered new opportunities and encounters to these sons of herdsmen and fishermen, including Ali al-Nuʿaymi, who became Aramco’s first Saudi Arabian president, head of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, and minister of petroleum and mineral resources. Student numbers grew with the demand for a local workforce that swelled with each oil barrel—Aramco hired six thousand new employees during this period. Fahmi’s job was to teach new recruits rudimentary language skills in English before they entered the subaltern workforce as office boys, waiters, houseboys, and refinery workers. Fahmi’s main early challenge was to school himself in the art of schooling others in English, managing “to stay two or three lessons ahead” of his class (Basrawi 2009, 75).
Fahmi’s malleability as an employee, imperial messenger, and interpreter became immediately apparent to his Aramco employers, who recognized him as cut from a different cloth than the local Bedouin worlds they needed to infiltrate, exploit, and control in order to take the petroleum and minerals they desired. They groomed Fahmi to interface with the locals to build the human machinery of resource extraction. Later they used him as an elegant and charming translator of the project to local elites and visiting dignitaries. Fahmi became the Americans’ Arabian ambassador, mascot, and medium. He came to speak the languages of both sides of the imperial divide and was put to work to ease and grease this uneven imperial “partnership.” Fahmi took many additional assignments as the ever-smiling Arabian face of Aramco, including organizing baseball and volleyball teams, launching the company’s first taxi service, and teaching English, Arabic, and arithmetic on the pioneering Aramco TV channel, the second Arabic-language station to go on the air in the Arab world. He even hosted a quiz show that “catapulted him to stardom” and made him a heartthrob; he “received overflowing bags of fan mail” (Basrawi 2009, 77).
Fahmi also wore his pleasant television smile on public relations tours of Aramco’s Oil Exhibit, which the corporation designed to inform Saudis about their major natural resource. The exhibit, covering seven thousand square feet, presented a picture of the petroleum industry with Fahmi as “native” annotator. He became the tactful, informed, and diplomatic expert who dealt with distinguished visitors to Aramco facilities, as depicted in a 1950 photo (fig. 7). Sandwiched between a US Aramco official, who urgently whispers into his ear, and Crown Prince Saud during his tour of Aramco’s industrial training department and refinery, Fahmi is shown to be a smooth mediator of American empire in Arabia. Given his elite background, he could negotiate the racial hierarchy of the Aramco world, rising above the ranks of the laborers he taught and eased into a life of backbreaking labor. Photos from the early years show him as teacher, mentor, and friend to village boys, as well as the companion of white American men (and some women), with whom he swims on the beach and plays baseball.
The ferocious capitalist modernization of Saudi Arabia was largely due to the development of the oil industry. Abdel Rahman Munif’s (1989) novel Cities of Salt exquisitely renders the impact of US oil development and the implantation of a white US colonial community on indigenous people, animals, environment, and political systems in a fictional area widely understood as Saudi Arabia. The danger is woven into the very title: woe will befall the cities of salt built on fossil-fuel extraction in the Arabian desert, where oil will one day run out. Whereas Fadia Basrawi traces the emergence of Aramco from her perspective as a daughter and an inquisitive young woman, Munif draws, from the salt of the desert, dramatis personae who war with royals. Through clashes between men, Munif presents a scathing account of the twin emergence of the Saudi security state and the neocolonization of Arabia. His account constructs a crude petrofictive universe juxtaposed against the harsh beauty of desert life that works as a passionate cry against what he once called “the trilogy of evils” afflicting the Arab world, among which oil extraction ranks high. The first volume of the Arabic quintet, al-Tih (The Wilderness; see Munif 1992), gestures toward the creation of an Aramco-like Manichaean world by introducing readers to a coastal town of Harran, where the Americans need to build a port and a pipeline to their wells. The company tricks the uprooted Bedouin into becoming exploited construction workers. In turn, a newly empowered emir controls the emergent company town and its class- and racially differentiated society with the assistance of police thugs. The novel, which moves from the discovery of oil in ʿAyn Dar in the early 1930s to the first labor strikes in Dhahran in the early 1950s, is rendered through fictional oral memory and delivered in the style of an oral storyteller (hakawati) recounting the fate of a community. New characters enter and old ones exit, indicating a focus on collective consciousness rather than on individual subjectivities or gender relations and differences. In this way Cities of Salt is a swan song to tribal forms of social memory, solidarity, and accountability that are obliterated under the regimes imposed by Western oil imperialism. Munif’s is a communitarian and panoramic overview of empire’s violent interruption of the idyllic symbiosis of traditional life with its animals, cosmologies, and practices. Informed by our experiences, our mother’s memoir, and our grandfather’s photographic archive, our intervention, in contrast, focuses on the complex positionalities and subjectivities forged by such economies and communities over time, generations, and space. We address intimate entanglements and desires and the gendered multigenerational embodied repercussions of oil imperialism.
