Sunday, December 28, 2008
Saturday, December 27, 2008
Friday, December 05, 2008
Wednesday, December 03, 2008
Friday, November 28, 2008
- I am thankful to have been born and educated in the United States. Every day I see people struggling as hard as they can to gain the opportunities that I took for granted. It's easy to look down on the universities that Saudis choose to attend, because they aren't as good as the ones that I and most of my colleagues attended. However, when you see how excited these students are to go to any small-town college, without caring if the school is in the top ten or twenty or fifty, it becomes a little less laughable, because any US school - and the life of a student in the US - is likely to be better than the options here.
- I am thankful that, by whatever accident of genetics and birth, that I am treated better and live better than most in this country. Poverty among Saudis, while not imaginary, is certainly nowhere near as prevalent as it is in Yemen. However, poverty among the millions of guest workers here is rampant, just as there is widespread abuse and discrimination against them. As an American, I am given more freedoms and less harassment than nearly anyone in this country (Saudis and non-Saudis alike), even though I'm female.
- I am thankful that I am employed, well compensated for my work, and have excellent insurance. So many of my friends did not find employment after college, and so many more people I know exist from paycheck to paycheck, hoping that aspirin will cure their ills. I am truly lucky to have the financial security this job grants me.
- I am thankful for the layers of security schemes, developed by professionals and enforced by legions of guards, that keep me safe. I often chafe at the restrictions placed upon us, but at the end of the day, I'd rather be bored than maimed or dead. As my friend in Sanaa knows too well, the threat is real.
- I am thankful for the many friends and family members back home who love me, who worry about me, who send me care packages and silly jokes, and who miss me. You're the anchor that has kept me sane for these past three months, which have been the most challenging of my life.
Tuesday, November 25, 2008
Sunday, November 23, 2008
I have a series of photos capturing the every-day oddities of Saudi Arabia. You see, in the West, we indicate women's bathrooms with a stick figure wearing a dress. Obviously, showing the stick figure's legs and arms would be completely verboten here, so hey, why not have a disembodied head with an apparently transparent facial veil tucked underneath the regular veil?
Thursday, November 20, 2008
Monday, November 10, 2008
- He was a member of the first Peace Corps class and got to meet every liberal politician in the developed world who wanted to attach their name to Kennedy's program. He was sent to what is now Eritrea, before it won its war of independence with Ethiopia. He saw the first shots fired in the war, which didn't conclude until the 1990s. He met Hailie Selassie a number of times, and he has some choice words for that man and Ethiopian strongmen in general, as well as the current president of Eritrea, who actively refused him a visa to go back and visit his old village.
- His first Foreign Service assignment was Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, back when our embassy was still there. He was part of the skeleton crew that did not get evacuated or burnt to a crisp when rioting broke out in Saudi Arabia during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
- His second tour was in Nigeria, in the middle of the Biafran War. He and his wife were the only people at his post at that time who did not eventually commit suicide or have to be locked up for long-term psychiatric care after witnessing the brutality of the conflict.
- Tom eventually realized that something just wasn't right, divorced his wife, and became one of the first openly gay person in the State Department, lobbying for fair treatment of gays in the Service. When that didn't work out so well, he left the Service and ran a therapy and social work center in San Francisco for twenty years before rejoining the Service later on.
- Tom now lives on the beach in his hometown in New Jersey, going overseas every few months to get a little extra spending money and otherwise being a loveable old bastard who enjoys tweaking the nose of the stodgy State Department.
Saturday, November 08, 2008
Wednesday, November 05, 2008
Like so many people back home whom I've seen on TV, I am ecstatic and emotional about Obama's victory in yesterday's election. This is the first time I can remember being apart from the electoral madness; even when I was in kindergarten, I went to vote with my mother and got to pull the lever on the voting machine. Voting is one of the few sacred things in my family, and the excitement of volunteering and going to the polls - from presidential elections down to random ballot initiatives for local elections - is the celebration of that sacrament.
