‘Another Afghanistan’: Rancho Santa Fe author’s memoir shares a moment in time
Although almost 50 years have passed since she first arrived in Afghanistan, Rancho Santa Fe’s Julie Hill still vividly recalls her unforgettable time of joy and discovery she spent in the “beautiful yet bewildering” country.
She is now sharing her experiences living in Kabul from 1973-75 with her husband Arthur, a representative of the United Nations Development Program, in her recently published book,“Another Afghanistan: A Pre-Taliban Memoir.”
“I lived there in a time and space that doesn’t exist anymore,” said Hill, 85. “This book is part of my memoir and, in a way, it is part of my legacy. All of these things were in my heart and mind and I needed to put them down.”
Hill’s writing style is engaging and immersive, painting vivid pictures of places like Kabul’s busy Chicken Street bazaar, the smell of lamb kabobs and the visual feast of fruit stalls filled with pomegranates and pistachios. Living in Afghanistan during a time of relative calm, the book shares her affinity for the country’s bazaars and carpets, scenes of her diplomatic life, glimpses of her travels throughout the country and memorable interactions with Afghan people, including encountering caravans of nomads and camels on mountain passes and desert tracks.
“There is justification for a book of this kind, as a generation of people has grown up with images of Afghanistan at war, replete with bombings, bloodshed, refugees and misery,” she writes.
Hill was born in Alexandria, Egypt to Greek parents. She came to the United States to attend graduate school at the University of Minnesota where she met her husband Arthur, an Australian. Together they lived all over the world with assignments in Thailand, the Philippines and Western Samoa before arriving in Afghanistan.
A Rancho Santa Fe resident for over 30 years, she has traveled the world since she retired from her career as an executive for AT&T, visiting 127 countries such as the Ivory Coast, Mali, Burkina Faso, Papua New Guinea, Mongolia and Syria. Treasures from her travels adorn her Whispering Palms home.
Writing became a hobby after her husband passed away in 2002—she sat in front of a computer like a blank canvas and the stories of her lifetime and her travels spilled out of her. Her most personal work, “In the Afternoon Sun: My Alexandria”, was published in 2017.
“I enjoy my writing because it keeps my brain active,” she said.
“Another Afghanistan”, her fifth book, draws from her diaries kept during that time.
For their two-year assignment, the Hills lived in the Wazir Akbar Khan district in Kabul, in a house that looked like a Bavarian chalet. They did not have potable water and the electricity was erratic but in most ways it was a very privileged life, she said.
While the city wasn’t especially picturesque, she wrote about how beautiful the country of Afghanistan was with its snow-capped mountains, spectacular valleys and the “luminosity of the sky light.”
“The sky stretched wide and blue, the light pure and crystalline, foreshortening distances,” she wrote. “In that light, no one could take a bad picture.”
Hill could speak Farsi, Arabic, French, Greek, Italian and took private lessons to learn the Dari language. She could speak very limited Dari to converse with the locals, recalling in her first winter she didn’t know the word for snow and described it as “very cold white cotton from the sky”.
In the book she recounts her interactions with the extremely generous people of Afghanistan, her experiences in Kabul and on various trips, visiting hospitals and schools and memorably in one chapter, visiting with a family with four wives.
“The local people opened my eyes so much,” she said.
The book details her time representing the UN at the Diplomatic Wives Organization and attending diplomatic events with her husband most days of the week among the 22 embassies in Kabul. One of her most amusing and favorite chapters is telling the story of a dinner party with the German ambassador when she mistakenly served camel filet.
“We couldn’t cut it or chew it,” she said. “It was horrible.”
With travel unrestricted at the time, the book shares her journeys traveling throughout the country, traversing the Khyber Pass, seeing Ai-Khanoum, the city founded by Alexander the Great, and the Giant Buddhas in Bamiyan set in the sandstone cliffs, sadly blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
She wrote of going through the Salang Tunnel, a slightly scary 1.6-mile long tunnel that crosses the Hindu Kush mountains. She recorded emerging on the other side of the tunnel to hillsides covered in juniper, mountaintops covered in snow, streams and a valley of butterflies and honeybees among alpine flowers. She wrote that she could still smell wild roses and snow when she thinks about the spot where she and her husband had a picnic in “a corner of heaven.”
During her time in Afghanistan, she witnessed the building tension between the east and the west but noted she never heard the word Taliban or the name Osama bin Laden. Four years after they left Afghanistan, Russia invaded, the beginning of a nine-year war.
Hill never returned to Afghanistan and in an epilogue she laments the country’s culture heritage and rich history that has been lost to invasion and war.
An avid world traveler, Hill has not been able to travel due to the pandemic but she continues to mentor foreign students at UC San Diego, enjoying learning about different cultures and sharing about her own.
After her fifth book, Hill believes this was her last one. Like her other books, proceeds from the sale will go to the Scripps Research Institute, a place where she marvels at the work being done.
She keeps close tabs on Afghanistan, faithfully reading several international news publications.
“My heart bleeds for what is going on today,” she said. “It is chaos and it is misery.”
In her book’s afterword written in August 2021 after the Taliban overtook Kabul, she says she fears peace may remain elusive for a long time.
“Historians have called Afghanistan a’ graveyard of empires’. It should command our attention today as a graveyard of innocent people and their hopes,” Hill mused. “Afghanistan has survived and outlived the empires and conquerors that have passed through and plundered it. It’s an all-embracing space and spirit that can be hard as rock and soft as starlight, imbued with intrinsic value, for if it had been worth nothing then it would not have been so fiercely fought over.”
The book is available on Amazon.com.
Get the RSF Review weekly in your inbox
Latest news from Rancho Santa Fe every Thursday for free
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Rancho Santa Fe Review.