After more than 15 years of covering conflict around the world, most recently as chief international correspondent for CNN, I have cultivated a uniform that I take with me on my travels. A good pair of jeans, loose-fitting cargo pants, a long billowing top that covers my bottom, a few scarves to cover my head or provide some colour, and a Zara blazer that doesn’t crease, in case I need to interview an official. This uniform is unremarkable: functional rather than fashionable; resilient and replaceable.
But dig into my toiletry bag and you will find my secret indulgence. Nestled under the Simple face wash and Sensodyne toothpaste is a tub of QMS ACE Vitamin day and night cream that comes everywhere with me. At more than £100 a pot, I concede that it is an extravagance. The sales assistant at Liberty department store explained that it was developed by a German trauma surgeon who wanted to create a moisturiser so delicate that even the most sensitive skin would drink it up. I like that it has no strong smell – a pet peeve of mine. More importantly, it has mastered that elusive balance of being rich but not greasy.
The word indulgence takes on a different meaning in war zones. Pleasures that are perfunctory at home suddenly become tantalisingly rare delights. Rinsing your hair at the end of a fraught, sweaty day on the frontlines. Sourcing an avocado in Baghdad. Passing around a bottle of warm whisky with colleagues, sitting on the floor of a musty hotel room as bombs continue to fall outside.
No matter how long or frightening or ugly my day has been, I find an almost meditative tranquillity in the ritual of washing my face and applying my special cream. It doesn’t wipe the slate clean, per se, but it acts as a bridge between my life at home and my life in the field, injecting an element of normalcy and routine into spaces that are usually chaotic and unpredictable.
Last year, I travelled to northern Afghanistan for an incredibly rare opportunity to spend a couple of days with the Taliban. The militant Islamist group almost never allows western journalists into its territory and it took months of hard work to secure an invitation.
One of the conditions of our visit was that we respect the deeply conservative rules about gender segregation. This meant that my producer, Salma, and I were to sleep in the main house with the women and children, while the male Afghan filmmaker who we were working with was to sleep in another building with two of our Taliban escorts.
Once we were safely ensconced in our sleeping quarters, Salma and I pulled off the long black abayas and niqabs that covered our bodies and faces from view. The room was buzzing with women and girls who clustered around and fussed over us, offering us food and making sure the small heater was pointed towards us, while peppering us with questions in Dari that we couldn’t understand, then giggling when we would shrug apologetically.
When it was time for bed, the women pulled out mattresses for everyone to sleep on, and I rinsed my face and fished my moisturiser out of my backpack. A young girl with bright green eyes watched with fascination from across the room as I applied the cream. I looked at her and smiled before gesturing for her to come and take some. She remained frozen, unsure of how to respond, so I took a dollop on my finger and approached her slowly, then rubbed it gently into her cheeks. She broke into a broad smile.
By now, all of the women were watching with curiosity and excitement. I opened the pot again and began applying the moisturiser to all of their faces. It was strangely intimate, kneeling before them, one by one, rubbing the cream into their skin, smiling into their eyes silently, unable to communicate verbally. Most of them looked away shyly, then stroked their cheeks appreciatively, while sharing what I assumed were reviews of the cream with each other in Dari.
It was a lovely moment that I will hold in my heart for a long time, one of the many occasions where I have been reminded that people are people, that there is a shared human experience, no matter how different our societies, that connects us. Occasional indulgences, whether it’s an expensive moisturiser, or just a cold ice cream on a hot day, can provide a moment of escape or some much needed self-care.
Or perhaps that’s just what I tell myself to justify spending silly amounts of money on a face cream.
On All Fronts by Clarissa Ward (Penguin) is out now.
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