During the late 1970’s, international terrorism had reared its angry head (yes, nearly fifty years ago). As a Foreign Service radio technician my job was to provide two-way radio nets at American embassies and consulates between Athens and Karachi (this was before cell phones). The local telephone systems were unreliable. The two-way radio was the only means of communicating with the embassy during a terrorist event (many diplomats lived off post).
Monday was the absolute worst day to arrive at an American mission abroad. My job required interaction with all offices within the embassy. Everyone was busy catching up after the previous two to four days of reduced activity due to U.S. and local weekends. When traveling from my home base at Am Consul Karachi, Pakistan the flights heading west typically departed between midnight and three in the morning.
Third Country Nationals
I would arrive in the Middle East around eight or nine a.m. and head straight to the mission. The forty-some U.S. embassies and consulates that I supported were predominately Muslim. Most of the Islamic countries recognized Friday and Saturday as their weekend. However, some of them defined their weekend off as Thursday and Friday. To compound matters, to get into to Israel I had to use a separate diplomatic passport (the Arab countries would not allow me in with an Israeli visa). The weekend in Israel was Friday and Saturday. During all these “weekend” days American missions would be under staffed, as the TCN’s (Third Country Nationals) would be off.
Why did it matter to me whether the TCN’s were working or not? If I wanted to arrange travel, obtain visas, or work on the electronics in the Ambassador’s official vehicle, I needed support from travel office, motor pool and consular section. All were manned to a larger extent by TCN’s.
In regards to staffing by TCN’s (Third Country Nationals), some embassies, such as Am Embassy Athens, were practically run by the locals (the Greeks), while in others such as Am Consul Karachi the Pakistani locals were not so involved.
Middle East Scheduling
The U.S. weekend also affected my schedule. Often I would have to order equipment or discuss technical issues with my counterparts in Washington D.C. Communications between the U.S. and the Middle east during Saturday or Sunday proved more difficult.
One of our techs only traveled to the Middle East on Thursday. His philosophy was that if he didn’t get his work done then he had a built-in excuse. He took advantage of Arab countries Muslim holidays. When he flew into Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, though, he got angry when the restaurants were closed during the Ramadan holiday.
The end result, after factoring in the U.S. weekend was that American missions in the Middle East were at optimum operation Monday through Wednesday. Therefore I would prioritize my work to ensure I arrived at an embassy during these days. The following is a one-week trip schedule that emphasized radio system upgrades in Beirut and Athens:
- Tuesday: Depart Karachi to Beirut (Lebanon) 1:00 a.m.
- Wednesday: Beirut
- Thursday: Amman (Jordan)
- Friday: Nicosia (Cyprus)
- Saturday: Tel Aviv (Israel)
- Sunday: Athens (Greece)
- Monday: Athens (depart late night)
Most of my Middle East trips were two to three weeks in duration and the schedule require creative thinking. I planned the trips using an ABC International Travel Guide (about the size of the New York City phone book) that listed all flights worldwide.
Another variable that affected my travel and work was international time. Typically, the Middle East time is seven hours ahead of Washington D.C. For example, when it is 8:00 a.m. in Washington D.C., it is 3:00 p.m. in Tel Aviv.
The Distinction Between Middle East Countries
The countries of the Middle East were not and are not the same. Yes, they were almost all Islamic. But to bundle them together was like referring to all Southeast Asian countries as Orientals (the difference between Japan and Viet Nam was night and day). The distinction between Islamic states is defined mainly by their tribe affiliation (there are hundreds) and their religious denomination within Islam. The two major denominations are the Sunnis and the Shiites. Because of these differences, there have been great divides within Arab nations. Historical tension between Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shiite) illustrates this divide. Foreign Service personnel needed to recognize and respect these differences when traveling through the region.
Have things changed today in the Middle East? Well, somewhat, although traditions are hard to change. Many of the Middle East countries have adopted Saturday and Sunday for their weekend… But one thing has not changed… Always travel Tuesday.