The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

This darkly comic memoir (320 pages) was published in March of 2012 by Anchor. The book takes you to 2002 Afghanistan. David read The Taliban Shuffle and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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The Taliban Shuffle

Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Kim Barker

This is a memoir of reporter Kim Barker’s seven years covering the messy post-9/11 war in Afghanistan. Unlike most books that might carry that blurb, this one has humor and bad romance and very awkward social situations. It’s unputdownable.

Urgent and accessible, it feels as if Barker is sitting on the edge of a bed or at a diner table, telling stories. It’s a war story, yes, but it’s also — perhaps inadvertently — also a coming-of-age story.

Barker was born in Montana and graduated from Northwestern University in Chicago. She was writing for the Chicago Tribune when 9/11 happened. Her story is that she heard her paper was looking for women to send to Asia. So she walked into an editor’s office and said, ‘I’m single, I’m childless, and I’m therefore expendable.’ Her editor laughed and then said, ‘You’re going to Pakistan.’ She ended up being the chief of the Tribune South Asia bureau from 2004 to 2009.

This remarkable book — translated to the screen in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot starring Tina Fey — is mainly about Barker’s experience, but it also presents a pretty good argument for why the US ultimately failed at bringing stability to Afghanistan. The writing is very funny in the dark, somewhat jaded way you might expect from a seasoned reporter. Exhibit A, the book’s first line: ‘I had always wanted to meet a warlord.’

She introduces us to the Afghans and, almost as crucial for this book, the people who report the news from there. She explains how the work got done — and how the journalists found ways to unwind afterward. We see the adrenaline and action of following a story, as well as the parties that get out of hand. Through the narrative, there’s a strong parallel between Barker’s emotional growth and the mess that the war in Afghanistan became. At first, it felt exciting, new, dangerous. But ultimately, it became muddy, messy, sobering. She also points out that the very people who could make Afghanistan a better place are not the people who made their way to Afghanistan and stayed.

Instead, the country was a sort of Kabul High, a way to get your war on, a place to run away from marriages and mistakes; to forget your age, your responsibilities, your past; to get lost.

Or to find yourself. Eventually, Barker returned home. She is currently an investigative reporter for The New York Times.

Heads up: We love the audiobook version narrated by Kirsten Potter for the way she embodies the voice of Kim Barker’s prose. The experience is like having the author telling you the stories in a smoky room, perhaps over a glass of whisky.

I was also trying not to date in Kabul, as Afghanistan resembled Alaska if you were a woman — the odds were good but the goods were odd. Although some foreigners here had found love, I had found dead ends. Most of us were running from something, or running toward adrenaline, adventure junkies who when paired up were as combustible and volcanic as baking soda and vinegar. I was realistic. Most female foreign correspondents I knew were single. Most male correspondents, married or entwined. To do this job right took all my energy. And I was plagued by what-ifs. I was now friends with my awkward fling Jeremy, but what if I dated somebody in this aquarium and it went wrong? What if I traveled too much to sustain any relationship? What if I was a frog in boiling water, as overheated as anyone else who chose this life? — Kim Barker

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We usually focus our show on destinations you'd like to visit. Afghanistan is likely not one of those places. But with the withdrawal of the US military, now is a good time to be empathetic and curious about Afghans.

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