Kim Barker Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Kim Barker
Photo: William Coupon

Kim Barker

An interview with Kim Barker

Kim Barker shares an introductory letter to readers of The Taliban Shuffle and, in an in-depth interview, talks about her years reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

When I arrived in India in 2004, I started keeping notes on everything, always with the intent of writing that foreign-correspondent tome that every foreign correspondent seems to write. I just didn't know which one. Serious and noteworthy, I figured. I had won most of my journalism awards at The Seattle Times for being a good digger, a good investigative reporter. And I was great at pathos. I could do grim with the best of them.

It didn't work out that way.

The germ of this book started over cocktails in Kabul, no doubt. Someone needed to write a book about the crazy social scene, the disco and toga parties, the fact that the constraints of working in Afghanistan and the desire for release turned everything into a drunken fraternity party. Somebody needed to update M*A*S*H. At least, that's what everyone said, while drinking bootlegged bottles of Jacob's Creek red that stained our teeth purple and cost $40 instead of $6. All the journalists joked about doing such a book, but buried with daily stories and the increasingly grim scene, no one did.

I thought about it - but I wanted any book to be bigger than that. While in the U.S. in 2007, suffering from sinusitis, flying high on cold medicine, I thought: David Sedaris meets the war on terror. Now there was a challenge. Humor is subjective, and funny is tough to write, especially funny involving war. This way, I could take the Kabul parties and blend that scene with my other travels.

For years it was just an idea. But after my job came to an end in 2009, I decided to take a risk and try to write it.

The title "The Taliban Shuffle" came long before the book. That's what all the journalists and the militants did - shuffling back and forth across the vague border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. I then decided to use song titles off my iPod as chapter titles, coming up with a new shuffle play list, the Taliban shuffle. The book is divided into two sections: "Kabul High," which chronicles the adrenaline-fueled life of expats in Afghanistan, and "Whack-A-Stan," which chronicles my time in Pakistan and also highlights U.S. strategy in the region, which occasionally resembles the old carnival game, Whac-A-Mole. (Hit the mole in one place, and it only pops out somewhere else.)

The book itself took seven months of writing, two months of procrastinating and five months of occasionally looking at it and editing. In a way, it had written itself over six years, through emails and journals. Writing was cathartic - doesn't every foreign correspondent say that? It's not as if I was rewriting history through humor - most Afghans and Pakistanis are hilarious, and gallows humor is the prevalent form there. But through this book, I could finally write through everything I had seen in a way that somehow made sense, even when it didn't make any kind of sense whatsoever, and in a way that normal people might want to read. Whenever I'm asked about what it was like in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I have an easy one-word response: Absurd. I think The Taliban Shuffle reflects that.

When I read the book now, I still laugh, but I also feel a sense of fury in it - fury at how all those hopes in Afghanistan were dashed, fury at the lost chances, fury at what's happened to the newspaper industry. Maybe that's why it moves so quickly.

I made some clear choices in the book. It is about how people live, not how they die, at least most of the time. It is deliberately self-deprecating. I didn't want to write a book about how a foreign correspondent goes into a country, inexplicably knows everything and comes across as some kind of hero. I've read that book. I wanted the reader to come on a journey with me - in many ways, I became a foil for the U.S., well-intentioned but bumbling. And in many ways, my translator/fixer/close friend Farouq is the best of Afghanistan - proud, clever and patriotic. Samad and Tammy are the best of Pakistan.

- Kim Barker

Kim Barker discusses her memoir, The Taliban Shuffle, a true life Catch-22 about her years reporting in Pakistan and Afghanistan

In The Taliban Shuffle it seemed that you connected more with Afghanistan than you did with Pakistan. Why is that?

In some part, I connected more to Afghanistan because I connected more to FarouIn Pakistan, I struggled more to find a translator and a team that I could trust. But I also connected more to Afghanistan because it just seemed so much more interesting – wild, stark, beautiful. From the beginning, it felt like the most foreign place I could imagine. Also in Afghanistan, it was much easier to do good stories. People talked to me. I could interview the country's interior minister, the foreign minister, with little problem. In Pakistan, the red tape was entrenched, the country was more advanced. Islamabad felt like a cookie-cutter capital from anywhere in the West. Work was also more of a challenge. Talking to a top level official was often impossible. The government also regulatedwhere we could go – or more accurately, where we couldn't. I got tired at points of all the smoke and mirrors there.

