London, Asharq Al-Awsat – Andy Halus is the US State Department’s Deputy Spokesman for the Near Eastern Affairs Bureau for media from the Middle East and North Africa. He previously worked for the US State Department in Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tanzania. During an e-mail interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Halus spoke in detail about his work at the US State Department, the Arab Spring in general, and the popular uprising taking place in Syria against President Bashar al-Assad in particular.
The following is the full text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you start by telling our readers a little bit about yourself?
[Halus] Thank you for this opportunity. It’s an honor to be chosen to introduce myself on a more personal level to your readers.
I am a first generation American on my father’s side of the family. He immigrated to the United States from Austria during the Second World War. When living in Austria became too dangerous, his parents decided to send him and his four siblings to the U.S. to start a new life here. His parents remained in Austria, because they could not afford to travel. My father and his siblings moved in with an American family in Texas. After the war, my paternal grandfather and grandmother moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and their children joined them there.
My mother is of Italian heritage and was born in New Jersey, right outside of New York City. She has three sisters. And they are all amazing cooks.
I was born in 1982 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I am the fourth child out of five. I have two older sisters, an older brother, and a younger sister. I have lived all over the east coast of the United States: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Charleston, South Carolina, Hershey, Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and now in Washington, DC.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about your career so far at the US State Department?
[Halus] My current assignment in Washington, DC is my third assignment. I am currently the Deputy Spokesman for the Near Eastern Affairs bureau for media from the Middle East and North Africa. My first assignment was in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. As the Deputy Press Attaché there, I focused on social media, bloggers, and younger journalists. It was fascinating to have this portfolio, because it was at a time when social media was just starting to make major gains as a legitimate way to express one’s opinions. I then went to Damascus for a temporary assignment as the acting press attaché. It was immediately before the 2008 U.S. presidential election, so it was a great time to be in Syria. Following my temporary assignment in Damascus, I went to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to work in the consular section. I was the visa officer and assisted American citizens living and traveling to Tanzania.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You said that you previously worked in Syria, what is your view of the widespread protests that have broken out in the country against the al-Assad regime?
[Halus] I am truly inspired by the bravery of the Syrian people. Every week we see thousands of courageous Syrians take to the street to let their voices be heard. And they represent all layers and sects of Syrian society. They march in the streets knowing full well that the al-Assad regime is willing to kill them in order to silence them. This movement is exactly what the world saw in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the former Soviet bloc fell. I remember watching the Eastern Europe protests as a child with my mom, and I was amazed. It is even more incredible to watch the Arab Awakening occur, because now I understand what is going on better than I did as a child. When I was in Damascus, my friends talked about wanting to push the al-Assad regime aside, but they always said it in a whisper. Now, they are no longer whispering.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your view the Arab Spring in general?
[Halus] I think the democratic transitions that are underway in the Arab world are amazing. The world is witnessing the fall of some of the most repressive regimes anywhere in the world. They also show the power of democracy. People want to live in a country where their leaders are accountable to them as citizens, not the other way around. People want to know that their government cannot infringe on basic human rights like freedom of religion, freedom to assemble, and freedom to live without fear. The U.S. stands for these principles, and I am thrilled to be a U.S. diplomat witnessing such dynamic change. The best part of these transitions is that they all started because the citizens, whether they are Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, or Syrians, decided they wanted change. And they are charting a course to democracy which is appropriate for their country.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little about your educational background?
[Halus] When I was 15 years old, I had the opportunity to study abroad with the Rotary International Exchange Program. I decided to study in Vienna, Austria. I actually lived in a small village immediately outside of Vienna called Biedermannsdorf. It is a beautiful, small town. While there I also travelled to my father’s birthplace, Bischofshofen, Austria. It is about five hours west of Vienna, near Salzburg. That was in 1998-1999, and that is when I knew that I wanted to live and work abroad as a career. I graduated high school in 2000 – the start of the current millennium. From 2000 to 2004, I studied Political Science and German at the University of Pittsburgh in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where I received my Bachelor’s degree. I was also very active in the theatre program. I then began my Master’s degree in U.S. Foreign Policy at American University in Washington, DC. I completed that degree in 2006.
In 2002, I received a fellowship from the U.S. Department of State called the Thomas R. Pickering Fellowship. The purpose of this fellowship was to ensure that U.S. diplomats reflect the diverse nature of U.S. society with respect to race, gender, religion, and socio-economic background. The day I received the news that I had been awarded this fellowship was one of the happiest days in my life, because I had always wanted to be a U.S. diplomat.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How did you first join the US State Department?
[Halus] Before I officially joined the State Department, I did two summer internships there. The first one was from May 2006 to August 2006 in the Legislative Affairs Bureau which focuses on the State Department’s relationship with Congress. My next internship was at the U.S. Mission to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe headquartered in Vienna, Austria. My fascination with the Middle East and North Africa began when I was a fellow working in the Near Eastern Affairs bureau in the Press and Public Diplomacy Office in 2005-2006.
