Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chapter 3: Tree Without Leaves (2/6)

“A friend?  Sounds interesting.”  Rachel just smiled and shook her head, trying her best not to let Carol’s flirtatious tone annoy her.

“You’ve been holding out on me, missy!  I knew there was someone.  I’ll need the juicy details!  You know...for the book.”  Carol was referring to a long-running inside joke.  She thought Rachel had an interesting life story and kidded her about being the ghost writer for her best-selling memoir.  She also complained about needing more drama and scandal to write about.  Did she have it now?

“Is he Jewish?”  Carol smiled widely and with guilty pleasure.  The two had talked only yesterday about the difference between Jewish and gentile guys on a date, mostly at Carol’s instigation and on the basis of a fling she had with a project manager, Benjamin, who coordinated a relief kitchen with her in the West Bank of Israel a few years ago.

“I’m sorry, Rachel, I shouldn’t pry, right?” Carol halfheartedly apologized.

“Carol!  McKelway?  Does that sound Jewish to you?  How many Jews wear kilts?”  Rachel couldn't resist a gibe, even if humor might open the floodgate to a conversation she didn't necessarily want to have.

“Kilt?  Hmm...  Now you're talking.  I could go for a man in a kilt!  After all, need I remind you?” Carol posed like a Greek statute and batted her eyes.  “I am a Celtic goddess.”  Rachel, with a look of disapproval, placed her hands on her hips.  “Okay,” Carol shrugged with a roguish grin, “maybe I'm just the red-headed stepchild.  But I am sorry to be so nosy; it’s just my nature.  I can’t help it, you know?”

“That’s okay.  There’s a story to tell, I suppose.  I mean, about Kam and me, and I need to process some things...well, I don't know, I'll read this later.”  Rachel had decided at that moment that she'd sit down with the letter and a tumbler of chamomile tea during her quiet time in the late evening hours.

“Of course.”  Carol seemed as if she would respect Rachel’s reticence to speak about a past relationship.  Yet she made one more attempt at opening up the conversation, no doubt with the self-delusion that talking about it would be therapeutic for Rachel, most certainly not with the need to satisfy Carol's admitted “nosy nature.”  “So you called him Kam?”

Rachel would throw out a few morsels to satisfy her.  “He was an Army officer—well, more than that.  I met him almost three years ago here in Afghanistan.  I had to break it off.”

Was an officer?”

“Oh!  He’s not dead or anything like that.  He’s no longer in the Army, but beyond that I don’t know much.”

“I see.”

“It’s in the past.  Anyway...”

“It’s okay, honey.  That’s the way it goes.”  A moment of silence elapsed.  “Men!  Arrgh.  Right?”

Rachel nodded her head politely.  “Yeah.”

When it came to the ways of love, Rachel did not look to Carol as a confidant or role model.  The veteran relief organizer was a professional, even a workaholic, one of those restless individuals with a conscience-driven calling who had dedicated her life to humanitarian relief.  She had served in the Peace Corps and as a field manager for relief organizations in war zones on three different continents.  But as her time in the West Bank suggests, she wasn’t exactly a Mother Theresa; to the contrary, she had gained a reputation as a party girl back in the day.  Rachel had heard these rumors but, with Carol pushing forty-three, those days seemed to be behind her.  She had apparently been married for many years, and once in a while Rachel would hear her make reference to Charlie back in San Diego.  She once asked about Charlie but didn’t get a solid answer.  This was one of those strange open marriages, she surmised.

At about the time Rachel arrived at the orphanage, Carol was involved with a married man, the commander of the Zormat PRT, a Lieutenant Colonel Matt Johnson of the Florida National Guard.  It had culminated in a trip to Doha, Qatar for a week of shopping at the mall, boating on a shiek’s private beachside residence, and love-making marathons that Rachel didn't care to know about.

Carol needed someone to talk to about it, so she confided in Rachel, her new colleague.  Rachel was no prude and had experimented with her sexuality in college, but she certainly didn’t want to hear the details, not all the details anyway.  She would never tell Carol that her recounting of their “wolf and bunny” foreplay violated the need-to-know rule.

She had wondered whether additional duties that the team had taken on at the PRT were merely excuses for trysts between Carol and Matt.  For instance, Carol arranged for the girls a visit for medical checkups and counseling with military professionals on a fairly regular basis, though it was unnecessary, considering the scheduled visits from physicians representing the Afghan government, let alone the danger of making such trips.

Rachel also worried Carol would repeat the same transgression with the incoming commander, Lieutenant Colonel Robinson, until she found out he was African American.  Rachel had heard Carol utter enough racist comments over the past few months to know this wouldn’t happen.

