Sunday, December 28, 2008

Never Returning Home

It's too long and complicated a story to cover in depth, but you can get an overview of Eritrea's war for independence from Ethiopia here (as well as the ongoing border dispute).  Saudi Arabia has the largest population of expatriate Eritreans in the world (around 50,000), and there are a lot of Eritreans working at the embassy, almost all of whom grew up in what was then Ethiopia.  Word evidently got around about my trip to Ethiopia, and I had all of these older men whom I had never met come up to me and ask me about Addis.  They all had this sad, wonderful expression on their face, as they asked me about their favorite restaurants or neighborhoods or sights in a city to which they have no hope of ever returning.  All of them seemed so excited to hear me talk about how much I enjoyed my time in the city, and these older men, many of whom work menial jobs and never really talk to the Americans that much, bubbled with excitement that I would willingly visit the city they love and would be happy about it.  It was one of the saddest things I think I've ever seen.  

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Why Ethiopia Should Be Your Next Tourist Destination

Well, I've been lax on the updating front of late - sorry!  Ever since I got back from Ethiopia, work has been a bigger nightmare than normal, so I haven't had the energy or the inclination to be creative.  So let's catch you up through the end of my vacation in early December, shall we?

I left you as I was sitting at a cafe in Jerusalem.  I found out later that night that, consistent with my Middle East travel patterns, something screwy happened when I got to Jerusalem.  When I was there in 2006, Saddam Hussein was executed in the middle of my trip.  This time, right as our minibus was climbing out of the Jordan river valley, the IDF evicted some of the more toxic West Bank settlers from a building they'd claimed in Hebron.  I managed to dodge all of the fallout from this, happily, since I didn't spend much time in the Old City, where there were demonstrations but nothing too bothersome.

The last time I went to Jerusalem, the trip solely revolved around the city's historical and cultural fabric - we paid the barest of lip service to everyday life there, and we spent every waking hour seeing any site with any historical significance (in a city continuously settled for over three thousand years) - so we didn't have much time for creature comforts in Jerusalem.  This time, I did nothing historical, nothing touristy, nothing that required a tour guide or a translator.  It was my first time out of the Kingdom since I got here in August, and I honestly can say that in the intervening three months I had forgotten what it was like to hang out for fun in a bar with friends.  For those of you who've been worried about my sanity, Jerusalem was a good tonic for me.  It was good to see my friend Cyndee, whom I hadn't seen since we left DC in August, as well as meet other people posted to the consulate in Jerusalem.  Since everyone in my bureau (Near Eastern Affairs) just bounces from one neighboring country to another, I ended up meeting a lot of people who have mutual friends with me.  In short?  I had fun.  I hadn't had that in months.

Ethiopia was a different sort of fun.  It was the first time I had spent a few days in a country that is clearly in the third world; poverty is very apparent there, especially in Addis Ababa, where we spent most of our time.  Begging, shanty towns, and a near-complete lack of infrastructure plague the city.  With that being said, the people are phenomenally kind, the city is quite safe, and the ever-present cafe culture blends the best that Ethiopia has to offer: coffee, music, food, and friendliness.  If you're looking for a cheap and unusual vacation, I can't recommend Ethiopia enough.

I and a friend of mine from Embassy Sanaa spent five days in Ethiopia, with two days spent outside of Addis and the rest of the time roaming the city.  We went to Wenchi Crater, a lake in the cone of a dormant volcano.  For about fifteen dollars each, we got a horseback ride down from the edge to the lake surface, a boat ride to the monastery on an island in the middle of the lake, and a guided hike/horseback schlep back up to the top of the volcano by way of a small rift valley filled with green pastures, small springfed watermills, and hot water springs and mud vents.  File this one under things you can't do in the States!  

And now for the obligatory photos.  Again, there's some overlap with Facebook, but I'll try to go a bit more in-depth here.  Most of the photos from our days out in Addis are with my friend David now, because my camera was dead for part of the trip, but I think the more interesting stuff is from our trip outside the city anyway.

My friend Cyndee, from US Consulate Jerusalem.  We are standing in an honest-to-God bar.   Just before this I had pork for dinner while sitting between two men.  Amazing!  

Addis from above.  If it doesn't look very distinct, well...  it was a hazy day from the car pollution, and the city really isn't all that developed.  Some of the women who live on the edge of town hike all the way up this mountain every morning, cut down a hundred pounds of firewood or more, and then hike down to those far-off buildings with the bundle strapped to their back.  They then do it again in the afternoon.

Wenchi Crater lake, from the very top of the crater.  It's a long way down, folks... luckily, we had horses to ride for the worst parts of the trek down to the lake and back up again.  Unluckily, the horses were tiny, the saddles were jerry-rigged, and stirrups were a suggestion - suffice it to say that we were walking in pain the next day.  

The intrepid explorer on the lake, also known as David, my friend from months of Arabic training in DC.  

The edge of the crater and the lake.  The people who live in the village on the lakeshore grow bananas, coffee, and wheat on the slopes of the crater.  I can't help but wonder how frequently they lose their footing and roll down into the lake.

This church is on an island in the middle of the lake.  The Ethiopian Orthodox Church has to be one of my favorite Christian sects, if only because their churches are so much more colorful than everyone else's.  I mean, a church on an island in the middle of a lake in a dead volcano?  Why wouldn't we paint it the same colors as the Ethiopian flag?  Rock on, Ethiopian Orthodoxy.  Rock on.

