Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Merry Christmas from Libya

I thought Christmas was going to be a depressing affair this year - on lockdown, boring food, most people having fled for the holidays with their family or in more interesting places (Rome, London, Berlin, etc).  But my house hosted a big Christmas party tonight, and it turned out well.  Someone smuggled in a ton of fancy chocolates, cheeses, and sausages from Trader Joe's, and we had a mixed bag of tasty treats from Germany as well, so we were able to stuff our faces in style.  With the combined efforts of several creative people we were able to make smores at the firepit that's been set up in my yard, so as long as you didn't think about the chemicals that were soaked into the wood we were burning it was really a very pleasant evening.  We even had someone with a guitar and the ability to play three chords, so we stumbled through a few Christmas songs and a few other songs that ostensibly everyone knows.  (Even if the lyrics were usually la-la-la-la-la-don't-know-the-words HEY IT'S THE CHORUS SING THIS PART REALLY LOUDLY!)  We eventually gave up and strung together three extension cords and an iPod out of my kitchen window to get music out by the firepit.

For a group of people who's been operating at 110% for so long, the ability to kick back and enjoy some treats was really nice.  Last night I and my housemates turned coffee filters into snowflake decorations (come on, you know you did it in grade school too), and we made a 2D Christmas tree out of typing paper and candy decorations.  Twizzlers make great garlands on a paper tree!

So merry Christmas from Tripoli - where the small band of us who are still here are having fun and keeping our spirits up.  Hope you're all having a good holiday in whichever way you most prefer to celebrate it.

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Kind of a Shitty Day


So the ARB report came out today.  I have no comment on it, obviously, but it's still hard to see everything rehashed from mid-September.  It's like having a scab picked off by your worst enemy while he pours salt into the new wound.

But on the plus side, I picked up my stuff from the most recent mail delivery today - specifically, eight boxes of awesome.  My mother, my mother-in-law, and a few friends conspired to send me exactly the things that make me happy.  I have basic kitchen goods (measuring cups, dish towels, a cutting board), spice mixes, my favorite candy (sour patch kids!!), fancy smell-good soap, wild rice, quinoa, the particular type of couscous I like, my university alumni magazine, recent pictures of family members, a deck of cards, a Scrabble set, and a few hand-written letters, among other things.  I was able to make a healthy, tasty dinner for myself and a sick housemate, plus I could make her a modified hot toddy after dinner to soothe her throat with the apple cider mix I got in today's mail.

Whenever I have a down day, like today, all I have to do is look in my kitchen at all of the care packages I've received since I've been in Tripoli.  Thank you, all of you - you have no idea how much they mean to me.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

I'm Not Meant for Pioneering Life

After my return to Tripoli on 1 October, things were looking up, at least as far as our cafeteria goes. The food was improving, the chefs seemed to learn how to use spices, and the menu was expanding. (We actually had chicken tikka masala one night - oh my God!)  However, the chow hall is sliding back to its older standards of potatoes, dry chicken, and overcooked, unidentifiable cuts of beef every night, with some form of sauce.  It's getting pretty grim around here at meal times, so I finally decided to break out the cookware I have smuggled in and make lentil chili.  I'm not able to get out and buy fresh vegetables and meat, so I have to use what veggies I can steal from the chow hall (tomatoes, onions, carrots on occasion) and use up the dry goods I was able to buy on my one trip to a supermarket in early August (pasta, lentils, canned tomatoes).  My spices arrived via pouch from Istanbul last week, so surely I was set!

Perseverance builds character, so they say.  I couldn't find the one kitchen knife we have, so I diced carrots with a regular dinner knife.  I now have a blister on my right hand from the effort.  I have neither stove nor hot plate (nor even a skillet), so I had to brown the onions and carrots in the only rice cooker I could find in Libya, which works a little slowly and is rather small.  I also had to make the chicken broth in the rice cooker, so I let the bouillon cube melt slowly while I sliced the carrots. Finally, once I had everything in the crock pot and ready to go, I realized that though it's on a European voltage cycle, the plug is unlike any I've ever seen before - three round prongs in a triangle.  It's like British and European plugs had a child that neither wants to claim.  So I took a picture of the plug and started wandering around compound hoping to find someone with a really good converter set or a house that's better equipped than mine.  Finally, something went my way - in the second floor hallway of a friend's villa, I found a multi-function power strip (currently powering a wireless router) that appeared to have forgiving enough sockets to take my special crock pot.  I lugged the base over, tested it to be sure, then schlepped the actual pot of ingredients over, getting strange looks from my neighbors all the while.

So my chili is currently simmering in the floor of someone else's villa, while we all wait patiently for it to finish.  It better be good, because I'm going to be supremely embarrassed to have brought in people outside my villa for the process.  (Also, the dinner menu is appalling tonight - we're depending on this chili.)  Updates once it's cooked and we test it!

Update:  Dinner SUCCESS!  We served the stew (not really chili, more stew) over basmati rice and ate ourselves silly.  I and my housemates have at least another day of leftovers to keep us going through whatever the cafeteria throws at us tomorrow.  Onwards and upwards!

Monday, October 08, 2012

Back in Tripoli

Well, I'm back - got to Tripoli about a week ago.  Some things haven't changed, but a lot more is different (miraculously, the food appears to be on an upward trend).  People are mostly cried out, it seems - now we're just super busy all the time, which on balance probably a good thing.  I have these moments where I just stop and stare at a wall for a few minutes before going back to work.

It's good to be back, though.  I am busy, and I know that I'm pulling my weight and taking some tasks off the shoulders of my colleagues.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Heartbroken

One week on, and I'm still a bit in shock about the attack on our office in Benghazi.  I don't really want to hash through the details that took four of my colleagues from me.  Instead I want to share a few stories about the two I knew, and share links to sites raising funds for their families and in their memories.

