From a real-life ambassador's wife comes a harrowing novel about the kidnapping of an American woman in the Middle East and the heartbreaking choices she and her husband each must make in the hope of being reunited.
When bohemian artist Miranda falls in love with Finn, the British ambassador to an Arab country, she finds herself thrust into a life for which she has no preparation. The couple and their toddler daughter live in a stately mansion with a staff to meet their every need, but for Miranda even this luxury comes at a price: the loss of freedom. Trailed everywhere by bodyguards to protect her from the dangers of a country wracked by civil war and forced to give up work she loves, she finds her world shattered when she is taken hostage, an act of terror with wide-reaching consequences.
Diplomatic life is a far cry from Miranda’s first years in Mazrooq, which were spent painting and mentoring a group of young Muslim women, teaching them to draw in ways forbidden in their culture. As the novel weaves together past and present, we come to see how Finn and Miranda’s idealism and secrets they have each sought to hide have placed them and those who trust them in peril. And when Miranda grows close to a child who shares her captivity, it is not clear that even being set free would restore the simple happiness that once was hers and Finn’s. Suspenseful and moving, The Ambassador’s Wife is a story of love, marriage, and friendship tested by impossible choices.
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Jennifer Steil is the author of The Woman Who Fell from the Sky, a memoir about her experiences running a newspaper in Yemen. She lives in Bolivia, where her husband is the European Union ambassador.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
AUGUST 9, 2010
Miranda watches her left hand move across her sketch pad as if unsure of its destination. Up it swoops, leaving a sooty trail across the thick white paper. Then across to the right, down again, across. A frame. The pencil lifts from the page for a moment, hovering in midair as her eyes turn toward the window. Dawn arrives abruptly in Mazrooq, the sky slipping from black to gold in the few seconds it took Miranda to pour a cup of coffee. Their garden is already gilded, its vast lawn glittering with last night’s rain, its neat rows of flowers unclenching and tilting toward the sun. Along the periphery is a procession of crooked trees, leaning against the iron spikes of the gates like tired sentries. Bougainvillea crawls up the walls and thrusts its blooms through the bars, unwilling to be contained. Across the far end of the grass stretches the pool, as yet undisturbed by morning swimmers. The sky, as always at this hour, is a relentless, cloudless blue.
Miranda’s view of this paradise, this oasis of theirs in this desert country, is partitioned into eight nearly equal parts by wrought-iron bars. Painted white, they form a lacelike scrim across the window. The ornate metal curlicues strive to disguise their utilitarian nature, but fail.
Her hand has gone back to work. The iron bars unfurl across her page, but as they would be seen from outside. For behind the bars is not a garden but a girl. A woman, vivisected, her head framed here, her heart here. Here her hand and here her mouth. Drawing, Miranda often feels like an adolescent toying with a Ouija board, wondering to what degree she subconsciously controls the movements of its indicator. Simultaneously creator and conduit, she can rarely predict exactly what will emerge.
So absorbed is she in her puzzle pieces that she doesn’t hear the alarm at first. How long has it been buzzing? She hasn’t yet touched the mug of coffee on the table in front of her, or made Finn’s cup of tea. Barefoot, she runs down the hall to their bedroom and lunges for the alarm on Finn’s bedside table. Why had they set the alarm? They have a child. They do not need an alarm. Then she remembers: The policemen. The policemen are still here. Which means she has to dress for breakfast.
Pausing by the bed, she listens. Nothing. Cressida still safely asleep. “Sweetheart.” Gently, she shakes Finn’s shoulder, kisses his eyelids.
“I’m awake,” he says.
“I am, I’m wide awake.” He says this without moving, without opening an eye. Finn is not a morning person. On weekdays he rises at 6:00 a.m. to eat breakfast before heading to the embassy by 7:30. But on weekends he’ll sleep all day if she doesn’t wake him.
“I’ll get your tea.” In the little private kitchen between their room and Cressida’s, where she habitually spends the first hour of the day with her sketch pad, Miranda brews a mug of Earl Grey. Finn won’t drink her coffee; she makes it too strong. After leaving his tea on the side table by his still-motionless head, she returns to the kitchen for her own mug.
At best she gets an hour of blissful solitude, but today she has only twenty minutes before she needs to scramble into a sundress. She rarely has the luxury of solitary mornings once she leaves the relative privacy of their upstairs suite. By the time she slips down the marble staircase, their Ethiopian housekeeper, Negasi, will be busy in the kitchen, slicing mangoes and melons, peeling pomegranates, and brewing coffee. Birdlike Desta will have already begun polishing the downstairs bathrooms. And Yonas and Semere will be pulling up weeds in the flower beds and tending to their vegetable patches. Miranda wouldn’t have thought much would take root in the cracked earth of this arid city, but their figs, lettuce, broccoli, tomatoes, and rhubarb thrive. By the time Miranda and Finn have finished their muesli and fruit, swallowed the last of their coffee or tea, and wiped their mouths with the rainbow-striped cloth napkins, Teru will be in the kitchen, slowly turning the pages of their cookbooks as she writes her shopping list.