There are tilapia in this lake.  No one seems to know how they got there, but one would assume they were brought in, right?  I mean, tilapia don't just emerge from lava, do they?

One of the small fields beside the lake.  My inner farmer wonders how much better the crops grow in the soils on top of a dead volcano.

This little valley started with just one tiny spring...

...but it started to open up as we rode on.

Eventually the valley got pretty wide, but as we progressed, we noticed that the landscape was acquiring a distinct resemblance to the set of The Lord of the Rings.  No hobbits were harmed in the process of capturing these photos.

Our noble steeds, or as we call them in Arkansas, "nags."

The landscape became closeer to a moonscape as we progressed.  I'm shooting down into the mud vents in the valley from its eastern wall now, which I climbed up to see a sulfourous waterfall/spring up close.

A sign at our hotel near the lake.  Regretably, we saw no monkeys.  (Seriously, I was heartbroken.  What the hell, Africa?)

Moonrise in Addis, the view from our hotel balcony.  Amusingly, that's a Baha'i center across the street from us.  Praise globalism!

That's it for my early December trip.  Later this week I'll write up Christmas in Bahrain, a 48-hour extravaganza of drunken British expatriates, culinary gluttony, and the worst cover bands I've ever heard.  Cheers!

Friday, December 05, 2008

Riyadh to Jerusalem - a Travelogue

This was written yesterday while I was on the road.  I didn't get a chance to post it until today, though, due to my laptop's battery crashing.  Enjoy!  I have all sorts of fun things to talk about in Jerusalem, and I've not even been here 24 hours yet.  I'll be back with you soon with more updates.

I'm not sure when I'll find a wireless network in order to post this, but I might as well keep a log of my travel adventures today.  I'm flying from Riyadh to Amman, Jordan, and from there I have a few options for how I will get to Jerusalem.  I have a feeling that at least one will not work, so today will require flexibility, creativity, and a good sense of humor.  More sleep last night would have helped, as well.  

It's 8.30 AM on the first day of Eid, and I'm sitting at my gate in the international terminal at the Riyadh airport.  I have an hour and a half left until my flight leaves, but I'm glad I got here when I did - the place is packed, as the entire city empties out over the nine-day holiday.  When I got here at 7.45, there was a line about 200 meters long on the sidewalk outside, waiting to get through the doors.  I panicked, but I then realized that every single person in it had a cart with boxed-up luggage, and they all appeared to be South Asian of one flavor or another.  Thank God I'm not flying Pakistan International Airlines today!  I managed to hop in front of them, get my boarding pass, and breeze through security and passport control in record time.  Right now I'm surrounded by older African men, probably headed home to Sudan or Somalia - there's a flight before mine from this gate, but I'm not sure of its destination.  At the next gate over is the 9.15 flight to Beirut.  It's quite a contrast - you can always pick out Beirutis wherever you travel in the Middle East, because their clothing is more fabulous, their hair is more perfect, and their attitude is more cosmopolitan than everyone around them (and they are very conscious of this fact).  I got a bit of a shock at first to see so many women not wearing abayas.  I'm not sure what the protocol is on when you can drop the abaya as you're leaving the Kingdom.  Is it at the flight gate?  Once you've taken off?  Once you cross into another country's air space?  I think I'll wait and watch the Jordanian women on my flight - following the Beirutis' lead in the airport would probably get me into trouble.  

I will say that this is the first time I've gone out in Riyadh on personal travel without a veil over my hair; I just didn't want to deal with it today.  I guess in an airport it's more acceptable than if I were wandering around a mall downtown (although even there most American women won't cover their hair).  I can't wait to wander around Jerusalem and Addis in just jeans and a sweatshirt, without the obnoxious layers of black cloth enveloping me.  It's hard to believe I've been here for three months...  If Jerusalem ends up being a shock to me, I can only imagine how strange things will look in the States when I go back in April.

Okay, a cute little girl, maybe two years old, just came over and tried to type on my laptop.  I'm not sure where her parents are and why she's running around by herself, but she says hello to you all from Riyadh!

5.45 PM, Ben Yahuda street, Jerusalem

I made it from my front door to this shawarma stand in ten hours - this must be something of a record!  (To be fair, I'm not sure how much competition there is on the Riyadh-Jerusalem route.)  I manage to take the easiest route here - hiring a car to take me to the border crossing nearest Amman, which empties into the West Bank, 45 minutes away from Jerusalem.  The potential wrinkle was that the border closes at 2.30 PM - if my flight were delayed, if I had trouble finding a car, or if there were traffic problems, then I would have gone to the northern border crossing, two and a half hours away, or gone back to the airport to wait for the 9 PM flight to Tel Aviv.  Luckily, everything worked out okay.  Travel in the Middle East is never easy, and getting from anywhere into Israel is even harder.  At this particular crossing, travellers are dropped off at the Jordanian exit control, get their passports stamped, and then file onto a bus that will ferry them across the border.  However, travellers have to wait until the bus fills up, because why make the trip with half a load?  My bus was fillled with European backpackers, the ubiquitous Japanese tourist group, and Palestinians who go back and forth every day to work or to visit family.  When our creaking bus finally filled, we set off across the four-kilometer no man's land and finally reached checkpoints where the warning signs were in Hebrew first, not Arabic.  (An aside: we did technically cross the Jordan River in this process, although I would call it more of the Jordan Drainage Ditch, or the Jordan Stagnant Puddle.  The Japanese tourists were heartbroken when they realized how unimpressive it is.)  

