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Dec 16, 2020

Unshackling Kabul From Cliches: An Interview With Author Taran Khan

Taran N. Khan's ‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’ won the 2020 Tata Literature Live! first book award in the non-fiction category.
Afghan schoolgirls pause by the side of the road in Kabul, November 7, 2019. Photo: Thomson Reuters Foundation/Rina Chandran

The very act of a woman walking alone is enough to make curious heads turn in most cities around the world. More often than not, whichever alley or main road it may be, the male gaze eventually makes itself known. For the walker, the act can be both infused with fear and and a sense of rebellion. It is for exactly that reason why Taran N. Khan’s book Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul is conceptually startling at first glance – the idea of a woman walking around the war-torn city of Kabul in Afghanistan can seem foreign in its own way.

Yet, the book, which recently won the 2020 Tata Literature Live! first book award in the non-fiction category, slips past that hindrance by keeping its focus on peeling back the layers of a city which is much more than its blackened localities and its violent reputation. Over the course of the book, we are given access to a cityscape that speaks of hope, of evolving culture and ways of life, and of a city that has learned how to endure the various tests time has put it through.

In an interview to The Wire, Khan speaks about how the idea of the book emerged during her various visits to the city as a journalist, the changes she witnessed over the years and how the world seems to view Kabul only through the lens of violence even though it has a lot more to offer.

“Along with these wounds that war has left in the everyday life of the city, there are also sights of happiness, and also sights of banality and routine – all the shades you would expect to see in a city you know. We tend to forget this, I think, or erase it when we imagine Kabul as a place of distant, unrelenting violence,” she says.

Read the full interview below.

The book covers a period between 2006 and 2013 – a lot happened with regard to the Taliban over those years. During that time, you visited the city a lot for work. When did the idea of writing a book strike you? And how did you land on the format of basing it around your walks in the city? 

As you say, it was a time of great changes – but the import of many of these changes appeared clearly only in hindsight. Early 2006, when I first came to Kabul, seemed to be a time of relative hope and security for the city – at least with respect to the rest of the country. As I returned over the subsequent years, I could see things shifting, and one way of capturing these changes was by mapping my walks around the city. It was also a good device to explore its many layers – through expeditions into memory, mythology, poetry and fables.

Often, all the details that seemed most interesting or revealing to me would end up not fitting into the formats of news or feature stories. I began to wonder how I could best describe the feeling of being in Kabul, of walking down its streets and learning about a locality, or finding a new insight into a familiar landmark. This eventually grew into the idea for a book.

‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’, by Taran N. Khan.

How did being part-Pashtun influence your interactions with Afghans? 

I think it was being an Indian that really inflected my time in Kabul. A lot of the book is about this – how I related to the city and its spaces and its people as a woman from India. Kabulis tend to give warm welcomes to Indians and I had a lot of conversations over tea about Bollywood films. But it was also a deeper and richer connection than that. Often, people would say things like – ‘You know, Indians and Afghans have a lot in common’. That thought really stayed with me.

And then there was my maternal grandfather, who I called Baba, who had a deep yet ephemeral connection to this city that he had never visited. From his study in Aligarh, he revealed links through books and poetry and history and music, that often guided my steps in Kabul. This feeling of connection and our shared culture is very central to my experience and understanding of Kabul.

Walking about any Indian town or city solo as a woman is no mean task. You address this in the foreword of your book, where you refer to growing up in Aligarh and easing into the idea of taking space in a very male dominated public sphere. The male gaze is something we all have to force ourselves to get accustomed to. How did you cross this hurdle when it came to your Kabul walkabouts?

As you mentioned, this was something that was familiar to me, because of my experiences in Aligarh and in other parts of India. So being told not to walk was one more way in which Kabul felt somehow familiar. I felt that I had the skills and the knowledge to try walking here, and then just continued from there.

A city is a living, breathing entity, one which is forever changing and expanding with the march of time. How was it to visit Kabul one time, and then another time and witness the changes the city had undergone?

That’s a lovely way of putting it. Each visit did show me changes, from the shift in seasons to the transforming terrain. At the same time, I had continuity in the people I met; the friends who I would spend time with on each journey. The starkest physical changes were the security barricades that came up, and it was disconcerting to find roads vanished behind checkpoints or large concrete barriers and wires.

It also became evident by 2013 that the shift included how people from outside inhabited the city. Many NGO workers, for instance, ended up being confined to their compounds, or going out only in armoured cars. But at the same time, I also visited Afghan friends who had built their own homes in the city, after decades of displacement, and had found some measure of stability and prosperity.

Your wanderings through Kabul offer a rare glimpse of what day-to-day life looks like for its residents, thus giving readers more perspective than the usual war-torn narratives we are accustomed to reading. There must have been so many stories swirling around you, so how did you choose what to add to the book?

This is a great question. Of course, I began by writing a lot more than what ended up in the book. To me, everything was fascinating, and I wanted to pack it all in. Eventually what stayed was what I felt gave an insight into the city and its many layers. Once I had this structure in mind, it became easier to decide what to keep and what to leave out. It also became easier to stick to the things that truly interested me, rather than run through some kind of checklist of ‘issues’ that dominate discussions on Kabul, or what we expect from a book on a war zone.

Also read: The Travails of Afghanistan: A Contemporary History

On a more personal note, what was it like to walk back home after stumbling upon reminders of past and recent violence, from blackened schools to destroyed neighbourhoods? 

It’s challenging to see sites of trauma and violence and it certainly affected the way I related to Kabul. I also feel that in places like Kabul, we are primed to notice these sights but not really interrogate them. The biggest learning for me was understanding how complicated these sights are, and how they almost always have a history behind them that challenges easy narratives.

It’s also important to note that along with these wounds that war has left in the everyday life of the city, there are also sights of happiness, and also sights of banality and routine – all the shades you would expect to see in a city you know. We tend to forget this, I think, or erase it when we imagine Kabul as a place of distant, unrelenting violence.

One critique of the book has been that you didn’t put enough of yourself into the story. Was that deliberate – or a reflex, considering journalists are taught to keep the spotlight on the stories that surround us and not become the story? 

There are so many ways to write a book, and I picked this one because I was clear that I wanted the narrative to centre the city. My presence in the book serves the purpose of foregrounding my own perspective, and making connections between Kabul and other places, or adding other such insights. I did not hold back in this way, as I felt it was important for readers to know who was telling them this story. But I was also sure that this was not a book about a journalist, but about the city.

In a world that is more and more invested in visual currency, it’s interesting that you chose not to add photographs to the book. What was the reasoning behind it?

I was keen for readers to imagine the city for themselves. Often with photos of Kabul it’s easy to get bogged down in cliches, and many images tend to come loaded with meaning or emotion. That’s why I am also happy that the covers of both editions of the book are illustrations, that create a cityscape of the mind.

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