Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Farishta

Farishta
Author: Patricia McArdle
Riverhead, 2011
368 pages

I know hindsight is 20/20, but if I had a chance to live the last 25 years of my life over again, I'd either join the Peace Corps or the Foreign Service. According to Amazon.com, first-time author Patricia McArdle did both. Her experiences as a diplomat in Afghanistan inspired her to write Farishta, a novel about a middle-aged female American diplomat assigned to the northern part of that country in 2004. Perhaps that explains why this novel reads a lot like a memoir.

Many years ago when main character Angela Morgan was beginning her career as an American diplomat, she experienced a devastating personal tragedy. Since then, she's been lying low in a DC-based job while fighting her personal demons. Needing a promotion in order to move forward in her languishing career, she takes a crash course in Dari and begins a year-long assignment at a British Army post in Mazār-i-Sharif. It's 2004 -- a few years into the war. She must keep her fluency in Dari a secret, since one of her assignments is to ensure accuracy of translation by the local interpreters.

As the only woman stationed at the post, Angela must earn the respect of the men around her, including her British Army guard and driver, young "Fuzzy" and Jenkins, and Rahim, her assigned interpreter. Once that respect is earned the first half of her tour seems fairly easy. That area of Afghanistan was relatively conflict-free at the time, so Angela becomes relaxed about going out in public and even doing things that women there don't do, such as going to the local buzkashi games and driving her vehicle ("The Beast") around town. She and Rahim develop a sort of mother-son relationship, and when Rahim falls for a strong-willed young law student named Nilofar, she supports him even though the relationship seems doomed since one of the young lovers is Tajik, the other Hazara.

Then there's Mark Davies, the handsome, stiffly formal officer in the British Gurkha battalion. Since the first time they met, he's been nothing but disagreeable, and he seems to really dislike Angela. You can kinda guess where that leads. In the meantime, Angela's dealing with a sick, elderly parent back home in New Mexico . . . and sometimes you can't help but ask yourself: What's next? I really sympathized with Angela as a character, so I wanted her to catch a break every now and then. But in order for her to be fully redeemed, some things have to play themselves out.

The author does an excellent job of exploring the complexities of Afghanistan's history and culture by weaving in several interesting sub-plots. There's a French archaeologist whose "finds" prove the historical prosperity and strategic importance of the area; a sneaky Russian diplomat and references to the Russian-Afghan war and why it failed; the local warlords and their complicity with the opium trade; and environmental issues related to cutting down trees in a land that was once covered with forests. Of course, there's some emphasis on the differences between the diplomacy corps and the military and reminders that the British and Americans aren't the only players, with abundant references to NATO forces, Swedes, Danes, Romanians, Estonians, Dutch, etc.

The result is a captivating read. I totally lost myself in Farishta, and for a few nights I felt like I actually was in the Foreign Service as I followed Angela's adventures. There may no longer be any hope for me to become a diplomat, but I can always live vicariously through others. (And who knows? Maybe it's not too late for the Peace Corps.)

Farishta, by the way, is a Persian/Dari name that means "angel" . . . a sort-of nickname given to Angela by her Dari teacher in DC and also by one of the local warlords. It's also the first name of a young girl she meets in Afghanistan.