I never met Sean Smith, but he and I are both members of an online community called Something Awful.  The members of SA (Goons) have a vibrant sub-community of people working at State, and we all kept an eye on where we were each stationed.  We also shared career advice to new arrivals in our midst, advice on how to prepare for entrance exams, and stories about the foibles and hilarity of serving in a large bureaucracy overseas.  When he told me that he was coming to Benghazi for a temporary stint, he asked what he could bring to us out here in Libya.  My immediate response (as I always tell TDYers) was a bottle of whiskey, but apparently his security colleagues told him that was a bad idea.  Sean was frustrated with the slow pace of the Libyan visa bureaucracy, but I worked with our local staff to convince him that he'd be able to arrive on time for his thirty-day stint in Benghazi.  We were planning a meet-up in Tripoli one weekend, or that I might come out for a short trip to Benghazi during his time here - it would be my first Goon Meet, and possibly the very first one ever to occur in Libya.  Cool!

As we all know, that didn't happen.  Just a few days before I left for the States, I talked to Sean on our inter-office communicator one Saturday afternoon, commiserating about shitty cafeteria food  and the long working hours.  He was so excited to be there, and clearly such a good guy.  I've heard stories now from across the world about how many people whose lives he touched, including people I went to high school with.  Some of his friends from SA have created a fundraiser to support his family, his wife and two children who are left to pick up the pieces after his death.

Ambassador Stevens was amazing.  What else can I say?  I wanted to stay in Tripoli a second year to keep working there, and I only spent three months with him.  He was so funny, so thoughtful, so kind, and so damned good at his job.  On my third day in Tripoli, I was thrown into the car with him and told to go take notes in a meeting with the Prime Minister - eep!  On the way back to the office, Chris asked me what I thought were the most important parts of the meeting.  I listed points X, Y, and Z, nervously avoiding making any commentary or analysis of the meeting.  He listened to me avidly, nodding, and then said, "That's great, definitely.  What about G, H, and I too?  I thought that was really important too, maybe we should include those points too in the reporting on this meeting."  I felt valued, because he listened to my points.  When I started writing the cable after the meeting, I realized that my points were secondarily important to the very crucial things he mentioned, but that he wasn't going to crush a new arrival at post for not being as in-tune with local politics as he was.

Once I got to know him better and became more comfortable with Libya and with the Ambassador himself, things got more fun.  We'd run out of meetings and frantically take notes on napkins so we wouldn't forget what we'd been told in a situation where we couldn't take notes obviously.  We piled into vehicles five-deep when we left the office at the end of the day, squeezed in to the only vehicles with space for his lanky frame.  He shared meals with the rest of us in the chow hall, speculating about what exactly was being served each night and hoping that the next day would provide something more palatable.

Libyans loved him.  I don't know how to state it any more clearly, but everyone loved him.  Small kids, young politicians, journalists, and little old ladies would swarm him for photos.  He knew everyone in the country - if he hadn't met them in his first period in Tripoli, from 2006-2009, he knew them from the time he spent on the ground in Benghazi during the revolution.  He lost friends during the revolution, as did almost every Libyan, and he respected their losses.  He supported the revolution, but his real passion was rebuilding free Libya.  At every crisis that emerged (and there were plenty), he was calm, collected, and had the right Libyan authorities on the phone to find out what was going on or what we could do to mitigate the problem.  He was the person everyone wanted to see at any big event in Tripoli, but he never wanted to take the focus away from the real heroes, the Libyan people who are working every day to make their country better and stronger.

The Ambassador would wander from office to office during the work day, on a hunt for candy and a friendly smile.  In almost every meeting, he borrowed one of my pens and chewed on it absent-mindedly while he contemplated his next move.  Chagrined, he'd always apologize after he realized that he'd taken another of my pens.  I stocked my bag with cheap Bic pens and ordered several packages of my preferred pens from Amazon.  His desk probably still has a cup filled with my half-chewed pens.  He had a great sense of humor - one time, he asked me if I could find a press briefing transcript for him on whitehouse.com.  Seeing the look on my face (at the mention of a notorious pornographic site, not the Presidential web page), he quickly corrected himself and said, "No, no, don't look there, they'll shut down our computer network access if you download that, and I have to have my Facebook."

Chris relied on text messages to communicate with us, so it was nothing to get a message from him at 2 in the morning informing you that you were going to a meeting with him the next morning at 8 AM, or that he was having a party in his residence for some new arrival at post.  The last time I saw him was the night I left Tripoli on vacation, when we had a farewell party for a colleague who was known for his particularly well styled hair.  I inherited a tub of hair gel from someone who had left post previously (don't ask), and word got around that I had product for offer.  I got a text from the Ambassador that simply said, "Gel?"  When I delivered the gel to him, he proudly dug in the tub and slathered his hair up into what can only be called a hot mess of hilarity.  Before I left Tripoli, I hugged my departing colleague and laughed with Chris about his close approximation of my colleague's habitual outfits.  And now he's gone.

Ambassador Stevens' family has created a website to collect treasured memories and tales about the lives he touched.  They are also collecting funds for an as-yet undetermined charity to honor his memory.  Nothing says more about Chris than the photo his family selected for the top of the page - seated on a very diminutive donkey with an extremely goofy smile.  

Saturday, September 01, 2012

How to Amaze and Amuse Your Hosts

On Wednesday morning, the Ambassador called me and asked, "Do you have anything going on this afternoon?"  When questions like that come from your boss, the answer is usually no.  So a few hours later he and I loaded up and drove two hours south of Tripoli to the mountain town of Gharyan.  A friend of the Ambassador invited him to the opening ceremony of a political party's local branch office, so off we went.  Part of the celebrations included lunch in a khosh hafr, a traditional underground house found in many Amazigh (Berber) communities of North Africa.  (You're probably more familiar with these types of houses from the Star Wars movies, as Luke Skywalker's home in the first movie was filmed in one of these communities in Tunisia.)  Gharyan is one of the larger towns in Libya's western mountains, on the main road from Tripoli to the Amazigh towns in the mountains.  It has a beautiful view of the coastal plains, overlooking some of western Libya's most fertile fields.  (Yes, there is agriculture in Libya - it's not entirely a desert country.)