Fahmi Basrawi, Visual Documentarian
A few years after establishing himself in Aramco as a desirable employee, Fahmi married our Syrian grandmother, Muzayyan Kotob, a distant cousin of Fahmi’s mother from Damascus. Our mother, their eldest child, was born on January 24, 1951, and was soon followed by her sister and brothers. As the infrastructure of oil-based empire and its technologies of extraction and refining proliferated, Fahmi became a public relations personality. He also began a lifelong love affair with photography, to which he devoted much of his free time. He went from amateur to professional photographer and archivist for Aramco’s public relations department. He often focused his medium-format twin-lens Rolleicord camera on himself and his intimates, documenting his life and compiling a careful archive as both an Aramco employee and a family man (fig. 8).
Tucked in a closet in the Basrawi home in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia, where Fahmi and Muzayyan moved when he retired from Aramco, and where our uncle Ghassan still lives, is a box with three hundred carefully sealed envelopes marked by date and location and filled with photographs and negatives. We unseal each packet of age-worn photographs and negatives and hold the negatives up to the light. Each image transports us to an oil empire in formation. The photographs include black-and-white prints, contact sheets developed on splotchy Velox paper in a home darkroom, carefully annotated slide film, faded Polaroids, dusty medium-format negatives, and a wide array of 35 mm prints. The creased and tattered backs of many photographs include the company stamp, the name of the photo studio, and a scribbled personal note from a friend or family member.
A 1943 photograph in Fahmi’s archive from his early days on the Aramco campus offers a sharp and focused aerial view of Aramco’s installations in a vast desert. Interspersed with images of blossoming infrastructures and hardworking laborers are pictures of Fahmi’s wife, Muzayyan Kotob, and their cherubic children in their efficient and modern Aramcon abode. The archive shows both the oil town and Fahmi’s family growing together in an imperial tangle: the Basrawi children lined up on their green lawn as new arrivals in Aramco, US-style county fairs they regularly attended as residents of Aramco, girl- and boy-scouting troops they participated in, birthdays and family snapshots, and other scenes of white US suburbia—in Arabia. Each of these family images reflects the domesticated dimension of imperial settings. The archive also includes representations of Fahmi’s work world: massive oil refineries, dignitaries, dirty and dusty laborers in trucks and on oil rigs, schoolchildren, and him as a dapper Aramco TV star. As Fahmi developed his photographic skills, Aramco put him in charge of snapping photographs of the new Bedouin recruits for the company ID cards. This job was a major feat of diplomacy, because in some interpretations Islam forbids reproducing the human figure. It took a fatwa to convince apprehensive Bedouin men to sit in front of a flashing camera, which personified the devil for many (Basrawi 2009, 75).
The photographs in Fahmi’s archive index not only Fahmi’s recognition and consciousness of the historical changes around him but also his multiple roles in these transformations. He renders an important era of change visually apparent. Some of his photographs seem framed to draw the viewer’s attention to the wholesome artifice of Aramco’s suburban setting in the foreground in juxtaposition to the dark smudge of smoke from the oil refineries in the distance, visually illuminating the (extra)ordinary entanglements of US-corporate colonial domesticity (fig. 9).
“Desert Disneyland” and Its Fault Lines
Our mother’s homeland was a corporate residential camp in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia—an incongruous formation that geopolitically represented a growing US oil-based empire and fabricated a white American world beloved by “Aramcon” children. Ayesha Malik (2017), the child of an Aramco employee, recently gave expression to the strange yet naturalized character of this place in her book of photographs, Aramco: Above the Oilfields. Malik collects photographs at the register of the unremarkable to express the normalcy of the strangeness of her Aramcon growing-up years. She communicates the continuing cozy discordance of this massive oil venture drilled deep into the desert and the livable and lovable human worlds it generated for many of its residents. The children who lived in this corporate world in turn claimed, nurtured, and naturalized it and then unleashed it on the world beyond.
