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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Laughing Lacunae

Some years ago, I briefly worked as the personal assistant to Dr. Nabil Elaraby, the Egyptian Ambassador to the United Nations. I was quite surprised that I got hired for the position because at the time I had no office skills and didn't even know how to use a computer. My most recent experience had been as a graduate student in art at NYU.

During my interview, I cagily explained to the Egyptian Mission's Minister Plenipotentiary (all the time wondering to myself "What on earth is a Minister Plenipotentiary"?) that I wasn't familiar with the Mission's computer system. Actually, I wasn't familiar with any computer system. Madame Minister Plenipotentiary replied that this would not be a problem because the Ambassador had many administrative assistants to do that sort of work. She added that he also had six secretaries. She further explained that the Ambassador wanted to seem forward-thinking and that he thought having an American, English-speaking personal assistant would help him in that endeavor.

The Minister Plenipotentiary told me that my principal duties would be to maintain the Ambassador's social calendar and field phone calls (which was fun because I got to talk with politicos and dictators such as Madeleine Albright, Hosni Mubarak and Joseph Wilson. I once suggested to Egyptian President Mubarak that he speak more slowly on the phone because I was American and couldn't grasp what he was saying at such a fast clip. He replied in heavily accented English,"You're American? Noooooo kidding." It was thrilling for me to have the President of Egypt speak American slang to me. It made me feel that we were on intimate terms.

The Ambassador was fond of saying that I filled various lacunae in the Mission. Perhaps the two lacunae I filled best were as mollifier and editor. On occasions when protesting groups showed up at the Mission demanding to see Ambassador Elaraby, the Ambassador would calmly stroll into my office, lean in and sweetly say, "Would you mind going down there and talking to them. I'm kinda busy right now." Like throwing a lamb to the lions, I thought. At first I was scared, but I soon discovered it was a brilliant strategy. When the angry demonstrators saw me instead of the Ambassador, it totally disarmed them. They had no beef with a mild-mannered, American girl with no political agenda. They thanked me and handed me a petition to deliver to the Ambassador. I guess that made me a force for world peace.

The ambassador frequently asked me to edit his Egyptian secretaries' correspondence, since English was their second language. The secretaries wrote many letters and generally delivered them personally. They were all extremely tall and powerful-looking men. I would go so far as to say intimidating. They always dressed in dark blue or black suits with long black topcoats and never smiled. When the Ambassador ventured out from the Mission, they formed a human barricade around him. Because I didn't want them to look like thugs when delivering their correspondence, I usually changed phrases like "Hand over the money" to "Kindly make arrangements to deliver the appropriate funds."

One day the Ambassador asked that I take a stack of letters to the fax room and have them sent to the Heads of State of all the members of the Organization of African Unity. The Ambassador was running for an office in that international group and was requesting their support. The fax room had five older Egyptian gentlemen in it, all of whom were sitting on a sofa chatting, drinking black coffee and smoking. I gave the letters to one of them and explained that it was a priority. Shortly after, I returned to my office to find that the letters had been returned to me with a note reading "Too busy. Fax you." (signed) Mr. Faisal." I returned to the fax room with the letters and saw the same group lounging on the sofa, still chatting, drinking coffee and smoking. I told them that I could see very well that they were not particularly busy. Snickering, one of them told me they were too busy indeed–too busy to work for a girl. The others all laughed, which I took to mean they concurred.

On a prior occasion, Abdelrazik, the office manager, had told me that in Egypt toilet paper was paid for by the user, so I would have to start paying for mine. Otherwise he would stop supplying it to my bathroom. I drew the line at paying for toilet paper, but knew that this new incident necessitated my doing the faxing myself. I am not a work snob and I am generally quite willing do anything to get a job done. However, I had never faxed before and was quite sure I wasn't going to get any tips from the professional faxers lounging around. On the other hand, I thought it was pretty simple: insert document, dial phone number, press start button.

Shortly after, I started getting phone queries from various African nations asking why the Egyptian Ambassador had sent them blank pieces of paper. I guess I didn't know which side was up. I pictured all the blank pieces of paper laughing at me---so many laughing lacunae--a veritable pad of paper mockers--as they exited fax machines all over Africa. First, I cried. Then I cried for my boyfriend. He can do anything, even fax. Why do you think I married him? He said it was difficult to explain how to fax over the phone but he had a plan. I was to smuggle the letters out of the Mission by hiding them beneath my trenchcoat. To do this, I had to pass by armed security guards at the door and the New York City police officers who were stationed at a security kiosk right across the street with a file folder full of letters secreted on my person.

As planned, my boyfriend met me on the corner. Just 50 feet away from the police and guards, I surreptitiously "handed over" the papers to him. My hero took them to his office, faxed them, and then returned to the Mission, meeting me outside in the rain to return the papers to me, whereupon I smuggled them back into the Mission. To complicate matters, during this transaction, the Ambassador, en route to the UN, walked out of the Mission flanked and followed by his tall, darkly-clad, non-smiling secretaries. "Who are those guys?" asked my boyfriend. I informed him, "the Ambassador's secretaries." To which my boyfriend, handing over the letters from under his coat, replied, "They're not secretaries, they're packing heat!" Somehow, I managed to smuggle the letters back into the mission without being apprehended.

A few months later, Abdelrazik came to my office and said, "OK, you can go home now." I said, "Why, is it an Egyptian holiday?" He said, "No. Ambassador very fond of you, but he go back to Egypt. You go home now and don't come back." So I did–and I didn't.


  1. Great story....sounded like a new "I Spy series"!!!

  2. very cool blog...

  3. Great story! Love it!

  4. Did not send that FAX to you in any code. Could I have put the paper in wrong?

  5. Can not believe I tried to decode your comment.
    You did put it in wrong but in the WRONG wrong way. Had I seen a blank,I would not have drawn
    a blank and the lacunae would be laughing at you-affectionately though.