Once you go through the numerous Israeli checkpoints, security screenings, and interrogations, you collect your bags and arrange for transportation to wherever you want to go.  I caught a minibus to Jerusalem, and it dropped me off just outside the Old City an hour later.  Of course, we had to go through one more checkpoint when we left the West Bank and headed into Jerusalem proper; I was the only person on the bus who wasn't pulled out to be patted down or interrogated.  (Sometimes, an American passport is a really, really useful thing.)  The Palestinians evidently all thought I was a Jordanian, and they couldn't figure out why I wasn't searched too.  At least they laughed about it, once I explained.  The short drive was pretty uneventful, and the other passengers were very quiet during the trip.  I guess they're used to seeing the "DANGER: MINES" signs in the Jordan River valley, relics that predate the 1994 peace treaty with Jordan, and to driving underneath Ma'ale Adumim, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank, perched atop the hills east of Jerusalem.

So, here I sit at the big pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, waiting for my friend to get off work.  I'll write in a few days, probably while I'm waiting on my plane to Addis Ababa.  Cheers!

I forgot - the appropriate time to unveil and de-abaya when leaving the Kingdom is the moment you set foot on the plane.  I got a physical shock when I looked around right before takeoff and saw only three veiled women on the entire flight.  

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


I was chastised yesterday by a friend for not posting enough photos, so here are two photo essays for you to enjoy.  Neither contains photos I actually took, but they present two interesting aspects of Saudi Arabia, its massive building boom and its attempts to reign in extremism.  

I'm leaving tomorrow morning for vacation.  Happy Eid to you all!

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thanksgiving Overseas

Those of you who've known me for a while will know that Thanksgiving is my least favorite holiday in the year, placing behind the annual All-Nation Orphan Scrimmage and even Kick Puppies for Jesus Day in my calendar.  It's a sign of how divorced I am from daily life in the States that I hadn't really realized that Thanksgiving was upon us until I got slammed on the same day with four invitations to Thanksgiving dinner at my coworkers' homes.  I managed to make two of the gatherings, and for once I had a good Thanksgiving, perhaps because I wasn't surrounded by the horrors of Black Friday advertising and squabbling family members - or maybe it's that some aspects of American culture look better from afar.  We just did our best with what American foods we could find, faked the rest, and peacefully dispersed after six hours of food and board games.  Next year I'll be back in DC for the winter holidays, but let me go ahead and extend my invitation to you all to eat turkey with me in Turkey for Thanksgiving 2010.

In this spirit of goodwill, I'm inclined to list a few things for which I'm thankful.  However, I'm cribbing the idea from a friend of mine serving in Embassy Sanaa, Yemen.  He and I left DC on the same day in August, and his embassy was attacked at the end of his second week at post.  Here are some of his points.
  • I'm thankful to be reminded of the value of a dollar, in a country where more than half the population lives off $2/day.
  • I'm thankful to be serving my country in a difficult part of the world and to have the job I have worked so hard to get. 
  • I'm thankful for the Yemenis who risk their lives everyday to protect us, and especially to the one that gave his in the defense of our embassy. 
In that spirit, here are mine.
  • 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

The Things We Carry

An FS friend of mine wrote a post a few months back about the attachment to things - the stuff that you set aside to be shipped to your new home in some foreign country at great expense to everyone involved.  She was stressing about how much of her stuff she wished she'd disposed of, or sent to storage, or would never unpack.  Her post was far more intelligent meditation on the ultimate irrelevance of stuff are than I could hope to write.

However, I'd like to defend the opposite position for a moment (because I enjoy being contrary).  While I don't consider myself to be materialistic, there are some things that I don't like to do without.  It's not stuff like a television, or the right clothes, or even my car (being carless is more of an inconvenience than an actual heartbreak).  It's the things that I have dragged around with me everywhere that keep me anchored and remind me of happy times and people I love.  The small marble Taj Mahal model a friend brought me from India in 2002.  A magic totem a surrogate aunt made for me in the 1990s.  A pebble I picked up out of a stream in the Catskills.  One earring, to remind me of the other earring I lost on my last night in the United States.  The sixty-plus photos that cover my fridge.  None of these have any monetary value, nor did they take up much space in my shipment of household goods.  I can feel bad about all of the clothing and linens and such that I sent here but may never unpack.  Clothing can and will be discarded eventually, and boxes will be lost inevitably in some move or another.  However, I won't feel guilty about the little things that I will drag all over the world with me.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

I've been promising photos, so here we go.  Many of these you may have already seen some of these photos on Facebook - sorry for the repeats.

Everyone has one of these obligatory photos.  This is what I look like when I go outside the DQ.  It's supposedly tradition to get a photo of oneself wearing an abaya and nothing else while standing in front of the religious police headquarters in Riyadh...  all I will say is that I have on jeans and a t-shirt as well in this photo!

The previously mentioned statue-climbing incident in Jeddah - that is, in fact, a flying carpet with a car and a thick layer of dust on top of it.  Let the jury note that I had heels on for this.

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?

Laziness in advertising - H&M in Jeddah was clearly too uncreative to design its own in-store advertising campaign.  Why bother, when it's much easier just to take the American/European images and pixellate out most of the objectionable parts?  Hair, inexplicably, is not a problem here.  I've also seen a Rolex ad in Riyadh with a European guy's arm ghosted out, but I was in a moving car and couldn't photograph the expensive watch floating in a myopic field of peach-colored flesh.

