Isoon learned that I rarely had the right clothes, and I rarely knew the right things to say or do. After Farouq finished his wedding duties—no honeymoon, just a lot of traditional family obligations—we ate lunch at the Marco Polo restaurant, a gloomy, fly-spattered hole-in-the-wall with decent meat but no running water in the bathrooms. I launched into a serious conversation, prompted by a book about Islam I had just read and my annoyance with the segregation of the sexes here. Over kebabs, bread, beans, and rice, I lectured Farouq about women in Islam.
“It’s all Umar’s fault,” I said, blaming Islam’s second caliph, who lived in the seventh century, for installing certain restrictions on Muslim women.
“No, Kim. He was a good, strong man, and he defended Islam. I am named after Umar, and I can’t accept that,” Farouq said. Umar had been given the honorary title of “the Farooq,” which in Arabic means “the one who distinguishes between right and wrong.” Farouq took this stuff seriously. “That’s not true,” he went on. “Take it back.”
But I insisted on my knowledge of Umar and Islam. Farouq narrowed his eyes. Nasir understood very little English, but he looked back and forth between us, hearing in our voices that we were upset. Nasir chewed a piece of mutton carefully, as if any sudden move would fuel our anger. Farouq, his voice loud but dismissive, went in for the kill.
“Well, I guess it’s understandable you would think that. A study just came out by scientists saying that women’s brains are smaller than men’s. American scientists. So you can’t help it.”
“Oh my God,” I said. “You believe that?”
“Believe me. Yes. Women aren’t as smart. There’s scientific proof.”
“I don’t know if I can work with someone who thinks that.”
“Fine. I don’t need to work for the Chicago Tribune. I don’t know if I can work with someone who says bad things about Umar.”
We stared at each other. And then I realized what I was doing—threatening to fire my lifeline in Afghanistan over a debate about a possible misogynist who lived almost fourteen centuries earlier. Maybe my brain was smaller. I gave in.
“Never mind. Let’s just not talk about Umar any more.”
But a certain amount of damage had been done. Like all Afghans, Farouq could not ignore such a slight to his honor. I was bumbling around like America, with little awareness of how I was coming across or how my so-called expertise translated on the ground. Farouq told me that I seemed different than when I came to Afghanistan the year before, when we had first met.
“Back then, you were sweet and gentle,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. I was never sweet and gentle.
So I left Afghanistan for a while, for Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and my theoretical home in India. I returned for Afghanistan’s first-ever presidential election, planned for October 2004. By then, the fallout from my behavior was obvious. Farouq tried to book me in the Gandamack, only to find out that I was banned. The Afghan women in charge said I was too much trouble. And that could have been true. When I had stayed there during Farouq’s wedding, the laundry had washed my whites with my baggy green wedding shirt, turning all my clothes the color of dishwater. I had complained about the laundry, about the slow Internet, about the fact that all my clothes were misplaced for twenty-four hours. I had complained and complained, even though I was in one of the poorest countries in the world, wracked by decades of war, raising my voice to lecture. “This shirt cost me $70,” I explained loudly, holding up a newly tie-dyed Gap blouse. “You have to give me a free night.” In Pakistan, such complaints would have worked, maybe because of the hangover from British colonial times, maybe because Westerners were often still treated with deference. In Afghanistan, such complaints won me no friends. Afghanistan had never been successfully colonized, and Afghans tended to seethe quietly toward any uppity foreigner making foreigner-like demands. Especially an American.
“You have to be softer,” Farouq told me. “I know my people.”
So with the Gandamack, I was out of luck. For the election, I had to stay across the alley at its broken-down stepsister, the Kabul Lodge. I felt like the only kid not picked for a kickball team, close to the other journalists but not one of the other journalists, and I continued to feel like an outsider, continued to wear the wrong clothes.
Nasir, Farouq, and I drove south of Kabul to Logar Province to meet a tribal leader who had just been released from Guantánamo after being held for almost two years. The tribal leader was being welcomed by his tribesmen, but still, in what I interpreted as a gesture of kindness, he walked outside his mud-walled compound to greet us. A burly man with a long gray beard and a turban, he looked at me in the car, shoved a large blue headscarf that matched his eyes through the window, smiled kindly, said something in Pashto, and walked away. (How many headscarves would I accumulate as gifts over the years? Enough to wrap up every female ever born in my family, enough to smother us all.)
“So is he going to talk to us?” I asked Farouq. “What did he say?”
