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Season’s Greetings

By Rayyane Tabet

On the morning of 1 December 1960, thousands of employees working for the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company received a greeting card inside the envelope that contained their pay cheque. On the front, big bold letters announced the coming holidays and wished them “Seasonʼs Greetings”.

The message on the back read:

“From another plane the camera snaps Taplineʼs DC3 over Sidon terminal showing the floating roof tanks, the executive houses, the golf course and the offices. This is where the pipeline ends and the story of oil begins.”

But the story had begun on this hill 10 years earlier on 2 December 1950, when the first drop of Saudi oil arrived in the Mediterranean. And the story ended on the same hill 23 years later, on 28 December 1983, when the Trans-Arabian Pipeline Company was dissolved.

The story lasted 33 years, and then the story died. But stories donʼt die. Stories are secrets that hide underground, like oil pipelines, and resurface when the time comes to tell them.

So the story began on this hill, on 2 December 1950, when the first drop of Saudi oil arrived in the Mediterranean.

But it actually began aboard the USS Quincy, a US destroyer ship that was anchored in Great Bitter Lake on the morning of 14 February1945, when President Theodore Roosevelt met King Abdul Aziz Al Saud.

The president was on his way back from Yalta where he had drawn a new map of the world, and stopped in the Suez Canal to finish his drawing. As for the king, he had arrived here after a trip that lasted three days, the first time he had left his country. And the details of his journey had been kept secret for fear that the Saudis would think their king had run away, leaving them to burn in the sun.

At the heart of every story is a secret that cannot be told.

And the secret of this story drowned at the bottom of Great Bitter Lake when the president and the king decided to keep it. Two people usually keep state secrets but, on that day, a third person had to be told the secret.

So the story began with William Alfred Eddy, the third person, the interpreter who translated the secret from English to Arabic because the Saudi king and the US president spoke different languages.

As William Eddy knelt between the two leaders to translate the secret of this story, he realised that the journey that had brought him aboard this ship was in itself a long series of secrets. Secrets that transformed him from the son of Protestant missionaries in Sidon into a student of English literature at Princeton University, into a college professor in Cairo, into a colonel in the US Marines in Tangiers, into a founder of the Central Intelligence Agency in Washington, into the first US ambassador in Jeddah, into the escort of King Abdul Aziz Al Saud aboard a ship that anchored in Great Bitter Lake on the morning of 14 February 1945.

Roosevelt died two months after the meeting. Abdul Aziz died eight years later. As for Eddy, he died 17 years later, on the morning of 3 May1963, at the American University Hospital in Beirut, and was buried next to his parents, taking the secret and the story with him and hiding them six feet under the ground of a Protestant cemetery in Sidon.

The story began a few kilometres away from this cemetery in Sidon on a hill in Zahrani, when the first drop of Saudi oil arrived in the Mediterranean.

But the story arrived at this hill after it had begun, and ended on another one.

On 6 March1947, five bulldozers arrived at a hill in Haifa to dig the foundations for 22 storage tanks that would soon be filled with crude oil coming from Saudi through Jordan, to rest on the shores of the Mediterranean, before continuing its journey to Europe and North America. And the story had arrived at this hill along with the bulldozers because of a straight line.

When the executives of Esso, Chevron, Texaco and Mobil met with members of the US Congress 7 June 1946 to convince them that building an oil pipeline linking Saudi Arabia with the Mediterranean was a project that would secure US hegemony over the world economy, they came armed with a map of the Middle East on which two lines had been drawn: the first was a semi-circle that began in Al Dammam in Saudi, wrapped around the Arabian Peninsula and ended in the Suez Canal; the second was a straight line that went from Al Dammam to Palestine, passing through Jordan. The explanation followed: this was the path of the future, the route for the quick circulation of resources that would eliminate the distances between the Arabian Gulf and the Mediterranean Sea. A safe way that crossed empty deserts where one need not fear for the straight line because of the threat of stories.

If you draw a straight line from Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean, it leads you to Haifa. So the story began on a hill in Haifa because the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.

But the story ended before it had time to begin on 29 November 1947, when the United Nations drew another line partitioning the land and the people and the story. The Battle of Haifa began and the story was held up. The hill was left with 22 holes dug in the ground.

