We went this past weekend to see Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, expecting to see some kind of zany comedy because Tina Fey has the starring role. It is not a comedy. It is not what I expected. And it surprised me in yet another way: It took me back three and a half years, when I was in Afghanistan, and it stopped my heart, and it made me cry. I had no idea I had been so profoundly affected by my time there. But apparently, I had been.
The (supposedly mostly true) story focuses on a journalistic desk jockey, Kim Barker, who takes a chance to travel to Afghanistan to be a war correspondent. The plot winds through Barker’s culture shock, her navigating her way around, and her eventual understanding that the rush of narrow escapes in war can be highly addictive. The movie has received mixed reviews, probably because many reviewers may have assumed what I did – it’s a comedy. Additionally, I’m guessing that most reviewers don’t have a clue that what they’re seeing about Afghan culture is real and, in some cases, stupefying.
The movie was filmed in New Mexico, and it mimics well the landscape of the places I saw in Afghanistan. Mostly dry desert, Kabul is surrounded by, according to http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/kabul-01-geography, the Hindu Kush mountain range, the peaks of which are usually dotted with snow; Kabul itself is at 8,000 feet elevation. The movie also depicts well the dirt “streets” of parts of Kabul, filled with pedestrians, goats, and Toyotas, as well as the houses stacked on the hillside, most of which have spotty, if any, electricity, and no heating system. Some have running water; some do not.
Kim finds herself living in the city in a dormitory of sorts, where all the journalists live, drink, party, and hook up, where bathrooms are shared and internet connections are intermittent. She meets her team, consisting of a cameraman, a personal security guard, and an Afghan translator, who is supposed to be her connection to finding stories and meeting people who make the stories. A typical Afghan man who was a doctor before he began working for the United States, the translator keeps his distance while helping her adjust to life in a truly foreign place.
Some of Kim’s story was totally different from mine. I lived in a barracks camp completely removed from the city, but not necessarily removed from the violence of the country; while I was there, at least one other barracks camp was bombed. Not too long before I arrived, another camp was bombed. In fact, as I was undergoing training – which in no way imaginable prepared me for what I was to see – a security guard took me under his wing, instructing me as to what to do. “I know you,” he said one day. “A bomb will go off, and you will see people hurt, and you will try to help. But what are you supposed to do? What must you do?”
“Walk the other way,” I said, looking directly at his face.
“Good girl. Walk the other way.”
Scenes such as that one flashed through my mind as I took in the things that were happening in front of me on the screen. One day, I met an appellate judge in his opulent, though garishly furnished, office; we had hot tea in glass mugs, just as Kim did when she met a member of the Afghan government. I covered my head, just as Kim did, when I went out from the camp. In Kabul, I went through steel doors when I left the compound, passing security guards holding AK47s at the ready; in Herat, I went through only one steel door, but we had to wind our way through concrete barriers to leave, while several security guards, all holding guns, watched from a high turret. Kim lived in the city, so her steel door wasn’t quite as massive, and the security guard with a gun was an old man. But when I saw her going through that door, I went right back to my own steel doors.
Even though our stories were tinged with similarities, much of what Kim went through was different from my experience; for instance, I had a “wet hooch” – quarters with a private bathroom. Had I landed a job at Bagram Air Force Base, I would have had a “dry hooch,” with a bathroom for all located at least 100 yards away. Fortunately, I didn’t land a job at Bagram. Unlike Kim, the most raucous behavior I engaged in was dancing the night away to Frank Sinatra and The Big Bopper with two of my co-workers, one of whom was leaving the next day, the other of whom might have been gay, and both of whom were great dancers. I know, however, that some of my other co-workers were a little more risqué in their behavior. One was arrested and jailed when he returned home to Scotland. It seems that he was more interested in child porn than in saving the Afghan justice system.
My translators in Herat were more progressive than most Afghan men; one even wanted his wife to learn to drive rather than relying on him to get her around the city. Whereas Kim’s translator would not let her hug him and attempted a human gesture only by allowing their hands to barely touch as he handed her suitcase to her, I breached all sorts of behavior rules by hugging every one of our translators as I left Herat to go to Kabul. In Kabul, however, I would never have even thought about hugging my co-workers. They did not invite such forward and intimate gestures, even though we had very good relationships.
Unlike Kim, thank goodness, I never saw combat or the effects of it. But I saw a life that seemed to exist not a half a world away from my home, but on another planet, where men and women could not hold hands in public lest people assumed they were preparing to have sex, where men and women could not attend a wedding in the same room, where alcohol is illegal, and where, in some provinces, women cannot appear in public if any portion of their bodies, even face or hands, is exposed. In that world, children and mothers with their children in tow beg in the dirt streets, cows and goats intermingle with traffic in the city. In that world, progress is stymied by a group of zealots who believe that blowing up ancient Buddha statues is preferable to seeing idols to another religion, who blow up roads to prevent anyone from mining natural minerals that might bring some form of prosperity to the area, who believe that the way to power is through fear.
The odd thing is that I wrote about all these things while I was there. I just went about my life every day doing what needed to be done, surviving in a culture that I didn’t understand. I assumed that I was just experiencing life in a different place, seeing that things are done differently in different places, bringing a different worldview to my family and friends who read about my adventures.
Now, however, three and a half years later, I go to a movie and see that more than my worldview has changed. My life has changed without my knowing it, and I am unable to ignore it.