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Walks to remember

More commonly associated as a war-stricken city, journalist Taran Khan’s debut book ‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’, unravels the many different layers of Kabul. NT BUZZ caught up with the writer who was recently in Goa to talk about the read


When journalist Taran Khan first arrived in Kabul in 2006, one of the first things that she was told was never to walk in the city. But Khan did just that. And she continued to do this over the course of eight years as she visited the city time and again to work in a radio and TV station in Kabul.

“For my family as well as for me, Kabul was a place that seemed both familiar as well as distant.  My initial image of Kabul was much the same as most people’s, I suppose – a city that was ruined by war and suffering, but that had also managed to hold onto hope and revival,” says Khan, who was in Goa to talk about the book, with sessions held at 6 Assagao, For the Record-Vinyl Bar, Panaji, and The Dogears Bookshop, Margao.

Upon hearing of the opportunity to work with Afghan media professionals, she ended up going there with her husband and another friend. And although her plans to go there caused some concern, there was also excitement, she says. “I arrived there with a feeling of curiosity and happiness at getting to see a place that had intrigued me for a while and that had been in the global news so much since 2001,” she recalls.

And she chose to explore the city by foot, even though, she admits, she had always had a complicated relationship with walking. “Back home in Aligarh if you were out in the streets you had to be there for a reason. You had to embody that purpose in your walking posture. And I think this is something which resonates with many women in India and maybe elsewhere as well,” she says. Further, she admits, she often tends to lose her way, even if she knows a place very well. But her choice of walking, she soon realised was the right decision. “I remember being struck by how the city was transformed on foot.  I could pick out small details – there were smells and sounds, the feeling of the sun on my back and a buzz of activity. My presence was just a part of the life of the street – I simply joined the flow of people walking around the city,” she says.

Her grandfather’s insights into the city were also vital in helping Khan understand the place. Although he himself had never been there, her grandfather had learned about it in detail through the world of literature. “He told me ‘there are some places I have never been to but I know well’. He opened up all these roads into the city for me and transformed the way I saw it,” says Khan. The people she worked with there also were a great help. “They guided us through the city and let us into their lives in a very generous way,” she says.

And what she discovered was a city with a cosmopolitan past, with a bigger history and many layers to it that had all sort of become obscured through the immediate history of war. Along the way she met many interesting people like an archaeologist who was excavating the remains of a beautiful Buddhist monastery in the heart of Kabul’s largest cemetery. She also spent time with a wedding videographer who recorded the lavish festivities that took place in the city’s opulent wedding halls. She visited Shor Bazaar where a lot of music schools are still there, and the tomb of late Ahmad Zahir who is more popularly known as the Afghan Elvis. “He was a breath of fresh air. He played rock and roll and moved and sang like Elvis. He died under very mysterious circumstances just when Kabul was on the cusp of change. His graveyard was later vandalised by the Taliban,”
 she says.

Khan further discovered that people in Kabul were very fascinated with Bollywood and Indian television. “Almost everyone there watches ‘Kyunki saas bhi kabhi bahu ki’! And they kept asking if it was true that so and so was having an affair with so and so in Bollwood. And I was like ‘I don’t even know who you are talking about!’” she says laughing. There was also a particular fascination with old films, which the older generation used to watch on television earlier, she adds.

And over the course of her visits, from 2006 to 2013, the population, she says, grew rapidly, and this transformed the city in many ways. “There were informal settlements that came up on the slopes of its hills, and the city spread further and grew larger. At the same time, the deteriorating security situation meant there were more barriers and roadblocks, so it also turned inwards in a way. There were also more positive changes – areas that had been destroyed during the decades of war were rebuilt and Kabulis made homes for themselves and their families,” she says, adding that she was fortunate in having people around her who guided her steps, and looked out for her during her time in the city.

Even after her visits to the city came to a close, she still meets up with her Afghan friends in different parts of the world where she says, “It is like the city takes a form there, and comes alive beyond its geography.”

She says: “In their conversations and gestures of courtesy and hospitality, I find glimpses of the Kabul we shared, in a completely different setting,” and adds, “the learning that this book gave me was the value in just loitering; taking detours and just ending up somewhere you hadn’t planned to be in.”

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