In November of last year, Debra Denker put on a chador-- the all-concealing, head-to-toe voluminous garment worn by orthodox Muslim women--and set out on foot for Afghanistan from nearby Peshawar, the Pakistani city on the other side of the Khyber Pass.
Accompanied by two moujahedeen, Muslim guerrillas who are fighting the Soviet military occupation of their country, and a photographer, she infiltrated into Pakhtia province. Speaking fluent Dari (Afghan Persian), and posing as a former resident of the more cosmopolitan capital of Kabul, she passed undetected, visiting ruined villages and their few remaining inhabitants--people who have stayed on for the struggle, either as fighters, supporters or stubborn peasants taking refuge in the hills.
For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday July 16, 1985 Home Edition View Part 5 Page 3 Column 4 View Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
The name of Dr. Robert Simon of UCLA was misspelled in a Sunday View story about Debra Denker, who has made several trips to Afghanistan and written about the country.
In all, she said recently at her parents' home in Studio City, she spent about five nights inside the border, and traveled about 30 miles into Afghanistan's interior. It was an area where bombing has destroyed villages and devastated the countryside, where bombing raids can still occur and where planes still search for signs of life, strafing the guerrillas and their supporters and the animals that sustain them.
"I suppose the most worrisome time was when we crossed the open valley in broad daylight one day on foot. I had a strange calmness that it would be OK, but I did have a knot in my stomach. If a plane came, there would have been absolutely no place to hide," she said. "We had wanted to go in September, but there was heavy fighting then and the border heated up. So we decided to concentrate our efforts on both sides of the border and spend time in the refugee camps too."
Off the Beaten Track
Denker, 30, has been concentrating her efforts on both sides of that border since 1980, for about as long as there have been Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Her November trip in Pakistan and Afghanistan was on assignment for National Geographic, and her experiences were the topic of the magazine's June cover story. But her involvement with Afghanistan started just as the country was on the brink of the Soviet invasion of December, 1979.
Born in Los Angeles, graduated from Hollywood High, Denker has spent, she estimates, most of the past 12 years overseas. After a few years at Berkeley, a year at Sussex University in England, frequent travel with her parents, much of it "off the beaten track" in Europe and Asia with her mother, a stint in Kenya where the work available was that of helping to organize rock concerts, she went to Afghanistan in April, 1979, at the age of 24.
A Slight Figure
A "Valley girl" is not perhaps the most likely successor to the great travel writer/adventurers of an earlier time whose destiny took them to the Middle East, men like Britain's 19th-Century Richard Burton, or T. E. Lawrence. Yet here she is, this slight figure in her Afghan blouse and slippers, sitting in her parents' living room, surrounded by the booty of a family that does not know package tours, clearly marking time until she can get back to the real world. Out there.
"I have a real commitment to the idea and ideal of internationalism. I don't consider myself an alien anywhere. Borders, nations, visas bother me," Denker said.
She happened to go to Afghanistan and it took her heart; it could have been anywhere. "I flew out from London looking for a peaceful place to write poetry and novels," she said of that first trip in 1978. "I had little information. I knew of the coup (installing a Marxist regime that same month, a year before the Soviet occupation) but did not know of the Soviets advancing, etc. I found out on the plane."
In the course of an interview she would go on to mention becoming a "blood sister" to the women of the non-Muslim Kalash tribe of northern Pakistan, of being able to pass herself off as an Afghan of the fair-skinned Tajik tribe, of the dangers and intrigue of Peshawar--where most of Pakistan's 3 million refugees are concentrated and divided by political factions and intelligence agents--of having been drawn initially by the stark beauty of Afghanistan, of the calming effect of thinking in Persian.
Immersed in Afghan Culture
She has lived with the Afghan people, worked for them and been helped by them. She has sponsored a family's immigration to the United States. She has written an historical novel on Afghanistan, unpublished, and is now working on a contemporary one, chronicling the current situation. She has co-produced a documentary that has had a limited showing in this country. She has written articles about and photographed the refugees and guerrillas, served as a translator and interpreter, given first aid in the clinics. In this country, she will speak to schools and groups about the plight of the Afghan people whenever asked.