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Farishta
by Patricia McArdle

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 an action-filled story of love, war, and renewal. Opening with a flashback during the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut where Angela loses her husband and her unborn child, Farishta traces Angela’s struggle twenty years after that event (when she is forced by the Department of State to accept a tour of duty in northern Afghanistan) to overcome her untreated PTSD while fighting to win acceptance in a male-dominated wartime environment. Her evolving relationships with a British Army intelligence officer, a deceptively friendly Russian diplomat and two star-crossed, young Afghan lovers take the story in unexpected directions. When attacks are eventually launched against Angela and the Brits with deadly effect, she overcomes wrenching personal losses and discovers an extraordinary new purpose in life. This chapter in the novel is based on an actual incident which has inspired the author's volunteer work following her retirement from the State Department.

Chapter Twenty-Seven
April 8, 2005  The Village of Marmol

After testing my homemade solar ovens on the balcony of the atrium, I was ready for a demonstration. I had been invited by the Romanian MOT to join them on a day trip to Marmol, a small village in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. It was only thirty miles from Mazār-i-Sharīf , but a bone crunching three-hour drive up a winding, rocky, dry riverbed.

This was my second day trip to Marmol with the Romanians. In late March, their young captain, his interpreter, and I had sipped tea for two hours and listened patiently in a chilly room while the Marmol district chief explained his village’s need for a new road, shortwave radios, and motorcycles for his policemen. When our meeting ended, the bearded and bespectacled young chief took us on a walking tour of his village. It was still dusted with snow and as silent as only a place free of machinery can be.

Each footstep, each scrape of boot on rock, even the soft rustling of our host’s woolen robes was magnified as we climbed toward the upper village. He led us along a steep trail and around melting clumps of snow to a cliff overlooking a tiny stand of cedar trees in a narrow canyon above the village.

“Here is our forest,” he announced proudly. “It used to fill the entire canyon, but this is all that remains.” It was less than an acre.

“The Russians destroyed part of it with their bombs, but wood thieves have tried to take the rest. Two men must stand guard here every night. If someone cuts down the remaining trees, our village will be washed away in the next big storm.

“Marmol has been here for more than two hundred years. I will not allow it to be destroyed,” he said defiantly. At this altitude, we could see for miles in every direction. There was not another tree in sight.

The Romanians and I followed the chief back down the trail until he stopped before a rough wooden door surrounded by high earthen walls. He turned to our interpreter. “Ask the woman if she would like to visit one of our families.”

I waited patiently for his translation, and quickly nodded my agreement. The chief rapped hard on the door. An elderly man with a grey beard cracked it open and peered out. As soon as he saw the chief, he swung the door wide and bowed his head. A rough mud partition directly behind him shielded the rest of his family from prying eyes. The chief motioned for me to enter and the man stood aside.

“Only the woman and I may go in,” the chief said to the soldiers when they tried to follow us.

Inside the compound, two women squatted in the dirt before a smoking pile of twigs, fanning it rapidly as they cooked a pot of rice. Their children, who had just returned from a foraging trip, were stacking a large pile of reeds and bushes against the far wall. The chief said nothing, but his message was clear. His village was running out of fuel.

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When we arrived in Marmol on our return trip, the district chief greeted us like old friends. Just before we went in for our meeting, I poured a liter of water into a black pot and put it inside my homemade solar oven. Placing it on a patch of dirt in front of the chief’s compound, I rotated the oven to face the sun and left it to heat the water. The chief and a few men loitering nearby watched me with great interest, but did not ask for an explanation. They all stayed far away from the strange device.

When the Romanians and I stepped outside with the chief an hour later, the pot was boiling and the crowd of men had grown to more than forty. They had formed a circle around the box and were craning their necks to locate the hidden fire they believed was making the water boil.

I stood next to the chief and with the help of the Romanian’s interpreter explained to the incredulous men how this box was able to trap the heat of the sun. “It is not magic,” I assured them.

