American Embassy Damascus | The Skinny on Elephant Skin

March 1978

Perhaps it was the numbing effect of my in-flight epiphany (see previous message). I have no remembrance of what Damascus International Airport looked like. A cohort had told me that every Middle East city had a character of its own and the chameleon-like American embassy changed the color of its skin to blend in. My memory of Damascus only exists as quick images like the way Walt Disney had created animated scenes using hundreds of fluttering picture cards. But there was nothing Mickey Mouse about Damascus…

<feature source photo: colourbox.com

At airport arrivals a poker-faced embassy driver didn’t speak to me (the placard with my name on on it sufficed). As we traveled the streets of Damascus in silence the city appeared like it held on to the past more than the present. Having very little “education” about the Arabs and Islam, still, I was sensing that the more religious (Islamic) a city and its people were, the greater was its resistance to western culture and contemporary living.

At the American Embassy Damascus a U.S. Marine guard escorted me up to the Communications & Records Unit. The CRU resided on the top floor of the older-looking structure (like Cairo, even new buildings looked old in Damascus).

I had plopped my belongings in a corner and stood with a coffee mug in my hand, still marveling at how quickly 220-volt electricity could boil water for Folger’s instant (I’d have to wait until this evening to get my Heineken beer prescription filled).

A Foreign Service “Character”

Sometimes a star shines so brilliant that the rest of the galaxy fades away. I had been warned by the other techs that Damascus CRO Wanda H. was a legitimate “Foreign Service character.” The “forty-ish” Foreign Service officer stood perhaps five foot ten inches and although not obese Wanda was large framed but with thin, sturdy legs.  The Foreign Service in concert with Sahara windstorms, the sweaty African humidity, and a steady diet of stress had forged what I imagined as a once appealing face of possibilities into her current painted on expression of, “Now what?”

I was one of five comm personnel who had been discussing the famous Damascus souk or marketplace until the irascible CRO Wanda H. highjacked the conversation simply by her presence.

The four of us, her two worker bees and a guy named Leslie listened intently. Leslie who had described himself as one of the mushroom people (“They keep us in the dark and feed us shit”) laughed at everything Wanda said whether it was funny or not. My curiosity centered on the man oddly dressed in a Hawaiian shirt who appeared ready to hit the surf at Waikiki. If this were a movie I would say, “Hey, that guy is a dead ringer for a CIA agent” (but for all I knew he was a GSO officer ready for home leave).

A short back-story is required here: I had arrived with tool case in tow and wearing my troubleshooting hat, intent on fixing the “immediate problem” at post. CRO Wanda H had made no mention of any problems until I had asked her about it. She had smiled and said, “I’ll show you, later.”

CRO Wanda H. interrupted her war story to go fill her coffee cup. She had been enlightening everyone about what a relief Damascus had been after some of the postings she had experienced in Africa. Her blond hair mixed with gray fell over large shoulders that supported her extra poundage well. She relied mainly on facial expression tuned to occasional perfectly timed profanity as exclamation points to accentuate her war stories. Her bodacious behavior was off the charts. I wondered what conversations transpired when the ambassador arrived at the CRU to fetch a high precedence top-secret telegraphic message?

When she returned Wanda continued the war story where she had left off. “In Dar everyday at 3 p.m. Venky Neebobs [I’m not sure about the spelling here] would show up at the CRU window with the routine traffic from the unclassified wire room downstairs.”

I knew that she was talking about Am Embassy Dar es Salaam, in Tanzania only because she had referred to it earlier when she said, “Man I loved those stuffed clams in Dar es Salaam.” She then turned to me and said, “Dar is in Tanzania, off the coast of East Africa.”

Wanda continued, “Before I go on, I must say that Venky Neebobs was a dear Pakistani—or was it East Pakistan? I’m not sure how the man ended up in Dar es Salaam, though.” She thought for a moment and added, “I think sometimes we forget how important the third-country nationals who work at missions worldwide are.”

We dipped our heads at Wanda’s profundity while at the same time raising our coffee mugs.

“Venky had this routine as sure as the sun sets. He would drop the unclass traffic on the CRU counter, then proceed to perform some… well; awkward movements with his hands.”

She paused for effect.

“So one day I asked him outright, ‘Venky, why is it every time you come up to the CRU you scratch your balls and pick your nose at the same time?”

Wanda, wound herself up as tight as a Swiss alarm clock, before she replied with gusto, “So Venky replies with a red face, ‘I only have two hands!’”

Wanda’s guffaws drowned out the laughter except for Leslie’s over exaggerated cackle that even quieted the background Teletype chatter momentarily. In a brief eye of the storm before Wanda extoled us with more raw humor she lowered her guard for a few milliseconds. I gazed in her eyes and saw a far off look that I interpreted (perhaps falsely) as missed opportunities fed by loneliness and some unknown variable that I suspected she kept locked up inside.

Like a magician continuing her act Wanda reached down and lifted a huge gray purse. She needed a volunteer from the audience and I knew I had been selected when she gazed at me with serious intent and said, “This was a Christmas gift from the dear man [Venky Neebobs].”

Wanda captured the eyes of all participants but locked her eyes on mine at the end. She held the purse out in front of me. I thought maybe I was supposed to run my hand around it it to ensure no strings were attached. She said, “Feel that leather,” like it possessed healing power.

I rubbed my fingertips over the smooth leather as Wanda wore this expression that told me I was the only one here not versed in the art of fine leather. To prove her point I shrugged when she asked me point blank, “What do you think?”

Unperturbed by my lackluster response, Wanda encouraged me to make another pass over the leather that had no special attributes that I noticed. Nevertheless, I reached my hand out to pet the kitten once more.

When I just touched the leather Wanda boasted, “It’s genuine elephant foreskin!”

My reflex action of pulling my hand back was more a response to her shrieking voice than discovering the origin of the leather. But my action completed her performance (and labeled me the newcomer).

The continued cacophony of Wanda’s guffaws and Leslie’s monkey-like cackles resounded throughout the CPU.

When Wanda stopped heaving she said, “No kidding, Sport.”

Thus continued my Foreign Service initiation…

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