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Volume 12, Number 4April 1961

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Scouting—with a Difference

There's a unique challenge to Girl Scouting in the desert areas of eastern Saudi Arabia.

"Rise up old flame,

By thy light glowing;

Show us thy beauty,

Vision and joy . . ."

The song rose in the night silence and trailed along the wind blowing through the camp from the Gulf of Bahrain. The girls were happy. Their voices rang and they gazed into the campfire. Some leaned toward the flickering light; some rested back in the cooling Saudi Arabian sands. The stars winked brilliantly in the clear air. The song ended.

"Now?" one of the girls called out.

"Yeah. Time for the marshmallows," another yelled.

One by one they jumped up—twenty-one Girl Scouts with a single (hungry) thought. They gathered in a cluster. Their long shadows stretched off into darkness toward the dunes. Most of the girls had roasting sticks ready.

A counselor, the mother of one of the girls, came toward them from the white wall-tents that stood in a ghostly, moonlight quadrangle opened at one end. She had a large round tin in her hand, and she tugged at the lid. It looked like an oversized cake tin.

She came forward to the light of the campfire and pulled the lid away from the tin. A strange, musty odor arose. She tipped the tin toward the fire so that she could get a good look at the precious marshmallows.

"Oh, they're awful!" one of the girls moaned.

The marshmallows were covered with mold, and were, of course, inedible.

"And let me tell you," the mother recalled recently in her home in Dhahran, "you have never seen such disappointed kids in your life. They were crushed. The marshmallow roast had been the big topic for weeks before our camp-out. And by sheer luck I had found the tin in al-Khobar. Incidentally, the merchant was just as disappointed as we were. You see, the marshmallows had to come by boat from England, and they had spoiled on the long trip out here."

Another mother, leader of a Girl Scout group in Dhahran, shook her head over the story and added, laughingly: "Well, at least we don't have to worry about poison ivy and snakes out here."

And those are the two sides of the story of the Girl Scouts—about three hundred of them—in Saudi Arabia where their fathers work for Aramco—the Arabian American Oil Company.

High hopes come a-cropper. Long-range planning teeters on the tight-rope of short-range frustrations. Disappointments are offset by exotic surprises.

It's scouting with a difference.

For instance, to a Girl Scout in Ohio an Amir exists only in the world of story books. But out at the edge of the camp where the marshmallows had gone bad, there stood a tent where a rather special soldier was headquartered. He was there on duty through the courtesy of the Amir Saud ibn Jiluwi, the Governor (Amir) of the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia. The soldier was from the Amir's own khawiya (guard).

And during the afternoon the girls had had a first-hand glimpse into ancient history when they had gone for a sail in a Saudi Arabian coastal dhow. The handsome, slanted lanteen rig and the high rise of the stern and bow of this traditional vessel have been little modified in the past two thousand years. It was the sturdy dhow that once made Arab ports the crossroads of world trade. As the girls sailed across Half Moon Bay, they moved before the wind and above the fitted timbers of the past.

Of course, scouting with a difference can lead to some un-anticipated grey hairs—for the parents of the girls who participate.

"Look," one housewife-scout leader remarked, "I used to walk to the corner dime store at home and buy a hundred things that you can't even find out here. I mean the simple odds and ends that you take for granted in planning parties and scouting projects. Thumb tacks, Crepe paper. Construction paper. Leather. And just try to get water-color or poster paper. Or textile paints," she added.

But, times change, and the bustling city of al-Khobar which serves the three big oil communities in Saudi Arabia—Dhahran, Ras Tanura and Abqaiq—has become a relative shoppers' paradise.

"It's not nearly as bad as it was when we started fourteen years ago. But still, we have to do an awful lot of improvising on cook-outs. We have been pretty good scroungers. The heavy wire trays from a lot of refrigerators and stoves did double duty over our outdoor fires."

Several thousand girls have gone through scouting in Saudi Arabia despite the fact that . . .

"It's terribly difficult to try to carry out a nature study program in a country where you can go for hundreds of miles, I guess, and not even see any of the ordinary vegetation you stumble over in Illinois," another Girl Scout leader observed.

The Wild Life Badge?

"Well, now there's a problem. Many of the plants out here aren't even identified," she added. "The Gardening Badge is hard to get, but a lot of girls have done it."

The Foot Traveller Badge?

The leader laughed. "You have to walk a total of one hundred miles in cities, parks and forests. A lot of our girls have only seen forests in picture books."

But in a world where the "rock hound" (geologist) is an important man, and where a lot of the fathers are geologists, the girls manage to build up quite a few points for the Rock and Mineral Badge. And they have found many exotic shells in their Salt Water Badge programs which make impressive additions to their collections.

"If we could only identify all of them," another mother remarked. "I remember a few years ago one of the leaders took a peculiar shell with her on a trip to London in order to get it identified at the British Museum."

Again, the girls, by scouting in an exotic and fabled land, are at the threshold of the long, long story of man. For fresh-water shells have been found in the inner gravel and sand wastes of the magnificent Rub' al-Khali ("The Empty Quarter") that indicate the ancient flow of forgotten rivers in this now arid nation.

