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