Friday, December 16, 2011

Helpful Tips for Protestors

Watching the protests here in Lahore, I wanted to offer you all a few pointers to improve your technique.

1. Take some time with your effigies

A lot of protestors overlook this, which is a mistake. Don't just throw something together with the rationale that you're only going to burn it anyway -- take some pride in your work. If we in the Consulate can't tell if your papier-mache creation is meant to be a NATO soldier, Barack Obama, or the Gollum, how can you expect the television viewers at home to distinguish? Rule of thumb: if your effigy requires the application of a hand-written sign to clarify the intended subject of your overly-simplistic reductionist parody, go back to the workshop and apply a little more paint.

2. Know your audience

I am sorry to report that neither President Obama, Secretary Clinton, nor "America" works at the Consulate. The only way to talk to "America" is to get a spot on The Voice; hand-delivered letters to the Consulate don't really do much in this regard. If you want to send either of the first two a message, however, I suggest using the post office; both their mailing addresses are online. You might also try moving your protest to France or Japan or some other country with a political appointee for an Ambassador. If any of us had a direct line to the President through which to deliver your memos, it's highly unlikely that we'd be stationed in a constituent post in Pakistan.

3. Get a map

It's weird how so many of the protests directed at the Consulate tend to station themselves two blocks away at the Press Club. A cynic would assume that you just want to be on camera. I assume you are very heartfelt in your convictions, yet directionally challenged.

4. Timing is everything

Readings of the moon clearly indicate that the most effective time for large-scale protest is from December 19 to January 4. Any overlap of those dates with my planned R&R is pure coincidence.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What You Talk About When You Don't Talk About NATO

I decided last month that I don't want to do public diplomacy work anymore. I'm still sorting through the full implications of this.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Plus, I try not to date outside of the Visa Waiver Program

It's no secret that cross-cultural relationships can be fraught with stress and difficulty. Throw in an extreme age gap, dissimilar religious backgrounds, and a language barrier, and you're really just asking for heartbreak. I saw this all too often during my consular work.

So, all you Pakistani males aged 14-18, please stop sending me unsolicited Facebook friend requests. I'm really sorry, but it's just not going to work out.

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Good Afternoon, Class

"Thank you all so much for joining us for our annual American History Course here at the Consulate. All of the instructors are diplomats who, after having their arms vigorously twisted out of their sockets, have generously offered their time to teach you. I'd like to begin with my lecture 'The Evolution of American History'. Basically, all of evolution was a prelude to the formation of America, at which point God rested. Are there any questions?"

"Yes, why does America hate Pakistan?"

"That's a great question. Hating Pakistan was one of our founding principles -- if you flip over the Declaration of Independence, you'll see that Jefferson made a note on the back instructing us to steal Pakistan's nuclear weapons. As the Declaration predated both the formation of Pakistan and the discovery of nuclear power by over one hundred years, we believe this demonstrates the incredible foresight of our country's founders."

"On your timeline, before 'Americans invent democracy', you have written 'dinosaurs'. What's the connection between dinosaurs and September 11th?"

"Dinosaurs were the original victims of the 9/11 attacks, which is why you don't see any today. Some people theorize that dinosaurs actually initiated and carried out the attacks themselves in order to later star in Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park. That is ridiculous."

"May I ask a question?"


"Your hair looks like Barbie's."

"Thank you. I believe that concludes our session for this afternoon."

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Heaven Help Us

"So your new boss is arriving this week?"


"And you've been here three and a half months?"


"And your other colleague has been here two and a half months?"

"That's right."

"So you'll have to use your seniority to lead them."

"I didn't say it was a perfect system."

Sunday, October 09, 2011

X Marks the Spot

A recent decision to cancel a planned speaker has left me peculiarly upset. I'm not sure why this particular cancellation is really getting to me; usually I can rebound pretty quickly from these things, but I can't shake this one. Each time I think about it I feel livid and bitter at the missed opportunity cost. Not since I was on steroids was I this consistently angry for more than a 24 hour period.*

Let me explain that I am totally down with security precautions. Totally down. Big fan of the whole 'life' thing. Not so keen on being kidnapped. Looking forward to growing old with my knitting and those two cats and a fern which I'm sure I'll be acquiring at some not too distant future point. If RSO tells me I'm standing on an 'X', believe me that I am going to scramble to get off of it.

But I want to keep in mind, too, that my job here is to move America off the big 'X' it is standing on. It's no good patting ourselves on the back for dodging individual cars if it still leaves us slap in the middle of the highway. To stretch the metaphor, we can't get ourselves out of the oncoming traffic if we're not strategic about our security precautions and the direction they take us. I guess this cancellation was the first time I really felt like I'd been told "We'd like you to quickly guide America across I-10 -- you'll just need to wear this suit of rusty armor for your protection. Don't worry; we welded the seams shut to lessen the chance of shrapnel penetration."

To paraphrase Ice-T: you shouldn't get mad at everything, just really mad at the right things. I'm pretty mad. I hope it's not misplaced.