Instead of standing in line and chatting excitedly with people I've never met, I spent Election Day printing visas until 10 PM for a large delegation leaving soon for Washington, then went home by myself and watched the Armed Forces Network, my only source of television news, which provides FOX for our evening news consumption. I got up at 5 AM to see (on an NBC feed by then, thankfully) that Pennsylvania had been called early for Obama. I ate breakfast and was getting ready for work, when at 7 AM while I was getting dressed I heard sustained cheers from the TV. I raced downstairs to see cameras panning Grant Park, Jesse Jackson weeping openly, and John Lewis struggling for words on camera. I am not ashamed to say that I too wept (although blubbered may be a more onomatopoeiacally accurate term). When I got to work today, in time to watch Obama's speech on CNN with my coworkers, we all teared up, and then we moved on to face our jobs with a spring in our step. (We actually conducted all interviews today while wearing jauntily tilted white plastic pork pie hats with red/blue trimming, left over from the election party the night before.)
This afternoon, we Americans gathered in the kitchen in the back of the section, barricaded the door, and brought out the illicit bottle of champagne to celebrate. We shared stories of non-Americans who had gone out of their way, whether in the street that morning, at the visa window, or over the phone at the end of business calls, to wish us congratulations and to express their hope that the Obama administration will be a fresh attempt at the American dream.
A lot will be said and written in the next few days analyzing Obama's impressive, historic victory. However, I wanted to get my immediate reaction out now, before I have time to become cynical. I want to be able to look back at this and remember what today was like. Today, I feel like I can breathe a little easier, take a little more pride in my work. I have little expectation that our policies in the Middle East will undergo some radical change, but right now, I don't feel that twinge of guilt that I have always had since I joined the State Department. I feel like I have a chance to redeem myself and what I believe in.
And finally, I'm torn between which former president is best to quote now - a president from Michigan ("our long national nightmare is over") or the other famous president from Illinois ("with malice towards none and goodwill towards all").
Thank you for letting me rant here for a moment. I don't tell you frequently, but I do very much appreciate all of you stopping by. I should be back to a more regular posting schedule soon - I'll throw you some photos shortly so you can see what my corner of Saudi Arabia looks like.
Monday, November 03, 2008
Once the locals started trickling in, a DJ got up and started playing music videos of popular Ethiopian music. People slowly started moving in their seats, and then a few brave people jumped onto the dance floor. The diplomats stayed in the back, being stuffy, while twos and threes moved onto the floor song by song. Eventually, the younger diplomats had had enough, and they took off for the dance floor with me and one other American in tow. So let's check the score card: me, a Mexican-American woman, and forty Ethiopians all shuffling in a circle to wonderful E-pop. I like to think that I was doing my part to build good will between nations, even if the other Americans thought we were crazy. (In my defense, the heads of both consulates got a big, friendly laugh out of it.) As we left at nearly 1 AM, the Ethiopians said that they'd love to have us back, but not too frequently, because they didn't want to be targeted for having Americans there regularly... a somewhat jarring end to a lovely evening.
I spent a good deal of the night talking to the head of the Ethiopian community in Jeddah, a local man elected in the biannual elections to be the community's spokesperson to the city government and the consulate. He was a fascinating man, talking about the plans to build houses near Addis Ababa for second- and third-generation Ethiopian-Americans to buy so that they could spend part of the year in their home country, which many had never visited. He also could not contain his enthusiasm for the Obama campaign, telling me excitedly that they were from the same ethnic group and how proud he was that his American citizen children could vote for him. He said something interesting, that it was every human's duty to defend and to protect America, because even if they disagree with its policies or never get to visit it, it's still the one place where humans could be freest and most successful. I have to say, while I don't necessarily agree with his logic, it was refreshing to hear something so positive about home after feeling like I have been the face of bureaucratic, unfeeling America to Saudis for two months.
The Ethiopian party was just getting started when we left at 1 AM, but Joe and I had further plans that night. He had been invited to a party near his home by a Saudi friend of his.
Obviously, we were dealing with the richest of the rich in Jeddah, the ones most westernized and ready to get out - nearly everyone had a perfect American accent from all of their time in the States in high school and college. Clearly, the religious police were either paid off to stay away or knew that they would get in trouble themselves if they attempted to disrupt these untouchables. But I can't really think of a better metaphor for Saudi Arabia than the sight of seeing these women wearing little more than postage stamps, hairspray, and stilettoes throwing on abayas and veils and hopping into their waiting cars to be driven home at 2 or 3 in the morning. Public morality here is a joke, especially in the cities. Society largely condones this - public piety and private insanity. It makes my complaints about growing up an atheist in rural Arkansas seem quaint and mild.
