Thursday, September 27, 2007


This, the ninth month of the Islamic (lunar) calendar, is called Ramadan. This is a time for reflection, charity, prayer and, of course, fasting. Apart from the very young, the very old, the sick or infirm, nursing mothers and travellers, devout Muslims are expected to fast during Ramadan. The first meal of the day must be finished before the morning prayers at sunrise then nothing can be eaten or drunk until after the evening prayers at sunset. Devout Muslims won't even take a sip of water on a scorching hot day during Ramadan. The practice of fasting during Ramadan is one of the five pillars of Islam. The other four being the profession of faith that Allah is the one true God and Mohammad is his prophet, the obligation to make a pilgrimage, or Hajj, to Mecca once during one's lifetime (finances permitting), praying five times each day and performing regular acts of charity.

Our team of Urdu instructors are a truly wonderful group of people who go out of their way to teach us much more than just the language of their country. They believe it to be every bit as important for us to learn, understand and appreciate the culture and customs of Pakistan as it is for us to master the ability to ask for directions to the bathroom. Ramadan, or Ramzan in Urdu, is taking place now and our teachers have gone to great lengths to explain what is happening, why it's happening and what it means to them.

For example, today we were all invited to help prepare and eat Iftar with our instructors. Iftar is the meal served just after sundown and it can be as simple or as elaborate as you may want to make it. After class we met at an instructor's home and began to cook. Out of respect for our Pakistani hosts, who hadn't eaten since before sunrise, we refrained from eating or drinking anything during the afternoon. Most of us had eaten lunch just before we left FSI so this wasn't quite as big a sacrifice as it might seem. In my own case, a double bacon cheeseburger with fries and an ice cream cone kept me from fainting away during the long afternoon.

Tasnim Razi is our senior instructor and she made sure that we were all participating in the preparation of the food and that no one spoke any English. An instructor lapsing into English would be quickly brought back to task with "Ingrezi nihiin!!". We even played charades in Urdu. Have you ever tried acting out a word pronounced something like "ghhhrrgghnn"? Until today, neither had I. So we talked and we walked around the house identifying as many objects as we could and we played charades, but mostly we cooked. We cooked a huge feast of homeric proportions. Our hosts provided the food and the know-how and we supplied the willing, if moderately incompetent, labor. Under the inspired leadership of Malik Sahab, I made the salad.

By 7:00pm the students were keeping a close watch on the sun and the hungriest of us began to argue that, because the sun had gone behind a neighbor's roofline, it had technically set for us and we should eat. Surely the Prophet would agree. Funny enough there is a specific set time each day for Iftar and your neighbor's roofline has nothing to do with it. Who knew? Eventually, of course, the sun did set (it's almost inevitable that it will) and the fast was broken with sips of water and a 'khajoor'. 'Khajoors' are dates and they're the first food eaten after sunset. Then the Muslim men all went into the downstairs room to pray. While they were praying, the food was set out buffet style on a long table and we put out plates, forks, napkins and other necessities. We kept circling the table like kids at a game of Musical Chairs. Tasnim and the other female instructors were urging us to eat, saying that we weren't expected to fast. However, we felt that out of consideration for our hosts, who hadn't eaten since before sunrise, we should refrain from digging in.

Unless you're starving to death, because all you've had to eat since noon was a double bacon cheeseburger, fries and an ice cream cone, Iftar prayers are actually quite short. The men came back upstairs and Tasnim led the ladies and then the men in to the feast. Each dish smelled better than the one before and I fully intended to make a complete pig of myself until I remembered that there is an absolute prohibition against pork amongst Muslims, so I decided to make a cow of myself instead (thereby offending the three Hindus who had joined us). I loaded up with kabobs, chickpea curry, assorted vegetable dishes, meatballs in a gravy sauce and beef in a rice/curry dish. There was just room on top for a couple of slices of warm flat bread and I was off to find a seat.

I found a spot at a table with three instructors and was pleased to see that they, too, had filled their plates. The first thing I tried was a curry of beans and veggies. As I lifted the fork, one of my instructors said, "You'll like that curry, it's milder than the chickpea one." I smiled and shoveled the first forkful of food into my mouth that I'd eaten since noon. Flames immediately shot out of every opening in my body (just another reason to be thankful I've never had anything pierced) and I lost the ability to see, hear, think and play the piano. My instructors were, apparently, saying something to me, which I can only assume was the Islamic Prayer for the Dead, but I couldn't respond because my mouth was filled with radioactive curry, my nose was running like a track meet and I was weeping like a schoolgirl. Then I realized that I would have to finish every bite on my plate or risk offending my very gracious hosts, the people who will grade my efforts in Urdu...weeping like a schoolgirl with a broken heart. Bite by bite I managed to eat it all and they were right, the beans and veggies curry was milder than the chickpea curry and almost every other thing on my plate. I'm glad I know that now and I'm certain that the ringing in my ears will subside in a month or two.

