[This is part of the series: 10 Question On Living In Saudi Arabia]
Interview: Nate Zelk
Who are you? And when/why did you live in Saudi Arabia? For how long?
My name is Nathan Zelk. I, along with my sister, Misty, and our parents, Wilbur and Diana Zelk, lived in Taif for 3 years on the McDonnell Douglas compound. My sister and I were there because my father was working for McDonnell Douglas, as the head of the corrosion control division. Basically, he taught the locals how to maintain the F-15 Eagles. We arrived in 1983 and left in 1986.
What town/compound in Saudi Arabia did you live in? What was it like? Paint me a small picture.
As mentioned above, the town was Taif, and the compound was the one built by McDonnell Douglas (Al Gaim) out towards the King Fahad Air Base. As for what it was like, I think of it often these days with fond sadness. It was an amazing time in my life. I was 10 when we moved there, and I was sure I’d hate living in a foreign country. What I discovered was nothing like I’d imagined.
We lived on this compound, surrounded by 10 foot tall concrete walls, in the middle of the desert. Inside though, was a sort of paradise, particularly for a young boy like me. We had a movie theater, arcade, bowling alley, restaurant, commissary (grocery store), tennis courts, baseball field, playground, basketball courts, volleyball court, racquetball courts, Olympic-sized swimming pool, fast food joint, and a seemingly never-ending series of public events, ranging from 4k runs to Santa passing out Christmas gifts to fairs (carnivals). There was also this incredible group of friends, all of whom lived practically next door. I mean, the farthest house from mine (house #335) was no more than a couple minutes bike ride away, if that. And we could hop on our bikes and explore the compound which, for us, was just enormous! Or we could also get on a shuttle and go into Taif proper. Or, as we often did, climb over the walls and adventure into the desert, usually by going to a nearby mountain and climbing it.
Still, the best part was having all of these resources available to us — AND having so very many friends to share it with. Since living in Saudi, I’ve been in the military, been to 46 countries, explored virtually all of the U.S., and to this day, I have remained in touch with more Saudi ex-pats than with friends and acquaintances in any other point in my life.
What are one or two typical scenes from Saudi Arabia that you never encounter any more (You can list more if you want.)?
A couple times a year, somebody would arrange for locals, perhaps bedouins, to bring camels onto the compound for the kids (and adults for that matter) to ride. This was usually when there was a fair occurring. Today, my wife and I love going to zoos and wildlife reserves, but I haven’t ridden a camel since I was probably 12!
Another scene that I remember vividly, was a result of the trips my family had to take from Taif to Jeddah. This was usually when we had to go to MD-1 for any reason, or we had to fly out of Jeddah for vacation or to go back to the States. I was always nervous on these trips because of the 45 minute ride down The Escarpment. The local drivers were virtually fearless on this road, passing on double yellow lines and blind curves. My father used to say that those were the true believers! He would say they didn’t care if they crashed because they knew they would see Allah shortly thereafter. I’ve never quite driven down a road like that since then, although as someone who works for the FAA and goes to very remote radar sites, I’ve come close, minus the crazy drivers.
What really stands out on that journey, though, is the number of wrecked and abandoned vehicles. My sister and I counted them all once, and saw 76 cars and trucks in various states of decay. From the most recent crashes to the ones which the desert had almost completely consumed, with maybe just a part of the hood sticking out of the sand.
Oh, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the gold souks and electronics stores. I’ve often told people over the years, that we had access to electronics directly from Japan, that sometimes the U.S. never got to see. Pretty much the latest and greatest toys, radios, tape players, TVs … you name it. As for the gold shops, they were sometimes breathtaking in the sheer amount of gold adorning the walls and counters. They would use lighting that made it all sparkle, so much that you’d think you had just found a lost treasure. It was simply amazing to me.
What was available in Saudi Arabia, that you wish was available where you live now?
My friends. Specifically, that set of friends. They turned what I thought was going to be a simply awful time in my life into something magical. It’s hard to put into words those friendships, but when combined with the new world in which we’d all been thrust, something very surreal happened. If nothing else, we all had that in common: we’d all been taken from our homes, either in the U.S. or abroad, and brought to this specific place. So, we were coping and it gave us a basis for friendship.
For twice your current salary, would you go live somewhere in Saudi Arabia with your family today? Why or why not?