Our mother and her three siblings are imperial subjects despite historiography that counts the United States as a nonimperial exception. There are millions of such people, given the hundreds of US colonies and military and corporate bases all over the world. In 1954 labor strikes across the Aramco oil camps demanded humane conditions and better pay for Arab Aramco employees. While not the first such strikes, they were the most effective in threatening the productivity and profitability of the oil venture. In the aftermath, Aramco chose our grandfather Fahmi as a picture-perfect example of American-Saudi partnership and cooperation. He was among ten Arab employees out of nine thousand selected to inaugurate the highly touted “Saudization” program, which sought to serve Aramco’s economic and representational purposes: to groom loyal and pliant Arabs to staff the company, not quite alongside Americans but enough to make them appear democratic, benevolent, and nonimperial. Our mother and her siblings were inserted into this showcase space.
In 1956 Fahmi returned to Aramco from Lebanon, where he had moved with his young family to complete a BA in public administration at the American University in Beirut paid for by Aramco (Basrawi 2009, 17). The company promoted him to senior staff and made him the first smiling Arab face used by the public-relations department to portray Aramco’s inclusion of Saudi Arabian partners (70). His family soon followed from Beirut on a TWA caravel. Fahmi was “in excellent spirits” when he met them at the rudimentary airfield. Our mother writes about her introduction as a five-year-old to the cookie-cutter prefab world of Aramco suburbia. Fahmi drove them to their new house
in a red Ford stamped with the Aramco insignia. I tried to absorb the strange town that we were driving into: a town that had no apartment buildings, no traffic, no loudly honking cars, no vegetable vendors calling out their wares, no shoppers and no shops, no families out on the streets, not a sound of human life as I knew it in Beirut. All we saw were identical one-story houses, one row after the next, with fenced-in gardens. We drove up to our new home, a grey, square house with white windows with a pointed grey shingled roof and a garden surrounded by a thick dark green hedge. . . .
. . . Everything in our new home, Baba told Mama, belonged to Aramco. . . .
My mother was delighted with the kitchen and its large white oven, large white refrigerator, large white washing machine, and large white cupboards filled with pots, pans, glassware, and cutlery. . . . We reveled in the marked coolness of our new home, meeting central air conditioning for the first time in our young lives. (18–19)
Fahmi’s family was among the first three Arab families to move into Aramco’s American Camp, which had been renamed Senior Staff Camp two years previously. Since the remaining families were white US citizens, the Arabs were required to conform to the dominant white American culture but were held apart. Fadia writes evocatively about learning a new language and cultural setting. Arabic, as well as the vibrant Arab worlds of Beirut and Damascus, quickly faded as Aramco took over the children’s lives. The Basrawi kids joined Brownies, Cub Scouts, and Girl and Boy Scouts of America (fig. 10), played baseball, and camped on “Half Moon Bay,” Aramco’s beach. They watched Howdy Doody, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and The Ed Sullivan Show. In the Aramco “Desert Disneyland” Fadia grew up in, “women wore shorts and liquor flowed freely” (Basrawi 2009, 12). Residents purchased food in the company store, which “sold all things American, including pork products” (12). The children used bikes and roller skates to move through the neighborhoods and “hopped on and off the free bus service driven by Shiʾa Saudis,” whom they were trained to call “‘sadiqi’ (my friend)” (12). Unlike people living outside Aramco camps, residents “drank fresh desalinated water from our taps. Cold water fountains were stationed in all the public places of the camp complete with envelope paper cups and salt tablet dispensers to combat the intense heat” (12).
Being Arabian Aramcons produced tensions, especially at home:
My father was an obedient employee of Aramco who never exposed his anti-American grouses publicly but allowed his pent-up anger at the daily marginalizing he suffered under his American bosses to explode at our expense in the kingdom of his own home. . . . Our father thought [he] would effectively halt the Americanization that was steadily taking over our lives. But of course he was very wrong. . . . Our Arabic and our Arabness were fast becoming pointless irritants in our young Aramcon lives. Our parents were unable to give us a role model in our Arab world that we could emulate, but we had plenty in our American one. We began to dream and speak exactly as our American peers did. (Basrawi 2009, 29–30)
The Basrawis lived a 1950s US suburban lifestyle as reflected in their meals, clothing, home furnishings, cars, and cultural references without having set foot in the United States (figs. 11–12). The siblings even “addressed one another by the American mispronunciation of our names” (11). Aramco unselfconsciously maintained cultural and temporal markers and traditions of life in Everywhere, USA. The children dressed like G.I. Joe and Cinderella for Halloween, and the colony was decorated for Christmas, complete with a large tree whose “colossal silver five-pointed star [was] placed with much fanfare by the President of Aramco as families clapped” (49). Fadia joined the cheerleading team for the high school football team, while her brother Marwan played catcher for the Little League baseball team and her sister Fatin was a star gymnast. They hung out at a canteen with a jukebox and soda fountain and ate “super-size grilled hamburgers and caramel sundaes prepared and served by Hussein and Ali, Arab personnel, from the neighboring Al Hasa oasis towns of Qatif and Hofuf” (13).