This is a shot of me helping my classmate Stetson get the dessert ready.

Dave and I are preparing the salad under the watchful eye of Zaki Sahab.

This is the team that won the First Annual Urdu Iftar Charades Championship!

Malik Sahab has been my tutor since day one...way back in May.

I have a second hand Volvo that has been, for the most part, fairly reliable. Last Friday a message popped up on a small screen telling me that my driver's side low headlight beam had burned out. I looked up a Volvo dealer online, called them to verify that they could stick in a new bulb while I waited, noted that they were less than twenty minutes away and headed out. I managed to get to their general vicinity and then called to ask for directions. I spoke to Allen. Apparently, Allen or I misunderstood where I was and how to get from there to the Volvo dealership because I wandered off into parts of Virginia that still sheltered hopeful remnants of the Confederate Army. I saw Buick, Saturn, BMW, Jeep, Chevrolet, Ford and Hyundai dealerships, but couldn't spot the elusive Volvo lot. Finally, after circling the area for about two and one half hours, I called Allen to say that I was throwing in the towel and heading home. He expressed sympathy.

The next morning, Saturday, I awoke refreshed and determined to get my headlight fixed. This time I carefully wrote down the directions and, after calling to be sure that they were open and could change my bulb, I headed out once again. Allen expressed hope. I made it to the Volvo dealership without making more than a few wrong turns and asked to speak to Allen. I was told that he had just left for lunch. I explained that I was the guy he'd been giving directions to the day before and I'd finally made it in to have my light fixed. The man I was talking to put his hand on my shoulder and shouted out to everyone in the dealership, "Hey! The Lost Guy is here! This is the Lost Guy!" I was a minor celebrity and now I know how Brad Pitt feels. They took my car away, changed both headlights and didn't charge me.

I think I'll bring them a bowl of chickpea curry to thank them. I'll have to warn them, of course, that it's a 'little' spicy.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Chez Gemmell

Islamabad used to be a jewel in the Foreign Service crown. It was an extremely desirable post and was generally staffed with senior people who enjoyed the weather, the hospitality of the Pakistani people, the opportunities for travel in the region and the amenities. Now it is considered a Danger/Hardship post and families are not allowed to accompany or visit the FSOs posted there. Danger/Hardship posts are generally one year assignments and that's the case with Islamabad. I'll have a full year of the weather, the hospitality and the opportunities to travel but until I actually get to Islamabad, I won't really be able to describe those things in any great detail.

However, I can begin to describe some of the amenities because I've recently been assigned a house. Just like in the Peace Corps, housing is provided by the government as part of the deal. In Islamabad, the assigned housing is also furnished, so all the FSOs need to bring with them are the things that make a place feel more like their own homes. That, too, is just like the Peace Corps. We have no responsibility for finding our own places, they are simply allocated to us from housing already under contract. Again, this is very similar to the Peace Corps experience. The housing itself, however, is different from most Peace Corps accommodations. For one thing, you don't need to hold an umbrella over your head when you sit on the john because the water tank above the toilet leaks in a steady drip.

Here are some pictures of the furnished house I'll be living in for my year in Islamabad.

There are four bedrooms and four bathrooms. Other than that, it is no more or less splendid than your average palatial mansion in any similarly gated and guarded community. Thank goodness I'll have enough storage space for my golf clubs! The impression of life in Pakistan today, created by the news media, is one of anarchic chaos with mobs of unruly men marching up and down streets chanting anti-this or anti-that slogans. While this makes for good tv, it probably isn't a totally accurate picture of everyday life over there. I can make that statement with confidence because I've been told to bring my golf clubs with me. There is a group of three men who play every Sunday morning and they need to fill in the foursome. So, I'm packing my 36 handicap and my bag of clubs and I'll be teeing it up on the weekends.

I've been in touch with several people who are there now and they all seem to be enjoying the experience. They're working long hours every week but still find the time to get out and sample the local markets, nightlife and sights. I'm putting together a list of places I want to see during my stay and have my cameras and video equipment all set to go.

My immediate supervisor has let me know that I'll be responsible for the motorpool and shipping. I may acquire other responsibilities when I get there, but I'll start out with motorpool and shipping. We have a full complement of FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals, in this case, Pakistanis) working at the embassy and I'll be supervising the guys who handle the shipping of personal effects to and from post and the drivers and maintenance guys who play with the vehicles. I'm hoping that this will give me a chance to use and improve my Urdu. I'm already learning to say, "Where is my personal armored vehicle?"

Now life consists of Urdu lessons that begin at 7:30am every day. I have five one hour sessions with a different teacher each hour. Then I have a break for lunch, after which I'm expected to spend approximately three hours in the language lab taking advantage of the wealth of resources found there. There is, of course, homework every night and a take-home quiz every Friday. The Foreign Service takes language study very seriously! There are times when my brain gets so fried that I answer an Urdu question in Bulgarian.

