In keeping with the predominantly Afghan theme of the month, here’s the first chapter of ‘The Pomegranate Peace’, a novel about a female American diplomat assigned to Afghanistan and virtually ‘incarcerated’ in the US Embassy in Kabul. (Read The Huffington Post review of the novel here.)
It’s been a few months since I was ‘cured’. I am sitting alone at home, cross-legged on the sofa, cupping a two-handled mug of soup. I made the soup myself. I’m very proud of it. I’ve only recently started watching television – a little at a time and only sometimes. I’ve eased myself into it – the noise and the bright- ness sometimes jangle in my brain. But watching television and drinking homemade soup feels like being a responsible householder. It soothes the searing memory of Hilda’s scorn: ‘You never really think, do you? You may have nothing to lose, but I do. Just for once, can’t you think about other people?’
I flick through the channels when a familiar face makes me stop.
Grover Huntsman. He is running for Congress. He looks boldly in to the camera, smiles and waves. I try and hold his gaze but he’s gone. I put down the mug and put my head in my hands. Suddenly I’m back in Kabul and it’s as if it were my very first day there.
I arrived on a blistering afternoon four days after the Assassination That Changed Everything. It was eleven days after the attack on government and nATo buildings in Kabul. no one tells you much before you arrive. There’s a reason for that. What if you chickened out and didn’t get here? Who would replace the little hamster on the big wheel? Who would replace all those little hamsters on that single very big wheel? Who would make up the headcount?
In the blinding sunshine, it was possible still to believe some good would come of this new deployment – fifty people off the flight from Dubai, clutching their black diplomatic passports, off to work the badlands of a country that had once sheltered a murderous group of bigots who made war on the US. In the sun that day, outside the grim and unlovely Khwaja Rawash airport, it was possible to dismiss the potholed car park and crumbling boundary walls as proof there was much still to be done. It was possible still to feel needed. Useful and united in a good cause. Back then, none of us recognized the dusty dereliction as a sign it had been done – over and over – and could never be finished. That insight would come later. But by then it would be too late.
Back in my cool, quiet apartment, the air conditioner hums and it’s hard to believe that Kabul’s chaos and heat and dust are back in my life again. Back in my head at any rate. I take that back. It was always in my head, but I had pushed it to the back of conscious thought. I thought I had left everything behind me. Even Henry seemed lost to me.
I look blankly at the television screen, my mind working overtime.
Grover Huntsman. The effrontery of it all. Running for public office. I could stop that if I wanted. Or could I? I know all about him. What he’s capable of and what he’s willing to do for his own selfish ends. What I know could ruin him, or at least put a question mark on his attempt to run for office. Or would it?
Telling what I know could shatter the fragile peace I have so carefully built. It could ruin the quiet life I’ve just started to re-make.
Quite frankly, it could destroy me.
That autumn, the US Embassy compound – a curious color sometimes described by the artistic as ‘burnt sienna’ and by everyone else as diarrheal – jived to a united internal rhythm of memories. The memories were startlingly similar in tone and scope and content; disconcertingly alike in their childlike insistence that the narrator had the right – and responsibility – to recall everything to do with the Assault and the Assassina- tion, even though the storyteller had been nowhere near. Like all childhood memories, these were always retold as fact. It was like the story about my grandfather’s trousers falling down as he stood up to leave the concert in the park. I was nine months old. Grandfather was eighty and in the last mad stages of his fight with a brain tumor. I could recall exactly how the trousers fell down in public; I ‘remembered’ how many of the people standing around laughed and I shared the humiliation my grandfather, a dignified Harvard medical School man to the end, must have felt. I don’t remember the actual event – I was probably on the margins somewhere doing what infants do – but the family memory is shared and seems so much mine that I no longer remember I didn’t consciously see it happen.
Little Sam was the American Embassy’s self-appointed Keeper of memories, a commission he took seriously. He stood small and squat and square and pugnacious at the center of wherever he happened to be. on my first day, when I went into the DFAC, the dining facility that fed us, all 1,200 of us, three times a day, Little Sam was at the core of a small knot of people discussing the amount of pollock on the menu.
‘Haven’t seen you before. New here?’ he said to me cheerily as I squeezed past the group.
‘I guess you could say that,’ I responded, looking around the DFAC with interest. ‘I got off the plane five hours ago.’
There were hot trays of vegetables, baked fish, fried fish and sausage and mash. Styrofoam boxes and plastic cutlery were stacked to one side and the refrigerator had a goodly supply of soda and non-alcoholic beer. The salad bar ran half the way down the room. I looked in vain for the Afghan food I’d hun- gered to eat during a whole year of Dari classes at the Foreign Services Institute in Washington. Perhaps they will have it tomorrow, I told myself. After all, we are in Kabul.
Little Sam saw me take it all in. ‘Don’t lose your appetite and don’t have the pollock. Ever.’
‘But I like fish,’ I protested, my Bostonian tastes asserting themselves.
‘Ah well, you’ve been warned. Welcome to the only embassy in the world that believes people like us, civilians, are a key part of the war effort. And where fish is not a dish, it’s a state of mind. Welcome.’
I mumbled thank you, trying to decide if he were joking or being devastatingly clever. Then he let fly a volley of sentences that sounded suspiciously like doggerel. I didn’t know it then but it was my first brush with an authentic Stars and Stripes Haiku.