*Crikey, has it been five years already? I should throw myself a party.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Libidinous Loadshedding Droids

My neighbors have recently installed a new generator to help cope with the increased loadshedding.* Understandable. I also have a generator; it is a thing of beauty. Behold:

Doesn't it look friendly? Couldn't you picture it chatting with R2-D2? Note especially the green cover. That not only improves the aesthetic, but also acts as a sound dampener. Say it with me: 'sound dampener'.

I have not seen my neighbors' new generator, but evidence suggests that it might be lacking a cover, green or otherwise. In fact, they seem to have sheathed it in a special sound enhancer. When the power goes out, the noise coming from the other side of the wall could only be described as two aged freight trains engaged in an illicit bout of lovemaking atop a bed of castanets. It's so loud, it drowns out even the guards' attempts at hand gesture communication.

I hesitate to bring this to the attention of my neighbors. For one, I find it hard to believe that they haven't noticed themselves. For two, I can't actually walk outside of my yard to go knock on their front door. Not without a whole host of armed guards. Though maybe that kind of entourage would only assist the conversation.

*Newspeak for 'rolling blackouts'

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Dating in 1984

Seeing tensions rise over the past week has been a strange experience -- strange in that you have to carry on with your everyday job like nothing is happening, though secretly you're performing a mental inventory of the items in your 'go bag'. "So, uh, did you still want to partner with us on this grant? I mean, of course, we assume you do, just, you know, just checking." Twist the phone cord around your finger while watching with a combination of horror and bemusement as the proverbial volley goes back and forth overhead. "Hey, really sorry I couldn't make that meeting. Oh, just a few protestors outside, you know how it is. Nice weather, yeah?"

Honestly, George Orwell couldn't have scripted a better media reaction. I'm not saying the U.S. is popular here, but that was a pretty quick press slide to the full-on enemy role (sometimes with musical accompaniment!). There were some thoughtful pieces, though. One of my favorites described the eventual bilateral rapprochement as less of a kiss-and-make-up than "an awkward one-armed hug." Our diplomatic relationship does seem to swing between a bromance and an ill-conceived prom date. Good thing I'm just working on that people-to-people ties thing.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

What I wouldn't give for a strawberry ripple

Alright, I admit it: the jazz group was fun and well-received. From orphans to blue bloods, Lahoris like the jazz. I'm not too proud to say that my skepticism was unfounded. I've heard rumors that the PD Powers That Be are plotting revenge on my lack of faith by sending me Broadway singers this summer (searching for the emoticon that conveys 'shuddering-in-horror-while-offering-a-meek-smile-of-acceptance').

Still, despite a program that I have tentatively labelled a 'success' -- i.e., fulfilled the somewhat amorphous PD goal of keeping populations A, B, and C in touch with concepts D, E, and F -- this was a rather trying week. Not strictly for jazz-related reasons, though after Dengue took over Lahore and our trip to Faisalabad was cancelled*, I had desperate visions of the group being reduced to playing for the guards on the Consulate grounds. No, more trying in that one's full-time desk job doesn't stop just because a program is in town. Which leads me to my first ever PD Rule of Thumb:

Schedule ye not a jazz tour if that jazz tour shall coincide with the end of the fiscal year procurement push, grant push, IVLP nomination push, award nomination push, your boss' R&R, a mosquito-borne epidemic, two official delegations, and the arrival of a new Consul General. For verily I say unto you, that whosoever shall say unto this mountain of work, Be thou removed, and be thou cast into the sea; and shall not doubt in his heart, but shall believe that those things which he saith shall come to pass; he shall be sorely disappointed.

After over a week of twelve to sixteen hour work days (shades of ACS!), general exhaustion finally caught up with me today. I was still bleary-eyed and unwashed when the guards rang the bell at noon asking for their ice; I was no better at three when a vague and annoying desire for ice cream prodded me out of my sleep state. Annoying, since of course I have no ice cream and no chance of strolling out to buy some. Browsing through ice cream makers online didn't really satisfy the craving.

And blast if I can't get jazz 'Happy Birthday' out of my head.

*Aedes mosquitoes and Faisalabad police, I shake my fist at you in impotent CAO rage.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011


Somewhere in the southern Punjab, the police are forcing Kevin Bacon to remove that nasty jazz tape from his car. Though, I guess if your name is "Bacon" in Pakistan, you were kind of asking for it.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Ten Years Later

Ten years later, this was a day just like any other. I did laundry; I read a book; I went jogging. I thought about things.

It was a day just like any other. Only more remarkable for having been so.

Which I'm pretty sure is how it should be.

Saturday, September 03, 2011

Dubai Dialogue

"Hello, Ahlan wa Sahlan to the Oriental Hammam. Please, allow us the honor of showering you with rose petals."

"Gee, thanks, I... hey, that tickles!"

"That's merely our waitstaff anointing your feet with priceless attar. They have tickled you? My sincerest apologies. They will be shackled by their wrists and beat with wet shoes."

"This place is really fancy. What goes on behind those big doors?"

