An American man recalls a portion of his youth in Saudi Arabia in this debut memoir.
Snedeker first moved with his parents to the Middle Eastern country in 1953, when he was only 3 years old. His father, Albert Coleman Snedeker, worked for the Arabian American Oil Company, which transferred him from their New York City offices. The author spent a considerable stretch of his most impressionable years in Saudi Arabia, until 1962, when he was 11. While there, he lived in Dhahran, which, he says, “still resembled a glorified roustabout oil camp,” but it also provided all the quotidian amenities of Western living, including “everything a normal, aggressively self-centered youngster might need or desire.” At the time, Saudi Arabia was still a fledgling nation in many ways, and it wasn’t unusual for Americans to go there in search of jobs and opportunities—a trend that eventually resulted in “a kind of American colonial presence” and an often cloistered expatriate community. Still, the author got an unusual peek into a markedly different culture from his own. For example, at one point, he tells of how an 11-year-old playmate anxiously revealed to him that she’d been promised in marriage to a man 20 years her senior. Snedeker discusses his own family at great length, as well, painting portraits of his strict but “sunny” father; his beautiful mother, who could be “remote” and expressed a “wounded innocence”; and his two older siblings, Mike and Kathy. As an adult, Snedecker would twice return to Saudi Arabia to live, and he still sees it as a kind of second homeland. The author lucidly and often poetically conveys his remembrances in a series of brief, impressionistic anecdotes that reflect the gossamer quality of youthful recollection: “Just random gauzy images, glimpses of fleeting emotion, stories with half-finished sentences despite having been retold ad infinitum over the dining table throughout my childhood, and unconscious embellishments slapped on as afterthoughts from my id.” His commentary is remarkably insightful, and he has a gimlet eye for nuanced portraiture. But although he astutely observes Saudi Arabia’s cultural and political climate, his attention is more typically drawn to the personal. Sometimes, these spheres overlap; for example, he writes how he was deeply affected by the suicide of a neighbor’s house servant—a grim event that heightened his sympathy for the vulnerable members of a studiously invisible profession. It’s not immediately clear, though, that Snedeker’s memoir will find a very wide audience beyond his loved ones and friends. As thoughtful and elegantly written as it is, its real focus isn’t Saudi Arabia, per se, but his family; their concerns and experiences form the center of the book. Also, one wishes that the memoir paid more attention to the author’s adult residency in the region—a time that he might have been able to remember, and appraise politically, with greater clarity and rigor. Nevertheless, this is an enjoyably stimulating read that also features marvelous black-and-white photographs.
An often beautifully written and intellectually sensitive reminiscence.