HIGH HEELS IN A WAR ZONE

The Jewish Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - IN­TER­VIEW ANTHEA GERRIE

THE FACT that Heidi King­stone went to Afghanistan at all is proof you can’t judge a book by its cover. Es­pe­cially when that cover is so glossy. The Cana­dian-born jour­nal­ist was the res­i­dent beauty of the Daily Mail’s Fe­mail depart­ment when we worked there to­gether 30 years ago.

But her new book Dis­patches from the Kabul Café shows the Mail’s hard news en­vi­ron­ment per­me­ated our fluffy bub­ble. King­stone went to a dan­ger­ous place to re­port on cor­rup­tion and the plight of women un­der the Tal­iban, which also just hap­pened to be where the most cov­etable jewellery was to be found.

This is not so much a book of der­ring-do as what one waspish fe­male re­viewer called “the kind of sto­ries that fe­male war-zone jour­nal­ists might whis­per to their clos­est girl­friends,” adding, a tad bitchily: “Only Heidi would wan­der round Kabul in stilet­tos and lip gloss.”

The tone for this un­likely jour­ney for a nice Jewish girl is set by the fact she notes pack­ing a caseload of beauty prod­ucts to pro­tect her skin from the el­e­ments when she first headed for Kabul in 2007, not to men­tion highly un­suit­able shoes for ne­go­ti­at­ing rudi­men­tary pave­ments strewn with rocks and boul­ders.

“My col­leagues in Afghanistan did call me Heidi high-heels,” con­fesses the au­thor, who still teeters in stilet­toes at the top of a long stair­case lead­ing to the el­e­gant, split-level Maida Vale flat she once shared with news­pa­per ty­coon David Mont­gomery.

King­stone came to Lon­don from Toronto in the 1980s by fol­low­ing a man, she ad­mits — “men have al­ways been a big part of my life” — and she first worked for Mont­gomery, when he was an ed­i­tor, and then mar­ried him. Their sub­se­quent di­vorce pro­pelled her to­wards the war zones of the Mid­dle East: “I was in the process of look­ing for work, and got sucked into the whole Iraqi thing when I went to hear some­one from the op­po­si­tion speak at the For­eign Press As­so­ci­a­tion.

“He be­came a friend and when it all kicked off there in 2003 I felt I had to go — twice to Bagh­dad and the last time to Basra. Iraq was fas­ci­nat­ing, but it was way more dif­fi­cult than Afghanistan.” Al­though she never once con­sid­ered whether Iraq would be any more dan­ger­ous for a Jew — “noth­ing would have stopped me go­ing there in June 2003” — she be­came more sen­si­tive about her iden­tity af­ter hear­ing of Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist Daniel Pearl’s ex­e­cu­tion by Al-Qaeda ex­trem­ists the pre­vi­ous year. Sit­ting with her friend from the Iraqi op­po­si­tion in his house in Bagh­dad, she froze mo­men­tar­ily when he ca­su­ally told her visi­tors she was Jewish. “I don’t speak Ara­bic but recog­nised that word ‘ yahud’ and every­one turn­ing to look at me. I minded for sev­eral rea­sons. First, safety —how could that not be a con­cern af­ter Pearl’s killing? Se­cond, that it might make my job more dif­fi­cult, and, third, it was my own in­for­ma­tion to dis­close or not.” As it hap­pened, her host’s crowd were keen on es­tab­lish­ing re­la­tions with Israel and be­ing Jewish did not prove an is­sue dur­ing her visit.

In Afghanistan, she found out she was not the only mem­ber of the tribe — she didn’t re­alise that one of her Amer­i­can house­mates was Jewish un­til the woman pro­duced matzah for Pe­sach.

King­stone had ar­rived in the Afghan cap­i­tal with no idea of what to ex­pect in a land where lo­cal garb for many women was a burqa: “What­ever I brought was too short, too trans­par­ent or too tight.” Even once equipped with more mod­est cloth­ing and a hi­jab, there was the harsh win­ter to con­tend with: “When I first ar­rived, it was freez­ing, mud cov­ered every­thing and Kabul looked like it had been bombed back to the Stone Age. But then spring came, and it was beau­ti­ful; the light was ex­tra­or­di­nary. It was 2007 and they were start­ing to re­build,” she says, re­mem­ber­ing the beauty of lav­ishly ren­o­vated homes with pomegranate or­chards for gar­dens.

There were also at­trac­tive, if some­what dan­ger­ous men — lovers as well as friends — and tragic women trapped in lives of sub­or­di­na­tion from which Heidi could not ex­tri­cate them. King­stone is par­tic­u­larly scathing about the “fe­male em­pow­er­ment teams” from out­side, who would never suc­ceed in em­pow­er­ing women in such an in­grained cul­ture of male dom­i­nance. Yet de­spite all Kabul’s prob­lems she found her­self be­ing drawn back time and again, re­vis­it­ing Afghanistan in 2010, 2011 and 2012 af­ter her first foray.

Be­tween the end­less par­ties —in her early days in Kabul, King­stone and her house­mates typ­i­cally en­ter­tained a dozen peo­ple to din­ner ev­ery night — there were shock­ing re­al­ity checks.

A vis­it­ing woman doc­tor whom King­stone be­friended was ex­e­cuted on a trek back from de­liv­er­ing med­i­cal as­sis­tance in the dan­ger­ous north. And, in 2014, safely back in Lon­don, King­stone heard that the owner of her favourite res­tau­rant had been shot dead by the Tal­iban along with 21 cus­tomers and staff.

“At first, it’s the shock that hits you. Then there’s the sad­ness, then the re­grets that you never re­ally said good­bye, and the re­al­i­sa­tion that you will never see this old friend again.”

King­stone’s in­ter­view sub­jects in the Mid­dle East have in­cluded Ben­jamin Netanyahu, with whom she may have been up close but can hardly tes­tify to an en­counter that was per­sonal: “He couldn’t have been less in­ter­ested in talk­ing to me,” she ad­mits of her 1997 in­ter­view with the Is­raeli PM for the Johannesburg Satur­day Star.

“He was wait­ing to talk to Made­line Al­bright, and I was not re­port­ing for any of the big net­works. He could not wait to fin­ish the in­ter­view, and I did not like him at all.”

She vis­ited Ra­mal­lah and Gaza, a trip which honed her taste for re­port­ing from con­flict zones.

Con­flict of a dif­fer­ent kind fol­lowed her when she dis­cov­ered her phone had been hacked for con­ver­sa­tions with her friend Kim­ber­ley Quinn, whose af­fair with MP David Blun­kett caused a furore.

King­stone met the cur­rent man in her life af­ter con­sult­ing his law firm for ad­vice af­ter the po­lice con­tacted her about the hack­ing. So for the mo­ment she is con­tent in Lon­don, where she is work­ing on the draft of a play based on her book and the re­grets it has pro­voked over what she calls “the fu­ture that never was” in a land doomed to never-end­ing con­flict and chaos.

But you feel it would take only a large enough adrenaline surge to lure her off some­where dan­ger­ous again — this time pack­ing a flak jacket along­side the heels and make-up.

Men have al­ways been a big part of my life

Heidi King­stone will be speak­ing at Liver­pool’s Lee Park Golf Club on Fe­bru­ary 28, at JW3 on March 1 and at Bournemouth Li­brary on March 7 as part of Jewish Book Week. ‘Dis­patches from the Kabul Café’ is pub­lished by Ad­vance Edi­tions.

Heidi away in Basra (above) and home in the UK (be­low)

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