"Secrets too unspeakably delightful for human ears."


"The very wonders of the Orient are behind those doors. To reveal its contents would be to risk the wrath of Allah."

"Oh, I don't want you to get in trouble. No big deal, I'll just..."

"I fear for my very life if I were to outline the marvels that await one who enters that room."

"That's cool, I don't have to know."

"Shall I give you a hint?"

"You could just keep doing that rose petal thing -- that was good."

"Through that magical portal lies a room where we gently soap and steam the skin of delicate young women such as yourself...."

"That sounds nice."

"...then rake it with rusty steel wool and rub mud and honey into the scoriated flesh."

"What?! Yowch, that sounds awful!"

"It reduces many to tears."

"Is that even legal?"

"Yes, madam -- it is in Dubai."

"What do you pay the poor souls that you mistreat in this manner?"

"They pay us."

"Get out. How much?"

[Wordlessly, he scratches a sum on a piece of paper and pushes it across the desk, head bowed.]

"That's outrageous. That's got to be more than your monthly salary."

"Many times over."

"This all sounds so barbaric, so socio-economically imbalanced. And yet..."


"...I'm intrigued."


"Who performs this sadistic act?"

"A Tunisian woman with small, sharp hands."

"Is she a trafficking victim?"

"Almost certainly."

"Is there any other incentive?"

"For every pound of flesh we viciously rub from your body, we will feed you that same weight in dates."



"Medjool or halawi?"


"Well then. Proceed."

"Very good, madam."

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Chand Raat and Eid Mubarak

This tour is the FS equivalent of a glass bottom boat ride: you can sort of make out the things going on below you, but you're not allowed to dive in. After another high profile kidnapping and a lot of sternly worded security notices from RSO, it was only through dumb luck that I had a chance to receive a mehndi tattoo for Chand Raat. Looking at it in the confines of my house, I can imagine that, just for a moment, I let my hand drift over the side of the boat to surreptitiously wave at the mermaids.

Trying to preserve the feeling of inclusion, I made seviyan the morning of Eid ul-Fitr. It's a traditional Eid dish that you eat for breakfast before going out to prayers. I doubt very sincerely that it was anything like what they would have gotten at home, but the guards accepted it with muted surprise. I wasn't cruel enough (or maybe brave enough) to watch them eat it, in case they had to struggle through the process. So nice, though, to no longer worry about them seeing me eat -- opening the kitchen blinds for the first time in a month, the sunlight pooling on the floor was like a balm.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011


I spent the evening with a group of young Pakistanis, embarrassed that I'd turned their gathering into an impromptu English lesson, but enjoying their views and openness just the same. They talked about stereotypes, nationalism, religious tolerance, writing... Pakistan doesn't get enough credit for these kind of exchanges. The diversity of opinions, ethnicities, backgrounds, and identities here is what makes me hopeful about the place. Diversity of viewpoint means multiple ideas about how to solve problems -- useful if you can properly channel those ideas into the framework of representative government. The first part of that equation will never be a problem for Pakistan.

Of the approximately 25 people present, at least two of them had been directly impacted by violence. That was sobering. It's a lot to balance against my hopefulness. Still, I'm holding on to it.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Lie to Me

Buying food with the intent of cooking it is pretty much the same as actually cooking, right?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Head Up, and Smiling

Last night was the first time I went to bed with my safehaven door closed and locked. I've never before, not once, not here and not in Jordan, felt a need to even pull it to. But with recent events being what they are, I'm trying to be more responsible. After turning the bolt, I padded over to the bed, lay down, and proceeded not to sleep.

What the safehaven door represents frightens me. Not just its implication of outside threat, but maybe more so its implication of the 'proper' way to respond to that threat: Withdraw. Barricade. Keep your head down.

Yet the greater the threat, the tighter the security, the higher the risk, the more important it is for us to be out there and engaged and visible. It's quite the paradox. I don't want the safehaven to become a normal part of my or anyone else's life, but I need to incorporate it into my routine. That's a bit of a paradox, too.

In the morning I will keep my head up. But for right now, I'm just putting off going to bed.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

"Suppose now that there were two such servings of rice, one prepared by the just and one prepared by the unjust..."

Repeated washings of the raw rice I had intended to cook for our National Day potluck failed to remove all the weevils. Somewhere around the middle of washing number five or six -- while I was meticulously flicking stringy little weevil larvae out from amidst the wet grains -- I realized that I was actually not so much concerned about my colleagues eating the weevils as discovering them. It was my Gyges' Ring moment, and I failed miserably.

Times like these make me wish I'd majored in Home Economics instead of Philosophy. Maybe I can bring some cornflakes to share.

Sunday, August 07, 2011

These Quasi-Feudal Relationships are Confusing

After receiving this morning's ice*, the guards informed me through a series of hand gestures and disparaging glances at the ankle-high grass that they were going to mow the lawn. "Oh, you don't have to do that," I stammered lamely. It was as a red-blooded American that I had refused to hire a gardener -- I was going to mow my own lawn, thank you very much, and probably grow a corn field to boot. You know, eventually. When the weather got cooler.