Friday, October 31, 2008
When I was doing research during A-100 on the places I might go, the case files for Jeddah and Riyadh all dealt heavily with the 2004 consulate attack in Jeddah. I don't remember it happening; it's a sad truth that we're so inured to bombings and violence around the world that we don't really pay attention to many of them, unless we have a personal stake or interest in them. In 2004, joining the Foreign Service was far from my mind - those of you who have followed my writing for years may remember my (thankfully) failed attempts to get a job at the NSA around that time - so it's probably not surprising that the attack didn't then catch my eye. However, my trip to Jeddah made the reality of the attack painfully clear.
I have links here and here, news reports about the attack. These articles are long on background information and short on details about the attack. Note that in the first link, the analyst focuses on the fact that no Americans died - "They didn't destroy the building or kill any Americans." So many news stories, including the coverage of the attack in Yemen last month, simply note that no Americans died while ignoring the fact that Americans make up a tiny percentage of any embassy community. Some of my closest friends and colleagues at the embassy are Somali, Sudanese, Lebanese, Sri Lankan, Syrian, and Jordanian - and that's just in my section. I give you this as the background for what was so moving about my visit to the consulate.
When I got there on Wednesday afternoon, I had an hour or so to kill while my friend Joe finished up his work for the week, so he introduced me to Ty, one of our security officers there, who gave me a tour of the compound. It's the old embassy from the 1950s, so it's somewhat rundown and located on an enormous lot - we had to tour on fourwheelers, because it would have taken an hour or more to walk it all. We ended our tour at the memorials to the five people killed in the 2004 attack, between the front gate and the main consulate building. The granite blocks are placed haphazardly on the lawn, where the victims fell. Ty told me that the attackers chased one of the embassy cars, carrying an American woman, towards the gates. One of the guards grabbed the American, tossed her into the safe haven right at the entrance, and ran the other way to distract the attackers. He was killed almost instantly. The other four victims, who just happened to be outside at the time, knew where she was hiding, and they were executed over a ninety-minute period because they refused to give up her location and her life. The Saudi government gave their families permanent legal status in the Kingdom for their sacrifices. The US government gave them plaques of commemoration.
My security every day depends on the hundreds of non-Americans working for us in the Kingdom. Many of them would be willing to give their lives for us, and some of them have or will do so. The next time a US installation is attacked somewhere - and I have no doubt that it will happen again - take a moment to think about the people who die in the most brutal ways with little hope of reward so that we Americans can be safe in places where we are hated.
Wednesday, October 22, 2008
I'm working on planning a regional trip in early December, when I have about 10 days off of work for Eid al-Adha. Socotra, my original plan, got shot down for some reason or another (security, blah blah blah). So where else should I go? Oman and Ethiopia are the current front-runners.
Friday, October 17, 2008
Now I knew that he was a wealthy guy, based on some conversations I've had with him at parties, but it didn't really click until I saw his family's compound. He has his own house inside it, just for him, built around a pool in a central courtyard whose area is easily twice the size of my parents' house in Arkansas. (Let me clarify my modifiers - the pool is more than twice as large as my parents' house.) The back terrace is adjacent to the edge of the wadi, and there are lights sunk into the craggy cliff face that throw light down on the terrace and almost obscure the view at night of the razor wire fence that marks the edge of the DQ. A handful of us, Americans and Saudis, sat around all night smoking hookahs,
We left his place and went back to a party in the DQ at about 2, but before we left, our host changed from his thobe into what he called his "Crusader clothing," or jeans and a t-shirt. As we were driving back into the DQ, he casually pointed at the estate across the road from his family's and said, "That's where one of the important government ministers lives." You know, like it's totally an everyday thing that one of the men who runs the country lives across the street from you.
