What We Are Reading Today: On the Art and Craft of Doing Science

Author: Richard P. Howard

If you want to dive into the niche story of an American who moved to the Dhahran camp in Saudi Arabia in the 1950s — which somehow encapsulates and swallows an entire community — read Rich Howard’s book, Aramco Brat: How Arabia, Oil, Gold, and Tragedy shaped my life.”

Part memoir, part archival documentation, the book, which was published in 2021, is a long overdue story.

“”Aramco Brat” is not a novel. Fiction follows themes, builds to a climax, and generally makes sense,” the introduction begins. “In comparison, this memoir is a very messy collection of observations, experiences, and a 90 percent certain conclusion. Some will accept it uncritically while some will categorically reject it; most will find plausibility.”

And indeed, all of the above apply.

Howard takes us back to the mid-1950s, when he embarked on what would undoubtedly be the most turbulent journey of his life. He remembers landing in Dhahran six years ago after the plane carrying his family made several stopovers along the way to refuel in countries as diverse as the Netherlands, Italy and Lebanon.

While most of his peers back home were only in neighboring Canada, he went global from a young age. He narrates in vivid detail the scenery, the general mood, and the general energy swirling around him. He had a sense of adventure and wonder from the start as he saw the changing landscape pass before his eyes.

He remembers how the adults around him acted or reacted. He makes readers taste the sand in his mouth—or the concentrated orange juice glistening in his refrigerator during his first week in Dhahran. Above all, he allows the audience to truly understand his narrative and his story, which, like black gold, needed discovery.

“With Dad’s enlistment (badge number 17208), I had become an Aramco Brat, a phrase with a parallel etymology to Army Brat. This identifier I initially thought was unfair, but came to love. Now I was going to live the part,” he writes in the chapter aptly titled “Nomadic Youth.”

Aramco employees are known by their badge number, which is the employee number assigned to them at work – but that’s not all. That badge number is also used by the entire family for uses ranging from the major to the mundane; from accessing healthcare to signing up for a dance class or walking around the neighborhood.

As part of the local culture, dependents could – and still can – easily recite their parents’ badge number even decades later. The number becomes ingrained in them and acts as a badge of honor that signals belonging to the Aramco community; you are one of them and they are part of you.

An Aramco Brat, a self-proclaimed label, might be one that initially seems demeaning, but is worn with pride for those who qualify.

A much more specific group that goes deeper into Aramco’s “badge number” culture is often misunderstood by outsiders. To “qualify” for the tag, an Aramco Brat must have attended an Aramco school or lived in one of the Aramco camps (there are several besides Dhahran) as a dependent minor.

Most of the Aramco Brats are American, but were born in Saudi Arabia and spent their childhood there. In many cases, Brats were born from another Brat. Many who grew up in the serene world of Aramco felt a deep sense of connection to the land and its people and consider Saudi Arabia “home.” Many would stay until retirement and their children would try to find a way back to the Kingdom, perhaps to get their own badge number one day.

The book tells the story of an Aramco Brat, which in turn tells the collective narrative that persists even after each leaves the Kingdom.

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