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.