THE SUV ZOOMED AWAY FROM the Serena Hotel in Kabul as if in the middle of a chase scene. A decoy SUV and a taxi followed close behind as camouflage. We raced past cars, fruit stands, vegetable shops, and pedestrians, leaving a thick trail of dust behind.
In the front sat our Afghan driver and an Australian friend and customer, Jane, who worked for a private security agency. Calamity Jane, I thought, as I watched her chug the vodka she had neatly concealed in a water bottle, and as I saw her repeatedly checking the safety on her semiautomatic gun. This girl was locked and loaded and all business. In the back with me was my twenty-six-year-old son, Noah. We had just returned to Kabul together, two days earlier. My younger son, Zachary, was scheduled to fly in from Northern Cyprus, where he had been studying at Girne American University. It would be the first time we’d all be together in this beautiful country I had called home for five years, a sort of summer family vacation. Fleeing for our lives was not included in the itinerary.
But shit happens. And in those past two days, a lot of shit happened.
It was spring 2007, and I had headed home to Afghanistan from the States on top of the world. A whirlwind tour promoting my book about the Kabul Beauty School had left me giddy with pride, and I was looking forward to getting back to work with my girls at the school. But there were things that had to be dealt with, things that weren’t perfect. Even before I left Kabul, rumors had started bubbling up that the beauty school was a brothel, and that the Afghan government was planning on launching an investigation. I was also worried about the government’s reaction to my book, which they were supposedly rushing to translate into Farsi. My mention that I had first come to Afghanistan in 2002 with a Christian humanitarian organization could very well put me, and those around me, in jeopardy. Over there, you can be arrested and threatened with death if someone reports you for converting to Christianity. Of course, there was nothing religious about the school, nor was there anything illicit. I’m far from a preacher, or a madam for that matter. I wasn’t sure how seriously to take these rumors. After all, with all that was going on in Afghanistan at the time, how important could a redheaded hairdresser be?
And on top of it all, I had, to say the least, a challenging domestic situation to deal with. Three years earlier, I had married an Afghan man—Samer Mohammad Abdul Khan. The fact that Sam already had a wife and seven daughters living in Saudi Arabia turned out to be the least of his undesirable qualities.
It had all started off fine. For once in my life I felt like I was making a rather practical decision when it came to a man. Sam’s help in keeping the school running was invaluable, and he offered the kind of protection any Western woman doing business in a war-torn nation would—literally—die for. My association with Sam would work wonders for my reputation among the Afghan people, a reputation that was already in the toilet simply due to the fact that I was an American. Besides, I liked having a man in my life, and Sam was kind
and respectful, and never imposed his religious or cultural values on me. We were introduced by friends, and after we had been furtively sneaking around for a while in a country where, for Afghans, dating a foreigner was strictly forbidden, marriage seemed like a logical option.
But about a year and a half in, Sam began a friendship with “The General,” one of the most notorious warlords in Afghanistan. There were warlords in my living room! I quickly learned to phone before entering if I saw an SUV with blacked-out windows and a running motor parked outside the house. The headiness that came from being that close to power had a bizarre effect on Sam. He began calling himself a general (or actually became one, it was never clear to me which), and was soon strutting around Kabul in full regalia like a bantam rooster cruising the henhouse. And he was drinking way too much vodka, not a good thing for a man who had been living in bone-dry Mecca, whose alcohol tolerance level was close to zero, and whose reaction to the slightest provocation was to reach for the nearest gun. Usually my defense became a game of possum—it was easier to pretend not to notice him or to feign sleep than to stir his macho blood. It didn’t always work.
It had become clear that Sam didn’t love me. I was just a war trophy, an American woman who came with connections, and better yet, cash, or so he mistakenly thought. I began to distance myself from him, learning Dari and throwing myself into the challenges of the beauty school and the coffeehouse I had also opened. But the more I worked and the more successful I became, the more he seemed to resent me. He took my independence as a threat to his manhood, no doubt humiliated by the taunts from his warlord buddies about his inability to control his foreign wife.