A khosh hafr is built about twenty or thirty feet below ground level, with open-air courtyards that provide natural light and air circulation to the rooms that are cut into the bedrock and that open off the courtyards.  Being underground, the rooms are much cooler than the ambient air in the summer, and they stay pretty warm and insulated during the Libyan mountains' cold winters.  Our hosts welcomed us into one of these rooms for conversation and laughter before lunch - many of the people knew our Ambassador from his time in Benghazi during the revolution or from his previous tour in Libya, back in the old days.  When lunch arrived, we were given two choices - we could have couscous, the staple dish of North Africa that we'd eat with a spoon, or bazeen, a traditional Libyan Amazigh dish.  Our host told the servers in Arabic, "Our guests will have the couscous, please," but the Ambassador stepped in and said, "Hold on, I'd love to have some bazeen!"  Not to be outdone, I said, "I'll have the bazeen too!"  The servers and our hosts all turned to us with jaws dropped.  "But - but - you have to eat it with your hand!"  "Only Libyans like bazeen!"  "It's messy!"

Let's step back and think about this for a second.  Here I am, the only woman in an underground home, sitting around barefoot (no shoes on the carpets!) with my Ambassador and fifteen Libyan politicians and activists, and I've just signed up to eat something that I can't identify from a plate shared with my boss and an unknown number of others.  NOTHING could possibly go wrong.

Bazeen, it turns out, is barley dough that's served with braised lamb first and then tomato stew.  To eat it properly, you take your (right!) hand and eat the lamb, then you hack off a chunk of the dough in the middle of the bowl, then mash it against the side of the bowl for 5-10 minutes to soften it up and to make sure it soaks up enough of the soup.  Then you squeeze lemon or lime juice over the softened dough, take a bite of a spicy pepper, and chow down on the soupy dough.  It was a lot of work, but it was pretty tasty - and definitely worth the looks of hilarity and shock that we provoked in our lunch companions.

The Ambassador's a lefty, so he was operating at something of a disadvantage in his dough-mashing.  This was made worse by the fact that by accident my lime flew out of my hand - hey, my hand was covered with stew juice - and knocked over his drink all over his bare feet.  (I haven't been here three months yet, and I've already sealed my fate in my annual review.)  Better yet, the political party posted photos of us eating bazeen on Facebook, which resulted in some of my contacts on Twitter asking me last night, "Hey, isn't that you eating bazeen?"  This photo is currently bouncing around Libyan social networks, getting over 350 comments and 400 reblogs off the Embassy Facebook page alone.  Most of the comments are pretty positive - lots of laughter and surprise that the Ambassador is eating bazeen.

Cultural diplomacy at its finest, y'all.  Now I need to find a similarly messy American dish to make for Libyans!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Tripoli: the good, the bad, and the sandy

It's been a while since I've written specifically for the FS blog round up.  However, since this week's blog round up topic is about the good and bad sides of your current post, I thought I'd throw out some ideas and descriptions of life here, since I've been meaning to write it up for a while anyway.  (Also, I'm procrastinating on another writing assignment.  As long as I'm writing something, it's okay though, right?)

Tripoli: the good!

1.  Leadership.  I absolutely love the people I work for, from my section chief up through the Ambassador.  Amb. Stevens is legendary in Libya for spending almost the entire period of the revolution in Benghazi, liaising with the rebels and leading a skeleton crew of Americans on the ground to support humanitarian efforts and meeting up-and-coming political leaders.  Several Libyans have told me how much it means to them that he stayed here throughout the revolution, losing friends and suffering privations alongside ordinary Libyans.  We could not ask for a better Ambassador to represent America during this crucial period in Libyan history.

2.   History in the making.  Yes, yes, it's schmaltzy, but I wouldn't trade this position, at this time, for anything else the Service could offer me.  I get to see democracy being built, literally one day at a time.  (See all earlier posts in Libya for more details.)  In two days' time the General National Congress will open for the first time, which will signal the transition from the interim, non-elected leaders who've run Libya for the past several months to the first elected government in more than four decades.  The decisions the Congress takes in the coming weeks and months will determine the political trajectory of the country for years to come - and I get to be here to watch it all happen in real time.  This is the type of opportunity we dream about having!

3.  My colleagues.  This type of assignment attracts a certain breed of person, someone resilient and easy-going, someone with patience and creativity, someone who can function outside the normal processes and procedures that govern an embassy community.  Or, if it doesn't attract that type of person, our assignments officer did a great job of finding an entire team of people like that.  As a diplomatic mission we're in our own period of transition while we rebuild our operation from the ground up, so it takes a good deal of patience to work in an unusual mission such as this.

4.  The opportunity for professional growth.  Call me an ass-kisser, but I really do enjoy learning at work, and there are ample things to learn here.  I've never worked in a post with a USAID mission - check, got that here.  I've also not worked so closely with other branches of the US government, such as the Commercial Service or the National Security Council.  It's an interesting lesson in how the whole government works together (not always harmoniously) to inform, to determine, and to implement policy in a given country.

5.  The benefits package.  All right, so I'm not immune to the pecuniary benefits of Tripoli.  They're nice.  Food and housing are provided for us (see below), so the only things we spend money on are small purchases on the local economy (dry cleaning, fresh fruits/veggies, snacks) and vacations.  I'm hoping we can buy a house in the next few years with the money we'll save here.


Tripoli: the bad.

