Friday, November 2, 2018

November Missive

A Missive from Mesopotamia


Welcome! / mar-Ha-ba! / مرحبا!

October is upon us, and up here in the northern hemisphere that often means shorter daylight hours, cooler temps, changing leaves, and post-season baseball.  We can watch the post-season ballgames here on Armed Forces Network, but it’s tough to watch live given the time difference, although I can sometimes catch the last few innings of a game with my morning coffee, if it was a night game.  (Being a Milwaukee boy originally, I was up at 400 am to watch the Dodgers ruin the chances for the Brew Crew to get back in to the World Series.)  And while daylight hours are shortened, there aren’t too many leaves to change (palms don’t drop orange and red fronds to the ground), the temperatures are still high, and we have seen only about five days which were not bright, cloudless sunshine.  If the weather app on my phone is accurate, today will be the very first day since my arrival more than 130 days ago with a high temperature under 100 degrees Fahrenheit:  99 today and 98 tomorrow, and then back up over 100 until next weekend.  Later in the month we should see highs only in the 80s.

Time to break out the parka!

Baghdad from the air.  When traveling to and from the embassy, we take a helicopter (!) to the airport and back - 
and I was facing out to the side THROUGH AN OPEN DOOR.
This is the Tigris River with a power plant in background.

The Tigris River and city of Baghdad.
You can see evidence of the heat from the rotors of the helicopter on the left side of this photo and the next one.

The Babylon Hotel on the right bank of the river is directly across from the embassy compound.
I see this hotel from my apartment window.

A blue-domed mosque nearby as we prepare to land.

The Wedding of the Century
I had one condition upon accepting this job in Baghdad back in January (leaving aside the fact that I actually had no leverage upon which to make conditions):  Of course I needed to be able to return to the US for the big day – The Wedding of the Century.

There are innumerable reasons why I consider myself to be incredibly fortunate, extraordinarily blessed.  One reason in particular in relation to this life and career path I’ve chosen is that I have had the opportunity to be home for important family events.  Some of my colleagues, particularly those in the military, are not so lucky to be able to return for major holidays and life events.  So far I have two university graduations and now a wedding under my belt, and I will remain forever grateful to my colleagues for supporting my time away from post at these critical moments. 

I was among hundreds of family members and friends who invaded the small town of St. Peter, Minnesota in late August to join Jenna and Tommy on their big day.   It’s hard to imagine events surrounding the wedding and all the supporting activities going more perfectly, in large part due to the efforts and planning of Jenna and her family.  Their meticulous planning and hard work over the many months prior to the wedding all came together smoothly, and with basically perfect weather on the big day, meant a nearly flawless event.  Maybe a napkin was folded improperly, or a flower lost a petal or two, but if that happened I didn’t notice, and I don’t think anyone else did either.  Everything about my time back in Minnesota was perfect.  We were able to see and spend time with so many friends and family members, and we had more fun than should be allowed under the law.  What a blast.

If you were there, thank you for your support of Jenna and Tommy, and for spending your time with us.  I certainly appreciate it, and am certain they do as well.  Thank you.

Bachelors, Beers and Bogies.

Meeting up with his brothers from BUD/S after several years.

All the duffers at the 19th hold.



The Team picked up a 'ringer.' 😀

Cousin, Grandma and Aunt.

Aunt Amy, Uncle Eric, Cousin Danny, and Grandma.

Three Mrs. Panettis.

The Best Man and his gift - a broken paddle from
BUD/S, signed by their crew.

Everybody’s Working for the Weekend
Big hair, headbands and cut-off t-shirts of the early 80s rock band Loverboy notwithstanding, it’s basically true amongst all of humanity that we work to live, particularly for the weekends, rather than live to work.  Or we should, anyway.

But how does one define a weekend, anyway?  And was it ever even up for debate?  It turns out this part of the world doesn’t follow the same ‘rules’ about silly things like when a weekend should be, actually.  In Islam, the holy day (or gathering day, as described by the Prophet Muhammed) is Friday, as opposed to Sunday in Christian religions and Saturday in Judaism.  Even though our embassies are part of the US federal government, the bulk of our employees at embassies around the world come from the host country, and so therefore we often follow local customs and traditions when it comes things like this.  Here in Iraq, our workweek starts on Sunday and ends on Thursday, and the weekend is Friday and Saturday.  (Although some countries in the region designate Thursday and Friday as the days of rest, and some have adopted the Saturday-Sunday structure.)  This can create some confusion when dealing with Washington, where of course everyone follows the Monday to Friday workweek, but mostly everyone just adapts and it works fine.

