Military history

CHAPTER 2

MONTANA

Iflew home to Chicago in late April 2003, just before Bush declared victory in Iraq, and all the other fledgling correspondents also returned to their regular metro reporting gigs. But I could not stay long in the United States—I was already hooked on warlords and bad vodka, my new version of a hot date. Sure, I was in my early thirties. I had a serious boyfriend, an aspiring screenwriter named Chris, and I was on the marriage and baby track. I had good friends and a comfortable life in Chicago. I rode my bike to work, I listened to NPR, I played softball. But my world felt small there, a comfortable habit, an old shoe. Life in Chicago seemed gray compared to the Technicolor jujitsu of Afghanistan. All the other stuff, the marriage and the babies, paled in comparison, paled to the point that they didn’t even seem to matter.

This made no sense to my family. I grew up in Montana, where most people graduated high school and never left, where a meal of bull testicles passed for a culinary experience, where my parents scolded me for failing to take proper care of their marijuana plants. We didn’t have much money and rarely traveled. The closest I got to overseas was the Great Salt Lake. One year we only celebrated Christmas because Grandpa Halfpap died and left us $750, and because we stole the Christmas tree from our school across the street, after the school dumped it in the alley. (As a bonus, the tinsel was still on it.)

It was probably good that I grew up so sheltered. I was not a brave child. I was convinced that death lurked behind every corner, perhaps the most unlikely future foreign correspondent ever born, the most improbable person to contend with suicide bombs and the real threat of nuclear war. I was scared of the dark, of my dreams, of nuclear weapons, of the Ayatollah Khomeini, who reminded me of Darth Vader. I was a neurotic, everything-o-phobic child, always convinced that any health problem was the dreaded cancer, always worried about stranger-danger.

The peppercorns in cotto salami, and particularly the bluish meat surrounding them, I deemed poisonous and excised with a sharp knife. Halloween candy—a deadly mix of sugar, poison, and razor blades, to be tested first on my brother or our dog. Mushrooms—off-limits, ever since the elephant king in the Babar cartoon died from eating a bad one. Brown pop—it could kill me, even though I had no idea where that thought came from, maybe the Mormon on my softball team. The cloud of ash from Mount Saint Helens—actually nuclear fallout. That bald man down the street—probably a kidnapper or a child molester, I could tell by his shifty eyes. The police asking about the kidnapped girl—probably fake police, or at the very least, police who would take me away from my marijuana-smoking hippie parents. I ran away screaming.

Even when I grew older and slightly braver, my parents had no money for travel. My father may have been an architect, but he was a young rebel, a man who would sooner pay $50 to ship a box of pennies to pay a speeding ticket than just send a check, who when he got upset at a boss would simply quit. We kept moving to more remote places, even to Wyoming, for God’s sake, to towns where fewer buildings were being erected, with fewer firms my father could leave. And by the time we rejoined the grid and moved to a suburb of Portland, Oregon, my senior year in high school, I knew what I wanted more than anything else: out. I studied journalism at Northwestern University outside of Chicago and slogged away on newspaper jobs in various meth-addled industrial towns before landing my dream job at the Seattle Times, where for two years I wrote serious stories about the downtrodden and afflicted and won awards for investigative reporting, which sounds pretty good until you realize how prize-filthy journalism is, with awards for topics as specific as the best interpretation of chemistry or the best witty elucidation of the role of institutions in a free society. I even mastered spreadsheets.

But then came the newspaper strike in Seattle and impending financial ruin. I cobbled together rent money by carrying a picket sign, dealing blackjack, and parking cars as a valet—yes, I wore a black bow tie, and true, I was the only non-felon, the only worker with all my teeth, and the only female. Eventually, my co-workers and lack of money started to scare me. I knew I had to find a new job.

I stuck with newspapers, all that I really knew, landing at the Chicago Tribune in early 2001, at age thirty, with only two overseas trips to my slender first passport, both in the previous two years. One to Jordan and Egypt, and one to Brazil. When the attacks of September 11, 2001, happened, I was asleep in my bed in Chicago, preparing to work a short day before going to see a live taping of Jerry Springer. My roommates pounded on my door to wake me, yelling that nuclear war was imminent, that the Sears Tower was next, and that we had to get out of the city. I flipped on the TV, put on my best suit, and drove to work, the only car heading into downtown Chicago while the highway heading in the opposite direction was a parking lot, jammed with cars trying to flee. I had no choice. As an essential newspaper employee, I had to be at work, tackling the most important stories possible. I spent the day calling gas stations to check the price of gas and interviewing Chicagoans who lived in tall buildings.

