Friday, May 6, 2011

Chapter 3: Tree Without Leaves (1/6)

October 2010

She ran as if her life depended upon it.  “Where are you, Najia?  I’ll find you!”  The little girl was darting in and out of earthen ruins the locals call kishmish khanahs, dwellings resembling over-sized sand castles and abandoned almost thirty years ago after Soviet MI-24 gunships made them inhabitable.  She lodged herself in a narrow indentation in the wall, though her bright red dress and pink headscarf seriously compromised her hiding place.

Pretending not to see Najia, the woman feigned playful frustration in her voice.  “Where did you go? I can’t find you.”  Najia was covering her mouth with her hand, trying without success not to giggle. “I’m going to get you, little one!” The soccer ball had landed somewhere behind the broken walls of the forlorn structure; the woman and the girl turned the search into a hide-and-seek game along the way.  “Come here, you!  And be careful!”

Sporting faded jeans, a peach-colored kameez, sport sandals, and a plain white baseball cap with a dark brown ponytail sticking out the back, Rachel seemed out of place, as if she were in America or maybe India, certainly not the heart of Pashtunistan; but the area was relatively secure, the U.S. military had a forward operating base nearby at Zormat, and she was always careful to throw a scarf on whenever she left the compound.  She grabbed the ball from its resting place in a tuft of tall grass.

“Watch me!” she called out to the girl.  Najia, dirt smudges on her cheeks, poked her head out.  Rachel dropkicked the ball back into the makeshift soccer field, more gravel than grass, startling a goat as it bounced off the rusting carcass of a Mercedes.  (The abandoned car had become the source of witty speculation, some quipping that a German businessman got dreadfully lost on his way to Frankfurt and others saying the Soviets airdropped the vehicle as a gift to the communist regime in the 1970s.)  Pre-pubescent Afghan girls shot after the ball as it rolled just left of the goalpost.

“Come, Najia. Let’s show those boys how to play the game,” she encouraged the child, now exchanging English for pidgin Pashto.  Najia bounded down the slope, hopping like a rabbit once she got to the field.  Rachel took this silly behavior as a sign of contentment and felt a degree of self-satisfaction.  Maybe we are making a difference If only Bubby could see me now, she thought.

Her niece also came to mind at this moment.  During a two-week leave from her work in Afghanistan almost six months ago, Rachel took her to the mall while her brother and sister-in-law got caught up on their taxes.  The sight of Kaitlin skipping to Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream shop, her arms flaying and humming some unintelligible song, was the only positive memory etched in her mind from the trip.

“Are you a butterfly?”  Rachel laughed when Kaitlin, upon hearing the question, started to flap her arms more vigorously and hum even louder.

She had visited her brother Barry and his family in Ohio back in April, four months into her current relief project.   She found Columbus intolerable, a hole in the wall, and was peeved at Barry more generally for turning the once-cohesive Davison household—or so was her childhood recollection of it—into a far-flung, distant family of disparate parts, gradually loosing touch, and scattered across the globe.  She didn’t want to be like the Silversteins, neighborhood friends of the Davisons, who now had family in Baltimore, D. C., Buffalo, and Tampa Bay; they were always leaving for a family visit, Mrs. Silverstein never looking content and Mr. Silverstein always complaining about Mrs. Silverstein.

Barry was of course quick to point out his sister’s hypocrisy.  Rachel had spent years living abroad working with the Red Cross and other humanitarian organizations. So who’s the homewrecker here?  If you come back to Baltimore, he would tell her, we’ll pack our bags and meet you there.  Rachel knew the former would never happen and the latter was an empty promise.

She was the polar opposite of her younger brother, who dutifully married a Jewish girl and moved to the Midwest to advance his career.  When she thought of him, she would inevitably conjure up those images of him burrowed in his legal books or impressing mom’s coffee friends with his maturity and vocabulary.  Rachel was now 32 years old, alone and unfulfilled, wondering if she had chosen the right path in life.