I officially entered the U.S. diplomatic corps in September 2006. All new U.S. diplomats must take part in a seven week orientation program to learn the in-and-outs of the US State Department. During the orientation process, called A-100, we find out where our first assignment will be, and we continue with specialized training for that assignment once the orientation concludes.
After this orientation, we have our swearing-in and receive our diplomatic commissions. Then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was present, and she swore in my class.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] You speak a number of languages, including Arabic, Kiswahili, and German. Where did you learn to speak different languages? Do you find it useful in your job to speak different languages, not just in a practical manner, but also in dealing with people from different cultures and backgrounds?
[Halus] My first assignment was to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia as the Deputy Press Attaché, so I studied Arabic for eight months at the Foreign Service Institute. It is like a university for the State Department. Over those eight months, I had six language teachers who were Algerian, Palestinian, Syrian, Egyptian, Sudanese, and Iraqi. This was a very intense time. Arabic is such a complicated yet amazing and beautiful language in both its spoken and written form.
I did my best to immerse myself in the culture by watching old Egyptian movies and Oum Kalthoum’s concerts on YouTube, and listening to Nancy Ajram’s music. Additionally, the two other guys in my class and I decided to have fun with the language. We would joke around with each other and actually speak to each other in Arabic outside of class. That really helped.
Once I arrived in Saudi Arabia, I had a number of opportunities to use Arabic. The most memorable occasion was working at the Riyadh International Book Fair at the U.S. booth. Every day school children from all over the Najd region would come in to buy books and learn about studying in the U.S. By the end of the book fair, I could talk about any aspect of studying in the U.S. in beautiful Fus’ha [classical Arabic]. It is true that practice makes perfect. I also got to use my Arabic often in Syria when I worked at the U.S. Embassy there for a few months in 2008. I was there during Ramadan 2008, so I would watch “Bab al Hara”, “Tash ma Tash”, and other TV series each day with new friends at my neighbourhood shisha bar – double apple shisha in one hand and hot mint tea in the other. Watching TV, I find, can be a great way to learn a language. I still have a long way to go in my language study though, so I look forward to a future immersion course in the region.
I learned Kiswahili for my consular assignment in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. I learned German when I studied in Vienna, Austria, because I went to an Austrian public school and the language of instruction was German.
As diplomats, we need to create relationships with people in each country. So knowing the local language is critical. Each diplomat goes about this in a different way, but I like to observe and watch how people use the language – how they move their hands and their facial expressions when they say certain words.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Can you tell us a little bit more about the US State Department’s language academy?
[Halus] The Foreign Service Institute, or FSI, is the State Department’s official training center. It is basically a university for the US State Department. Most of the classes there are for language instruction. There is instruction for around 70 languages there. There are also “Area Studies” courses. These courses are designed to help diplomats who are going to a region of the world for the first-time learn about the history, culture, and political situations in that region. I took the area studies course for the Middle East and North Africa before I went to Saudi Arabia, and the African course before I went to Tanzania.
FSI also teaches leadership, crisis management, and special training courses for family members moving overseas with a U.S. diplomat. Each year FSI teaches over 600 classroom course and numerous online training courses.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What would you say is the most enjoyable part of your job?
[Halus] It is great to have a career where the main responsibilities are to represent the U.S. and learn about foreign cultures. It is something that I have always wanted to do, so to have that opportunity makes me very happy. I chose to specialize in public diplomacy, because I know that there is so much more to the U.S. than its foreign policy. I know that every culture, ethnicity, and race exists and thrives in the United States, and that is a source of our strength. As a public diplomacy officer, it is my job to find ways to use this asset to advance U.S. principles and policies throughout the world.
We do this in a number of ways, some include educational and cultural exchange programs, bringing leading U.S. experts on a given topic to foreign countries to meet with local policy makers, educators, students, and civil society, and encouraging people the visit and study in the U.S.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the most difficult part of your job?
[Halus] The job requires that we spend most of our career abroad. I have a large family, and they all live in the U.S. Being away so often means that I miss a number of family events. That is very difficult, but we find creative solutions. I talk with my siblings every week when I am abroad, and we Skype each other over holidays. We also use Facebook to keep each other up to date about what is happening in our lives. Some of my friends have Skyped me into major events like engagement parties and weddings. Technology allows us to overcome a lot. I cannot imagine living in a world where I would have to wait for months to receive a letter from someone like in those old movies.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What newspapers do you read regularly? What television or radio shows do you watch or listen to regularly?
[Halus] I listen to National Public Radio every morning when I wake up. I will often read the English edition of Asharq Al-Awsat and Al-Hayat. I wish I could read the Arabic editions, but my Arabic is not that strong yet. One day, I hope to be able to do that. On Sundays, I read the New York Times cover-to-cover. There is nothing better than the Sunday edition of the New York Times and a strong cup of coffee. Well maybe a good football match and a shisha, but that has nothing to do with news! I also enjoy reading my hometown newspaper, the Hershey Chronicle, because it is nice to hear about what is happening back home too.