From a former Wall Street Journal foreign correspondent, an exuberant memoir of life, love, and transformation on the frontlines of conflicts around the world
Growing up in 1970s Detroit, Lynda Schuster felt certain life was happening elsewhere. And as soon as she graduated from high school, she set out to find it.
Dirty Wars and Polished Silver is Schuster’s story of her life abroad as a foreign correspondent in war-torn countries, and, later, as the wife of a U.S. Ambassador. It chronicles her time working on a kibbutz in Israel, reporting on uprisings in Central America and a financial crisis in Mexico, dodging rocket fire in Lebanon, and grieving the loss of her first husband, a fellow reporter, who was killed only ten months after their wedding.
But even after her second marriage, to a U.S. diplomat, all the black-tie parties and personal staff and genteel “Ambassatrix School” grooming in the world could not protect her from the violence of war.
Equal parts gripping and charming, Dirty Wars and Polished Silver is a story about one woman’s quest for self-discovery—only to find herself, unexpectedly, more or less back where she started: wiser, saner, more resolved. And with all her limbs intact.
|Publisher:||Melville House Publishing|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.00(d)|
About the Author
Lynda Schuster is a former foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal and The Christian Science Monitor, who has reported from Central and South America, Mexico, the Middle East, and Africa. Her writing has appeared in Granta, Utne Reader, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Magazine, among other. She lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and daughter.
Read an Excerpt
Dirty Wars and Polished Silver
PROLOGUE ISRAEL, 1973
In search of adventure and not quite seventeen years old, I wash up on a kibbutz in Israel’s northern Galilee. As in most teenaged existential crises, I know precisely what I’m fleeing: a dreary Midwestern upbringing, my parents’ messy divorce, the fear that I’m never going to win a Nobel Prize. What I’m seeking instead is unclear.
The geography alone makes adolescent angst worthwhile. Beyond the settlement’s eastern boundary, the terrain snakes steeply down to the now not-so-mighty Jordan River, then up to the Golan Heights, snaggle-toothed against a heat-hazed sky. Mount Hermon, of biblical renown, looms moodily to the north. Damascus is just over the horizon.
My roommate Selena, who’s from Canada and has a cigarette permanently soldered to her bottom lip, doesn’t like the place because she can’t get decent coffee. The kibbutz’s original settlers come mostly from Britain. Tea drinkers. Someone’s always asking us around for a cup. That suits my other roomie, Sybil, a cheerless South African vegetarian, who grew up on a strong black brew, splash of milk, no sugar. She intends to live here for the rest of her life and has no use for anyone who doesn’t try to fit in.
“Just suck it up,” she says to Selena.
“Go fuck yourself,” Selena says.
Sybil’s jealous of the attention the kibbutz boys pay Selena. They come in a pack to our room, reeking of newly released male hormones and speaking Hebrew-accented English. Everyone knows the boys don’t really respect volunteers like us; we’re just spoiled suburban brats on a lark, in their estimation. They pop up on our side of the kibbutz for one-night stands or to wheedle a pair of the latest jeans that we foreigners bring from abroad. Selena dismisses them regally, flips her chestnut mane and lights another cigarette, blowing lazy blue-gray speech balloons across the room.
Sybil looks up from her book. “Aim it elsewhere, hey?”
I roll over and bury my head under my pillow, too tired to butt in, too tired even to shower off my bodysuit of dirt from toiling in the apple orchards. Slaving, is the way one of my co-pickers describes it. We’re up at 4:30 every morning, stumbling through the cool-hot air to the dining hall to choke down tea and stale bread with strawberry jam. The roosters are just beginning their maniacal wake-up calls when we crowd onto a tractor-pulled cart, our orchard transportation. For hours we clamber up and down ladders in brain-boiling heat, squinty-eyed from the stinging perspiration, to get at the farthest reaches of the trees. Just the way to find myself! I think, doubled over from eating too much unwashed fruit.
But it beats chicken duty. I did that exactly one time. It started at midnight. The lights in the coop were turned off, as if this would keep the birds from noticing that they were being rounded up for deportation. As instructed, I blindly grabbed two handfuls of poultry by the legs and slipped-skated across the feces and feathers to the doorway, where someone shoved the shrieking birds into cages on a waiting truck. Then back inside the coop to grope another batch: the chickens crapping and pecking at my arms, me wondering whether staying home and going to my high school prom might not have been so bad after all. Hand them off to the cage people, shit-slide the length of the coop for more, relinquish them to their fate. Repeat until dawn.
