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A Journey of Adventure: Finding Myself in Sculpting

August 21, 2021
By Peter Nicolelis

As Socrates explained, all knowledge began with a question.

What is a day? Why is there daylight and then darkness? Why does the sun disappear? Where does it go?

So too came the profound questions I asked myself. What am I doing here in this brutal, hostile work and living environment of Saudi Arabia?

I knew I had traveled to Saudi to find suitable employment. That was to be my day job. My night job, and the justification I gave myself for this journey of adventure, was to find and/or to create a business opportunity. Specifically to find a Saudi businessman/entrepreneur that was interested in owning a construction company partnership and was prepared to finance the start-up and mobilization costs. Preferably a young Saudi that had the political or family connections that could obtain lucrative construction projects from government ministries. That was my motivation, my objective.

I had discussed that game plan at length with my good friend and fellow engineer Michael Pontisakos before I made the decision to accept the opportunity in Saudi Arabia. Mike’s own construction company in Albany, NY was finishing up contracts he was committed to complete. He was prepared to come to Saudi to mobilize and to establish a new company as soon as I had found the right Saudi entrepreneur. Someone we could both live with as partners.

My day job was as the general manager of a Saudi engineering company that provided engineering design services to Aramco – one of the large crude oil production and refinement companies in Saudi Arabia. Aramco had vast networks of oil pumping stations with related production, distribution, storage and shipping networks. They had a constant need for piping design modifications, replacements and reconfigurations – all of which required design modifications to existing as-built installations.

These requirements kept our office quite busy.

In time, I was introduced to a Saudi, who, I believed, satisfied our pre-qualifications. Khalid had ministerial connections. In addition, one of his companies, a large trucking company, was currently under contract to the Ministry of Transportation. He had expressed his interest to me in establishing a general contracting/construction company of his own. I conferred with Khalid several times. I told him about Mike and of his interest to come to Al Khobar to start-up a new construction company. He showed immediate interest. With that said, Khalid handed me two round trip tickets to Saudi Arabia.

Khalid was eager to meet Mike and his job superintendent. I mailed the tickets to Mike and he made immediate plans to fly to Saudi.

Mike arrived. He and his super stayed with me at my villa. He and I took time to discuss the possible scenarios with Khalid. We also prepared a table of organization for the proposed company and a business plan for his review. We arranged for a dinner meeting at one of the new hotels and gave Khalid copies of our proposal for review. It was a very genial meeting. Khalid had studied business management in America and he was very comfortable surrounded by Americans talking business at the dinner table. The conversation flowed freely. We parted with robust handshakes and the understanding that we would coordinate follow-up meetings after he had time to review our presentation with his staff.

The following afternoon I called Khalid and asked if he had any questions and if he was ready to schedule a follow-up meeting. Khalid needed more time. “I understand,” was my response, “I’ll call you again in a couple of days.”

I called Khalid two days later.

He was in the field so I left him a message.

There was no return call that day or for the following two days.

Mike and I became concerned. On the surface, we agreed to believe that Khalid was tied up with one of his other business activities and that he did not have an opportunity to return my calls. We repeated those thoughts to each other but in reality, we were quite disappointed. Disappointed by Khalid’s apparent indifference to the continuance of our discussion on the business proposals we had prepared and submitted to him.

At one point, we wondered if we were being realistic. Were we expecting Khalid to respond too quickly to our business proposal? How much time did we need to give him? How much additional time would be reasonable before we decide to fold our tent and look for greener pastures? We gave it our best shot and we were prepared to negotiate in order to make the deal happen. But had Khalid even looked at our proposal? It became brutally clear to us that Khalid must have had second thoughts about the extent of the financial commitment he would need to advance in order to mobilize a start-up/general construction company.

Mike and I decided on a game plan: I would call Khalid the next day. I would tell him that Mike received word from home that his company had been shortlisted on a multi-million dollar project – a project he had submitted a bid on before leaving for Saudi – and that the client was eager to schedule a meeting in Albany to interview Mike before awarding him the contract.

I would go on to explain that before Mike committed to a meeting date with the client and then arranged for a flight to New York to attend the interview, he had asked that we make every effort to meet again and to continue our discussion to a conclusion if our proposal was of interest to him.

First, I verified that Khalid was in town and then I made the call. We sat tight by the phone for a week. there was no return call. Khalid had let us down. I had misread his character. In hindsight, we were very fortunate to have become aware of Khalid's character and business practice shortcomings before having gotten contractually involved with him on any projects.

Mike made his plans. He returned home to Albany. His firm succeeded in winning some contracts that enabled him to continue his construction business.

I had my day job to keep me busy. But, I had to find another activity to occupy my evening hours. I abandoned my quest to find a compatible Saudi construction-business partner but I needed to get into something – though certainly not a business venture. A business venture would require a native Saudi partner to function. I thought of possibly doing something creative. Something I could control – possibly a craft. I thought of getting back into designing and creating stained-glass artwork – but I did not have access to a supply of stained glass or to the other related material and equipment I would need in that creative process. I had to remind myself that I was in Saudi Arabia and not somewhere in the Western world.

