Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 29 September 2020

How author Taran N Khan discovered Kabul by walking its war-torn streets

'To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.'

A portrait of author Taran N Khan. Jonathan Page
A portrait of author Taran N Khan. Jonathan Page

“One of the first things I was told when I arrived in Kabul was never to walk.” So reads the opening line of Shadow City, Taran N Khan’s richly illuminating account of the many tours she made around the Afghan capital on foot. It was sound advice: Khan, a journalist and resident of Mumbai, paid her first visit to Kabul in 2006, a time, she writes, “that was not quite war, and certainly not peace”.

And yet for her, walking was the only option. “Walking brings with it a quality of intimacy,” she tells me. “It is a way to feel a place with all your senses. In Kabul, stepping out on to the streets was also a way of participating in the life of the city, and exploring its many layers.”

Khan found new layers to explore on each of the extended trips she made over the years. Some of her findings came about with help from people she met and befriended on her travels. Other discoveries were the result of venturing out alone. Instead of relying on guidebooks and maps, Khan frequently wandered off the beaten track and took delight in losing her bearings. As she sums it up in the book: “To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.”

'Shadow City' by Taran N. Khan
'Shadow City' by Taran N. Khan

Khan felt she knew Kabul before visiting it. Her ancestors hailed from Afghanistan centuries ago. Growing up in a conservative Muslim family, she regularly stayed indoors and lost herself in books. She remembers coming across Kabul in print for the first time in a short story by Rabindranath Tagore.

Her maternal grandfather introduced her to other books that touched upon or revolved around Kabul, from the Persian epic poem Shahnameh to the verses of Muhammad Iqbal. “From Baba, I learnt that books can be guides for travel as well as ideal companions for exploration,” Khan says. “They offer adventure and freedom in the most profound sense.”

With books in her luggage and her grandfather’s voice in her head, Khan flew to Kabul in 2006 to teach video production techniques to staff of a radio and TV station run by the Afghan government. She found a city in flux: one ravaged by decades of conflict, but also showing positive signs of recovery, whether in terms of physical reconstruction or societal improvements, including in education and women’s rights. But the threat of violence was never far away.

De-mining crews continued to scour the land for unexploded ordnance. Suicide bombings and kidnappings were on the rise. It still paid to stay alert. “Part of being in Kabul was to always be aware that things could escalate very quickly, from normalcy to situations of danger,” Khan explains. “I also saw how my friends and colleagues, while being cautious, would continue with their work and routine lives, even when incidents occurred in a different part of the city.”

Those friends and colleagues colour the pages of Khan’s book. On each return trip she met more and more interesting Kabulis and was warmly welcomed in most places she visited. “The tradition of hospitality to guests is very strong,” she says. “Being an Indian woman, I found, often created a special bond, thanks to the shared culture of the region.”

Khan talked to the subject of Asne Seierstad’s international bestseller The Bookseller of Kabul and learnt how he fell foul of successive regimes: he was jailed during the Communist era for keeping mujahideen propaganda magazines; later, the Taliban burnt his books.

Certain people made a lasting impression. “There was Zafar Paiman,” she says, “an archaeologist working to preserve the remains of a Buddhist monastery he had excavated in the heart of Kabul’s biggest cemetery. He showed true devotion to his country’s heritage. My housemate, Dr Sahab, who told me stories of the Kabul of his childhood, conjuring up a city of memory and beauty. And my friend Nazira, a media professional, whose feisty company was an insight into how young working women negotiated everyday life in the city.”

On one of Khan’s walking tours, she set out in search of reading material – a tall order, she supposed, in a largely illiterate country. She was amazed to find hillsides studded with book markets and a grand public library with old manuscripts that “connect the city to its literary past”.

Other outings were just as eye-opening. She came across a functioning cinema among bombed ruins, joined a film crew on location and delved into the archives at the state-run Afghan Film. “Watching the newsreels there was a way to encounter the visual heritage of Afghanistan,” Khan says. “The films and documentaries also carried an emotional and historical charge as windows into the changes that swept through the country, especially from the 1970s onwards.” Over dinner, two women told her that they weren’t allowed to go to school and work under the Taliban, so would spend their days in a tiny blacked-out room watching films in secret.

An Afghan woman walks with her children past destroyed buildings in Kabul, 02 February 2006. A major donors' conference for Afghanistan has ended with pledges totalling 10.5 billion USD (8.7 billion euros) to rebuild the strategic Central Asian nation over the next five years. Afghan Finance Minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady hailed the outcome of the two-day gathering of 70-odd nations, saying the funds would help his destitute country "realise our development strategy" after many years of bloody conflict. AFP PHOTO/SHAH Marai (Photo by SHAH MARAI / AFP)
Destroyed buildings in Kabul. AFP

Khan got even further away from the tourist trail. She visited shrines and graves (including the last resting place of Ahmad Zahir, or the “Afghan Elvis”, the first and only superstar in the country), along with a marastoon, or “place of assistance”, for troubled women, and a centre that treated female opium addicts.

Outdoors, Khan found many opportunities to switch off and soak up the scenery. Highlights included strolls through the historic park Bagh-e-Babur, and picnics in the mountains near the Qargha reservoir. “I will always remember wandering around the remains of the Buddhist monastery at Tepe Naranj in 2013,” she says. “It was a sublime experience to see the city’s past revealed in this very clear way. At the same time, it was evident that this was an imperilled beauty – the site was a fragile space, circled by a rapidly growing city. Like many things in Kabul, this was an experience that was both uplifting and edged with a feeling of impending danger and loss.”

Rapid growth was just one of many transformations Khan witnessed on her trips. “Over the years that I saw it, Kabul’s streets became narrower, encroached upon by various kinds of security apparatus like sandbags and concrete barriers. There was a boom of opulent villas, often referred to as ‘Poppy Palaces’, and a locality dominated by massive wedding halls. But the deteriorating security situation meant that many foreign workers had to live and work within secure compounds, and so experienced the city in a very abbreviated manner.

“There were also changes that represented stability and prosperity for some Kabulis. Areas that had been destroyed during the civil war were rebuilt, and I visited colleagues who were happy to host me in their own homes, after years of living as refugees abroad.”

Khan’s last visit to Kabul was in 2013. I ask her if she envisages another trip. “After that last journey, many of my friends left Afghanistan and sought refuge in other countries,” she explains. “Even if I do find the means and the reasons to return, I know it will be to a city very different from the one I left behind.”

Updated: December 30, 2019 07:07 PM

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