After that, apple picking is pure pleasure.
Selena tries to get the work coordinator to assign her the cushy jobs, wiping off the tables in the dining room or folding underpants in the laundry. Sybil stomps off every day to the hangar-sized kitchen to peel potatoes, mutilate cabbages, and wrestle frozen chickens into submission. The other people in our group do likewise. We’re a random sprinkling of pre- and post-college students and backpackers, mixed in among a British group from Manchester. The Brits seem relentlessly uninterested in doing anything. One of them, after spraying his room with shaving cream, is found wandering naked and babbling on the sizzling tarmac of a nearby airstrip. He’s packed off to a local asylum, then shipped home to England.
Simcha, my Hebrew teacher, says the place is a magnet for misfits.
I suppose that includes me—but nice Jewish girls don’t run away from home to join the circus. They go to a kibbutz. When I went to the Israeli embassy, the dark-eyed official looked at my passport and didn’t seem to notice—or care—that I wasn’t the required age of eighteen. The next opening on a kibbutz ulpan (a work/study program) will be here, he said, pointing to a small speck on a map. Upper Galilee, near the Golan Heights. Very beautiful.
I said, “I’ll take it.”
Like it was the last car left on the lot.
I feel almost immediately at home on the kibbutz. Maybe it’s the sense of living in a perpetual overnight camp: the rows of squat little bungalows and rooms, the dining hall, swimming pool, laundry, clinic, SUV-sized mosquitoes. A self-contained miniature hamlet where, in the waning half-light of sunset, the sad-sweet singsong of the muezzin’s call to evening prayer wafts across from a mosque in the Arab village on a nearby hill. Nothing says you’re no longer in Middle America quite like a minaret.
Or maybe it’s Simcha. After Hebrew class one day, she says, “Come around for tea tomorrow afternoon, if you’re free. I’m one of the houses at the edge of the kibbutz, on the Golan Heights side. With the rosebushes out front.”
When I arrive, she’s writing the lesson for the next day’s lecture, hunched over a table in the one room that serves for sitting, eating, and sleeping. “Kettle’s in the kitchen,” she says, without looking up. “Put it on, will you?” I squeeze into a space the size of an airplane lavatory. The kettle is electric and plugs into a wall socket. A miniature refrigerator nestles cutely under the counter, a two-burner hot plate sits atop. This being a communal settlement, people don’t need to cook for themselves; they eat in the dining hall. The kitchen forces a typical Cold War–era choice: socialism, or having to stand sideways while sautéing.
Sim motions for me to sit while she finishes preparing the lesson. Her love of language snagged me from the first day of class. I never went to Hebrew school; my mother has no formal religious training and Dad’s an agnostic. They sent my sisters and me to a secular Sunday school that treated Judaism as an exotic culture along the lines of, say, World Wide Wrestling or clogging. The sole concession to tradition was an annual program that featured a mezzo-soprano with a monumental bosom belting out songs about the holidays. Sim’s unspooling of a language that works nothing like English—right-to-left, no less, and in a scribbly beautiful cursive—is sheer revelation.
“You know,” she says, “women in the Bible were terribly bloody-minded.” She’s in her late thirties, slim, with a helmet of dense dark hair and a brash British accent. “Take Eve. She disobeyed God because she decided that knowledge mustn’t be withheld from people.”
I’m way out of my depth here. “Uh, wasn’t she tempted by a serpent?”
“That’s just one interpretation. Another is that she was brave. It’s not an easy thing disobeying God in the Bible.”
The kettle’s whistle draws her to the kitchen. “You Americans don’t take milk in your tea, do you?” she yells.
“I do. My father lives in London.”
“Well now, that’s different. Tell me about it.”
That’s all it takes for me to spill my guts about my teenaged search for meaning. Back then, someone just had to appear to lend a sympathetic ear and I’d bare the most intimate and unnecessary details of my soul before the poor person even had a chance to finish forming a question. Sim refills the teapot; twice I have to excuse myself to pee. As I’m leaving, finally, she says, “You can come for Saturday dinner, if you’d like.”
