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!