Taran Khan is a former writer-in-residence at the Jan Michalski Foundation in Montricher, Switzerland, where she wrote and revised much of this book. (See her Global Geneva article: Living in a treehouse on her Fellowship experience).
Years ago, while on an 18-month reporting trip across Africa by Land Rover, I encountered a wizened Belgian ex-colonial, one of those coarse roué types, who knew the continent like the back of his hand. He nodded politely when I explained the purpose of my journey, notably to see the ‘real’ Africa. “You do realize that the only way to really explore a place is to do it by foot. You need to follow the contours of the land,” he said.
Of course, he was right. While I may have walked much of Afghanistan as a foreign correspondent covering its still dragging war, I have never properly walked Kabul. So Shadow City is not only a privilege but a pleasure to read. Based on a series of walking ‘journeys’, Taran N. Khan has explored Kabul’s own different contours and in the process has introduced me to a city that I should know better.
For many Afghans, this city – or “multitude of cities” as Khan puts it – remains “Dil ho jahan hamara” or “the home where our hearts live”. This is something one begins to appreciate when absorbing Khan’s intriguing tales, particularly the manner with which she allows the soul of this ancient city to emerge through its many layers and memories. Her tales of the city are about both people and places, whether graveyards, hidden gardens, poets, psychiatrists, wedding palaces, hairdressers, djinns or Afghanistan’s own ‘Kollywood’ version of Sylvester Stallone.
Unlike Khan’s, my own relationship to the Afghan capital has been largely from the outside, primarily because for years I could only report the war from the countryside. Controlled by the Soviets during their nearly decade-long occupation, Kabul remained largely out-of-bounds to western journalists. So it became an almost mystical forbidden city. Later, when I finally did manage to enter its battle-shattered walls from the early 1990s onwards, I always felt the need to head back out into the rural areas, away from what has now become a sprawling, pollution-choked city.
Kabul: A city that people never really leave
In many ways, provincial Afghans demonstrate a similar affinity to Kabul. Whether Badakshani villagers in the north or nomads herding their sheep and camels in the semi-arid wastelands of Helmand to the south, they often talk about Kabul as from another world. A remote capital over which they have no control; but which reciprocally exerts little authority over them. At the same time, there are the nostalgic reminiscences of its exiles, now living in France or Canada perhaps, recalling the days when Kabul must have been an extraordinary city, or at least, as Khan suggests, their perception of what it once was.
Khan’s story-telling in Shadow City fully reflects this melancholy. As she also points out, the world often imagines Kabul as “a place that people flee from” yet those who have lived there never really leave. Each individual has his or her own Kabul story, even if it no longer has much bearing on today’s reality.
The city’s tragedy is that it is a place where decades of war have destroyed most material things, yet “the deepest signs of damage are often found on human beings”. Evoking the importance of Djinns, Khan observes that according to Islamic tradition, they are considered creatures of smokeless fire; usually remaining unseen, they nevertheless affect our lives. It is the djinns, she maintains, who reflect Afghanistan’s PTSD and other psychological problems, including the dramatic rise of drug addiction. They take charge of shattered minds and bodies. “Walking through Kabul, it is impossible not to see the djinns shadowing the steps of the living…always burning with terrible clarity,” she writes.
A writer’s ‘return’
As a Westerner, I have to admit that I would never have thought of looking at the country’s psychological disorders through this angle. Yet this is what makes Khan’s take on Kabul so unusual. As a Muslim woman from India, she is able to present a unique social and historical perspective. With her ancestors supposedly from Afghanistan, Khan’s first trip to Kabul is somewhat romantically described as a ‘return’. She admits that her roots may actually lie in its frontier regions with what is today Pakistan, but is still considered right up to the Indus River by Afghans as theirs. No Kabul government has ever recognized the 1893 Durand Line unilaterally imposed by the British that today divides the two countries,
Another facet is that Khan finds her own upbringing in Aligarh east of Delhi to be not unlike what many young Kabuli women must contend with. She draws on her own adolescence as a way of explaining the rituals of navigating a still deeply-entrenched society with its own traditions and rules. “Looking for love in Kabul is something like looking at a mirror under a veil – it reveals and conceals the secret face of the beloved.” Courtship often means that young people may not even know the boy or girl they fancy. Much depends on being able to attend a certain cinema showing or to meet secretly in another part of town. The idea is to avoid being reported to a family member, such as the hapless youth who suddenly finds himself reprimanded within minutes over a mobile phone by his father living in Europe.