Every July Fourth the children participated in a Dhahran Independence Day parade “led by baton twirling, mini-skirted majorettes and a spiffily costumed brass band which included my sister on the clarinet at one point. . . . Floats draped with pretty girls in sun dresses rolled past clapping crowds followed by Americans on spirited Arabian horses and elementary school children dressed as Cowboys and Indians” (Basrawi 2009, 13). Fadia marched in multiple parades, including as a majorette (fig. 13). Hegemonic US cultural forms on Aramco’s campus were powerful in their appeal to Fadia and her siblings, giving shape to life and “home.” They produced little friction or resistance from the young Fadia despite the startling inequalities, ideological structures, and stage-prop realities she later describes so clearly. She eventually learned to recognize the troubling realities beneath the crisp Aramcon-American surface of her beloved childhood home.
On the surface, Fadia and her siblings came to see themselves as all-American, but in their home as well as among their American peers, teachers, and neighbors, it was clear that they were not. Our mother and her siblings recognized their difference. Fadia was the only Arab to graduate with her 1965 Aramco eighth-grade class and the first to do so (fig. 14). The photographer strategically places her at the center of the frame. Our fourteen-year-old mother appears as one among a crowd of bright young faces dressed in white, yet she differs in her cultural frame and citizenship, the former subtly marked by the longer skirt she wears in comparison to other girls in the front row. Other differences ran much deeper.
The Basrawis inhabited two worlds in Dhahran that were together yet apart. The edges chafed, producing occasionally violent ruptures whose monstrous seams even the children glimpsed. Our mother writes of two incidents that illuminate these barely concealed edges. One story involves a childish stone-slinging match between nine-year-old Fadia and the neighborhood bully, Bobby, who was the son of the American head of security in the community. The conflict resulted in a bloody head gash for which Fadia received stitches in the emergency ward. The nonphysical wound delivered with his comment, “Take that, you dirty Arab!,” was the worse injury for her. The following morning her livid father “filed a complaint through a Palestinian lawyer friend with red lines underscoring the ‘dirty Arab’ slur” (Basrawi 2009, 25). The public relations management of this incident indicated the fragility of the peaceful Aramco Saudi-American “partnership.” On her first day in class after the injury, Fadia’s teacher pointed her out sympathetically to the other children and noted the importance of being “fair and polite with people like me who were ‘different,’” mortifying Fadia (26). When Bobby and Fadia became friends, she worried whether she “was being treated nicely because I deserved it or because I was the Saudi Arabian token in Aramco’s school” (26).
In the second incident, Fadia witnessed “Wahhabi punishment at terrifyingly close range” when she ventured with her bike near a distant perimeter fence ostensibly designed to keep out grazing camels (fig. 15) but really designed to keep divided social worlds separated:
The large number of signs bearing the danger symbol of the skull and crossbones splayed along the barbed-wire fence, and Aramco’s security car patrols round the clock, gave it [the fence] a particularly evil aura. One afternoon, I rode my bicycle there on a dare. And on that distant curve just visible from our house, very near to the Main Gate where it stopped, I saw a chilling sight no child should see. Atop the fence’s posts, waving ghoulishly in the hot humid air, I saw a severed dark hand with dirt-encrusted fingers and, at my terrified eye level, a dismembered foot that swung uselessly at the end of a tattered rope. I gaped in open-mouthed, voiceless and, worst of all, solitary horror at the palm turned upwards, frozen in a last unanswered plea for mercy, and at rough-shod toes popping out of a torn dusty shoe splayed in the last scream of anguish of their ex-owner. My knuckles turned white as I squeezed my bicycle’s handlebars in excruciating, paralysing fear while my stomach churned, threatening to spill its contents. Far ahead I glimpsed the Aramco patrol car cresting the hill. (Basrawi 2009, 55)
While Fadia shared her “horror” with her friends, she never mentioned what she saw to her parents: “We had broken a company rule and our fathers never broke any company rules.” The appendages of the butchered Saudi Arabian “were graphic warnings to the uninformed non-Aramco Saudis, by order of the Emir of the Eastern Province, Saʿud Ibn Jiluwi al Saʿud, of what befell those who tried to take what Aramco did not allow to be taken” (56). That is our mother’s interpretation of this gruesome encounter. Ours dwells instead on the fault lines generated and maintained by empire. This incident of intimate and unauthorized encounter reveals the stark violence underpinning Aramco’s much-loved “Desert Disneyland,” which continues, remarkably, to be concealed by authorized imperial and corporate narratives. Such fault lines run through families as well.