It was hard to see through Sam’s posturing exactly how much of it was a charade and how much a reality. Was Sam one of the good guys or one of the bad guys? And, I was beginning to wonder, was he really on my side? Sleeping with the enemy would be bad enough, but sleeping with my enemy? I realized I had made a huge mistake, and wanted nothing more than to leave Sam. But I had heard way
too many stories about women in my situation, and none of them had a happy ending. Bringing shame to an Afghan man can have dire consequences, with women often having acid thrown in their faces, disappearing, or being murdered in retaliation.
Leaving Sam would have meant leaving Afghanistan, and all I had built there, forever, and that was something I could not bear to do. I was changing lives! Me, a hairdresser from Michigan, making a difference in a place few dared to go, at least not by choice. And it wasn’t by being a doctor or a diplomat or a philanthropist, but by doing the only thing I knew how to do—hair. I had fought tooth and nail for the school and was unbelievably proud of our success. And I wasn’t about to let anybody down. My only option was to come up with an exit plan that might allow me to continue my work and live my life on my own terms. There were still a lot of pieces of that puzzle missing by the time I was headed back from my American book tour.
During a layover in Dubai, Sam called to warn me that my security situation had gotten even worse. He said that two bombers had been intercepted near the beauty school. One claimed that he had been paid five thousand dollars to blow it up. But when I made calls to Afghan friends with connections to the police to verify Sam’s account, nobody had heard a word about it. It became hard to know who to trust. I’d seen so many foreigners go rogue from staying in Afghanistan too long that I couldn’t even be sure anyone was telling me the truth. Then Sam turned the tables to say my sources were involved in a cover-up. Next he told me that I might be thrown in prison if I returned to Kabul, only to change his tune an hour later in another call. What, I wondered, could have changed in one little hour? Though I wanted to believe him, I was beginning to suspect a setup. Of course, I was nervous. But I was Deb the Hairdresser, and I could deal with anything.
Then came the last straw. Jane, in the course of her workday, had picked up some chatter that made it clear my situation had become a dire emergency. Within forty-eight hours of landing in Kabul I was frantically dialing the embassy. I held the phone to my ear and heard
the ring on the other end. It was five minutes after five on a Thursday, the start of the Afghan weekend. I bit my lip nervously. C’mon, pick up, pick up!
“Hello, United States Embassy. This is Mary, how can I help you?”
I heaved a sigh of relief. The embassy would help me. How could they not? My girls from the salon and I would go there all the time to provide haircuts, manicures, pedicures, and other treatments for embassy staff. Once I was even asked to powder Dick Cheney’s forehead when he was in town. I tried to speak slowly and calmly enough for Mary to understand, but my emotions were running high.
“Hi, this is Debbie Rodriguez from the Kabul Beauty School. I’m in trouble. I was just told that there’s a plan to kidnap my son. I need help. I need a safe place. Please, please help me,” I pleaded.
“The embassy is closed right now,” was the indifferent answer.
“The embassy . . . is closed right now,” I repeated in disbelief.
“Feel free to call back during open hours. Thank you for calling.”
“Please, Mary, you have no idea! I’m Debbie Rodriguez from the Kabul Beauty School!” I cried, raising my voice a few octaves. “I need help now! I could be dead by tomorrow morning! Hello? Hello?”
She hung up. Seriously?
WHERE MY GOVERNMENT FAILED TO help me, my friends could. That’s the lucky thing about being a hairdresser—you know everyone. Jane quickly sprang into action.
“You and your son have ten minutes to get outta there,” she said in a flat, clipped tone. “And that’s it. I’ll pick you up at the German restaurant down the road. Be ready.”
“Pack up your things! Now!” I yelled to Noah as I tore up the stairs to my bedroom.
“We have to go!”
“Go where?” He stood in my doorway, bewildered, as I grabbed my
two biggest suitcases and began to fling the rumpled, dirty clothes I had just unpacked from my trip to the States back inside.
