Farishta is that rare novel that I sacrifice precious hours of sleep for. Its protagonist is an endearing woman whom I bonded with deeply, and the plot engaged me from the book’s opening paragraphs all the way to the bittersweet end. However, Farishta goes beyond good storytelling and that is why I am so keen to see it succeed.
Farishta provides an authentic account of the arduous situation that exists in Afghanistan, based on the author’s direct experience serving there as a U.S. diplomat in 2005. It is not subjective political commentary filled with cynicism and judgment. Rather, Farishta is an unfiltered lens through which we can honestly see what life is like for the citizens of Afghanistan, years after the events of September 11. It opened my eyes–eyes that admittedly gloss over newspaper articles about my country’s involvement in Afghanistan, not because I do not care, but because I cannot bear to look any longer. Farishta also provides unexpected hope and inspiration, because Ms. McArdle found a way to make a difference in Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world and she wrote Farishta to raise awareness of her new mission. This book is a gentle reminder that one human being can be a powerful force for good.
Angela Morgan is a 47-year old U.S. State Department employee who at one time had been a globetrotting up-and-comer but whose career and personal life has slowly sunk into a quicksand of mediocrity, for valid and tragic reasons. She has a rare ability with foreign languages and in 2005, she finds herself in Northern Afghanistan assigned as the U.S. diplomatic representative to a euphemistically named Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT), run by British forces. Her nebulous role involves observing Afghan interpreters (“terps”) to ensure they are accurately conveying information from local Afghan officials to PRT members. She is the only female and the only American working in a part of the world where women are considered little more than possessions and Americans are, for obvious reasons, not trusted.
We come to embrace Angela’s true depth of character as she navigates difficult cultural conditions to develop meaningful bonds with not only her British protectors but with local Afghans. Particularly poignant is the tender relationship she nurtures over time with Rahim, a young interpreter who comes to love her as a second mother, as well as Nilofar, the outspoken female law student whose courageous efforts on behalf of Afghan women and girls inspires Angela to take action and her own risks on their behalf.
As Angela travels from the PRT compound out into the villages, she sees that there is very little actual reconstruction under way. The basic needs of local citizens, such as electricity, food and water, and medical care, are in short supply. Bureaucracy impinges the efforts of the well-intentioned PRT personnel, and Afghan warlords rule their territories with frantic despotism. The days become an endless loop of unproductive meetings, hollow report filing, and intermittent violence.
Angela observes young children everywhere scavenging for twigs, brush, and cardboard to bring home to their mothers for cooking the family meals. She learns (therefore, we learn) that this is their daily routine. Wood for burning is in short supply in Afghanistan and there are no other fuel resources available for families to cook their meals. Formerly lush Afghan forests and fruit orchards have been stripped bare as families struggle to survive. The negative impact of this practice is multi-fold. Afghanistan’s fragile economy had been supported by the export of nuts and dried fruit but farmers have turned to planting opium poppy fields for Afghanistan’s only current export—opium paste. Additionally, the removal of vegetation around precious irrigation ditches is creating erosion that puts the few remaining viable farming areas at risk. Further, children are not receiving an education, and Afghan mothers breathe in toxic fumes daily as they cook with these fuel sources.
While out on a routine assignment in the oppressive heat, Angela faintly recalls an old Girl Scout science project that involved making a solar stove from cardboard, aluminum foil, and glass. This memory proves to be an epiphany for Angela. She commits herself to perfecting this simple technology and then to educating Afghan villagers about how to utilize it and the power of the sun for cooking. She leverages her diplomatic experience, the relationships she has cultivated in and out of the PRT, as well as newly found personal conviction to make solar cooking a reality. This wonderful plot transition makes for such a satisfying read!
Although Farishta is a work of fiction, the solar cooking subplot is portrayed almost exactly as it happened for Patricia McArdle during her tenure in Afghanistan. Since retiring from the U.S. State Department, she has devoted herself to advancing solar cooking in regions of the world where sun is plentiful, but poverty, war, and lack of infrastructure make cooking for one’s family a difficult act of survival. If more people become aware of this simple, sustainable technology, more will support its adoption around the globe because with awareness comes action! I am so grateful to have read Farishta and I want to spread the word to my own community about this wonderful work that goes beyond good storytelling.