Officially, I’m adopted by another couple. All the ulpan students are assigned to kibbutz members who look after their care and feeding on a Saturday night, the only time the dining room doesn’t serve a proper meal. When I point this out, Sim says: Oh, bugger that. She has a history of taking in strays that interest her and folding them into her family of two young daughters, an ex-husband, a dog, a cat, various rodents and smallish reptiles—although it’s more like I push my way in at knifepoint.
Yom Kippur, I awake to a khamsin. The suffocating wind that blows in from the Arabian desert shoots the temperature to over one hundred degrees and deposits a sandy veneer on everything. Even my teeth are crunchy with grit. Khamsin means “fifty” in Arabic: the number of days that the wind supposedly blows. It drives people to madness. Popular lore has it that during the Ottoman Empire, when Turkey ruled this part of the world, a man wouldn’t be held responsible for killing his wife during a khamsin.
Those Ottoman women must have trembled at every breeze.
Sim says there’s always a khamsin on Yom Kippur, just to add to the misery of fasting-to-atone-for-all-our-sins. I’m already knee-wobbly with hunger; the heat makes it hard to breathe. Selena, unfazed by the day’s strictures, goes off in search of coffee. Sybil is spending the holiday with relatives. I sit in a chair in our room in front of a uselessly whirring little fan, then flop on the bed because it looks more comfortable, then change to another chair because it might be cooler. Trying to imagine frigid things such as igloos and glaciers, my mind instead conjures up sorbets and slushies. Heretical slut, I think, giving up and trudging to the main building.
The kibbutz is echo-quiet; no one works on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. The little paths that crisscross the settlement, usually filled with people walking or riding bicycles or pushing carts stuffed with small, communally raised children, are deserted. Even the running radio chatter that seeps out from buildings with the hourly beeping time signal is silent. The Voice of Israel goes dead for the day.
There’s air conditioning in the recreation room. A couple of my comrades from the ulpan sprawl on a sofa. In the distance, the Golan’s usually craggy profile is barely visible behind the quivering mask of heat. Michael, my newly minted boyfriend from the British group, shuffles in: black curls and emerald cat-slitted eyes, topped with an antic sense of humor.
Michael says, “I was wondering where you got to.”
“I’m trying not to think about food,” I say.
He reaches across me to grab an outdated copy of Time, but never gets there—the air around us is suddenly exploding. “Bloody hell!” he says. “What was that?”
More eardrum-shredding detonations in rapid succession shake the ground. We’re all standing now, staring stupidly out the picture window at smoke billowing from the Golan Heights. “Maybe an earthquake?” one of the other students suggests.
Michael says, “Don’t be an idiot.”
There’s commotion outside; someone shouts at us to run to the bomb shelters. I have no idea where to go. We follow a kibbutz member to a clearing, my heart a little tom-tom in my chest, then down leaf-strewn steps to a door. He tugs on it. Locked.
Michael and I take off at a sprint for Simcha’s house, dog-cringing at each explosion. She’s standing in her garden with some neighbors.
I say, “What’s happened?”
“We’re under attack,” she says. “The Syrians crossed the border and are bombing the Golan. The Egyptians crossed into Sinai.”
“How do you know?”
“The Voice of Israel came back on the air. The chief rabbis said we’re at war and that it’s okay to break your fast now and not wait until sunset.”
“What should we do?”
“Go back to your building.”
We follow her advice, but no one in charge is around. Michael retrieves a radio from his room; we hear the urgent codes being broadcast on the army channel that call up people to reserve duty. The attacks have taken the country completely by surprise. The kibbutz, too; the place is suddenly swarming with men half-dressed in military uniforms, guns slung over their shoulders, gear falling out of hastily packed duffel bags. This does not inspire confidence. If I’m going to die, I think, heading to the dining hall, at least now I won’t die hungry.
A woman in charge of the kitchen is dishing out pieces of chicken left over from the previous night. Gnawing on a drumstick, I jog back to Simcha’s. She’s gone. Michael and I feel our way in the dark to the cliff beyond her house. I can make out a few other people. They’re looking at pinpricks of light, tiny jewels in a miles-long necklace, twisting across the Golan Heights toward us. Tanks. Someone in the blackness asks, “Theirs or ours?”