Rachel admired Carol’s seasoned experience—her experience outside the bedroom, that is. She would watch Carol’s interaction with the local authorities outside the wire or the day laborers inside the compound, the way she came across deferential and even self-consciously coy at times, but still resolute and authoritative.  Her concern for the children’s welfare was beyond question.  Yet the more Rachel found out about Carol, the more she felt guilt for increasingly thinking of the woman with her weird uncle’s refrain in mind.  Whenever Uncle Jake disapproved of something—the way a mother raised her children, say, or a neighbor's performance at her piano recital—he would drudge up the thickest Yiddish accent and make the unsolicited comment, “That’s not bad. In fact, it’s pretty good.”  Then, inevitably the phrase would follow: “for goyim!”

Rachel knew herself to be a hopeless romantic, and though she never cared for a life like her brother’s, one that yielded a string of linear successes at the expense of such stress, she nonethless hated herself for following her heart into painful situations that only made her feel foolish, as if she continually regarded bad relationships above her mental health and self-esteem.  She missed her family and now wanted her own, but years of escapades across the globe to help the downtrodden and the sick, as fulfilling as humanitarian work could be, still led her to believe she deserved her fate as a seemingly forlorn soul.

Yet she wasn’t by any means a traditionalist, and she hadn't made up her mind about marriage.  Her parents bickered constantly and almost got a divorce, about the time her mom stopped going to temple after Neil’s death.  Rachel looked at Ed with his forty years of marriage behind him and Carol with her promiscuity; she didn’t know what she wanted in life.  Was she destined to live a celibate life?  Did she really want love in her life?  On the latter query, her mind suggested the cons, while her heart clung to the pros.

“When are we getting the prosthetics and the schoolbooks?” she asked, a poorly disguised effort to deflect attention from Kam and the letter.

“You know how USAID is,” Carol responded.  “Not likely.  We're small beans.  Sandy’s working on it.”

Sandy Lauersdorf, a former documentary filmmaker, and her husband Trent were the founders and CEOs of The Kendra Group (TKG), a San Diego-based company they named after their only daughter.  As a contractor with the United States Agency for International Development for many years, TKG specialized in community improvement through education, health, and conflict-resolution, efforts that affected mostly the lives of women and girls.

An inside joke, Rachel and Carol sometimes referred to Sandy as “Tammy Faye,” the flamboyant wife of disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, on account of her fake orange tan, heavy makeup, and boob job.  Despite their misgivings about Sandy’s appearance and flashy style (not unlike Carol’s, Rachel sometimes thought to herself), they knew she and her husband had a heart of gold; those who worked in the Lauersdorfs’ organization respected their commitment to the poor and suffering in destitute regions of the world.

Thanks to the backing of wealthy patrons and high-profile spokespersons—including a handful of Hollywood actors and directors—the Lauersdorfs secured a 12-month, $29-million contract to help improve the lives of women in Eastern Afghanistan.  As an offshoot of this general mandate, the company’s regional staff in Kabul proposed an aid program specifically designed to help orphans in the Paktia and Khost provinces.

The Fourth Surah Project, so named after the passages of the Qur’an touching upon the care of orphans, had quickly become the jewel in TKG’s relief missions (and the only one outside of sub-Saharan Africa).  The Paktia orphanage served as TKG’s Eastern Afghanistan headquarters, which to Rachel, Carol, and Farid Gul, the orphanage director, seemed like a joke, considering the lack of resources, remote location, and poor internet reception.

In keeping with the relief organization’s commitment to “empower locals to take ownership of their own development and future,” as the YouTube promotion video has it, TKG was to mark a significant improvement over corrupt and inefficient contractors in previous years.   The Fourth Surah Project managed to produce results and ostensibly promoted an accountability and quality assurance system.  Moreover, according to the mandate, the Lauersdorfs and the board of directors promised to fill at least 40% of their staff positions with local nationals.

In addition to her duties at the orphanage, Rachel coordinated an outreach program with women in the surrounding area, facilitated in large part by the U.S. military’s Provincial Reconstruction Team in Zormat, Paktia, whose budget dwarfed TKG’s considerably.  TKG staff, from the Lauersdorfs on down, worried about the close association between the military and their relief work, but they relied on the PRT for security and logistical support.  The U.S. and NATO recently amped up security measures after a series of assaults.  Striking too close to home, the Taliban had rocketed Camp Salerno in the neighboring province, killing five contractors and two U.S. soldiers.

