Originally, I picked up Kim Barker’s wartime memoir The Taliban Shuffle after hearing rumors that it will soon be made into a movie starring Tina Fey with Martin Freeman as her love interest—two of my favourite comedy actors working together! I quickly found what attracted them to the material: the book is quirky, insightful, and illuminating, capturing what it was like to be a female journalist in very tense regions of the world.
Barker’s account is a great combination of what was happening in Afghanistan and Pakistan with sprinklings of her personal life.
The book has a wide reach, discussing difficult topics like the increasing amount of “collateral damage” to Afghan civilians caused by the U.S. military. Along the way, Barker relates stories about the constant threat of being kidnapped that all journalists in the region face, the dangerous positions of Afghan photographers and translators (some of whom disguise themselves to prevent recriminations for working with Americans), and her own experiences with sexual harassment in the region: by men when she was standing in large crowds and by women during invasive private security checks.
In addition to learning about having a social life in a warzone, Barker relates her impressions of leaders like the female Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. She also shows readers what Afghan weddings are like (segregated by gender), discovers what young Afghan men search for on the internet, visits the “most decrepit circus on the planet,” witnesses the corruption due to the opium drug trade, overhears the response to the first woman on the American Idol-style show Afghan Star, and even speaks with U.S. soldiers regarding the prevalence of “DBIEDs”—that is, Donkey-Borne Improvised Explosive Devices. In addition, Barker sadly notes the cutbacks at her newspaper The Chicago Tribune as a sign of a declining interest in professional journalism and international affairs.
To me, her text is most effective when she delves into a kind of macabre humor about the situation in Afghanistan—the only way, it seems, to deal with conditions that can be outrageously sad and depressing with atrocities around every corner.
One of the most vivid illustrations of this is Barker’s account of the besieged Kabul Zoo, which became a nightmare prison for animals when rampaging Taliban soldiers pelted it with rockets, killed and ate the deer and exotic birds, tortured the monkeys by prodding them with sticks, fed narcotics to the bear, and blinded the lion by throwing a grenade into his den. To replace the dwindling zoo population, we are told, China donated new animals, which later developed rabies. Barker presents such unhappy facts in a wry tone, using humour as a technique to distance herself emotionally from these and other atrocities.
I was interested to read Barker’s ideas about why foreign policy continues to fail the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan and how the area could be stabilized—not by repeated quick military fixes but with an ongoing commitment to civilian infrastructure and educational programs. But the best part of the book is how Barker conveys her dedication to her job, her sense of adventure, and the thrill and purpose she feels at being on the front lines as history unfolds.
For another recently published account of the war in Afghanistan, try Kevin Sites’ Swimming with Warlords: a dozen-year journey across the Afghan War. From the publisher: “An American war correspondent who first entered Afghanistan in October 2001 recounts his five visits to the country, including a trip in the summer of 2013 to revisit the people and places he saw the first time, and discusses conditions.”
For more about Benazir Bhutto, the first female prime minister in the Islamic country of Pakistan, check out the documentary Bhutto. This film covers the time period up to Bhutto’s assassination in 2007, an incident for which Barker was present, and recounts Bhutto’s efforts with her father, former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, to bring democracy and stability to Pakistan, including taking steps to advance women’s rights.
For a book about the future of the region after so much war and foreign intervention, check out Ahmen Rashid’s Pakistan on the Brink: the future of America, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. This book discusses the difficult choices America must make with regard to its involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.
Finally, try Babylon’s Ark: the incredible wartime rescue of the Baghdad Zoo by Lawrence Anthony with Graham Spence. Although Kim Barker touches on the nightmarish fate of Afghanistan’s Kabul Zoo in her account, this book discusses a similar situation that took place in Iraq’s Baghdad Zoo, showing how human warzones cause suffering not only to other humans but also to animals.