“Just pack!” There was no time to think. I don’t think it really occurred to me that I’d never be back. In went my jewelry, still in its travel case. I instinctively tossed in two beautiful pairs of boots I had bought in Turkey. Shoes went flying through the air one by one without the thought of making a match.
My suitcases thumped down the stairs behind me, keeping time with my pounding heart. I paused at the sound of laughter drifting from the salon, fighting back my urge to run in and hug my girls good-bye, to tell them everything would be all right, that I’d be back soon. But it was too risky. Any explanation would have to wait until my return, after things blew over. After one last quick glance around my living room, I ran out the gate with a confused Noah trailing behind, the two of us dragging our suitcases through the mud as I frantically led him to Deutscher Hof Kabul.
“Lock the gate behind us!” I screamed to Abdul, the gatekeeper, “and don’t let anybody in!” Ingrid, the restaurant manager, quickly cleared the room of perplexed diners, and made me sit. My shaking hands struggled to keep the water she handed me from sloshing over the edge of the glass. Where would we go? How would we go? I had no money on me, no plane tickets, no nothing. But Jane had it handled. She would get us to Dubai, and from there we’d be on our own.
Noah and I were whisked to Kabul’s Serena Hotel, at that time the most secure place in the country, where we were to hide out while the escape plans were being hatched by Jane and her all-volunteer extraction team. In the hotel, the doors were triple-locked behind us. I was allowed one call. “Make it fast,” barked Calamity Jane as she handed me my phone. “Don’t give away your location, and don’t give away your situation.”
I didn’t have to think twice about who to call. As I started to dial the number I had dialed so many times before, but never for this
reason, I thought back on the evening five years earlier, when Karen and I had made “our plan.”
THE BARTENDER SLAPPED DOWN TWO white bar napkins in front of us. “So, what are we celebrating tonight, ladies?”
It was Wednesday, and for my best friend and me, it was our one night of the week to catch up, have a margarita or two, and share a good laugh. But on this particular Wednesday night, our conversation was rather sober. It was my last call before leaving Holland, Michigan, for my first trip to Kabul.
Karen was the type of mom who always made sure her children were decked out in the right safety gear, for fear they would suffer a broken bone, or a hangnail. Her kids called her Safety Mom. “Will you be with the group the whole time? Do they provide security?” she asked in between sips, with barely a pause to swallow.
“I don’t really know about the security,” I said, trying to sound reassuring, “but I’m sure we’ll have it.”
“Still, we have to have a plan in case . . . you know . . .,” she said. We looked down uncomfortably at our drinks. I was going into a country we had just bombed the hell out of and that was in massive need of rebuilding. I motioned to the bartender for another drink and lit a cigarette.
“At our last meeting they told us to bring a substantial piece of gold.”
“Define substantial,” Karen said, peering over her glass.
“In case . . . I guess . . . if we have to pay our way out of a situation.” I took a long, nervous puff at my cigarette, then looked away. I didn’t want to freak her out. I didn’t want to freak myself out. The unfortunate reality was that Kabul still wasn’t a very safe place.
Karen sat up and smoothed out her shirt. I could see a plan brewing in her head. “Okay, so here’s what we’ll do,” she said, using the
tone I’d often heard her use with her kids. “We need a word or phrase that will tell me you’re in trouble and that I need to call somebody.”
Knowing Karen, and knowing who she knew, I had no doubt that she would be able to get me out of any situation safely. Though I didn’t even want to think about why I’d need her, I went ahead and humored her. “You’re right! We need a code word.”
We spent the rest of the night channeling our inner 007s, kicking around different words and phrases—bun in the oven, the goose is cooked, the armadillo can’t cross the road.
“When was the last time you actually said the goose is cooked?” I teased. “And really, an armadillo?”
“Okay, then, who on earth would believe that you or I have a bun in the oven?” She laughed back.
We finally settled on the turkey is in the oven. I’m not sure why we chose that one. It wasn’t even November. I blame it on the margaritas. But I was glad to have a plan.
NOW, AFTER THE FIASCO CALL to the U.S. Embassy, I wasn’t so hopeful. One ring, two rings. What time was it there, anyway? Please don’t go to the machine, I prayed. Karen’s deep voice came through on the other end.
