Jardine: Not many dull moments in the life of this diplomat

July 15, 2009 

There's a rigid protocol in Yemen when it comes to the jambiyya.

A jambiyya is a crudely made curved knife that bears none of the ornate craftsmanship of its decorative sheath.

"They say if you pull it out (of its sheath), you're not supposed to put it back in without blood on it," Modestan Kristen Weaver said.

Presumably, they mean their enemy's blood, which is why I tried to stay in Weaver's good graces when she casually withdrew the knife to display it during our chat in Modesto last week.

No worries. As an office management specialist with the U.S. Department of State, Weaver understands protocol. The 33-year-old, who graduated from Downey High School in 1993, just returned from a two-year assignment in Yemen. Before that, she spent two years in the Peace Corps as a curriculum development specialist in the west African nation of Mauritania.

In all, she's visited 29 countries — each with its own customs, cultures and protocols — and will start a new assignment in Vienna in August.

Becoming a diplomat is something most valley kids never consider when they're planning their futures. Many choose to see the world in the military, not the State Department. Either way, they can find themselves in some pretty politically unstable places.

So compared to Weaver's last couple of jobs, the Austria gig should be, well, a waltz.

She got her first exposure to diplomatic life when she was 15.

"My mother (Betty Weaver) took me abroad and we visited a family friend in Denmark," she said. "He worked for the State Department. It was a cool job. They paid for housing, languages (training) and travel expenses. It piqued my interest."

After graduating from Downey, she went to Santa Clara University and earned bachelor's degrees in journalism and German. Then she moved on to Stanford for her masters in education and her teaching credential. She taught German in a San Jose high school and then worked for an immigration law firm in Santa Clara.

"I loved it so much that I wanted to become a lawyer," she said.

Instead of pursuing a law degree, though, she opted for the Peace Corps in 2002 and spent three years in Mauritania working in that country's ministry of education, working closely with the inspector general of national education. She and another volunteer helped develop Mauritania's school curriculum, rewriting its national textbook. She lived in the capital city of Nouakchott and was there during the military coup in 2003.

Dangers? More from a bad driver than the military factions.

"I got my foot run over by a car right before the coup," she said. "Thankfully, it was in the sand. A friend rolled me over before it got me. It ran over my friend Sharif, over his breast bone. Everything crushed, but nothing broken. The coup happened that night."

She lived in a part of Nouakchott where military factions were fighting each other.

"I opened the windows to keep them from breaking because the booms were so loud," she said. "Before the last coup, I called the Peace Corps director and told him it was going to happen."

He seemed skeptical.

"Afterward, he called me back and said, 'You're good,' " she said.

After leaving the Peace Corps, Weaver returned to the Bay Area and worked as an immigration specialist at Robert Half International before she joined the State Department in April 2007. Later that year, she shipped off for the U.S. Embassy in San'a, Yemen.

During her assignment there, terrorists attempted three attacks on the embassy in 2008 — mortar attacks in March and April and when they tried to shoot their way in last September, killing 18 people.

The March mortar attack missed the embassy but hit a girls' school nearby, wounding some of the students.

The April attack was on living quarters. She wasn't home at the time.

"They actually hit the complex where I was living," she said. "Shrapnel from the mortars came through the window and went where I would normally sit on the couch when I was home. Fortunately, I didn't notice it for a couple of days."

During each attack, she provided support for embassy security by working the phones. During the September attack, she stayed behind when the embassy was evacuated.

"I would say I was very blessed not to experience these attacks directly," Weaver said. "I was not a victim. I was there to support those who were."

She received the State Department's meritorious honor award in 2008 and its Franklin Award in 2009 for her performance during the attacks.

Weaver hasn't yet met her new boss, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

"But I did meet Bill," Weaver said. She drove a car in his motorcade when he campaigned for Al Gore in Silicon Valley in 2000.

And she's impressed that Hillary has created a sounding board on the department's internal Web site.

"Anybody from any level can send comments and suggestions to her office on how to improve the department," Weaver said.

It's a new protocol and, unlike the Yemenis' jambiyya knife, won't demand a bloodletting.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com or 578-2383.

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