Book review: The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan
by Kim Barker
Post-9/11, Chicago Tribune reporter Kim Barker accepts a position as South Asian bureau chief based out of Delhi, but more often the work entails going on embed with military units in Afghanistan. She knows nothing about these countries culturally or what to expect from the conflict. She was selected for the job since she was an unmarried, childless staff member, thus more flexible and willing to undertake the assignment.
Compared to Iraq, Afghanistan is dubbed “the Forgotten War”. On military tag-alongs as an embed, Barker echoes soldiers’ reports of boredom; one even confesses that he doesn’t keep his gun loaded and ready all the time. So she has to look elsewhere to keep her copy interesting.
This inaction affects the media too, obviously. Always looking for something to make a good story, reporters in the region become experts in the “Taliban shuffle”, moving back and forth between Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the process, Barker discovers something not many westerners can say: even surprising herself, she falls in love with the two countries, choosing to return repeatedly.
She gets to do a lot of weird and interesting work interviewing top politicians and the movers and shakers of Kabul, who happen to be rather fascinating characters. Interestingly, being a woman she’s granted access to some figures that she wouldn’t have gotten if she’d been a man. Of course, this kind of access is thanks to their interest in getting close to a woman in the confines of a misogynistic society, but she admirably stands her ground and gets her stories.
Published in 2011, the book received some criticism over Barker’s fun-loving, flippant attitude, which seems hard to justify considering she lived in a harsh, deadly war zone, a place where American soldiers and local civilians alike were losing their lives in the fighting. But it should be taken for what it is – it’s a memoir of her time there and what she experienced personally. It’s not an in-depth study of politics or military action. She does provide some easily readable background, like general timelines and explanations, of some of the region and its history, which helps to place many of the conflicts that arise during her time there in a more understandable context.
She’s honest and realistic about what this assignment was really like, and what colleagues make of it as well – they nickname the city “Kabul High”, because their behavior is more that of rowdy, wild high schoolers and less of mature, serious media professionals, what’s expected of them back home in the west.
And as she often demonstrates, it was a difficult and transitional time in her life. She was navigating a failing romantic relationship, unsure of her next career steps, approaching middle age, facing budget restrictions and obstacles from her employer, and trying for some semblance of a “normal” life like she’d have back home – parties, drinking, dating – all told with humorous effect through the lens of Kabul High. I liked her joking narrative voice, cultural shocks and gaffes, her assertiveness as a woman when the situation demanded it, and her camaraderie with her “fixers”: English-speaking locals assigned to accompany her for work.
For something out of a war zone, it’s a light, even uplifting, read; which perhaps is as surprising for a reader as the experience itself was for Barker.
The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan
by Kim Barker
published March 22, 2011 by Doubleday