Ever since she lost her husband in the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983, Foreign Service Officer Angela Morgan has not handled stress—or living—very well. After a string of disastrous relationships and years of self-medication to suppress her Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, her personal and professional lives have ground to a standstill. Forced to choose between early retirement and an assignment to an isolated British Army compound in northern Afghanistan where she will be the only woman and the only American, Angela reluctantly accepts the posting. In the Dari language spoken in northern Afghanistan, her name—Angela— means “Farishta,” or “angel,” which she is about to become in unexpected ways.
At the small, fortified camp in Mazar-i-Sharif, Angela receives a cold welcome from the British soldiers and from Rahim, her young Afghan interpreter, who makes it abundantly clear that he is not pleased to be working for a woman. Angela fears that this tour of duty may send her over the edge of the emotional precipice on which she has been teetering since she held her dead husband’s body in her arms after the Beirut bombing more than two decades ago.
In the corrupt, chaotic, male-dominated Afghan society she must navigate, Angela encounters anti-female prejudice that is exponentially worse than anything she has known in the West. Despite the fact that she is an official representative of the U.S. government, Angela is patronized, disrespected, and tested for any signs of weakness by Afghan government officials and warlords. Through her friendship with Nilofar, a fearless, young female law student, she learns about the systematic ill treatment of women and girls and their imprisonment for “marriage crimes.” She is dismayed to discover that girls as young as eleven can be forced into arranged marriages, sometimes as a way of paying off their fathers’ debts and that those who resist can be punished, jailed, or even killed.
Appalled that the children she observes are spending their days gathering scarce firewood and even garbage for their mother’s cooking fires, Angela recalls a cardboard solar oven she built as a Girl Scout. She is convinced that this device could be of enormous benefit to fuel-starved Afghan families. With the help of a few enthusiastic young British soldiers, Angela begins to assemble solar ovens of cardboard and foil from plans she finds on the Internet. In order to reach out to the neediest refugees, she decides to leave camp without her armed escorts. Hidden under a traditional full-length burkah, she begins to slip out of the NATO compound without permission.
As the Afghan parliamentary elections approach, tensions mount on all fronts. Attacks against the NATO forces in the North begin, and Angela must face wrenching personal losses that challenge her newfound confidence.
In the course of her riveting narrative, McArdle offers provocative, inside perspectives on themes that are crucial to what is now America’s longest war. Through the prism of Angela’s personal traumas, McArdle explores the effects of PTSD on both soldiers and civilians, a growing topic of discussion, particularly since the Veterans Administration recently expanded eligibility for treatment of PTSD. Afghanistan’s rich ancient history, which is largely unknown to Americans and even to many Afghans, is brought to life through Angela’s friendship with a French archaeologist, whose character is based on real-life archaeologists excavating Hellenistic ruins near the British camp where McArdle was based.
As McArdle’s story suggests, Afghanistan will become self-sufficient and stable only if its people are able to create an economy based on sustainable construction, sustainable agriculture, and the widespread use of clean, renewable energy which takes full advantage of that country’s abundant wind and solar resources. McArdle argues that much of the reconstruction being done in Afghanistan by Western contractors is based on expensive, imported and unsustainable materials that Afghans will never be able to maintain or repair. Like Angela, McArdle has taken a special interest in the vast potential of solar cooking to help people in fuel-starved, sun-drenched countries—a cause that, along with the writing of FARISHTA, has consumed her since she returned from Afghanistan.
One of the first works of fiction to emerge from the war in Afghanistan, and one which is told through the eyes of an American woman and diplomat rather than a soldier, FARISHTA is a spellbinding, action-filled, and profoundly moving story of love, war, and renewal.
April 1983 Beirut, Lebanon
“Ange, I don’t think you should be riding anymore until after the baby’s born.” My husband made this not unexpected announcement as we led our horses, still breathing hard, through the paddock and under the shaded arch- way of the old brick barn.