“A family without secrets is rare indeed. People who live in families make every effort to keep certain things concealed from the rest of the world, and at times from each other as well,” writes Annette Kuhn (2002, 1). This resounds loudly for us as we receive, sift through, and try to make sense of the America our mother passed on to us. Although Fadia’s memories are hers, their implications are familial, social, and historical. The work of individual memory, based on experiences, knowledge, analysis, and feelings, is the glue that holds together different dimensions in one account. Our mother’s revelations in her memoir allowed us to understand that imperialism and colonialism—not only as they fueled and structured the Lebanese civil war—animate our ordinary lives. Once she published her memoir, we differently came to grips with our pasts as children of a war produced by imperialism and colonialism and as children of empire. Brownies and Kalashnikovs clarified our inherited and embodied form of America, naming and activating newfound knowledge and identification. This uncanny recognition of what is at once familiar and unfamiliar speaks to the ways that power—imperial, national, corporate, and familial—haunts the subjectivities we claim as our own.
As children of the Lebanese civil war, we still circle around the conundrum that the world we grew up in was strange and now over but that continues inasmuch as it formed us. Our grandfather’s and our mother’s experiences also shaped who we are, although we misrecognized the depth of this influence and the degrees to which the imperial is intimate. This article has examined the complexity and contradictions of our intimate imperial history in the domain of the familial and visceral. As we sifted through words, memories, and images, we often found fragments and silences spanning geographies and generations, as well as moments of recognition and discomfort. Imperialism and capitalism are inseparable from the viscera of communities, family life, psychic lives and embodiments, and feelings of belonging and exclusion. We rarely examine these relations, spaces, scales, and feelings in light of imperialism, which continuously generates subjects, spatiotemporal horizons, landscapes, and lifeworlds. Although often ignored even in anti-imperial and decolonial scholarship, gendered dynamics inflect these subjects, horizons, landscapes, and lifeworlds, just as they are central to imperialism and colonialism. Similarly, Western feminist scholarship largely avoids addressing colonial and imperial conditions and relations, which are too often unseen and unmarked despite their relevance.
In this article we have probed the intimacy of empire to understand and situate ourselves as sisters, daughters, and scholars at least partly produced by US oil imperialism. We have interrogated silences by beginning with the register of the intimate subject of history in a region weighted by colonialism and imperialism and racked with conflagrations that continue to produce death, destruction, environmental degradation, and dislocation. We have examined our family’s material sediments, traces, and affects to discuss an unilluminated strand of putatively impersonal oil imperialism. We have turned to personal—rather than “official” state, corporate, or imperial—archives to examine aspects of life subjugated and silenced in most accounts of the oil-based colonization of the twentieth-century Arabian Peninsula. We suggest the continued importance of recognizing and examining US imperialism’s unacknowledged subjects, spaces, and victims.
We are deeply indebted to Frances S. Hasso for recognizing the potential of this collaborative project from the beginning and working with us closely to see it to fruition. Her vision and care are very much a part of this work. We would like to thank our anonymous reviewers for their encouraging and helpful feedback and Rachel Greenspan for her editorial support. This project would never have seen the light of day without the beautiful writings and photographs of our mother and the photographs of our grandfather, which have shed new, generative light on our lives and thinking. We dedicate this article to our mother, Fadia Basrawi.
The conference program and information may be found at website.aub.edu.lb/fas/casar/Conferences/FragmentsofEmpire-2016/Pages/ConferenceSchedule.aspx.