Before she trudged back down the hill, Rachel looked across the wind-swept plain below and saw a Jeep approaching the orphanage, lurching along the rock-bestrewn road and spitting out dust clouds into the sunny, opalescent sky.  “Let’s finish up soon.  We got a special treat for dinner,” she told the children.  “And don’t forget you have English class tonight.” The girls received a modicum of instruction in English and computers a few evenings a week, electives added to the basic school curriculum.

Some older boys stood in the field nearby gawking at the orphan girls playing soccer.  Twelve-year-old Ahmed, eager to show his strength and disdain for girls, was the culprit who had sent the ball flying into the grass.  Two elderly men were building a stone well not far from the soccer field; as if looking through time-lapse photography, Rachel could easily imagine those pesky boys engaged in the same activity in forty years.  Commitment to their work and their cigarettes kept the men oblivious to the boisterous children stomping up dust and calling each other names.

“Is that for me?”  One of the girls, Mahsa, held out two saffron flowers tied together with kite string.  The child usually kept to herself.  Rachel couldn’t figure out whether she was quiet and withdrawn by nature or had experienced some trauma in her short life.  Based on her Mongoloid facial features, Rachel knew Mahsa was a Hazara, an ethnic group universally despised in Afghanistan, and she was self-conscious of her cleft palate.  A tribal elder scooped her up off a street corner in Gardez, according to an old woman who brought the abandoned toddler to the orphanage.  They knew nothing about the little girl.

“Thank you, sweetheart.  It’s pretty. Just like you.”  Rachel was still keeping an eye on the Jeep as the sentries waved the driver into the gate.   She didn’t recognize the vehicle.  A U.S. Army detachment usually brought packages in their loud, up-armored Humvees, or in some cases orphanage staff would have to pick up the delivery in Zormat.

“Mina!”  Rachel called over to a young Afghan woman, Mina Fahim, who was a stone’s throw away from the soccer field and talking to a kindly man in his sixties about her plans to visit the United States someday—a country, the man deduced, that she equated with the city of Baltimore and the D.C. area.

Ed Shackleford, an engineer and retired U.S. Army sergeant from West Texas, served as the project's “watsan,” which means he was responsible for providing fresh water and securing a reliable sanitation system.  Perennially in boots and overalls, he had been studying the compound’s drainage system, or lack thereof.

“Let’s get them ready for dinner preparation,” Rachel said.  The girls would be involved in making the meals: from baking naan, or Afghan flatbread, in a clay oven with the help of a local baker to setting the tableware.

“Come girls!  We’re going to teach you how to make a special dessert.”  Mina spoke in the children’s native language, Pashto, and looked at Rachel for confirmation of the afternoon agenda.  She was walking toward the girls to help them corral soccer balls and stuff them into fluorescent orange mesh bags.

Rachel nodded in approval, as she could understand bits and pieces.  “Yes, it’s a rice pudding with pistachio and a Tajik twist from Ms. Fahim’s special recipe.”  Mina shot her a look of appreciation.

An ethnic Tajik who spoke Dari, Pashto, and Urdu with equal facility, Mina officially served foreign aid workers as an interpreter, but because the orphanage was short-staffed she helped out in a variety of ways; and Rachel, in charge of payroll distribution, made sure she got paid almost as much as Western relief workers performing lesser roles.  Mina enjoyed Rachel’s company and the feeling was mutual, even if—or probably because—they came from different worlds.  Born and raised in Kabul long before the Taliban took over, Mina was a libertine by Afghan standards; that is to say, she spoke English, didn’t wear a burqa, got some schooling, and—worst of all—went from point A to point B unaccompanied by a male escort.  Still, compared to the East Coast savvy Rachel, a secular Jewess, Mina seemed as conservative as a Mennonite.

