Dhahran, the oil community in eastern Saudi Arabia where Aramco has its headquarters, pops up in the U.S. press from time to time as "a typical Southern California suburb, transplanted 8,500 miles east of New York." At Christmas time such exuberant comparisons are more than usually valid. For under the sway of nostalgia, Americans in the heart of the Muslim Middle East insist on a holiday season as much like home as possible—but with one big difference. We doubt that even way-out Southern Californians use real camels in their Christmas pageants.
In Dhahran, and the nearby sea terminal of Ras Tanura, presentation of a Christmas pageant is a tradition going back to the late 1940's when the first American families arrived after World War II. Since camels were an integral part of an area which subsisted primarily on date culture and stock grazing, the newcomers leaped at the chance to liven up the usual production of the Christmas story.
Last year's pageant in Dhahran was held beneath the stars at the local softball field and drew an audience of some 2,000 persons, most wrapped in blankets against the desert chill. It featured men, women and children, a chorus of angels, and three stately ships of the desert, one for each Wise Man. (One of the Wise Men, apprehensive at the thought of having to ride a camel, expressed his concern to Nasser Fahad Dossary, a Saudi camel master and a veteran of many pageants. "Not to worry," Nasser replied soothingly. "I haven't lost a Wise Man yet.")
Although no pageant was held there last year, in nearby Abqaiq, the company's drilling headquarters, a camel still managed to get into the act a week before Christmas by carrying Santa Claus into town on his back to hear late requests from local school children.
Another familiar custom in the three Aramco oil communities is decorating windows and rooftops with wreaths, lights, reindeer, sleighs and snowmen—artificial snowmen, that is, since Dhahran's lawns are at their greenest about Christmas time.
The normal interest in such decoration is stimulated by the Dhahran Employee's Association, which holds an annual competition and last year drew 40 entries in four categories. One group of apartment dwellers who live in units clustered around a mall with a huge, well-trimmed jasmine hedge in the middle, has so successfully teamed up year after year to decorate their unique "tree" that in local parlance the area now retains the fond nickname "Christmas Tree Circle" right through the blazing heat of an Arabian summer.