Obviously, I was dealing with someone who is very much in the extreme minority of Saudis. This would be approximately equivalent to me hanging out on Nantucket with the Kennedys for an evening. Wealthy Saudis are known for just how ostentatious they can be, and this house, even though it's owned by someone I consider a friend who just acts like a regular guy in normal interactions, just proves the point. There's no need for him to comment on his wealth. The stable of Lexuses (Lexii?) in front of his massive house with marble and carved wood everywhere says all that need be said. It's quite surreal.
In one respect, however, my friend is on the same level as everyone else in the country, including diplomats: he can't get tonic water. Evidently the entire country is out of it. Our bartender at the embassy went to every grocery chain in town and called other cities, and no one has it. People are sending drivers to Bahrain (about 4-6 hours away, depending on how fast you drive and how crowded the border crossing is) to bring some back to Riyadh. Even the royals are out of it. The Brits are going nuts without their gin & tonics. It's something of an equalizer for us all, perhaps the only one that's to be found here.
Saturday, October 11, 2008
- I went grocery shopping with a friend on Wednesday night, and we spent about an hour wandering around Carrefour marveling at the various products that you just can't find in the states. For example, Olga walked over to a table of ice and picked up a whole, freshly killed baby shark by the fins. The nice guys at the fish department then cleaned it for her and handed her the meat. Total cost? About $3 a pound.
- Grocery stores here sell bottled spices and other goods, but they also have counters with buckets of spices, sweets, olives, nuts, and beans available for your choice of quantity. It's like a deli, but for deliciousness.
- I can tell that I've been here long enough to be mostly acclimated. As Olga and I were pushing our cart around, I nudged her and said, "Ooh, look at her abaya! I really like that one!" We then started laughing, because among all abayas, there is perhaps a 5% variance in appearance, found only in the hemming at the wrists, neck, and heels.
- It is hard to find your friends in public places when all of the women are wearing solid black.
- ...which leads to an important question: when out in public, do you coordinate your shoes and purse with your clothing underneath the abaya or with the black abaya itself?
- The most incongruous thing ever: seeing a Saudi man wearing a plaid shirt and a cowboy hat painting the faces of small children in a mall. (Painting their faces poorly, I might add.)
- We're off of complete lockdown now, although there are still severe restrictions on where we can go and how long we can spend there. To celebrate, I'm going out for lunch with friends in half an hour or so.
- Last week I had to explain to one of our local hires who Columbus was and why we have a holiday for him. Given how ubiquitous the story of Columbus is in elementary-school classrooms, it was somewhat of a shock to find someone to whom he wasn't all that important in local history.
And finally, I may go to Yemen in December for a few weeks to cover a staffing shortage there. I am actually excited to go there, despite everything that's happened in the last month. If I had my choice of all Arab countries to be assigned to in A-100, Yemen and Syria would have been at the top of the list. But here I am, so I'll take what I can get.
Friday, October 03, 2008
One of the tabs on the program's window allows you to search for local addresses and phone numbers, and the system has auto-detected that I am in Saudi Arabia. The program helpfully provides the most popular keywords for the country, which I have translated below. (Repeat keywords have the same meaning in English but are synonyms in Arabic.)
Restaurant. Getting to know someone. Love. Love. Girls. Sex. Saudi [in English]. Friendship. Girl. I love. Company. Riyadh. I. Love [in English]. Sex. My father. Friendship only. Getting to know someone. Getting to know someone.
As a friend of mine would say, there's jahiliyya in them thar links.
Thursday, October 02, 2008
"Hi, my name is hannah draper, and I'm a resident of West Memphis who currently resides in Saudi Arabia. I have sent you multiple copies of my absentee ballot request. Can you confirm that you've received it?"
"Oh, honey, if you saw how big our stack of requests is, you'd know it'd take me all day to find yours."
"Um... this is kind of important. Can't you tell me if I'm going to get to vote?"
"We just got ballots in today and we're going to mail them next week."
"Yeah, but if you didn't get my request, it'd be too late for me to get a ballot if I have to wait until I don't get one. The APO mail system is kind of slow."
*heavy sigh* "Are you in the military?"
"No, I'm a diplomat. I'm a civilian, but I have an APO address."