Seems obvious to observe that not every country or culture in the world practices the same rituals or behaviors, but perhaps the two of you never thought about the weekend being different before.  Admittedly, I understood Friday to be the holy day in the Muslim world prior to my arrival, but never gave much thought to the practicalities of how it works before.  Like NBC says:  “The more you know.”

Iraq is a Muslim majority country, of course, and some Muslims practice pretty strict rules when it comes to interactions between men and women.  Knowing that, what happens when an American male (or really any adult male) is formally introduced to an Iraqi Muslim woman in a professional setting?  More practicalities I never gave much thought to before.  The answer to this seeming conundrum is actually quite simple:  just take the lead from the woman.  (What a novel concept!)  At the time of introduction, if the woman reaches out to shake hands, then of course reciprocate.  If she prefers not to shake hands, she’ll place her right hand over her heart when saying “nice to meet you” or what have you, and includes a slight bow of the head.  In such cases the male should simply do the same.  It happens quickly, but all one has to do is pay attention and follow her lead.  The same is true when taking leave at the end of a meeting, for example.  Often men will do the same thing even after shaking hands, after the greeting or leave taking is complete and the hands have been shaken, the right hand goes to cover the heart.  It’s really quite a nice gesture.

My part of the United States isn’t particularly diverse, as you might know.  (2010 US Census data indicate Minnesota’s population is about 85% white, 5% black, and 4% Asian, with the balance made up of two or more races, other races, Native Americans and Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders.)  Of course like the country as a whole Minnesota is becoming more diverse as time goes by, but nonetheless it hasn’t been particularly common in my part of the Twin Cities to see many women wearing hijabs or other culturally appropriate garments for Muslim women.  Here in Iraq, of course, it’s much more common, as you might expect.  However, it’s inappropriate to paint the entire region with the same broad brush about culture (or anything, really), meaning that many women in Iraq choose not to wear the hijab.  Some of my Iraqi colleagues do, and some don’t.  In riding around the city, I have seen some women wear the niqab (like a hijab but with the more complete face veil), others not; some men wear the dishdasha (ankle length robes), some don’t; some men wear the keffiyeh (a scarf warn atop the head) or other head coverings, some don’t.  Even the words for them are often different based on the country or region.  Like Christianity and Judaism, Islam is monotheistic but not monolithic – each country, each region, each family has its own practices based on a whole host of religious interpretations, historical factors or individual ethnicity or preference.  It’s just the way it is.

If you remember your world history or comparative religion courses from college (or whatever), you’re likely familiar at least a little with the Five Pillars of Islam.  These are the five basic tenets of Islam that the faithful practice, if they are able, and are the foundation of what it means to be a Muslim.  The first (shahada) is a declaration of faith, simply stating a belief that “There is no god but God (Allah), and Mohammed is the messenger of God (Allah),” the essential element in declaring oneself a Muslim.  The second (salah) consists of prayer, typically understood as the five daily prayers.  Third is the act of charity or almsgiving (zakat); if a Muslim is able they are obligated to ease the economic suffering of the less fortunate.  Fourth is ritual fasting (sawm), which is obligatory, if one is able, during the month of Ramadan in order to seek nearness to and forgiveness from God, and to show gratitude, atone for sins, and remember the needy.  The fifth is the pilgrimage (hajj) to holy city of Mecca, which Muslims are to do at least once in their lifetime, if they can.  As in culture or just about anything else, other than agreement on these basic tenets, Muslims belonging to different sects will have different names for them or different practices, specific to their sect or region.

We don’t go live and work representing the United States in foreign lands in order for everything to be just like home; such an expectation is really just silly.  There are many things about living in a Muslim-majority country that might be quite different from the United States, but with security the way it is in a mostly post-conflict, mostly post-ISIS nation, it can be difficult to observe personally.  But culture doesn’t stop at the entrance to our compound just because we have a wall here.  Sound, for example, wafts over the wall, reverberates off the buildings and throughout the embassy grounds daily, and I don’t mean the just the sounds of traffic.  There are several mosques in the Green Zone and nearby to the embassy, and of course historical practice and ritual in Islam is for the muezzin to sing out the call to prayer from the minaret.  Modern life means mostly this is done via pre-recorded song over a loudspeaker, and so five times each day we can hear the haunting, beautiful adhan, or call to prayer, reciting fairly standard phrases such as “God is great, there is no god but God, Muhammed is His messenger, and prayer is better than sleep.”  There is variation in what is recited, but it’s fascinating to hear as we walk to lunch at noon or home at the end of a long day.