The attack sparked an ongoing discussion between Rachel and Juan Nuñez, a TKG logistician who in keeping with his contract paid a quarterly visit to the compound.  The Barcelonian never minced words when the topic was the United States, a “power hungry monster.”  Whenever he said those words, in his thick Catalan tongue, Rachel would conjure up a frightening Goya painting she once critiqued for a college paper.

“Don’t you think that embedding journalists in military units and providing military escorts for relief workers compromises our role as humanitarians?  Come now!  Military planes dropping food packets one minute and daisy cutter bombs the next?”

Rachel, a proud left coast liberal to the core, didn’t like being put in the role of America’s defender, let alone having to deal with Juan’s ranting.  She hated to admit it, but Kam’s view about America's role in the world had taken root inside her.  “I don't disagree with you, Juan, but at the same time we need protection, right?”

“Yes, sure, but I don't think Uncle Sam is the answer.”  Suddenly self-conscious, Juan would often end his diatribe with a dubious distinction between the U.S. government and the U.S. people.  Rachel often made the same distinction, but she felt that Juan was rather disingenuous about it.

What they could both agree on is that the new security measures had put a severe strain on the budget.  Corruption and incompetence had forced TKG’s orphan project to undergo major cuts.  A USAID contractor working in Nigeria had bilked millions from U.S. taxpayers.  Out of a $2 billion aid package to rebuild homes and restore hope only an estimated 8% of the funds went for relief; the rest ended up in the pockets of relief workers and corrupt bureaucrats who built palatial estates along the Mediterranean and at Cape TownConsequently, all USAID contractors had to accommodate a special auditor task force.  Carol was in charge of the books, so she was getting ready for the inspectors’ long-awaited arrival.  A lot of money was riding on this visit, and “Tammy Faye,” from her home in Virginia, had been holding a video teleconference with her about the current budget crisis on a weekly basis.

Mealtime at the orphanage, dinner in particular, was usually a joyous occasion.  Both local authorities and the international community had made their contributions.  The girls sat at three long wooden tables inside the “dining hall,” a prefabricated module donated by a company based in Salt Lake City, Utah.  Local carpenters, under the scrupulous direction of the local tribal chief, handcrafted the furniture.  The building, state of the art with modern fixtures and central heating—a vast improvement over anything in the compound—was a funding coup for Carol, who worked hard to improve living conditions.  (Upon her arrival to the place three years ago, she referred to the grounds on which the orphanage sat as a “medieval” fortress, only to discover from the locals that the site had in fact served as a military outpost throughout the long, mercurial centuries of Eastern Afghanistan.)  A joint team of South Korean engineers and Navy Seabees flew in from Bagram Airbase to put the building components together.

The meals were largely Afghan cuisine, though other entrées might be added to the menu.  Carol would serve up her special recipe of avocado-laden “Californian” burgers on occasion, forcing Rachel, a vegetarian, to find a dish that could work for her.  Usually there were plenty of options to chose from.  Tonight’s menu included lamb kebab with naan, rice pilaf, yogurt, a pasta dish called khameerbob, the usual assortment of nuts and grapes, and of course Mina’s special dessert.

With dinner finished, the girls had a 45-minute class instruction in English before they prepared for bed.   The classroom was less accommodating than the dining facility.  Its stone walls, bullet-ridden on the outside, became unbearably cold during the winter but was a favored refuge from the heat in the summertime.  When Rachel walked into the classroom, a ten-year old girl with a prosthetic arm was copying a sentence from a grammar book onto the chalkboard.  Above her, President Hamid Karzai in a framed photo was smiling in his trademark green and blue chapan and karakul hat.

The teacher, a young local woman named Zuhra Saddiqi, called the class to attention.  The girls scrambled to their desks. Rachel didn’t intend to disturb their instruction, but her presence in the classroom was usually the occasion for a demonstration of their English skills.

“Who can greet Ms. Davison in English?”  Silence.  “Who can speak to her in a few English words?”  A few hands went up.  Roya, sitting in the back corner, timidly rose from her chair.  “Yes, Roya.”

The eldest in the class at 13, Roya was only three years old when the Taliban fell from power.  The religious police, also known as the Ministry for the Promotion of Vice and the Extermination of Sin, had seized her father, beat him with cables, and cut off his hand for alleged thievery in accordance with Sharia law.  They charged him with stealing shoes from a merchant, but, as Roya’s uncle told the orphanage when he dumped her on their front doorstep years later,  a neighbor who coveted his house falsely accused the girl’s father.  Tragically, without his right hand and suffering additional injuries from the police, he couldn’t continue his work as a carpenter.  After his early death from heart trauma—he was a broken man—a Taliban judge charged his pregnant wife with sorcery and had her beheaded at the soccer stadium before a jeering fear-struck crowd.  Added to all of this family’s woes was Roya’s physical impairment; she was born with a deformed leg from malnutrition.  No one wanted her.  The Taliban pressured her uncle to look after her, but he got rid of her less than a week after the Northern Alliance took Kabul.

