Middle East War Story Interrupted

Old Chinese saying: “As long as you’re planning a journey, you own the journey. The minute you embark on that journey, the journey owns you.”

I officially embarked on my journey to Am Consul Karachi at the State Department cafeteria at 2:00 p.m. on a Friday, three weeks prior to my departure. My boss Norm Bates just happened to show up with CEO/R Marvin Payne who had PCS’d back to SECSTATE after a two-year tour at Cairo. After Bates introduced us he said he had a meeting at OC/PE and peddled off.

<featured photo by ankhesenamun.weebly.com

Marvin Payne (not his real name, but in a similar tone), a tall man at about six foot four looked under nourished. His dark deep-set eyes were located close to his ears, allowing, I suspected, for excellent peripheral vision. His extremely close cut hair reminded me of a peach that had gotten too much sun and needed picking; else it’d fall on the ground.

He pushed his mac and cheese around on the plate with a fork that seemed to have no direction.

Our Man in Cairo

The OC Bandits (my cohorts at work) had talked about Payne when they learned about his reassignment. I already knew that the man kept to himself, had “escaped” to Cairo due to marital problems, and was an Astronomy buff, or was it astrology?

I said, “How was Cairo?”

His head lifted like the jaws of an earthmover would. The bulbous eyes fixated on mine until he replied, “Those Egyptians did not construct the pyramids.”

I was in no position to refute his claim. Payne pulled his briefcase up to his lap and opened it out of my view. After a few moments he lifted something held between his index finger and thumb.

“What’s the razor blade for?” I asked nervously.

great pyramid
photo by travel addicts.com

He held it out flat so that I viewed the edge straight on. “This is the thickness between the perfectly cut granite blocks in the funerary vaults of the Great Pyramid at Giza. I know because I’ve been there and seen it.”

While Payne replaced the razor blade in its container in his briefcase I said, “I’ll make it a point to tour the Great Pyramid when I visit Cairo.”

He slammed the briefcase. “Don’t miss the Cairo museum. In some ways it is even more spectacular that the pyramids.”

“Thanks for the tip.”

“Norm told me that you have been assigned to Karachi.”

“Yeah, I leave in a couple weeks.”

“Say high to RCO Wobert P. Woberson for me.”

He was referring to RCO Robert Roberson, my new boss at Karachi. Word had it that Roberson, from the U.S., had begun his Foreign Service career in the mailroom at Am Embassy Paris and his then newfound French accent had never left him.

“I will,” I said and added, “I bet you’ve had some interesting experiences in the Middle East.”

He shook his head. “Wow, are you in for a rude awakening.”

Norm Bates would have laughed after making that statement. Marvin Payne winced.

He quickly recovered and said, “On the other hand, the region grows on you.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’ll see. I asked Norm the same questions before I was assigned to Cairo.”

The OC Bandits also mentioned that Payne was not a bull shitter. Marvin had confirmed my suspicion that Norm Bates had arranged this meeting.

“You believe in Murphy’s Law?”

Anything that can go wrong will go wrong. I grunted and said, “Yeah, I know all about Murphy’s Law.”

Payne said, “Traveling throughout the Middle East and South Asia can be hazardous for your health. If you don’t look out for yourself you may easily end up in a predicament or worse. The key is to keep a low profile. Start by wearing neutral colored clothes (you’ll blend in with the sand). Invest in the best quality, most comfortable shoes available.”

He pulled his foot up at table level. “I wear Clarks shoes. Good quality sunglasses are essential. And bring a jacket. It can get cold in the Middle East in the winter. You won’t be spending much time in Karachi, by the way.”

“Thanks for the tips Marvin,” I said.

He reached down for his briefcase again. This time he pulled out a single sheet of paper and said, “Here are some general observations, recommendations, and no-no’s I’ve accumulated while traveling in the Middle East to help counteract Murphy’s Law during my assignment.”

Marvin might have just made a bit of humor. I smiled.

The Seventeen

He pushed the paper toward me. The hand written list had the title, THE SEVENTEEN.

  • Always carry candy bars in your luggage.
  • Never travel into an Arab country with an Israeli visa in your passport (solution: carry two diplomatic passports). Treat your black passport like its gold.
  • Stand near the boarding gate. When an airport boarding call is announced go to the front of the line with your black passport in hand, or prepare for a stampede.
  • Go to the potty soon after the plane takes off, otherwise you’ll be sorry.
  • Never let airport authorities inoculate you (always have a blank medical stamp in your black passport).
  • Don’t eat the Mayo in any city between Beirut and Bangkok
  • Never let an Arab who you don’t know buy you a drink.
  • In most Muslim countries you can’t miss a good meal in a Turkish restaurant.
  • Don’t get into a hotel elevator with a pair of three hundred pound Arabs that haven’t showered since Ali Baba recruited the forty thieves.
  • Use the stairs when at all possible.
  • Never walk backwards atop building rooftops.
  • Gin & Tonic (Schweppes tonic water) is most economical and safest alcoholic drink. In the Muslim world pour gin into Schweppes soda water liter bottle and reseal.
  • If an Arab invites you for tea or coffee, don’t refuse.
  • Always take different routes on your daily excursions (to embassy or wherever).
  • While out on the economy, if you hear gunshots don’t raise your head to see what’s going on.
  • Dress like a peasant and you are a peasant; dress like a king and you are a king; dress like a Russian spy and you are obvious.
  • Don’t cavort with soothsayers, fortune tellers, or ladies of the night.

I suspected that Norm Bates had something to do with this list. “Wow, Marvin, there’s some great advice here.”

“Some personnel who have never experienced the region might toss it off as bull shit.”

“I don’t think so. Are you going to stick around Northern Virginia for a while?”

“I’m trying to get back with my estranged wife. I haven’t seen my daughter since I left to Cairo, either.”

“I hope it works out, Marvin.”

“Me too, the stars are aligned for our reunion according to an Egyptian belly dancer who used to work at the Sheraton Hotel. During WWII she was a spy for the Brits…”

Payne paused and offered me a wry smile. I glanced at my watch. “Shoot, I’ve got to get back to the travel office.”

I rose out of my chair and grabbed my briefcase.

“Let’s have a few beers sometime before you leave,” Marvin said.

“Sounds like a winner.”

“Take it easy, Sport,” he said as I hurried off.

Sport? That’s what Bates had called me. Was it a derogatory term?

I didn’t really need to go to the travel office, but I had this urgent need to end our conversation before Payne revealed the consummate Middle East war story that I’d never be able to top…

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