You know by now that the majority of employees at any embassy come from the host country, and so obviously they bring their culture with them to work daily.  Our embassy has a prayer room for the devout to use, although it can be complicated to go there since it’s a big compound and can be quite far away from whatever office a person is working in.  So occasionally, I’ll see my faithful colleagues lay out a prayer rug in a semi-private space and perform their daily prayers and rituals, of course facing Mecca as is the rule (since we are actually just north of Saudi Arabia here, prayers are actually performed facing south).

Culture is a powerful force everywhere you go.

The World is Complicated
We all have stories to tell.  And what is history if not stories?  They are really a basic building block of human relations.  Here are a couple of stories that I find worth noting.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

It should be clear to you both by now that the local staff who work for the US Embassy in some countries take calculated risks to work with us.  Almost all of my colleagues here with whom I’ve had this discussion have said they generally keep this association very close to the vest, not wanting to invite unwanted attention (at the least), suspicion, or threats.  ID badges are concealed, paths to and from work are circuitous, and security precautions are diligently followed.  One local colleague recently told me that, even though she has been with the embassy more than ten years, neither her spouse nor her father knows the details of her work, and in fact they don’t even know she works for the embassy.  Just imagine that for a moment, and consider that the work she does is not particularly sensitive to US or Iraqi national security or anything, and yet this devoted employee comes to work and does exemplary work for us every day.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Sadi was driving a cab in New York, so the story goes, on 9/11.  As an Arab-American, he felt humiliated that the terrorists were Muslim, and he felt a need to do something.  He heard that the US military was looking for linguists and cultural advisors, and he left his family behind in New York to serve in Iraq.  A Palestinian-American and heritage Arabic speaker, he worked as a cultural and political advisor to US Army Brigadier General Frank Helmick not long after the Iraq War began in 2003.  Shortly thereafter, he became a linguist and advisor to David Petraeus, then a major general in the 101st Airborne.  He has returned to Iraq multiple times since then, due to his invaluable skills and history advising the military and civilian leadership of the United States.  He and I struck up a conversation one evening over cold beers (this seems to be a pattern), and he shared story upon story from his time working side-by-side with Petraeus and others throughout his long history in Iraq.  I tried to buy him a beer but instead he wound up buying me one, and then he proceeded to launch into joke after joke, most of them inappropriate for this family show, but ultimately rather funny given the somewhat surreal circumstances in which I found myself.  Sadi is a unique character, and by all accounts is able to bridge the divide among the various sects and political parties here in Iraq, all of whom evidently will take his call even late at night.  I believe we are quite lucky to have such people on our side.  Perhaps we would be well served by his skills back home at this point in history.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Years ago, “Hamza” fled his home due to violent conflict in his country and was living in a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia.  He is a Muslim, but more secular than not, and occasionally drinks alcohol (incidentally, the word alcohol likely is of Arabic origin).  Living in a refugee camp can be incredibly difficult, boring yet dangerous.  To pass the time and find a way to entertain themselves in a country where alcohol is generally prohibited, he and his friends pulled a “Hawkeye and Trapper” and built themselves a still where they made their own hooch.  Problems developed when their source material, cologne containing alcohol, began to run low in the camp and attracted the attention of the authorities.  It didn’t help that his friend, probably the less bright among the group, made miscalculations causing the entire thing to explode, exposing their operation.  Not so funny at the time, they laughed about it now when retelling the story over cold beers on a warm fall evening.

Hamza later immigrated to the United States, resettling in a major northeastern city.  He recalled to us with a certain amount of wonder how, not long after his arrival in the US, friends invited him out on the town.  Shortly after leaving his apartment, he stopped short and wanted to return to his room since he had forgotten all of his immigration papers.  His comrades all laughed at his naïveté, for he thought there would be checkpoints along the way, or that random police officers would stop him and ask to see his papers as routinely happened in his previous life.  His pals had been in the US longer than him, and of course knew that such things didn’t really happen, and even it were to happen, the consequences would be few since he was, indeed, legally in the country, and therefore free to generally go where he pleased without interference.

