In the second chapter of ‘The Pomegranate Peace’, a female American diplomat starts to learn about Afghanistan, the country to which she’s assigned, through its food. There’s no other way because she’s virtually ‘incarcerated’ in the US Embassy in Kabul, “penned in for our own ‘safety’ and prohibited from the simplest act of living”. (Read The Huffington Post review of the novel here.)
Yoghurt Sauce – Chakah
(The condiment that built Afghanistan)
1 cup of plain yogurt
1⁄8 teaspoon of salt 1⁄2 tablespoon finely chopped garlic 3 heaped tablespoons sour cream
3 tablespoons qurut (very salty processed yoghurt found in Afghan and Iranian stores. Feta would be the nearest substitute)
Mix, add about 1⁄2 cup cold water or enough to give it the consistency of salad dressing.
Yoghurt sauce. You have to understand why it seemed so magical to me. I liked to cook and I was greedy. Rarely hungry, always greedy. Later – and for all too short a time – that would become our private joke, Najim’s and mine. I desperately needed to touch and taste Afghanistan. To feel it with all my senses. Instead, here I was a week on, in a facility that was, to all intents and purposes, a high-security prison. Ringed by high walls, patrolled at all hours of the day or night, dark green mil- itary helicopters constantly screaming overhead, heavily armed men everywhere on the compound, guns a-dangling. There were check posts, some with dogs, every couple of hundred yards for about a mile. No one could hope to leave undetected. no one could expect to stay on at Post if they made a run for freedom, howsoever brief.
Sadly, I know this to be fact, not rumor retold. Not long after I arrived, I saw Angie being marched into the Human Resources office. A guard walked either side of her and a diplomatic security officer led the way.
‘This is frickin’ bullshit. I can’t understand why he wouldn’t let me through,’ Angie complained, gesturing to one of the Gurkhas who plodded beside her, mulish and mule-like, with his bulging backpack, medical kit and guns. Extra rounds of ammunition were strapped to his person. ‘I just wanted a bit of fresh naan from the baker round the corner. It’s not like I was out looking for a spuckie.’ The Boston word for a sub sandwich made me feel homesick for just a moment as I stood sympathetic and shocked on the sidelines.
‘This isn’t DC,’ the diplomatic security man said wryly over his shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, ma’am, but you can’t just walk out of the embassy when you feel like it.’
‘So I can’t have fresh naan with my coffee? A proper break- fast?’ I heard Angie protest as the little group disappeared into HR. Those Doc marten boots with the Swarovski crystal pattern I had noticed on the plane were the last I saw of her. She was sent home, I heard later. I was frightened by her daring.
So, we were penned in for our own ‘safety’ and prohibited from the simplest act of living. Like getting a haircut anywhere decent. Like walking down a street. Like speaking to anyone who was not American or employed by or funded in some way by the US Government. Like striking a bargain for watermel- ons, which might have been the Afghan national fruit had it not been for that other magical local product, superfood of the gods, the anar, the pomegranate.
The three Afghans in my grants office waxed eloquent about their pomegranate land, this country with forty-eight native vari- eties of the fruit yet I could not find a single one in the embassy.
Reza was boastful. ‘Our anar is red, sweet and juicy. The best is the Kandari.’
‘From the south?’ I asked.
‘Yes,’ Ali joined the conversation. ‘Cook with it or eat it raw, the Afghan anar is the best in the world.’
‘I didn’t know pomegranates are great to cook with,’ I said, hastening to flatter in the hope that they would tell me more about the Afghan hearth, surely the central place in any home here, just as much as anywhere else.
‘I suppose I shouldn’t say this to an American but it is women who know that sort of stuff. We don’t,’ replied Reza, his wizened, high-cheekboned face splitting into a wide grin.
Everyone laughed at his extreme political incorrectness here, on American soil.
