“HELLO, MY SISTER, I am Fatana. I call you from Kabul.”
Fatana? I glanced at my clock—4 PM in New York City, which meant 12:30 AM in Afghanistan. This call, in the spring of 2007, could not be good news.
Fatana Gailani and I were in our twenties when we met in Peshawar, Pakistan, in 1985. Peshawar sits near the Afghan border and had become a refuge for Afghans fleeing the Soviet invasion of 1980. Three of those desperate three million were Fatana; her husband, Ishaq; and their daughter, Wana.
I was a freelance journalist reporting for TV Guide about the dangers network-news organizations faced in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. To get the story, I had planned to shadow an NBC stringer, but after a week, his money ran out; he slipped a note under my door telling me he had to leave. Now alone in Peshawar, I tried to arrange to get into Afghanistan with other reporters. On one attempt, I was arrested, detained and turned back. On another, I fought off the sexual advances of a Dutch journalist. As the days slipped by, my funds dwindled, along with any hope of getting my story.
Then, in a seedy café called LaLa’s Grill, I met a soldier named Hakim Aryubi.
Sympathizing with my situation, Aryubi introduced me to Ishaq and Fatana. Ishaq was a top mujahid-een commander, disappearing into Afghanistan for months at a time to fight the Soviets. Fatana had established the Afghanistan Women Council, a nonprofit dedicated to the most vulnerable refugees, women and children.
I spoke almost no Pashto, and she very little English, yet Fatana and I found a way to communicate. She teased me by pinching my belly, then handing me a plate full of sweets: Eat; you’re too skinny. I touched her bracelet and smiled: Beautiful. She removed it from her wrist and put it on mine. (I quickly learned not to compliment anything she wore.) One afternoon, as we were playing hide-and-seek with Wana, Fatana pointed to my naked ring finger. No, no husband, I said, laughing. I touched Wana’s face, then hers and put my hand over my heart, trying to say I wished to be a mother someday. She smiled, took my hand and put it into Wana’s. “Sister,” she said. “Daughter.”
Thanks to Fatana, Ishaq and Hakim, I traveled in and out of Afghanistan safely. A lifelong friendship had been forged, and in 2001, when I returned to Afghanistan as a CNN correspondent, they were the first people I contacted. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that Fatana had learned to speak English. Without missing a beat, she asked how she could assist me.
Now it was my turn. “I call you for your help,” Fatana said. “If the world will not see what is happening to us, we will be lost.” She went on to speak of the Taliban’s return, of violent warlords and government corruption, explaining that women were being forced to wear the burka and were not allowed to work. Mothers were afraid to send their daughters to school, and it was becoming too dangerous to travel outside Kabul to visit the clinics and schools that her organization had established.
I promised to do what I could.
That evening I attended a benefit for the Sri Lanka tsunami survivors, where I was inspired by American artists who had traveled to the area, taught art to children living in camps and brought back paintings to auction in the U.S.
Six months later, the first Afghan Art Mission auction was held in New York, raising more than $50,000, which was used for food, literacy programs, women’s-clinic costs and microloans for such work-related necessities as chickens and sewing machines. I led two more artists’ trips before conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated to such an extent that we had to put the art missions on hold.
Today, Fatana and I communicate by e-mail. Ishaq is a member of the Afghan Parliament. They have another daughter, Muska, while Wana—-married now—lives in the U.S. with her family. When I became engaged, I sent Fatana a photo of my fiancé, an Englishman. “I like this face,” she wrote. “He is good man.”