The world sure is full of interesting people.

What’s Next?
Perhaps you recall that I’ve written about the somewhat crazy, always puzzling, occasionally opaque, and sporadically transparent process we in the Foreign Service go through for acquiring our next job.   The short summary is that we have a computer application which shows every single job in the world, both overseas and domestic, and if searched correctly, one can see which positions are available at which point in time in the future.  The trick is to search for jobs one is qualified for based on one’s current title and rank, previous experience, and future plans, and then actually apply for, interview for, and receive an offer for that job.  It sounds an awful lot like finding a job in any marketplace, I suppose, and in a sense of course it is.  And once an FSO has reached the mid-level or above (basically the third tour and after), we are no longer directed into positions by others and essentially have to go through all the effort of finding an onward assignment by ourselves.  Every two years or so.  It’s a stressful process; exciting sometimes, but stressful.  Imagine:  The world is your oyster!  The possibilities seem endless!  But sometimes, depending on lots of factors, you wind up with a Rocky Mountain Oyster instead. 

My job here in Iraq is a one-year tour (May ‘18 to May ’19), and I accepted the position in this high threat post (we call them PSPs, or Priority Staffing Posts, which are in places like Iraq, Pakistan or Afghanistan, or not actually in but covering the issues for Libya, Syria and Yemen) without a linked assignment.  Links occur when officers agree to a PSP job, and before they’ve even left for that job have secured the job after that, precisely because they agreed to work in a tough place.  It’s a controversial practice for a number of reasons, but in my case I didn’t have the opportunity for a linked assignment due to the timing of my position becoming available, and so I came here without that security.

There are a number of other benefits to taking a PSP job, but for me the priority was to be able to do the job I signed up for seven years ago, and to do it overseas.  All FSOs know that we are generalists and will certainly work outside our chosen field on occasion, but I had yet to work in my chosen field (Public Diplomacy) since I took my oath, and this was that chance.  My second priority was to be able to find a follow-on assignment that I liked, doing interesting work in PD and in a place I wanted to serve, based in part on the fact that I volunteered to serve in a PSP job, despite not having a linked assignment.  In my case, I had the promise only of “the possibility of an early handshake,” which meant that if I went through the process of finding a job I liked, and getting post and the associated bureau back in DC to agree to hire me for that job, they “might” agree to give me a conditional offer (what we call a handshake) in advance of when the official handshakes are publicized.  Formally, this was my only advantage in the bidding process, that “possibility.”  Unofficially, I hoped that having volunteered for a PSP job would carry some weight with the decision makers, but this is not quantifiable and can’t be known in advance, and obviously is only really helpful if I’m actually doing a good job while I’m here.

So I went through the process of looking for my next assignment like a normal human being, seeing what jobs were going to be available at the right time in the future, calculating the amount of time needed for training (language and the like), contacting the person currently in the position, later contacting the supervisor of that person, contacting decision makers back in Washington, preparing my Foreign Service resume and associated documents, finding people to write letters of recommendation, and on and on and on.  (Recall for a moment we do this every two or three years.)  The standard bidding season, as we call it, starts in mid-September (for those of us who transfer from post to post in summer months), and officially ends by the last week of October when official handshakes are offered, roughly five weeks total.  However, to make the process work to my advantage, as much as that was possible, I started laying the groundwork way back in April, seeing what jobs were available, contacting people to make my name known, assembling references.

About a week prior to when bidding season opened, I had what I considered a solid list of options, in places that fit my criteria, and for which I felt I had at least a decent chance of getting a handshake.  We’re supposed to bid on at least five jobs, but no more than ten.  My list included ten PD jobs in places such as Helsinki, Warsaw, Reykjavik, Tirana (Albania), Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan), Rabat (Morocco), and Maputo (Mozambique).  The Deputy Public Affairs job in Bratislava, Slovakia was our top choice for lots of reasons, and we were really hoping that my experience and our connections (yes, it’s now often about who you know more than anything else, at least to get a look-see) would give us a good chance at this job.  One by one jobs began falling by the wayside as a post would find themselves a solid candidate, and then email me with the news that yes, I was a strong candidate, but “we found someone we like better,” or a variety of other scenarios.  The day before bidding season actually opened, I still had several posts from my list in play and had received some positive feedback from them, but knew they were very competitive and so I needed back-up plans in case none of them panned out. 

