The Oil Encounter

An essay by Yvonne Reddick

There were waves on the desert horizon, where no waves should be. In fifty-degree heat, air warped and bent the sunlight, creating the illusion of water. The sand no longer appeared yellowish, but stark white. My abiding memory of daytime in Kuwait is that haze, the deceptive liquid shine of heat. Night was a time of flares that leapt and faded, the flarestacks burning waste methane in pulsing flames.

My father was a field-worker, of sorts. The fields he dug were deep below ground or buried under the sea-bed. I was nine when he left the salt-blasted oil-platforms of the North Sea for the wells of the Arabian Gulf. Our entire family was transplanted to Kuwait City. Kuwait’s oilfields are the remains of a Cretaceous sea; Dad would tell me that the oil was trapped in sandstone or limestone from a fossil ocean. 

Oil had brought dizzying wealth, unlike anything I’d ever seen in Europe. We arrived in the capital at night, to a city lit by glittering skyscrapers. By day, intense sunlight winked on twenty-four carat displays in the jewellery quarter. Women in branded headscarves chatted into the blocky mobile phones of the 1990s. Older men wore traditional dishdashas; young dudes sported D & G. 

Our Kuwait Studies textbooks encouraged us to be grateful for the oil that had brought light to industrialised nations (and stoked Kuwait’s economic boom). We learnt a classical form of Arabic, written and read but different from the spoken variety, from textbooks illustrated with blotchy watercolours. They told us that Kuwait had been a poor settlement of traders and pearl-fishers until the discovery of oil. People were proud of their country’s black gold: the school’s crest was a derrick on a shield. In my poem ‘In Oils,’ I wanted to capture the way Kuwait City rose from the desert, despite the scars of recent conflict:

           Mirage city, under the warp-shimmer of fifty degrees.

           Sun-beaten metal. Lightstruck glass,

           the bombed-out bridge to Bubiyan Island. 

           The teachers took my class to visit an oil well in south Kuwait, near the town of Ahmadi. We were bussed out into the desert, over the enormous Burgan field: the second largest in the world. The road took us past thickets of refinery chimneys, where crude was processed into everything from gasoline to Vaseline. Even the plastic bottle that the guide passed to my thirsty classmate had begun life as oil. 

The roar of drills and engines blasted our eardrums. We wrinkled our noses at the stink of tar. Our guide was Kuwaiti; rougher labour was done by workers from India and Pakistan, in moustaches, boiler suits and hard hats. It took three ten-year-olds to heft a gleaming drillbit with its cone-shaped teeth. Tungsten carbide, its bite sharpened by diamond dust. A used bit was retrieved from the well, clotted with muddy drilling fluid. 

Monkey board, possum belly, mosquito bill, cat head, bull nose: Dad knew the drillers’ slang for platforms, tanks, valves and pipes. It was as if the nicknames given to heavy machinery made it appear more alive. Tameable, even. The guide announced that we were going to see a ‘Christmas tree’, but the ‘tree’ was a disappointment: it was a complicated valve that controlled the flow of oil out of the well. 

Pay zone, stress cage, blowout: the jargon of the oil industry captures its rewards, but also its risks. When poet Juliana Spahr tells the story of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout, she uses the language of ‘kill lines’ and ‘bleeding’ fluid to hint at the disaster to come. You can feel the pressure mounting in her lines:

          Kill line full. Kill line

          Opened, bled to mini trap tank. Flow
          Is stopped. Kill line monitored.

In my poem-sequence ‘In Oils,’ I wanted to hint at the hazards that my Dad and so many other fossil fuel industry workers face: ‘the rig whirred/ from its crown block to the pit of its stress-cage.’
In 1991, retreating Iraqi forces set Kuwait’s wellheads ablaze. Hundred-mile stains of smoke trailed across the Arabian Peninsula. A crack team of petroleum engineers mobilised to tackle the flames. The only woman among them was my dad’s boss. Men at the company spoke of her in hushed tones. Dad described her as a ‘Kuwaiti freedom fighter.’ 

****

The poet and translator André Naffis-Sahely captures the oil migrant’s situation in his book The Promised Land: ‘We knew nothing of the country we lived in, save that our presence was temporary. Our hosts were calm and indifferent.’ This collision of cultures, languages and technologies is what novelist Amitav Ghosh calls ‘the oil encounter.’ Sentiments after the liberation of Kuwait had been enthusiastically pro-Western, with Kuwaitis coming up to shake expatriates’ hands: ‘Are you British or American?’ But occasionally, someone would ask my dad, ‘Why are you here?’

“We were as happy as could be before those devils came along,” said Miteb. “But from the first day they came to our village life has been camel piss.” In his novel Cities of Salt, the writer Abdelrahman Munif captures the loathing and bafflement among the local people when western oil workers arrive at an unnamed Arabian village near a wadi. Americans whose ‘smell could kill birds’ begin filling boxes with sand and stones. Local people nickname them Fatso, Whoreson and Crow. Their bulldozers uproot every tree. The country’s emir promises ‘oceans of oil, oceans of gold;’ Whoreson and Co are simply needed for advice on how to get at these treasures under the desert. Soon, water from the wadi starts to taste brackish and bitter.