1.  Compound living.  Because our embassy and most of our housing stock was destroyed during the revolution, we live and work in a series of buildings on the edge of town.  Permanent staff have bedrooms to themselves and share bathrooms with their neighbors; temporary staff have roommates.   Our movements off compound are limited both because of logistics and security.  Those quirky colleagues I mentioned above?  You see them every step of the day, from chow hall to gym to brushing your teeth at night before bed.  If you're an introvert like me, sometimes you just hide in your room for a few hours to get away from everyone.

2.  The food on compound.  Let's be clear: our meals are provided for us, because our residential facilities lack cooking space and because until very recently we weren't able to procure food ourselves on the local economy.  This is an incredible convenience for us, especially when we can get hot meals packaged up and delivered to us at our offices if we're too busy to leave for lunch.  Don't think I am not appreciative of these amenities.  With that being said...  the quality and variety of the food leaves something to be desired.  I think someone must have told our cooks that if they made Libyan or North African food for us all the time we'd get bored.  So we get delicious couscous dishes perhaps once every three weeks, with interesting takes on more familiar European or Asian dishes the rest of the time.  When word gets out that we have couscous in the cafeteria, everyone rushes the cafeteria to gorge themselves.

3.  Security situation.  In the interim period between governments, as the old, unelected, revolutionary government cedes power to the new government, a sort of security vacuum has appeared.  Violent crime is way up in Tripoli, including an attempted attack on an Embassy vehicle.  I no longer flinch when I hear gunfire in the distance.  (How far I have come from my home town in Arkansas, where everyone hits the deck when we heard shots!)  It limits our activities off compound and is a perpetual weight on our minds and on our loved ones' minds.

4.  Coming and going of staff.  This summer we're just getting the first wave of permanent staff at the Embassy - prior to now most of our staff have either been people who were evacuated in 2011 and came back to finish their tours or temporary staffers here for 30-120 days.  What this means is that it's a constant revolving door of people in and out of our little community - disappear for a weekend away, and you'll return to find 10 people have left and 12 new ones have come instead.  It's disconcerting and a bit demoralizing - especially when your closest friends are temporary staffers, not permanent ones.

5.  Isolation.  Tripoli is an unaccompanied post, for very good reasons.  I miss my husband, my friends and family, my pets.  Flights out of Libya are inconveniently scheduled and extremely expensive (to the tune of $1200 or more for a round-trip ticket to Frankfurt).  No one can come visit me, either - I have enough friends who are adventurous enough/mad enough to spend a week in Libya seeing the sights (of which there really are plenty to see!), but they couldn't stay with me (see #1) and I couldn't stay with them in a hotel downtown (see #3).


Tripoli: the sandy.

Remember, folks, this is a desert country...  even if Tripoli is known as the Bride of the Sea, and even if its weather is moderated by Mediterranean influences, it's still hot and sandy here!

The bottom line is that a tour here is not for everyone.  It has plenty of challenges, but those are balanced by what I think are more than commensurate rewards.  I'm putting my money where my mouth is, too - I'm trying to extend to stay a second year.  I believe in our mission, and I respect the people I work and live with.  Now, if only I could get a burrito...

Saturday, August 04, 2012

FS Blog Bundle - Updated

It's been a while since I've offered an updated blog bundle, so for those who are interested, here's the most up-to-date roster of FS blogs.  I probably missed a few new ones that came on line between February and June, so if you're not listed on here, do let me know and I'll add you!

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Lift Your Head High, You're a Free Libyan

The title of this post is probably my favorite piece of graffiti around town - إرفع رأسك فوق انت ليبي حر - and it ran through my mind constantly on election day.  How can I describe the excitement of a people who suffered for more than four decades under a capricious regime?  What words can capture the sounds of a nation celebrating something that none had ever expected to see?

Many of you saw my post on Facebook about this - unlike many of my colleagues, who had official election monitoring duties, my main responsibilities on election day was to escort Sen. John McCain to a series of official meetings and visits to polling stations.  McCain is well loved by Libyans, who remember his vocal support for their cause early in the revolution and in his efforts to increase U.S. support to Libya in the transitional phase.  People recognized him wherever we went.  When we'd arrive at a polling station, I could hear people shouting, is that McCain?  Is that John McCain?

We saw women singing while they waited in line to vote, men weeping as they put their ballots into the ballot boxes, and everywhere, people smiling while they held up their ink-stained fingers.  Election workers and voters shared their stories with us.  One poll worker had lost both of her brothers on the day Tripoli was liberated.  Another's father was killed in the 1996 massacre in Abu Salim prison.  Yet another was born in exile to a family that had to flee because of his father's opposition work to the Gadhafi regime.  Another woman looked to be older than independent and even colonial Libya, and indeed she didn't know exactly how old she was.  She had to be carried to her second-floor polling station, but nothing could stop her from casting her vote.

After dinner we walked along the corniche downtown, towards Martyrs' Square, where the residents of Tripoli were celebrating the conclusion their first free elections.  People sang and danced, fireworks were shot off from the walls of the Red Castle, and children waved flags from their parents' arms.  After the sunset call to prayer, mosques broadcast takbirs constantly for hours.

So much emotion a week ago - but where is Libya now?  Well, for the time being, votes are still being tabulated.  Some parties did better than expected, others worse.  Some politicians are using this time to seek out probable coalition partners, basing their expectations on the voting tallies that have been released so far.  No one has - yet - challenged the results that have been released, but the battle of words between party leaders continues, as parties try to convince independents to join this coalition or that.  In other words, Libyan politicians are acting exactly like politicians in any other democracy.

And that's exactly how the Libyan people would have it.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Elections

In 34 hours the polls will open for the first free elections in Libya's history.  More than 80% of Libya's eligible voters registered in May to prepare for this election, when two hundred representatives will be selected from more than three thousand candidates to form the body that will draft Libya's first democratic constitution and determine how future elected governments will be formed.  Tripoli is covered with political ads, affixed to walls, covering road signs, streaming from cars, and scattered around every office and store.  Parties are forbidden from campaigning after 8 AM tomorrow, so tonight is the final push to win over voters.