Within days, I was assigned to write obits for the victims, up to five a day. But I soon heard that the editors wanted to send more women overseas. I was hardly qualified to go anywhere, even Canada. I had never been to Europe. I spoke only English. I knew little about Al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden. I knew about as much about Islam as I knew about Christianity, given my hippie infidel upbringing. But I sensed adventure and a way out from the soul-killing task of asking the families of the dead how they felt. I knocked on the door of the top foreign editor and introduced myself.

“I have no kids and no husband, so I’m expendable,” I explained.

The boss nodded. Apparently, the newspaper had already realized this. He held up a used envelope with my name scrawled on the back, near the names of two other single women with no children.

“We know who you are,” he said. “Get ready to go to Pakistan.”

Within four months, I was on a plane, flying into countries I had only read about. Getting overseas was really that easy. Of course, on my first trip overseas, in early 2002, I made countless mistakes. I ordered sushi from the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, which resembled dorsal fins on a bed of rice and laid me up for days. I sneaked into the forbidden tribal areas of Pakistan with a fixer who seemed more interested in scoring hash than in working and called me “princess” when I complained. And then, when I flew to Kabul the first time, I forgot my cash. That was a major lesson: In a war zone, there are no ATMs.

In the beginning, I was a fill-in correspondent, spending most of my time in Chicago, occasionally dispatched to some random country. I flew to Indonesia to write a vague story about Islam, I covered a devastating earthquake and parliamentary elections in Iran, I spent the invasion of Iraq rambling around Afghanistan with Farouq. But I had caught the bug. What better job could there be than working halfway around the world from my bosses, than being paid to travel? When our South Asia correspondent moved to Italy in early 2004, I applied for her old job, based in India. I took it before even telling my boyfriend about the offer. Not a good sign about the priority of our relationship of almost two years, but Chris still volunteered to move overseas with me later in the year. So my life plan was locked up—I was going to be a swashbuckling foreign correspondent, especially so in South Asia, where at five foot ten, I towered over most of the populace. My boyfriend would perfect his comedy script about killer squirrels.

As soon as I flew into India that June, I called Farouq. He had news: He was getting married. He was not marrying his cousin, as is usually the case in Afghanistan, but his family still picked out his future bride, which is almost always the case in Afghanistan. Luckily, after the two were introduced, they fell for each other.

“You have to come,” he told me. “It’s a love marriage.”

That gave me an excuse to go back, which, after arriving in India, land of quick hands and sharp elbows, I desperately wanted. Even though New Delhi would be my home base, Afghanistan felt more like home than anywhere else in the region. I knew why. Afghanistan seemed familiar. It had jagged blue-and-purple mountains, big skies, and bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government. It was like Montana—just on different drugs. So with a list of story ideas and a verbal wedding invite, I flew back to Kabul, now a city of about three or four million, bursting at its muddy seams with returning refugees and foreigners. Farouq and our driver Nasir picked me up in a new SUV—clearly, life was treating Nasir well. Kabul, life was treating like it always did, like a fairy-tale stepchild. Little had changed. I started sneezing immediately, allergic to the one thing Afghanistan produced in abundance: dust.

We drove down the roads, such as they were, bumpy and indifferent, like someone started paving them and then decided “why bother.” As usual, I stared out the window as everyone outside stared in at me, both of us watching an equally odd zoo exhibit. The old men wore impossible turbans and had faces etched like a topographical map. Faceless women in dirty blue burqas knocked on our windows, shoving penicillin prescriptions toward us with henna-stained fingers, holding dirty swaddled babies with kohl eyeliner, demanding money. Blue bottles, other journalists called them. It was easy to depersonalize them because these women had no faces, easy to avoid looking at them, to avoid their pleas. But it was tough to ignore the children and the old men, even if we rarely paid out, tough to say no to someone looking you in the eye.

Throughout the capital, evidence of war was still everywhere. The most solid buildings were the squat, rambling concrete apartment complexes and Kafkaesque government ministries left as parting gifts by the Soviets, the tallest of which was the foreboding Ministry of Communications at a mere eighteen stories. Many of the mud buildings were crumbling, and others were pocked with bullet marks or destroyed by rockets. In places, Kabul looked like someone had shaken a giant box of crackers and dumped them out. Traffic lights didn’t yet exist. Cops directed traffic around crowded roundabouts. Convoys of foreigner-filled SUVs jockeyed for position with wooden carts pulled by people and donkeys.

