*’angel’ in Dari.
December 24, 2004 Kabul
I am that rare grown-up who still gets a thrill from peering down at the earth from thirty thousand feet. I always ask for a window seat. The two-hour UN flight from Dubai to Kabul did not disappoint.
We traveled northeast through Iranian airspace under a cloudless sky. As we approached the Afghan border, I pressed my nose to the window.
The flat, dusky landscape of Iran’s eastern desert began to rise and buckle under the pressure of the Indian sub-continental plate, which was pushing slowly northward as it rammed into and slid under the much larger Asian plate. Massive sheets of sedimentary rock sliced jagged gashes in the desert floor as these two colossal tectonic masses experienced the geologic equivalent of a slow-motion car crash, which had been under way for fifty million years. Further north, these slabs of what was once a seabed had been squeezed, shattered, and thrust skyward to create the massive Himalayan mountain chain.
The pilot took us higher, cresting the jagged white peaks of the Hindu Kush—an extension of the Himalayan range that stretches across western Pakistan and central Afghanistan. He circled once over Kabul before banking into a steep dive toward the airport. We touched down just before noon under an ice blue sky.
Kabul’s mud houses and grey government buildings were still coated with yesterday’s snow. There were few trees left in or near this city, which had once been famed for its lush gardens and long shaded avenues but was now draped with rubble-filled barricades and tangled strands of razor wire. The snow-covered mountains, surrounding Kabul like a pearl necklace provided the ruined capital with its only touch of elegance.
According to the Afghan solar calendar, which I had copied down under Doc’s guidance with its Gregorian equivalents, it was the third of Capricorn 1383.
It was also Christmas Eve.
As our plane taxied down the runway, those of us arriving in Afghanistan for the first time stared silently out our windows at clusters of turbaned men huddled around fifty-gallon drums with orange flames lapping over their rims into the dry winter air. Behind the men, dark skeletons of rusting airplanes lay half buried under the grimy layer of day-old snow.
Another group of men wrapped in thin grey blankets and wearing plastic face guards, walked shoulder to shoulder along barren patches of earth between the runways, swinging long-handled metal detectors back and forth in an endless search for stray landmines.
Unsmiling Afghan employees from the American Embassy collected our passports, loaded our bags into a truck, and herded us like a flock of confused sheep through perfunctory immigration and customs formalities in a bare wooden building far from the main terminal. We climbed into bulletproof vans and were instructed by our armed American driver to strap ourselves in “for Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride” to the embassy in downtown Kabul.
As we sped along the narrow highway into the city, I had my first glimpse of Afghanistan’s female population, gliding down the sidewalks in their burkas like silent blue ghosts.
Twenty minutes later as we pulled up in front of the barricaded embassy on Great Massoud Road, our driver barked out more instructions, “Get out of the vehicle here, walk through that door single file, go through the security checkpoint inside, and show the guards your passports. We’ll unload your bags in front of the admin trailer inside the compound. Someone will meet you there and take you to your hooch.”
“Hiya, I’m Carl Edgerton,” said a pale, middle-aged man with a thinning comb-over. He walked up to where I stood next to my suitcases. “Are you Angela Morgan?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Hope your flight was okay. Bet you’re tired, huh?” He inhaled quickly before continuing, “You won’t have any trouble finding your way around here. The dining hall is right behind us, and there’s a workout room next to the dispensary.”
Waving expansively toward the white shipping containers laid end to end in long rows, he announced with an oddly proud flourish, “Welcome to Containerville, Angela! Follow me, and I’ll show you to your hooch.”
He turned to me as we approached container number thirty-six. “Each shipping container is divided into two sections or hooches as we like to call them. Here’s your key. If you’re lucky, you might have this hooch to yourself until after New Year’s. Generally, you transients have to share. Sorry about that.” He paused for my reaction to this bit of bad news and seemed vaguely disappointed when my face remained blank.
“Any idea what you’ll be doing up in Mazār?” he asked as I struggled with the lock.
“Not really,” I said, pulling my door open and gazing into the sterile interior of my temporary residence.
A plane overhead drowned out Carl’s chatter. He handed me an information packet and left me standing alone in front of my hooch.
The walls, floor, and ceiling of my room were of molded white plastic. The furniture—two single beds, two metal lockers, and one desk—was bolted to the floor. The whole place resembled a minimum-security prison.
I slipped into a T-shirt, sweatpants, and sneakers, spent an hour on the treadmill in the empty gym, and returned to my hooch for a long, stinging shower.
Night fell quickly in Kabul. The snowy mountains, which had cast a pale tangerine glow over the city late in the afternoon, vanished quickly moments after sunset. The hum of the embassy’s generators seemed to grow louder as the rest of the city much of it without electricity shut down and locked itself in for the night.
Standing alone outside my hooch, I inhaled for the first time the smells I would forever associate with this country—a mix of cooking fires, grilled meat, crushed spices, mud, sweating pack animals, and the rusting detritus of Afghanistan’s many wars.
I was hungry. It was time to find the dining hall even though I dreaded joining a room full of strangers for Christmas Eve dinner. No planes flew after dark, leaving the night sky to the millions of stars visible over Kabul. I picked out the Big Dipper, found Polaris, locked the door of my hooch, switched on my flashlight, and headed off to the cafeteria.
Bundled against the icy mountain air, I approached the door of the double-wide trailer Carl had pointed out when I arrived. The windows were dark and there was a closed for the holidays sign taped to the door. A passing security guard told me there was another cafeteria near the old embassy building. He took me to an underground tunnel, which he promised led to the far side of the compound and a hot meal.