*long pause* "Is your husband in the military?"
*tries to control blood pressure* "No, I'm not married. I'm a civilian - I work for the Department of State. I'm in the embassy here."
"Didn't I talk to you last week?"
"Yes, yes you did. I asked you to email me or to call my family in West Memphis when you received my absentee ballot request."
"Oh, looky here, we mailed you your ballot on Monday!"
"...but you just told me that you only got ballots in today."
"Right, but we had some already, we just got more today. Your ballot was mailed on Monday."
I just have to hope for the best, right? It's not like my vote will flip any of the federal or state-wide races in Arkansas; my district hasn't voted for a Republican congressman since Reconstruction, and no one seriously contests that McCain will win our electoral votes. Still, there's the downticket stuff that I do care about, and courtesy of good indoctrination as a child, I think I'd rather cut off my own arm than neglect voting.
By the way, if you're not following fivethirtyeight.com, you should be. One of the best polling information shops around. 538 and TPM are my guidebooks this season!
Monday, September 29, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Sunday, September 21, 2008
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
Sunday, September 14, 2008
I think I'm at the point where things have just dipped below the dashed line. A lot of things have piled up on me in the past few days, and they're starting to wear on my mind. Here's a few things I worry about/stress at the moment.
- Women and the way they're treated here. During interviews of married couples, I have to speak to the wife as part of the interview. Not always, but often she will be very shy and will turn to her husband to ask him to repeat every word I said - even if I said it all in perfectly comprehensible Arabic. Less frequently, she will just stare at the ground and refuse to answer while her husband leans over to shout her answers to me. I'm having to fight a habit I already see developing in me - the tendency to direct all questions to the husband in English, even though the wife doesn't speak the language. The worst is seeing the husbands who are in their early thirties and the wives who are barely 19 or 20. The absolute worst is seeing those wives look so listless and resigned. (To be clear: it's not every couple that's like this; indeed, it's nowhere near a majority. Still, one or two a day of these interviews gets you down quickly.)
- The gravity of my job is finally sinking in. I have laid awake in bed for the past five nights, either having trouble falling asleep or waking up in a nightmare, thinking that a visa I issued will turn out to be the key to the next terrorist attack. I have dreamed about specific cases, held the transcripts and passports and paperwork in my hands in my dream. Don't get me wrong, my job is fascinating. I'm finally doing something that matters, and I'm so glad that I have this opportunity. It's just that I now fully realize that lives literally may depend on the decisions I make every morning.
- The class hierarchy is starting to wear on my nerves more and more. It's hard to maintain contact with what I consider normal society. (Not that any of my friends qualify as normal, but that's a different issue.) Life in the DQ is screwy, but Riyadh itself is even worse. I can see why they give us two R&Rs at this post.
- I did my first representational event last night (more on that later, it deserves its own post), and it was underwhelming, to say the least. I assumed that "business attire or traditional dress" meant that my suit was acceptable... yeah. I was one of two people in suits, whereas the roughly 70 Saudi women (and all but one of the American contingent) were in gorgeous, expensive, showy robe-dress-caftan thingies. (I'm going to kill the person who introduced me to the crowd and said that I work in the consular section.)
Also, I came home from a crappy day at work to find a note that Fathima (see last week's post) left me when she was here today, telling me that she prays for me every night. It's a nice feeling.
Friday, September 12, 2008
I love my job.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
- You don't really have to deal with the daytime heat in Riyadh if you normally leave your house between 6.45 - 7.10 AM and don't leave the embassy until 7 - 8 PM.
- I love walking to work in the mornings - it's very quiet, with usually only one or two street cleaners or garbage men around; the sun's already been up for an hour or two, so it's very bright; and the sky is a gorgeous shade of pale blue. It's my moment of Zen every day.
- Yesterday as I was leaving work early (at 6.45!!), I saw the Saudi Arabian National Guard forces stationed outside the embassy gates breaking their fast. Their armored vehicle, with loaded gun racks on top and sandbags surrounding it, was sitting empty while they sat on a cloth on the ground beside the truck. Someone had brought them tea, served traditionally (something like this), dates, olives, cheese, and other munchables.
