Official titles can be burdensome for those who hold them. They can obscure a person’s humanity – a humanity that is often exposed more in death than it is in life. Those who personally knew U.S. Ambassador to Libya Christopher Stevens, who was killed last week along with three other Americans in an attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, can attest to that. Mana Rabiee of Voice of America’s Persian News Network was among those who counted the late ambassador as a friend. She has this to share about him.
The last time I saw Chris Stevens was on an early Friday evening in May several days before he departed for Tripoli as the new U.S. Ambassador to Libya.
He entered my small Washington apartment dressed in jeans, tennis shoes and a dusty-looking polo shirt. He handed me a bag of pistachios, a bottle of champagne, and apologized for his “scruffy” appearance, explaining that, in preparation for his new assignment to Libya, he had just completed, that afternoon, two weeks of mandatory training in emergency self-defense.
I was too overwhelmed with the fact this might be the last time I see my friend in a long while to fully fathom the meaning of his remark, so as we entered the living room we spoke, instead, about my new furniture. It was only after we settled down on the couch that Chris, as he leaned back cracking open the pistachios, described the self-defense training in more detail.
Chris, and some of his colleagues going with him to Tripoli, he said, had been learning how to handle themselves during a convoy attack, kidnapping or other hostile event. It was routine State Department procedure for certain overseas assignments. He had learned, among other things, how to speed away in a car in reverse, how to maneuver a moving car from the front passenger seat should his driver become incapacitated, and how to fire a pistol.
I asked, naively, ‘surely they don’t expect an ambassador will ever be in such a scenario?’ Chris replied the risks can never be completely “removed” but they can be “reduced.”
“Only ten percent of the people caught in these situations come out alive,” he said, “and the purpose of the training is to help put you into that ten percent.”
“My friend, Chris Stevens, died doing what he loved the most, for a people so close to his own heart…,” – Mana Rabiee
In retrospect, the conversation completely haunts me. But at that moment, Chris’s mood was light. The Algerian singer Souad Massi, whose voice he liked, was playing on my stereo, and Chris was saying all of this, mostly, with a smile (he was always smiling). I think, too, he felt a boyish excitement at the extreme-driving he got to do that day; or maybe he simply didn’t want to alarm me.
But of course I was alarmed. He reassured me he travels with bodyguards and we didn’t say more on that.
Instead, we talked about my work (I’m a journalist) and a little about the people we used to date. He had an early tennis match the next morning with the Libyan ambassador, so a couple of hours later I walked him to my front door and we hugged good-bye.
It would be, of course, the last time I would ever see him.
The first time I met Chris Stevens was in the summer of 2010 on a blind date. Chris had sat on the State Department’s Iran Desk at one point, and as I was born in Tehran, Iran was our initial ‘connection.’ We wouldn’t date again that year; Chris’s work with the Foreign Service meant he would always be leaving for someplace new and my own itinerant childhood growing up in various countries caused me to recoil a little from his fluid lifestyle.
But over several months we developed a cordial and, much later, a warm personal friendship. When we would meet for a catch-up drink (it was always red wine or a beer for him) we didn’t discuss work very much. Instead, our conversations were dominated by stories of our travels and to some extent of our families.
One of the first things I noticed, and liked, about Chris was how close he was with his entire extended family. He told me once about a holiday dinner at his parent’s home in Northern California. Miscellaneous tables had been placed together in a long row to make room enough for thirty people. Everyone had duck.
His parents had divorced, then each remarried, but I don’t remember Chris referring to his step-father as just that — a step-father. It was simply my “father,” or my “sister” when mentioning his half-sibling.
In truth, I became confused about his exact family connections because Chris never drew a clear demarcation line for me between his biological and step families. They were always pictured for me as one harmonious unit.
I mention this because I confessed to Chris one evening that his peaceful “blended” family was in marked contrast to my own, sometimes volatile, relations with step-parents and half-sibling.
Chris, it seemed to me, grew up with peace in his household. I imagine it was a personal peace he took with him into adulthood and later to his work as a Foreign Service Officer, where his legacy, we now learn, will be as that of a “peace builder.”
Before he was appointed envoy to the Libyan opposition, Chris told me he was being considered for a new diplomatic post which would have been his most high profile assignment to that date. He seemed excited about this prospect and I knew he wanted the job very much. A month or so later I asked him how that was going. He didn’t get the assignment, after all, he told me, but when I said I was sorry about that he seemed to brush it aside saying it was just as well.
“I like where my life has taken me so far,” he told me. We were at a live jazz club in Washington and I had to lean in to hear. He said he was happy in Washington and content to stay here for the time being. He was sure his life’s path would lead him to even better places yet.
That better place was the Libyan assignment he would receive just weeks later, first as envoy and then as ambassador.
In June, Chris sent a long catch-up email to family and friends. It was an overview of his first six weeks in Libya and included mostly his impressions of the political landscape with some quaint details of his team’s living arrangements.
The description that charmed me the most was this:
“Despite these challenges, though, I’ve been able to take daily runs in our somewhat rural neighborhood of goat farms and olive groves and vineyards.”
I don’t believe in Heaven, but if I did, it would be a dusty Mediterranean pastoral scene with friendly wild animals running about in wide open spaces.
My friend, Chris Stevens, died doing what he loved the most, for a people so close to his own heart and in a place that looked, to me, like Heaven itself.
May he rest in peace.
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