A nice peaceful seaside resort, with the skyscrapers of Jeddah in the background.  Blast walls around the compound, armed guards at all entrances, and minarets blasting the call to prayer not included.

The old city of Jeddah.  The oldest part is quite small, and not well preserved, but what's there is pretty, in a run-down sort of way.

The post-election party!  Those are totally the hats we interviewed in all day long.  That's me, Jessica, and Olga, my closest friends at the embassy - I've written about them before.

That's all I have for now.  We have to be sneaky in all of the photos we take here, because I think photography is actually forbidden here.  I'm not making this up.  

It's All About Perspective

Weather for the past month has been fabulous - light rain every so often, followed by five to ten days of perfectly blue skies with mid-70s afternoons and pleasantly brisk evenings.  Seriously, this is my favorite kind of weather, the mythical fall days we see perhaps once or twice a year at home. 

However, the people who've lived her longer than I have seem to view "winter" differently.  It started when one of my coworkers started wearing his coat at his desk.  Then we noticed Saudis rolling in to interviews with leather bomber jackets over their thobes.  Today, I saw one of our local guards wearing a beanie and a fleece sweater over his uniform.  It was 67 degrees at 6.45 AM.

I read these signs as being uniformly discouraging for what I should expect this summer.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Travel Plans

One thing I forgot - my travel plans for December and January are finally locked in.  I'm taking souvenir requests and siteseeing suggestions now.

During Eid in December, I'll have an entire week off from work.  During this trip, I'll be visiting FS friends in Jerusalem and Addis Ababa, with an insane itinerary that has me flying to Amman, driving to Jerusalem, and catching a cab to Tel Aviv on my tourist passport, and then flying to Ethiopia and back to Riyadh on my diplomatic passport.  (State issues extra tourist passports to people who have a need to travel to Israel and various Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, that would flip out at seeing an Israeli passport stamp.  My passport count is up to three so far; I just need to marry someone in the military so I can get an official one to complete the collection.)

In January for my first R&R, I will be going to Shanghai to see a number of people I know in the city, as well as meeting up with my college roommate Leslie.  After a few days there, I'll go to Taipei to see more friends, and then meet up with Leslie again in Japan, where she lives, for about ten days.  I'll be spending my birthday, inauguration day, with her in Obama, Japan.  I'll return to the Kingdom a few days after that.

Be jealous.  =D

I'm Kind of Famous in These Parts

In the consular section, we're assigned portfolios - special topics in which we develop new procedures, in-depth knowledge, or specialization on a particular visa category.  For example, one of my coworkers specializes in the issue of child brides, women who may or may not be legal to enter the US on a particular visa type due to the age at which they got married, another person handles immigrant visas, and still another person takes our "bad guys" portfolio, which is running down information and paperwork on visa applicants suspected of unsavory activities.  I cover two portfolios, visas for our bilateral military relationship with the Saudis (an interesting and complicated issue, which I'll cover later on), and I am transitioning into covering student visas.  Now, I don't handle all student visa interviews - there's just too many of them for one person to do.  However, I will be doing a lot of work meeting with the Ministry of Higher Education and working with our education office in the embassy doing outreach to students looking to go to the US.

Background information: of the half-million or so foreign students studying in the United States, Saudi Arabia has the ninth-largest contingent.  I don't have exact numbers on how many they are, but given that the usual suspects like India, Taiwan, China, and South Korea are perennially at the top of the list, the fact that Saudi is even in the top ten is significant.  (Let's not quibble about Taiwan as a country, shall we?)  The king created a scholarship program four years ago to send more Saudis to the US to study, which has increased the number significantly to our own great benefit - the scholarship's recipients and family members contribute about a half-billion dollars to the US economy annually, and the king just announced that the monthly allowance given to these students in the US is going up by 50%.  In short, this is a big deal at the embasssy, and since Saudis are always afraid of the visa process and how long it takes, we get dragged into the news a lot as well.

This led to me going to a interview last Saturday, broadcast live on the Saudi national radio network and rebroadcast a few times over the week.  I and two public affairs people from the embassy fielded questions from our host and students inside the kingdom and already present in the US.  Most of the questions were about the visa process, especially how long it takes and how it can be made easier.  The interview was in English, and it was publicized pretty heavily in the Saudi English-language media before and after the program.  The host told us that it was the first time someone from the consular section showed up to answer live questions, and we're looking at doing future interviews in Arabic for the radio station.  Interestingly, the host is a Wash U graduate, the first I've met in Saudi Arabia so far.  He told me that there are a number of Wash U grads (mostly from the graduate school of social work, like him) teaching at the main university in Riyadh, so maybe I can get in touch with them somehow and work that networking thing that the Career Center was always telling us to do.  

It's nice to get out of the office and away from the paperwork and personnel stress there to interact with real people.  I'm hoping I can continue to do these presentations for the next year, so I can remind myself that there is a world outside the visa line, and that every interaction doesn't have to be an adversarial interview.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Meeting a Minor Legend

In my section, we're snowed under with work - I'm normally doing 60 to 70 hours a week, and I'm barely staying ahead of my commitments.  We periodically will get temporary help from DC for three weeks to a month, flown in just to alleviate some of the pressure or to allow us to get caught up on some project.  These temporary staffers are usually retired foreign service officers, who work three to four months a year in short-staffed posts and make a tidy sum doing so.  Sometimes we get crotchety old fogeys, and sometimes we get true gems.  The best ones regale us with stories about life in the Foreign Service back in the day, whatever decade that might have been.

