ON a work trip to Kabul in 2008 I was meeting the only friend I had who lived in the city. As I waited at the hotel entrance to be picked up, an enormous dark grey SUV looking like a battle tank hove slowly into view. The door swung open, heavy with armour plating, and out of this behemoth emerged a butterfly, Nasreen Sattar, dressed in stylish Western clothes, brimming over with self-confidence and authority. Nothing could more perfectly capture the duality of the situation: in the grimmest of surroundings she was a beacon of light. And this is exactly the spirit which carries over into her memoir of Afghanistan, My Kabul Story, engaging the reader with its stories of ups and downs, emotions and cool-headed judgment, hair-raising exploits and elegant soirees.
These are the contradictions which animated her stay in Afghanistan where she spent two and a half years as the CEO of the Kabul branch of one of the world's leading international Banks. On the one hand she ended up falling totally in love with the country, which she describes numerous times as “magical”. Pomegranates and melons, dried fruits and nuts, the kebab-based cuisine, the carpets in the bazaars, big trees which bonded with her, the sweet breezes of early morning and the deep silent snows of winter, nothing escaped her keen appreciation. And yet there was always a whiff of impending chaos and violence in the air. This danger was not imagined. She doesn't dwell upon it but as a woman, and the boss of a Western Bank, she must have been like a red flag to the Taliban, a potential target for kidnapping or worse. No less than three times during Nasreen's short stay people who were quite close to her fell stone dead in terrorist attacks.
But the people of Afghanistan found a lasting place in her heart. For the most part they were loyal and noble, full of dignified resolve, open and direct in manner. On occasion though they were capable of unexpected low maneuvers; fraudulent ATM transactions were a constant thorn in her side. She was puzzled by this paradox but took it in her stride. As Nasreen says about her amazing Afghan driver Fareed who was a comforting presence, “I could trust him with my life—but couldn't trust him not to overinvoice the smallest purchase.”
To her lasting credit Nasreen Sattar never retreated into a shell. She had come to Afghanistan in the first place because she wanted to try life outside her comfort zone. And despite everything she intended to live in Kabul as normally as possible, exercising her independence, going to Chicken Street (the traditional shopping zone) or along the dangerous highway to the UN Compound or escaping with close friends to off-limit restaurants—all of which would leave her security handlers in fits.
Lest we think that her memoir is just a travelogue of her time in a fascinating country I want to emphasize that it can also be thought of as a guide to business management under demanding circumstances. From the day she arrived Nasreen was decisive and put her stamp upon the Bank's operations: cutting costs, rationalizing processes, rearranging the premises (it was one of her maxims that a happy organization is a productive organization), and above all getting to know and understand the staff. This was particularly challenging because they came from very different countries, ranging from Nepal to the Gambia! Even the Afghan staff were from different tribes who were suspicious of each other. Nasren Sattar's account of how she tackled internal tensions whenever they arose makes for instructive reading because it shows how much can be achieved by empathy and sincerity; even when she had to make hard choices she was so upfront that everyone ended up accepting them with good grace.
She also had to deal with Afghan Government officials, all the way up to the Governor of the Central Bank, and was often the only woman at high-powered meetings at which national policies were being decided. I am sure that she left them all impressed and awed, as much by her professionalism as by her charm of Bengali womanhood! She made a similar impact on the senior officials of her own Bank. Being a CEO she was invited to the Bank's Regional Conferences and interacted with all the other heads of the organization including the Chief Executive of the Bank. She is too modest to say so but, reading between the lines, it is clear that Nasreen made a big hit in these rarefied corporate circles, not only because of the profitable results achieved in Afghanistan under very stressful conditions but also because of her striking personality. She must have made her colleague CEO, the enigmatic Obaid Malik, who had originally proposed her for the Kabul post, very proud.
There was another group of high-flyers in town. In those days Kabul was full of the Western world's most capable movers and shakers, of both sexes, ranging from American Congressmen to IMF heads to senior military officers to NGO activists and of course more than a handful of spooks, all desperate to salvage something from their latest ill-fated invasion of the Hindu Kush. Nasreen Sattar became a fixture in this elite society too because she was such good company. Life in Kabul was not all about work and the play was varied and fun, with a healthy dose of flirtation and discreet liaisons thrown in. Thus it was that amidst all the other dangers menacing her Nasreen quickly learned to shrug off unwanted attentions from certain desperados in suits while fantasizing about others, specially those in uniform. All this is told in lighthearted gossipy tones and I will leave it to the reader to find out about the delicious and tempting joys of the so-called art of 'locationship'.
In fact the whole book is a joy to read. Our author has an effortless writing style which flows like water. There is no excess. So natural and immediate is her mode of expression that we feel like we are with her on the journey, experiencing everything from behind her twinkling smile and amused eyes. Finally we come away with a sense of having learnt something valuable about the world—and about Nasreen Sattar herself.
The reviewer is a writer who is currently working on his memoirs of the late '60s in America.