by Patricia McArdle (Paraguay 1972–74)
Reviewed by Bill Preston (Thailand 1977-80)
In the Prologue to Farishta, we learn that twenty-one years earlier young career diplomats Angela Morgan and husband Tom were posted to Beirut. There, Tom was killed in a terrorist bombing of the U.S. Embassy; Angela, pregnant at the time, was injured and subsequently lost the child. Devastated, Angela was posted back to the State Department in Washington, DC.
As the novel opens, Angela, now forty-seven and having worked at a series of unfulfilling dead-end positions at the State Department, learns that she is soon to be posted for a year with a British Army unit at a Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT) in Mazār-i-Sharīf, Afghanistan. The PRT was a remote military outpost that conducted surveillance patrols in the northern provinces. Having hoped for an assignment in Europe and never expecting to be posted to Afghanistan after her experience in Lebanon, Angela is duly shocked. As the implications of the new assignment sink in, Angela muses,
And not even a U.S. camp, but one where I’d be doubly an outsider — as a civilian and an American.
Not to mention that she will be the only woman there.
Having an aptitude for languages — she had previously learned Russian, Farsi, and Arabic — Angela immediately begins intensive training in Dari, the main language spoken in northern Afghanistan. But there’s a wrinkle. Her language tutor informs her that she cannot reveal her Dari language proficiency to anyone except the top officials at the PRT. This is because part of her assignment is to assess the accuracy of Afghani interpreters working there, one or more of whom may be concealing information from the British staff. In addition to being the sole civilian, American, and female, Angela must feign ignorance of Dari in order to perform her covert mission — a tall order, even for someone used to being an outsider.
Once in Mazār-i-Sharīf, Angela is frustrated at being able to understand her Dari-speaking colleagues — in particular, Rahim, her personal interpreter, as well other interpreters and local people — without being able to interact in their language. On one occasion, having been invited to a wedding, Angela laments, regarding her linguistic deception:
. . . how frustrating it was not to be able to talk to the women at these events when I was perfectly capable of doing so. Listening to their conversations about their hopes for their daughters was fascinating, but there were so many questions I wanted to ask them. It was torture to remain mute.
Equally vexing is Angela’s reception at the PRT, where she receives a cold shoulder from most of the British officers, who show little support or interest in why she is there; nor does she get much direction from the U.S. Embassy in Kabul.
It remained unclear to me what I could accomplish with no formal introductions, virtually no instructions or guidance from the embassy, and no specific tasks to accomplish in this corrupt, chaotic, male-dominated culture.
Early in her assignment, Angela accompanies PRT commander, Harry Wilton, and Rahim to visit Governor Daoud, a former provincial warlord. Following her introduction, Daoud asks Rahim what Angela’s name means in Dari.
As I held the governor’s gaze, I heard Rahim answer, “It means angel, farishta in Dari.”
“Farishta,” the governor repeated slowly. “Well, then, please be seated, Farishta-jan, and let us begin this meeting.”
Going forward, Angela is called Farishta by her Afghan colleagues, who — until the end of the story — remain unaware she can speak their language.
Through sheer determination, perseverance, and capacity to learn from mistakes, Angela gradually defines her role in Mazār, navigating both the unpromising expat environment and unfamiliar Afghan culture.
A former career diplomat herself, including a post in northern Afghanistan, Patricia McCardle deftly renders Angela’s cross-cultural encounters. Invited to attend a lunch by General Kabir, an important tribal warlord, Angela is taken aback when he compliments her brooch, a gift from Tom shortly before he was killed.
In this part of the world, custom dictated that an overt compliment from someone as powerful as Kabir required the admired object to be handed over immediately as a gift.
Similarly shocked is Rahim, who understands the intent of the compliment.
“Angela,” said Rahim, his voice quaking, “the general wants your pin.” He looked genuinely worried, and I was touched by his concern, but there was no way I was letting that man take my brooch. I also knew that such a blatant request was the general’s way of testing how far he could push me.
Showing poise and grit, Angela adroitly defuses the situation.
“I am honored that you find my pin so beautiful. Just before my husband was killed by a terrorist bomb in Beirut in 1983, he gave me this brooch and told me to keep it close for good luck. I swore to him I would do just that.” Kabir nodded gravely. “I am certain you will understand my deep attachment to something as worthless as this small piece of costume jewelry.”
In another incident, Angela asks Rahim to help her purchase a burka at the local bazaar. He has no idea where to shop for one, and she cannot use her Dari in order to help.
A deeply embarrassed Rahim asked one male shopkeeper after another where we could find a burka shop. None of them seemed to know, and it was forbidden for Rahim to ask the women floating by under their shrouds. Since I had to maintain my sham ignorance of Dari, I couldn’t ask them, either. Rahim’s face reddened as the amused vendors listened to his questions and suggested possible locations for the burka store.
When Rahim finally finds a shop, there ensues a wonderfully hilarious exchange with the shopkeeper to establish the price.
“How much is it?”
