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Operation Nissan: That Time I Smuggled Matzah Into An African Embassy

You can understand why security at the U.S. Embassy is tight. The first terrorist attack in the capital of this sub-Saharan country occurred only three months ago. Even under “normal” circumstances, no closed bags, including brief cases, are permitted beyond the guard house into the Embassy proper. Even before they pass through the X-Ray scanner, an astute African security agent eyes and flags the small boxes that my unusual mission requires that I manage to squirrel inside the Embassy. “Not allowed,” he says.

This is where tact and bluster, honed over decades of doing research and consulting in Africa (the latter on the subject of counter-violent extremism) kicks into gear. “It is for the Political Officer,” I explain. “She is expecting it.” Certainty and self-confidence I need to project, but also in a way to avoid a verifying phone call from the blockhouse to the Embassy’s political office. Especially in the presence of the other members of my mission team.

The rest of my belongings and my profile check out. Even with the suspect boxes, I am allowed to enter into the Embassy compound!

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Through various chambers of steel and reinforced locked doors, we are ushered into the major building of the Embassy itself. Carrying the boxes as casually as I can, I place them on the table of the conference room where we are to meet with the Ambassador and the Deputy Chief of Mission. If only they knew then how close they were to the powdery substance… Then to the cashier, where we secure large bundles of the weak currency for the expenses of our three-week mission.

I bring the boxes into the meeting with the Defense Attaché, a major who provides a frank and thorough assessment of the security situation in the country. Over lunch, we meet with a local political analyst in the employ of the Embassy.

At last, it is time to meet with the Political Officer. The boxes, which I am clutching close to my chest, seem heavier now. We discuss the popular uprising, the coup attempt, the mushrooming of vigilante groups. As the meeting ends, I discretely pass the boxes to the Political Officer. She gives me a knowing look; little needs to be said, especially in front of the others.

Unburdened of the boxes, I feel much lighter in the next meeting (with two more local political analysts). It is she, the American Embassy Political Officer, who now will need to process their contents. I am but the messenger.

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Several days later, a select dozen meet to discuss and process the contents of the boxes in the Political Officer’s private residence. A high official who had just flown in from Washington (an Assistant Deputy Secretary of State) is there. So is the Deputy Chief of Mission of the Embassy. Of all the dozen diplomats and dignitaries assembled around the table, the highest ranking is the Ambassador himself. There is a host of other items on the agenda. It is apparent now that the task of leading the assembled through that intricate, 14-point agenda has fallen upon me. Is it because of the boxes?

And so I explain that “agenda” (or “order,” as it is usually rendered) is my preferred translation for — Seder! For that is what we have come together to do: commemorate, as has been done continuously for thousands of years (albeit not in this particular corner of Sub-Saharan Africa, where it may be a first), the liberation of the ancient Israelites from Pharaonic Egypt.

And so that is the message I stress –- liberation -– as I dedicate the Passover Seder to all those in this corner of Africa (including those doing so through the various offices of the U.S. Embassy) “working and struggling for freedom. Freedom from poverty. Freedom from authoritarianism. Freedom from terror.” When I explain the major reason why I have travelled here in the first place -– to assist in the drafting of a government report on the state of democracy and human rights in this newly unstable nation –- the connection between my work and Seder dedication becomes all the clearer.

Even to these highly educated, high-level celebrants, going over the basics of the Seder -– its origins, its meaning, its rituals -– is far from redundant. As it turns out, this is the first Seder most of them have ever attended: the only Jewishly literate persons at this Seder are the Embassy’s student intern and myself. Our hostess –- the Political Officer who oversees the intern program at the Embassy –- is herself Catholic. The Ambassador has been to two Sephardic Seders at a previous posting in Morocco and therefore is unfamiliar with the contents of the hush-hush boxes that now constitute the first course of the festive meal (item # 9 on the “agenda”) – matzah ball soup!

Streit’s matzo ball mix was not the only Passover item I’d brought to Africa for the occasion. An entire suitcase was stuffed with Haggadahs, bottles of Manischevitz wine, matzah from Israel and America, cans of macaroons, candles for the opening blessings, kosher-for-Passover cakes — even an African/Reggae Passover-themed CD.