- When I meet people on the street, it is very hard for me to break the habit of making eye contact and smiling. If you do that, it tends to lead to strange looks and increased harassment from men. It's depressing... I feel like such a Yankee.
- There are cats everywhere here. They just roam around on the streets. It's enough to break the heart of any dyed-in-the-wool hippy animal lover (not that I paint myself with this brush, of course). This is pretty common around these parts of the Middle East, at least in my experience. Part of the problem specifically in the DQ is that sometimes diplomats returning to Commonwealth countries will leave their cats here rather than send them to six months' quarantine upon reentry to the UK or wherever. This explains the rather unusual breeding stock here in the DQ; there seem to be a lot more cats that look like they have some traceable ancestry as opposed to mutt and sneaky neighbor cat. This leads to the development at every mission of cat ladies, who try to rescue every single cat. It's a pain in the ass for the people who have to deal with maintaining the housing stock.
Saturday, September 06, 2008
Friday, September 05, 2008
"Prayers start at 3.21, so you won't be able to go then. What about another time?" [All businesses must close for prayer times. I couldn't get in and out in time to avoid the shutdown.]
"Okay, how about 4?"
"I tell you what, call back after 3. The shift changes then, and the new dispatcher can tell you what time is best."
Monday, September 01, 2008
Evidently they're not used to seeing that. Who knew?
- Saudi law mandates that all workers have six-hour work days during Ramadan. This clearly does not apply to us, as we have to pick up the excess work that our local staff can't do. I am an expert now at placing visas into passports. By the end of the week I suspect that I will be stellar at data entry, and I'll be on the visa line by next week, still doing data entry around interviews.
- I obviously don't have to fast, but I have to be covert when I eat lunch so as not to offend or to frustrate the observant Muslims in the office.
- I still haven't heard the muezzin's call to prayer yet, but I did see three men praying in the middle of the motor pool's garage tonight as I was leaving. There is something I find so quietly amusing about this.
- I'm going grocery shopping in about two hours, and I don't know whether to expect utter chaos at the store or complete emptiness. We shall see.
Sunday, August 31, 2008
What to say... my house is huge - three bedrooms, two sitting room type things, an office space (which strangely enough does not have the house's sole internet access point), and God knows what else that I haven't found. I know a lot of people here already, which is very nice, but the others I've met seem to be hardworking, cynical, and sarcastic, with a penchant for off-color jokes. Feels like a good match.
Today I was at the embassy from 8 to 8. That's somewhat disingenuous, as there was a catered lunch (three new people arrived to the consular section this weekend, two leave this week) plus several hours of running around the embassy, meeting people and filling out paperwork. I'll be eased into the regular work schedule there over the next few weeks.
That's all I have for now. The internet's pretty slow here, and I'm too tired to worry about setting up the proxy server and the like (gotta access Pandora and AIM somehow). I hope to have Skype up and running in a few days. Ciao folks!
Saturday, August 30, 2008
Catch you on the flip side!
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I'll see you from New York!
Tuesday, August 19, 2008
- I am addicted to Burt's Bees - I have found at least eight stubs of BB lip gloss today alone. This is after I bought four or five to get me through my first few months in Riyadh.
- I have enough sheet and towel sets to furnish a medium-sized B&B.
- In addition to the bedrooms at this B&B, I have enough knives and kitchen utensils to outfit its kitchen. You may draw your own conclusions as to why I have about 15 brand-new, very sharp knives in my possession.
- At some point in my life, I raided the Rendezvous' stash of moist towelettes and placed the entire haul into the inner pocket of every purse I own - in the event that I have a BBQ emergency, evidently.
- I have pairs of jeans in every size from 4 to 12, only about half of which fit me at any given time...
- ...yet I can still wear my Dolphinstock shirt from ASMS 2003.
- My color palette in my professional wardrobe has recently branched out. I formerly owned suits that were entirely or almost completely black; I have recently added dark gray and dark brown. I don't want to go too crazy here.
- I have never moved to any place where I couldn't use my car to get there, and so I could always just leave shirts on hangers for the drive. Folding nearly every shirt I own, knowing that when I see them again in two months they will be wrinkled nearly beyond repair? Not cool.