Taran N Khan’s Shadow City — A Woman Walks Kabul, an intimate portrait of the city

Ambika Shaligram
Saturday, 7 March 2020

Walking in Kabul is like looking through the kaleidoscope... and as journalist Taran N Khan makes her way through the city’s bazaars, squares, library, bookshop, graveyards, university, and archaeological site, wedding halls, we get intimate with each new image of Kabul.

Walking in Kabul is like looking through the kaleidoscope... and as journalist Taran N Khan makes her way through the city’s bazaars, squares, library, bookshop, graveyards, university, and archaeological site, wedding halls, we get intimate with each new image of Kabul. An image which is far removed from the pictures that we conjure up from reading the headlines of a city and a country (Afghanistan) that has seen war, destruction and loss. 

Khan’s book, Shadow City — A Woman Walks Kabul, published by Penguin Random House India, doesn’t sidestep from talking about war, Taliban, ISAF and the NATO, but the journalist in her takes the backseat, and the storyteller in her steps up, in ways which empathises with the people and their joys and sorrows and the yen to live. 

We get to meet the people who stayed in touch with their khak (soil or mitti) whether they lived in Kabul through the spiral of violence and chaos, or those who escaped briefly to neighbouring Pakistan or the far away Canada, USA or Germany and returned after the overthrow of Taliban government by the US-led coalition forces. 

As we write this, there is another turn in the fortune of the country as the USA and Taliban have signed a peace deal. But the time that the Mumbai-based journalist spent in Kabul, teaching video production techniques to radio and TV station employees, was one where most of it seemed optimistic on the surface. The real estate was booming, and people were rebuilding their homes, old landmarks giving space to new ones. 

Khan guided by her chats with Baba (her grandfather) on poetry and literature, discovers the city; Doctorsaab takes her on a nostalgia journey; Khalid is in search of his father and Nazira takes her to cafes, and in search of Shaheed Naheed, a girl who lost her life escaping the militia. There is an underlining despair to the stories that Khan narrates, but they don’t subsume us because almost always, the writer turns the kaleidoscope and we come face to face with resilience.

Here's more from Khan... 

- Can you tell us how you chose the ‘voice’ of the book, making it a more intimate one over the reporter’s instinct?
I wanted to find a way to tell these stories that allowed me to move between different spaces in the city, as well as through the layers of its past — to wander through its streets, stories and memories. And I was keen to find a form that let readers make their own connections to what I was describing. The voice of the book and its structure came about because of this. 

- Did you sift through many perspectives about Kabul, and how did you manage the popular vs lesser known?
My attempt was simply to describe the city as I saw it and talk about the things that seemed vital and interesting to me. It was possible to explore the different layers of the city each time I returned, as I could see what had changed and what remained constant. 

- It seems to us that it’s a biography of Kabul, but it has no photos. Did you toy with the idea of including pictures in the book?
I did think about it, but decided not to include photos because I wanted to allow readers to imagine the city for themselves. So many images of Kabul come loaded with stereotypes, and I did not want to get caught up with those.  

How have the Kabuli nurtured your soul?
I was fortunate in having people around me who helped me explore the city with intimacy and access. I received warm welcomes in most places, and witnessed the tradition of hospitality to guests that Kabul is known for. I think that as an Indian woman, I was also able to relate to people and forge connections, thanks to the shared culture of the region.  

- Can you tell us a little about poetry that Baba read out to you? Is that something very endemic to South Asian culture, a sher, poem for every occasion?
It’s a custom I find very beautiful, of producing a verse according to the occasion. My grandfather had a wide taste in poetry and also a great memory — he often recited couplets from Ghalib and Rumi, or the verses and ‘pahelis’ of Amir Khusrau. On his shelves I also found Pablo Neruda, Rabindranath Tagore and Mahmoud Darwish, in English translation. 

- Have you made any recent trips to Kabul, any more changes have taken place?
My last journey was in 2013, by then Kabul’s population had grown to around five million. The city had spread out geographically. At the same time, the security situation had deteriorated, and there were more barriers and roadblocks. Over the years, some of the areas ruined by war had been rebuilt. I would love to read accounts of all the changes that have come about since then as the city has transformed in different ways.

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