‘But as a man, all I can promise is you will eat some good pomegranate here. I will get you some tomorrow,’ he finished. He never did remember the promise and I didn’t know it then but the Afghan anar would start to consume me, even before I started to consume it. Consider the enormity of what I was asked to do in those early days. I was instructed to spend $5 million of American taxpayers’ money on a proposal to replace Afghanistan’s lucrative, immediately viable opium poppy crop with pomegranate (bear in mind that one tree takes three years to bear fruit). I liked pomegranates but knew little about growing them.
So, I made some notes for myself on the possibilities of the anar and I started with Reza and Ali’s lyricism about one particular variety:
The best Afghan pomegranate – though all are red, sweet, juicy and delectable – is the Kandari, from down south. In order to boost anar production in this intensely kinetic region, we plan to build on our 2008, 12-million-dollar initiative to modernize and expand Afghanistan’s pomegranate industry. For too long has it depended on domestic sales and small-scale exports to nearby countries.
Our new initiative will reverse a reversal. In 2009, USG shifted its focus from crop-substitution to intercepting drugs and hunting down poppy production operations and drug lords. But in 2008, we successfully executed a re-branding initiative, complete with a luscious logo. The logo was a drawing of the sliced, red fruit with seeds spilling out and a label that announced ‘Anar, Afghanistan Pomegranate.’ The world’s media judged the launch a success (see Reuters report, 12 August 2008). Quantities of anar were sent to the Middle Eastern branches of a French supermarket chain (NB: But the crop had to be flown out on our military planes.) USAID subject expert Paul Mun says Western demand is unlikely to materialize because Afghanistan’s pest control regulations barely exist and are followed in the breach, if at all.
Possible talking point for press: According to USG agro- expert Laura Stoddard, on average, farmers make about $2,000 per acre with pomegranates, versus $1,320 per acre growing poppies for opium.
That was a strictly private note to myself. I can offer no explanation for crafting it in this doctrinaire fashion, except the recently acquired habit of memo-writing. I followed this up with a great bureaucratic flourish – writing, in just one afternoon, the award specifics of the five-million-dollar grant we were so determined to give. Let me explain. The award specifics are a technical mishmash consisting of the legal apportioning of rights and responsibilities, within all of which lies that golden key: Permission for American Government money to flow into the many streams that rush through Afghanistan’s many mountains. The locals, I would later learn, called it America’s unique style of irrigation, different from God’s bounty because it doesn’t rain from the skies but springs clear and in a great whoosh from American pockets, ‘showering many Afghan men and their many children with the nourishing goodness of the dollar’.
My bit of ‘irrigation’ was unglamorously called the S-AF300– 11-GR500. Impenetrable at first sight, those letters and numbers had a deep and glorious logic. ‘S’ denoted the Department of State, which was the US Federal Agency making the assistance award. AF was Afghanistan, the country the federal money was going to; 300 was the State Department’s Programs office, which would supervise this grant; 11 was the last two digits of the year the award was decided; GR meant it was a hands-off grant of money as opposed to a hands-on cooperative agree- ment. And the last three digits were the serial number of the award. I couldn’t help noticing that mine was the five-hun- dredth award that year and none was less than $1.5 million. A lot of American irrigation of Afghan sands.
AWARD SPECIFICS S-AF300–11-GR500
Below are the Award Specifics that accompany the Department of State (DOS) federal assistance awards. Data elements below are required for all awards.
A DOS Notice of Award consists of the following four components:
1.S-1909 Federal Assistance Award coversheet – mandatory for all DOS Awards
2.Award Specifics (below)
3.Post/Program Specifics, if applicable
4.Standard Terms and Conditions (available either online or printed from the A/OPE/FA website http://fa.statebuy. state.gov) Providing the Standard Terms and Conditions to a recipient is optional, but can be requested by the recipient.
DATA ELEMENTS: 1. Standardized Assistance Instrument Identification:
Amount of $5,000,000.00 (Five million)
3. Purpose/Scope The purpose of this grant is to support the project titled Afghanistan Grow Anar (AGA) in the attempt to educate farmers, particularly in the south of the country, about pest control, demand and supply and the economic worth of an anar crop and encourage them to grow pomegranates for commercial purposes.
