Ayesha Malik’s Aramco: Above The Oil Fields, is a paean to her memories of growing up in Dhahran Camp, a gated residential community in Saudi Arabia. The camp, located near Dammam, where Saudi Aramco is headquartered, is exclusive to Saudi Aramco workers and their families. Aramco began in the 1930s as a concession to Standard Oil of California and its American geologists; by 1980 it was wholly owned by the Saudi government. Today Dhahran Camp houses both American and Saudi workers and emulates an American suburb, albeit one occupied simultaneously by little league teams and women in abayas, by American flags and Arabic refrigerator magnets.
The form of the book is guided by Malik’s experience of growing up in Dhahran Camp. Malik represents and experiments with processes of memory to guide the reader through contemporary portraits and suburban landscapes; photographs from her childhood, including several of herself as a young girl; and inserted reproductions of both personal and acquired ephemera that speak to various moments in Aramco history. With more than 150 photographs, the book is long; repeated types of images create an impressionistic effect. Aramco: Above The Oil Fields is ultimately a representation of Malik’s own remembrances. Her photographs, tinted in warm pinks and sunset glows, blur the past with the present. She is canny about photographs’ ways of eliciting emotion and of stopping and reordering time. Small everyday details evoke a feeling of lived experience, even of a place that the reader never knew firsthand.
The manufacture of experience through facsimile is a strong theme of the book, in both form and subject matter. The many reproductions of receipts, newspaper clippings, maps and personal notes and letters are printed at an extraordinary quality. I ran my finger across a crease in a reproduced newspaper cutting, expecting to feel its ripple. Malik’s sister’s adolescent love letter to Leonardo DiCaprio (returned undelivered) is thin enough that her writing on the back shows through. The facsimile objects create an anchoring through-line, a material stability around which time-hopping photographs form multiple thematic threads, calling back to earlier photographs, building and revisiting motifs: youth recreation; cultivating gardens in the desert; people in their day to day, and celebrating milestones; bedrooms and other interior spaces that reveal the minute concerns of the everyday.
The life Malik describes is one colored in neatly within the lines, an orderly world of markers of accomplishment and belonging: sports award badges, graduation photos, company letters of benefits. Dhahran Camp is a place of clean offices and well-kept parks, SUVs and modern buses and palm trees. Malik’s narrative describes a place where everyone gets along, contrasting with the numerous American literary and film tropes, from The Stepford Wives to Blue Velvet, that suspect too-orderly suburbs of concealing unease or anomie. We do see some forced smiles, some pictures that suggest loneliness, some images that seem to question convention and materialism, but overall there is little tension in Malik’s suburbia. As a result, it is difficult to locate the stakes in this body of work.
Malik’s affection for her hometown notwithstanding, the book poses questions that may not be intended but that are nonetheless insistent. Dhahran Camp is, literally, built on oil. It serves an oil exploration and drilling company, and it also sits physically above oil fields. There is oil under the houses and parks, and there are signs posted indicating the presence of lines and wells. Behind fences are oil tanks. They appear, in these photographs, as a somewhat awkward but benign disruption of the sun-washed landscape. They are banal, part of the landscape. Even when this infrastructure is shown to us – a picture of oil tanks closes the book – it’s unclear what we are being asked to see. Where she keenly directs us to details in domestic spaces – her bedroom portraits are her strongest images – the oil tanks hover ambivalently in the periphery, ever-present. How does she want us to understand oil in relation to the social life of the community?
Today Aramco is one of the wealthiest non-public companies in the world, and has what will be the world’s largest ever IPO planned for 2018. Malik’s Aramco presents the benevolent presence of oil in a dream of an orderly American postwar suburb, meshed with a reverie of an idyllic childhood. A photograph of gas masks issued to families during the first Gulf War is one of the few indications that the world outside of the Camp bearing on the life within, and even this picture has the feel of the distant past. What is the relationship between oil and the ability to create, with wealth, a protected, exclusive, and isolated community that serves in its entirety one company and one purpose? What does it mean that while the official religion is Sunni Islam, foreign workers living in a private gated community are able to festoon a house in Christmas lights? Given that oil has been so closely tied to wealth production and conflict; given that we have come to acknowledge the human capacity to change the very geology of the planet through carbon use, why would an idea of a mid-century American suburb be a desirable model for a place to live? There is evidence in Malik’s book of a relationship between the financial value of oil and the social values that sustain and are sustained by it, but it’s unclear to me whether that evidence is in the service of an argument. Our memories can account for history, but Malik’s story about Aramco situates it as a place outside of time, isolated in space, outside of history.
All images are copyright ©Ayesha Malik from the book Aramco: Above the Oilfields published by Daylight Books.