“Hello?” I said, not sure whether I was talking to a person or a machine.
“Debbie?” was the reply. She sounded peeved. I admit that I may have, on more than one occasion, called her in the middle of the night. But there was no time for apologies, so I went straight to the point.
“The turkey is in the oven.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing myself say, but I was seasoned enough by now to know that phone lines in Kabul were hardly secure. My words were met with silence. In the meantime, Jane the Australian mercenary was motioning to me to wrap it up.
“What?” replied Karen, groggily.
I tried once more, slower. “The turkey . . . is in . . . the oven.” I closed my eyes and prayed she would remember that conversation from years ago. “Wait!” She remembered. Thank God! “Are there . . . giblets with the turkey?”
I paused and looked at Jane, now holding her hand out for my phone.
“Are there giblets with the turkey?” Karen persisted.
I scrunched my forehead, trying to remember what she could be referring to. And then I understood.
“Yes,” I said, looking at Noah. “The big giblet. Right now, it looks like it will come out okay, but if you don’t hear the timer go off within twenty-four hours, it’s time for a backup plan.”
“Gotcha.” I felt a little relief knowing that Karen had my back; if push came to shove she would do whatever she could to summon help. Of course, what she didn’t know was that I had already struck out with our own embassy.
“Thanks, Safety Mom.” I hung up and placed the phone in Jane’s firm hand. She popped open the back, removed my SIM card, and gave it back to me. It was go time.
With the convoy ride behind us, we bustled through check-in and then immigration, draped, tied, wrapped, and veiled beyond recognition, thanks to the Afghan disguise Calamity Jane had insisted upon. I didn’t say much as we sat waiting for the plane to leave Kabul airport. I kept glancing nervously out the window to make sure that my husband, Sam, or one of his thugs wasn’t coming after us on the tarmac. I knew it was dangerous for a wife to leave an Afghan husband without permission, and that house arrest, imprisonment, or even an honor killing was often the fate of an errant woman.
When we finally did lift off, I hid my face behind my headscarf and allowed the tears to stream endlessly down my cheeks. My sweet son held my hand tightly, not knowing quite what to say. For two and a half hours and a thousand miles my mind raced with questions. What just happened? Where did I go wrong? How do I keep Noah safe?
How do I keep myself safe? Where the hell should I go? Where the hell can I go?
The first thing I did once we landed in Dubai was to call Karen to let her know we were okay. Safety Mom had sat by the phone for twenty-four hours straight, at the ready to pull some strings to persuade Holland’s mayor, our congressman, and the governor to come to my rescue, if need be. That was my girl. The next step was to connect Noah with his brother in Northern Cyprus. He would be safe there. But me? I had no clue. With just two suitcases to my name, the options were few. I had lost my life, my work, my home, everything I had thought was mine to keep forever, all within just a couple of days. For the first time in my life, I was truly scared. I felt guilty, worried about the girls I had been forced to leave behind. And I was alone.
Karen graciously offered me a place to stay, my hometown being the obvious solution—but not to me. Holland, Michigan, is one of those towns you don’t get out of. You grow up there, you go to school there, you marry a Hollander, you die there. You just don’t leave. But I had. And going back did not seem like an option. My sons were no longer living there, my father had passed away, and my mother was involved with a new man, unfortunately a man who didn’t seem to think there was room for us both in her life. There didn’t appear to be anything left for me there.
The truth is, I had become a sort of mini-celebrity in Holland, due to my book. And now everything had gone up in smoke. If I did move back, I’d have to tell my story over and over and over, answer the same questions again and again, at the grocery store, at the bank, over margaritas with my girlfriends. I just couldn’t see it. I wasn’t even sure what that story was. My life had just crashed and was burning around me, and I was trying to figure out where the fire was and who started the fire and how to put the fire out and salvage my life, and I knew I couldn’t do it in Michigan. I would have rather lived alone on a mountain. And that’s exactly what I did, sort of.