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June 20, 2011

US Woman's Afghan Experience Inspires Novel

by Faiza Elmasry

Patricia McArdle incorporates real-life occurrences into fictional tale

"Farishta" means 'angel' in Dari, the widely spoken language in northern Afghanistan. It’s also the title of a novel by Patricia McArdle, a retired American diplomat who spent a year in Afghanistan.

Over her 27-year career as a U.S. diplomat, McArdle served in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe. But it was her last assignment in Afghanistan that inspired her to write about her experiences.

However, instead of a memoir, she opted to write a novel inspired by real people and events.

“I couldn’t really use their names without compromising their safety and the work they’re doing in Afghanistan," she says.

So she wrote a novel, hoping to convey the same message a memoir would.

"I created fictional characters that are composites of people I knew, the people I met. Some of the incidents are based on real incidents that happened to me. Others are incidents that happened to other people," says McArdle. "But I think I was able to be freer to express my opinions sometimes through the voices of my characters.”

"Farishta" tells a story of Angela Morgan, a mid-career diplomat who overcomes personal tragedy to discover a new life and new sense of purpose.

After losing her husband in a terrorist bombing in Beirut and dealing with post traumatic stress disorder, Morgan is forced to choose between early retirement or assignment to an isolated British army compound in northern Afghanistan.

At the small camp in Mazar-e-Sharif, she receives a cold welcome from the British soldiers and from Rahim, a young interpreter who makes it clear he is not pleased to be working for a woman.

“What I tried to capture in Rahim was this clash of cultures because he is an educated young man and he wants to be a modern person in the modern world, but he still has this male dominated culture that he has to struggle against," says McArdle. "So with his relationship with Angela, I tried to deal with it in that way. Then when he begins his romance with Nilofar, he is also dealing with a very Western but Afghan woman. And I hoped to portray the struggle that I saw some young men facing.”

Nilofar is a law student who embodies the struggle McArdle saw young Afghan women facing.

The author's first view of Afghan women, as she was driven in an armored convoy from the airport to the embassy in Kabul, was of them walking along the street in the blue burqas.

"But I began, after I was there for a while, to meet some women who were doing very brave things," she says. "I met women lawyers, doctors, who were trying to help other women in their society. And some of them were really taking great risks. And I was so impressed with what they were doing. I did see a lot of women going to school and I met school teachers, who were trying to educate women, which is very impressive.”

However, McArdle believes Afghan women still have a long way to go to improve their legal, economic and social status and to be part of their country’s future.

Several scenes in "Farishta" mirror McArdle’s experiences working with Afghan communities to improve their future.

In the novel, Angela notices that children spend their days gathering firewood for their mothers’ cookstoves. She shows them how to fashion a solar cooker, which is what McArdle once did, at a meeting with local officials in an Afghan village.

“I built a little solar cooker out of a cardboard box and aluminum foil. I set it up in a village, where we had a meeting. I poured a liter of water into a pot, put the cooker on the ground, pointed it at the sun and went on to the meeting. We were in a meeting with the district governor for about an hour. When we came out, the pot was boiling," she says.

Since returning from Afghanistan, McArdle has become an advocate of sustainable, renewable energy and a promoter of integrated solar thermal technology. She’s also joined Secretary of State Hilary Clinton’s new Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves initiative.

McArdle says these simple technologies should be embraced as Afghanistan rebuilds.

"It disappoints me that our construction is required to follow international building codes, so we’re bringing in cement and cinder blocks and putting up buildings that require generators to run ventilation systems because without those ventilation systems these buildings in the winter are too cold and in the summer are too hot. I would like to see us focus more on traditional Afghan building, helping them maybe make slight improvements. Let the Afghans use their own techniques to re-build their own country.”