“It’s just there,” he said, pointing at a narrow stairwell and walking off to continue his patrol. I gripped the cold metal railing and stared with some trepidation at the concrete steps, which spiraled down into a dark passageway. This was a tunnel inside a well-guarded U.S. Embassy compound. What the hell was I afraid of?
I slowly descended the stairs and entered the tunnel. Halfway through, I heard the click of approaching boots and saw the hulking shape of an armed man approaching me. Behind the glare of a powerful flashlight, which was trained on my face, an unfriendly male voice demanded to see the embassy ID, which I had stuffed inside my jacket after showing it to the first guard. I struggled to untangle the badge on its metal chain from my scarf and zipper.
“Badges must be displayed at all times,” he barked in heavily accented English as his flashlight flicked from my ID photo to my face. Releasing the badge, he walked away without another word, leaving me temporarily blinded, perspiring heavily, and standing alone in the tunnel.
Still shaking, I emerged into a poorly lit, rubble-strewn, and very muddy construction site surrounding the old and new embassy buildings. There were no signs and no people, just rows of darkened shipping containers. I briefly considered returning to my hooch, but hunger trumped fear and after five minutes of searching, I located a narrow path and a hand-drawn sign, which led me to another double-wide trailer strung with garlands of winking Christmas lights.
Charlie Brown’s Christmas, broadcast from a wall-mounted TV set by the door, was competing with the chipmunks’ version of “Jingle Bells” on a portable CD player in the cafeteria kitchen. The room was overheated and the conversation subdued as the Marine guards and those embassy employees who had not gone back to the States for the holidays tried to make the best of a bad situation.
A large man wearing reindeer antlers and dishing up slices of turkey roll greeted me as I joined the serving line.
“You must be Angela,” he said, wiping beads of sweat from his forehead. “Welcome and Merry Christmas. I’m Paul Plawner, Deputy Chief of Mission. The ambassador had the good fortune to go home for the holidays, but those of us who stayed behind are glad you’re here.” He dropped a slab of rubbery white meat on my plastic plate.
“There’s plenty of food, so don’t be shy,” he said. “Take Christmas Day off, of course, but please call my secretary first thing Sunday morning to set up an appointment. I’ll try to see you in the afternoon.”
Doc had explained to me during Dari language training that Afghanistan like most Muslim countries observes a Sunday through Thursday workweek. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul was officially closed every Friday, the Islamic holy day and, in theory it was also closed on Saturday. But I would soon learn that this being a war zone, most American Embassy employees were hard at work six and even seven days a week.
An excessively cheery personnel officer was passing out homemade Christmas cookies in plastic sandwich bags—three cookies per person.
“I didn’t bake these myself, but I did put on all the sprinkles,” she gushed as she offered me a bag, patted my hand, and said, “Come on, honey, it’s not that bad here.” I forced myself to smile until she turned her attention to the next customer.
I knew that alcohol, even a small glass of wine, which would have made this meal so much more bearable, was not permitted in this cafeteria because it was where the Marine guards ate. So I washed down my turkey, wilted broccoli, scoop of powdered mashed potatoes, and jellied cranberry sauce with one of the liter bottles of water that could be found stacked by the case in front of every building on the compound. Tap water, Carl had warned, was safe for bathing here, but not for drinking.
I sat down at a bare metal table with three young Marines and attempted without success to make small talk. They shoveled down their food, eyes glued to a football game playing on another Armed Forces TV set bolted to the wall near their table. As soon as their plates were scraped clean, they rose as one, explaining politely that they had to report for guard duty. I knew from my briefings in Washington that all but a few of these boys would soon be on their way to Iraq, replaced by a private security force that had been contracted to guard the embassy.
After picking at my food for a few more minutes, I grabbed the bag of cookies, switched on my flashlight, walked cautiously back through the tunnel with my badge out, and returned alone to my hooch.
Patricia McArdle is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer. Before joining the Department of State, she served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer health educator in Paraguay and for three years as a U.S. Naval Communications officer in Morocco. Her last overseas diplomatic posting in 2005 was as the senior U.S. government representative in Northern Afghanistan where she was based with a British Army infantry unit. During that year she observed the serious shortage of cooking fuel in rural areas and it’s impact on the women, children and environment of Afghanistan. She began to build solar thermal ovens and take them on patrols with the soldiers to demonstrate in villages. She has continued to promote this simple technology around the world on a volunteer basis since her retirement. She is the editor of The Solar Cooker Review. In 2010 she won the Grand Prize for General Fiction in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Her critically acclaimed, debut novel Farishta, which was inspired by her year in Afghanistan, was published by Penguin/Riverhead Books on June 2, 2011, and released in paperback in June 2012. For more information go to: www.patriciamcardle.com.
“A quietly devastating novel about an American trying to do good in a foreign land…. Based on her experiences as a Foreign Service officer in Afghanistan, McArdle writes insightfully about the quagmire in that country and the human cost of war.” —Publishers Weekly
“…the point Farishta ultimately makes is well taken: Afghanistan, as welcoming as it is hostile, has proved to be far more complex than we outsiders ever imagined.” —The Washington Post
“A compelling and readable book about the challenges faced by soldiers and civilians stationed in Afghanistan.” —The Huffington Post
“Combining the emotional insight of Three Cups of Tea with the narrative intensity of a Jason Bourne story, Farishta is the gripping story of a female U.S. diplomat living and working in Afghanistan. —Valerie Plame Wilson