“You can’t be serious, Tom. I’d go nuts if we couldn’t get out of the city every Saturday for these rides.”
Mohammed, the stableman who cared for the horses at the Kattouah Riding Club as if they were his own children, stepped out of an unused stall where he had been grilling his lunch over a small clay brazier. He had two lamb brochettes in his hand. He couldn’t understand a word we were saying, but he sensed the tension between us and was planning to diffuse it with food. “Salaam aleikum,” he greeted, flashing his gap-tooth smile, handing us the sticks of sizzling meat and taking the reins from our hands. “This good, you like!”
When Mohammed led the horses away, Tom wrapped one arm around me and tipped my chin up until our eyes met. He was right, of course. Our first child was due in less than four months.
The Lebanese ob-gyn I was seeing had assured me that as long as I took it easy, I would be able to work at the embassy until I was in my seventh month, then fly back to my parents’ ranch in New Mexico to have the baby. Tom would pack us out and join me in Albuquerque for the birth. After a month of leave, we would all go to Washington, D.C., where Tom and I would start Russian language training for our assignments in Leningrad.
“I stopped galloping three months ago, Tom. What if I promise not to trot or canter?” I pleaded with a halfhearted pout.
“Ange, knowing how you ride, I’d say that would be an impossible promise to keep.” He laughed as he popped a spicy lamb cube into my mouth.
The following Monday, just as my taxi driver swung onto the broad corniche facing the Mediterranean, he tapped the brakes on his ancient Mercedes to avoid ramming the seawall and turned to gaze at a large yacht anchored just off shore. His unexpected stop threw me slightly forward in my seat, and I instinctively placed both hands over my swollen belly in that protective gesture of all mothers-to-be.
“I’ll get out here, driver,” I said in rapid-fire Arabic as I handed him a fistful of Lebanese pounds. I had reluctantly agreed on Saturday to Tom’s request that I stop riding my horse, but I still needed exercise. On this warm April morning, I would walk the final three blocks along the esplanade to the embassy.
For the past few months, our sector of Beirut had been relatively free of the sporadic bombings and gun battles that still raged in other parts of the city. A few American diplomats, including my husband, even jogged along the corniche before work.
My meeting with a group of Lebanese journalists had gone well, and I was planning to join Tom in his office for a lunch of falafel, hummus, and fresh pita bread I’d purchased from a street vendor. I grabbed the greasy paper bag of food from the backseat of the taxi and set off on foot for the embassy, absently patting my stomach and enjoying the fresh salt air. When I glanced out to sea for an instant to watch a flock of battling seagulls, my life suddenly ended—or should have. A blast of hot air, followed by a roaring in my ears, threw me hard against the cement seawall. The bag of food flew out of my hand, over the wall, and sank beneath the waves.
As I struggled to my feet, I could see a roiling black cloud rising into the air where the embassy stood just around the corner. Cars parked close to the compound had flipped over and were on fire. People were lying in the street. They were bleeding. Their mouths were open. They must have been screaming, but I could hear only a loud ringing in my ears. I began to run through the falling debris, one hand still on my belly to protect my unborn child. The entire front of the embassy had collapsed. Where Tom’s office had been, there was nothing.
If “Farishta” has inspired you to learn more about Afghanistan, I recommend the following books, all of which helped me create a complex tapestry of place and time that few outsiders other than soldiers, journalists and diplomats have ever seen:
Caravans James Mitchner
The Fragmentation of Afghanistan Barnett Rubin
The Road to Oxiana Robert Byron
Kabul Beauty School Deborah Rodriguez
In the Graveyard of Empires Seth Jones
Ghost Wars Steve Coll
Into the Land of Bones Frank Holt
The Sewing Circles of Herat Christina Lamb
Buzkashi-Game and Power in Afghanistan Whitney Azoy
Under a Sickle Moon Peregrine Hodson
The Road to Balkh Nancy Dupree
The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns Khalid Hosseni