This election process has not been without hiccups, as is any campaign in countries grown weary of biannual contests between familiar candidates.  The fact that this is the first election in more than forty-five years in Libya, and only the second election ever here, makes the achievements even more impressive.  There are concerns, of course: concerns about persistent intercommunal violence in southern and western Libya, concerns that threatened boycotts in eastern cities will undermine the legitimacy of the election, concerns that challenges and appeals of vote tallies will drag out the final announcements of the results.  Then there's the overwhelming concern that this election is only the start of a much more challenging process: the challenge of building healthy, stable democratic institutions in a country that has never known them.  But the enthusiasm I've seen since my arrival here in Libya is humbling and infectious.

When I was growing up, my parents would always take me with them to vote and would let me pull the levers for their selected candidates in the voting machines.  I was first able to vote in a local referendum, on whether to raise the millage for our local school district.  I was one of 250 voters on the issue, and by God was I proud of it!  I try to catch every election that I can, no matter how small the issue, but I must admit that it's hard to keep abreast of local issues when I live overseas most of the time, especially given the time delays in international mail that affect absentee voting.  In Libya, though, what will happen Saturday is something that thousands of people died for, very recently and very nearby.  I've already written about the ever-present reminders in Tripoli of the war dead, of the the rebels and the wounded.  Saturday's election is one of the first steps in justifying their deaths: life without Gadhafi is sweet, but a country cannot remain in a post-dictatorial euphoria forever.  The hardest steps are ahead, in honoring the memory those who died under Gadhafi's capricious rule and in the struggle to overthrow him by building a new Libya.

Two days ago I went to the opening ceremony for the international media center hosted by the entity that organized the elections.  The beautiful facilities are in a convention center by the Rixos Hotel, where journalists were held virtual hostage during the war.  The convention center itself was only used once, having been purpose-built by Gadhafi for a November 2010 European Union-African Union summit.  Now it's to be the home of international and local media outlets covering the elections, the site from which the election commission will announce results and hold press conferences throughout the day.  Upstairs from the media center is the hall where the national congress will be seated in a few weeks' time.  It's still under construction now - risers were being hammered together even as we visited, and  workers busily welded the podium from which speakers could address the congress.

Overseas voters started voting three days ago in select locations.  During the opening ceremony at the media center, we watched videos of the first voters in Germany and Jordan and the UAE placing their votes into the ballot boxes, surrounded by media and cheering Libyans.  In fewer than two years from Gadhafi's EU-AU summit, the center he built as an egotistical show of wealth houses two symbols of the new Libya: a center for the enthusiastic press corps that has developed in Libya and the future home of Libya's first truly representative body.

I will be out and about on Saturday, visiting polling stations as an accredited elections observer.  This is the reason I wanted an assignment in Libya over all others - to be here for this historic event, to witness the rebirth of Libya as a democratic state, and to cheer for the brave Libyan people, who have waited so long for this day.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Grumpiness

It's been three weeks since I've seen Eric, and it will be at least three weeks until I seem again.  The flights I'm looking at to get to him cost $1100 at a minimum.  I know other people have it worse.  I'm only one time zone off of Eric, so that makes communication a lot easier.  But I'm still a grumpy, lonely pile of nerves without him.  Grrr.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Hardship Homemaking - Turned Up To 11!

I've long been a fan of the Hardship Homemaking blog, which gives recipes for how to make common American foods and household products with the less-than-ordinary products one finds overseas.  However, I'm faced with a more interesting challenge: how to cook with no stove.

You see, in our residences in Tripoli, we have refrigerators but no stoves, sinks but no plates, and electrical outlets but no microwaves.  All of our meals are provided in a common dining hall, and while the food is certainly fine, and I acknowledge that I'm incredibly lucky to have this service provided for us, sometimes you just want something homemade and familiar.  Or sometimes you've had a tough day and you just want to take a knife to a stack of vegetables rather than your coworkers.  So what's a girl to do when she's jonesing for curry or pizza or pasta?

Yesterday I did a quick survey of the housewares section of a large grocery store in Tripoli.  I spotted a knock-off George Foreman grill, a rice cooker, and a few hot plates, among other various kitchen tools.  I think, with some creativity, another shopping run, and perhaps some assistance starting a charcoal grill, I can make a few tasty things to soothe my cooking itch.  So, who's got some good suggestions for how to bake bread on a grill, or how to make soup in a rice cooker?  Do crock pots even exist outside of middle America, and can I find one that's European plugged to use in my kitchen?

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Tripoli Expressions


I’ve been out and about a lot this week, and I’ve been focusing on the bits of Tripoli I see speeding past my window as we drive our compound to one ministry or another.  Fascinatingly and heartbreakingly, graffiti serves as a public memory and shared memorial to those who died in the revolution.  Every side street turning off the main road has been renamed in spray paint after a martyr – Zintan Martyrs Street, Martyrs of the Hawamid Family Street, Liberation Day Martyrs Street.  Some families have put up banners or posters to memorialize their loved ones: yesterday I saw a poster for a family that had lost four brothers on the day that Tripoli was liberated, on 21 August.  There was an image of each brother on the poster, looking for all the world like a high school yearbook photo. 

Almost every trip passes by one side or another of the former Gadhafi compound, located in the center of the city.  Apparently after Gadhafi fled Tripoli in August, the walls of the compound were still intact around the buildings destroyed by the NATO bombing campaign.  I’ve seen the photos of people celebrating as they picked through the rubble, amazed that they could go inside the barracks with impunity.  The concrete walls around the site have all been knocked over, though most are still intact – it looks like they were just pushed over because people needed to demonstrate to themselves and to the world that Gadhafi was gone.  You can still read the graffiti sprayed on these walls, which are tipped at odd angles and only now starting to be papered over with advertisements for baby formula, Tripoli University, or a new political party.  “We will never forget the martyrs of Misrata.”  “God is great.”  “Free Libya, united Libya.”  “The revolutionaries of Benghazi.”  “17 February.”  “17 February.”  “17 February.”  Over the walls, in some places you can still see the remnants of hangars, all bearing large holes in the centers. 

