Saturday, May 19, 2007

I Saw Salman Ahmad!!

My colleague Lisa is in the ConGen course right now, learning the duties and responsibilities associated with her upcoming position as Vice-Consul in Islamabad. The fellow sitting next to her in that class was invited to the Pakistani Embassy last Friday night to attend a diplomatic reception followed by a concert. At the last minute, he discovered that he was unable to go and asked Lisa if she'd like to go in his place. She didn't want to go alone and asked if I could go with her since we are both headed for Islamabad. So, in this very round-a-bout way I was more or less invited, by the Pakistani Ambassador, to a reception and concert at the Embassy. At any rate I'm fairly positive that the first assistant to his personal secretary was probably somewhat aware that I was coming along with someone who was replacing the original invitee.

So...having been invited to my first official diplomatic event, how would I dress? Well, the invitation was quite specific on this point and dress was to be 'informal'. Lisa suggested that I might want to interpret that as 'business informal' and I changed out of my jeans and Def Leppard t-shirt and into khakis, a button down shirt and a tie. I hoped I wouldn't stand out as the 'over-dressed' bozo at the party.

Nature, in all its glory, would be hard pressed to equal the splendor of a room full of Pakistani women dressed for an 'informal' event. They came into the reception hall in small groups like schools of brightly colored reef fish and moved around the room like flocks of tropical birds. They were all wearing the traditional Khalwar Shameeses and flashed and sparkled with gold and silver jewelry. If there was a woman in that room who had spent less than two hours on her hair and make-up, I didn't see her. The Pakistani men were all, without exception, wearing dark business suits. Fortunately, I wasn't the only man in the room not wearing a dark suit. Most of the 'foreign' guests were dressed less formally than the Pakistanis, including a couple of Neanderthals wearing jeans and polo shirts. The very nerve! Apparently, in diplo-speak 'informal' means don't bother to wear your tux.

Because Pakistan is an Islamic country, the bar served soft drinks and fruit drinks but no alcohol. Nonetheless, conversation was lively and people seemed to be enjoying themselves in the reception hall. I met a Consular Officer and his wife who were from Lahore and they told me quite a bit about their city in particular and Pakistan in general. After speaking with them for quite a while, I've moved Lahore to the top of my 'must visit' list.

The food was excellent and plentiful so Lisa and I filled our plates, diplomatically, and snuck back for seconds. Then we went upstairs to the concert. Salman Ahmad is known as the John Lennon of Pakistan. He's quite a famous guy in that part of the world and had been invited here by the Ambassador to sing just for this event. He accompanied himself on the electric guitar and had a tamboori player sitting alongside him. That was very special for this event because the tamboori player was an Indian man and, given the historical state of tension between Pakistan and India, it was somewhat unprecedented that an Indian musician would be allowed to play at an official event in the Pakistani Embassy. Salman Ahmad is a Sufi Muslim which is a less well-known branch of the religion than Sunni or Shiite. They are the pacifists of Islam and seek to promote understanding and tolerance everywhere. Salman Ahmad also spends much of his time, talent and money helping to develop HIV/Aids awareness throughout the underdeveloped nations of the world. I suppose that's why he's known as Pakistan's John Lennon, that and the pony-tail. His music was good, in fact, it was very good. It's sort of driving rock & roll with a distinct Urdu flavor and the tamboori drums really had the place rocking.

I bought one of his cd's after the concert and have just spent an hour trying to put a song on this blog, but for the life of me I can't figure out how to do it. If anyone knows how to attach an mp3 file to a blog, I'd be grateful for the information.

The parking lots at the FSI are set in a circle around the perimeter of the campus. There are unmanned security gates at each of the outer lots and you gain access by putting your security id into a sensor and punching in your individual code number. Often this will cause the gate to unlatch and you can proceed through it to the campus. Sometimes, however, the gate does not unlatch right away and you need to reinsert your card and try again. If you are in a hurry or the weather is bad the gate never works and people behind you in line begin offering helpful suggestions. I like to use the lot behind the Language Building because it is the closest lot with the shortest walk and I'm basically lazy. It was pouring rain and cold one morning a week or so ago and by the time I got to the gate there was a line of frustrated language instructors trying to get through. The language instructors are mostly women in their late forties to early sixties and the 'helpful' suggestions they were giving each other in all the languages in the known world would have shamed a carnival barker. I'm quite certain I recognized the Bulgarian word for 'donkey' used several times.

I'm currently in my second module of GSO training. Last week in Module One we were given Tools of Management. These turned out to be things like Group Dynamics, Conducting Effective Meetings, Time Management etc. One earnest presenter even took the time to explain the clip art he'd put on his PowerPoint presentation while he read it to us. They all seemed to be required to read their presentations to us and to give us hard copies of the slides for posterity. Tools for management indeed, I'm sure that in some way I'm a better man for it.

