Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Interesting Times

This is my front porch where I sit, read, smoke my cigars and relax!

Merry Christmas!

In Muslim countries the Christmas season coincides with the celebration of Eid. This celebration honors the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son upon God's command. After passing the 'willingness' test, Abraham was permitted to substitute a sacrificial animal for his son. Today, the Eid celebration, much like Christmas, involves family time, the exchange of small gifts and the sacrifice of an animal (or a badly behaved son). Goats, cows and camels are the preferred sacrificial beasts and there are two markets in Islamabad that sell these animals.

The other day I saw an article in the local paper about these markets and the high prices the animals were fetching this year. Goats were being offered at prices starting at $100! Cows were upwards from $500 and camels, well, don't even get me started on camels. Apparently, it's outrageous and the sounds of great and many lamentations were heard throughout the city. So, I thought I'd wander over and check the markets out. It would be an opportunity to see something unique and different and I'd try to take a few pictures. Prior to doing anything of this nature, we check with the RSO (Regional Security Office) to make sure it's okay. In the politest possible terms the RSO asked me if I was out of my cotton-pickin' mind and explained that the markets would be full of very disgruntled men who couldn't afford to buy the most critical component of their Eid celebration. Many of these men go about armed and could well resent having a Westerner wandering around photographing their plight. Under those circumstances, he explained, and because all Westerners are thought to be wealthy, I might just as well go into the markets wearing a sign on my back that read, "Kill me and rob me". Hopefully, this will explain the lack of some really interesting pictures of the animal markets on this posting.

The Eid holiday was Thursday and Friday and our Christmas break was Monday and Tuesday, so most of our locally employed staff were given a six day break. Because we were busy preparing for various visiting delegations and the Pakistan national elections, the Americans in the Embassy worked almost straight through the break. We were ordered to take Christmas day off and without that command, one Grinch or another would have surely called a meeting! Two of my colleagues hosted a Christmas dinner and invited thirty or so of us over to eat, drink and celebrate. The evening was a great success and provided some welcome relief from the pressures of preparing for our visitors and getting ready for the upcoming elections while attending to the day to day business of running an Embassy.

The following day (Wednesday) the first of our delegations arrived and we went into action like a well oiled machine. This particular group was headed up by Senator Arlen Specter and included Congressman Kennedy. They had a full agenda of meetings with various officials and dignitaries including President Musharraf and General Majid who is the new Chief of Staff of the Pakistan army. So, bright and early Thursday morning we hammered down the motorway to Rawalpindi to attend the first meeting of the day with General Majid. The good General thoughtfully provided a very nice room for the security detail, the drivers and me and we enjoyed his hospitality while the delegation met with him. Then, exactly one hour later, we were back in formation for the return trip to Islamabad and our appointment with President Musharraf at the Presidential Palace. It was a beautiful day so we opted to stand around with the cars rather than sit in the waiting room while the meeting took place. I'm sure you would be very interested in what took place in those meetings, but I don't actually attend any of them. However, I know from the people who do attend that it goes something like this...after greetings and pleasantries one or another worthy says, "blah, blah, blah blah" and someone responds with "yes, but blah, blah, blah blah" Then there is much nodding and shaking of heads and a few more "blah,blah blah's" It all gets summed up in the end with "blah, blah blah" everyone shakes hands and that's all there is to it.

The agenda had some free time for our visitors after their meeting with the President and I escorted Congressman Kennedy to the National Heritage Museum. It's a small facility on the outskirts of the city and is quite complete in its representation of Pakistan's culture and history. A Punjabi folk group played native instruments for the Congressman as we left and he had a great time. Then we escorted Senator Specter to the Islamabad Club where it had been arranged for him to play a squash match against a former world champion. The Senator seemed delighted with the competition and was in a great mood as we headed back into Islamabad so he could get ready for dinner with Musharraf and then a late night meeting with Benazir Bhutto.

We heard about the attack on Bhutto on the way back to the hotel and spent the rest of the evening trying to sift the facts from the rumors. As the truth gradually became known, all further meetings and events were cancelled and the delegation decided to depart the next morning. We took them out to Chaklala air base under heavy escort and saw them safely out of the country. Our return trip to the city was temporarily delayed because demonstrators had set fire to the road. For those of you interested in precisely how you set fire to a road, tires soaked in gasoline will do the trick. As soon as it was safe, we drove back without incident. The country was locked down in anticipation of widespread violence and we returned to the Embassy to wait, watch and plan. Later that night we were all safe in our own homes watching CNN or BBC. Communications with the States were nearly impossible because the sheer volume of phone calls and internet usage overloaded the systems here.

Things are quiet in Islamabad and the violence in the other cities has subsided today (Saturday). Bhutto has been buried next to her father in their family plot in Karachi and there is no indication as to whether or not the elections will go forward as planned on January 8th. The current debate on the local news broadcasts questions exactly how she was killed. Early reports suggested that she was shot prior to the bomb explosion but now the government maintains that she wasn't hit by bullets, shrapnel or pellets and that she died as a result of hitting her head on part of the sunroof as she fell back into her car. She had been standing up through the sunroof waving to the crowd as she left the rally when she was attacked. I suppose it's important to know the details, but the end result is the same; there was a successful assassination attempt on Benazir Bhutto and it has thrown Pakistan into even more turmoil than usual. Many nations have expressed outrage at the act and sympathy for the Pakistani people and the Swiss government announced today that it was dropping its money laundering charges against her...but would continue to pursue them against her husband. Hey, business is business!

I'll be back at work tomorrow (Sunday) trying to figure out how to run a motor pool without gas as all fuel deliveries have been temporarily halted by government decree. Maybe I can requisition some of those unsold sacrificial animals to lug people around? "Yes, Ambassador, the big camel in the front is yours, Ma'am. Watch your step and don't ruin your shoes in that pile of ..."

I've settled into my house and find that I like it more and more. It seems that, for one reason or another, several other diplomats were offered my house before me but turned it down. In fact, it sometimes feels like everyone I meet had a shot at living here before getting a place they deemed more suitable. For some it is too noisy, for others too small and for one woman it was, "not a place where a single woman would be comfortable". It is on the main Margalla Road, but that puts it across the street from the Margalla Hills and the afternoon sun lights them up beautifully. There is noise from the road, but not more noise than you'd find in any similar city. It has two very comfortable bedrooms instead of the six or seven commonly found in our houses here, but we are all here alone so how many bedrooms does one 'single woman' require? The furniture is Embassy furniture and, while very nice, is exactly the same in every residence, big or small. The yard is among the largest in our inventory of houses and has been whipped into shape by the gardeners in a very short time. It's true, I have a mosque across the street and the Imam leads prayers with an impressive sound system but show me a street in this country that does not have a mosque on every corner. All in all, I think my house is just fine and legions of diplomats to come can reject it again after I'm gone, but for now, I'll live here quite happily.

These are some of the bananas ripening on the tree in my back yard.

These are the trees I look at while I'm sitting on my front porch.

And this is the interior of my "too small, unsuitable, oft rejected" rent free house.

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