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Feeding the eye

By Ralph Shaffer / May 2, 1985



ABDULLAH spoke gardening. Not that he could say the exact Arabic word for it. It was just that in Riyadh he was like so many of his cousins -- kizzens -- not long off the fertile farming slopes of the North Yemen that he missed. He came to us, as so many did, from knowing someone like Ghalib, the houseboy next door. We needed someone to tend the ``yard'' -- that space left between modern Saudi villas and the 10-foot wall around the property. In it someone had tried grass on the harsh sand-and-clay soil; but the results were sparse, sad, and glaring. So, as a beginning through Ghalib who understood English, we got Abdullah to start by spading up some perhaps-flower beds.

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Flowers from the garden in the three-figure heat of a Riyadh summer?

Yes, and Abdullah knew, Ghalib said, we could grow some too if we got the right kind. We sent to Dammam for oleanders, crape myrtle, Fusilier roses, some African daisies, and lots of zinnias. Shops in Dammam had a good deal of everything from the outside world -- even Dutch greenery -- brought in by European airfreighters to the Dhahran airport.

But Abdullah knew water might be our problem. At sparse intervals, and not every day, some brackish water usable for washing, soaking, cleaning, or sprinkling -- but not for cooking or drinking -- came through the city's tiny water mains. It ended up in our villa's dark cistern under the garage. From there, if somebody remembered to turn it on, a pump pushed the working water to a rooftop holding tank. And this gave us household and garden-use water pressure. If the dripping cistern didn't fill itself with city water, we called the tank truck. So we found that working water, at a price, was always available. (Drinking water was something else. You took your 10-gallon jerry cans to the bottling plant for this.)

Abdullah did well -- even his fingers were green. Carefully rationing water and mulching the beds every day, he got us flowers in the Riyadh heat. Then one day we had Ghalib explain we wanted to plant a whole new lawn; one with sun-and-heat-resistant grass seed. And maybe we'd buy a power mower from Dammam to cut it. Turning the soil of the whole yard by hand, ridding out the old grass clumps -- that was hard work. But Abdullah did it. And finally, one late hot afternoon toward sunset, we all sat on the villa steps enjoying the colorful flower beds and the green, green carpet of the new, sprouting grass.

Abdullah said something in Arabic to Ghalib, and they both nodded to each other. I asked what.

``Abdullah says he could never explain all this to his father. He said he would not understand'' -- his arm swept the yard -- ``doing all this work in the ground but not growing anything to feed a family.''

I didn't say anything. Because he had a point.

``But tell him I really understand,'' I said to Ghalib, smiling. ``But tell him Americans away from home -- they must feed the eye.''

Ghalib repeated what I said. They laughed and nudged each other. But I knew Abdullah would understand. Ralph Shaffer