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Taran Khan on "Shadow City": 'The discourses around the city of Kabul are far more nuanced than what can be gleaned from the mainstream media narratives'

Taran N. Khan is a journalist and author based in Mumbai. She grew up in Aligarh and was educated in New Delhi and London. Her works have been widely published in India and internationally, including in Guernica, Al Jazeera, the Caravan and Himal Southasian. From 2006 to 2013, Khan spent long periods living and working in Kabul. She has recently come out with her debut book “Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul”, which is an account of these expeditions, and is a personal and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict. When she explored the city and, over the course of several returns, she discovered a Kabul quite different from the one she had expected.
Chirdeep Malhotra connected with her for an exclusive interview, in which she talks about her book, her foray into journalism and writing, and her interpretations of Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital city.
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Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m an independent journalist based in Mumbai, and I’ve written for different magazines and newspapers in India and internationally.
 
What led you to the world of journalism and then writing?
I was interested in being part of the world of journalism since I was quite young. This was a time when print media had a lot of importance, and some really good reporters used to write for the weekend papers. I was inspired by their work and by the idea that journalism was a profession committed to the public interest— that it could make a difference in people’s lives. I was also very drawn to the idea of travelling, and writing as a way of exploring the world. My writing is non-fiction, and draws substantially from my training and experience as a journalist.
 
Though you were interested in Kabul from the start, what made you decide to write a book on it?
The longer time I spent in the city, the more I felt the need to find a way to communicate what I found interesting about Kabul. These were quite often the things left out of news writing or feature stories— small details that added up to a larger picture. I began thinking of ways to achieve this, which eventually led me to the book.
 
When you first arrived in Kabul in 2006, what were some of your early interpretations of the city and its people? And what changes did you find during your subsequent visits?
I arrived with a lot of curiosity and excitement, and the people I met in those early days were really important in helping me feel welcome and comfortable in the city. Over the years, each journey revealed changes— some more gradual than others. The most evident one was the massive population growth — it went from around 1.5 million in 2001 to nearly 5 million in 2013 — and the infrastructure struggled to keep pace.  Malls and wedding halls sprang up, new houses were built in localities that had been destroyed during the decades of war, and concrete barriers and checkpoints became more common.
 

‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’, Penguin India.
 
“Shadow City” is a riveting combination of personal narrative and political analysis.  Did your experiences in the city of Kabul simply serve to confirm your previous analyses about Afghanistan— its people and its politics, or did you find yourself drawing new conclusions from your visits?
When I first came to Kabul I had many of the same impressions that most people glean from mainstream media. I don’t think it’s possible to draw lessons about all of Afghanistan from its capital—the situation there was very different from the rest of the country. I found that the simple narratives that so often define the discourse around the city would often turn out to be more complex, and that reality was usually far more nuanced than I had earlier perceived.
 
If you had to send our readers on a tour of the most fascinating places you came across during your visits, what are the places that would feature?
In Kabul, I would suggest walking through the hustle of Shahr-e-Nau’s market, as well as visiting the National Museum, for its collection of artefacts from Afghanistan’s diverse past. I would also recommend attending at least one Kabuli wedding, for a glimpse into the opulent wedding halls and the magnificent and expensive celebrations.
I was fortunate enough to make a trip to the beautiful Bamiyan Valley, and was very moved to see the empty niches of the Buddha statues. Nearby are the lakes of Band-e-Amir, which are an unforgettable shade of blue.
 
Can you tell us more about Kabul’s contemporary art and cultural scene?
In my experience, I found that Afghan filmmakers had an incredible commitment to the idea of making films with whatever resources they could manage. They went ahead and told their stories, despite the odds. This was really inspiring and exciting to see. When I arrived in 2006, Kabul had a buzzy cultural scene— there was a lot going on, including concerts and film festivals, art exhibitions and theatre performances. Over time, such events became harder to find as the security situation deteriorated, but many creative people in the city persisted with their work despite the difficulties.
 
What are your current reads?
I recently finished reading two memoirs that use structure in interesting ways. The British-Ethiopian poet and writer Lemn Sissay’s My Name is Why recounts his childhood under state care in the UK. And Inventory by Darran Anderson is about growing up during the conflict in Northern Ireland. With the world in lockdown, I am indulging in some escapist reading through historical romances. I am also reading poetry— at least a few pages everyday, mostly in translation.
 
Lastly, what are you working on next?
I am doing journalistic work, and working on some long-form pieces.
 
‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’ by Taran N. Khan has been published by Penguin India. Read more about the book here and buy it here.

 

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