The Pashtun code heavily influenced your interactions in Afghanistan, from your relationship with your fixer to your interviews with warlords. Can you explain common customs and how they helped or hinder your reporting? Also, does the United States understand this aspect of the culture and respond effectively?

The code is complicated, and in certain parts it's been eroded by war or modern life, but in very simple terms the code means a mix of hospitality, revenge, pride and eye-for-an-eye justice. This can seem confusing, in that most Pashtuns will welcome strangers into their homes – such as me, such as U.S. troops – and serve tea and elaborate meals. That doesn't necessarily mean the stranger is a friend, but if called to protect that stranger, the host family usually will. The code also means that if something happens to a member of the tribe, the entire tribe is obligated to take revenge. The longer the revenge takes, the more elaborate, the better. With pride – let's just say insulting a Pashtun's pride or shaming him will not necessarily bring you the result you want. The justice system can often seem barbaric to the West – trading a young daughter to a family to settle a blood feud – but it's still the way a lot of people live in rural areas. Obviously, parts of the Pashtun code were a huge help to me as a reporter. I could just show up at someone's doorstep and be invited in – even though I was a woman, most men would talk to me – and served tea and lunch. As long as I didn't insult anyone (and Farouq prevented me from doing so), I was welcome. The code also meant that if ever something went wrong in a rural area, we knew we could probably find refuge.

I think the United States understands that the code exists and what it means, much more so now than in the very beginning. But practically, it's difficult. U.S. troops usually travel around with guns and body armor – what choice do they have? Yet this is not necessarily seen as good guest behavior in Afghanistan. Also, civilian casualties are inevitable in war. But the increasing numbers of those casualties in insurgent hotbeds have only turned more people against the U.S. and NATO-led troops. I think the U.S. understands this. But I don't know that officials have yet come up with a satisfying answer to the dilemma.

I also think that U.S. troops and some Western development workers continue to mistake Pashtun hospitality for support for the mission. They're just not the same.

You developed a very strong friendship and professional relationship with Farouq, your fixer and translator. You relied on him for your travels, interviews, survival and success in Afghanistan. And, while it's clear how much respect and admiration you two have for each other, you often butted heads. You even describe your interactions as being like an old married couple. Please tell us more about your friendship with Farouq and the closeness and difficulties of the working relationship between a journalist and his or her fixer.

A fixer is essentially a journalist's paid best friend – or at least, that's how the relationship starts out. In a country like Afghanistan, I'd sometimes go days without interviewing anyone who spoke English. If I didn't have Farouq, or someone like him, I just couldn't work. Since Farouq and I worked together for so long, though, we had a much different relationship than other fixers andjournalists. He was one of the first fixers I ever worked with. I knew him when he was single – now he is married to a wonderful woman and has three children. He knew me when I was so green, I thought it was a good idea to tell a warlord he seemed like a nice guy. In many ways, we grew up together. During that time, I evolved from someone who needed Farouq for everything to someone who was much more independent and savvy. Farouq evolved from his life revolving around work to his life revolving more around family. We definitely argued at times, but any time you spend that much time with the same person – when you know each other that well – you inevitably butt heads. Especially when you each have a strong personality. We're still close, even though we're no longer in the same country. I've visited him. His children call me "auntie." We talk every week or two. I'd like Farouq to visit the U.S., but getting him a visa has proved problematic.

Over the five years you lived in Asia, you went on seven different embeds with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. What surprised you? Was each one unique? Any common strands between all seven? And what sweeping changes did you noticed from 2005 to 2009?

Embeds were all fairly similar, except for the one I did in Helmand, at a brand new forward-operating base. That was definitely the most primitive, definitely the one where I felt most at risk outside the wire. I was most surprised about how much U.S. troops talked to me about their personal lives, about what they really thought about what was happening. Most seemed very savvy, funny, dark. As the war progressed, there was definitely more of an understanding about Afghanistan, especially with troops who had been there before. But I also noticed much more of a weariness, a fatigue from pinballing between wars, and an underlying cynicism about what they would be able to accomplish.

Even though The Taliban Shuffle is a book about war and describes and comments on extremely serious events and consequences, there is a lot of humor— sometimes dark, sometimes laugh-out-loud funny—throughout. Do you often find humor in the absurd? Or, was this something that began when you were reporting abroad to make sense of your day-to-day life? Why was it important to you to imbue your story with wit and comedy?

