The Men in the Shirtsleeves

The big faux-sandstone block house with the red tile roof in Amman’s Abdoun neighborhood belonged to the Peace Corps’ Country Director for Jordan, a tall woman with a loud infectious laugh, Darcy. Her house in nouveau riche Abdoun was as big as it was, in part, so that she could host parties like this one. My cohort of Volunteers, 25 English teachers known as J7, had arrived in February 2004, the first cohort after a precautionary evacuation in the leadup to the American invasion of neighboring Iraq. The special education and youth and at-risk youth development Volunteers of J8 has arrived in July, and now in August 2004, we were meeting them for the first time.

Darcy’s house had a big tiled entrance hall with a half-spiral stair to the upper level, where we went first to put our bags and modest outer layers in a spare bedroom. This was the kind of safe space where we could wear our fashionable, cooler short sleeves without calling our reputations into question and jeopardizing our effectiveness in our more conservative rural communities.

Back downstairs, we helped ourselves to the generous buffet lunch and took our paper plates out into Darcy’s yard. Mostly wide faux-sandstone flagstone, it was set with several long tables in the back yard.

As I came around the corner of the house into Darcy’s back yard, I remember the group around one table with crystal clarity. At least, I remember the men. Two swarthy light-skinned Black men, one tall and broad-shouldered, the other short with a round, open face. Two svelte white men, one with narrow shoulders and an upright but inviting posture. The other was tall, broad-shouldered, his square-jawed, expressive face topped with a voluminous boy cut. He lounged back in white shirtsleeves in his white plastic lawn chair, gesticulating broadly with big hands and drawing attention to his wide, cherry-red tie.

Six weeks later or so, one of those men would text me to ask how to make rice. “I buy the brand with instructions in English on the packaging,” I said. A few weeks later, it was, how do you cook a whole chicken? I don’t, I told him, but my Arabic teacher Umm Tareg happened to be sitting beside me, so I got her to dictate directions to me. She could already see what I couldn’t quite: that he and I were developing a relationship that would last till he left the country and continue as a friendship that led to this blog.

I’ve always been attracted to men who expound authoritatively about politics, so it’s not surprising that I would have been attracted to all the men in white shirtsleeves and solid-colored ties animatedly discussing regional politics that afternoon at Darcy’s, but at the time I assumed that everyone at that table was a Foreign Service Officer from the embassy, given their formal attire and the certainty of their opinions.

Image result for david hale embassy jordan

David Hale was, at that time, the Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) for the Embassy of the United States in Jordan. He had for some time been the #2 to Ambassador Edward Gnehm, who had just retired a month before to take a chair at George Washington University, leaving David Hale, as DCM, as the most senior staff person in charge of the embassy in Amman. It would be a year later that he was formally confirmed by the Senate as Ambassador to Jordan, but he was already essentially in the role.

Image result for edward gnehm

We had met Amb. Gnehm during training in March, and he’d been everything I had expected an ambassador to be: a self-assured, blustery man, clearly deeply knowledgeable and eager to expound on the country of his service. He told us right off a story from his very first Foreign Service post, where his first assignment was to coordinate a gathering of Peace Corps Volunteers at the ambassador’s residence. The next morning, the ambassador’s assistant called Gnehm to task on the party. “Didn’t you provide food to the Volunteers?” He had, he insisted, but the assistant told him that the Volunteers had gone into the ambassador’s kitchen refrigerator and eaten every last thing in it. Gnehm told us that it took him a few more Peace Corps Volunteer gatherings and a few more postings to learn that it didn’t matter how much food you put out, it would never be enough. I was puzzled by this story; did he mean to underline how important we were to the mission of the State Department, or to disparage us? He went blithely on to expound on the economic situation in Jordan. I liked the guy, and I was honored to shake his hand, but on the whole, it felt like an odd day to me.

DCM David Hale, however, by my estimation, was more of a listener than a talker. It didn’t come out so much that August afternoon, but it became very clear on the weekend before Christmas 2004.

This time, the marble entrance of Darcy’s house was dominated by a table laden with a difficult-to-find imported Butterball turkey and a wide selection of sides, and midway up the banister, a brawny six-foot Volunteer “Ho, ho, ho”-ing away in a red and white felt Santa costume. It was too cold, and probably pouring rain, to use Darcy’s gardens and patios, so tables were set up in several places on both floors of her house.

I found myself upstairs at a table with the same assemblage of handsome men, plus Santa Claus and a few others, including DCM David Hale. This was the encounter when he impressed me the most. David asked a few simple questions about how people in our rural communities were talking about something of political importance in the kingdom or the region, perhaps even the occupation of neighboring Iraq, and then he relaxed in his chair and listened while we talked — to him, to each other, about the things he had started us on and wherever the conversation meandered after that.

He listened.

And I had the feeling, sitting and listening, sometimes contributing myself, that we were the most important thing in the kingdom that day, the only thing on DCM Hale’s agenda that mattered on that day.

And from time to time, at other gatherings of Peace Corps Volunteers, I saw him do this again. It struck me that he understood that no one knew Jordan the way we did, embedded deep in communities that he would never even visit, and even if he did, he would be a celebrity guest, The American Ambassador, told what people thought he wanted to hear, or what they thought would get them whatever assistance they wanted. He would never have their ear, or be a fly on their walls, quite the way that we could.

I respected Amb. Hale immensely for that. I was very disappointed that, by the time I returned to Jordan a second time in June 2008, he was returning to Washington, DC, for his next assignment.

David Hale, United States Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, older and a little bit jowly now but still looking very much the same, testifies today in open Impeachment Hearings on Capitol Hill.
Here’s the transcript of his Nov. 6 deposition, released over the weekend.

2 comments

  1. Dear Maryah, Your post is absolutely brilliant and wonderfully written. So glad I got the opportunity to work with you in Jordan and always admired you for your service in Jordan and your hard work ethics. I will be reading more of your posts and will share them as well! PS. Amb Hale’s deposition transcript was interesting to read…thanks for adding it to your post. 🙂

    Like

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and thanks so much for sharing it on LinkedIn! I haven’t had a chance to really read or listen to Amb. Hale’s testimony, unfortunately, but I do have such complimentary memories of him!

      Like

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