“Did you process the request for a driver’s license for Louis-Phillippe?” I asked Yashar, already aware of what the answer should be.
“Yes, yes,” he brushed me off.
“Really? Why isn’t it showing in the online system then?” I pressed further, confident that this would be the unfulfilled request that would break the camel’s back.
“Oh, you mean in the computer? No, I didn’t. I just took it and wrote out the forms. They’re in my drawer,” Yashar clarified, as if this were the same as logging a request in the online system.
“So then you didn’t do it, since you haven’t been able to request a license conversion by paper for years, and you never entered anything into the online system,” I said, gloating ever so slightly, but also acutely aware of the shitstorm I was in for when I told Louis-Philippe his license was still not ready.
“Why are you always so difficult!” Yashar suddenly complained, edging closer to that state of emotional excitement I knew would end in tears.
Two years. That’s all I told myself I needed to do, and then I’d have another posting. I had joined the Foreign Service the year before, and, since I had already learnt Arabic, I decided to fast-track my career by taking the post that no one else wanted: Riyadh. I was self-sure, convinced of my ability to learn quickly; my drive and perseverance; my efficiency and steely nature in the face of adversity. In short, I was a pigheaded idiot who thought, at 27, that he could change an entire organization and break a culture of complacency through will alone. It took about 10 days for me to realize just how deep in shit I was when I arrived, and about 13 days before I started wondering if it was too late to change careers from diplomat to shepherd in the Pyrenees.
Riyadh was sort of the Melrose Place of the Canadian diplomatic Los Angeles. The Embassy was a mess of intrigues and feuds, largely stemming from a sexual harassment case a few years earlier. This was coupled with not one but two allegations of affairs and/or impropriety between Canadian and local staff, and a level of incompetence that made George W. Bush look like a brain surgeon. Just to be clear, Melrose Place works when there is only one Heather Locklear; if everyone thinks she or he is Amanda, we won’t even make it to the end of the pilot, let alone a full season. Somebody has got to be Allison the Loser, Billy the Jock or Michael Mancini the Stupid Philanderer. That’s how these things work.
I don’t really know where Yashar fit into the cast. His replacement, Ala, certainly did as Sydney, Michael’s sister-in-law, but there wasn’t exactly a bumbling old fool whose place Yashar could take. He had been at the Embassy for nearly 37 years, first in Jeddah and then in Riyadh, and had really been a great member of the team as a gopher, when gophers were still gophers. Times change, though, and the computer revolution means that we can all sit around and get fat while sending off requests by email, rather than chasing them around on foot. Unfortunately for Yashar, the digital age sort of passed him by, and he was clinging to his job through sheer will, long-lasting friendships and inertia.
Then I arrived. My boss had given me the task of seeing Yashar off, either through retirement, firing or a catapult. Apparently, he had angered someone when he forgot to clear the Ambassador’s shipment of personal effects, and the man had been told to spend three months with the same four pairs of underwear. Who knew the Ambassador would be so touchy?
“Yashar, this is a meeting to discuss your performance. It’s been lackluster the last few months, and I want to make sure you’re performing according to your job description.” This was the first step. I had to call a meeting to discuss Yashar’s performance, put him on a plan and – when he failed, which I was sure he would – I would fire him. Who knew destroying a grown man’s will to live could be so straightforward?
“No, it’s a trap,” Yashar snapped.
“Um, no… The agenda clearly says performance management,” I tried to bring the meeting back on track.
“Everyone here has treated me badly. I’ve had so many things done to me…” Yashar started off on the usual litany of hardships and tests, conveniently forgetting the time the Ambassador had to go commando because he couldn’t be bothered to click Send.
God, I thought to myself, this is never going to end. Can I still make it to the swimming pool after work? Am I going to be having the same thing I always seem to have for dinner – a Subway sub and a bag of peanuts? How many more hours do I have before my time in Saudi ends? 13 000?
“So that’s why I can’t sign anything. You see, Jean came into my office three years ago…” Yashar was still going. It was like this was the only thing he had energy to do.
“Michael, there’s something heavy in the diplomatic bag for you.” Mail day was always a good day. It was when important things, like replacement credit cards and New Yorkers arrived. Apparently it was also when things from Ottawa that I didn’t know would be coming also showed up.
I was now a year into my posting, and I was very much a changed man. Angry, bitter, but mainly a hell of a lot fatter. I had learned to deal with some of the stress of the job – usually by eating – but there were lots of sore points still there, like those little flecks of pasta sauce you can never get out of a white shirt. One of them was Yashar.
Yashar and I had come to an understanding: we hated each other. For Yashar, I represented years of pressure and boorishness on the part of the Canadians. For me, Yashar was a distillation of everything that was wrong with the bureaucracy and the way that everyone in the Embassy cared more about gossip than getting stuff done. I had done nearly a dozen performance meetings with him, disciplinary hearings and general dust-ups that seemed to thwart my one and only desire: to see his position vacant. We were nearing the end of the road, though. I could feel it. One more meeting, one more screw up, and I’d be able to fire him. I knew it. He knew it. We all knew it.
“What’s in there?” asked Buzz, our Military Policeman and the one who handled the mail bags. Buzz was your typical Canadian soldier: out of shape, a heavy drinker and smoker, racist, sexist, plaintive and generally an eyesore, but endearing enough to the right people to keep on in his position. I normally wouldn’t stomach people like Buzz, but I needed every ally I could get, so I held my nose and swallowed hard, like I would for durian candy.
“I don’t know. It’s something from HR, something…. Oh, for fuck’s sake!” I exclaimed while opening the package. “It’s a plaque for Yashar – for 35 years of service. I can’t fucking believe that I have to give him this!” I was beside myself. I had become significantly balder trying to convince Yashar that he wasn’t up to doing his job and should just retire, and now I was supposed to thank him publicly. My fucking luck.
“HAHA,” laughed Buzz, “I’ll bring some popcorn to the ceremony!”
Yea, you’ll enjoy it plenty, won’t you? I thought. Jerk!
That was it. I had finally got him. Yashar had totally botched a request for an exit visa, and I had documented the whole process of finding out just how. I knew that this would be enough to nail him down. Logically, I could see that this was absolutely evil. To have someone who has worked 37 years be fired for incompetence meant depriving them of their pension, and that seemed toxic. But I wanted to get rid of him. I wanted to get on with my life, to get on with my work and to get the hell out of Saudi. I had called a disciplinary meeting for Wednesday, but first we had to do the award ceremony on Monday. It was going to be done at an all-staff meeting, where I would present the award to Yashar in front of 40-odd people.
“And finally,” I said, “we’re here today to celebrate someone who has been part of the Embassy for over thirty-five years. Someone who worked with us in Jeddah, who followed us to Riyadh, and who remembers more of this Embassy’s history than anyone else.”
So far, so good. I was usually good with BS, and I didn’t see why my talents should fail me now. There was only one sticking point. I couldn’t bring myself to thank Yashar for his work. I had spent a year telling him how awful it was. How could I now stand here and lie – while smiling, no less – to the whole group?
“And so, to Yashar, who has been part of the Embassy family since 1973, we say:” The sweat was heavy under my arms, and was starting to build up along my forehead. I was sure this would be the moment I had that aneurism I was convinced would kill me.
“Thank you…. For the memories.”