“Sahib, can this box make water hot enough for tea?” asked a heavyset man tugging on his thick black beard. “There is no fire.” The water was steaming, but he and the others still couldn’t believe what they were seeing.

The chief nodded. “Yes, and your women could cook food with this box,” he added, motioning for the man to approach.

I lifted the glass lid and invited the man to touch the steaming pot. When it burned his fingers, he shook them dramatically in the air and laughed in surprise.

After the chief had taken his turn touching the pot, the rest of the men stepped forward one by one to scald their fingers and prove to themselves that neither their eyes nor I were deceiving them.
“We have cardboard,” said a young man, “but where do we get that shiny paper?”

“Madam Angela,” said the Romanian’s terp who was also astounded to see water boiling inside a piece of cardboard, “these people do not have aluminum foil. What can they use to make such an oven?” He was right about the foil. In my excitement, I hadn’t thought that far ahead.

I was searching for a reply, when the chief reached into the pocket of his shalwar kameez and extracted a pack of cigarettes. He tore off a strip of the thin foil wrapper and waved it aloft like an offering to the gods.
“We can use this for our shiny paper,” he announced triumphantly as other men removed their own cigarette packs and flashed slivers of sunlight at each other with the small foil squares.

When we left the village that afternoon, I gave the box to the district chief and promised to send him rolls of foil so the men in his village wouldn’t have to smoke themselves to death to build their own solar ovens.
My report to the embassy on my solar cooking demonstration received no response, but I was hooked.

A few weeks later, I wrote up a proposal for a U.S.-funded solar oven project in a displaced persons camp a few miles from Mazār. I handed a copy directly to the ambassador when he came up for a two-hour meeting with Governor Daoud. The only reply I received from the embassy that time was a reprimand for jumping the chain of command by giving my proposal to the ambassador. If I did anything more with these solar ovens, it would have to be on my own.

The morning after my triumphant demo in Marmol, I was making a cup of tea in the soldiers’ dining hall when Mark appeared behind me to draw his own hot water from the urn.

“I hear the locals thought you were a sorceress yesterday when they saw you boiling water with a piece of cardboard.”

“They did have a little trouble believing what they were seeing,” I laughed, “but after they’d all burned their fingers on the pot they got it.”

“So will they be setting up a solar oven factory in Marmol any time soon?”

“Not likely, Mark, but I would love to get out and show these to some women’s groups.”

“I doubt that will be possible,” he replied. “Other than weddings, I don’t believe there are any occasions when grown women are allowed to gather in public.

“There must be someplace I can demonstrate them,” I argued.

“Even if there were, Angela, you aren’t at liberty to go off organizing ladies’ groups without a military escort,” he said with a shrug as he headed back to the ops room with his tea.

“Thanks for your support,” I muttered as he left the room.bluestar

 

Reprinted from Farishta by Patricia McArdle with permission of Riverhead, a member of Penguin Random House. Copyright 2011 by Patricia McArdle.



Patricia McArdle is a retired senior Foreign Service Officer. Before joining the Department of State, she served for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer health educator in Paraguay and for three years as a U.S. Naval Communications officer in Morocco. Her last overseas diplomatic posting in 2005 was as the senior U.S. government representative in Northern Afghanistan where she was based with a British Army infantry unit. During that year she observed the serious shortage of cooking fuel in rural areas and it’s impact on the women, children and environment of Afghanistan. She began to build solar thermal ovens and take them on patrols with the soldiers to demonstrate in villages. She has continued to promote this simple technology around the world on a volunteer basis since her retirement. She is the editor of The Solar Cooker Review. In 2010 she won the Grand Prize for General Fiction in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest. Her critically acclaimed, debut novel Farishta, which was inspired by her year in Afghanistan, was published by Penguin/Riverhead Books on June 2, 2011, and released in paperback in June 2012. For more information go to: www.patriciamcardle.com.



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