In October, we had this wonderful person, Tom, come out to help us with our workload.  Tom is a matter-of-fact, no-bullshit sort of guy, and this simple delivery makes his stories all the more astounding.  Some bullet points about his life...
  • 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.  
You might have picked up on the fact that I am crazy about Tom.  He seriously brightened up my life the month he was here - calling BS on silly management policies because he could get away with it, sitting by the pool with a beer and telling stories about where he's lived and what he's seen, and complaining about the Bush Administration.  I and my friend Olga will move back to Washington at about the same time next summer, and we're planning to take road trip up to spend a weekend with him, picnicking on the beach, drinking wine, and cursing the government.

Saturday, November 08, 2008

Wherein hannah Imitates Moses and Offends Everyone (Not Concurrently)

Final Jeddah weekend story.  Joe and I went snorkling on Friday morning, before I caught my evening flight back to Riyadh.  Jeddah's coral reefs are legendary, and were this a normal country, the city's beaches would be filled with Western tourists.  However, we're in Saudi Arabia, so we had to drive north of the city for half an hour to a seaside compound owned by the Sheraton to get our snorkle on.  This compound is heavily if inobtrusively guarded, with a huge placard that says PRIVATE RESIDENCE in Arabic only out front and no sign of the Sheraton logo.  No Saudis are allowed inside; we had to prove that we were from the US embassy (and not just random Americans) to get inside.

Once inside, it was another enclave of Westerners trying to forget where they were.  Bruce Springsteen and Kylie Minogue were playing on the pirated radio station in the cafe; people were inconspicuously pouring clear or brown liquids from unmarked bottles into their nonalcoholic cafe beverages that just happened to have names suspiciously like famous drinks in the US.  Kids ran around playing; women wore bikinis and German men wore Speedos.  My first time snorkling wasn't too much of a disaster; I even enjoyed myself and would like to try it again in Saudi and elsewhere.  I hear that Jeddah's most amazing reefs were destroyed in the 1960s, when some genius decided to build a fake island with the world's largest fountain on top of them, right by downtown.  Nonetheless, it was still a good showing.  It's so easy to forget for a few moments that you're in Saudi Arabia...  and then you have to go back into the real world.  Of course, I saw this article immediately upon returning home.  Whoops.

I flew Saudia Airlines to Jeddah and back.  Saudia is the national airline, heavily subsidized by the government and favored by almost everyone for internal flights.  There are some "low-cost" carriers here, but they have to buy fuel at the market rate, which has reduced the usage of that adjective somewhat.  As I sat in the terminal in Riyadh on Wednesday, it occurred to me that I had never considered how Saudi Arabia, one of the most restrictive countries in terms of gender segregation, would handle cramming 200 strangers into a packed 747.  (Everyone wants out of Riyadh so badly on weekends that there are hourly flights to Jeddah on weekends.  This is the equivalent of running a wide-body plane from Chicago to Washington every hour in a country with 1/12th of our population.)  I found out, when I got to my seat and was promptly asked to move three times so that some offended Saudi or another didn't have to sit next to someone of the opposite gender.  Eventually we managed to balance out my row of old women with the row of old men in front of us so no one was too horrified, although I think I was only marginally more acceptable to the ladies than some random Saudi dude.  (I was even veiled!  Must have been the uncovered face.)  You'd think that they would have worked out the reservation system so that you could select based on the gender of your neighbors, but evidently not.  

Upon takeoff, after an hour of shuffling passengers around, we listened to a solemn recording intone the words of the Prophet Muhammad when he would set off on a journey.  We were then offered our choice of newspapers from around the Gulf and a respectable hot meal later on.  This is on a flight of perhaps 80 minutes in length.  It was surreal... but at least I now know how to eat a meal while still keeping the facial veil on, because both of my neighbors on both flights did it.  

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

The Day After Election Day

I still have more stories to tell about Jeddah, but I can't let this opportunity pass. Just a reminder so that I stay more or less in tune with the Hatch Act, remember that this is my personal account, and it is passworded for a reason. Please do not share what you read here.

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

Two Opposing Forces

I went to Jeddah on that specific weekend because Joe had arranged a dinner get-together with the staff of the Ethiopian consulate and the American consulate in Jeddah. It was very informal; about ten of us and about ten of them, just having dinner at their place - or at least this is what we expected. Turns out, we were invited to the community night, which is an opportunity for any of the 1500 or so Ethiopians living in the city to get together in a comfortable place, eat familiar food, and hang out with their countrymen. We got there long before anyone else did, so we enjoyed a leisurely meal with our Ethiopian counterparts before people started arriving. (For the record, Queen Makeda's is better than the otherwise quite good food I ate at the consulate. You really should try the place when you're next in DC.)

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.   What party scene, you may ask? Why, the one that throws parties with disco balls, world-class DJ and light show setups, and booze a-flowing in borrowed buildings in Jeddah every weekend. I'm serious - I can't upload the photos right now, but I assure you that this was the most surreal thing I have ever seen. We were two blocks from the Red Sea, , and the dance floor was packed with Saudis wearing things I would blush to wear in a lingerie shop. We finally left at 3 AM, when the revellers ran out of alcohol and decided that it was time to move to another party happening elsewhere in the city.

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

48 Hours in Jeddah

I'm going to split this up into a number of posts, because there's too many disparate stories to fit into one. A party at the Ethiopian consulate, an underground Saudi rave, snorkling in the Red Sea at an incognito beach open only to expats, and the bizarrely unforgettable experience of flying on Saudia Airlines. We can get to the fun later on, but first I want to open with one of the most heartwrenching stories of my life.