Oh what a lovely war
Civvies to the fore
Proud to do time
‘Oh,’ I said, not knowing how to respond.
Little Sam seemed not to mind. ‘Choose your poison and join us at our table,’ he said kindly.
I nodded and turned my attention to the food. It looked tired. So was I. And very hungry.
Little Sam’s table was crowded but everyone courteously and gladly made room for me. He seemed to have collected some of the other new arrivals off the plane. I smiled at Angie, a bubbly fellow-Bostonian Entry-Level officer, who had sat across the aisle from me on the plane. She seemed to rejoice in a rather startling pair of customized Doc martens. Little Sam introduced Kathy, his busty red-haired wife, who spoke slowly and smiled indulgently at everything he said. She reminded me of an Irish setter lying lazily in the sun.
‘When do we get to eat local fare?’ I asked her eagerly.
‘Oh, it’s never local fare,’ she said in a slow drawl, ‘it’s all flown in from Dubai.’
My heart sank. ‘Really? How extraordinary.’
‘But there is Afghan food every Tuesday night, at least they call it Afghan. I wouldn’t know. Never had it – not here, not anywhere.’
I cheered up a bit. Tuesday beckoned enticingly in the distance, especially after I ate a couple of forkfuls of baked pollock. Little Sam had been right to warn me and foolishly I had not heeded his advice. Little Sam winked at me across the table and moved his left hand, the fork’s tines standing straight up, in the internationally recognized wiggle that suggested a creature that swam the sea. And then he gave me a thumbs- down sign. I watched the fork wave in the air, remembering mother’s injunctions about table manners (‘never lift the cutlery off your plate unless it’s to transport the food to your mouth’) and thought, ‘He’s just a hillbilly.’ But I was touched by the warmth of the human connection in this vast, walled-off embassy. I smiled at him, feeling less downcast and empty though I was still hungry.
‘Try the cereal,’ he mouthed, and this time, I took the advice. Then he cleared his throat and everyone turned to him and he began to tell us highly colored stories about the two big As – the Assassination and the Assault. Both had Changed Everything, said Little Sam, obviously speaking in capitals. We listened with awed attention. He was a survivor. He had lived through the boldest attack on this embassy in the decade we had been here. But to me, ever quick to judge, as mother always moaned, he seemed pumped up and drained out, loyally striving to be the perfect advertisement for our war of liberation on behalf of the poor bleeding Afghans.
I caught myself at that point. I did not want to start this tour on a negative note. But even then, there was something about the war-weariness of the compound, the dull trudge of Mission Afghanistan officers and the dry, malodourous baked pollock that threatened to leach the can-do spirit I had applied to preparing for being sent out here.
Kathy pointed out the beard Little Sam had grown in deference to long days, sometimes weeks, out in the field with the army-led Provincial Reconstruction Teams. Little Sam stroked it, seeming inordinately proud of the fungus on his chin. He told us how he had swapped the dark suits of the bureaucrat for khaki, beige and sandy-colored clothes.
‘All the better to fit in with the military folks,’ he said vigorously.
I noticed he wore his identity card like a soldier – in a clear pouch with an olive green lining. It sat squarely in the middle of his chest. He was in peak physical condition, he told us, working out constantly and drinking water by the gallon to stay prepared. I realized that he believed, profoundly, in the cause.
The Pentagon and the State Department never did head- hunt him as a mascot but that first evening in Kabul, I felt that within Little Sam lived and breathed the kind of faithful – and accessible – national hero who made this war seem worth doing. He seemed to believe almost every bit of guff the ambassador spouted and then internalized it to the point that he went out and spread the word. He would come up with short, sharp sentences that rendered the objectives of this lengthening, ever more shadowy war bit-byte simple. Without missing a beat he seemed able to distil and deliver it all in four- teen syllables. Little Sam was the Haiku poet laureate on the frontline of a war no one could properly explain any longer:
I’ll fix your laws
Get your girls to school
You’re free – that’s my rule
Get up stand up
For your rights. My money, my war,
On and on he would declaim. Fourteen syllables for every mission objective, every ambassadorial platitude – Rule of Law; Transparency and Accountability in Government; Women’s Education; a Free and Vibrant media; Strong and Well-Trained Local Security Forces. It might have been inane had it not been enormously clever as I realized later – pithy and with the paradox neatly captured therein. From that first evening, I always thought of them as Stars and Stripes Haikus. Each was ironic in its own way even though my country- men self-confessedly don’t ‘do’ irony and rarely ‘get it’ either. Thankfully, Little Sam didn’t realize he was so good at what he did. Else, he’d have been insufferable. Instead, he wandered around with his 14-syllable mantras, high-fiving and hallooing, seeming for all the world like a cartoon cut-out of the breezy, unsophisticated, down-home American from hell.
For all his apparently unwavering faith in America’s mission to change Afghanistan for its own good, I couldn’t help but like Little Sam. He was a good man, with the unregarded soul of a poet and the unfortunate aspect of the prankster. Funnily, it was Little Sam’s hail-fellow-well-met American wholesomeness and his cloying have-a-great-day cheeriness that became the only reason I came to understand anything at all about the country I now lived in. He introduced me to najim. najim introduced me to chakah, the yoghurt sauce Afghans ritualistically consume at almost every meal. It was the start of a runaway train of events. We linked it all up later. But by then it was too late.