Libyans still seem to need to prove to themselves that Gadhafi is gone.  Some license plates bear a sticker of the new flag, a small map of Libya, or even an ugly dot of spray paint in the upper right corner.  It took me a few days to figure it out: new license plates have the name ليبيا  or “Libya” in Arabic, indicating the country in which the car is registered.  Older plates, on the other hand, say الجماهيرية or “al Jamahiriyyah,” which is the Gadhafi-era made-up word that loosely translates to “republic of the masses.”  It’s meaningless, except in the context of Gadhafi’s insane political theories, so people are physically obstructing the word until they get new plates without this relic.  The Central Bank has not yet designed new currency, so paper bills still carry pictures of Gadhafi, some denominations more prominent than others.  Apparently, in many shops the cashiers will methodically take a Sharpie to Gadhafi’s face on every single bill before handing back a customer’s change.

Public catharsis, or the hangover of a four-decade dictatorship?  It’s hard to say, and I’m not sure it’s not a little of both.  

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Hello from Sunny Tripoli!

I arrived yesterday afternoon with no problems and no militias at the airport, and today was my first day in the office. It’s a small Embassy, although it’s getting bigger – I’m in the first wave of “permanent staff” arriving this summer. (Since the Embassy was reopened last September, most positions have been filled by a string of short- and medium-term temporary staffers, most of whom are rotating out this summer.) Hopefully by the end of the summer we’ll be back up to our pre-Revolution size, though now we’re in a much smaller compound!

I got a brief tour of the city of Tripoli en route to a meeting this evening. I saw a number of locations that I only know about from the narratives of the Revolution – Martyrs’ Square (formerly Green Square), Bab al Aziziyah (the Gadhafi compound, which is now a pile of rubble), the Rixos Hotel (where journalists were virtually held hostage in the early days of the Revolution). It’s incredibly moving to see these sites and to realize how recent the scars are from the Revolution. Graffiti is everywhere in the city – from casual scrawling to artistic, detailed imagery. There are names of the martyrs, satirical drawings of Gadhafi, and images of the new Libyan flag everywhere. The one phrase you can see over and over is ١٧ فبراير ليبيا حرة – “February 17th, Free Libya.” That’s the day the uprising started, and it’s the date by which this revolution is hashtagged on Twitter. (All of the Arab national uprisings are abbreviated that way – #Jan25 for Egypt, #Feb17 for Libya, #Mar15 for Syria, etc.)

Today the date of the election, the first free election in Libya’s history, was publicly announced as 7 July. There are billboards all over the city, depicting Libyans holding up their voter registration cards. On our way back from a meeting tonight, my colleague asked our driver which party he preferred. The driver shrugged, stated his preference, and said, “But you know, these politics are new for Libya.” It was the simplest statement I’ve heard of what Libyans face in the next months and years, as well as how far they’ve already come.

I can already tell that there will be days where I’ll be frustrated with the limitations on my movements here and the challenges inherent in rebuilding a Mission from the ground up. Still, I’m so glad I’m here at this juncture of history.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Things I Do Not Enjoy

1.  Having to call United reservations at 02.30 AM.
2.  Having the United rep tell me that there's nothing she can do for me.
3.  Having to wake up every forty minutes or so overnight to check my email because the only helpful travel agents are in Turkey.
4.  Saying goodbye to Eric, then coming home to handle all of these shenanigans.

Four hours until my car pickup for the airport...

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Calm

Eric's flight leaves in about seven hours, and after several hours of wrangling with the Department's contracted travel agency and United Airlines, I'm almost completely 100% guaranteed a flight out of Washington tomorrow.  If everything goes as planned, I'll arrive in Tripoli around noon local time on Saturday.

Our bags are packed, the last boxes are mailed, and now we're enjoying the quiet before we hit the road to Dulles later this evening.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

More Changes

This morning, the Libya Desk at Main State called me.  "Come by our office before 2.30 PM to get your visa request letter," said a voice I knew only from emails.  "Your visa will most likely be ready by Wednesday afternoon."

I'd just resigned myself to spending a few weeks at loose ends in DC, practicing Arabic and catching up with friends and buying earrings in Eastern Market, and now it looks like I'll fly out on Thursday (that's three days away), as we'd planned when I first got my travel orders in March.

Eep.

On the plus side, when I dropped my visa application off at the Libyan embassy this afternoon, I ran into someone I served with in Riyadh - he's currently based in DC, and he was picking up visas for his some of his colleagues.  He said that he'd been to Tripoli in February and absolutely loved it, and that he's jealous of my assignment!  It's a good sign, I do believe.

So today was a lot of shopping for last-minute items.  Tomorrow is packing and mailing things, plus last-minute farewells that I thought I'd have more time for.  Wednesday is final errands and picking up my passport with visa, and Thursday is for spending a last day with Eric before we fly, visiting a few museums and snuggling.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Changes

In four days, Eric will be on a plane to Istanbul, where he'll wait until EFM positions open up for application in Tripoli.  Even after they open up, and even if he's hired, it will still take some time for all necessary clearances and travel orders, etc, to be issued.  We don't know how long it will be before we see each other again - part of the reason he's going to Istanbul (rather than staying in the US) is that it will be easier for me to slip away for a weekend to see him there, but we don't know how often I'll be able to get away, if at all.  And we don't know how long it will take for family positions to open up in Tripoli.  So I'm a little neurotic...  we've been apart before, but not for more than a few weeks and always with a definite return flight in sight.

