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When she arrives in Afghanistan, the young State Department employee is excited that she will get to taste authentic Afghani food. It is never served but she strikes up a rapport with Najim, one of the Afghani boys who works for them, and he gets her his mother’s cooking. Through Najim’s mother’s Chakah,the ‘condiment that built Afghanistan’ , the young girl begins to understand the concerns of the Afghani people. And this yoghurt sauce becomes her secret “Goldilocks Test of American good faith and the gap between the ruler and ruled.”Just as pomegranate, or anar, becomes her weapon of dissent against the US Government’s reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan.
The cost of war in Afghanistan was heavy and in a bid to help the reconstruction of the country, the US awards grants to projects that will help it win the hearts and minds of the Afghani people. One such project is to do with pomegranates. Afghani pomegranates are considered the best in the world and the five million dollar grant is meant to be given to farmers to convert their lands from poppy to pomegranates, to educate and support the said farmers and then help market the fruit to markets where they will get good value. Ofcourse the poppy crop is immediately viable but pomegranates have a three year period before they bear fruit. On paper, the plan is great and the contract is not awarded to an Afghani in Afghanistan, but to one in Vancouver, Canada.
“Reap what you sow
Anar yes, poppy no
Sweet Fruit, gift of freedom.”
So far so good, but then the young employee begins to find gaps in the what is declared and the ground reality. She is not allowed to travel into Afghanistan, but through the American Embassy compound, the protagonist begins to piece together the puzzle and realizes that while the intentions are noble, there is an unwillingness to ask the right questions – Is the money well spent?
She is removed from duty for asking uncomfortable questions and pointing fingers at powerful people in the system. The Pomegranate Peace raises important questions. Are such efforts helping the country rebuild itself? Is it not right to second guess what the predecessor has done? And will all this money go down the drain ? Are the US citizens aware of how their tax payer money is spent? What will be the future for the ‘Americanised’ Afghani youth once the US withdraws by the end of 2014.
Rashmee Roshan Lall is a journalist who has traveled and reported from many locations around the world. She worked for the U.S. State Department in Kabul as a contractor. Though she is clear that her book is a work of fiction, Rashmee’s descriptions of US state employees in Kabul, their surroundings and their attitudes toward their work are superbly etched and feel completely real.
The Pomegranate Peace is a grim wake-up call for superpowers to re-examine if their well-meaning efforts do make any impact, or if the efforts are merely adding to the problem! The book also has a wonderful collection of famous Afghani recipes, ones that have been tested and tasted by Rashmee!
A definite read!