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

A Weekend Excursion

This weekend I am heading to Jeddah to visit my friend Joe, whom the attentive of you will remember from our trip to Jordan last summer. I'm just going for fun and to get away from Riyadh for a weekend, although I will be attending an event at the Ethiopian consulate there. We'll have to see how their food compares to Queen Makeda's, by far my favorite Ethiopian place in DC. And hey, maybe I'll get beach time!

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

Just an Average Night in the Wadi

Wednesday night I went out with a few friends from work to the home of a Saudi guy who we know. He's a cool guy, usually comes to our house parties, and he has a lot of Embassy friends, far more than I do. So he invited us down to hang out with him for an evening and sent a driver to pick us up. He lives less than a half-mile away from me, but it's about a ten-minute drive because there's only two entrances to the DQ, so it takes some negotiating to get there. He lives in the wadi that forms two edges of the DQ, and you can actually see his house from here (well, I haven't personally seen it, but I haven't exactly taken many walks to see the sights here).

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, , and watching the full moon and stars rise over the cliff face. Our host provided us dinner at about 1 AM, and I'm sad to say that it was the first Arab food I've had since I landed here on the 30th of August - lockdown has meant that we can't get out much, and there aren't that many sources of quality Arab food here anyway. (The Lebanese, the best cooks in the region, wisely stay the hell out of this country.)

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

Random Thoughts

My laptop at home is currently out of service, so posting will be sporadic until I get the replacement parts I need - I feel guilty posting at work! (Today's our observed Columbus Day, though, so I don't feel too bad about it.) I've got a random collection of observations for you, none of which is long enough for a post of its own.
  • 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

More Jahiliyya on the Internet

Skype is a wonderful tool. I just finished an hour-long conversation with my mother, and as long as I pay $4 a month, I can continue to have such conversations to any US number without impediment or any additional charges. Skype's used for more than just keeping in touch with family and friends, of course. You can use it like the yellow pages, you can use it to send text messages to mobile phones, and unsurprisingly, you can also use it for racier purposes, but surely that wouldn't occur here in Saudi Arabia, right?

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.

Oh, Saudi Arabia

Seriously, guys, you need to hire an image consultant. Headlines from last month ("Arab TV Tests Societies' Limits with Depictions of Sex and Equality," "Color, Glitter Enliven Saudi Women's Black Abayas," "Death to the Media Moguls!") were bad enough. But seriously? One-eyed veils will somehow stop women from wearing eye makeup, which is by the way dangerously seductive and erotic? Are you just trying to make people laugh?

As a friend of mine would say, there's jahiliyya in them thar links.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Bless Crittenden County's Heart

Every now and then I am confronted with a reminder of just how much I don't miss certain parts of my hometown. After twice faxing and once mailing my request for my absentee ballot to the Crittenden County Clerk, and on the third phone call to their office, they finally seemed to get the hint that I want to vote. Of course, no one's really clear what it is that I do.

"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, you should be. One of the best polling information shops around. 538 and TPM are my guidebooks this season!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Thanks, Department of State

I really appreciate that you've furnished my house so nicely.  And I also really appreciate that you've paid so much to ship my stuff to me from DC.  (Of course, my dishes and books from storage would be nice, too, but I understand that these things take time.)  But seriously?  After all the money you paid to ship my DVDs from the US, you couldn't have provided my house with a compatible, US-region DVD player?  

Friday, September 26, 2008

Dining Out in Riyadh

All public establishments in the Kingdom have to have methods to keep women and men as apart as possible, whether it's different hours for families and for men only, or physical barriers separating families from singles, or even not allowing women into places at all, forcing them to order from a walk-through window, in the case of many restaurants here.  In restaurants with separated family and singles sections, there will be a barrier of sorts around each table, allowing women who wear the facial veil, the niqab, to remove it and to eat in peace without strangers seeing their faces.  

Luckily, very few places that I am likely to go will check to see if I'm actually related by blood or by marriage to my dining partners.  I met a friend for dinner a few weeks ago in Riyadh.  We accidentally got there 10 minutes early, during prayer time, so we had to wait outside until the doors reopened.  (All businesses in Saudi Arabia must close by law during prayer times, five times a day.  Normally prayers last about five to ten minutes...  closing time is usually closer to thirty minutes here.  We can discuss Saudi inefficiency another day.)  We were finally escorted upstairs to our booth, and once the waiter handed us our menus he closed the curtain behind us, leaving our "family" to dine in peace.  Every time the waiter had something to deliver, he knocked first to give me time to reveil if I wanted to do so.  It was a surreal experience.  

