'Farishta': Afghan Fiction From The Foreign Service
Like many reporters, Foreign Service officers overseas often say they have a novel in their heads that they've been trying to write for years. Patricia McArdle actually wrote hers. A retired Foreign Service officer who has served in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, it was McArdle's final posting in northern Afghanistan that served as her great inspiration.
Her debut novel, Farishta, tells the story of Angela Morgan, a diplomat whose husband died in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983. For 20 years, she mourns, she hurts and drinks too much. But then, like McArdle, Angela is summoned to serve for a year in an isolated British Army compound in Afghanistan, where she finds new purpose, new friends and even new love.
While McArdle and her main character share many experiences, she decided against writing a memoir; she wanted to protect her associates still in the country and to reach a wider audience. "There is a good deal of me in Angela although she is a completely fictional character," McArdle tells NPR's Scott Simon. "... I also drew on the experiences of other female foreign services officers and journalists that I met or heard about while I was in Afghanistan."
One story in the novel was inspired by an experience McArdle had while on patrol with British soldiers. In very remote areas, McArdle noticed groups of Afghan children dragging large bundles of kindling back to their homes in the blistering heat — and it got her thinking: "I remembered that I had built a solar cooker when I was a Girl Scout many years ago," McArdle explains. "I wondered if the Afghans knew about solar cooking because they had all this sun and they have no wood." McArdle searched online, and found instructions for building cookers on a site called Solar Cookers International. "The people were fascinated," she says. The story not only appears in the novel, but McArdle now sits on the board of directors for Solar Cookers International.
Not all of McArdle's experiences ended so positively and she hopes her book will draw attention to some of the issues — such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder — facing soldiers and Foreign Service officers. While she was never the victim of any direct attacks, the experience of living in a combat zone affected her long after she returned home. "I was afraid to take my dog outside at night for a walk," she admits. McArdle doesn't believe she experienced PTSD, but she says it got her thinking: "What about people, civilians and soldiers who had experienced this? It's quite horrifying because it's all inside, nobody can see it, and you can't explain it to anyone."
In Farishta, McArdle also addresses what she views as the misallocation of American resources. "I really think that in a country like Afghanistan we should be focused much more on sustainable reconstruction," she says. McArdle cites a 2004 Department of Energy report which shows that Afghanistan has abundant natural resources that could be developed. Instead of importing American building and farming techniques, McArdle feels that the U.S. should be working with locals and taking advantage of practices that have been employed in the country for thousands of years. "Afghan farmers are the ultimate locavores," she says. "They grow their own crops, they have very little arable land and they take very good care of it. We should be helping them with organic techniques ... instead of bringing fertilizers and seeds that they'll have to replace."
In the wake of Osama bin-Laden's death, many Americans are calling for the end of the United States' nearly 10-year involvement in Afghanistan. "I can certainly understand that," McArdle says. "[But] having been there, and knowing the Afghan people, I wish we could do a little more to help them. They're wonderful people. It's a beautiful country."
SCOTT SIMON, host:
I've met lots of Foreign Service officers overseas, and like reporters, a lot of them say they have a novel in their heads that they keep trying to write for years. Patricia McArdle actually did. She is a retired Foreign Service officer who served in North Africa, South Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Western Europe.
But her last posting in northern Afghanistan clearly touched her. Her debut novel, "Farishta," has just been published by Riverhead Books. It tells the story of Angela Morgan, a diplomat whose husband died in the bombing of the U.S. embassy in Beirut in 1983. For 20 years, she mourns, she hurts and drinks too much. Then she's summoned to serve a year - maybe her last posting - in an isolated British Army compound in Afghanistan. Angela thought it would be one last assignment in a hellhole. Instead, she finds new purpose, new friends, even a new love.
Patricia McArdle, the author of "Farishta," joins us in our studios. Thanks so much for being with us.
Ms. PATRICIA MCARDLE (Author, "Farishta," Retired Foreign Service Officer): Thank you, Scott. It's an honor to be here.
SIMON: And Farishta means?
Ms. MCARDLE: Farishta means angel in Dari and in Persian.
SIMON: And the people that Angela begins to work with begins to notice that her name Angela.
Ms. MCARDLE: Her name, Angela - angel - is translated to Farishta and that's how she gets her name.