Though often deprived of solitude, Miranda is awash in other luxuries. She doesn’t have to cook. She doesn’t do her own laundry. And best of all, she doesn’t have to leave the house unless she wants to. She can paint all day. Or play with her daughter. Or stare out the window and daydream.
But there’s no more time for dreaming today. Miranda finishes her coffee, then pads to their bathroom to brush her teeth. There are two sinks, two cabinets, two toothbrush holders. His and Hers everything, plus a bath (Hers) and a shower (His). She wakes up every morning and cannot believe this is her life. Sitting on the toilet, she thinks, My god, I live here. Even after three years, it still hasn’t sunk in. Though it should, when she has a choice of seven or so toilets to use. Still brushing, she wanders down the hall to their daughter’s room. Cressida lies on her back in what Miranda refers to as the “surrender position,” her arms thrown above her head and her chubby knees splayed open. Insulated from the chill of the desert night by her blue-and-white checked flannel pajamas, she breathes deeply, her round little tummy straining against the buttons at regular intervals. She is a good sleeper, Cressida. Has been from her fourth month, when she began sleeping through the night. Miranda was prepared for years of interrupted nights, but it hasn’t happened. She finds herself keeping this information from other mothers, feeling guilty for having such an easy child. And not only does she have an easy child but she has help whenever she wants it. She makes a mental note that she must never allow herself to complain about anything, ever again.
Back in the bathroom she washes her face with frankincense-scented soap and runs wet fingers through her tangled curls before Finn finally staggers in, spiky-haired and sleepy. “Policemen this morning,” she reminds him. “Last day!”
“Romantic dinner for two tonight, then?” He smiles, his arms circling her waist.
“I wish. But you’ve got the EU ambassadors tonight, remember?”
“I don’t know. Some of them aren’t so bad.”
Finn turns her to face him, and she presses her cheek against the soft hairs of his chest. She has never felt so lucky.
Currently, there are three policemen--Scotland Yard hostage negotiators--in their guest rooms. Not the kind of company she’d had in her old life. In her old life, in the house she’d once shared with Vícenta in the Old City, she had taken in students, writers, photographers, rock climbers, adventurers, and the occasional tourist. They filled the void Vícenta left in her wake. Her guests came from all over the world, drifting in and out of her house, staying for days, weeks, months. Sometimes one of them would make dinner. Sometimes one would share a bottle of bootleg Scotch. But they were generally self-sufficient souls, content to wander out to the souq for a plate of beans and bread or to pour themselves a bowl of muesli for dinner.
Here at the Residence--a shiny white fortress in a city of gray rock--their company is of a different caliber: ministers, policemen, intelligence officers, politicians, journalists, academics, businesspeople, development workers, and military officers. And they all require three full meals a day plus tea and biscuits, guidance around the city, hours of polite conversation, an open bar, and usually, protection. They occupy the five en suite guest rooms, furnished with an eclectic mix of British and Mazrooqi beds and bureaus, and decorated with mismatched curtains and carpets chosen by a succession of ambassadors’ wives with divergent tastes. “It’s like a high-end bed-and-breakfast furnished by someone’s eccentric but wealthy aunt,” Miranda once said to Finn. None of this bothers her; she loves the constant flow of new faces.
Alastair is the most senior of the current three cops (Miranda had to know this sort of information in order to figure out who got the “Minister’s Suite,” their largest guest room), then Mick, and then Gary (called Gazza). They’ve been living in the Residence for nearly three weeks now.
Police and military officers are Miranda’s favorite guests. Which surprised her, given her lifelong bias against anything to do with the military-industrial complex. But the British officers she has met since moving in with Finn have been kinder, more polite, more interesting, and more articulate than just about anyone she has ever met. The night Alastair, Mick, and Gazza arrived, she entertained them in the front sitting room alone for several hours while they waited for Finn to return from the embassy. As the pistachio shells piled up on the glass coffee table and the gin glasses were refilled for the third time, the men leaned back in the arms of the fat, white sofas and regaled Miranda with stories of hostage situations in Iraq, Nigeria, even back home in Britain. Miranda had forgotten that the West had its share of hostage takers. They avoided discussing why the policemen had come. Miranda knew she shouldn’t bring it up without Finn around, and the police didn’t broach the subject themselves. Of course, she couldn’t help but notice their bulging bags of equipment. Mick had snapped his open while she was in the kitchen preparing tea, and as she came back through Miranda had caught a glimpse of latex gloves and plastic bags stamped with the words forensic evidence.
