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Envoy loved Arab way of life,preferred contact with people

STEVEN ERLANGER J. Christopher Stevens,the US ambassador to Libya who was killed in an assault on a diplomatic mission there last week,was happy to gossip,but was revered for listening. A northern Californian with a toothy grin,he had a passion for the Arab world and its language,and he went out of his way to use it,whether […]

Written by New York Times | New York |
September 17, 2012 12:54:20 am

STEVEN ERLANGER

J. Christopher Stevens,the US ambassador to Libya who was killed in an assault on a diplomatic mission there last week,was happy to gossip,but was revered for listening. A northern Californian with a toothy grin,he had a passion for the Arab world and its language,and he went out of his way to use it,whether with officials or shopkeepers,in an effort to show respect.

In his willingness to allow others to be heard,Stevens was an unusual US diplomat,colleagues say. He allowed himself to be governed by the habits,proprieties and slower pace of the Arab world.

After 9/11 when many US diplomats consigned themselves to embassies that resemble fortresses and armoured motorcades,Stevens plunged into Arab social life. He traded personal risk for personal contact. His distaste for displays of security,some quietly suggest,may have led to a touch of overconfidence that cost him his life.

What the US lost was not only one of its foremost Arabists,a man who built a bridge to the tribes and militias that toppled the Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Gaddafi. It also may be losing a style of diplomacy already on the decline: the street-smart,low-key negotiator who gets things done by building personal relationships.

Stevens,52,was known as Chris,but he often signed letters and e-mails to friends as Krees,the way many Arabs pronounced his name. His affection for Arab culture and street life,whether in Syria,Libya or the Palestinian territories,made him many friends and impressive networks of contacts.

Stevens was not above diplomatic gossip,said journalist Harvey Morris. Recounting a meeting of Cécilia Sarkozy,then the wife of the French president,with Gaddafi in 2007 to try to secure the release of jailed Bulgarian nurses,Stevens noted the Libyan leader had opened his robes and was naked underneath.

Roya Hakakian,an Iranian-born writer who met him,said “Chris had fallen in love with Libya’s revolution. At the end,those very forces whose influence he thought would be curbed had claimed his life.”

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