So the story began here, on this hill in Zahrani in the south of Lebanon, after the straight line angled up north running away from the lines of the United Nations.

But the story cannot begin here before it is given the right to pass through Syria.

On 11 April1949, in Damascus, Husni al-Zaʼim overthrew Shucri al-Kuwatli in a military coup.

And the story of Husni al-Zaʼim is the story of a presidency that lasted 137 days during which he defied his predecessors and granted land rights concessions to a US oil company, drawing up the plans for the world’s longest pipeline that would connect Saudi Arabia to the Mediterranean, allowing for the story to pass through Syria and arrive in Lebanon.

After 137 days, on 16 August 1949, Husni al-Zaimʼs story ended the same way it had begun: he was overthrown, then jailed, then executed. But the story that had begun with his presidency did not end with his death.

Husni Al Zaʼim allowed for the story to arrive at this hill. But the story cannot begin here before it is manufactured somewhere else. So it began in a steel mill in Utah on 4 December 1947, when the Consolidated Western Steel Corporation began producing 265,000 tons of steel pipes.

The story began on 25 September 1950, when the last section of the pipeline was welded together and the construction of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline, which, from this moment on, would be known as Tapline, was completed.

On that day, if you were flying over Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, you would have seen 16,000 welders standing in a line 1,213 kilometres long waiting for a black tarry liquid to flow through the pipeline announcing the beginning of the story.

So the story finally began on the Tapline hill in the south of Lebanon, on 2 December 1950, when the first drop of Saudi oil arrived in the Mediterranean. Indeed it began aboard Habib, a small tugboat that left the pier of Zahrani to meet the US oil tanker Sunset anchored a couple of kilometres offshore, connect the pipeline, and pump the black liquid into its hull.

And like all stories this one began with cheers and applause, with the twisting of a valve, the cutting of a ribbon, and the birth of something that would change the course of the story.

So the story finally began on the Tapline hill in the south of Lebanon, on 2 December 1950, when the first drop of Saudi oil arrived in the Mediterranean. Indeed it began aboard Habib, a small tugboat that left the pier of Zahrani to meet the US oil tanker Sunset anchored a couple of kilometres offshore, connect the pipeline, and pump the black liquid into its hull.

And like all stories this one began with cheers and applause, with the twisting of a valve, the cutting of a ribbon, and the birth of something that would change the course of the story.

Hours later, as the crowd that had come to witness this historic moment was leaving the docks, and as the Sunset was sailing into the horizon towards the United States, Walther Ludvigsen, Habibʼs captain, returned  to shore, opened the companyʼs logbook, and recorded, on the first page, the details of the initial loading operation through Tapline.

And the story is the story of Walther Ludvigsen and the logbook that would keep him company for 21 years in which he would record the passage of 1,246 ships that would anchor on these shores next to this hill waiting for oil to flow into them before they sailed on to scatter it in the pump stations of the world. But the story of Walther Ludvigsen is also the story of a man obsessed with making models.

The story began on the night of 2 December 1950, when Walther decided to transform the hill and the terminal and the pipeline and the storage tanks and the tankers and the shore into a small model. A few months later at a dinner party he was hosting, the model caught the attention of his employer. The executive expanded his job duties and decided that Walther would build three more models of the hill: one would remain in the terminal facilities in Zahrani, one would be shown in the entrance lobby of the 8th floor of the Arida Building on Harma Street, the companyʼs local office in Beirut, and one would be sent around the Middle East to trade fairs before ending its tour in New York at the companyʼs headquarters in one of those skyscrapers on Fifth Avenue.

This is how the model travelled, in a crate, to New York, on 10 February 1952 to tell the story of this hill.

And this is how the story began.

But a story should not begin inside a crate. So it began in an airport in Los Angeles on 7 April 1952, when Cliff May boarded a plane bound for Lebanon.

Cliff Mayʼs career revolved around the invention of an easy, quick and cheap way to build houses for millions of Americans who had decided to migrate to California at the end of World War II looking for the American Dream in this bare land on the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

And the story of Cliff May and the hill is the story of four houses the Tapline Company commissioned him to build there. The company was looking for four American engineers to oversee the operations of its terminal facilities and decided that, as an incentive to convince them to move to a distant land to take care of a strange story, it would build them replicas of houses they would have lived in had they stayed in their native California.