She proudly approached the board, picked up a piece of chalk, and wrote four characters: MINE.  Her classmates giggled, as they all knew it was a dangerous word.

“Good job!” Rachel praised Roya, more for taking initiative at the board than for word choice.  How could she not know that word? she thought to herself.  It appeared in bold letters on red triangles affixed to a wire fence that surrounds the compound.  A number of children at the orphanage and in the region were missing their limbs, having fallen victim to the ubiqitious mines in the area.

At dusk, Rachel took a stroll around the compound, as she was wont to do, in search of satellite reception.  Provided that she stay on the path and in sight of the Lispee guards watching the perimeter, it was safe.  She had a favorite spot where she would take photos of the sunset and sometimes write a letter, as well as talk to her mother and sister-in-law.  The sad plight of Roya had filled her mind the previous evening.  Now she had Kameron’s letter to contend with.  She had been thinking about him all afternoon; in a way, she had never stopped thinking about him.

“I’ll be back in a few, Carol!”

“Lion King?”  Carol glanced her a knowing look.  She was referring to a crag that juts out from the ridge above the compound.  The site struck them both as a mini version of the mountaintop lair in the Disney film.  Carol had forced her to have some quiet time to herself on a regular basis.

Early October had already brought a nip in the night air, so Rachel went to her room and grabbed her patu shawl lying on the bed.  She also brought along her camera to take a picture of what promised to be yet another amazing sunset: a pinkish-orange sky above the dark looming foreground of the Hindu Kush.

Underneath her bed, tucked away inside Rachel’s travel bag, is a silver locket with a Star of David engraved in gold on the back.  It contains a photo of her grandmother, or bubby, Rahel Rozenstein née Gertman, a Holocaust survivor.  Throughout her childhood Rachel didn't know any of the details about Bubby’s past, only the broad brushstrokesHitler, Germany, hostile neighbors, theft, betrayal, cold eyes, cattle cars, death camps, dead relatives, and bubby—repeated often enough in hushed tones at family gatherings.  Unlike the Silversteins, Rachel’s parents firmly believed that such conversation topics gave Hitler a posthumous victory.

Rachel would discover that relatives on her mother’s side had perished in the death factories of Poland, including her grandmother’s father, mother, and two older brothers.  The dark eyebrows and kindhearted yet enigmatic smile of her granduncle, Zygmunt Gertman, peering like a haunted ghost out of a framed black and white photo hanging on Bubby’s guest bedroom and forever frozen in his youth for posterity, frightened Rachel as a child, that is, until she learned the story behind the face.  Zygmunt was a promising architectural student at the university.  Before fate had separated them, he had always protected his little sister Rahel; even in the darkest days he managed to secure for her a piece of chocolate.

As a child Rachel instinctively knew that Bubby Rahel had deep secrets like these she wanted to share with her granddaughter.  Not until the night before her bat mitzvah, however, when Rahel gave the young teen the Star of David locket, did she tell her story.

Our people have this terrible burden we must live with, you know,” she told her.

“I know, bubby.”  Rachel had never seen her grandmother’s countenance turn so solemn.

“But we can gain strength from the past.  You’re a woman now, and I must tell you what happened.  You know bits and pieces, but you don’t know what I saw.  The Shoah is about an evil time, evil people—but it’s also about the goodness of some.  A time when even the smallest act of kindness, the simplest act, could cast a beam of light.”

“Yes, bubby.”

“You’re a brave and mature girl, my little einnikel.  I can’t explain why and how these things happened, but you must remember them.  We have the same eyes, and that’s why your mother named you after me.  So I know you’ll see the past as I do, and it will become ever more clear as you grow older.  Remember, this is a tale not just of death...but of hope.”

When the Wehrmacht invaded Poland in 1939, Rahel was 15 years old.  Coming from a middle-class Jewish family that had assimilated into the cultural milieu of Cracow, she experienced little anti-Semitism before the war, save one incident that she remembered.   Directors of the board had summarily dismissed her uncle Isaak as a viable candidate for conductor of the Cracow Conservatory.  He had been assured of the position until a rival with friends in the magistracy launched a vicious smear campaign.  Must the shtetl produce all of our musicians for a national conservatory!  The Gertmans in fact had never resided in the rural areas known collectively as the Pale of Settlement; rather, according to family records and a municipal registry, they moved from Brandenburg Prussia in the late 16th century to settle in Poland.  Such a proud history didn't matter.  Anti-Semites depicted Isaak and his family as filthy parasites from the East.  These hateful tactics shocked the family, but it was just the beginning.

