Grandma, I will. I love you, too." I hang up the payphone
in Terminal C of the Houston Airport and round the corner, looking
up just in time to avoid a collision with a seven-foot-tall, bronze
statue of the first President George Bush. The engraved message at his feet reads, "Winds of Change."
Thirty hours later, I am standing on a sunny street corner in Bahrain.
My jet-lagged neurons cannot comprehend why my attire--cargo shorts
and a collared shirt--has prevented me from entering the Saudi embassy.
Elie, I'm so sorry. I just...."
Sign this." He hands me a Saudi work visa application. "And
don't worry about it. How were you to know? Besides, the embassy
changes its policies twice a week. Today they tell me that I must
pay in Bahraini dinar instead of Saudi riyal. What kind of embassy
does not take its own currency?" His Lebanese accent is strong,
but his English is clear and perfect. Elie Malko is the liaison between
my employer, Research Planning, Inc. (RPI), and its Saudi partner.
I meet Elie in the hotel lobby at three o'clock. He tells me that
when he returned to the Saudi embassy to pick up the completed paperwork,
it took the embassy officials an hour and a half to locate my passport.
I definitely shouldn't have worn shorts. As I walk toward the car
with my duffel over my shoulder, an atonal drone fills the street.
It is the mid-afternoon call to prayer reaching me from a nearby
The King Fahad Causeway, which links several Bahraini islands to
the Saudi mainland, reminds me of the low bridge that connects the
islands of the Florida Keys. Twenty-five minutes into the drive,
we come to a series of tollbooth-like checkpoints that mark the border
between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. We show our passports and collect
customs forms. Below the usual questions about valuable goods is
a "Religion" blank. I write "Christian," even
though I'm not. After a cursory inspection of our vehicle, we are
back on the highway and across the border.
Through the Saudi province of Damam, dusty yellow school buses, construction
equipment, and piles of metal parts litter the right side of the
highway. I see a swastika and a few Arabic words scrawled in black
spray paint on a cinderblock wall. A mile down the road from the
scrap yard, perfectly conical sand dunes rise inside a double row
of barbed wire fence. As we drive beyond them, I realize that they
are airplane hangars, camouflaged to blend with the desert sand.
A Brady Bunch-style station wagon eases up alongside in the right
lane. The driver stares. I stare back, a cultural faux pas akin to
wearing shorts to a government office. The driver is wearing the
traditional thobe, a long white shirt, but no guthra, the characteristic
red-and-white checked head cover. An egal, the ring that holds the
guthra in place, hangs from his rearview mirror. Expressionless,
he speeds away.
Pipelines, covered in a thin layer of dirt, weave over the undeveloped
stretches of landscape like gophers' burrows. The blue sky around
me has a thick, gauzy quality, as if the desert dust is permanently
unsettled. The edges of the sun are blurred even though there are
no clouds. The increasing frequency of power-line clusters and monster
metal towers, their transformer coils dangling like thickly muscled
arms, hints of our approach to Al Jubail. This industrial city, located
midway down the Gulf coast, is the base of RPI operations. We pull
into town just before five o'clock. Two quick lefts bring us to the
Gulf Mahmal compound.
The Gulf Mahmal is a three-story, rectangular, stucco structure with
barred windows and a single, gated entrance. There is a room with
no outer wall to the right of the gate in which a skinny, bearded
man in Western clothes sits cross-legged on a woven rug. He is smoking
a cigarette and acknowledges us only with his eyes; I will find this "guard" in
the same position for the next two months.
A young Indian man is waiting for us in the parking area with the
key to my room. Upstairs in Room 2309, I drop my duffel on the white
tile floor. I kneel across the cartoon rabbit--a Bugs-Bunny knockoff--pictured
on my bedspread to peer though the bars at the orange desert sprawl.
