by Ann Geracimos
There's a whole new set of ambassadors in town with young, attractive, and worldly wives who are making their own mark on the Washington scene. Ann Geracimos writes about six of these dynamic women. It's easy enough to write about a highly visible group of younger women who have unpaid jobs as ambassadorial wives in Washington. They are attractiveand articulate, full of charm and smarts. But it can be hard for the women themselves to speak frankly about a life that, from the outside, resembles a gilded cage. There are special pressures on women who combine the roles of parent and spouse in this high-pressure town and practice a constant juggling game to balance the demands between job and family. Unlike many other professional women, they live in a social pressure-cooker where it is hard to talk openly on political subjects that can be interpreted-or, God forbid, be quoted publicly-as reflecting their home country's official view. And there always can be worries about personal security matters. Discretion take its toll, they admit. Even so, the women are skillful and philosophical enough to see the advantages of their position and live within its constraints. Included among them are several who, because of their own interests and education, might one day qualify for ambassadorial rank themselves.
"Times they are a changing," agrees Rakela Cerovic Ruperez, 35, wife of Spanish Ambassador Javier Ruperez and mother of five-and-a-half-year-old Laura, named so their daughter could be addressed with equal facility in Spanish and English.
"It's a wonderful period in my life, and I'm sure there will be others," says Bolivia's Pamela Aparicio, who gives her age as "early 30s." The Zimbabwe-born brunette is married to Ambassador Jaime Aparicio; the two are parents of Alexander, age six. "Becoming an ambassador's wife just sort of happened," she reflects. "In life you veer towards things you are interested in. If you are interested in international relations, they will be involved."
Traditionally, ambassadorial wives moved up the ladder and around the world with husbands who attained senior status only after many decades of service. They were older and very nearly invisible, their children grown. A younger crowd has arrived in the past few years who are feminine enough to talk shoes and hairdressers, and talented enough to discuss global conflict (when they dare). They are soccer moms by day and model sidekicks by night.
Lebanese-born Rima Al-Sabah, 41, who converted from Catholicisim to Islam when she married her husband, Kuwaiti's Ambassador Salem Abdullah Jaber Al- Sabah, says she tries to put their three sons first but admits the pressure often overwhelms her. Not long ago, their youngest, eight-and-a-half-year-old Khaled, a student at Sidwell Friends, told his father "when I grow up I don't want to be an ambassador because he never sees his kids." It broke his [my husband's] heart," the vivacious blond relates. Faysal, 13, and Talal, 10, play soccer at Landon. A driver takes the boys to their respective schools but she makes sure to attend their weekend soccer games and to be with them each day at 4 p.m. when they come home. "Sometimes I can be putting on makeup and helping them with math homework," she says. When she can't get to parents' night at school, her husband goes.
Personal cell phones, professional resumes, private hours in the gym or a run in the park are routine for these women. All expect that, following tradition, most weekends will be free of social occasions to enable them to spend time with their families. They are just as apt to get on bicycles and tour Rock Creek Park as get in a car and tour sights within range on the East Coast. Some sponsor goodwill projects in their home countries. Pamela Aparicio, for example, is the force behind construction of a school in a poor mining town in Bolivia where children often are conscripted for jobs putting dynamite in holes. All the wives volunteer locally, putting their personal extracurricular projects on hold for the most part. Rima Al-Sabah, a former journalist, vows to go back to school for a master's in business when her children enter college.
Journalist Jutta Falke-Ischinger, 41, continues to contribute to "Rheinischer Merkur" about life in America. She had been the German weekly's bureau chief in Berlin prior to her marriage last year to German Ambassador Wolfgang Ischinger, who had two grown children at home in Germany. "Sometimes it is a bit diffcult to leave the top day-to-day issues out of columns because some people would suspect conflict of interest," she notes. Her latest social program is the establishment of three scholarships for disadvantaged Washington children, starting at age nine, to attend Washington's German School in Potomac starting the next school year.
Jellie van Eenennaam, 42, took on the 'wife of' title in May when she married Netherlands Ambassador Boudewijn J. van Eenennaam, but she certainly wasn't new to the world of diplomacy. She had served their country earlier as a consular officer and in other posts-the United Arab Republics and Los Angeles-while a member of her country's foreign service. Her previous husband was a banker whom she met in New York while she was at the United Nations and he was working for a Dutch bank. Their two daughters-Kim, age ten, and Britt, age seven-are with him at home in the Netherlands and visit her here in summer and on their vacations. That relieves her somewhat of extra burdens during Washington's busiest times, but, even so, in line with the other obviously intelligent and professionally successful wives, she isn't about to confess to any frustrations in her present job beyond the problem of having little or no free time. When asked her opinion on politically sensitive matters, she takes the high road. "I usually keep a low profile," she says. "It's necessary to be diplomatic at all times. You always represent your country's view." Like their husbands, most of the women speak several languages. Mrs. Van Eenennaam adds "some German, French and rusty Spanish" to her English and Dutch. Mrs. Aparicio speaks English with her son, while her husband addresses him in Spanish. Mrs. Ruperez was born in Macedonia when it was part of Yugoslavia, so she can add Serbian to the list. (She was married in 1995 in a Catholic Church with an Orthodox priest and ceremony and began at once to master Spanish-enough so that she could earn a master's degree in international relations at a university in Madrid. The couple lived together for several years before marriage. (She also worked as a consultant in the Spanish congress at one point.)
Luma Karim Kawar, 35, wife of Jordan's Amassador Karim Kawar, worked in banking before her marriage 13 years ago to one of the country's leading technology experts. They had met as students at Boston College when both were members of the Middle Eastern Club. An economics major, she also had a stint in an exchange program at the London School of Economics. The couple has three children, ages four to ten, who attend area schools. "I do try to get across my point of view on whatever subject I can," she says about being pressed to speak out on sensitive subjects. "If it is tricky, I tell them to ask my husband. I haven't had that sort of encounter more than once or twice the entire year. With men. Ladies don't push." "Mine is more of a cultural role," she adds. To that end, six months ago she helped organize a monthly prayer group for senate and ambassadorial wives of all faiths with Grace Nelson, wife of Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida. "One of us speaks about her country and what is troubling her. The point is to get a feel of a person from another country and be together with an open heart. There is a big mistrust between people. We want to show everybody is the same." Currently she is devoting a lot of time to an Oct. 16 gala at the National Museum of Natural History that will have Queen Rania as guest. "It is a way of reciprocating invitations," she says.
The motive for so much social profiling, says Rima Al-Sabah, is to impart a changed image of Arab women-especially Kuwaiti women whom she says are far more liberated than many Americans believe. Challenged to answer whether her own profile has become almost too prominent since her arrival in August 2001, she diplomatically demurs. "I never feel that. I am not out to promote myself, but my country." Predictably but quite sincerely, she changes the subject. "Washington is such a fantastic experience. People are so friendly and sophisticated and open-minded. They welcome you with open arms. I really love this city and the American people." Love makes the world go 'round, for better or worse-but good looks and open minds help as well.