“Fifteen hundred Afghanis,” said the shopkeeper with a straight face. Although the thirty dollars that translated to was reasonable from my perspective, I remained silent and poker-faced while Rahim began the obligatory bargaining.
“Are you trying to rob her?” Rahim shouted, waving his arms in the air. “The woman will pay you five hundred Afghanis for this inferior piece of workmanship.”
“Did you know, my young friend, that every one of the hundreds of pleats in this cloth was pressed by hand? The shop owner lifted the hem of the burka to reveal its workmanship. “Do you think I can simply give it away for what I paid for it?”
Their verbal jousting continued for several more minutes until Rahim turned to me. The man wants to be paid in U.S. currency, Angela-jan. Give him ten dollars and let’s go.”
Anyone who has ever haggled over an item in another culture can easily relate.
In the course of encountering various dangers during her tour, (including a suicide bomber, a terrorist gunman, and an IED explosion), Angela succeeds in proving herself to her expat colleagues. She also hits upon a pragmatic way to help Afghan women address a crisis of growing deforestation by using an abundant natural resource. Using her previously undisclosed knowledge of Dari, she identifies a rogue interpreter involved in colluding with Afghan customs officials to steal U.S. jet fuel bound for Bagram Air Base. Angela has an epiphany after observing groups of ragged children collecting garbage and scraps and brush along the road near a refugee camp outside the city. When Rahim explains that the children’s mothers use the daily-gleaned material for cooking fires, she asks if there is nothing else for families to cook with.
“No, Angela,” he said. “Look around. There is nothing but desert brush and soon that will be gone too, too. These refugees have very few animals, so there isn’t enough dung for them to burn and none of them can afford bottled gas.”
A short time later, Angela is struck by a sudden insight.
It had not occurred to me until now that there was plenty of fuel for cooking in Afghanistan, an endless, free supply. It was the sun — beating down on these poor kids and their families every day of the year!
In her youth, Angela had earned a Girl Scout badge for building a primitive solar oven, using a cardboard box painted black inside, with a piece of glass on top, and aluminum foil reflectors. Now she enlists the help of Rahim to obtain supplies to build solar ovens at the PRT, in order to share them with local women and mitigate further environmental destruction.
She is assisted in this personal mission by Nilofar, a young law student Angela meets at the central prison in Mazār while investigating the treatment of female inmates. Angela learns that Nilofar and her family are Hazara, a minority sect brutally treated under the Taliban and dispossessed of their land, and that many Hazara lived in a refugee camp near the PRT. When Nilofar learns of Angela’s solar ovens, she invites her to demonstrate them to women at the camp. In what she subsequently calls Operation Sunshine, Angela begins taking solar ovens on patrols around the provinces, where she gives demonstrations to local women in the villages. She recruits some of the soldiers at the PRT to help her build more ovens.
As should be clear, Farishta is a novel rich in character and plot. In other interwoven storylines, Angela befriends a French archeologist attempting to restore an ancient Afghan city; elsewhere, she is nearly compromised by a Russian diplomat in Kabul who turns out to be an intelligence agent. And, of course, there is romance. Gradually, Angela falls in love with a British major, who is both her biggest ally and harshest critic at the PRT. Then there is a subplot featuring the growing romance between Rahim and Nilofar, which involves its own cross-cultural issues. There’s lots more — but enough said to pique the reader’s interest and curiosity. Suffice it to say, Farishta makes for compelling and poignant reading, from a writer who has walked the walk.
Nearing the end her tour, with new personnel arriving at the PRT, Angela soberly reflects on the irony that to these newcomers she has become a kind of éminence grise at the post.
It was a sad commentary on our knowledge of this country that someone like me, who had spent less than a year in country and had traveled — almost always — under heavy security restrictions, was now considered an expert. I was far from it. How could any of us really know what was going on in the minds of the tribes, sub-tribes, clans, and families of this feudal land. We couldn’t.
It is a telling insight, an honest and humble acknowledgement that, in spite of her many encounters and experiences, she has at best barely begun to understand the people and country. I suspect that thoughts along these lines have crossed the minds of Peace Corps Volunteers at the end of service. And the notion that we take from our experience much more than we leave behind.
As her assignment ends, Angela turns down a once-desired posting to London, accepting instead an offer from the U.S. Army in Kabul to initiate solar oven projects in southern Afghanistan. In so doing, she is sustaining herself as well as her work. In the largest sense, Farishta is a testament to the belief that, against great odds, amid chaos, war, and suffering, the striving of one individual can make a difference. One solar oven at a time.
Bill Preston (Thailand 1977–80) was a community organizer in a VISTA project in Yonkers, New York, and later taught at-risk students at an alternative school there. In the Peace Corps, he taught English and trained Thai teachers of English; subsequently, he interviewed Lao and Khmer refugees seeking asylum in the Unites States. At Galang refugee camp, he trained Indonesian teachers, who taught English to Vietnamese refugees. For many years he edited English Language Teaching materials for several educational publishers. His multicultural anthology, A Sense of Wonder: Reading and Writing through Literature, was published by Pearson Education.