On reading Shadow City, I recalled my own first encounter with Kabul at the end of the 1960s, when, as part of a gap year, I had travelled the overland hippy trail from Europe to Delhi. I only spent a few days in Kabul, staying in a cheap Old Town guest house overlooking the parched, rubbish-strewn Kabul River. There were a lot of westerners hanging out then, many of them smoking the best of Afghan hash and sitting in chaikhane (tea houses) blaring the Rolling Stones and Credence. Khan recalls these hippy days, when Afghanistan – or at least Kabul – was undergoing rapid westernization during the 1960s and 70s, such as the wearing of miniskirts and embracing the concept of being ‘modern’.
I next returned to Kabul two months prior to the Soviet invasion in December 1979, but this time as a journalist. Civil conflict had broken out during the previous summer bringing an end to what many Afghans had hoped would be a new economic era firmly pushing their country into the 20th century. The hippies had gone and so had most Western diplomats. Ordinary Afghans sought to carry on with their lives, or, as repression grew, were preparing to leave as refugees. Then came the Red Army. My only direct contact with the city consisted primarily of clandestinely skirting the Afghan capital with the mujahideen (Afghan guerrillas) just beyond the last Red Army security perimeter, but close enough at night to see its lights. It was only in 1993 following the mujahed takeover and then again during the Talib period that I was able to wander Kabul again.
A capital with the energy of a gold rush
Many memories from these periods are reflected in Shadow City. But as Khan depicts so lyrically, much has changed since. When she writes about Jada-e-Maiwand, an Old Town thoroughfare which the hippies used to frequent, or Shahr-e-Nau with its transformation from a relatively quiet suburb to a hub of high rent international aid offices, guest houses and restaurants, she is signalling the impact of Kabul’s overwhelming construction boom, which followed the 2001 NATO intervention. In 2007, Khan notes, “the capital was abuzz with the energy of a gold rush”, much of the impetus coming from “the transient currents of foreign aid and foreign military bases.” All of which, Khan makes clear, has led to the massive urban changes that today make Kabul virtually unrecognizable to those who knew it from before.
Khan explores the impact of these periods through her own encounters with modern-day Kabulis. Much of this transformation has been without doubt the result of years of war, but the city has also witnessed drastic overhaul fuelled by constant power transitions from the first ‘modernist’ period under Amanullah Khan of the 1920s, which brought with it European-style architecture and customs, leading up to the repressive communist faction days of the 1970s and 80s. This was followed by the Taliban and then the 2001 international intervention resulting in more war, massive corruption, drug trafficking, new enterprises and unconstrained urban construction.
I found myself touched by many of Khan’s tales. They have filled in the gaps and reminded me, sometimes with amusement but also sadness, of exceptional people, absurd incidents and tragedies of the past. But this is not a book just for Afghan wallahs, or afficionados. It readily talks to those who are curious about a place they have heard about but know little. The city’s multi-layered characteristics based on memories, story-telling, film, music, poetry and anecdotes convey a sense of what this evocative capital used to be to so many Afghans – and what it represents today with all its nostalgia-crumbling changes.
The British Cemetery: a graveyard for foreigners
For example, the manner with which Kabul reveals itself up through its graveyards. “The dead were as much part of the landscape as the living, providing one of the few points of stability in a constantly changing terrain,” writes Khan. As the city constantly expands, “paths emerge through these markers, like secret passages leading across the hills and between homes.” Khan takes us to one of the city’s more orderly graveyards, the Christian or British cemetery at Sherpur, locally known as the Qabre Gora, or “Graveyard for Foreigners”, where soldiers of the Raj dating back to the Anglo-Afghan wars of the 19th and early 20th centuries, but also hippies, engineers as well as explorers lie.