I don't know why I ever bother arguing with them; they hugely outnumber me, and anyway, they have bigger hands so their gestures are a lot louder. I watched, powerless, as the pushmower was dutifully maneuvered around the lawn and a pair of kitchen scissors was applied to the tall grass around the curb edges. I'm pretty sure it's considered socially beneath them to be doing yardwork, but apparently it's an even worse affront for them to allow ME to do yardwork. The most they would permit me was to hold the bag while they stuffed it full of grass clippings. An attempt to pull up a stray weed was met with stern outcry.

Occasionally I have the sneaking suspicion that they're imposing some sort of weird purdah on me. But the lawn does look a lot better.

*They're fasting, but still collect the ice in the morning and just keep it in a cooler until the iftar. "Madam is sometimes home late," was their reasoning.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Diplomats in Pajamas

The national dress of Pakistan is known as the shalwar qamiz. That's Urdu for 'a well-spangled shapeless sack over elastic waist cotton pants'. It's brilliant: flattering for all body types, appropriate for the weather, and lullingly comfortable in exactly the way that a suit is not. It goes well with the national dish, which is dark, unidentifiable meat mixed with dark, unidentifiable oil and served with a heaping of carbs; the elastic waistband can easily incorporate the cholesterol-induced swelling of your arteries.* Added bonus: if you need to wipe your food-greasy hands on your thighs, the long top is going to cover it right up.

I don't know what the diplomatic rules are about wearing your host country's national dress, but I also find that I don't particularly care what the rules are when presented with the alluring option of going to work clad in what are essentially pajamas. I bought two to start with -- paid for in cash. I didn't want to risk the embarrassment of having the store refuse my credit card now that America's S&P rating has slipped a notch.

*Or your 'New Butt', as the sweet store near the Consulate is so aptly named.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

فلاور پوور

I haven't put much time into hobby development here. The closest I've come is my nascent gardening project: whenever I see a crazy anti-American article in one of the newspapers I read daily for work, I cut it out, turn it into a a flower shape, and stick it to my living room wall. I figure so long as I use tape to do this and not my own saliva, I don't have to worry about qualifying as crazy myself.

Think the U.S. engineered 9/11 so it could have an excuse to invade Muslim countries? Convinced the terrorist attacks in Pakistan are secretly fueled by a Jewish-Hindu-USG nexus? Want to argue that America framed Qaddafi for the Lockerbie bombings as a long-term discreditation strategy that culminated in a NATO invasion? You're probably going on my wall. In fact, you're probably going on my wall more than once because you're a fairly prolific writer. I don't care if you are a former diplomat, a [fill-in-the-blank] analyst, or a grad student in the U.S. Thank heavens no one published my thoughts when I was in grad school (they mostly involved how many meals I'd have to forgo to afford the latest Tori Amos concert).

Sometimes writers try to mask their crazy anti-American remarks by following with equally ridiculous remarks about their own country. Nice try. You're more convincing as a tulip.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

My apologies that this entry is not in verse

Last week was the first PD event I conceived of and executed by myself -- or at least in so far as that can be true given the many local partners and staff who were required to handle the logistics. It was a poetry book launch for a translation exchange between the Pakistan Academy of Letters and the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. We gave away books of American poetry translated into Urdu and arranged readings from a compilation of Pakistani poetry that had been translated into English. The CG read a translation of Faiz Ahmad Faiz's poem "Don't Ask Me, Dear, for that First Love Again." So many people attended, we had to scramble for extra chairs.

I admit to having thought as we were planning the evening, 'Huh, poetry -- perhaps not the edgy subject matter with which I'd hoped to start my PD tour'. The imagined eye-rolls of my POL section friends were almost audible. Two days before the event, however, I read in the papers about a bombing of the shrine of a Sufi poet, apparently by religious extremists. A quick check revealed that his poetry had been included in the translation as well. It turned out that what we were doing was not only edgy, but even a little dangerous.

Here's hoping RSO doesn't catch on.

Today the papers reported that the Pakistani poetry book had been used for readings at an unaffiliated open mic night elsewhere in Lahore. I've noticed selections from it on various blogs and websites as well. I'm curious as to how far it will spread -- I suppose there's no real way to know.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bad Sign

"Where in America are you from?"

"I'm not from any one place; we move around a lot because my dad is in the Navy."

"Oh? Is he a SEAL?"

"No, he's a Taurus."

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Buying Time

It's not fair to compare India to Pakistan -- or at least not fair for me to compare India to Pakistan. My experience in one is vastly more circumscribed than my experience in the other. How strange, though, that I can step across a line not even 20 miles from my house and suddenly be allowed to go pretty much wherever I want, however I want. Today it happened to be to The Golden Temple, a Sikh gurdwara in Amritsar.

It was so good just to walk around freely, take taxis, talk to people... As an added bonus, traveling there and back secured me another 30 day stay in Pakistan. Visa restrictions have their perks.