The evening call to worship rises from an unseen loudspeaker on the
street below. To my right, King Faisel Street is lined with restaurants,
parked cars, and trash. To my left, the chalk road continues to an
oil refinery that sits on the horizon, shrouded in a cloud of its
own emissions. I can just make out an exhaust flame, mimicking the
Because our shoreline survey focuses on the intertidal zone--the
part of the shore that is exposed at low tide and inundated at high
tide--our work schedule is dictated by the tidal cycle. I have arrived
in Saudi Arabia during the part of the month when the high tide occurs
at midday. Since the field teams are able to survey the coast only
during low tide, midday high tides are days of rest, and my first
day on the job is my first day off.
twenty-something generation of Saudis loves country music. It's 5:42
a.m. on my second day in Saudi, and Saad Al Rasheed, the Saudi
member of my four-man field team, is drumming the steering wheel
in time to a Randy Travis song. Without warning, he swings our SUV
to the right, fishtailing onto a dirt road and plastering me against
the left side of the backseat. With four other four-wheel-drive vehicles
in tow, we race across the sabka toward the morning sun. Sabkas are
giant sand flats that stretch between the inland desert and the coastal
zone. Walking on the crusty, uneven top layer of the sabka is like
walking on stale sugar cookies.
The geologists, three of the four members of each field team, begin
at a site by probing for signs of oil contamination farthest from
the shore. They lay a transect line--in our case, a twenty-meter
rope with knots every couple of meters--perpendicular to the shoreline.
The team works seaward along the line, digging holes up to a meter
deep at varying intervals. The oil geomorphologist, affectionately
called the OG, characterizes the sediment layers in each hole and
looks for oiled crab burrows and other hints of oil infiltration.
The Global Positioning System technician (G-tech) pinpoints the exact
location of the hole. He enters codes that describe what the OG finds
in the hole--light, medium, or heavy oil residue and, sometimes,
even pockets of liquid oil--into a handheld computer. The data from
each hole sampled are automatically linked to a point on a digital
map. All told, the teams will run transect lines every 250 meters
along the entire gulf coast, a distance of about 800 kilometers.
The sediment technician, one of the geologists, usually a Saudi,
collects sediment for chemical analysis. The 30,000-plus sediment
samples collected during the project will be analyzed for concentrations
of petroleum hydrocarbons--the molecules that constitute oil. Because
oils from different sources exhibit unique hydrocarbon "fingerprints," it
is possible to identify the source of oil contamination. The results
of this chemical analysis will be used as evidence in an international
After the Gulf War, the United Nations Security Council froze Saddam
Hussein's international assets and used the money to create the United
Nations Compensation Commission. The UNCC, charged with processing
claims associated with Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, allocated a fraction
of the seized funds to the Saudi government's environmental agency
to pay for a survey of the oil-soaked Gulf coast. Saddam is fighting
a legal battle to get his money back. The Saudi government, eager
to collect damages, is racing to document just how much of its coast
has been contaminated by the oil released from Kuwaiti wells.
The fourth member of each team is a biologist, like me. I zoom around
the habitat between transect lines, doing a timed count of all species
of flora and fauna and looking for evidence of oil damage. I am armed
with a mini-shovel, walkie-talkie, binoculars, gloves, compass, pocket
PC, sunscreen, plenty of food and water, and bags for holding samples
of invertebrates. I carry a clipboard with data sheets and wear a
digital camera on my belt like a holstered gun. I scrape algae, dig
in the dirt, look under rocks, and chase crabs down their burrows.
I identify plants and snails and worms. I am an ecological detective.
I am a twelve-year-old at the beach.
I learn quickly that the life of a field biologist in a former war
zone is not without its hazards. Chewing my peanut butter on pita,
reflecting on my first five hours in the field, I notice a frosted
piece of glass sticking out of the sand. I am about to dig it up
when Scott Zengel, our head biologist, says, "You know, it's
probably good policy not to mess with anything that you can't positively
I raise an eyebrow.
Yeah, there are rumors that the British land-mined certain parts
of the coast when they thought the Iraqis were going to invade. Plus,
you get ship mines and depth charges washing ashore. You know, that
sort of thing."
Access to most of the Saudi coastline is through military or coast-guard
installations. As in the U.S., these bases contain some of the wildest
areas in the country. The expanses of land that buffer firing ranges
and tactical training grounds become de facto ecological preserves.
As our caravan speeds across the sabka one morning on the way to
a field site, Norm Dodson, Team 3's G-tech, points out cement artillery
platforms on the dune ridge ahead and the reinforced walls of the
rifle range to our left. Norm is ex-Army Special Forces; a drive
through a firing range with him is like a guided tour through a museum.
While most of our survey team wears old running shoes or hiking boots
into the field, Norm wears combat boots.
At 3:15 in the afternoon, a military jeep stops at our sampling station.
Two haggard-looking men dressed in fatigues converse with our Saudi
team member, Muhammad Nasser Al-Qhatani, and then drive away. "Time
to go," he says. "Time for Navy shooting practice."
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