by Elayne Clift
City of Soldiers: A Year of Life, Death, and Survival in Afghanistan
Author: Kate Fearon
Interlink Books, Northhampton, MA
Kate Fearon is a gutsy woman with a good sense of humor and a very difficult job. Currently head of the Mitrovica Office for the International Civilian Representative in Kosovo, she spent 2009 to 2010 in Afghanistan as Governance Advisor on rule of law issues to the Helmand Provincial Reconstruction Team. Her new, highly readable memoir is about the rough and tumble, and the meager rewards, of that year.
Not many of us could face up to the challenges Fearon met living in rural Afghanistan. Meager accommodation, fears of “D&V” (diarrhea and vomiting), debilitating heat, the constant trepidation of lurking dangers, and the loss of local and expat colleagues were just some of the issues Fearon coped with.
Here she is writing about the dangers of flying in helicopters after a near-accident in one. “Of all the things we do, the highest risk venture is not the Taliban, or IED strikes, or SIEDs (suicide improvised explosive devices). No, the biggest risk is flight. Actual real, elevated, in the air flight as opposed toâ€¦an exploding donkey, say. The biggest risk we face is flying in these wondrous mechanical birds.”
Throughout Fearon’s narrative, which appears to derive from journal entries, her humor shines through, whether she’s writing about visiting District offices, negotiating with Elders, working with U.S. Marines, or observing elections. “The bazaar is like a huge open air department store â€“ as if Ikea had no roof and sold fruit and livestock,” she quips. Or, when trying to negotiate with Elders for female representation on a local governing committee: “They don’t see any issues with the exclusively male Elders making decisions on cases for women. They laugh at my suggestion that women might not be satisfied with that situation, but it is not a cruel laugh. It is a ‘she can’t help it if she’s from another planet’ sympathy laugh.”
Indeed, Fearon’s entries about gender are among her most stirring. Her portrait of brave, playful women whose ingenuity keeps them functioning in a gender apartheid country is reminiscent of Gayle T. Lemmons compelling account of Afghani women in The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to keep them Safe.
Visiting a women’s prison, Fearon describes a dismal scene in which women, some with children, huddle together against a prison wall. One woman has murdered her husband, another is worried about maintaining her land rights while she is imprisoned, yet another is there because she fell in love with someone her parents didn’t want her to marry and ran away. “I don’t know what to do, how to act,” Fearon laments. She and a colleague give the women, who remove their burkas in the absence of the male translator, gifts of soap and other sundries. Then the translator returns and “the curtain comes crashing down” [as burkas are replaced]. “I no longer see anything but the blobs again. The worst thing is, I realize, that even though I’ve just seen them, communicated with them with crude sign language, I can’t visualize any of their features individually. They are to me now incipient women, inchoate â€“ like grotesque full-size fetuses.”
One of the more entertaining chapters, “There Are No Lesbians in Afghanistan,” recounts in “a sort of play” a meeting Fearon has with a judge, a prosecutor and some councilors, all of whom think because she is nearly forty, single (and straight) that she is an aberration. They grill her about western sexual mores and reveal that they watch porn. They also want to know how lesbians “do it” while swearing that “there are no lesbians in Afghanistan.”
Fearon’s sensitivity to the culture that hosts her is clear and universal. She introduces readers to kind, good men as well as feisty, brave women. One of them is a young man who bemoans the fact that his mother will determine whom he marries. “I won’t know her, won’t have anything in common with her! What’s that going to do for our future relationship? What good is that for our children? There is a darkness here.” An older man, a provincial officer, offers this reflection: “These men, they treat women like animals; no they treat their goats and camels better than they treat their women! It is very sad. It is a blight on our society. That needs to change.”
But change comes painfully slowly in a country mired in history, culture, geography, religious fanaticism, and a dominant gender. Rewards emanating from difficult, skilled negotiation and assistance are small and slow in coming. “And so it goes on: we make progress, we regress. We go forward, we go backward. It is as inexorable as the way that waves come and go at the ocean’s edge.”
In the end, however, Fearon makes a case for continued support in Afghanistan. “There are signs that things are pointed in the right direction,” she says. And providing a sense of security is paramount in her mind as the Afghans crawl toward autonomous governance. Without that security boost, “the Taliban will surely exploit that absence and return.” That would be a tragedy not only for the Afghan people, but for all those expats like Kate Fearon who gave so much in the hope and belief that a beleaguered country could ultimately find its way to self-sufficiency and good governance.
Elayne Clift, a writer, lecturer and gender specialist, has worked in all regions of the world. She is the author of ACHAN: A Year of Teaching in Thailand (Bangkok Books) and other works (www.elayneclift.com). She lives in Saxtons River, Vermont.