On short hikes, cook-outs and field trips the Girl Scouts have been tantalized by finding animal tracks in dunes and along sandy plateaus that they just can't quite figure out. But they have seen gazelle, oryx and foxes running like the wind.

And, how many Girl Scouts in West Virginia have ridden a camel?

The comments that the mothers make about the strange problems of scouting thousands of miles from the nearest dime store have a curious sound. One cocks an ear for the sound of complaint. But it isn't there. Instead there is a tone of pride—the day-by-day, long-haul triumph of the pragmatist. It has taken great ingenuity and persistence "to keep the show on the road," as one mother put it.

The pay-off?

That's something that can't quite be measured. "Maybe I'm prejudiced," one of the pioneer leaders said, "but I think our girls have an unusual sense of responsibility."

A young housewife not many years out of college let out a whoop.

"Listen, I'm not too much older than some of these kids myself, and let me tell you that I didn't have anything like what they've got at their age. They're terrific."

Maybe that's measure enough. But in addition, there are four or five Curved Bars (the equivalent of the Boy Scout's Eagle Scout award) given to girls in Saudi Arabia each year. Patience and enthusiasm do pay off.

The big moment, in scouting anywhere are the camp-outs. In California or Georgia, in Minnesota or South Carolina, they're equally exciting. In Saudi Arabia they're not only exciting—they're singular. For only one can be held each year in each of the three communities where the girls live. A camp-out in Saudi Arabia is an extremely complicated undertaking that involves many of the 150 fathers and mothers who are active in scouting.

The mothers start the concrete planning right after Christmas for the April vacation camp-out. The phrase "April vacation" would puzzle a scout from Texas. But the American schools in Saudi Arabia are on the trimester plan: three months of classes, one month's vacation (April, August and December are the vacation months).

The fathers help hoist the wall-tents at the camp-site and drive out the firewood and water. Incidentally, the girls practice very careful "water discipline." They know the perils of the desert sun, and they know how to save every drop of water. A mother who is a registered nurse with camp experience oversees their medical care.

The girls plan their own menus ahead of time and buy their own food. The mothers have been slightly startled by the good sense and balance of the menus.

A few years ago the girls were turned loose to buy whatever camp equipment they could find in al-Khobar, a city where the merchants are inured to the Middle East's love of bargaining.

"You never saw anything like it," a leader commented. "These kids went in with a smattering of Arabic plus their English, and they scoured the town for the best prices. They really had the merchants wondering what was going on as they trooped from store to store."

Their Arabic is a collection of useful words they pick up from Saudi schoolmates and friends. Some of it, of course, is slang.

When the Dhahran girls rendezvous the morning they leave for camp, they urge the bus drivers to hommy, hommy (hurry, hurry). They have a zain (good) time at the camp at Half Moon Bay because there is wajid (a lot of) swimming. After three days when it is time to break camp, they urge the counselors to shway, shway (take it easy, don't be in a rush). The older girls, with junior high nonchalance, aren't always impressed by the camping achievements of the younger scouts. Kulla wahid (all is one or, so what?) Hadn't they done as much when they were kids?

A familiar splotch of color at the camp-out is the Aramco green and white flight bag. Aramco families are great travelers. Some of the Girl Scouts tour Europe and the Far East as casually as their sister scouts in Pennsylvania go to New York or Washington. They have seen the "one world" of modern man; they don't have to learn from a book that it exists.

And their scouting gives them first-hand experience in world citizenship. Like Girl Scouts everywhere they obey ten laws, one of which says, "A Girl Scout is a friend to all and a Sister to every other Girl Scout." Their sisters in scouting include some of their Saudi Arab school chums. During community ceremonies the Girl Scout color guard bears aloft the Saudi Arabian, the American, and the Girl Scout flags. This year Saudi Arab girls will have advanced far enough in scouting to carry the flag of their country (green and white with beautiful calligraphy) when the colors are arrayed.

As guests and friends of their Saudi Arab sisters, the American girls have found an ideal outlet for their community service ambitions. Several years ago they "adopted" the Dar-El-Tifl refugee Arab orphanage in Palestine. The various Girl Scout groups raise money (they collected $700 one year), round up toys, and gather and ship clothing for the refugee orphans.

Each year one of the fathers drives the radio security car to the camp-out. He then turns it over to a trained counselor, who can get in touch instantly with the Senior Staff Camp at Dhahran in case of emergency. (The famous scouting "buddy system" used everywhere for swimming is also applied by the Scouts in Saudi Arabia to scavenger hunts that take the girls onto desert and dunes.)

"We've only used radio contact once," a leader said recently. "And then, thank goodness, it turned out to be sort of funny. We were on a cook-out and a huge cloud of gnats closed in. We radioed for insect spray. But we must have sounded frantic. They arrived with fifty cans of spray. But wouldn't you know, by that time the gnats were gone."

Scouting with a difference—wajid difference.

This article appeared on pages 3-6 of the April 1961 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for April 1961 images.