FEBRUARY 2007. I was planning an extended sales trip to the Middle East. We would be visiting a number of countries and on the list were a few countries where the visit of an American was somewhat less common.
These countries required me to obtain an entry visa prior to arrival, but fortunately our hotel in Kuala Lumpur had maintained good relationships with all of the embassies in town. So when the time came for me to obtain a particularly challenging visa to a Middle East country (which will remain un-named) that was very rarely visited by Americans, we called the embassy, and the ambassador kindly agreed to help.
When the day came for me to visit the embassy of the country that shall remain un-named, they were even nice enough to send a limo to the hotel to pick me up. I was informed by the driver that the ambassador himself was out of town, but that the necessary arrangements had been made, and the deputy chief of mission (the “No. 2” at the embassy) would be around to meet me, and was happy to help. Boy, was he misinformed.
I arrived at the embassy and was escorted down a long hallway, at the end of which were two gigantic wooden double-doors. As we approached the ominous doors, my escorts slowed and stopped, as if fearful to get too close, but I was gestured with an open hand to continue walking. And as I walked, the doors both slowly opened inward (just like in the movies) and a massive office was revealed.
Along the back wall of the office was a giant wooden desk, and behind it sat a giant Arab man in a giant suit, under a giant painting of what had to be their president or king. It was all quite intimidating by design, but I wasn’t concerned, as the ambassador had made the arrangements already, and I would be quickly issued a visa and sent home. Or so I thought.
“Good morning, seet down” was my warm welcome. This was the deputy chief of mission, a man who was clearly absent when they taught both manners and humour in diplomat school. “Give me your passport” he instructed, with an open hand.
I handed him my passport and attempted a smile. “So you are American,” he stated.
Not sure what gave it away, perhaps it was the big “United States of America” on my passport cover. This guy was sharp.
And then the unexpected, the unthinkable. He leaned in towards me across the massive wooden desk, pointed his finger in my face and said, with an evil, raspy, heavily accented, smoker voice “I HATE your khanntrree.”
I could feel my eyes widening, my mouth opening. This was bad. He hated my country. The conversation was not going at all as I had imagined.
Stunned, I tilted my head slightly to the side, and said the only thing I could think of: “Why?”
And so he began recounting his previous posting, prior to Kuala Lumpur, which was in Washington D.C. “They followed me, they spied on me, they tapped my phones. Your people treated me like terrorist!” he shouted angrily.
Apparently, it was time for his revenge, and my chances of obtaining the visa to visit his country seemed to be slipping away.
And then, his rage suddenly stopped. He paused, staring at my passport photo page, and then slowly looked up. “Your name, is it Greek heritage?”
“Yes, it is,” I replied. “My grandparents immigrated to America from Greece in the 1920s.”
“Oh!” he exclaimed, with a suddenly warm smile and a desk-slap. “My wife is Greek! I loove Greek people. You are Greek-American, that is totally different!” It was? I decided to play along.
“Yes of course it is!” I said. “Much different!”
He gleefully picked up the phone, and with a few words, a second man entered the office, quickly stamped my passport, and the deputy chief signed on the required line.
“Why didn’t you tell me you were Greek in the first place?” he asked. “Greek people are wonderful. The fact that you happen to be from America means nothing at all!”
I nodded and smiled, offered to have my grandmother cook him some baklava and grabbed my passport. He walked around the desk, gave me a family-style bear hug, and wished me the best during my travels.
Never in my life had I experienced such a rapid flip in emotions, literally from hate to love in less than a minute. I decided the best move was to get out of that embassy fast, before he changed his mind again. And so with a few extra “thank you”, I turned and ran. Politely, of course.
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