Originally appeared in The National.
There are writers, and I am one of them, who believe that no book can be serious if it cannot also make you laugh. Permanent sobriety is no more trustworthy than permanent buffoonery. Why trust an author to tell you what’s grave and terrible when that same author seems to think everything is grave and terrible? Some critics may object that there is no comedy in places like Afghanistan and Pakistan. These are exactly the people one can safely disregard.
A lack of humour is not among the faults of the memoir by the Chicago Tribune’s former South Asia bureau chief Kim Barker. Barker is not typical war-zone material: in a profession that privileges competitiveness and square-jawed machismo, she is a woman with a taste for frivolity (on September 11, 2001, news of the attacks prevented her from attending a live taping of The Jerry Springer Show). Her book, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, plays to the advantages of her gender and sense of the absurd. It is a jokey, very funny book about unfunny subjects, novel both for its humour and for its perspective, and it rises (or sinks) to levels of seriousness that will be remembered long after the po-faced analysis of other writers has been forgotten.
An American-raised as a “hippie infidel” in Montana, Barker got her first Kabul assignment in her early thirties, seemingly as a result of a clerical error in the Tribune newsroom. In her telling, she arrives in Kabul as a classic innocent abroad, speaking only English and unqualified to be a foreign correspondent anywhere, “even Canada”. The one thing she knows is how to write, and since she is blessed with a gifted Afghan journalist (Farouq Samim, most recently with Al Jazeera) to assist her, knowing how to write gets her a long way.
The Taliban Shuffle is a memoir, not a work of history or politics, so the main thread of the narrative is her own life of expatriate high jinks, rather than any specific story of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the unravelling of those countries. Within a short time of arrival, she is banned from Gandamack, the foreign correspondent clubhouse in Kabul, for yelling at the help over a laundry incident. Filing regular stories on the war by day, by night she becomes a fixture at L’Atmosphere, the improbably chichi French restaurant in Kabul. She goes through four boyfriends, endures professional angst over the rapid shrinkage of the newspaper industry, and although she files perfectly good copy – I remember reading it at the time – maintains a social distance from Afghans, who as Muslims are legally forbidden from entering alcohol-selling restaurants. This social distance is not one she is inclined to work to close. Except for a few Westernised friends, Farouq and a few other colleagues in her bureau’s employ, her principal interactions with Afghans and Pakistanis are when she is yelling at them in crowds for copping an unauthorised squeeze of her backside.
It is perhaps not a surprise that male attention, mostly unwanted, is the constant presence in her narrative. Abdul Jabar Sabit, the Afghan attorney general and anti-corruption crusader, offers her a sinecure in his department in exchange for tawdry assignations in his office. Nawaz Sharif, the former prime minister of Pakistan, first offers to set her up with Asif Ali Zardari (the president of Pakistan and widow of Benazir Bhutto), then hits on her himself, dangling as inducements jobs, money, and an iPhone. All proposals are rebuffed.
The elements of the book not about her social life are generally quite weak, and will be new to no one who has been reading a daily newspaper in the last decade. Her level of engagement in this conflict is nicely summed up by her offhand remark that “warlords always made good copy”, which is true but cynical. As news or analysis, her stories are almost completely worthless. There is nothing to illuminate the major questions of the last miserable decade along the Durand Line: How did Nato lose Afghanistan? Will war ever end? Who killed Bhutto, and what will happen when Pakistan collapses? Barker interviews Hamid Karzai and Zalmay Khalilzad, probably the two most important men in Afghanistan during her reporting there. None of the conversations produces anything of much value, with Karzai in particular coming across as a rambler and something of a bore.
In lieu of hard reporting we have cliched complaints about dust, heat and broken toilets, as well as the twice-told tales of a slightly bored hack. All are mercifully brief, and none breaks new ground. She aims for the fantastic, rather than the important, and tends toward soft news, such as the saga of Jonathan Idema, the American nutjob convicted of operating a private prison in Kabul, and Marjan, the one-eyed lion at the Kabul Zoo who was the subject of many profiles by bored reporters in the early days of the occupation. Marjan killed an Afghan who taunted him, then suffered a disfiguring grenade wound when the dead man’s brother attempted to extract revenge. Leave it to an Afghan, Barker implies, to enter into a blood feud with a member of another species.
Marjan aside, the star of this narrative is Barker herself. The narcissism is jarring: poolside mirth at L’Atmosphere is, after all, somewhat obscene when mayhem rules the rest of the country. During the seven years before her paper recalled her to a job in Chicago, Afghanistan transformed from Nato victory ground into Taliban shooting gallery, and Pakistan went from a brittle nation to a shattered one. Her ability to tune out the mayhem and contemplate in print, for example, whether her new beau will care if she lies a little about her age, must require a Zen-like presence (or absence) of mind, which psychologists will study some day when seeking to understand how Western powers managed to remain so heedless of the war they were conducting thousands of miles from home.
There are nods to this disintegration. Barker writes in her acknowledgements that her book started off as an attempt at “comic relief, as an antidote to all that was falling apart”.
The story does not end as comically as it begins. The annoyances of life as a single woman in Pakistan do seem to wear on her (it’s a wonder they did not sooner, such as when she is sexually molested while under sedation in her hospital room). And then there is the more general human weariness of apparently endless violence. In this book, as in most, there is little room for optimism about Pakistan, and an unstated implication that the country’s tailspin is terminal; that bombs will shred more people, not fewer, before the nation finally crashes. Barker spends some time in an aimless drift after leaving the Tribune’s South Asia bureau. After covering far too many suicide bombings, she reflects that she is reluctant to “scrub any more people off the bottom of my shoes.”
This is a gloomy thought, but the book is fundamentally a light one. Some will be tempted to discard it, not just for its levity but for its preference for lurid details about Sharif and Sabit over harder news about the Taliban and the cloak-and-dagger intrigue of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. That would be a mistake. These stories run counter to the currents of history, but they are more enduring than some of the supposedly more serious, and certainly more turgid, monographs that Afghanistan has produced of late.
Barker’s gender has its advantages, allowing her to report things that many a male reporter, including myself, would probably miss. As the object of advances by Sharif and Sabit, she is able to reveal them at their most vulnerable and pathetic, but also at their most shameless and corrupt. Sabit tells Barker that $100,000 of USAID money is hers for the taking, in exchange for regular romps on a creaky bed in an unlovely office flat. Sharif will hand over the life-and-death job of managing a hospital, in exchange for similar assignations in nicer surroundings. Along the way to her book’s jokes and giggles, Barker stumbles over real ugliness here, of a sort invisible to those unwilling to linger on such ironies. Politicians and warlords fall in and out of favour with the seasons, but lechery is more or less eternal.