Walks through Kabul | Daily News


Walks through Kabul

Title: Shadow City

Author: Tarun Khan


From graveyards to cinemas, bookshops to ‘poppy palaces’ … perilous walks through the Afghan capital offer a unique on-the-ground view of the city.

Taran Khan starts her journeys to Kabul with defiant optimism. She travels from India in 2006, five years after the apparent overthrow of the Taliban, to join a city filling up with aid workers and international consultants. One of the first things she is told when she arrives to take up work training Afghan journalists is never to walk in the city, advice that she promptly ignores. Shadow City is an account of a series of long visits to Kabul over eight years, charting the city’s changes as it takes hopeful steps towards recovering from conflict, before sinking back into turbulence.

While the employees of big aid agencies are ferried around in armoured cars, observing everything from behind the tinted glass of their SUVs, Khan is out on the streets, stepping through the mud, dipping into markets, listening to birds on the bare branches of trees “singing songs of the approaching dusk”.

This book is a refreshing counterpoint to the macho foreign correspondent genre, typically more preoccupied with al-Qaida’s generals, the progress and setbacks of the US military campaign and the flourishing opium trade. Khan prefers to be on the ground, wandering into graveyards, bookshops and cinemas. There are challenges, but some of these she has already navigated growing up in the northern Indian city of Aligarh: walking on the streets there as a young woman came with intense male scrutiny, which, she writes, has heightened her awareness of no-go areas and intensified her appreciation of walking as a luxury. It is interesting to read her perspectives on Afghanistan, filtered through the lens of her conservative Indian upbringing.

To begin with she follows a 1960s English language guidebook, Nancy Hatch Dupree’s An Historical Guide to Kabul, but the suggested routes have become more perilous; on one expedition she notes that street children have recently been killed in a suicide bombing on the recommended path. On another excursion to visit a hillside settlement, a colleague shows her how to navigate a road that has been cleared of mines, instructing her to walk on the white stones. She picks her way through, repeating in her head anxiously: “Red stones mean danger, white stones mean safety.” But she is embarrassed by her own apprehension, noting that this is a route taken by dozens of families every day.

Reviewed by Amelia Gentleman

for The Guardian

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