The Taliban Shuffle, by Kim Barker, is in some ways the anti-13 Hours (at least in my very limited non-fiction reading experience). Where 13 Hours had such a narrow focus as to be almost useless to a reader who wants to learn anything about the situation in Libya, The Taliban Shuffle is almost impossibly broad. Partly a reflection of the (old-fashioned now, probably) foreign newspaper correspondent’s life, in which one person is expected to keep tabs on multiple countries‘ worth of news.
And not only keep tabs, but be present to report on any newsworthy incidents anywhere at any given time – Barker describes multiple holidays curtailed or sacrificed to her job. Another reason to be grateful to live in a country with labour laws. It’s not many places (I hope) that an employer would be able to get away with that without a fight.
It’s hard to pigeonhole the book; part memoir, part primer on Afghan and Pakistani politics in the 2000s, part case study on the decline of print journalism in the US. But despite the sprawling, sometimes messy nature of the narrative (characters are introduced as and when relevant, political relationships and institutions brought in with pithy one-line summaries) I was fascinated from beginning to end.
The personal anecdotes are honest and clear about the impossibility of giving her whole life to not only her job but two different countries, with increasingly poor support from her employer even as the stories she’s reporting become more and more relevant and interesting to the readership. More and more important in a global context, really. The mindset of a foreign correspondent in a war zone seems to be fundamentally incompatible with the mindset of someone who wants to have a family, see their family, live any kind of stable life. Barker is honest and informative about being a woman in both a hugely male-dominated job and very Islamic countries, or at least about being a white Western woman in these countries, which she acknowledges is a different experience altogether to having been brought up there. The borderline sexual harassment ‘checkpoints’, being groped in every crowd in Pakistan, being hit on by overprotective, overmoneyed politicians, and even, to be honest, a relationship breakdown between Barker and another journalist) in which her part seems to have been “a lack of support” (the other guy’s part was “a temper”) smacks of the expectations held of her as a woman. But she describes the upsides as well – how being a Western woman is like being a third gender, freer than local women but less threatening than a man.
Another contrast with 13 Hours is here is that Barker spent enough time actually living in both countries that she really knows her stuff. She followed the news, of course, and had local friends (though the expat/foreign community seems to have been pretty insular) and made an effort to understand local customs (no ‘man jammies’ here, thank god). She gives a clear idea of the problems in these countries that I at least feel like I only seem to catch oblique glimpses of through news stories. These are problems that I find I often just give up trying to understand, impossible tangles of hopelessness. so reading this book was good for me, I think. I wonder how much of Afghanistan today Barker would recognise, if she went back (about a decade has passed since the events she describes in her book), but at least the book gives a snapshot of how we all ended up where we are.
Barker’s journalist view is invaluable in another way, in that she retains as much neutrality as we’re likely to get. Yes, I know no one is neutral, and I know she’s an outsider, but quality news reporting is about the only place where you could get away with sharing blame among Pakistani governments, Afghan governments, the chaotic approach of international aid, short-termism and the ignorance of local customs by foreign armies, well-organised enemies and plain bad luck.
So, a couple of small nitpicks I had: Barker consistently refers to interpreters as translators, and as a translator (i.e., someone who translates text and not speech) this gets on my wick more than you can understand. This isn’t like the made-up arbitrary distinction between being a ‘writer’ and an ‘author’ (yes! I went there! There is no objective difference between those two things than personal preference! Fight me!), these are radically different skillsets requiring radically different qualifications. Being an interpreter is much harder and cooler than being a translator, and not only should they be recognised, but I always feel like I’m disappointing people when they realise I don’t interpret, so let’s put this to bed now.
The other thing is the prose itself. I mean, it’s fine, clear and succinct as to be expected from a veteran journalist, but I found some (quite a lot) of her jokey asides to fall a bit flat and wander into the realm of cliche, especially annoying when the situation she was describing was amazing enough on its own. If I was the queen of the world, I’d have cut every single simile and been happy.
But on the whole this one is highly recommended. If you don’t know much about South Asia and want to know more, if you’re interested in the unsung corners of journalism, if you want to read more about someone living away from home in a country she loves and hates and with no fetishisation of the other and no jingoistic demonisation of the other, or if you just want to read some good anecdotes, give this one a try.
Barker does slip into generalisations sometimes, but things like that don’t bother me so much, perhaps because I’ve lived abroad (and still do) and it’s frankly just how you get. It’s not specific to English-speaking people going to non-English-speaking countries, or white people going to non-white countries, it’s just how you get by. Anyone who’s moved away from the land where they were born has loved and hated things just because they were different to the things you grew up with, has thought “ugh, these people,” and “aww, these people!” It’s how you survive, how you begin to define yourself and your culture and experience as a culture, an experience, and not simply the default state of the universe. So no, I’m not that bothered by people describing their experiences even if we don’t think they conform to what is “nice”, at least not of people making an effort. I do still have a problem with invading other people’s countries and the mindsets that go along with that.