Monday, May 16, 2011

Passport DC: Around the World from Kazakhstan to Brazil

Earlier last week I shared some impressions from last weekend's EU Embassies Open House Day. This weekend, on May 14, many other embassies held similar events too, sharing their culture and traditions with the curious public, who braved the weather to take a peek inside what usually are unaccessible buildings.

Given my personal interests and time constraints, I decided to try and visit some of the representations of formerly or currently "not-so-democratic" countries, and dragged a kindly willing group of friends with me. Why the choice? I was curious to see how these countries will utilize this great opportunity to do public diplomacy and present themselves to a largely American public.

Unfortunately, Uzbekistan and Bahrain cancelled in advance. One can only guess the reasons for cancellation...

Also, many of the embassies that I, personally, would be very curious to visit, were sadly not participating in this great initiative to begin with (Azerbaijan, Turkey, China, Russia... the list can go on...).

Here are the ones we did visit (with some diversions from the initially planned "political" route):


As expected, there was a lot of glitter, with an exhibition of shining Kazakh "ornaments". Given all the recent attempts to improve the country's image around the world, and in the U.S. especially, I was really looking forward to see what the embassy would have to offer on Saturday. And well, I should say it wasn't that bad. If anything, it was impressive.

Quite generously, the Embassy was also giving out stacks of books by President Nursultan Nazarbayev for free, eager to bring his message to whoever would listen. Unfortunately for him, I kept overhearing funny comments by amused visitors who seemed to be unimpressed by the prolific author. Oh well...

Photo courtesy of Farkhunda Mirboboeva

Trinidad & Tobago

This embassy was not on our initial itinerary, but their music, carnival outfits and the tiny line definitely attracted attention. Small but neat: I think it was a great example of how a country of that size can benefit from such events without necessarily being hard on the budget.

Visitors could walk through the building, see amazing carnival costumes and listen to live music by a guest band. Hungry? There was traditional food on sale just outside the embassy. Indeed, why not outsource?


The entire building was open to the visitors. And although we missed the tango show, we still had a chance to try some genuine empanadas, Argentinian sausage...

...and Malbec.

The embassy held activities for children and featured various displays of traditional Argentinian objects, too. Among those, mate "gourds" occupied a special place, of course.


Housed in the gorgeous Walsh-McLean House (formerly owned by the owners of the Hope Diamond), the embassy had put on a good show.

The building itself is more than just fascinating, but the embassy had also thought of a great way to entertain the visitors: Angklung workshop - both, easy and engaging.

There were food samples for sale, more music and dance, and beautiful exhibits of various artifacts and architectural models. Well done, I should say!


Given the state of the official relationship with the U.S., I was curious to see what the embassy would have to offer.

We might have been late, but there seemingly wasn't much to be truly impressed with: some children's activities (that suffered at the rain) and a rather simple exhibit.

Nevertheless, the visitors were welcomed with a smile, and something they could relate to: The Beatles! Not a bad choice... but still, could be better.


We were hoping to get to Iraq, but since we were very short on time, we chose Brazil instead as it was on our way. Beautiful building and impressive decorations. However, nothing beyond a simple "tour". Given the country's rich culture and diversity, the embassy could have done much more to truly impress its visitors.

Bolivian guests at the Brazilian embassy

Islamic Center

On the way back, we decided to stop by the Washington Islamic Center located at the Embassy Row. The Center was opened in 1957, established at the initiative of several prominent Muslim-Americans and diplomats representing Islamic countries. As stated at its website, "The Islamic Center cooperates with U.S. Administration, Muslim and non-Muslim Organizations to promote a better understanding of Islam and the Islamic Center's ideals."

An impressive building indeed, and more than just beautiful inside.

Perhaps the most interesting part in terms of public diplomacy, however, was that the enamel tiles that make up the rich interior were donated by the Turkish Government. Back in 1969.

Great public diplomacy, not just towards the Muslim community in the U.S., but also towards the entire Islamic world. More importantly, however, it provides an example to demonstrate that Turkey was not always strictly "secular" in its foreign policy approach, and was rather attuned to cultural sensitivities in its external affairs.

Stop by, if you're ever in D.C. It's certainly worth a visit!

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