I have, of late, said that now the Saudi government has opened up their borders to tourism, that I would go back, certainly. My wife, would never go with me, though! But she’s never been there and doesn’t have the memories of that place, like I do. All things being equal, I would certainly consider living there. I used to think that the threat of terrorism was too much of a deterrent to me, but as we all know after 9/11, that could happen to anyone at any time. So, I’ve just stopped worrying about it.
What do most people get wrong about Saudi Arabia?
Wow … there are so many things people get wrong about Saudi Arabia. Chief among them is their fear that it’s a country of terrorists, or they fear Islamists in general, or have an ill-informed idea of what Islam is about. Nothing could be further from the truth, in my humble opinion. I met many nice Saudis during my time there. I suppose it’s no different than any other country in that regard; there are always good people and bad.
Also, when I tell people I lived there, they assume it’s a backwards country with nothing but sand. They don’t realize there are major cities, beautiful cities, and places with beautiful greenery.
What about Saudi Arabia would you most like to convey to other people that will never go there?
I would, and do, tell them not to judge the people there based on our differences. I think people look to Saudis like Osama bin Laden and think he is representative of a typical Saudi. It’s simply not true.
What are two or three of your favorite memories of Saudi Arabia (Or more.)?
Let’s see … favorite memories. I remember the first time I saw my friend Kendal’s (K.C. Graves) Lego room! His dad had put up this piece of plywood and there was a Lego moonscape laid out on it. Kendal had sooo many Lego spaceships and lunar buildings. I was blown away!
There was the time someone had thrown away this bicycle and I decided I was going to repair it. It was one of the locally purchased kids’ bikes that had functioning suspension on it; coil-over springs in the back and forks in the front. Some of my friends helped me find the parts and pieces I needed, and my father, who was a metal smith, made a piece that I needed. It took a couple months, but once it was functioning again, I loved that bike.
There was a party that was thrown at a neighbor’s house and, although I was a little young to go to it since the kids who went were closer to my sister’s age (8th graders?) and I was 4 years younger, she took me along anyway. So, I just kind of milled about and stood in the corner most of the night, listening to that always-cool 80’s music. The lights were turned off and music was playing, and kids had paired up and were dancing. One of the older girls, Patricia (Patty) Stamberger, came over to me and dragged me onto the make-shift dance floor. You have to understand that she was probably 4 years older than me, taller, and I thought she was beautiful. And she was. But being so much shorter than her, she literally picked me up off the ground with one arm around my waist and danced one song with me. That was it. But it was more than enough. She was so very kind to me that night, and I’ve never forgotten it. I don’t know if it’s true, but I heard years later she passed away and I cried when I heard that news. I’m friends with her younger sister on FB, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to ask her. I don’t know … I guess I just don’t want it to be true, and if it is, I don’t want to remind her sister by asking about it.
Now this isn’t exactly a “Saudi” memory, per se, but on one of the flights over we were on a Boeing 747 and had seats in the upper portion of the plane. I thought that was just the coolest!
At Taif Academy, there was a cafeteria where we had lunch, but there was also this little place that sold raisin cinnamon buns. They. Were. SOOOO. Good. If memory serves, they were either 1 Riyal or 50 halalas apiece, and I pretty much tried to buy one every day I was at school.
There was also the matter of some “firsts” in my burgeoning puberty as a 12 year old, with regards to girls. I’ll just keep this “PG” and say that I had some experiences with girls there for the first time, and you never forget those!
I have so many good memories. Overall, I just have a general sense of all my memories of that time, and I truly miss it. I’m 46 now, so that was 34 years ago, and I wish I could go back. I’m just glad I still have so many friends (on FB) from that time of my life.
What do you not miss about Saudi Arabia?
The ONLY thing that seems to come to mind, is those cholera shots we had to get every 6 months! Well, if nothing else, it cured me of my fear of needles.
Anything else you would like to say that I missed? Oh, and from your time in Saudi, do you have a favorite airline? Why was it awesome?
For the most part, we seemed to always fly on Saudia Airlines, at least as far as JFK Airport in NY. From there, it was usually TWA (for those that remember that airline) and the flight attendants were always so nice to me. But my favorite was SAS Airlines! The seats were always comfortable (like Lufthansa), the food was always good, and I think I got a pair of aviator’s wings every time I flew on that airline.