I have always used humor as a way to cope with difficult situations, and I have always seen humor in the absurd. My parents forced me to watch M*A*S*H every week as a kid – maybe it stuck. I really wanted to write this story with wit because of three reasons. It was the only way I could make sense of the absurdity over there. I thought more people might be likely to read it, and learn about Afghanistan and Pakistan as a byproduct of the humor. And most Afghans and Pakistanis I know have a wicked sense of humor – when I told friends about what I was doing, they got it immediately.

You credit your ass for getting you into trouble, but also for getting you interviews. You were pinched and harassed so often in crowds that you were once offered shelter in the car of the chief justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, and you were suddenly granted direct access to Chaudhry. Shockingly, you were even pinched and prodded at Benazir Bhutto's funeral. How did you deal with such harassment? Was it continually surprising or something you grew to deal with?

I dealt with it violently. I punched people. I yelled. Some friends have suggested I shouldn't have been quite so honest about my violence in the book, because it makes me unlikeable at a point. But it's the truth. And I wasn't likeable at a point. At times, I was just very angry. I write about what happened in a very funny way, but whenever I was grabbed, it wasn't funny at all. I felt a violent rage. I wanted to hurt people. I never grew to deal with it. I never just accepted it. It always angered me. And as a foreign woman, I had it easy. Local women suffered much worse. And they could rarely do anything about it.

Pakistan's ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif pursues you romantically and asks you to be his ‘friend.' Can you describe this bizarre experience? Did women journalists often encounter such situations?

In the beginning, I just thought: Great. I've got a source that no one else has, the former prime minister of Pakistan. I didn't think that there was any way he was interested in me romantically – he was older, married, and I was just not the kind of woman that a man like that would pursue. Eventually, he offered to set me up on a date – although I found that strange, Pakistani friends told me that he was probably just playing matchmaker, and that this was part of his sense of humor. Soon, though, it became clear that he had romantic intentions. At a certainpoint, I had to stop interviewing him, because I found it too awkward.

Women journalists often encounter such situations, butprobably not to this extent. I've thought about it – what did I do to encourage Nawaz Sharif? Maybe it's because I like to joke around with people – even world leaders. It's part of my personality, this tendency to be irreverent and find humor wherever I can. He just misinterpreted this.

In TheTaliban Shuffle you describe the parties and decadence of foreigners: toga parties, dance and trampoline parties, karaoke nights. Is this a little-spoken-about pastime for journalists, embassy workers and NGO workers? Were the parties a necessity to counterbalance the grueling days?

It's not so unspoken about – journalists have certainly written about the social scene in a war zone, the decadence that comes. I think it's only natural. When people are cooped up all day, driven from home to work in armored cars, never allowed to go outside and play, and all they do is work, there's a natural desire for release, for escape. When there is danger, when something bad happens, people sometimes react by looking for company, for a temporary numbness. Living inAfghanistan is not easy. Parties and going out at night became a natural pressure release.

In writing about this scene, though, I wanted to be very careful not to portray myself as the journalist looking in at all this decadence, as somehow above it. I've seen stories written like that. But let's face it: The journalists were all hanging out at restaurants like L'Atmosphere just as much as anyone else, if not more so.

What was your most trying moment while reporting and where?

Most definitely, in the aftermath of the bombing at Benazir Bhutto's homecoming in Karachi in October 2007. More than 140 people died. The police invited me into the crime scene, showed me the head of the bomber, body parts. I leaned on a railing of Bhutto's armored truck – I put my hand in something I shouldn't, then wiped it on my jeans. I washed my shoes off, but I threw them away as soon as possible. In all my reporting, I had always tried not to become cynical, to see each victim as a human being with a family. Only that way could I write a compelling story. But there was just so much death here, an overwhelming amount. That night still bothers me.

What was your favorite experience that you took away from your travels and reporting?

It's incredibly tough to pick one. All of my favorite experiences revolve around being invited into people's homes, included in their lives. Like with Samad, my driver in Pakistan. He called me "sister," he let me come with him when he picked out a goat for the Eid al-Adha holiday, he let me into his home. His mother petted my hair – our only real way of communicating – and we ate on the floor. I liked getting to know people so well that I was no longer a special guest, that I was just a friend. I miss those small moments more than any grand event.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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