“Don’t be offended,” Farouq said. “ ‘Fuck off, farter.’ ”
Swearing and shoving a scarf through a window was a novel interpretation of the Pashtun code, which required Pashtuns to treat their guests with hospitality, even if their guests were their enemies. But considering how this tribal leader was hustled off by the U.S. military to Guantánamo, I guess he felt the code no longer applied to Americans.
The adversity continued. Interim president Hamid Karzai’s people soon invited me on a campaign trip masquerading as a road opening—while there, I had to move nimbly to avoid a bludgeoning from his American DynCorp security guards, who destroyed pictures snapped by a New York Times photographer and knocked the turban off the transportation minister in their attempts to protect Karzai. DynCorp International was one of the burgeoning U.S.-based private military contractors now supplementing our all-volunteer military, which was fracturing with the stress of two wars. In Afghanistan, DynCorp employees guarded Karzai, lived in a makeshift trailer court at the presidential palace, and trained a new presidential guard. I had encountered DynCorp before, kind of, when I was invited to a party thrown at their palace compound. I showed up on the wrong night, the only woman there, except for the half-naked one on a poster inside their makeshift bar and the two Chinese women in miniskirts holding hands with DynCorp contractors as they walked toward their trailers.
Farouq and I also went to a Karzai rally at the Kabul soccer stadium—the same stadium where the Taliban once beheaded alleged criminals and cut off the hands of thieves. The press was funneled into a taped-off pen in the middle of the soccer field, surrounded by Karzai’s Afghan security team, who had been trained, of course, by DynCorp. Leaning against the tape, Farouq interviewed an Afghan, who said he was supporting all the candidates, hedging his bets. It was a typical Afghan survival strategy, and Farouq started laughing.
“Why are you laughing?” interrupted a hepped-up, sunglassed Afghan security guard, stepping in front of Farouq. “I will call someone and have you taken away.”
Farouq, never one to step down from a confrontation, looked at the man.
“I’m just doing my job.”
The Afghan guard swatted my notebook and shoved Farouq.
“I will kill you,” he said.
This was how Afghans interpreted DynCorp protocol for dealing with laughing. The guard told us to go away, but we couldn’t move. Finally Karzai walked out into the bleachers, talking on his cell phone, and everyone grew quiet, even the Afghan security guard. (In another example of how complicated Afghanistan is, this violent exchange caused Farouq and the security guard to become lifelong friends.) Karzai urged the crowd not to participate in fraud.
“If somebody comes to you and tells you I will give you money to vote for me, if someone uses force to tell you to vote for me, if someone uses power to get you to vote for me, don’t vote for me,” Karzai announced. “Please.”
Over the years, as corruption turned into a cancer around Karzai, I would often think about that comment, but over the years, I would also realize that people rarely paid attention to Karzai.
On the way out of the stadium, a car of Afghans passed us. “Dog washers!” one yelled. That was a favorite epithet for foreigners because, well, a true Afghan would never keep a dog as a pet let alone wash one. Most Afghans, like many conservative Muslims, were suspicious of dogs, believing that angels would not visit a house when dogs were inside.
But regardless of being a stranger in a strange land, a dog washer in a land of cat lovers, for the first time in Kabul, I started to have a social life, largely because of the influx of election workers, do-gooders, and journalists. A new restaurant opened called L’Atmosphère, where foie gras ran $9 and red wine flowed, where there was a pool, a large garden, cats, and rabbits. On some nights, I ate mystery meat at L’Atmosphère. On others, I crept across the alley from the Kabul Lodge to the Gandamack for dinner, braiding my hair to try to look like someone else, slouching to appear shorter, always worried I would be kicked out.
A new friend then invited me to a seminal event—my first Thursday-night Kabul party. Since Friday was the weekly Islamic holiday, Thursday night was the one night everyone had free. Just great—I had nothing to wear. I had only packed black tennis shoes, hiking boots, baggy jeans, baggy black pants, and assorted long Afghan shirts, the shortest of which hit me mid-thigh. So I opened up the metal trunk left by my predecessor, filled with maps, undefined power cords, vague equipment, and assorted leftover clothing. The only item that bore a resemblance to Western clothing was a baggy white T-shirt proclaiming TURKIYE on the front. I put on the T-shirt, jeans, and hiking boots. I looked in the mirror and performed a harsh self-assessment. I would never be described as a beautiful woman, but I could usually pass for cute and occasionally, when viewed in a certain light, even sexy. But I had not really taken care of myself since coming overseas. I hadn’t had a haircut in five months, and my split ends and slight curl gave me a frizzy aura. In my chronic hair wars, my gray roots were overtaking my brown ends. I had nothing to cover my under-eye circles, and I had definitely gained weight and acquired a bad complexion due to a diet of kebabs, rice, bread, and oil. On this night, I could perform little magic. I smoothed down my hair into a suitable helmet and put on lip gloss and mascara. At least I could show off my blue eyes.