“It is a rare record of Kabul’s obscure past,” Khan observes. For me, however, there is nothing obscure about two friends who lie there, Dan Terry and Tom Little. Both dedicated Afghan hands, they were executed in cold blood in 2010 with eight other aid workers while providing eye and dental care to remote mountain villagers.
Overall, Khan’s walks lend us with a sense of what this city has become today, often illustrating an erosive clash between “the old” and “the new”. Her account of the elaborate wedding palaces of Kabul, where families feel obliged to spend fortunes for social reasons are a good example of this. It is the price of being modern. At the same time, these new urban Afghans must deal with their more conservative family members, often from the provinces, who are shocked by the raciness of high-fashion dresses.
A city built on corruption, drugs and strong-arming
Or the hidden garden compounds with their fruit trees and flowers that still proliferate the old parts of the city. They remind one of a past that no longer exists or is fast disappearing. Not just because the war has changed everything but because even these traditional family homes are being rented out, subdivided or bulldozed to make room for grotesque, Dubai-style villas and office blocks built on corruption, drugs and strong-armed warlord power.
But Khan’s journeys also take us to the inner courtyards of Sherpur, the bustling backlanes of Shor Bazaar, the hip western-style cafes of Wazir Akbar Khan or the hillsides of Koh-e-Sher Darwaza or Koh-e-Asmai with their absorbing views of the city. All touch a memory or impart a sense of history and culture relative to Afghanistan’s past and present.
One ‘walk’, for example, takes us to Shah M Book Co., Kabul’s iconic corner bookshop at Charahi Sadarat with its pirated and legal editions of books about Afghanistan. Shah Muhammad Rais, its owner, is also indirectly featured not too favourably in the best-selling Bookseller of Kabul by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad. This, in turn, leads to the importance, if not obsession, of poetry in the lives of ordinary Afghans. Khan’s exploration of Kabul’s Public Library is a gem for further appreciating the respect for books in the lives of Afghans. Threatened by destruction during the civil war of the 1990s and then efforts by the Taliban to burn all pictures of humans and animals, this amazing and incredibly dusty archive of knowledge has somehow survived, reflecting a crucial aspect of this country’s rich literary legacy.
In a similar vein, Khan introduces us to Afghanistan’s passion for cinema, primarily Bollywood and, more recently, western movies, but also Saleem Shaheen, “one of the few Kabulis who not only inhabits this world of make-believe, but also constructs it,” she maintains. As the country’s self-proclaimed most popular actor, director and producer, Shaheen has coexisted with Afghanistan’s cycles of conflict and displacement. Seeing himself as the Sylvester Stallone of Afghanistan, he claims to have produced more than a hundred films, most of them high action films, each shot in a matter of days.
“The road to Kabul is made of stories,” Khan writes. For me, her enchanting tales have in so many ways opened numerous doors to this ‘shadowland’ city, which today sadly remains caught up in a combination of ongoing war and uneven peace. Not only are these stories reminders of what many may want forgotten, but also perhaps stand out as symbols of how little this city has in fact changed beneath all its layers.
Taran Khan. (Photo: Jonathan Page)
Shadow City – A Woman Walks Kabul” by Taran N. Khan is published by Chatto & Windus – Penguin Random House in the UK. Khan is an Indian journalist and writer based in Mumbai. She has spent long periods living and working in Kabul. Much of this book was written and revised as part of a Writing Fellowship with the Jan Michalski Foundation at its literary centre in Montricher, Switzerland.
For more details on the book, please also see: LINK
For the e-version of this book, please click HERE.
Global Geneva editor Edward Girardet is a foreign correspondent and author currently based between Geneva and Bangkok. He first began reporting Afghanistan two months prior to the Soviet invasion on 27 December, 1979. He has written or edited half a dozen books, including “The Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan,” now in its fourth fully revised edition. He is also author of Killing the Cranes: A reporter’s journey through three decades of war in Afghanistan (Chelsea Green Publishers)”referred to by the New York Review of Books as a ‘classic’.