Monday, 6 December 2021

Shadow City – A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N Khan

Catriona Troth

What We Thought of It:

“In this ‘amnesiac city’ I found that walking offered a way to exhume history – a kind of bipedal archaeology – as well as an excavation of the present.”

This is a view of Kabul very different from the ones that we in the West typically read.

Beginning in 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban government, Taran N Khan began a series of extended visits to Kabul, teaching video production techniques to employees of a government TV and radio station. Ignoring security advice never to walk anywhere in the city, she began to explore the city on foot, discovering things she would never have seen through the windows of a taxi or an armoured vehicle.

Khan is not Afghan. She was born in Aligarh in India. But her family are Pashtun (or Pathans, as they are known in India), part of the same family as one of the main ethnic groups of Afghanistan, and her arrival in Kabul feels like a return to a place she has never known. So though she views Kabul as an outsider, she comes to it through very different perspective than the typical western journalist or foreign aid worker.

The book is organised thematically – it begins with an exploration of bookshops, searching for books to read during the long evenings in a city with no nightlife. She finds the Public Library that survived, depleted, both the civil war and Taliban rule. She moves on to graveyards - some formal, like those built to inter foreign soldiers who died in colonial-era wars; others scattered, graves dotted wherever space can be found. She finds names without graves, graves without bodies.

She witnesses how heritage is erased, not only through deliberate destruction, but sometimes just through neglect, through looking away and doing nothing.

She explores the history of cinema in Afghanistan – from the film makers trying to create an Afghan Bollywood, to those who risked everything to hide and preserve precious documentary footage of modern Afghan history.

She discovers hidden epidemic of mental health issues – unsurprising in a country that has suffered decades of civil war, but still considered a matter of shame. She uncovers the complex rituals of courtship in a city where it is difficult for young men and women to meet as couples – and also the over-the-top culture of wedding extravaganza. “If love is a secret language, a code tapped out beneath the surface of the city, Kabuli weddings are the opposite. They are declarations of love and manifestations of romance on a monumental scale.”

Khan’s familiarity with the history of Kabul enables her to portray its present reality against the rich tapestry of its cultural heritage, of its poets and storytellers. Its reformers, who fought to bring modernisation and liberal ideas long before the West marched in in 2001. And its record of once offering sanctuary to those caught up in wars and conflict.

“To call Kabul an amnesiac city […] could also refer, I realised, to its obscured culture, to the vanishing of the very idea of Kabul as a city with history; with a specific, cosmopolitan way of life.”

Through Khan, we are also privy to the ways in which Kabul changed between 2006 and Khan’s final trip in 2014. How the early euphoria of liberation became bogged down in corruption and disillusionment. How more and more of the city barricaded itself of behind high security walls, while in other parts homelessness and drug use spiralled.

“With each return to Kabul, I saw the city retreating into itself. […] A patina of disillusionment […] lay over Kabul’s streets, which were increasingly difficult to walk on.”

Just a week or so after I finished reading this book, the evacuation of US and UK troops from Kabul began. I felt this book had prepared me to understand, much more clearly, how what followed was not a surprise, how the path to the ‘fall’ of Kabul has been clearly written over many years.

“In the space between what I saw and what I wrote, Kabul twisted its shape and changed. It has changed again, even as you read it. Bood, nabood. It appears and vanishes with the shift of the kaleidoscope, with the way of seeing.

I marked dozens of passages throughout this book as I read. Khan’s language is beautiful, her sympathy for the people of Kabul manifest. This may be a last glimpse of a city that will soon no longer recognisably exist – or it may chart just another turn of the wheel in a long, long history.

Winner of the Stanford Dolman Travel Book of the Year 2021  

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Avoid If You Dislike: Travelogues that challenge your preconceptions

Perfect Accompaniment: Kawah - green tea with cardamom, cinnamon bark and saffron.

Genre: Non Fiction, Travelogue

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