Reconsidering Out in the Blue

Cover story in Diwaniya, the weekly cultural supp;ement of the Saudi Gazette newspaper. Written by Peter Harrigan

18 March, 2002

“I get calls from readers just about every day. Just last week a Saudi called me from Riyadh to talk about a photograph in the book that showed his uncle 60 years ago. I get lots of calls like that,” says Tim Barger, video producer turned publisher, from his Californian home. Its nearly two years now since Barger edited and published the personal letters of his late father Thomas Barger under the title Out in the Blue.

The letters reveal the experiences of Thomas Barger as a young field geologist in Saudi Arabia between 1937 and 1940 and Tim Barger was as ever eager to talk of the pleasure and serendipitous moments that publishing them and the photographs have provided.

“Recently I received an email from an Ernie Berg. I thought that it was a request for the free video CD until I read it,” says Barger, “It turns out that a man named Ernie Berg idly typed his name into a search engine and up popped a picture of his father. He was Ernie Berg Jr. His father had died when he was 5 years old and his mother died 3 or 4 years later, so he knew virtually nothing about his dad. He certainly didn't know that his father was the unheralded discoverer of the largest oil field on earth. I sent him a copy of Out in the Blue and he was absolutely thrilled to read so much new information about his lost dad.”

Out in the Blue (Letters from Arabia 1937-1940 A Young American Geologist Explores the Deserts of Early Saudi Arabia) is now in its second edition and for much of last year was the fastest selling English title in this country. A paperback edition is planned soon and the title has spawned a fascinating website:

Dune-Man reached at the shelf and dusted down the title again. Flicking to page 252 there was the picture that Faisal Saleh Mohamed Alfadl had called from Riyadh about – Salih Islam, Sheikh Abdullah Al Fadl (former Aramcon later to become a prominent diplomat) and his son, Abdul Wahhab Al Fadl taken somewhere near Dhahran in the 1940’s. It’s just one of over 130 black and white photographs from days past and almost forgotten – a time that formed the very cusp of the relationship that was to develop between Saudi Arabia and the United Sates of America.

Radios Banned

Picked randomly from the epilogue text where the photograph appears the following anecdote springs from the page: “After Pearl Harbor the (Saudi) government decreed that all personal radio receivers were to be confiscated as a national security precaution. Naturally this caused a great howling in the camp where the radio was our only connection with the outside world.” wrote Thomas Barger, who by then (1941) had left geological fieldwork for a job in government relations at Casoc, the Californian Arabian Standard Oil Company in Dhahran. By this time the number working for Casoc had dwindled to some just 100 Americans and 1,600 Saudis.

One of those Saudis was Salih Islam (then an assistant to Sheikh Abdullah). “He said that if the government took the radios from the people, they wouldn’t be able to hear what the government said. Facts would soon be replaced with rumors and lies. He took the argument to Riyadh.” The ban was lifted.

Reading the book just a year ago this anecdote had passed unnoticed. Today with the shock waves of a second attack reverberating (and a blockbuster celluloid recreation of the first) the vignette, like so many others in this book, has an altogether more significant resonance. And it is a resonance that now makes these remarkable letters required reading for anyone keen to delve into the beginnings of the relationship between the two countries.

The letters of the young Thomas Barger written to his new bride Kathleen form a frank, fresh and revealing insight into the early days of oil exploration and the historic ties between two nations.

In 1938, a year after Thomas Barger arrived at the tented community of Dhahran, oil output was half a million barrels. When he finally left Saudi Arabia in 1969 output annual output was over a billion barrels.

Casoc would become the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco – now Saudi Aramco) by 1944 and Thomas Barger rose through the ranks to become CEO in 1961 and Chairman of the Board in 1968 before retiring a year later. That is another story as too is the evolution of the relationship.

Common Goals, Shared Hardship

But it is those early days that are most significant and nostalgic says Barger. “I think that at the heart of my dad’s career at Aramco was the first three years that he spent in the desert among the Bedouin. The camaraderie of common goals, shared hardship and campfire storytelling would color his every decision thereafter. He knew that his very presence signaled an irrevocable change in an ancient way of life and did his best to make those changes positive.”

“Growing up in Arabia is an experience that never ends,” says Barger who claims to be among the first ten Americans born in Saudi Arabia. “The Arab way of life with its emphasis on hospitality, good cheer in the worst conditions and a certain fatalism can be variously described as ‘It is written’ or in our culture as ‘Don’t cry over spilt milk’. It is still a strong current within me and many others who grew up in Saudi Arabia. You would have thought that my father Thomas Barger would have had his fill of the desert, but he was in awe of the physical landscape of the country and those who lived in it and we spent a lot of time camping and roaming about.”

Out in the Blue provides an essential insight into those early days as well as a nostalgic window into what now appears to us as a more simple past. “One of the main reasons I produced this book was to preserve some memories of a way of life that has all but vanished. I wanted to share them with those who might care, ” says Barger Junior who took on the risk of publishing the edited letters after being turned down several times by mainstream publishers. “While I was putting it together I had my doubts that anyone might be interested in the people and places my father wrote about in his letters home.”

Barger’s publishing doubts were as unfounded as those of the early oilmen before March 3rd, 1938 when oil spurted from Dammam Well No. 7. “Interest in the book remains high and the web site attracts nearly a thousand visits daily. You don't know how encouraging it is, to know that anyone else cares about the mosquitos of Jabrin, let alone the oryx of Abu Bahr or the dahl (caves ) of the Summan. But it’s the calls I get from Saudis and Americans about faces in pictures or names in the book that give me the biggest thrill,” says Barger.

There is little doubt that the honesty, simplicity and humor of the letters are what appeal along with the clarity of observation of places and people and incidents while in the field. There is no sub-text in these heartfelt and often romantic letters from the desert to loved ones back home. There is a respect that radiates from Thomas Barger’s thoughts and descriptions – a respect for both the people and the harsh yet beautiful surrounds he found himself in that were to absorb him until his death in 1986.

Driven into the Arms of Nostalgia

Just what is it about these letters that appear to strike so many chords with readers? “I think that many people care about the times and places from long ago. So many Saudis as well as expatriates have now read Out in the Blue that I have to think that it taps into some psychic urge to revisit a simpler, more grounded time.” explains Barger. “Present day Arabia, with the ever-present struggle between tradition and the rampant western advertising and consumerism, is enough to drive anyone into the arms of nostalgia.”

It was nostalgia for place that helped Tim Barger come up with the name Selwa Press for his nascent publishing house aimed at ‘discovering early Arabia.’ There was serendipity here too. “I choose the name after a place (on the coast south east of Hofuf). It was only later that I found that the Arabic word Selwa means ‘solace’. I think that by taking people back to a slower, less confusing time, the book has provided many people with a kind of solace or comfort.”

Readers who turn the pages of this book will almost certainly fall into the arms of nostalgia. And, regardless of nationality, religion or culture, readers will likely reflect on that age-long desire to exist at a slower pace and live in more certain times. Readers will ponder too on a relationship that is today as extraordinary as it was when Thomas Barger was Out in the Blue.

Peter Harrigan is a writer residing in Jeddah and a frequent contributor to the Saudi Aramco World Magazine

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