Yes, it’s true: This story was told by an American White Lady.Yes, it’s true: This movie failed to capture the complexity of a situation from any perspective. Yes, it’s true: Everyone tried really hard to make it relatable and maybe took away some of its power.
It’s also true that the powerful version of the story is the one nobody seems to want. If they did, they’d read the real Kim Barker’s book.
I’ve tried, too, to tell my version of the story (fewer explosives, fewer parties, fewer curse words, more Afghans, longer tunics, deeper obsession with the place itself). The more I tried to relate and to simplify, the more its truth went away. I tried to explain, once, what it was like to live on a compound that I couldn’t leave without the permission of a boss who told me to my face that women didn’t matter. Someone in my writing group said, “Well, you make it sound so bad, but everybody‘s had a bad boss.” I told people how strange it felt to be in Chicago on the day all my friends back at the Embassy were under siege, how I wished I were there. “That’s dumb,” they told me. “You were safe.” As if they couldn’t even be bothered to try imagining what it feels like to have your life happening somewhere else than where you are.
It’s also true that what something looks like and what it feels like can be very, very different. I guess when you put a bed in an office and put a proposition between an official and a journalist, it’s easier to see what’s going on. But it can’t exactly make your skin crawl like it does when a middle-aged spy chief with a polo shirt tucked over his mini-gut and into his unbelted khakis makes jokes about your tits while you’re both standing on the yellow-lit patio outside a shipping container-cum-bar drinking beers sold to you by a tiny hardened Filipina woman surrounded by beefcakes fresh from the gym and suddenly all seven of them are staring right at you like they’ve never seen balls of flesh so high and round in all their lives and all you can think to do is make a joke about how creepy the joke was and none of them speak to you for weeks because he ordered them to make you suffer for his humiliation.
It can’t tell you how the dry dusty heat of a Kabul summer night makes you feel like you’re about to sweat but your skin can never quite break into a comfortable wet. It can’t tell you how it feels when you really think you’re hitting it off with some guy and he starts bragging about how he was nailing the only girl at his PRT, who’s only even “base cute” in his estimation, and suddenly this human you thought you might connect with starts to look like a sad skinny sack of straw who doesn’t realize that he’s just base cute, too. It can’t tell you what it’s like to be a 28-year-old woman fresh off of language training and a breakup who actually cares about her work and is suddenly scared as shit that she’s going to screw it all up by being too sexy, or not sexy enough. It doesn’t tell you what it’s like when you have no choice but to be your gender first, your person second, or how hard it is to write the truth even now when you know that someone will pick it up and wave it around as evidence that all women think about is our wombs and that we just don’t belong in combat zones as anything but hairdressers, lumpia makers, and prostitutes (roles in which our presence has never been questioned).
Some stories are just really hard to tell. And still we try. Sometimes we can’t quite capture what it’s like. I think that’s okay. I’m just happy somebody cared about this story enough to give it a shot.