At the return border crossing, the Pakistani immigration official asked how the weather was in Amritsar. "You mean, how's the weather right there?" My colleague and I answered, pointing across the line. "Pretty much like it is here."

We got asked that question quite a few times. Maybe there's so much scary mythology built up about India, the weather is the only safe place Pakistanis could think to start a line of inquiry.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Things That Define Us

Yesterday's outing was to the closing ceremony of a Model UN camp. As part of the camp activities, the students created a 'Global Village' with elaborate booths depicting different countries.

At the U.S.A. booth, the students had assembled what they thought best represented America: a seven-foot tall recreated Statue of Liberty, a picture of an eagle, a box of KFC, a diorama of the Hollywood sign... and a diorama of the burning World Trade Center, complete with cottonball smoke. "This attack was very important for America," one of the girls explained to me. I didn't know what to say -- it was done without guile, but how awful that we've allowed that day to now define us for so many people around the world. I suppose it was better than a depiction of a mass of college students cheering in front of the White House after Osama bin Laden's death.

The Pakistan country booth treated me to some mehndi.

It left me wondering what students in the U.S. would have come up with if asked to depict Pakistan. Something about SEAL Team Six, likely.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

PD is a Political Animal

Over and over people tell me how lucky I am to have the 'fun' job in the Mission. "It's great that you do cultural stuff and don't have to deal with politics," I was told at my welcome party.

I do my best not to take offense at the obvious subtext ('The rest of us do real work; your job is just fluffy'), but stranger to me is the assumption that "cultural stuff" is somehow apolitical -- that PD is safely and comfortably separated from policy issues. I don't believe that's the case.

If cultural arts are so 'cute' and apolitical, then why do governments feel the need to ban films and books? Why was theater state-controlled in East Germany? Why would my friend Dave and I be inspired to turn to each other spontaneously during the Amman Comedy Festival and both say at once "This is democracy!"?

If I'm doing my job right, then our Cultural Affairs shop should be dripping with policy. I don't want to waste U.S. tax dollars on just entertaining sideshows. I want to leave people talking about universal political values like freedom of expression and civic engagement and tolerance of minority opinion. I want them to have that same 'A-ha' moment that Dave and I did -- only I want it to be "I am a part of this democracy!" Because the one thing I learned in Jordan is that democracy has very little to do with elections. It's all about freedom to share ideas -- and the capacity to think critically about things. I feel that good PD programs could advance that freedom and that capacity. We'll see how far I get.

And if anyone thinks it's good apolitical 'fun' answering university students' questions about "violations" of Pakistani sovereignty, issues of aid, and U.S. support for LGBT rights, then come join me. They'd be happy to talk to you, too.*

*Honestly, it is a blast. But it's not easy.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Loaf of Bread, Jug of Milk

There are definite advantages to grocery shopping with a bodyguard.

First, you've never felt more important in your life. People in the aisles part before you like the Red Sea, all the while eyeing your cart to see what the other half is buying. I only hope the store was prepared for the resulting run on Ariel detergent and canned spinach.

Second, it's helpful to have a local always at hand who can rate your selection of pre-packaged biryani mix. He really put his all into this part of the excursion, I've got to say.

After we'd checked out, however, I was a bit stumped. Do you tip your grocery store bodyguard? I mean, protecting you from potential cereal aisle snipers is kind of a personal service, right, like a haircut or a massage or something?

Though, to be clear, I never asked him to carry my shopping bags...

Sunday, July 03, 2011

Word Search

Sometimes it takes a while to really understand and define the distorted narrative that you're trying to counter.

Other times, it's more obvious.

For the record, that is NOT the U.S. goal in Pakistan, despite what the Pakistan Today puzzle editors might think.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

The Sky in a Puddle of Water

My dad told me that when he was stationed on a ship, he made a point every day to go out on deck and look at the ocean and sky. Apparently, on the big carriers, you can spend all your time down below if you don't make an effort to get up top. You can forget that the sky exists.

I'm taking the same approach to my life here, trying to go 'topside' at least once a day to remind myself about the sky. At work, this means a walk around the inner wall of the consulate grounds. On the weekends, I do the same around my house. A lap around the consulate lasts 10 minutes; around my house takes considerably less time.

Still, you'd be surprised what you see in just a short walk. I spent a good portion of Friday's lunch break being fussed at by a chipmunk with bizarrely splayed legs (who knew they had chipmunks in Pakistan?). And I was delighted this morning to discover this small world in the broken fountain off the side of the house:

The guard who was trailing me (out of curiosity or for security, I'm not sure) probably thought I was insane to be taking pictures of tadpoles, or at least very sheltered. I pointed and made some exclamatory sounds; his response was extended and a bit labored. Despite an utter lack of Urdu training, even I could tell he was patiently explaining to the ignorant foreigner the life cycle of a frog.