Yes, it was good to be back—even if everything in June 2004 was different than before. Farouq could not work with me for a while because he was getting married the next day, which was also his twenty-eighth birthday. The newspaper no longer had a house—we had given that up because the Afghan conflict was no longer seen as big enough to justify the expense. And this overseas gig was no longer a once-in-a-while adventure. Now, I lived here.

Nasir and Farouq dropped me off at a guesthouse, the Gandamack Lodge, named after a famous Afghan battle that the British had lost more than a hundred and sixty years earlier, a sprawling Dr. Seuss–influenced two-story building where one of Osama bin Laden’s wives once lived. There was no “Green Zone” in Kabul, no place where all the foreigners lived, protected by walls and men with guns. Instead, foreigners stayed anywhere, in guesthouses like the Gandamack, or in shared houses, which like all Afghan houses were compounds protected by high walls from prying eyes, most likely so women had some privacy. Some foreigners hired security guards. Others didn’t.

Farouq, panicked and sweaty over juggling a wedding and me, started making phone calls and eventually found me a fill-in translator, Ajmal Naqshbandi, a sweet, shy, dumpling of a man with a slight mustache, probably because that was all he could grow, who translated every interview like a romantic poem. I liked Ajmal’s poetry. I missed Farouq’s English skills. Later I would wish I had given Ajmal better advice. I would wish I had told him he was too sensitive for journalists and too brave for his own good, and that news reporting was no profession for a poet.

The next afternoon, Farouq stopped by the Gandamack briefly, and I asked him what I should wear to the wedding. He looked me up and down, at my green baggy Afghan shirt, my baggy black pants, my dusty black tennis shoes.

“What you’re wearing is fine,” Farouq pronounced.

This was absolutely not true. I showed up that night at the massive wedding hall, where women sat in one large room, men in another, segregated even during a wedding ceremony. None of the Afghan women spoke English. We said hello to one another about fifty times, nodded and smiled, and then said hello some more. They all looked like fairy-tale princesses, with sequin-and-velvet gowns, heavy makeup, and three-tiered hair. My problematic hair had been mashed under a scarf all day. I wore no makeup. Another American woman joined me at a long table—Farouq’s former English teacher, who spoke Dari and dressed appropriately. Farouq and his bride came in and sat on a couch in the front of the room of women. She sobbed. He looked grim. No one is supposed to be happy at an Afghan wedding, especially the bride, because she is leaving her family to move in with the groom and his family.

Farouq looked around the room, spotted me, and called me to the stage. Self-conscious in green, I sat with the new couple. I posed for pictures, wondering how the marriage would affect Farouq’s plans.

He had wanted to go to medical school in America, and for years friends had tried to help him. But his hoped-for scholarship never panned out. Farouq had stopped talking so much about leaving Afghanistan to study. In one way, this marriage was great—Farouq had a wife, and after twenty-eight years, he deserved something to focus on besides working for everyone else. But I also worried that this marriage could mean the end of Farouq’s surgical aspirations, and that he would become like some of the guys I had dated, talking wistfully about plans and goals while working as a waiter to pay the rent.

After dozens of photographs, Farouq and his wife left the stage and the dancing resumed. A few men, the only ones allowed in the women’s room besides Farouq and the musicians, videotaped the dancing. Wedding videos are often used by Afghan families to pick prospective brides for single men because, for once, they can actually see what Afghan women look like out of their drab baggy clothes, headscarves, and burqas.

One of the bride’s friends adopted me, even though we couldn’t understand each other. She had a brown ponytail and wore a man’s suit. She touched my knee, grabbed my hand, carefully peeled and cut me pieces of an apple and fed them to me with her fingers, and at one point pulled me toward the dance floor. It felt like a first date with a mime. I did not want to do this, but I relented and started to sway to the Afghan music and its polka-like beat. Then my date left me on the dance floor. Everyone left me on the dance floor. It was like a practical joke, and I was the only person standing, with all the Afghan women clapping and cheering me on, and the few men on bended knee pointing video cameras at me. Just groovy. I was left with a choice: I could sit down, or I could dance like an idiot. I chose the idiot route, jumping up and down like a teenager at a punk-rock concert. By myself. For ten minutes.

And that was how I decided to approach this region. I decided to go all in, for as long as I stayed. I didn’t know how long—maybe two years, maybe three, depending on Chris and what happened. My indecision mirrored that of the foreign community, already trying to figure out an exit strategy for Afghanistan and a way out of the quagmire in Iraq.

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