War is not supposed to be funny, and Middle East conflict is even less uproarious. Add to this the largest heroin and opium production center in the world and corruption leaking into the highest echelons of society, and you have a situation that is in no way amusing, let alone bearable. In Kim Barker's hands however, it is, somehow, hilarious. Scurrying back and forth between hotspots in Afghanistan and Pakistan to report for the Chicago Tribune (she spent 2004 to 2009 in a manic rush), Barker planted herself in the midst of terrorism, rigged elections, and a largely ineffectual international response. But it is the quirky anecdotes and sarcasm of her new book, The Taliban Shuffle (Doubleday, $25.95) that grab our attention and don't let go.
Much of the Montana native's book seems like a montage put together by David Lynch. A rock star-like United States ambassador who travels with a coterie of attractive women? Yes. Militant warlords running and winning public elections? Absolutely. Massive protests of white-shirted, black-suited lawyers? Definitely. Donkey-borne improvised explosive devices? Of course.
Whether portraiture or caricature, her cast of eccentric personalities—from her protective translator (he would also arrange many of her meetings with diplomats and dangerous people) to high-level rulers—are depicted so colorfully that they could be confused for fictional stand-ins, while the details of her environments are exquisitely fine-tuned. "Afghanistan... had jagged blue-and-purple mountains, big skies, and bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government. It was like Montana." Taking a break from the land and its tragedies, she stays at a rollicking Kabul establishment called the Fun House, where journalists and foreigners gather to wear wigs, get wasted, shoot BB guns, and do whatever else they can to avoid the wreckage outside their windows.
Pakistan, a far more volatile country, provides the author with a clear-sighted analysis of America's Soviet-era tutelage of jihadis—the same Kalashnikov-toting people who would go on to join the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, turning the country into a dystopian battle between Islam and secularism, "ruled by the seat of its pants." While on a visit to Punjab province, Barker befriends the former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and their bizarre relationship furnishes some of the book's finest moments. Sharif insists, for instance, on securing her an iPhone and a man (his first choice is Zardari, the current president), and when she refuses, he offers himself as her boyfriend, which she also refuses.
In Barker's unorthodox, autobiographical coverage of insurgency and destruction, there is no such thing as a slow news day. "I had no idea that I would find self-awareness in a combat zone, a kind of peace in chaos," she says at one point. Observational and honest, The Taliban Shuffle is filled with amusing vignettes (the schizoid history of modern Afghanistan from the perspective of a lion at the Pak-Asia Circus, "the most decrepit circus on the planet"), romantic involvements in a locale where holding hands is suspect, and the disturbing slapstick of training Afghan policeman who have a tendency to point their guns at themselves. With a landscape reminiscent of "M*A*S*H" (although it has more in common with the bleak satire Three Kings), Barker's edgy prose reads like vintage Joseph Heller. Unflinching in its brutal recap of suicide bombings and American soldiers plodding through a "forgotten war," the book is kept tethered by an ambivalent wryness that is simultaneously witty and empathetic.
So while the comedy is hugely entertaining it is, on a primal level, the sort of purging necessary for self-preservation in emotionally draining climates. Amid the human rights violations and kidnappings of fellow journalists, Barker's phantasmagorical digressions are never far away, her addictive curiosity undimmed by her surroundings. The Taliban Shuffle caused at least one reader to lose a few hours of sleep chuckling in disbelief.
How good is The Taliban Shuffle? My copy is so highlighted it provides its own illumination to read by.
Barker has unleashed a memoir of broad intelligence, reporting on the dramas of hell while somehow maintaining a resilient sense of humor. At its heart, this is an intimate road trip undertaken by a tough correspondent, shuffling around a war that cannot be won as it is being waged, and the individuals who are lost in the hubris of victories that should always be wearing quotation marks. With its Warhol-esque cover design and refreshing cynicism, The Taliban Shuffle is an unconventional look into the secret lives of journalists: the burnout, the dangerous assignments, the adrenaline-charged elation of finding the perfect headline. The book's scarcity of key dates may force you to do some extra work researching Barker's timeline, but you'll probably be enjoying it too much to really notice.