North of Kuwait City stands a sandstone ridge, Al-Mutla. Driving out into the desert – and you always drove, petrol was cheap and the summer sun was overpowering – rusty traces of the war remained. Crooked signs daubed with skull-and-crossbones images marked the old minefields over the oilfields. Corroded bullets lay half-buried in sand. A highway intersecting the ridge had been the site of a massacre. But spring brought rain and a riot of flowers: field marigolds and tiny desert mallows. Exploring on foot, you dodged the occasional camel spider. (During the first Iraq war, foreign troops joked that these eight-legged creatures could outsprint a human.) Spiny lizards, or thubs, peeked from their burrows and darkling beetles scurried about on their stilt-legs. The first darkling beetles I ever saw had managed to infiltrate the airport terminal. 

The rocks in the desert enabled you to touch the time when the sand lay beneath the sea. Dad’s geologist friend identified one of my finds from Al-Mutla as a ‘ventifact’: a stone sculpted by wind. Northerlies had blasted one face into a miniature mountain slope. The west wind and the east had facetted the other two sides. It was a skewed, miniature pyramid. An omen of coming storms.

****

The fires of the first Gulf War were extinguished four years before I arrived in the Gulf. But when Saddam Hussein refused to cooperate with UN weapons inspections, the west retaliated with Operation Desert Thunder. Fighter jets and battleships swarmed to American military bases in Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Bahrein. 1998 was a tense time. The story in the western press was that Saddam was concealing weapons of mass destruction. The Iraqi ruler had unleashed chemical and biological weapons before – and the targets were his own people. The BBC broadcast images of men used for weapons testing experiments, their faces blistered by anthrax. A Kurdish woman who survived a nerve gas attack had given birth to an eyeless, limbless baby girl. She said she hoped her daughter would die. 

Kuwait City buzzed with rumours that a second invasion was looming. The teachers tested our school’s airstrike siren. BBC reporters arrived in our classroom and asked us whether we were worried. ‘No,’ we lied. If enemy soldiers seized our house, the oil company instructed my parents to hide in the loft and survive on stockpiled tins of baked beans. The last straw was when a radio programme told my mother that she must resist the urge to rescue us from school if it happened. Would she prefer to be evacuated, asked the company. She bundled my sister and me onto the next plane to Switzerland. Dad stayed behind. He was ready to load the car with bottles of drinking water, haul on his biohazard gear and drive off-road until he reached Saudi Arabia. 

A few months after I left Kuwait for good, British and American bombs struck Iraqi barracks, airfields and a petroleum refinery. The second Gulf War broke out four years later, a conflict that would continue flaring up for nearly a decade. In her poem ‘Ghosts of the Gulf War,’ poet Nashwa Nasreldin shows us the haunting aftermath of the conflict:
           I dreamt of my school friends, their bodies
           bent over empty barrels. I wandered
           through the dusk identifying them.

Those barrels could be water barrels, but they might also be barrels of oil – the fuel for so much violence. The poet Andrew Motion suspected that George W. Bush’s reasons for going to war were not Saddam’s fabled weapons of mass destruction, but ‘elections, money, empire, oil and Dad.’ 

Whenever I read about the link between oil and new forms of imperial control, a knot of complicit guilt forms in my stomach. The guilt intensified when my Arabic teacher in the UK, an Iraqi, told me was happening to her friends in the spring of 2003, as western troops advanced on Saddam’s capital. Pregnant women had their labours induced before the soldiers arrived (hospital beds would be needed for the casualties of war). Much later, I met an Iraqi writer – an engineer, like my father – who worked to rebuild roads and bridges after the second war. Extremist fighters had held him hostage at gunpoint. 

****

Water descended on Kuwait City during my last spring there. It was the time of year known as Al-Sarayat, when thunderstorms bring downpours and even hail to the desert. As the school day drew to a close, ranks of bruise-dark clouds marched on the city from the north. One thunderclap, and rain came pelting down on sandy parks and palm-lined avenues. The streets swirled with greyish water. There were power outages and drownings. 

In 2018, half a metre of rain fell on Kuwait’s capital in one day. Two years previously, temperatures had hit a sweltering record of fifty-four degrees. Storms are fiercening, deserts are expanding and seas are inching higher. Whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, I have nightmares about gigantic waves crashing into coastal homes. These storm-surges are symptoms of the ‘eco-anxiety’ that many people now feel. However, in my case, they are also inseparable from my fears about the forces that the oil encounter has unleashed. Now, I can’t think of oil without worrying about the fires and floods of climate change. 

Fire on the waves. Sand that was once sea. Water shimmering where no water could be.

Yvonne Reddick is an AHRC Leadership Fellow, researching, writing and publishing poetry about the Anthropocene. She won the Annual Ambit Competition in 2019. Her poetry has been published in The Guardian Review and broadcast on BBC Radio 3’s The Verb. Her book Ted Hughes: Environmentalist and Ecopoet is published by Palgrave Macmillan.  Her poetry pamphlet Spikenard (Smith/Doorstop 2019) was selected for publication by former Poet Laureate (and former Ambit Poetry Editor), Carol Ann Duffy. She is the editor of Magma Issue 81 on the theme of the Anthropocene.

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