The Shape Shifter: Reinvention in Afghanistan

How the privileged daughter of Harvard academics reinvented herself all the way to Afghanistan, where she runs a soap factory — and hopes to rebuild democracy — in one of the most dangerous places on earth.

By Teresa Wiltz
Chayes, in Kandahar, with her hand-milled soaps made from almonds, roses, pomegranates, and other local ingredients. (Photo: Beth Wald)

Sarah Chayes

When Keith Richburg last saw Sarah Chayes, they were both journalists in Paris in the late 1990s, running into each other at dinner parties hosted by stylish expats. Then, in 2004, as he was making his way through Afghanistan on assignment, Richburg met a local in Kandahar who urged him to talk to the "American NGO" (aid worker). "She really knows what’s going on here," the man told him. Intrigued, Richburg followed him to a rough-and-tumble house tucked away at the end of a dirt road. There, in a furnitureless living room, surrounded by Afghan rugs, chickens, a goat, and an AK-47, stood his old dinner buddy — dressed like an Afghan man in a tunic and turban and greeting her guests in fluent Pashto.

"Oh, hi, Keith," Chayes said nonchalantly, and offered him some fruit, which she proceeded to chop up with a machete.

"I walked out of there saying, ‘That’s the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen in my fucking life,’" recalls Richburg, now the New York bureau chief for the Washington Post. "You could see her as this courageous journalist who made the decision to put down her pen and paper and pick up a shovel. Or," he says, laughing, "you could see her as a loony tune who went native."

The way 45-year-old Chayes sees it, each detour on her "raggedy CV," as she calls it, is actually on a continuum, no matter how seemingly random her choices: a Peace Corps worker tracking fish in rural Morocco, then a Harvard doctoral student obsessing over medieval Islam; a National Public Radio reporter waxing lyrical about French gastronomy, then a war correspondent covering the chaos in the Balkans and Algeria. Now she supervises a soap factory that she built in Kandahar, but she’s quick to add that she’s not a dilettante. "I’m not ‘doing’ Afghanistan as a step in some personal career path," she says. "I’m trying to practice what I preach" (and she doesn’t use a machete to cut fruit either, she’d like you to know). Her soap is crafted from nuts, roses, and fruit grown for Arghand, an agribusiness cooperative that Chayes hopes will wean local farmers from the lucrative opium-poppy crops.

Risky Business

Kandahar is a tough place. It was in this small city of mud-baked houses and pomegranate trees that Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda planned the September 11 attacks. For a while following the Taliban’s fall in late 2001, Afghanistan’s former capital held promise. Today the Taliban dominates once again. Kidnappings and suicide bombings are a daily threat. Yet in Kandahar, where women still wrap themselves in the obscuring burka, Chayes dashes around doing the things that men do there: conducting business, bumping heads with the notorious governor Gul Agha Shirzai, and driving around town with her AK-47 stashed under the seat.

"She’s outrageously friendly to everybody and plugged in to every element of society," says journalist Sebastian Junger, a childhood friend who frequently reports from that region. "The bad guys absolutely know who Sarah is. Clearly something is protecting her, or something would have already happened. It’s like she’s got some weird diplomatic immunity. I just don’t know how long that will last."

Dual Citizen

Chayes first went to Afghanistan in late 2001 to cover the war for NPR, and found herself enchanted by the country’s rugged beauty — particularly in Kandahar, a city, as she would later write, that "shimmered with a breathless hope."

"I decided that it wasn’t enough to be talking about it," Chayes says. "I wanted to be in it." So in 2002, at the invitation of President Hamid Karzai’s brother, Qayum (whom she’d gotten to know through her work), Chayes left NPR to run Afghans for Civil Society, a community-empowerment organization. She has since launched a radio station, started a dairy cooperative, and helped rebuild a village. Her book, The Punishment of Virtue: Inside Afghanistan Under the Taliban, which detailed her first years in Kandahar, was published in 2006. Arghand now employs 11 Afghans, and its natural skincare products are sold in upscale boutiques in the United States, Canada, and the Virgin Islands. Volunteers, including a group of high school students in Wellesley, Massachusetts, help distribute the goods.

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