SIMON: Why a novel as opposed to non-fiction, 'cause you've got your own kind of interesting story to tell.
Ms. MCARDLE: I had actually considered writing a memoir when I came back. I had taken lots of notes and kept a journal during the year I was in Afghanistan. But after considering it for a while, I thought that, one, there were a lot of people I couldn't really describe because I didn't want to compromise anyone that I'd met, people I dealt with. And I also felt that a memoir might attract the policy wonks. Maybe they'd read it because I'd been there. But I hoped to reach out to a much wider audience.
And I thought with a compelling work of fiction, with a really good story, I might be able to reach people who would never pick up one of those books.
SIMON: Yeah. How much do your personal life and your characters overlap?
Ms. MCARDLE: There is a great deal of me in Angela, although she is a completely fictional character. I drew on my experiences but I also drew on the experiences of other female Foreign Service officers and journalists that I met or read about while I was in Afghanistan.
SIMON: You find inspiration certainly in your novel - and I gather your life -from the time you see and Angela, your character, sees Afghan children scrounging for firewood.
Ms. MCARDLE: I went out on quite a few patrols with the British soldiers and these were six-man patrols in two vehicles, unarmored, no body armor. So, we went into some very remote places and everywhere we saw these little children pulling bushes out of the ground and hauling these massive bundles back to their mothers. Most of the trees in Afghanistan had been cut down. But then I realized after a few more patrols that it was sunny in Afghanistan all the time.
And somehow - I don't remember how it happened - but I remember that I had built a solar cooker when I was a girl scout many years ago. And I use this in the story also; it appears in the novel. And I thought: I wonder if the Afghans know about solar cooking because they have all this sun and they have no wood.
So, I downloaded some plans from the Internet, from a website, Solar Cookers International. I'm on their board of directors now.
Ms. MCARDLE: Then I'd never heard of them. And built some box cookers and some other kinds of cookers and took them out and the people were fascinated.
SIMON: You suggest that Post Traumatic Stress Disorder isn't just a problem for soldiers.
Ms. MCARDLE: No, it's not. You know, I did not experience and direct attacks, I was not wounded. But a lot happened around me and to soldiers that I knew. And I have to tell you, when I came home - I live in a wonderful, safe neighborhood in south Arlington -for about six months I was afraid to take my dog outside at night for a walk.
Now, I don't think I had PTSD but this was a very strange thing for me, because I've been walking my dog for years. And it started me thinking what about people, civilians and soldiers, who had experienced this. It's quite horrifying because it's all inside, nobody can see it, and you can't explain it to anyone.
SIMON: You say pretty clearly, as a novel can - and it's a real novel - this isnt a thinly disguised polemical exercise, but you seem to say as clearly as a novel can that a lot of U.S. efforts are being misdirected.
Ms. MCARDLE: I do. I really think that in a country like Afghanistan, we should be focused much more on sustainable reconstruction. The Department of Energy did a solar wind mapping of Afghanistan in 2004, which shows that there're abundant resources all over the country. And I really think, to give Afghanistan the chance to be economically and energy independent, we should be focusing on developing these resources.
We should be using the local building techniques. Afghans have this wonderful building technique, kab, they've been building for thousands of years. Some of their buildings are hundreds of years old. And instead, we're bringing in cinder block and cement and putting up buildings that need generators and air conditioning. That's part of it.
I think that the Afghan farmers are the ultimate locavores; they grow their own crops, they have very little arable land and they take very good care of it. We should be helping them with organic techniques, that some of our own farmers are doing, instead of bringing in fertilizers and seeds that they'll have to replace.
I think that we should be focused much more on sustainability.
SIMON: And what do you say to those Americans who I say, look, it's been -we've been there almost 10 years one way or the another, Osama bin Laden is dead, bring everyone home?
Ms. MCARDLE: I can certainly understand that. Having been there and known the Afghan people, I wish we could do a little more to help them. They're wonderful people. It's a beautiful country. I have friends who went there in the '60s and '70s, when you could just wander around when the hippy trail was wide open. It's a fabulous place and I would wish we could help them more, but I do understand Americans after 10 years saying enough.
SIMON: Patricia McArdle, her new novel - her first, "Farishta."
Patricia McArdle, thanks so much.
Ms. MCARDLE: Thank you very much, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.