“We had a suicide once, a man threatening to drive off a cliff in England. A high cliff. He’d had some sort of domestic dispute with his wife, been arrested the night before, and spent the day in the bar drinking,” said Mick. “Had a bottle of wine with him, if I recall correctly.” Mick had been talking to the man through the window of the car, trying to convince him to get out and live another day, without making much progress. The man had become sullen and silent, refusing to speak. But one of the car doors was left slightly ajar. With his gloved fingers, Mick quickly pried it open, leapt into the car, pulled the emergency brake, and grabbed the keys. The would-be suicide was apprehended and taken to a psychiatric institute. “I got an award for that intervention,” said Mick, “even though it was probably one of the daftest things I’ve ever done in my career. Who gets into the car of a man about to drive off a cliff?”
“If I were your wife I’d kill you,” Miranda said.
The policemen, who travel constantly in and out of the UK, have just come from Uganda. “Tough on a marriage,” said Miranda. Gazza said his wife was in the same line of work. “Doubly tough, then.”
“Yes and no. . . . At least she understands what I’m doing.”
It’s not the time away that causes problems, said Mick, but the shift in priorities. When he got to Baghdad in 2003, he had telephoned his wife to let her know he was okay. Shells were exploding all around him as he dialed, standing in a building missing a wall. His wife was crying when she answered the phone. “What is it?” he’d asked, alarmed. “The Hoover!” she’d wept. “It’s not working!”
Mick hadn’t known what to say. “Do you know where I am?” he’d finally asked. “This building is missing a wall. People are dying all around me. But hey, with the hazard pay I’m getting, you can buy a new Hoover!”
They all laughed at the Hoover story, but Miranda wondered how long a marriage could last between people inhabiting such radically different mental spaces. The story reminded her of a New York firefighter’s description of the collapse of his marriage after September 11, 2001. He was no longer able to work up an opinion on what kind of curtains to hang in the living room.
Miranda and Finn found the policemen’s stories so engrossing that they all lingered at the dinner table over glasses of port until 11:00 p.m. It wasn’t merely that these men had such captivating stories of their own; they took an interest in the people around them, asking endless questions about Mazrooqi culture and politics, Miranda’s work, and Cressida’s latest milestones. It was amazing how few politicians and diplomats asked them anything at all. Why was it that police were reliably better conversationalists than ministers?
Eight days before the policemen arrived, seven foreigners had disappeared in the northern mountains: a Dutch family of three, a German, two Brits, and a Frenchwoman. The group had been working for Muslim Mercy, providing food, shelter, health care, and education for those displaced by ongoing tribal conflicts. On a Friday afternoon, they had set out for a hike up a river valley, or wadi. They never returned.
The first challenge was that no one had yet claimed responsibility for their disappearance. Hostage negotiators need people with whom to negotiate. So for their first few days, the policemen found themselves with time on their hands. They questioned Finn about the country’s culture and history; they headed out for secret meetings with German, French, and Dutch intelligence. And still there was no word. This was unusual. Kidnappings here were usually the result of a tribal dispute. Tribes took groups of foreigners hostage in order to pressure the government to force a rival tribe to release some of its prisoners. These hostages were treated with warm hospitality. They were fed large meals of goat and flatbreads, given the best blankets, and returned after several days or weeks unharmed, as a result of mediation. Only rarely have kidnappings turned violent. But Al Qaeda has been gaining strength in the region, says Finn. And they have an entirely different style of kidnapping.
The disappearances have aggravated the mounting tensions between the North and the South, with the government (located in the wealthier South) blaming the unruly northern tribal leaders, who deny any knowledge of the captives.
Several weeks have now passed without progress, and the men can no longer justify their absence from the UK. So until there are further developments in the case, the three policemen are heading home.
Dinner with the most recent visiting minister, in contrast to dinners with the police, had been a colorless affair. All the Arab ambassadors were invited, so that the Minister could solicit their views on local politics, particularly on the increasing friction between North and South. A civil war would prove disastrous, as civil wars typically do, and the UK was anxious to support mediations in order to prevent it. Miranda had plenty to say, having lived in the country for several years, longer than most of the men at the table (including Finn), but as the Minister hadn’t come to get her opinion, she kept quiet. Besides, she could never hope to be as eloquent as Finn, who was doing admirably at articulating the challenges they faced. Still, her legs twitched violently under the table and she sat on her hands to restrain herself from shattering a wineglass just to break the monotony. Everyone was repeating the same tired litany of the country’s problems, but failing to suggest solutions or a way forward. She got depressed about this. As the crème caramels were delivered to the table, she could stand it no longer.
“Look,” she said. “We all know what the problems are.” The corrupt government siphoned off oil money that could be directed to public services, brokered illicit arms deals, and starved its people. Hardly any oil money made its way to the resource-poor North, where unemployment was soaring and anger over state corruption was festering. Rot, dishonesty, and betrayal ran so deep that northern rebels could often purchase weapons directly from government forces. Water was increasingly scarce, and at least two cities could run out of it en...
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