(Editor’s Note: I first heard the story of Homeira Qaderi – and her harrowing escape from Afghanistan – from her literary agent, Marly Rusoff, over drinks at Saltus. I remember thinking at the time that it would make a great movie. Two years later, New York Times bestselling author Mitchell Zuckoff has turned Homeira’s story into a book, with Marly as one of the “characters.” The author and other “characters” will be in town for this year’s Conroy Festival. – Margaret Evans)

A feminist Afghan writer who gained celebrity by winning custody of her young son, now marked for death by the Taliban. An unusual young American diplomat raised on tales of Holocaust heroism. A New York literary agent with an ambassador ex-boyfriend and surprising contacts on the streets of Kabul. In THE SECRET GATE: A True Story of Courage and Sacrifice During the Collapse of Afghanistan (Random House Hardcover; On Sale: 4/25/23), Mitchell Zuckoff, #1 New York Times bestselling author of 13 Hours, writes about the frenzied final hours of the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan and how these three ordinary-yet-remarkable people joined forces and engineered a breathtaking rescue plan that climaxed in a dash for freedom amid gunfire at a secret CIA entrance to the Kabul airport.

When the U.S. began its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Afghan Army instantly collapsed, Homeira Qaderi was marked for death at the hands of the Taliban. A celebrated author, academic, and champion for women’s liberation, Homeira had achieved celebrity in her home country by winning custody of her son in a contentious divorce, a rarity in Afghanistan’s patriarchal society. As evacuation planes departed above, Homeira was caught in the turmoil at the Kabul Airport, trying and failing to secure escape for her and her eight-year-old son, Siawash, along with her parents and the rest of their family.

Meanwhile, a young American diplomat named Sam Aronson was enjoying a brief vacation between assignments when chaos descended upon Afghanistan. Sam immediately volunteered to join the skeleton team of remaining officials at Kabul Airport, frantically racing to help rescue the more than 100,000 stranded Americans and their Afghan helpers. When Sam learned that the CIA had established a secret entrance into the airport two miles away from the desperate crowds crushing toward the gates, he started bringing families directly through, personally rescuing as many as fifty-two people in a single day.

On the last day of the evacuation, Sam was contacted by Homeira’s literary agent, Marly Rusoff, who persuaded him to help her escape. He needed to risk his life to get them through the gate in the final hours before it closed forever. He borrowed night-vision goggles and enlisted a Dari-speaking colleague and two heavily armed security contract “shooters.” He contacted Homeira with a burner phone, and they used a flashlight code signal borrowed from boyhood summer camp. For her part, Homeira broke Sam’s rules and withstood his profanities. Together they braved gunfire by Afghan Army soldiers anxious about the restive crowds outside the airport. Ultimately, to enter the airport, Homeira and Siawash would have to leave behind their family and everything they had ever known.

The Secret Gate tells the thrilling, emotional tale of a young man’s courage and a mother and son’s skin-of-the-teeth escape from a homeland that is no longer their own.

Author Mitchell Zuckoff and Special Agent Sam Aronson will be in conversation with Landon K. Thorne at USCB Center for the Arts on Saturday, October 28 at 11:15, as part of the Pat Conroy Literary Festival. Tickets are $10. www.patconroyliteraryfestival.org


Homeira Qaderi

Hear author Valerie Sayers interview writer author and teacher Homeira Qaderi at The Pat Conroy Literary Festival on Saturday, Oct. 28th at USCB Auditorium at 2 pm. Homeira will discuss her memoir DANCING IN THE MOSQUE, a People Magazine Book of the Week, and a Kirkus Best Book of the Year. The book is written as an open letter to her young son who was taken from her. The Secret Gate by Mitchell Zukoff tells the story of how she got him back.

“When I was began writing DANCING IN THE MOSQUE, I thought the presence of the Taliban in the life of a little girl was the biggest story in the world. Writing allowed me to look at the world through a different lens. I was raised a child under Russian occupation, followed by the terrifying rule of the Taliban. After they were defeated in 2001, they became ghosts who occasionally came back to life in my nightmares. I had no idea that the Taliban would return and that my nightmares would become a reality. “

Homeria defied the law, when at the age of thirteen, she risked her freedom to teach children reading and writing as she fought for women’s rights in her theocratic and patriarchal society. She is currently at Yale University where she is completing her novel Tell Me Everything, which will be published in 2024.