The timeframe for this story was well before the internet had became a reality along with the personal computer.

On one of my drives through Riyadh, the capital of Saudi, I found a craft shop. The shop displays and inventory were far from what I had hoped to find – then, a eureka moment. I came upon a display of tools for sculpting clay. I looked and said to myself, “Why not … I can do that, I’ll try sculpting; I’ll begin by sculpting heads and move on from there.”

I purchased a set of shaping tools, an art book, and several blocks of clay. I could not wait to get to my room and have my warm hands give life, shape, and form to the lifeless, rectangular block of clay. For my subject I chose an image from the art book I had purchased.

My first attempt was the head of a mongrel native. This figure was one of several in a gathering of mongrels. I selected a subject I thought I could handle for my first try. This subject had a cleanly shaven face and head. However, he had a jaunty pony tail rooted at the back of his head. His mouth was open and his lips were curved and parted – which I imagined would be easier to replicate than if his mouth were closed. Shaping the clay to create a lifelike form for the head took me hours, but creating the ears, mouth and eyes were serious challenges.

I secured the completed sculpted head on a marble base. I set it by a window for natural light, and stepped back for a more critical review.

“Not bad,” I thought, “but you need a lot more work on the eyes, ears, and mouth.”

I went on to sculpt other heads from that same photo of gathered mongrels. Each was sculpted from a single block of clay. Then I decided to increase the level of my challenge. I decided to sculpt my father’s head from a photo I had. For his sculpture, I decided to use two blocks of clay. That sculpture took me a lot longer to complete and the life-likeness had only a ‘strained’ resemblance of my dear ol’ man.

I went on to complete a sculpture of my own head using three blocks of clay.

That was my last sculpture. It signaled that it was time to resign from my day job and to rejoin my wife and family in Athens. Then the question, how do I transport these unglazed, clay sculptures from Saudi Arabia to Athens without destroying them in the process? I came up with a solution.

I had saved two large coffee cans. I carefully arranged the heads in the cans in stages, added water and then froze it. I then added another head and repeated the process. I was able to freeze-pack all the pieces I valued. I wrapped the frozen blocks of ice in a large bath towel and placed both cans in my shoulder carry on bag. On more than one occasion I was stopped and advised by other friendly travelers at the Riyahd and Athens terminals that something was ‘leaking from my bag.’ I responded with a knowing smile and thanked them graciously. The flight to Athens went smoothly. I collected my luggage and as I began pushing my loaded cart to the customs control station, I began anticipating the typical inquiries from the customs inspector. How would I respond? I decided to remain low-keyed. Although the set-up was primed for some fun, it was not the time for wise-ass, funny answers. I did not want to embarrass or to provoke the inspector by saying something stupid.

On another earlier, similar occasion, I was arriving in Athens from Saudi to attend business meetings. That time I was carrying something even more provocative and bizarre in my carry-on shoulder bag. It was something I had found out in the desert while on the long drive from Jeddah to Yambu. Yambu was a small fishing village where the Saudis were planning to build a large 20 billion dollar port and industrial city. It was a long boring drive with nothing of interest to view along the way. There was absolutely no traffic on the highway – nothing except that every 25 or so miles, a total car wreck would appear in the island area along the divided highway. Cars were left there to rust away and then to disappear. After driving past all this barren nothingness, I noticed something irregular jutting above the sand about a stone's throw away from the shoulder of the road. I pulled over and walked to the object. It was the skeletal remains of a dead camel. “What a find,” I thought, “what a conversation piece. Look at the size of that skull!” I separated the skull from the neck, threw it into the trunk and continued driving to my appointments in Yambu.

Now picture me arriving with the camel skull in my carry-on walking up to the customs inspection station at the Athens airport. What a set up for fun. But there again I can imagine and enjoy the potential comic appeal of the scene though I'm not one to create a victim for the laugh – but there is fun in retelling the story.

When the time came to leave Athens to return to our home in Flushing, NY I came up with a different shipping solution. I packed the sculpted heads in a large crate along with our dinnerware. (I did not need to be as careful as when packing my camel.) Everything arrived safely. The sculptures and the skull are now proudly on display in my studio office at home on Long Island.

They are mementoes I have accumulated along my journey, my odyssey back to my Ithaka.

Epilogue

During the proofing of my story, I realized I had not included the epilogue to my Saudi experience.

About a month after Mike had departed, during which time I had not heard a word from our might-have-been partner, I received a panic call from Khalid.

He wanted Mike and I to come immediately to his office so that we could attend a meeting at the Ministry of Transportation together. I took a deep breath, and smilingly responded that Mike and I were now heavily engaged in other business activities and were not available. 

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