The story began on 8 April 1952 when Cliff May arrived at the Tapline hill in Zahrani to lay out the plans for four California Ranch Style Houses.

But the story cannot begin in an empty house. So it began on 1 January 1953, when Mrs Brown opened the door of one of the four houses on the hill.

The house had been furnished with replicas of the Brownsʼ furniture in their Los Angeles home. So, for a moment, Mrs Brown thought that she had arrived in the place she had left the day before and that the long flight from California to Lebanon would not alter the course of her story.

She quickly realised that she was inside a story different from her own when she found a book placed on the coffee table next to a bouquet of flowers. The book, prepared at Tapline’s Company Language Training Centre, was titled Introduction to Spoken Arabic of Lebanon A Training Manual in 13 Chapters.

Mrs Brown flipped through the pages filled with words and expressions for construction, maintenance, safety, and stock trading. All of this was useless to her, but in the last chapter, there was a conversation between a woman and a florist. Mrs Brown started reading this chapter and the story began when she planted, in the backyard of her house on the Tapline hill, a graft of red roses she had bought from the flower market she visited daily to practise Arabic.

It is true that the story began as a botanical project but not quite this one. The story began a few months later when Abu Fawwaz turned the hill green.

Abu Fawwaz arrived at the hill on the morning of 4 April 1953 to deliver two hydrangea plants and a sack of manure to Mrs Brown. A few weeks later, Mr Brown approached him with an offer to become the companyʼs head gardener. His first project was to turn this hill into a golf course. A group of Tapline employees had founded the Zahrani Country Club and were looking for someone to transform the hill into a green field.

Even though Abu Fawwaz knew nothing about golf he decided to take the job, but quickly realised that golf was a very boring game that revolved around people following a small white ball lost in immense patches of green he had to keep neatly trimmed.

And the story is the story of Abu Fawwaz and the lawnmower.

Abu Fawwaz could not get used to this devilish machine the company had brought especially from the United States to help him with his chores. Hours after the day was done, its mechanical sound would buzz in his ears and prevent him from sleeping.

The story began when Abu Fawwaz outsmarted the lawnmower.

In order to minimise his time with this machine, he struck a deal with his cousin who was a shepherd. Once a week, he would open the fence surrounding the terminal to let in a flock of sheep that would eat the overgrown grass.

This is how Abu Fawwaz outsmarted the Americans and this is how the story began.

But rather than beginning with Abu Fawwaz perhaps the story should begin with this flock of sheep that came to graze on the hill and, knowingly or unknowingly, were avenging their ancestors that had been slaughtered on the deck of a ship in 1945 to commemorate the unbreakable bond between the Americans and the Saudis that marked the beginning of this story.

For the next 30 years the story was.

And then the story ended on 28 December 1983, when the Tapline Company was dissolved.

But the story had ended in the cockpit of a DC-3 airplane on 5 June 1967, when Mike Bado saw the Naksa (the Setback) from above.

The story began in Dammam in 1946, when US pilot Mike Bado took off in one of the three Tapline planes and flew over empty lands to learn how a US oil company was going to draw a straight line on the ground and invent a new horizon for the world.

Mike followed the development of the story as he was flying over it. He was the one who helped surveyors look for easier routes along which to chart the pipeline. He was the one who saw how the line bent up north running away from partition lines that changed history and geography

The story ended on 5 June 1967, when a piece of the pipeline disappeared in the Golan Heights and the path was trapped in occupied territories and Mike Bado was no longer able to fly over the entire story.

But the story did not end that day but rather two years later on 19 May 1969, when the pipeline blew up and oil ran everywhere and contaminated the Jordan River.

When Tapline engineers arrived in the Golan Heights to investigate the accident, dubbed a sabotage mission claimed by parties unknown, they were greeted by a group of settlers who demanded that the company find a radical solution that would protect them from the fedayeenʼs missions and prevent the story from polluting their promised land.

The company pledged that it would dig a number of artificial lakes connected to a series of trenches branching out from the main pipeline for the oil to flow into if another sabotage incident should occur. In addition, the rubble removed from the trenches and the lakes would be dumped over the pipeline with the unintended effect of making the hidden object visible for the sake of its security.