I listened carefully, trying to pick out words. "Machili?" I ventured hesitantly, pointing at the pool of water again. He echoed, nodding: "Machili;" tadpole. "Chorti?" I tried further, making a spastic jumping motion with my hand. He echoed again, giving an amused snort: "Chorti;" frog. This was a great leap forward from the previous day's vocab lesson, when an attempt to learn the word for "gecko" was misinterpreted as a request for lizard extermination. (No geckos were harmed in the end -- and the word turns out to be "chipkili.") [Postscript: In case you're wondering whether I'd considered that "machili" might mean "pool of rancid water" and "chorti" might translate as "weird foreign hand gesture," I went back to the guards today with a pen and paper to draw some pictures and better verify things. Turns out tadpole is just "chili" and frog is "mandak." "Chipkili" was spot on, though.]

Adding these to my list, I can now say "Thank you," "Yes," "No," "lizard," "okra," "frog," "tadpole," and something the internet identified as "Jambolan plum." Well on my way to fluency, to be sure.

Jaman are edible, but I wouldn't necessarily advise that you eat them.

لاہور لاہور ہے or You Can Do Anything for a Year

Alright, I'm not going to lie to you. This is pretty grim. Check out the view from my kitchen window:

"Gosh, two sets of bars," you say. "Three if you count the elongated metal spikes on top of the seven foot concrete wall," I correct helpfully. Is it too soon for UBL jokes? Because I think my landlord might have hired his exterior decorator. The consulate itself is awash in razor wire and the sort of fences you normally only see when living within hitting range of a baseball stadium. Every day I ride in an armored vehicle there and back, following a continually changing route and schedule -- any other movements have to be pre-approved by the RSO. There is a world outside of the walls and the armored cars, but I can only just catch glances of it through cracks in fences and darkened windows that don't roll down...

The view from the kitchen is occasionally punctuated by a flash of one of the 'guards' walking past the window. I put 'guards' in quotes to indicate that only two or three of the lot of them are actually wearing a proper guard uniform at any given time*; the rest are there for some purpose unspecified by their outfits. They live off of ice, which it is my job as the 'monied land owner' (again, note the quotation marks) to bestow: once in the morning and once at night. Communication is mostly through hand gestures -- it took the intervention of a third party to make them understand that I wanted to know their names. Still, one week in, and I already find myself thinking in the evening, "I really need to get home; the guards' water has probably gotten warm." Other people on the shuttle complain bitterly about the restrictions, the scheduling, the time spent on logistics... Many of them remember when this wasn't the case.

My immediate reaction to this new reality was one of recoil. It is telling that I have yet to unpack my suitcase. The boxes sent from Amman sit unopened on a table. I started to make a tally for my office wall (one week down, only 51 to go!), but it's too miserable an outlook -- and a horrible disservice to the FSNs who are trying so hard to put a happy face on things as well. MS isn't good for much, but at the very least it's taught me the futility of raging against the cage you're in. I spent a lot of time contemplating what my motto for this tour should be. I think I've settled on "Engage" -- which definitely includes "Unpack." Something I'll do this weekend.

*Indeed, glances out the window tell me that they are often shirtless, though they are always very careful to be fully dressed during our ice exchanges.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Contemplation Days

My office sponsor wants to know if I have any questions.

As a matter of fact, I do:

Are we going to enjoy working together?

How do you know what you're doing is making a difference?

Would you take the assignment again, given the chance?

What do you do when it's all just a little bit too much?

What mistakes am I going to make?

How will I know if I need to curtail?

How will I tell you if you need to curtail?

Would you mind picking up some coffee and milk for me?

I hope he doesn't buy me Nescafe.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

I'll Take the Stairs

Having "Leadership Skills" training in the same building where my dad's father used to work gives me a curious sense of connectivity. I only know him from photographs -- maybe that means that any feeling of connection is misplaced. But I find myself thinking about him when I go up and down the steep wooden staircase that runs through the heart of the building, and I can easily picture him treading the same route. It cues a sort of lopsided swell of pride to put my hand on the banister and think that his hand might have been there. We're at least connected in service, if in little else.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Shot Card

Accepted: Polio Booster, Typhoid Pills, Japanese Encephalitis Vaccination
Declined: Rabies Prevention Series

I hope that doesn't come back to bite me.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Goal Two: Make Them Love Us

At one point in CAO training, I feared they might pull out a Fulbright reliquary for the class to venerate.* This would not have been out of step with the general tone of the course: people doing the US side of the work appear genuinely passionate about their programs, and I suspect rightfully so. I don't recall fervor like this in Pol/Econ training, with the exception of a few key offices in DRL.

I want to be excited about it, too -- but I'm a little overwhelmed. One officer could never do all the things that are being presented to us. Seriously, never. Not well, anyway. And certainly not me, who'll only be in post for one year, sans local language, and maybe sans freedom of movement. Knowing that the Pakistan PD shop is actually fully funded to do all the things being presented to us is even more daunting. Having adequate funds is not the same as having adequate resources, and it does not necessarily equate to being able to accomplish tasks with ease.

So thank you to the panel presenter today who advised, "Be realistic and choose just a few goals." I think, however much it goes against my nature, that that is precisely what I will do.