Riyadh has some good restaurants, especially ones that cater to the large migrant populations here - Indian, Filipino, Sri Lankan, etc.  It's one of the few avenues we have to get out and socialize with friends outside the DQ.  I'd like to visit a few more restaurants here, which I will do as soon as lockdown's over - seriously, this is starting to get on my nerves.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Internet in Saudi

I have a Saudi IP address, which blocks me from using websites like Pandora and from accessing a number of websites deemed inappropriate by local authorities.  It also means that when I go to my usual complement of websites, I get ads in Arabic.  They're hilarious.  My personal favorite so far is one telling me that I've won, not a free iPod or a laptop or something, but a US green card.  Close runner-ups are the marriage ads on Facebook and the places where ads should be, on websites like Wonkette, but are blocked because of inappropriate content.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Security Overseas

It's hard for me to gauge what dominates the news cycles back home now, given that I barely have time to stay abreast of the things I really want to read, much less the news sources I normally follow, but I hope, at least, that the carbomb attack on the US embassy in Sanaa, Yemen and the carbombing of the Marriott in Islamabad, Pakistan have been covered.  No one I know was injured in either attack, although a lot of people died in both cities, many paying the price solely because they worked for the United States.  It's been a very different ballgame for me in the last week...  even as tuned into current events as I normally am, attacks on Americans or American interests overseas have heretofore just been remote attacks in places where I might work eventually.  Now, there have been attacks directed at my friends and coworkers, threats against others, and severe limitations on my own daily activities due to this pair of bombings.

It gets your attention right quick, I'll tell you.

Right now, I'm on lockdown in the DQ until further notice.  This means that no nonessential travel outside the DQ is allowed, and for the purposes of this warning, things like grocery shopping are considered nonessential.  There is exactly one convenience store on the DQ, across from our embassy, and the owner is probably making more money this week than he has in a year.  Our security measures have been amped up considerably, and I'm sure there's a lot going on that I can't see, as well.  We have had emergency alarm tests, safe haven drills, and doom-and-gloom emails from the security folks with Lots! Of! Extraneous! Punctuation! warning us about the necessity of paying attention and of "varying routes and times," a time-honored FS concept that is difficult to uphold when 2/3 of the embassy staff live within blocks of the embassy.  In short, our already high baseline level of tension has just been turned up to eleven, and we're all a little snappish.  And the best part?  A stomach virus is circulating its way through all of the offices, and we're all operating at about 3/4 strength.  

At the end of the day, though, it's better than the alternative.  As my career progresses, I'm sure I'll be more used to this sort of activity, but my first serious bomb scare is an intense experience, I can assure you.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Home sweet home!

My bitching must have come in handy...  Google Maps just added Riyadh.  This is the city from a wider perspective, and this is the DQ - zoom in twice on that link, and the US embassy will be near the center of the map.  I don't live that far away, either, just a comfortable walk.

Happy (virtual) exploring!

Sunday, September 14, 2008


I'll preface this by saying that I'm very tired and that it has been a frustrating day - lots of meetings, little productivity. I remember when I took cultural anthro in college, the TA was talking about how the researcher goes through some psychological changes during his or her immersion in another culture. This isn't an uncommon idea; the same thing was mentioned to us in A-100 so we'd be aware of what was happening to us once we got to post. The time scale on this graph (thanks, Google!) is a little longer than what I'm experiencing - obviously, since I'm writing this 2.5 weeks into my stay in Saudi Arabia.

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.)
However, life has its good sides, too. Several friends of mine from the consulates in Jiddah and Dhahran will be in Riyadh at the end of the week for a conference, so I get to see people I haven't seen in a while - it promises to be a fun weekend. Also, I adopted a cat from one of my neighbors. Sheikh A'jan al-Beeji (or Beeji for short) is very shy, to the point of not letting me get within two feet of him, but he yowls when I leave the room, and he follows me at a safe distance everywhere I go. I think he's warming to me. In six months, he might even let me touch him!

Beeji does not like flash photography.

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

Today, from the Department of Upholding Stereotypes

You know you're in the Foreign Service when you attend a BBQ birthday party for a four-year-old under the following two conditions: There are four attendees under age 10 and seven over age 21. The beverages spread consists of a six-pack of Coke, a six-pack of Diet Coke, three bottles of champagne, and three six-packs of Foster's.

I love my job.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Random Observations from the Kingdom

  • 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

Is This How the British Colonialists Felt?

For those of you who aren't in this Foreign Service mess, you might not know that the largest chunk of State Department employees worldwide (somewhat over fifty percent, I believe) is comprised of local hires - foreigners, usually of the nationality where the embassy is located, who help out in the day-to-day of running the embassy. Here in Saudi Arabia, I think we have one local hire who is actually Saudi; the rest are Arabs from around the region, South Asians, and Filipinos.

About half the people in my office are not Americans, and they are clearly the backbone of the office. When most of us stay for a year or two at most, they're they institutional knowledge that keeps our section running. It's a bit of a different story for them, because they have a professional position and are often very highly educated. However, they still often have to defer to decisions from Americans in most cases, many of whom have only been in the Foreign Service for two years or fewer. It's a bit bizarre.

My other main involvement to date with our local hires has been with the drivers in motor pool (see previous post for more details on how that works). It's uniformly bothersome that they all refer to me as miss hannah, and if I have some package I'm carrying, they scold me for carrying it myself and not letting them get it. It's so bizarre. I hate feeling like I'm their superior. The other day I was talking to one driver who has been working at the US embassy since before I was born. He still referred to me as ma'am and miss hannah, which sets off all kinds of warning bells in my head, probably due to having grown up on farms in Mississippi and Arkansas. If you have any tips on how to deal with this, please let me know.

One other thing - almost everyone here has a maid that they hire to do basic cleaning and sometimes cooking around the house. I understand that this is a fine Foreign Service tradition all around the world. Given the way that household staff are treated in Saudi Arabia (that's another story for another day), it was a bit of a thorny issue for me to consider. I did just hire a woman, Fathima, taking over her once-a-week contract from the person I replaced in the consular section, and when I realized what pay she was actually asking for, I felt ill. I think that, like her previous employer, I'll be paying her double what she actually asks for. She's here from Sri Lanka to earn money for her family, and at the rate she was asking it's hard for me to see how she is able to send anything back home, even working for three or four other people simultaneously.