Alarmed at the events unfolding, Rahel’s parents sent her and her younger sister to a Bais Yaakov school for girls in Kaunas, Lithuania, where a friend of the family taught the Talmud.  Naive beyond belief only in retrospect, they were hopeful that the Western democracies would work out a diplomatic solution and the Germans would be back over the border by December.  Rahel’s father, Shlomo Gertman, did not underestimate Hitler’s lust for conquest, but he just couldn’t entertain the notion of a Nazi-occupied Poland until it was a fait accompli.

Eventually her parents and grandparents were ordered to evacuate along with 60,000 Jews in Cracow in the spring of 1940.  After they registered their property, the Nazis and their Polish accomplices forced them into the labor camps set up in the outskirts of the city.  They debated whether they should arrange for the children to return, but after stories about the liquidation of ghettos began to circulate, they would keep the girls in place.  If anything, they were questioning their own fate in the labor camps.  While emigration might have been option earlierif only the Gertmans had had the money and connections!—the SS leadership would soon change its policy regarding the Jews: complete extermination.

Shlomo died as a laborer in a munitions factory.  He was lucky in a way, because he avoided the horror of seeing his wife and parents sent to the Belzec extermination center.  The SS murdered them only a few weeks before Germany’s surrender.

“I’m a survivor.”  Bubby Rahel uttered these words as if providing a coda to the drama of her early life that she had just laid out for her granddaughter.  Rachel discerned a mixture of sadness and satisfication in the old woman's voice.  “I was able to take a train to Russia and then China.”  Unfortunately Rahel’s sister, Gitele, with whom she had spent those last vexing months in hiding and trying to escape, died from pneumonia en route.  Looking at the bleak landscape of Siberia whiz by, it painfully dawned on her: she had no one.

As her grandmother spoke, Rachel saw less the wrinkled seventy-year-old sitting on the couch before her and more so a  pretty but scared teenage girl.  While no picture of her before her arrival in the U.S. has survived, Rachel had superimposed a couple of Polaroid photos of Bubby as a young housewife from the late Fifties onto the image of the young girl fleeing the Nazis.

“Finally, I made it to New York in 1948 when paperwork went through,” she continued.  “Some distant relatives agreed to sponsor me.”

How her grandmother found a new life in America was a story Rachel already knew as a child.  The kindness of strangers, the support of relatives, the struggle to learn English, weekend work as a clerk at Sears, Roebuck and Co., enrollment at the University of Maryland in her late twenties, involvement in a left wing newspaper. Rachel also heard from her mother how Bubby Rahel gradually fell in love with the rambunctious boy—Paul Rozenstein, Rachel’s grandfather—who had delivered the paper on Sundays, an affection that blossomed into courtship and marriage years later.  It was the quintessential American story, at least in the way her mom told it.

Now Rachel had the missing pieces of the puzzle, the story behind the story.  The whispers in the dark were out in the clear light of day. Rachel felt that her grandmother was liberated in confiding in her these things.  Among Bubby’s nine grandchildren, Rachel saw herself not only as the favored one but the one more burdened to carry on the torch somehow.  And as time went on, up until her death just over a year ago, Rahel would give her more details, sometimes unsolicited and sometimes at her granddaughter’s prompting.  These discussions were usually off the cuff: at the subway station, during a family retreat in Orlando, in a restaurant, at Uncle Jake’s, but mostly in the confines of her humble home.

Her grandmother had wanted her to become a doctor.  Rachel tried to please her, to fulfill Bubby’s vision of the future; but she didn’t make it through medical school, and her failure was a great source of guilt for her.  It was as if Rahel wanted to vindicate history through her progeny.  “We’ll show Hitler.  We will prevail.”

Years later, when Rachel was a junior in college visiting for a weekend, Bubby told her how exactly she escaped the Nazis.  The Talmudist took her and her sister to the Japanese consulate where, she remembers, a man with jet-black hair, almond-shaped eyes and a kindly face stamped their visas allowing them to leave Europe.  Bubby wanted to thank him but never got the chance.  Because of his act, she was able to take the Trans-Siberian Express to Vladivostok and thence to Shanghai.

It was no use putting it off any longer.  Rachel pulled out the letter from Kam, but it was getting dark on Lion King.  Carol and Ed had scolded her once for violating “light discipline,” which is to say using her flashlight.  “You never know who’s just outside the wire under cover of darkness, waiting to pick someone off,” he said.  She returned to her room to read it.