Pardon me for being a bit selfish, but the worst is that he is leaving before I am - for some reason, it seems like it would be easier for me if I waved goodbye, got on a plane, sobbed for 12 hours, then arrived at post and started working.  Now I'll be here, brushing up my Arabic and repacking my suitcases while I wait for my visa to come through.  (Still no idea how long that will take.)

Grump grump grump.  At least I'm staying with a dear friend who's promised to smack me with a cooking spoon if I get to be too mopey.

Eric and I are talking about creative ways to stay in touch while we're separated - more than just Skype and emails.  He's very sneakily used this separation and then the tour in Libya as evidence why he needs an iPad (video chat! easy to travel with!).  Eric's trying to get back on the blogging bandwagon, so we've added him to this account - you may see posts from him in the near future.  (Right, Eric?  You're going to write more when you're in Istanbul, aren't you?)  We've invested in phones that will allow us to have unlimited international texting, and we're also building photo albums for each other.

Four days to go.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Home Leave Is Awesome

Seriously.  I've been so lazy in the last three weeks.  Eric and I took a two-week, 2700-mile road trip around the region to visit family and to have honeymoon #2 in New Orleans.  (FUN!  Though my middle is a little wider after eating all of the good foods.)  Now we're relaxing for a few days in Arkansas before we leave for DC on Thursday.

Because of my stellar ability to procrastinate at EVERYTHING, I didn't call for my UAB to be delivered until this morning, so apparently it won't arrive until sometime next week.  Whoops...  I'll worry about that another day.  I mean, it's just all of the clothing I'll need in Libya, so no bigs, right?

It still hasn't really sunk in that I'm supposed to arrive in Tripoli in just over two weeks.  Crazy.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Wedding Bands

Quick update before we hop on a plane and fly away from Istanbul.  I'm (unsurprisingly) procrastinating on my final writing tasks before we leave, but I wanted to put this out here: being married is awesome.

Yes yes, I know I've only been that way for a few weeks.  But Eric and I survived our first joint packout today, and it was about as painless as one can expect such an endeavor to be.  In the past few days, as we've packed up our lives, whenever I'd start to panic, he'd calm me down...  and vice versa.  We just got back from a ten-day road trip around the Turkish Aegean coast (honeymoon #1), and you know it's a good relationship when you can spend time with no one else for so long, reading quietly or talking easily, driving and stopping when you see a cozy place to have a coffee break and play a hand of cards.  Life just feels so comfortable with Eric.

I never wanted to post pictures of my engagement ring, because that seems ostentatious for me.  (No slight to those who do that - it's just not my style.)  But I can't stop staring at the wedding band snuggled up against my engagement ring, thinking about what it means and the words we said at our wedding.  Even though I wrote the CG's speech (our officiant!) two days before the wedding, and my vows the night before, I can't imagine anything more perfect, more meaningful for us, than to share our love with our friends and coworkers in the city where we fell in love.

On Friday morning Eric and I fly out for home leave in Arkansas, which will actually be our first time in the US together.  I can't wait for this next step in our lives.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Just a Taste...

As stressed as I am about wrapping up my tour here (four more days in the office oh my GOD), it's worthwhile to stop and remember that two weeks ago I had one of the happiest days of my life.  It will be so difficult to leave Istanbul, because of the fun I've had here and the friends I've made, but I'm taking the best part of the city with me - Eric.

My mother, trying to encourage me
to get a move on and get dressed
My sister, providing encouragement

Possibly the best photo ever
We are so lucky that we were able to get married
at the Consul General's residence!

My closest friends in Istanbul, the Beşler


Monday, April 09, 2012

EER Complaints Bandwagon

Can I jump on the complaints train with everyone else?  Because dear lord, I hate annual reviews.  I hate having to find just the right turn of phrase to prove that I personally saved the world, twice, since my last review.  I hate the back-and-forth of paperwork and hemming and hawing.  I hate the secret code words and potential death traps that you only learn about after you've completely screwed up an annual review (which, let the record state, I've already done once, and I still don't think I know all of the shibboleths).

Is it obvious that I'm supposed to be writing my EER right now, as opposed to blogging?  Because...  yeah.  Maybe I'll go make soup or something.

Update: Just filed my taxes rather than work on my EER.  Not sure what paperwork I can do next to procrastinate more productively...

Update 2: Uploaded wedding photos to Facebook at 1 AM rather than work on my EER.  Now sleepy and have made no further progress on it.  Sigh.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Married!

The last guests left today (including my mom, Katelyn, and the cats), and after a busy three weeks, Eric and I finally have the chance to take a deep breath and be still for a moment.  Our house is an absolute disaster, as we're in the middle of preparing for our packout, but for right now, I think we'll just veg out for the evening.  Tomorrow is for packing, sorting, EER writing, and brunching with friends.  Oh, and posting pictures and telling stories - the last few months have been great!

Sunday, March 04, 2012

In Which the Author Realizes How Privileged She Is

Although it's really difficult for me to abstain from political conversations in daily life, I have tried to keep this blog free of my personal politics.  I know too many colleagues whose blogs were closed after a "friendly suggestion" or whose comments in private spheres came back to bite them in the professional ass.  Nonetheless, I take some courage from my co-bloggers at State, who have jumped on this topic in a variety of ways.  (We'll all go down together, I guess?)  I want to talk about the current debate in the U.S. about access to birth control medication.  And as always, this is 100% my personal view.

Like a lot of my friends and loved ones, I've watched the primary debates of recent months with equal bemusement and horror.  The usual suspects for rallying political support against the Other - immigrants, gays, recipients of government assistance - made their appearance early on in the season.  Who was left?  Well, apparently it's women writ large, given the recent debate on access to birth control medications, and that's when I got pissed off.