So now I have just over seven weeks to go. I have a to-do list a mile long and an apartment that is filling up with stuff that will have to be shipped to Islamabad. I have an Urdu quiz to complete and my fantasy baseball team to manage. Oh well, it beats working.

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Passport Task Force

I spent the month of August working on the Passport Task Force. Passport applications from far and wide are sent in to any of the several passport adjudication centers around the country and are reviewed, in most cases, by professional civil servants who have been thoroughly trained to detect and differentiate between legitimate and fraudulent requests. However, due to the tremendous backlog in applications, there are times when the applications are reviewed by someone with less training and skill someone, for instance, like me.

A legitimate US passport is a highly sought after document. It is proof of American citizenship and is forged and counterfeited almost as often as our money. The documentation required to acquire a legitimate passport is forged and counterfeited in far greater numbers than the passports themselves. Passport adjudication requires that someone check each piece of submitted documentation and determine its legitimacy and then to approve or disapprove the application. We call approving a passport application based on forged documentation "making an American". Once a person holds a legitimate US passport, they are an American. Those of us from the Foreign Service who were press-ganged into adjudication probably "made" a lot more Americans than the Civil Servants who were hired to adjudicate as their vocation, but we also knocked the numbers in the backlog down quite a bit too and I personally think of "making Americans" as "expanding the tax base".

We also check for "Holds" or reasons why a US citizen cannot be issued a passport. The most common Hold and the one that gives us the greatest pleasure for denial, is 'non-payment of child support'. If you are a deadbeat parent, mother or father, you cannot have a passport until the money you owe in child support is paid in full. The national media have carried several stories about the huge amount of money that's been collected from deadbeat parents who have just learned that they can't even go to Canada or Mexico with their new husband/wife until their debt is paid. It was the little pleasures, like catching deadbeats, that kept us all from going insane.

Mostly Passport Task Force was Passport Purgatory; a place where we had a meeting at nine o'clock every morning to be told that day's new rules. The rules on stapling and unstapling the packets of documents changed every day, as did the rules regarding the second photo and so did the rules on when we were supposed to work and when we weren't. Initially, we were required to put in at least 48 hours a week. This included a Saturday, but we could work longer hours on weekdays to cut down on the time we had to spend in the office on Saturday. Then the rule changed and we could only work eight hours a day on weekdays and had to put in eight full hours on Saturday. Then the rules changed again and we were told that we could no longer work through lunch, but had to put in eight and one half hours per weekday with a half hour lunch. Saturdays would be paid as overtime and a four page memo was sent to us describing the forms we had to fill out to actually receive the overtime pay for the mandatory hours worked. However, if you were a GS10-10 level or higher you wouldn't receive time and one-half but straight time. That was later clarified (during a subsequent 9:00am meeting) to assure everyone that no one would take an actual cut in pay for working the mandatory Saturday overtime. When it was pointed out that most of us are not on the GS payscales, we had to have another 9:00am meeting to address that bit of news. Periodically, one manager or another would wander through, apparently, to boost morale and our shackles would be loosened slightly so we could applaud. On the plus side, one very senior member of the State Department sat at a desk and worked alongside us for the better part of two weeks. That really did have a tremendous effect on morale and the example he set was extremely positive. Also, the on-site supervisors were excellent and offered support, knowledge and great attitudes.

So, in spite of senior management's best efforts, we managed to significantly reduce the amount of the backlog with a lot of good-natured kidding around and a little bit of hard work. I personally viewed it as an interesting experience, but I'm glad that I've completed my assignment and am now in Urdu full time.

I've had four months of Early Morning Urdu lessons. My routine was simple, I would report to Urdu, have a one hour lesson (usually with Malik Sahib) then go on to another course or, through August, rush downtown to do passports. However, for the next nine weeks I won't have anything other than Urdu to occupy my time and thoughts. It began today with a full day of orientation and tomorrow we get right into reviewing what I've learned during the past four months. After two weeks of review and evaluation, the Urdu language staff will begin to help me move up to the next level. In my case, I have to go up to reach a Zero/Zero, but I'm determined to put in the required time and effort. I'll have about four hours of classroom time a day with a different teacher each hour and then mandatory language lab time followed by at least three hours of homework (self-study) each night. The schedule is pretty intense and leaves precious little time for Fantasy Baseball.

There are six of us in the Urdu group. A fellow about my age took the seat next to me and we introduced ourselves. His name is David and I asked him if he's being sent to Pakistan. "I'm hoping to get there, if they change the rules," he said. I wondered what rules had to change and he explained that he's an EFM (Eligible Family Member) and, currently, EFMs aren't allowed to accompany their FSO spouses to Islamabad. "So," I said, "is your wife already working in Islamabad?" David said that she was already there and he was hoping to join her after completing the Urdu course. "That's nice," I said, "what does she do there?" "She's the Ambassador," he said.

I believe I've heard of that job.

Passport adjudication requires a keen eye, a dogged perseverance, an attention to detail not found in the common man and the two stamps I'm holding in my hands.