Goal one: get through the entire year without hosting a single jazz or tap dancing group. That's the Pol equivalent of trying not to use the term 'interlocutor' in any of your cables -- probably futile, but worth the effort.

I'll poll the FSNs to figure out what should be our goals two and three.

*I skipped the lunch time screening of "Fulbright: The Man" to watch the President's Arab Spring speech, so I'm not entirely sure that this didn't happen.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Low-Level Dread and Other Diseases

"This shouldn't frighten me, but it does," was the only thing I could think when amended orders suddenly showed up in my inbox. The message delivered on bureaucratic letterhead was very clear that my year of Arabic study would be in Jerusalem, the same location as my subsequent job, meaning four years total in the same place, maybe even the same house. I didn't want it to, but it felt like a jail sentence. How ironic that the prospect of staying put for so long was the most foreign thought I'd ever had in my entire Foreign Service career. The last time I could claim to have spent four years in the same location, I was 11.

I'm not sure what I'm worried about. The chance to really get to know a city? The thought of being able to properly cultivate a garden? Actually, that's a lie: I know what I'm worried about. I worry about being alone for four years. And I worry about being bored. And I worry about being 37 when I leave and still without a partner, looking at the same scenario all over again at my next post.

So I remind myself that I like my job. Because I really do. And to do something else would only mean having to choose a place to stay forever. And the world is so big.

And shouldn't I be worrying more about the open-ended question that is Pakistan, Pakistan, Pakistan...?

Friday, May 13, 2011

Time to Move On Now

Number of days in CAO training thus far: 5
Number of independent mentions of USIA: 33
Number of years since USIA merged with State: 12

Tuesday, May 10, 2011


First day of CAO tradecraft: "You look familiar. Were you in Amman?" "Why, yes." I'm blinking at her. She does not look familiar; she looks, rather, young. A sudden dawning. "Did I give your student group the ACS 'scared straight' talk once?" "Yeah, then you met with some of us later in a cafe to talk about the Foreign Service." I'm so stunned I nearly lose hold of my bingo ice breaker activity sheet. "And you joined?!" "Well," she shrugs, "you guys were pretty convincing."

If she sucks and / or hates the job, I take no personal responsibility.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Thanks for the Encouragement

Two days into pre-Pakistan training, and not an hour of it has gone by without some fellow officer telling my how "difficult," if not "impossible," my job in Lahore will be. And that's if the person is being kind: one guy today was more frank in his assessment that Pakistanis hate us so much and so deeply that PD work in Pakistan was a "waste of time." He felt the need to press this point for some number of minutes. It was a little uncomfortable.

It's hard to respond to the cynicism -- somewhat problematic in and of itself as responding to cynicism looks to be the core of my duties over the next year. I'm not someone who thinks reaction to US policies and actions can be papered over with free concerts, and I loathe all the talk about needing to 'brand' our aid, as if the point of our spending was to buy friendship. I do think, however, that personal relationships between Americans and people of other nations can make a difference in attitudes, enough to maybe, hopefully, transcend the ups and downs of politics. That thought was why I chose the Public Diplomacy cone over the Political cone all those many years ago.

I hope I don't regret my choice. I really don't want to spend the next year wasting anyone's time, least of all my own.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mama, There Ain't No Denyin'

How to mentally prepare for a new post is always a challenge. Or, more precisely, how to not look totally clueless about your new post is always a challenge. Usually you can bluff through the average conversation by reciting Led Zeppelin lyrics:

"Wow, Pakistan, eh?"

"Yes, I am a traveler of both time and space."

"Are you nervous?"

"Ooh, yeah yeah, Ooh, yeah yeah."

And so forth.

I like to take a more literary approach: there are many very detailed, thoroughly researched books on Pakistani military and political history, and if you look intent enough while you read them, no one is going to bother you with questions to which you don't know the answer. This is yet another way in which paper books are superior to a Kindle.

If you get really stuck, though, you can just change the subject:

"Is Pakistan landlocked?"

"I don't know. Want to hear about Jordan?"

Friday, April 15, 2011

Wonders Never Cease

I was just thinking how pleasant, yet largely unremarkable, homeleave was -- a purposeful cocoon of ordinariness (I was telling myself) to remind you why you left it to go work overseas in the first place -- when a helicopter landed in our front yard. A person stepped out from the open side, picked an object up off the ground, then casually reentered the helicopter just as it lifted off. I suppose they dropped something.

It was sort of weird.

The truth is, I don't really know what 'real life' is supposed to feel like anymore. Did you know that McDonald's serves fancy coffee now? Dad bought me a caramel mocha there last night and I was too stunned to even ask if they could supersize it.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Roam Sweet Roam

It doesn't seem so weird to come back this time. I'm not sure if that's a reflection of the relative closeness of Arab and Western cultures compared to Far Eastern culture, or a testament to how 'false' my dip bubble life was in Amman. I tell myself that vacation will be relaxing, but in reality I'm braced for four weeks of congressionally mandated restlessness. Not boredom, exactly, but a twitchy, strum-your-fingers-on-the-table impatience to be doing... I'm not sure what. Working, likely.