Things to get used to, I suppose. Still, it's hard to shake off the willies that I get from the mentality of white person hires dark person to do menial stuff.

Friday, September 05, 2008


Well, I survived my first trip to the grocery store in Riyadh. We managed to time our visit so we'd arrive right after it reopened from the latest bout of prayer. True to form, the store was utterly empty but then filled up within ten minutes of our arrival. Tamimi, the big chain here, is partnered with Safeway, so a lot of stuff is just Safeway off-brand with a sticker with ingredients listed in Arabic slapped on the side. Amusingly, this is the first store in the Middle East I've ever seen that sells bigger jugs of corn oil than of olive oil. I'm sure that must make the farmers in Iowa thrilled. Prices are about comparable to stores in the States - some things are way more expensive (3 dollars/pound for green beans) and some much less (70 cents/pound for apples). The best thing I saw? Camel meat. Fresh, local camel meat. I didn't buy, because I want to do some research for what spices one cooks camel meat with before I actually indulge.

Life in Riyadh

There has to be some degree of cognitive dissonance when living in Riyadh.  The Diplomatic Quarter, where I live, is somewhat apart from the rest of the city, with walls and checkpoints all around it.  There's a good deal of freedom inside the compound, because all of the embassies located in Saudi Arabia are here, along with all of their employees and a good deal of third-country nationals not specifically tied to an embassy - I think there are about twenty-five thousand people in this compound.  It's big, and it's easy to get lost - everything is the same shade of desert tan, and the roads are curvy and unnamed.  For the most part, however, it's little America in my neighborhood.  All of my neighbors are Americans, we have barbecues outside once the sun is on its way down, and we crack open a beer like there's no big deal.  And once I figure out the way, I can walk to work or to my friends' houses without any problems - unveiled, wearing pretty much anything I would in America.


Our internet is still filtered by the local government, so there are certain websites I can't visit.  Some of them make sense (it's not surprising that Something Awful is blocked), but others seem ridiculous (Snopes?  Seriously?).  AIM is blocked, but not if you run it through Gmail.  Blogspot isn't blocked, but none of my posts since I arrived in Saudi Arabia are visible to me.  (Luckily, comments are emailed to me, so I can see what you write.  I can still address your questions, so keep them coming!)  

I can't drive outside the compound due to local law and to security restrictions placed on us by the embassy, so I have to take motor pool anywhere I want to go.  This means that I just had the following conversation with the dispatcher.

"Hi, can I get a car to take me to [the grocery store] at about 3?"
"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."

For someone who's had vehicular independence for almost ten years, this is a bit stressful.

Additionally, if I don't know where I'm going inside the DQ, I have to take motor pool to friends' houses, because you really can't give directions for how to get around here.  This means that there are always at least two or three people who know whose house I've been visiting.  The other day, I had to pick up some paperwork at my friend Ramon's house, and I had motorpool take me there because I didn't know where he lives.  A few hours later I was planning a trip into Riyadh proper with some friends, and when one of them called motor pool to confirm the trip, the dispatcher asked if I should be picked up at my house or at Ramon's, since that was where dispatch last knew me to be.  You can see the potential for this to get creepy and invasive fast.  

So much for life in Riyadh.  I'm sure I'll have more comments later on.  I'm working on some posts about the class system here, even at the embassy, and my trips so far into the city.  Don't want to overload you all.  I hope you're all well and gearing up for your weekend - mine's coming to an end, sadly, since our work week is Saturday through Wednesday.  Just another oddity about the Magic Kingdom...

Monday, September 01, 2008

Today's Awesome Feeling

Walking by myself into the airport at Riyadh unveiled and not in an abaya, past the crowd of about 200 Saudi men in thobes waiting for family in the arrivals room, and hearing them go silent as I walk straight past security and emerge five minutes later unscathed with my bags.

Evidently they're not used to seeing that. Who knew?

Ramadan Karim!

Well, it's the start of Ramadan here in the Magic Kingdom. I can't really assess changes in daily life, given that I have only had two days here, but I can make a few general observations.
  • 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

24 Hours in Riyadh

Well, I'm here, even if my two checked suitcases aren't yet, but BMI thinks they'll be here soon. (I had two suits, two shirts, three pairs of unmentionables, and my allergy meds in my carry on bags... things will start to get really interesting by Tuesday if I don't get my bags soon!)

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

In London

I survived NYC - barely. Tales of bureaucratic battles, weddings, and the best shoes ever await you, but they'll have to be related once I am coherent, clean, and settled into Saudi. I'm at Heathrow now, and my flight leaves in an hour or so. I already expect wonderful things from it, given that the ratio of adults to children among the passengers I've seen so far appears to be 1:3.

Catch you on the flip side!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Last Post from DC

Well, here it is. My car is halfway back to Arkansas (and probably wishes he were back in DC, given that there was a shootout in the parking lot of my mom's hotel at 4 AM), my suitcases are packed, and the administrative work is almost done. All that's left are the goodbyes and a few additional hair-pulling moments of frustration. Ah well, what can you do?

I'll see you from New York!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Moving, Again

Things I have discovered while preparing for my packout (ie, movers show up to box my things and put them on the truck to Saudi Arabia) tomorrow.
  • 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.
Back to packing. Who knows, I might find the Lindbergh baby next.