For her part, Rachel, saw herself as much a humanitarian as a feminist, two inseparable terms in her mind.  But she was not one to divorce ideology from reality.  She would challenge Mina to break out of her patriarchal confines, yet not at the expense of complete cultural dislocation.  This was a lesson she learned the hard way after years of experience in the field.  Rachel saw herself as more deeply concerned than her colleagues about becoming pawns of American cultural imperialism; at the same time, she recognized a certain inevitability given the English classes and Western-style home economics lessons the girls received at an American-funded orphanage.

“You got Mina here thinking that Baltimore is the be-all, end-all American experience,” said Ed, without lifting his gaze from a corroded lead pipe sticking out of a ditch.  “Baltimore?  What are you teaching this poor girl?  How about Los Angeles or New York or Miami?”  He turned to Rachel.  “Heck, forget the cities.  Why don’t you tell her about Yosemite, the Grand Canyon…uh…Mount Rushmore?  I don’t know about you, ma’am.”  Though twice her age, Ed referred to Rachel with the polite address.  Rachel didn't like being called a “ma'am,”  but she put up with it, figuring Ed was forever subject to his Texas upbringing and dogged military bearing.

He smiled and shook his head exaggeratedly.  “I just don’t know.  What do you think, Mina?  Is she doing America justice?”  It had taken her months, but by now Mina had grown accustomed to Ed’s jocular disposition.  She chuckled politely.  Mr. Shackleford, you’re too much.

“Guilty as charged, Ed!” Rachel responded.  “I guess I keep bringing up my own experience whenever she asks about life in America.  Sue me.”  A mischievous grin came over her face. “At least she’s getting well-grounded in the only part of the States that really matters—the East Coast, I mean.”

“Yes, Ms. Davison, I know what you mean.  Whatever you say.” 

“With the possible exception of the Great State of Texas of course.”

“No, Ms. Davison.  The damage is already done.”Rachel always enjoyed the repartee with Ed, who had assumed the role of surrogate uncle over the past year.  “Ed?  Who’s in the Jeep?  Is that the mail delivery today?”

“Ha!  We’ll make a soldier out of you yet, ma’am.”  Ed cleared his throat.  “It’s all about mail call and chow time.  Everything in between is, well, in-between stuff.”

“Yeah, well, I’m all about chow time too.  This girl loves to eat.”

“Give me a break! My old lady—God rest her soul—would say you need meat on them bones.  She’d fatten you up real healthy and all with her chicken macaroni casserole.”

“Chicken macaroni casserole?  That sounds really good right now.”

“If you ask me, you should make a visit to the Dairy Queen they have there at the PRT.  Just pop in there every time you make one of your health visitations.”  On Tuesdays and Saturdays Rachel and Mina visited women in the villages near the Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) at Zormat to provide basic healthcare and, as Rachel characterized it, “cross-cultural healing.”  NATO and the U.S. had established PRTs throughout Afghanistan; they consisted of military and civilian personnel to help local governments sustain themselves in a post-Taliban environment.

“DQ, huh?  You were quite the charmer with the ladies back in the day!”

“Just with one,” said Ed with a wistful tone, “the one that counted.  But as far as the visitor goes, I don’t know who that is.  Maybe it’s the auditor we’ve been expecting.   You got me all curious now.   It could be Pete’s bosses, the security assessment team from Gardez.”

Pete Ledbury, a portly fellow from Western Australia, was the security consultant for the UK-based Lighthorse Security, Protection and Investigations, more commonly referred to as Lispee, and ran the compound’s security detail.   The British-owned company outfitted their Afghan guards with jumpsuits of different colors—navy blue, dark brown, charcoal grey.  Rachel could never determine a rhyme or reason for the color-code, and Pete didn’t enlighten her when she asked about it.  He assured everyone, though, that they underwent a rigorous three-week program at a training center in Kabul, though Rachel had her suspicions.  Because of recent attacks in the area, U.S. and NATO authorities required NGOs to beef up their security.

“Give me a holler if there’s a meeting I should be attending.”  Ed with a tape measure in hand trailed off down the soccer field toward the men working on the well.

