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DC diplomatic spouses take center stage in culture and soft diplomacy

DC diplomatic spouses take center stage in culture and soft diplomacy
Haflin Nazri Aziz, wife of Malaysian Ambassador Mohamed Nazri Aziz, sits in her Washington DC residence.

Behind the many ambassadors who are busy representing their countries in the United States are the unsung heroes of diplomatic life: their wives and husbands.

These spouses take on a crucial, yet often overlooked, role in Washington, fostering relationships within their diaspora communities and promoting their national cultures with every gathering that happens at their embassy or residence.

“We are supposed to be, not to say backbone, but playing a vital role in supporting the embassy’s events and soft diplomacy,” said Haflin Nazri Aziz, wife of Malaysian Ambassador Mohamed Nazri Aziz.

For Haflin and Zumrud Ibrahim, the wife of Azerbaijani Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, softening the edges of diplomacy means everything from curating the cuisine to designing the decor, and overseeing even the smallest of details in preparation for an event. It also means making connections with other spouses and embassies in Washington. That has led both women to pursue numerous clubs and leadership roles during their husbands’ postings.

“The best part is meeting people and having conversations, getting to know them a bit better,” said Zumrud. “Every person has a story, and it really depends how much they want to tell you.”

The Malaysian couple and their 8-year-old son arrived in Washington in March 2023 for their first ambassadorial posting after Nazri Aziz spent several years as minister of tourism and culture. Since then, both have become active in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Nazri Aziz chairs the ASEAN Committee in Washington, while Haflin is vice chairwoman of the ASEAN Spouses Circle, which hosts one event per month. In May, the Malaysian mission hosted a culinary demonstration, an area of her culture Haflin is extremely passionate about.

“We are coming from the other side of the world and we are a really small country,” she said. “This is where the spouse also plays an important role in supporting the embassies and the ASEAN countries coming together as one.”

Growing up in the Malaysian coastal state of Kelantan, Haflin watched her mother cook dishes influenced by China, India and southern Thailand. In 2019, she published a miniature cookbook featuring her mother’s recipes. This continues to inspire her daily role in diplomatic life.

“When we are hosting events, I really take the opportunity to curate each menu, be it at the embassy or at the residence,” she said. “I try to create a concept, for example, from my or my husband’s state. It’s a small glimpse into what our cuisine is all about.”

While Haflin enjoys elevating Malaysian culture in the US, she prefers to avoid the limelight. Yet it’s important for her and her husband to know what’s going on in each other’s day-to-day activities.“I think the most important part as a spouse, and as a team doing things together for our country, is the thought and discussion that you have after dinner,” she said. “You have to be honest with each other because like it or not, we only have each other to be honest with sometimes.”

Haflin also represents her country as Washington’s chairwoman of Perwakilan, a global organization for spouses of Malaysian diplomats and politicians. And she’s co-chair of the Eleanor Roosevelt Dialogue series at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

Zumrud Ibrahim, wife of Azerbaijani Ambassador Khazar Ibrahim, visiting the Azerbaijani national dress exhibit at the Woodrow Wilson House Museum for the Fashioning Power, Fashioning Peace Exhibition and Gala.

Getting involved in DC social circles came naturally to Zumrud Ibrahim after she and her husband arrived here in 2021—the couple’s third US posting. In 2005, Zumrud joined her husband in Washington when he was a junior diplomat, returning again in 2009 when he served as deputy chief of mission.

“DC for us is like home,” she told The Washington Diplomat. “I really enjoy my time here and the best part of this kind of diplomatic life is meeting amazing people and making friends.”

She’s made friends in a book club for ambassador spouses, and she belongs to the International Friendship Club, a Washington-based group of diplomatic and political spouses that promotes art and culture. As such, she’s hosted Azerbaijani music events and has with the Azerbaijan Chamber of Commerce to promote small businesses.

“I enjoy letting people know about my culture, our traditions, our literature and our history, and I like doing events,” said Zumrud, who supports annual events such as Meridian International Center’s ball and the Prevent Cancer Foundation’s gala.

Like Haflin, she avoids her husband’s political life as much as possible, unless it’s accompanying him for travel or to an event.

In Azerbaijan, Zumrud was an attorney and worked ful-time during her husband’s previous postings in Brussels and Ankara. But here, she’s a stay-at-home mother to her four children.

“Being a mom is the most important thing, and I put my social life around that,” said Zumrud. “I can see from my grown-up kids that time flies so fast. I want to make memories with them and once they are a bit grown, then I will go back to work.”

Her advice to new ambassador spouses in Washington: love what you do.

We are here to make a connection and make a difference,” she said. “Connecting to people is the most important thing, and if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, it’s going to be very hard.

This article first appeared in the printed version of the 2024 Embassy Directory, which includes biographies of all foreign ambassadors serving in Washington, D.C. To get your hard copy or digital subscription, please click here.

Angelique Gingras

Angelique Gingras is an undergraduate at the University of Maryland where she studies Journalism and British History. Angel started at The Washington Diplomat as an editorial intern in August 2021 and was promoted to Associate Editor in March 2023.