Ayesha Malik in conversation with Vice photo editor Elizabeth Renstrom.

Elizabeth Renstrom: I had no clue before you showed me the book that it was so much about where you grew up in Saudi. Based off the portfolio you put together for the 2016 VICE photo issue, with images from Riyadh and southwestern Saudi Arabia, I thought it would be a combination of that and the work you had been making about this community, during your time at school. I had no clue that you had so much work from this one place, so much archival, and everything surrounding it. It is interesting to see all that alongside your own images. It really puts it into perspective. I was showing the project to somebody outside the photo world and describing how this place was originally created to accommodate Western families working for this oil company. I think it is a fitting metaphor that mirrors your feelings of not wanting to push a specific idea of what being Saudi is.

Sara’s birthday treasure hunt at the 80 road jebels
Sara’s birthday treasure hunt at the 80 road jebels

Ayesha Malik: I have always been curious about identity, how we express it and how others interpret it. I try to approach it from various tangents, playing into but also questioning the associated stereotypes. It’s of considerable importance that Dhahran can be visually isolating in that it may seem obvious and familiar, while also feeling foreign and disjointed. Nothing is ever quite as simple as it may appear. And when you look closely and consider that everyone and everything within this book is connected…there is this openness, an inconclusive realization that nothing should be taken for granted. Just because something or someone looks Saudi or American born and raised or whatever, it isn’t a full reflection or necessarily true.

Mysk in her bedroom with her Beanie Babies collection.
Mysk in her bedroom with her Beanie Babies collection.

Elizabeth: I like the rose-colored cover leading into your first images. I think it is really beautiful.

Ayesha: There is a lot of pink, in case you didn’t notice!
Elizabeth: There is so much, and I can see it must be intentional.

Ayesha: It’s a running theme, both passive and active. There is something about it that expresses warmth, a pulse of life, a sense of girlish childhood, as though over time, my memory has become shrouded in pinkness.

Toy car
Toy car

Elizabeth: It’s cool that you offer background context about the company and its early days.

Ayesha: I had considered keeping it as a simple list of dates and facts. Then I realized writing it out was necessary. History is the context of this story surrounding the circumstances of oil. It is why we are all…
Elizabeth: Together.

Ayesha: Exactly. I thought a lot about how to incorporate the subject of oil—both as a main character, but also as one that is often forgotten about. Throughout, you are confronted with its presence. Not very often, but just enough to remind you.

 Dhahran Commissary.
Dhahran Commissary.

Elizabeth: When I was going through early drafts, it obviously was present in the references to the company, but outside of that, all the personal images, the ones of families on this compound, I didn’t see the oil reference. They read as family portraits within the space.

Ayesha: Oil is this permeating subject. It is the root of it all, yet it was never this thing I faced or even thought about much, if at all, as a kid. It was more like a circumstance, a “just”…a big “just.”

Baseball players on the field.
Baseball players on the field.

Elizabeth: Yeah, and you bring it back to why these people are there, especially with that image toward the end of the book, of that super American kid…his baseball tee, the unlikeliness of those type of boys there.

Ayesha: There are so many!

Elizabeth: I know you’re not trying to project a strong opinion about Western families versus Saudi families. I guess I’m wondering how you feel about the creation of this place to make Western families feel more at home. I’m wondering if you think it is positive or if they could have created their own sense of home in a more Saudi space?

Eli Setzer
Eli Setzer

Ayesha: I see it as positive. These worlds are inextricably intertwined, and it began with the history of the company. In the ’30s, the king of Saudi Arabia had sought out American oil companies for their knowledge and technical expertise. It has to be said, in the context of Saudi Arabia, Dhahran and other Aramco compounds are the exceptions and are a very small portion of the greater country. The Americans did not come to colonize. They came to work, on Saudi Arabia’s terms, and they stayed because the company provided them with the comforts of home, and along the way, they also developed this warmth and love toward the comforts of Saudi Arabia. And you have to realize, in those days, it was a big deal to travel around the world to work in a far-off country. For many people, it still is.

Mr. Embleton in his office, Public Relations.
Mr. Embleton in his office, Public Relations.

Elizabeth: And that is how you constructed your home in this space.

Ayesha: And to find not just a sense of home, but really feel at home in this so-called foreign country…that is special. It isn’t just the American thing that makes this place so memorable. It is the Saudi thing and so much more, this graceful meeting place of the familiar and something you can’t quite explain—this series of factors that come together to create a place unlike anywhere else in the world. So many of us that grew up there feel like these third- culture kids with this distinct identity of being neither fully here nor fully there.

Families by the Pond at sunset.
Families by the Pond at sunset.

Elizabeth: I was wondering, when you were growing up, did you find most were homesick? Was the place enough?

Ayesha: Sometimes people would be homesick for the first few years. I think the people that had homes back in the States probably felt it more than those who didn’t. Over time, though, those same people often developed this level of comfort with the easygoing lifestyle. There are recreational activities galore. It is a company town, basically an all-inclusive community. America used to have tons of them, also owned by the companies themselves. I’m pretty sure that isn’t the case anymore. This place is a bit of a living relic, a time capsule. I think it may be the magic of that feeling of a simpler time in America that is part of what keeps people there.

 Skateboarders at the skate park.
Skateboarders at the skate park.

Elizabeth: I also feel like it affords women who are coming into the community a different kind of space.

Ayesha: The fact that in Saudi Arabia, in this place, we can wear what we want in public, and drive, it is a different world.
Elizabeth: Well, it brings up this idea that this is such a tiny space, and because it is this haven, women have these opportunities. It is a created environment. That is crazy to me, but it sort of defends your point of “Why do we have to place these labels on things?”

Ayesha: That is the hardest thing for me to get across. If you grew up in a community with only people from one place and everyone looked the same, it is more likely that you will be attached to those things. So, when something different comes into your life, it can seem foreign. My comfort zone was and is in a space filled with people from all over the world. You could say that comfort zone is the common bond of being Aramcons, and the shared experience that comes with it. It is my normal.

Holding flowers after my ballet recital.
Holding flowers after my ballet recital.

Elizabeth: You keep bringing back this formal portraiture to a couple of different characters, and so I assign this level of importance to them…and whatever they happen to be paired with, I start spinning, creating stories in my head.
Ayesha: That is what memory is to me. The sequence and pairings of images can add meanings to them that may have not been there at all. It is this constant breakdown of information. It can create this fictitious aspect to some of the photographs and the assumptions we make about them.

Our moving boxes and a prayer mat.
Our moving boxes and a prayer mat.
A mother waves goodbye to her daughter as she leaves for Dhahran Elementary School.
A mother waves goodbye to her daughter as she leaves for Dhahran Elementary School.

You can read the entire interview and more in Ayesha Malik’s new book ARAMCO.

Ayesha Malik

Fine art photographer Ayesha Malik (born 1989) is an American citizen who was raised in a gated community in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia created in the 1930s as a home away from home for American employees of the Arabian American Oil Company, now known as Saudi Aramco. Malik lived on the Dhahran compound for the first 22 years of her life with her father, who worked at Aramco, her mother, and her two siblings. In 2011, when Malik first learned her dad was retiring from the company, she felt a sense of urgency to document the place where she grew up with her camera.