“I’ll have the children get their linen first since we’re a bit early for kitchen time,” said Mina.

“Good thinking, Mina,” responded Rachel.  Mahsa tugged on Rachel’s kameez with another bouquet to offer.  Rachel locked onto her dark green eyes, but discerned few clues to the girl’s inner state other than Rachel’s own spiritual hunger mirrored back to her.   She turned to Mina.  “Little Mahsa is going to be a florist, I think.”

“Mashallah!” The woman responded.

Five minutes later Rachel was walking into the office module located next to the orphanage dining facility.  Two local Pashtun women, in their early twenties like Mina but clearly more conservative and timid in demeanor, were sitting at an old mahogany desk going through paper work.  It was clear from the way they sat on the chairs that they had never worked in an office before; still, they had come a long way in the last few weeks.  Rachel hired them on a whim, to fill the staff with more Afghans, but she started to have her doubts about these two when they behaved rudely around girls from other tribes or clans.  Before Rachel could give them a few tips on Microsoft Excel—as part of a daily on-the-job training they looked forward to every afternoon—a red-haired, big-boned woman approached her with two envelopes.

“Who paid us a visit, Carol?” Rachel asked her.  “Are they our escort for the follow-up Hepatitis B shots in Qalabeh?”

“No.  That’s Tuesday, remember?”  Carol handed the mail to Rachel.  “And by the way, before I forget, the doctors from Gardez are coming on Thursday for dental and eye exams.  Rachel, look at the letter.”  Carol prided herself on her Southern California roots and West Coast sensibility, even if Rachel, during her mood swings, saw a woman long past her prime given to superficial behavior.

“Oh, duh!  It’s from Operation Afghanistan in Kabul.  Okay. It’s about the forensic investigation that’s supposed to happen in a few weeks.”  Internet connection in the area was always hit and miss and Rachel knew that Operation Afghanistan would not contact her with a satellite phone.  She had been expecting an envelope for the past week, a confirmation of her new job that a vague e-mail sent from the organization’s headquarters had hinted at.  “You think they’re interested in the application I sent?  I have no experience in forensic work.”

“Open it up and find out, silly! Geez.”

“You’re okay with this? I mean…”

“Rachel, I was the one who brought the position to your attention!  USAID is cutting our funding drastically after this fiscal year.  Our project is coming to an end. Most of us will be returning to the States by Christmas, and there are no replacements in sight.  You said you wanted to find a way to continue working with the local women.  Well, this seems like an opportunity.”

“Really?  They must be hard up for people!”

Carol laughed disapprovingly. “Come now. You have a medical background. You know the area.  You’re female.  What more do they want?  Isn’t that what they want?”

“More or less, but I just don’t know if I want to do this.”

“Come now, Rach.  Do you need a smack?”

Just as Rachel was tearing off the flap from the 9” x 12” envelope, Carol asked, “Who’s Kameron?”

“What?”  Rachel was utterly taken aback with the mention of that name.  She didn’t see that coming.

“You have another letter there.”

With her focus on the prospect of getting into a new line of work—one that involved talking to Afghan families about the remains of their murdered loved ones—Rachel hadn’t really noticed that her fingers were pressing a smaller envelope underneath the Operation Afghanistan packet. “So I do.”  She looked at the return address on the smaller envelope: Dr. Kameron J. McKelway, Field Officer and Consultant, War Crimes Watch, Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, APO AE 09354.

There was nothing in the address that would indicate a love interest, but Carol had a keen nose for sexual liaisons, affairs, and relationships gone bad.  Besides, she discerned in Rachel's eyes both regret and longing.  “Is he the one…” Carol began.

Rachel cut her off.  “He’s just an old friend.”  She didn't want to talk about it.

Thoughts went through her mind.  He’s in Afghanistan again?  War Crimes Watch?  What is he doing here?  She had opened up a bit with Carol over the past few months about family, career goals, even some personal struggles in her life, but not about Kam—nor about her older brother Neil who committed suicide when she was nine years old.