4. Grants Officer Contact
Mary Louise Case
Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs
2201 C Street, NW,
Washington, DC 20520
The Standard Form 270 Request for Advance or Reimbursement Payments may be requested in the amounts required by the recipient to carry out the purpose of this award. The SF-270 must be certified by the appropriate person, num- bered consecutively and identified for the period which payment is claimed. Each payment must be the amount of expenditures anticipated during the requested period less any unexpended funds remaining from prior payments. This information must be reflected on the Standard Form 270 submitted for payment.
When submitting a request for payment use the address provided on the DS-1909. Requests for payments must be submitted in sufficient time to allow at least fourteen (14) working days for processing.
Department Of State Standard Terms and Conditions for Federal Assistance Awards are incorporated by reference and made part of this Notice of Award.
7. Authorized Budget
International Project Director (75% of personnel costs), Deputy Director and Country Director (25%), Short-term technical assistance × 150 days, 4 × national senior trainers, admin and support staff (full details of all available on spreadsheet).
Staffing levels are based on the effort required to produce the deliverables outlined in the proposal, also to undertake substantial capacity building effort in conflict-sensitive farming. 14% of salary costs for management overheads. 13 × international trips for consultants and international staff. 25 × local flights or project activities. 2 × vehicle rent for project use, per diems at USAID rate for Kabul and outside Kabul. $640,929 per diem, $290,280 for ground transportation throughout Afghanistan, $360,200 for airfare and transfers.
Seedlings and Fertilizer: $70,960.00 Computers: $360,300 Office supplies, cell phones, generator: $350,380.00 Promotional literature for distribution: $250,000 Housing allowance: $226,400 Office rent: $60,000 Upgrades (generator fuel, maintenance, bomb proofing office and security services): $200,662.00 Communications: $47,400 Workshop and attendee’s travel and lodging: $57,500 Miscellaneous logistical items (visas, postage, water usage, travel insurance, etc.): $9,362 Fringe benefits: $65,283.21 Indirect costs: $1,370,947.41 Personnel: 5% of subtotal of all costs for overheads and administration costs
8. Reporting and Monitoring
Department Of State Standard Terms and Conditions for Federal Assistance Awards are incorporated by reference and made part of this Notice of Award.
Electronic copies containing the complete text are available at: http://fa.statebuy. state.gov, under Resources select Notice of Awards (T&Cs) to access the domestic or overseas terms and conditions applicable to the recipient and any sub-recipient. In addition to the assurances and certifications made part of the Notice of Award, the recipient must comply with all applicable terms and conditions during the project period. Cost-Sharing: None $0.00 The recipient is required to submit quarterly program and financial reports 30 days after the calendar year quarter:
First Quarter (January 1-March 31): Report due April 30
Second Quarter (April 1-June 30): Report due July 30
Third Quarter (July 1-September 30): Report due October 30
Fourth Quarter (October 1-December 31): Report due January 30
A final certified financial report and program report must be submitted to the Grants or Principal Officer within 90 days after the award period end date.
The Decision memo that brought my Pomegranate Grant to life bore the initials ‘G.H.’ They were scrawled boldly and with a devil-may-care insouciance. I didn’t know who G.H. was but his or her rationale for recommending the proposal was succinct: ‘Pomegranate production can sustain the Afghan economy. This Afghan-led grant proposal will persuade farmers in the highly kinetic Kandahar area to change from the habit of poppy production.’
Even then, I remember being taken aback. The grant had been given to a Canadian, albeit one of Afghan ethnicity. He had lived in Canada all his life and seemed unwilling to change his address of record. Could this really be described as ‘Afghan- led’? Why did ‘G.H.’ think it was?
It was a coincidence that I met Najim the very afternoon I wrote the anar award specifics. Running into Little Sam outside the DFAC, I was mildly interested to hear that his newest fourteen-syllabic vision statement covered the ambassador’s latest remarks on Afghan agriculture in general and anars in particular.