Then on the day bidding season officially began, a new job popped up on the list that I had not known would even be an option.  No one did until that day.  I immediately contacted the appropriate people and made my desires known, and then the waiting began in earnest.

Once the season officially starts, candidates for those jobs have to dance the delicate minuet of deciding how much attention to pay to those whom we are courting.  A lot of attention to the right decision maker can be helpful to your odds; a lot of attention to the wrong decision maker (those who are annoyed by being pestered) can kill your chances.  The reverse is also true.  And of course it’s unlikely that candidates will have any idea which decision maker is either irritated or flattered by the amount of attention a candidate gives.  The hardest parts to me are not knowing how much attention is the right amount, and the waiting while not knowing how the machine is churning behind the scenes.

I interviewed for several positions, felt they went well and that I had a solid chance for at least one offer, which of course is all you need.  October 1st was the first day early handshakes “could be” offered for those of us eligible.  The day came and went and October dragged on with no email notification of a handshake.  I vacillated between wanting to email people to check on my candidacy and sitting on my hands waiting.  I talked to or emailed people who are more senior and who know more details about the process, and practiced a lot of deep breathing.  Days went by and still no news.  Just then I took a chance and inquired with Bratislava, our top choice:  No dice.  Needless to say we were disappointed, but this was the game.  I immediately contacted another post to let them know that their open position was my top choice, and I would be very pleased to accept if they offered a handshake.  Lots of emails and text messages with my best girl about what to do in case I didn’t get a handshake at all:  What would we do then?  Where would we consider?  If we cast our net into tougher places (most of Africa, for example, or another PSP post), would a handshake be easier?  Should we consider DC again?  Is that what we really wanted?

October 29th was approaching, which was the day official handshakes (distinct from early handshakes) could first be offered by the various bureaus back in DC.  (The bureau and each post work together to make decisions but the bureau makes the formal offer.)  Strong hints had been given (in particular one euphemistically, and unofficially but universally known as an “air kiss”) and I felt confident – but not too confident, that’s the ‘kiss’ of death, haha – about one job in particular (the one no one knew about originally), but still the waiting went on.  Four days before official handshakes would first go out, I received the email I was waiting for:  An “early” official offer of a handshake.  (Not complaining really; early or not I did get a handshake, after all.)

I immediately replied with my acceptance, and so now when I’m done with this tour in May 2019, I’ll head back to DC for a year of language and other training in anticipation of a two-year tour (with an option for a third year) as the Cultural Affairs Officer at the Consulate General in Istanbul, Turkey.

We’re pretty darn excited!

R&R #2
It seems like it’s been months since I’ve seen my Team.  Probably that’s because it’s been months.  Over the course of this one-year tour, I calculated that I’ll only see Kate for about four or five weeks total, and the kids even less.  This is one of the reasons such posts are tough, but of course we knew all of this going into it.  Some folks have it harder, particularly my military colleagues.  But FSOs get three R&Rs from Iraq, and number two is coming up next month for me.

Really looking forward to being able to celebrate the handshake for our next tour with my girl in Germany and Austria while hitting all the Christmas markets in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Munich, Salzburg and Innsbruck.  And of course drinking all the glühwein, too!  Then I get to spend Christmas in Paris with my Dishy!!  Also some friends, and they are important and all, but … Christmas in Paris with my Sophie!! 

I wish Tommy and Jenna would be able to join us, but the stars haven’t aligned for us this time.  Maybe for R&R number three in the spring we’ll be able to have the whole Team together again.  Already looking forward to that.

Until Next Time!
Well, if you made it this far and haven’t yet fallen asleep or lost interest, I thank you.  Sorry to have put you through all the rigmarole of the bidding process, but on the flip side if you read it all and now know where we’ll be from June 2020 on, you’ll have a place to stay and a Turkish-speaking guide!  Can’t wait for you to join us so we can share some tea, dolma, sarma or döner kebabs together!

All things considered, we are doing well, despite the separation.  We hope you can say the same.

US flag at sunset on 9/11/18.
Consulate General of the United States,
Erbil, Iraq.

The opinions expressed within are my own and not those of the U.S. Government.
Please do not disseminate widely without permission.


  1. Loved reading every word! What a game you play for assignments!!

  2. It really is, Gloria! Thanks for the note, too!