This week is better. Module Two is Acquisitions and we'll be learning how to buy things on behalf of the government. Believe it or not, I'll be getting a credit card with a $5,500,000 limit on it. I have run a Mapquest on the closest Ferrari dealership and am now accepting applications for 'trophy wives' (Note the plural). I suspect that some form of regulation will come along with the card, but for now I intend to engage in massive acquisition planning. Learning to spend the government's money is hard work and I fully intend to become good at it.

Finally, I went into DC this past weekend and spent an afternoon at the Museum of the American Indian. It's well worth your time if you come to visit. The building itself is quite beautiful and I'll stick a couple of photos of it here.

So, until next time 'Haam kaal malingay' or 'see you again'.

Friday, May 04, 2007

ليرى گغعمعل

As close as I can come to it, that's my name in Urdu. You have to read it from right to left and please don't forget that 'chotti yey' and 'bari yey' are only one letter even though they have two different shapes and two different pronounciations. The Urdu alphabet has thirty-eight letters with three long vowels, including the aforementioned two forms of the 'yey' vowel that somehow only count as one, and three short vowels that seem to dance around the letters without ever becoming a connected part of a word. Most of these thirty-eight letters have four written forms or shapes, three of these are the initial, medial and final shapes. They also have an independent shape, but that is never used except for the letters that are known to one and all as 'non-connectors'. There is also, apparently, one letter that is never used at all...but I may have misunderstood that last bit. Confused?...Read on!

We learn the letters in their independent shapes which are never actually used in writing because that would be akin to the printed form of the letters and Urdu is only written in script. It is a visually attractive language, but much more difficult to learn than Cyrillic. The letters and the sounds associated with them are unlike anything I've ever seen or heard. Many of the letters have sounds that are nearly indistinguishable from each other to me. Reciting the letters 'te' and 'Te', 'dal' and 'Dal', 'hay' and 'hey', and 'noon' and 'Noon' still earn me scowls of frustration from Mr. Qasim and an exasperated, "Once again, Mr. Larry, once again!", and don't get me started on the four 'S' letters which are totally unique, individual and distinct from each other yet are all pronounced exactly the same way! There are also at least two of the famous, "I'm not clearing my throat, I'm talking to you!" letters which are much more difficult to pronounce correctly than you'd ever guess. I've never felt as much sympathy for Eliza Doolittle as I do now.

An additional problem is that Urdu is a very rich language, a language of poets, and each letter and word must be pronounced correctly or the meaning of the sentence can be subtly changed. I'm about as subtle as a jackhammer and Urdu poets everywhere roll over in their graves each time I open my mouth. There are only three of us taking the Early Morning Urdu class and we have all been assigned to Islamabad. Lisa and I were in A-100 together, while John is heading there as his third or fourth tour. We'll have eighteen weeks of daily one hour classes then they'll both leave for Pakistan. I'll stay here for the summer, go through a whole smorgasbord of training, and finish up in September and October with six weeks of 'eight hours a day' Urdu. Asallamo alaikum!

Between the end of Early Morning Urdu in July and beginning FAST Urdu in September I can use the language labs and library at FSI to maintain the finely developed skills I'm honing right now. When I get to post, I should have an opportunity to improve further because I'll be working primarily with our Pakistani employees. Of course, my plan in Bulgaria was to speak only Bulgarian with my colleagues every day and that only lasted until we'd exchanged greetings in the morning and then we barrelled along in English the rest of the day. I'm pretty sure that our employees in the embassy also speak English so I've got to be more determined this time. My plan is to only speak Urdu and if they insist on switching to English, I'll answer them in Bulgarian!

This is a picture of me after studying Urdu for fifteen minutes without a break.

Status in Peace Corps was often determined by how rough your living conditions were and the size of the parasites that you acquired in your country. At the Foreign Service Institute, status is at least partially determined by the language you're studying and Urdu ranks right up there with Arabic and Chinese for top of the heap honors. But it isn't the only thing I'm doing by a long shot.

Next week I have a Gap Week. That's a planned break in my training schedule to allow me to take care of the myriad administrative tasks that have to be completed prior to my departure. I need to check in with the Medical people to set up my shots and vaccinations, touch base with the Travel Desk to make tentative flight reservations, begin the paperwork to acquire my Diplomatic Passport and Pakistani visa, meet with my Human Resources officer to ensure that my orders are cut in a timely fashion and talk to the Shipping folks to help make a decision about whether or not to bring the Volvo to Pakistan. I'll also be able to spend a lot of time at the Main State building in Washington researching Pakistan, our embassy in Islamabad and the job I'll be doing there. Of course, Early Morning Urdu will press right along during the Gap Week. From Urdu there is no respite. The truth is that I am really excited about having the opportunity to learn this language. One hundred and fifty million Pakistanis and nearly one billion Indians speak one or another form of the language and I'm determined to understand it when they say to each other, "Let's see if we can get this guy to eat these bugs by telling him they're clumps of fried rice!"