After the Seder, the macher (big-shot) from Washington confides in me that, despite his Jewish name (which is why he was invited in the first place), he is only half-Jewish, with minimal acquaintance with Judaism. “But we are expecting our first baby,” he tells me. “I’m already thinking about what I do wish to pass on in turns of that part of my family tradition.” Spiritual confident to such a high-level State Department official was not a role I had not expected to play.

I am not used to seeing armed guards at entrances to African hotels. Security reminds me more of Israel than Africa. Even in this remote province, hundreds of miles from the capital, the Men With the Rifles are there.

It is a small hotel, and guests take their breakfast at a single table. Mamoudou Porgo, an engineer with the Ministry of Mines and Energy (but here to attend a funeral), strikes up a conversation. “What are your origins?” he asks.

This is an indirect tack away from the more usual, “What country do you come from?” Most probably, it is because of the French labeling on one side of the carton out of which I take my breakfast staple: pain azyme d’Israel. Am I French? Am I Israeli? I stick to my preferred response in Africa, during these extraordinary eight American presidential years: “I am from the Country of Obama.”

No time to explain it all to Porgo, the curious engineer.

In the second largest town, on the southwestern side of the country, we wind down a two hour chat with a retired Catholic bishop. He has had an extraordinary career, including seminary studies in Paris (where he was introduced to Coca Cola by American fellow seminarians). At the end of our discussion centering on the state of democracy and human rights in this region of the country, I explain that we are in the middle of the “Jewish Easter” (la pâque juive) and offer him a packet of matzah.

Monsignor Albert is elated. He invites from the courtyard the four men and women waiting to conduct their regular study/prayer session with him. They arrange their chairs so that we are sitting in an oval, and Monsignor explains the what and the why of the holiday ritual we are about to conduct.

Now, I know that matzah resembles (for is it not the origin?) the sacramental wafer that Catholics take at mass. Still, it is not with the intention of conducting a service of any type that I have offered the matzah. But I go with the flow, prompted by Monsignor’s eagerness to have our (unleavened) bread breaking prefaced by a proper prayer. And so I begin: Baruch Atah Adonai

After we partake of the pain d’azyme d’Israel (with greater solemnity than I have experienced at any Seder), my African hosts sing a “Hallel” (praise) song in French. When they get to the part referencing Aaron and the children of Israel, Monsignor gives me a meaningful glance.

“You came to me for socio-political reasons,” says Monsignor Albert, by way of leave taking, “but we have finished on a religious note. This is fraternity.”

Four days after Passover officially ends, with our mission in Africa winding down, a Seder-like question resurfaces: “Why is this meeting different from all other meetings?” As part of our coverage on human rights, we have been scheduled for an interview unlike any other I have ever conducted: with the local representative of Queer Africa.

In most of Africa homosexuality is a crime and in four countries it is even punishable by death. American evangelical lobbying has been one factor in the toughening of African laws relating to homosexuality, just as the U.S. has tried to nudge African states in the other direction.

Emerging from the high walls of an otherwise anonymous compound in the neighborhood of the U.S. Embassy is a a tall, slim, elegant and effeminate young man. “Stuart”’s concern with security is palpable: the locking of doors, the need to know who recommended him to us.

Stuart exposes the difficulty of being gay or, especially, lesbian in Africa. “Women are oppressed to begin with. Lesbians are doubly oppressed, because they are marginalized within an already marginalized group.” He laments the lack of liberty to live outwardly as lesbian or gay. “But we are moving from a mentality of victimization to one of activism.”

It is when Stuart turns to the funders of Queer Africa that, here in an obscure capital of landlocked Africa, I am theologically blindsided, compelled to rethink the limits to my own liberationist Seder messages. After acknowledging the Open Society Foundation and the Foundation of a Just Society, in his rather accented Franco-African accent Stuart mentions a third pillar of support for LGBTQ Africans: American Jewish World Service.

The revelation is even more humbling than what I learned at the Seder itself: that my inquiring beforehand if there was going to be a Seder in the country at all turned out to be the prompt for holding one in the first place.

From smuggling matzah ball mix to mixing with gay Africans struggling for freedom, this Passover in Africa has, indeed, been different from others.

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