Then I stopped myself - I was upset at the ad hominem attacks against gays, immigrants, and the economically disadvantaged, but it took an attack on something I personally identify with to pull out my credit card for donations.  At that moment, I realized two things: the extent of my white, middle class privilege, and the extent to which I will let things slide if they don't affect me personally.

I've never considered myself a particularly privileged person.  My family was pretty broke when I was a child, and after my parents' divorce my mom and I lived on almost nothing for years.  I was able to go to a good university because of this relative poverty, and after I got my financial aid package to college my mom married my stepfather, who cosigned all of my student loans because my worthless shit of a father had cast my mother and me aside.  I thought that, by all rights, I had had a Hard Life.  Sure, I was an educated liberal with a good job after graduating from college, but I'd lived a Hard Life, right?  I'm not like everyone else.

It took a panel of all men testifying before Congress about the "religious freedom" implications of mandating prescription birth control coverage to wake me up to my privilege.  I was pissed off.  I wrote angry emails to my representative and senators.  I donated money to Planned Parenthood after Komen screwed them over.  I shared angry graphics and open letters on Facebook about what certain politicians think they can do with my body for political gain.  And then I realized...  oh, shit.  I'm so angry and financially invested in this cause because it affects me.  How many other causes have I professed to support but didn't give money and time to, because I wasn't really affected?  Certain politicians have been using my uterus, and the uterus of millions of other people, as a vote-earning tool.  Why does this anger me, when using the gender identity and sexual orientation of others as a fundraising and vote-earning tactic hasn't really motivated me in the same way?  Why do I rant and rave to my friends about the effects of race and ethnicity in legal decisions, when I don't give my time and money to support causes that try to correct this bias?

So to my friends and family members and colleagues whose causes I believe in but have not fully supported, I apologize.  I truly do.  I read all the right news sources for lefty feminists, but it took the current political climate for me to take their social, racial, and gender justice messages to heart.  To my sister, my oldest friend, my mother, and countless others who have had a harder life for specific as well as intangible reasons that I cannot understand due to the privileged life I've led, I apologize.  I am trying to align my practices with my beliefs, but please tell me when you see me being deficient.  I want to learn.  I want to make things better in the grand scheme of things.  More than anything, I want everyone I know and love to have equal rights, privileges, and access to the things that have made my life easy.  I will do anything I can to make this happen.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Sick Day

I've been fighting (unsuccessfully) a low-level, persistent stomach bug for a week now.  It comes and it goes, with some days better than others.  I decided to take a mental/physical health day today to get some extra sleep and to catch up on a few pressing issues.  I think a lot of it is mental; even though I don't feel stressed at the moment, I have a lot to do in the next few months.  Here's the overall list of things to do before I arrive in Libya on 8 June.

  • Wedding: plan and execute a wedding, add Eric to my travel orders/insurance/bank accounts, update all legal documents to reflect new status.
  • PCS: plan for exporting the cats to the States, pack out, plan for taking only two suitcases to Tripoli, plan for home leave.
  • Libya: try to find Eric a job there so he can go with me, brush up my Arabic, mentally steel myself for being in a dorm-like setting again.
  • Work: wrap up my tour in the next two months, handle several large visits and Congressional reports, increase my cable productivity, prepare for a handover to my successor.
As a family friend once told me, I've got so much on my plate right now that I should really just get a platter to make things easier!

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Snow Day!

For the last week Istanbul has been hit by a succession of snowstorms, creating mayhem and panic among the temperate clime-acclimated populace here.  I used to say that Istanbullus handled rain and snow as well as Washingtonians do, if Washington were 5 times bigger, built on a series of steep hills, and all of its cars were manual transmission.  However, after a series of transportation snafus leaving work last night that led me to walk to the train station, I can say that one part of winter is better here: sidewalks are obsessively shoveled at the first hint of snow.  This is no small feat, given that I have never seen a snow shovel in this city, and it took about three weeks for my block to be free of snow and ice after 2010's Snowpocolypse.  It was actually a pleasantly brisk walk to the metro, and I got to say that I walked home, uphill and in the snow.  Ha!

So the Consulate is closed today (apparently the city has asked all private cars to stay off the roads, and many busses and ferries aren't running either), and I'm at home my PJs on and a kitty in my lap.  Eric works part-time at an NGO in town while he finishes his master's thesis, and today was one of his workdays - (un)luckily for him, his office is very close to a metro station, so he can get to work with no problem.  As he left this morning, I kissed him goodbye at the door in a bizarre reversal of our normal routine - I always leave for work a few hours before he does.  30 seconds later, he knocked on the door because he realized he had forgotten his wallet, keys, and phone: apparently the switch up in our routine had thrown him off!

I feel like I should do something super domestic since I'm at home today, or at least have dinner ready when he gets home.  However, he promised to cook me dinner tonight, so I think I'll just work remotely today and enjoy upending traditional gender roles.  :)

Update: Apparently when I said work remotely, I actually meant I would register on a wedding planning website and marvel at how much people appear to obsess over weddings.  I've got a venue, I've got an officiant, I've got a date, and I've got a fiance.  Am I supposed to do anything else?  :P

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Busy Busy

You'd think I'd learn that Istanbul is never slow - even in our down times at work, we're still kept busy with everything we can't do during the visit crunch.  December was great - we got a lot of reporting done, in anticipation of January being mostly a lost month for us.  On the weekend of January 6-8, we got slammed with three congressional delegations, which kept me busy the entire time.  After my delegation went wheels up for their next stop, Eric took me out to dinner at an Asian restaurant we love. (There are so few in town, and this one has a great view overlooking the Bosphorus bridge.)

I got a bit of a surprise before dinner, though - Eric proposed!  Unsurprisingly, I said yes - and now we find ourselves in a bit of a scramble planning a wedding in 2.5 months.  The big day is 31 March, here in Istanbul, just a few weeks before we PCS to Tripoli.

No rest for the weary around here - though this is the kind of busy-ness I can get on board with.  :)