We were dropped off at the guesthouse Afghan Gardens 1, not to be confused with the recently opened Afghan Gardens 2. I was slightly overwhelmed by the number of people jammed onto the concrete porch, the copious amounts of alcohol. The woman who ran the guesthouse wore a slinky black sleeveless dress. Another woman wore high-heeled boots, a long skirt, a fur-lined jean vest showing cleavage, and lounged on a couch, draped over some male friends. Hundreds of people were there; the U.S. embassy spokeswoman and her immediate boss even showed up. The entire party seemed optimistic about the future of Afghanistan and the impending election. And to celebrate, we drank alcohol and danced until 2 AM to songs like “Kiss” by Prince. By that point, it was agreed—Afghanistan was on a path to recovery, and Hamid Karzai, the well-spoken and well-dressed darling of the West, was the answer. Everyone hoped he would win.
I left the party at some point in the early-morning hours, well after most of the other foreigners had gone home but before the Islamic morning call to prayer. Drunk on red wine and paranoid about how I stacked up against the other women at my first big party, I realized that I needed to pay more attention to my clothes, my hair, my exercise routine, because against all logic, a social life in a war zone seemed entirely plausible. My friend’s driver dropped me at the Kabul Lodge, and my friend walked me to my room. He sat on my bed and started talking about motorcycles. I flipped on my laptop and scanned a story draft I had written earlier about a popular radio talk show on unrequited Afghan love. I closed one eye and stared three inches from the computer screen, performing the typical edit of the drunk journalist, concentrating hard on every word but comprehending little, all while wondering why my male friend was still here. After fifteen minutes, I shut down my laptop and stood up. My friend moved in for a kiss. Not a good idea—after all, I had the boyfriend half a world away, and my friend and I had both been drinking. So he left. I took another pass at my story, but the words still made more sense as letters than thoughts. I sent an e-mail to my boyfriend, Chris, who was still planning to move to India in a few months. I fell asleep.
In the morning, I awoke with a hangover fueled by cheap wine and guilt, mixed with a feeling of possibility. My social life had not hit a mud wall in Afghanistan. There were parties, a scene, places to wear little black dresses. There was potential here, even if that potential resembled a cross between a John Hughes high-school movie and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, given the small foreign community and the inevitable cliques, with do-gooders, guns for hire, and journos approximating brains, jocks, and goths. I knew what I needed to do. I needed to go shopping.
Zalmay Khalilzad clearly felt as optimistic, at least about the country. Not only was he the U.S. ambassador here—he also happened to be born and raised in Afghanistan. Khalilzad was not a normal diplomat, not a typical ambassador. Zal, as he was known, liked to get his hands dirty. During the large gatherings to pick an interim president in 2002, Khalilzad, then the Bush regime’s representative, had been accused of strong-arming the country’s former king into abandoning any political ambitions, paving the way for Karzai’s selection. Since then, Zal and Karzai seemed to have become best buddies; they talked on the telephone daily and frequently ate dinner together.
Zal liked control. He rode in the cockpit of the U.S. military C-130 Hercules whenever he traveled. “He likes to watch,” his press aide once told me. He didn’t just sit in the embassy and announce aid—he flew to the provinces and handed out windup radios to women himself. At meetings between Afghans and Westerners, Khalilzad translated, making sure everyone understood one another. At public events where, for diplomatic reasons, Khalilzad spoke English and used an interpreter, he corrected his interpreter’s translations. Zal also fed off the media like a personality feeds off a cult. He threw elaborate press conferences at the U.S. embassy, flashing a wide-angle grin and swept-back graying hair and often calling on reporters by name. Every journalist, from the fledgling Afghan reporter to the Norwegian freelancer, was invited and served sodas and water. Surrounded by attractive young female aides in hip, occasionally tight clothing, dubbed by some as “Zal’s Gals,” and always slightly late for any event, Khalilzad cultivated the air of a diplomatic rock star. He kept answering questions long after “last question” was called, long after his aides stole glances at their watches. “We have time,” Zal would say. “Let them ask more.” He always smiled, even when talking about tragedy.
But right before the election, Zal again flirted with controversy, accused of trying to fix it for Karzai, already a shoo-in. The other seventeen wannabe presidents had a better chance of being convicted of a felony than of winning an election—in fact, one later would be accused of murder, and others probably should have been. But Zal was accused of trying to make sure that Karzai won convincingly, of trying to persuade rivals to drop out. By now, Zal had earned himself a new colonial-style nickname: the Viceroy.