This is how the story sank deeper inside this land. And this is how the story ended.

But the story has to end, as most stories do, in Syria. So the story ended on 24 February 1971, in Rif Damascus, when a truck loaded with sheep accidentally hit the pipeline, stopping the flow of oil  and releasing the herd of sheep to run amok in the valley, bleating.

Shutting the line off at a nearby valve station stopped the flow of oil and everyone waited for the companyʼs technical team to arrive as they always did to set the story back on track.

The team never came because the story had ended a few days prior to the incident of the truck full of sheep, when Hafez al-Assad met Aristotle Onassis.

And the story of these two men is the story of two revolutions: the first had launched a corrective revolution inside the Baʼath Party that made him president, and the second had revolutionised the shipping sector and become a magnate.

The story ended the day the president and the magnate staged a coup against the story. Assad was demanding higher transit fees from Tapline as Syria was the country that benefited the least from the influx of 500,000 barrels of Saudi crude oil per day; and Onassis had just invested in the production of a new type of oil tanker that was deeper and faster but whose success relied on the failure of Tapline to meet the needs of oil markets. The answer came as follows: the president would delay the repair of the oil pipeline after it broke during an unsuspicious accident, allowing for the magnate to convince international oil corporations that the straight line was no longer reliable, and that the path to follow was, once again, around the Arabian Peninsula by means of his newly developed supertankers. Per contra the magnate agreed to pay the president double the yearly transit fee that the company was paying the government.

As the two men shook hands they realised that the only thing that could change the course of the line and end the story would be a truck full of sheep.

But the story ended on 6 June 1982, when the Israeli Defence Force invaded southern Lebanon, bombed the terminal and the storage tanks, occupied the houses, the golf course and the shore, and stationed themselves on the hill overlooking the sea.

And the story of liberating the hill is the story of a 17-year-old boy named Belal Fahs.

And the story of Belal Fahs is the story of the first military operation to be officially claimed by Amal.

“On the morning of 16 June 1984 a person, wearing white clothes and driving a blue Mercedes 200, broke into the Tapline terminal facilityʼs main gate and detonated 150 kilograms of explosives in a battle tank of the Israeli Defence Force stationed on the hill.”

This is how Belal Fahs thought he had liberated the story. This is how he covered everything with smoke and ash. And this is how the story ended.

But stories donʼt end in big blasts because stories always end in silence.

And every silent story ends with the appearance of a woman who recounts for us the ending.

The story ended, on this hill on 28 December 1983, when the Tapline Company was dissolved.

On that day, Mary Khoury sat behind the desk in the entrance lobby of the main office building and waited for the phone to ring.

In the past five years, it had been silent.

After the flow of oil was cut off from the hill, the storage tanks were emptied, the tankers stopped docking off the coast, the houses were closed, the employees left one after the other and grass overgrew the golf course. But Mary Khoury kept coming to the hill to keep the offices open and wait, from 9 to 5, for the phone to ring.

The phone rang.

Mary received instructions to write a memo announcing that all the facilities from the extraction fields in Saudi Arabia to the terminal in Lebanon were officially decommissioned and that Tapline, as a legal entity, was dissolved.

She was also asked to pack her bags and leave.

After typing the letters and stamping them with the companyʼs logo, Mary gathered all the things on her desk, including the greeting card she had received in the early 1960s, which for some reason she had framed. She threw them all in a hole that had been dug outside the office for the foundation post of a large neon sign, and covered them with earth.

This is how Mary Khoury buried the story in the heart of the hill and this is how the story died.

But stories donʼt die. Stories are secrets that hide underground, like oil pipelines, and resurface when the time comes to tell them.

Then, they explode from the depth of the Earth and cover everything with a black tarry liquid that can only be removed by burning all the secrets and all the stories.

muzmin_coverresizedThis article features in a special, Arabic-only edition of the Chronic, published in June 2015 as “Muzmin”. The issue, which examines the division of “North” and “sub-Saharan” Africa and Ali Mazrui’s concept of “Afrabia”, was designed in collaboration with Studio Safar (Beirut) and presented at the 12th edition of Sharjah Biennial.

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