“I don’t know,” comes the reply. “But we’d better go to the bomb shelters.”
Lying on my back on a wooden bunk in a shelter deep underground, I watch the sleeve on my shirt fluttering, as if in a strong wind, from the concussion of the artillery above. The little kids in the shelter are crying. I’m up for hours, unable to sleep for the noise and fear and excitement—and because I’m looking out for spiders or other insects that may have taken up residence in my bunk since the last war. That’s the adolescent mind for you: worrying about creepy-crawlers in the face of death and destruction.
Nights we hunker outside the shelters until it’s time to sleep, listening to the static-swooshed reports of the BBC from London. The kibbutz is spotlit by a glaring harvest moon that makes a mockery of the blackout. A radio announcer informs us that Jordan might send troops to fight alongside its Arab brethren. Those guys are just down the road from us, I think, with a little thrill-seeking shiver. I sit spellbound, listening to the kibbutz members who are assigned to babysit us—veterans all of Israel’s wars—as they debate the ramifications long into the shimmery night.
And go to bed dreaming of Henry Kissinger.
Daytime we pop up above ground for air—prairie dogs from our burrows—during lulls in the fighting. Pairs of Israeli Mirage jets shriek low over the Galilee and into the Golan, so low they make you want to hit the ground for cover. We learn to brace as they drop their load of bombs, then count the seconds until they screech back overhead to base. Several days into the war, when we’re finally allowed back to our rooms to shower, we find a bunch of long-snouted howitzers have taken up residence on the football pitch below. Just as I’m sneaking down to get a peek at them, the commanding officer suddenly shouts, “Aish!” (Fire!)—and I’m nearly thrown to the ground from the explosions. Someone yells at me to get my sorry ass back to the bunker; the Syrians are going to answer the guns any minute now. I gallop to the shelter, sweating and dizzy with fear but thrilled, in a voyeuristic way, to be at the center of world events.
The thing about war—as long as you’re not dying—is that it’s oddly exhilarating. One minute you’re an angst-ridden adolescent moping about your parents, your place in the world, the latest outcropping of pustules on your chin. The next thing you know, you’re sucked into the vortex of geopolitics and a three-week-long conflict, listening with puffed-up importance to worldwide news on the radio about your own situation and spouting off about balance of forces. What could be better? Perhaps if I could foresee that this was a portent of my adult life to come, that war would dominate my existence both as a reporter and as a wife, I wouldn’t be quite so enthusiastic.
But all that is in the future. For now, I’m convinced—with the certitude of any self-absorbed, seemingly immortal teenager—that this is what I’ve been seeking.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Israel, 1973 xiii
Part 1 1
1 Detroit, 1966 3
2 Central America, 1981 19
3 Central America, 1982 45
4 Mexico, 1983 83
Part 2 101
5 The Middle East, 1984 103
6 South America, 1985 127
7 Southern Africa, 1986 149
8 Liberia, 1989 185
Part 3 225
9 Washington, 1992 227
10 Mozambique, 1994 255
11 Peru, 1996 281
12 Peru, 1998 307
Epilogue: Pittsburgh, 2014 319
Illustration Credits 323
A Note About the Author 329
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you have ever fantasized about being a foreign correspondent or a wife of an American ambassador, then you must read “Dirty Wars and Polished Silver: The Life and Times of a War Correspondent Turned Ambassatrix” by Lynda Schuster. It is a unique opportunity to get a glimpse into both lives and be treated to an entertaining read at the same time. It is a riveting memoir about one woman’s professional and personal life and the dynamic, historic events that helped shape it. From the very beginning, Lynda captures us with her honest, heart-wrenching and often witty portrayal of her experiences. Her engaging personal style invites us to travel along with her to some of the most troubled and overlooked outposts in the world while at the same time she navigates the ups and downs of her private life. The result is a fascinating up-close and open-eyed view of real stories and people behind the news headlines.
I could really picture every moment of Lynda’s first trip to Israel and living on the kibbutz after having only read the prologue of this book. I have known her for more than 30 years and now, having read this prologue, everything makes sense. It was as if I needed to read this brief introduction in order to know her fully - or at least more fully - than I have.