Reap what you sow
Anar yes, poppy no
Sweet fruit, gift of freedom
‘Nice one, Little Sam,’ I told him a touch patronizingly. ‘But I’ve been looking into this whole anar business and the truth is it’s not that easy.’
I ignored the mild irritation on Little Sam’s face. It was not in his nature to be angry for long.
‘Farmers feel safer growing poppy rather than pomegranates because drug traffickers have put a complex, foolproof system in place that makes it more beneficial than harvesting fruit,’ I lectured.
‘Oh, I think the US Government can match any drug traf- ficker’s system,’ Little Sam responded with loyal evenness. ‘We have the law on our side. That’s a tremendous strength.’
‘Undoubtedly,’ I agreed, ‘but it’s hard for USG to beat the traffickers’ system by means of the law. They don’t really rec- ognize the law.’ And without giving Little Sam the chance to reply I asked, ‘What law are we talking about anyway? US law? Afghan law? The first doesn’t have much of a presence here, the second exists as a concept.’
‘The law is the law,’ Little Sam argued.
I glanced at the young Afghan who stood silently next to him. He seemed interested in the conversation but utterly unmoved by the argument.
‘Not here,’ I shot back, newly knowledgeable after all my research. ‘The traffickers provide farmers with advance payment, credit, contract farming arrangements and technical advice. We’d have to match that package of benefits if we want to be in with a chance.’
The Afghan nodded faintly when Little Sam responded quickly and easily, ‘Neat. I’m sure we will.’
‘I wish,’ I sighed, ‘we’re spending the money for sure. Anyway, right now, I’d absolutely love to run into a real Afghan anar.’
‘Really? not for Kathy and me, we might get sick, but perhaps najim can help?’ said Little Sam, glancing at the young man.
I looked to see if najim was hurt to hear his country’s famous fruit – and standards of hygiene – dismissed as a health hazard for Little Sam and his big Texan wife. But he was impassive, unsmiling but not unfriendly. He was slender and rather fash- ionably dressed in pointy-toed boots, smart slim-fitting trou- sers, a check shirt and what appeared to be an imitation leather sports jacket. His thick dark hair appeared to have been gelled into the faintest suggestion of a spike – just enough to suggest a hip knowledge of trends but not so much that it would be out of place in a government office. He had large eyes and an open and eager expression. I decided I rather liked him.
‘Could you get me an anar?’ I asked with probably more excitement than befit the procurement of fruit and veg. As we spoke, the DFAC door periodically opened and shut for embassy staff, exhaling a warm fug that smelt of pollock.
‘Yes, of course,’ he replied readily. ‘I can get you a kilo. You like pomegranate?’
‘Who wouldn’t,’ I replied. ‘How can one be in Afghanistan and not eat anar or want to cook Khoresh Fesenjan.’
‘Not everyone knows Khoresh Fesenjan. Not even here in Afghanistan. You cook it?’ Najim asked, looking at me for the first time with surprise.
‘I want to cook it when I get to somewhere that has a kitchen. I learnt about it in Dari class in DC and then I ate it at an Iranian restaurant in London.’
He said nothing, so I expressed surprise that most Afghans didn’t know about Fesenjan. ‘It’s redolent of so much that is your cultural history,’ I said wonderingly.
‘Herati history,’ he corrected. ‘But you need many many anars for the paste. Right now it’s about one dollar per kilo,’ he said looking away, the well-bred Afghan male’s traditional courtesy to ‘decent’ women.’ my mother makes the best Fesenjan. I will get you some when she cooks it,’ he added.
‘No, no,’ I demurred, secretly hoping he would ignore my protests. He did. All of them. Every time.
The anar became my weapon of dissent against US Govern- ment regulations – I would touch, feel and taste Afghanistan after all. But it would be the yoghurt sauce that would become my secret Goldilocks Test of American good faith and the gap between ruler and ruled.