by Thomas C. Barger

 reviewed by John Pint




A young geologist explores early Saudi Arabia

            "What does Out In The Blue mean?" I wondered as I began to read the letters that Tom Barger, former President and CEO of Aramco wrote to his young bride back in the late 1930s before the discovery of oil would work its transformation on the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

             I soon discovered that for this young geologist, being "out in the blue" meant living and working for months on end under the open skies of the frequently merciless deserts and gravel plains of eastern Arabia, as opposed to studying rocks and sand from behind a desk in an air-conditioned office. I liked this guy right away! Then, as I read Tom Barger's letters, I enjoyed following the gradual transformation of a green newcomer into a seasoned desert veteran whose colloquial Arabic became so good that he was asked (in Beirut), "Are you a Bedouin?"  

Tom Barger is the tallest man in the picture, in case you couldn't guess. Khamis Bin Rimthan, the celebrated Aramco guide, is second from the left. They are posing in front of "the lone palm tree at Ain al-Nakhla."

I love the look of eager enthusiam on Tom's face! And only those who have lived out in the desert will appreciate how very special that "lone palm tree" was to these people. I don't know how many times we'd show slides to the folks back home of a flower, for example. We'd say, "Look! We found this flower out there!"

And they would reply, "Oh, a flower... uh-huh."


             This book is sprinkled with descriptions and anecdotes that any reader would find fascinating. For example, everyone knows how important finding water is in a desert, but few would imagine what the Bedouin had to contend with, once they found the precious liquid:

 In general, the water in the Eastern Province would be considered unfit for drinking according to the American sanitary codes which considered 500 parts per million of salt as the absolute maximum that should be found in drinking water. In Arabia, water with 1,000 parts per million was regarded as practically rain water. We commonly drank water with as much as 3,000 parts per million; at one well, we saw some small Bedouin boys drinking water that was later analyzed at 10,000 parts per million. Seawater is slightly more than 30,000 parts per million, so these young men were drinking water that was a third as salty as seawater. When confronted with a well too bitter to drink, the Bedu let the camels drink it and then they drank camel's milk. Among its many attributes, the camel also acted as a walking still.

            Now imagine you are sitting around a flickering campfire in the desert under a sky bursting with more stars than you ever saw anywhere else, a sky bigger than belief because it stretches right down to a horizon perfectly flat in every direction. Here's the sort of tale Tom Barger picked up from his Bedu co-workers, perhaps on just this sort of night:

 Several years later in Qatif, a man slipped and fell out of a palm tree, landing on a man below and killing him. The man's widow claimed her blood rights and wanted this man executed for killing her husband. This was a difficult question for the qadhi, the judge of the Islamic court, as the man was innocent because it had been an accident. After much thought, the qadhi ruled that the widow had the right to kill him the same way her husband was killed. She could climb up a palm tree and fall on this fellow or she could settle for her blood money. She settled for the money."


The walls of Riyadh in 1937, photograph by Max Steineke (Saudi Aramco)

"Riyadh has many palm gardens irrigated by water drawn by donkeys from 100 foot-deep wells. As the donkey walks down an incline leading from the well, he draws a weighted goatskin full of water to the top of the well. There the water bag empties itself into a trough, and the animal walks back up the incline, lowering the goatskin for another load... The water is used to irrigate the two main crops, date palms and alfalfa. All night long the pulleys of the wells creak. It sounds like distant factory whistles."

Pulleys creaking through the night? Eat your hearts out, modern dwellers of Riyadh!


           People who have lived in Saudi Arabia and love the desert will find all sorts of interesting bits of information in this book, because readers can share Tom's step-by-step education into things Saudi and his fascination with a wide variety of subjects. Since I am interested in caves,  I especially enjoyed descriptions of the role dahls played in bygone times:

 The water comes from dahls, sinkholes in the limestone that  vary from a foot to 10 feet in diameter. Unfortunately, they are not full of water as reported. The one with the most water has the dirtiest water; it is more thin mud than water. The biggest one requires crawling through 100 yards of winding tunnel and dragging the water out in gurbas (waterskins, JP). Our eight gurbas won't last more than a couple of weeks hauling water for 11 men.  


Tom Barger down inside one of the dahls around Ma'aqala.

Cavers in Saudi Arabia, take note! Can anyone identify this dahl?.

             The following description of a dahl near Ma'aqala (the very place where all our desert cave exploring began) sounds much like the cave we call Dahl Murubbeh, where Susy and I spent many a night camped on its sandy floor, enjoying, like Tom, the pleasant coolness of 62 degrees Fahrenheit:

 The weather continues to be warm. Yesterday was the season's record temperature, 125 degrees in the shade, which is hot but, not as bad as you might think. As I write at eight in the evening, it is 92 degrees. We get up at four a.m. and work to noon. Then we take our cots down in a big dahl and sleep three or four hours in the cool, natural air-conditioning of the cave."

              Just in case dahls are not your thing, you can read about shamaals (north winds often blowing sand) that "whip the tent fly so violently it cracks like a gunshot" and eating dhabs, "a dhab being a big yellow lizard - fat and right for roasting this time of year." You can also find out about singing sand dunes, the sighting and (sad to say) the shooting of some of the last wild oryxes in the country and throughout the book you'll keep running into King Abdulaziz Ibn Saud himself.  

Well No. 12 within the first hour of the fire.


"In 10 minutes the derrick collapsed, and the well became a huge torch pouring out great billows of thick, black smoke that half masked the 100-foot flames."

             Now, should I mention the drama of an oil well caught on fire or that amazing story of how Ghawar Field, "probably the largest single oil field on earth," was discovered due to the meticulous work of one Ernie Berg, a geologist who was curious why the tops of the jebels (hills) near Haradh all slope in various directions? No, I won't, because then I would want to go on and include subjects like Arab women ("The soldiers fairly rocked with laughter at the idea of anyone going to a hospital for such a simple thing as having a baby.") or the fact that Tom Barger spent most of his time in the desert rubbing elbows with Aramco's legendary Khamis Bin Rimthan, who, among other things, was a sort-of walking GPS, so sensitive that after traveling 200 miles further south than he had ever been before, he asked Tom if the North Star had moved. Only later did Tom Barger reflect that, "Khamis was now seeing the North Star from a completely different angle, and it would be right to say that it had moved. I doubt if there are more than a half a dozen men on earth that would have noticed the difference."


Tom Barger with Ernie Berg, the man who would discover the largest oil field in the world:

"Ernie seems to be a good egg, I think we shall get along together."

Tom Barger seems like a good egg too.  Read this book!


            Out in the Blue was just published in 2000 by Selwa Press, P O Box 3650, Vista, California 92085 USA,; it has 320 pages, too many pictures to count and costs $34.95 hardback. ISBN: 0-9701157-3-3. Also available at Amazon.Com.

Click below to order this book from Amazon:

Out in the Blue: Letters from Arabia...