I foresee adjusting to this new non-work pace just in time for the start of training in May.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Perhaps a coffee shop built closer to my house?

Protests this week included a taxi driver who threatened to light himself on fire over a parking ticket and a group of elementary school children who staged a sit-in opposing their principal. I'm thinking of protesting for something, too; I just have to think of what I most want from the Jordanian government. More parking lots? Fewer feral cats?

GAM to provide electricity, water to outlying villages

AMMAN (Petra) - The Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) will provide water and electricity to the villages of Abu Sayah, Khaled Ibn Al Waleed, Wadi Al Qetar, Mugheirat, Hazaa and Baidaa, Amman Mayor Omar Maani said on Tuesday. During a meeting with local residents, he emphasised the government’s commitment to develop infrastructure services in the greater Amman area. On Monday, the villagers staged a sit-in to protest against road conditions and poor electricity and water services.

ASEZA, GAM employees end protests

AMMAN (JT) - Greater Amman Municipality (GAM) employees ended their sit-in on Monday after several meetings with Amman Mayor Omar Maani, during which he promised to study their demands, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported. Hundreds of employees staged a sit-in outside GAM headquarters on Sunday demanding higher salaries and a probe into alleged corruption at the municipality. Some 300 employees, who vowed to continue their demonstration daily until their demands were met, called on the mayor to hire all day labourers as full-time employees and to reconsider the municipality's spending priorities. Also on Monday, Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority (ASEZA) day labourers ended a protest after the authority decided to appoint them as full-time employees. ASEZA Chief Commissioner Mohammad Saqr said the authority will study all the protesters' demands. Around 200 day labourers had staged a sit-in on Sunday and Monday in front of the ASEZA headquarters calling for higher salaries.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Work Life Balance

So Mubarak stepped down and my grandfather died. The two events are not connected, yet for me intertwined. At nearly the same moment Tahrir Square erupted in joy, Grandpa's funeral was starting. I wasn't present for either event. I was in the office.

It was very strange to be frantically clicking my way through websites, trying to find the most updated news stories to print and hand to an incoming official visitor, while simultaneously watching for my mother's texted updates about the funeral preparations. It is amazing, really, that I could 'see' both events in real time. I wonder if Grandpa would have known who Mubarak was. They were about the same age.

Frantic click-click-click. Moment of quietude. Print and collate and staple, then take a second to worry if the flowers you ordered arrived. They didn't have any cotton boles to put in the arrangement -- not the right time of year. Do we have any folders left? The ones with the Embassy Seal on the front? Watch the cheering crowds on the tv screen, then sit quietly at your desk -- just for a moment -- to read Mom's last text.

I couldn't bring myself to tell the florist something meaningful to write on the card, since I didn't want to start crying at work. But I did think to call her back and change the message to read "Love Katie" instead of "From Katie."

I suppose a lot of people are thinking about their messages for Mubarak, too.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Interesting Times

The Next Tunisias [Foreign Policy Magazine, 19 Jan]

It's funny: like everyone else in Jordan, I find I'm left not quite knowing what I can say aloud (or even really what I would say if I had full license to speak).

Why Jordan isn't Tunisia [Foreign Policy: Middle East Channel, 18 Jan]

So... how 'bout that Asian Cup?

Uzbekistan vs Jordan [, 21 Jan]

Bummer. Those Uzbeks really came outta nowhere.

Saturday, January 01, 2011

'trickle trickle trickle' or The Price of Vice

New Year's was a movie followed by an elegant hotel dinner. You could tell it was elegant by the plate to portion ratio: at no point was less than 2/3 of any plate surface visible around the food. Planning at the last minute had left us with the choice of ordering pizza or investing in a meal with an intermezzo course of champagne sorbet. And this is sort of how I've come to think of Jordan: grubby low-end hostel, or ritzy 5 star hotel. There's very little in between the two available.

Final cost of the meal per head: 90 JD. 60 percent of Jordan's monthly minimum wage.

To give you an idea, that's the equivalent of paying 696 dollars for a meal in the U.S., where a minimum wage job will net you 1,160 USD a month.

I haven't decided if I feel exactly guilty about this or not. Just because others aren't able to live the same way you can doesn't mean that you should throw it all over, hole up in a barrel, and only ask that people don't block your sunlight. Still, I wonder a lot about how it impacts my sense of normalcy. I wouldn't spend 700 dollars for a meal in the U.S. even if it came with a free mermaid. (I doubt I'd even spend 130 dollars for a meal, which is what it actually cost me based on the exchange rate.)

Anne pointed out that the service charge meant that our waiter made over one-sixth of the minimum wage in a single night, just from our table. I suppose that ameliorates things somewhat (as I'm certain he will only spend it on morally uplifting literature to read to ailing hospice residents). Everyone here wants their children to be doctors and engineers. Too bad that whole 'alcohol and mixed gender environment' thing blinds them to the economic opportunities of waitstaff.