There is a burgeoning sub-genre of memoirs by American journalists who go overseas as neophytes, get tossed headlong into the throes of war, and come out the other side inexorably changed and deeply uncertain about how they fit into life in the US. For sheer descriptive power, Every Man in this Village is a Liar is your book. For the war junkie/foodie out there, put Days of Honey on your table. Love kids and animals? The Khaarijee will pull at your heartstrings. But, if you admire a witty turn of phrase and revel in absurdity, you can’t do better than The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Author Kim Barker arrives in Asia in late 2002 at age 32, assuming her stint as a foreign correspondent is simply a detour on the well-worn marriage and baby track. A detour it is not. She ends up spending the next six-plus years in the region, primarily serving as Asia bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune. This book focuses on her first stop, Afghanistan, which gets under her skin so deeply that she eventually has to “figure out how to get clean and get out,” and Pakistan, where her zany experiences reach their zenith.
When Barker begins reporting from Afghanistan, the world is still preoccupied with Iraq. She goes to great lengths to craft articles that her editors might run, from the classic yet risky rendezvous-with-a-warlord piece to quirky human interest stories, such as one about a wayward, pig-killing bear at the decrepit Kabul Zoo and another on the surfing preferences of customers at Kandahar’s first internet café (you guessed it: porn, porn and more porn). On the side, she shoots Kalashnikovs with an official from the Afghan interior ministry, gets entangled in a romance or two, and sings karaoke at brothels. Barker writes that in 2005 “prostitutes seem more in danger of taking over Kabul than the Taliban”.
Despite the relative quiet in Afghanistan in 2005, it a story from this year that sobers up the book with a sucker punch. Barker signs up for her first “embed” and is sent to an engineering platoon in a part of Afghanistan so quiet that the soldiers are bored. She concocts a story out of the tedium. Then, after her article is published, the platoon gets moved to a more dangerous post — ostensibly because higher-ups felt the soldiers had complained to Barker that they had nothing to do.
One of the soldiers that she profiled loses part of his leg on this more dangerous assignment and his wife leaves him. It is the point in Shuffle when you need to set the book down, swallow, and take a breath. A guilt-ridden Barker later tracks the solider down and finds him gracious, remarried, and with a new career.
It’s not until 2006 — amidst a perfect storm of collateral damage, festering corruption and spreading Taliban control — that the world’s attention shifts to the growing chaos in Afghanistan. By 2007, Barker is ready to escape the Afghan pressure cooker, and starts spending more time in Pakistan (or, as she calls it, “Whack-a-Stan”).
It’s an eventful year. She covers President Musharraf’s suspension of the country’s chief justice, which sparks protests countrywide; the violent siege of the Red Mosque in Islamabad; and the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Barker certainly does not have the fondness for Pakistan that she does for Afghanistan, and her reason is not only that she gets her butt grabbed every time she’s caught up in a crowd. The vacuity of Islamabad is numbing, the bureaucracy stifling. Yet, it is here that she lives out the story that is the apogee of wackiness – a tale of concerted wooing by the former Primate Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif. You can’t make this stuff up.
Although Afghanistan and Pakistan are geopolitical epicenters, Barker doesn’t reveal any groundbreaking insights in this book. The West screwed up by not putting more resources into Afghanistan after 2001 and getting distracted by Iraq. Yep. The ISI (Pakistan’s version of the CIA) was instrumental in the rebirth of the Taliban. Uh huh.
While you typically get this information via the sonorous tones of terrorism experts and brow-furrowed news anchors, Barker gives you this dose of reality with a hefty helping of the ridiculous. Yes, she really does get to ride to a rally with the deposed chief justice because his advisors see her flailing in the crowd (she is once again “randomly catching hands mid-pinch and then hitting the offenders”) and invite her into the vehicle. Strange days, indeed.