Regardless, Zal could not help himself. He seemed to lack a filter, and said whatever he thought whenever he thought it, and did whatever he thought was right, regardless of how it looked. In the embassy, some longtime State Department employees craved the return of a real ambassador, one who would stay in the background and not interfere. Zal didn’t care. He had helped shove through a messy Afghan constitution that set up a powerful central government and an even more powerful president, even though the country was used to neither. He had his own wing of advisers outside the typical embassy structure, the Afghan Reconstruction Group, made up of government employees and business executives who took leave from their jobs to help rebuild Afghanistan and charged the taxpayers overtime to do so. They were supposed to be an inhouse think tank; they soon became the Pentagon’s alternative to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the civilian foreign-aid wing of the U.S. government theoretically responsible for development projects. That these advisers were often ill versed in the ways of government and duplicated the roles of State and USAID was a serious problem. In some cases, someone in the Reconstruction Group would be working on an issue, and so would someone in the State Department, and so would someone in USAID, but because of infighting and resentments, the three did not talk to one another, and instead had to go up a chain to a supervisor who would then relay whatever concern down whatever chain was deemed necessary.
I was invited on a trip with Khalilzad to Herat just before the election, while Karzai was out of town. This was the territory of the powerful and popular warlord Ismail Khan, an ethnic Tajik who had been one of the most respected commanders during the anti-Soviet war and had gone on to command a key western faction of the Northern Alliance. After the Taliban fled, Ismail Khan had been named governor of his home province, western Herat, which shared a border with Iran, giving him access to border taxes. Although praised for bringing home electricity, money, and trees, the Afghan equivalent of American political pork, Ismail Khan had also ignored Karzai and the central government, keeping customs money for himself and his private militia. Because of this, Karzai had just removed Ismail Khan as governor, sparking riots and unrest. It was unclear whether he would accept Karzai’s request to come to Kabul and work as the federal minister of mines and industries.
The pro-government warlords who had led militias during Afghanistan’s wars were Karzai’s constant battle. They seemed to operate with impunity. The Americans had backed them in driving out the Taliban in late 2001, handing them money, power, and legitimacy. None had been held accountable for war crimes. Most were more powerful than the president when it came to their ability to summon an army, and most figured they were entitled to their fiefdoms and the spoils of power. Neutering them was Karzai’s biggest challenge. But Ismail Khan didn’t want to budge from his home. He refused the post in Kabul, and said he would negotiate only with Karzai.
No way would I miss this trip. Warlords always made good copy.
I wore my standard garb for leaving Kabul—a long brown embroidered hippie Afghan dress, black pants, and a black headscarf. Zal’s Gals were dressed sharply, as if for an American business lunch. When we walked off the plane, Zal hugged the new governor. He then embarked on his itinerary, meeting students, shaking hands, hugging, and meeting U.S. soldiers of the provincial reconstruction team (PRT), calling them “noble.”
“Are we done?” he said to an aide. “What about the civilians of the PRT? I need to thank them.”
At the governor’s residence, Zal met with Ismail Khan behind closed doors for twenty minutes, and ate lunch with the new governor, before holding court at the inevitable press conference. And there, cameras flashing, with Karzai out of the country, Khalilzad baldly announced that he had done what Karzai had been unable to accomplish—he had convinced Ismail Khan to abandon Herat.
“He will move to Kabul,” Khalilzad told the room. “It’s good for Afghanistan. It’s good for him.”
Ismail Khan did move. Zal didn’t seem to care how Afghans might interpret this, if they would think that the United States was trying to manipulate the Afghan government, six days before the election. Such a Viceroy! He even threw a press conference the next day to talk up the elections, urging journalists not to be lazy and talking about the ramped-up training of the Afghan army. The man was everywhere.
The next weekend, the sun rose on Election Day with a hangover, smeared and hazy. A harsh wind whipped dust across the capital like fire-powered sandpaper. Standing at the polling stations, it was tough to see, not to mention painful. But Afghans started lining up at 5 AM, eager to be the first to vote. Despite threats of violence, the Taliban failed to disrupt much of anything. And by the end of the election, two things were clear: Lots of Afghans voted because they were excited, and the main people who messed up the election were the foreigners. The UN had devised such a complicated method to ink voters’ fingers to prevent double voting, that the ink was mixed up and most of it could be washed off with soap and water, meaning that democracy-minded Afghans could vote as often as they wanted. But at that point, such fraud hardly mattered. It was obvious that Karzai had won overwhelmingly, and that Afghans overwhelmingly believed in him. So did everyone else, for that matter. At least for a little while.