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Take me down to Kabul city

A kaleidoscopic book on the Afghan capital by journalist Taran N. Khan combines reportage and reflection

Children playing near the ruins of the Darul Aman Palace destroyed by shelling around 1992, during the civil war in Afghanistan
Children playing near the ruins of the Darul Aman Palace destroyed by shelling around 1992, during the civil war in Afghanistan (Photo: Alamy)

Hazar baar boro, sadd hazar baar biya." Go a thousand times, return a thousand times. This is the Persian phrase that Taran N. Khan’s grandfather—Baba, she called him—would send her off with every time she left for Kabul between the years 2006-13. During her stays in the Afghan capital, where she worked on assignments with local media professionals, she would construct mental maps of the fast-changing city by disregarding good-natured advice and walking through its neighbourhoods.

Shadow City—A Woman Walks Kabul: By Taran N. Khan, 272 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>599.
Shadow City—A Woman Walks Kabul: By Taran N. Khan, 272 pages, 599.

These maps she commits to sparkling prose (with dollops of the poetry that is intrinsic to the Pathan way of life) in Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul. The narrative is built on the back of countless conversations with Kabulis from various walks of life: poets, doctors, opium addicts, film-makers, librarians. Their city appears as a palimpsest of “returns" and “absences" (these are also chapter titles) where forgetting would be recommended but is not really possible. Decades of war and political betrayal have addled the dusty air of Kabul, but the memory of winter sunlight gently toasting a mountain-ringed city leaves an indelible mark on those who once and now call it home.

Taran N. Khan
Taran N. Khan (Photo: Jonathan Page)

It is a city and a part of the world that is particularly suited to the elegy. Almost 40 years ago, in what were to be only the early days of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the writer Bruce Chatwin had written this in a foreword to a new edition of Robert Byron’s The Road To Oxiana (1937): “But that day will not bring back the things we loved: the high, clear skies and the blue icecaps on the mountains.... We will not read Babur’s memoirs in his garden at Istalif and see the blind man smelling his way around the rose bushes…. We will not stand on the Buddha’s head at Bamiyan, upright in his niche like a whale in a dry-dock.... Never. Never. Never." When Khan visits Bamiyan, the niches are empty, dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. From a distance, they appear to be yawns in the cliff face, but surely they are silent screams. The Kabul stories Khan collects are like that: silent screams for a city that was and the city it could be. Lounge spoke to Khan at the Jaipur Literature Festival last month about her own experience of a storied city. Edited excerpts:

You had several stints in Kabul through seven years. Did you know then that your experiences would turn into a book?

I was writing and reporting for Indian publications from the first journey in 2006. These pieces were typically not newsy, they were feature stories. They started getting longer, and then became these long essays that were more abstract and experimental in content. That is when I started thinking about the idea of a book, maybe as a collection of essays.

An Excerpt from the book
An Excerpt from the book

The period was 2006-13. Your book came out in 2019. Did you feel like more recent events had overtaken your experiences and made them slightly dated?

Yes, I did face this question when I started writing the book since every few months, something would change. I had to ask myself, Is this a book about currents events? For me, the answer was no. It is a book that seeks to explain the city as I experienced it during the period I was there, which also happens to be a time of crucial transformation and flux in Kabul. You are moving from 2006—five years after the Taliban, when there is still hope and you are on the cusp of major changes—to 2013, a year before the coalition forces end their combat mission. So, after a point, it became an easy call for me.

2006 in Kabul, you write, was “a time that was not quite war but certainly not peace" and you say that you realized that only retrospectively. What about your last few visits, were you more acutely aware that it was “certainly not peace" then?

By 2013, it was quite clear to most people in Kabul that the security situation was worse. It was a gradual process; I can’t set a date to when it became abundantly clear. Slowly, the city is expanding as the population is growing and these are people who have been internally displaced by the conflict in Afghanistan. Kabul used to be the safest place in the country, and the measures taken to ensure its safety were building giant walls, erecting concrete barriers and creating zones of protection. This transformed the city in a fundamental way.

And you haven’t been back since 2013? Would you want to go back?

No, I haven’t. A lot would depend on the manner of return. Many of my Afghan friends have left. They have moved to different countries and are now refugees or they are trying to make their lives in different places. I really don’t know what the city will be like without them around. Even if I go, I know it will be to a very different city from the one I left behind.

There is a long tradition of writing about Afghanistan and Central Asia from the point of view of the white male “adventurer" who heads out to decode the wonders of the Orient. What is your relationship with this tradition?

These texts are quite hard to avoid if you are writing or thinking about the region, so I did read them. For me, it was quite easy to take what I wanted from them and make my own path from there. I am an Indian woman, and I write my own stories. For me, it was important to see that there is a way of writing about the place and then diverge from it.

What were some of the interesting texts you read about Afghanistan?

There is a wonderful Bengali travelogue about Afghanistan in the late 1920s (written by Syed Mujtaba Ali) that has been translated as In A Land Far From Home. There are the memoirs of two Swiss ladies, Annemarie Schwarzenbach and Ella Maillart, who drove in a Ford from Geneva to Kabul in 1939. These were very interesting to read. So there is a diversity even in these accounts, and I was happy to read everything and do my own thing. Svetlana Alexievich has written a phenomenal book—titled Zinky Boys—about the Soviets in Afghanistan, and it’s called so because the soldiers who were killed in the war were sent back to Russia in coffins made of zinc. It is a feat of memory and reportage, and it made me realize that there are many ways to tell a story. The voices of these women, which I discovered while working on this book, are very special to me.

There’s something your grandfather says in the book: “Some cities I’ve never visited but I know well." Do you feel like that about a place anywhere in the world?

I would say Istanbul. That is always a city that is calling out to me. I have this idea in my head that I would like to live there for some time.

Vikram Shah is a Delhi-based writer and editor.

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