Book Review: The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan


By Malik Siraj Akbar

The former South Asia bureau chief of Chicago Tribune Kim Barker represents perhaps the last generation of the romanticized breed of journalists called foreign correspondents. Several media organizations have shut down foreign bureaus and recalled their international correspondents because of unmanageable economic circumstances. With the advent of social media and envious contributions by citizen journalists, bloggers and local stringers, the coverage of foreign news in the western media has not come to a total end. What, however, is at stake at this point is the glorious institution of foreign correspondence which is losing the battle for its survival to economic meltdown and alternative economical means of covering international news.

Kim Barker’s book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan explains why media organizations must have correspondents overseas. What gives credence to foreign dispatches is not the everyday reporting of events but the advantage the correspondents enjoy to understand scores of other factors that lead to political or economic upheavals in a particular country. There wasn’t a better time than post-9/11 for an American journalist to cover Afghanistan and Pakistan, two countries affected the most because of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

With too little previous experience of international traveling, Kim joined the Chicago Tribune in 2001 and was sent to cover South Asia for five years during 2004-2009. She came to the region at a time when Afghanistan had freshly been salvaged from Taliban regime while the fallout of the Afghan war began to trickle down to neighboring Pakistan only to undermine the roots of the nuclear armed country.

Stuffed with candor, wit, taunt and sexist jokes, the book brings together the stereotypes the Americans have about the Af-Pak region, its people and cultural practices and vice versa.

While flipping the pages of this book, one would concur with the adage that the grass is greener on the other side. Politicians in South Asia prefer foreign journalists over their local counterparts. In a country like Pakistan where overt friendships and relationships between men and women are still categorized as debauchery and un-Islamic, a frank western female correspondent finds it much easier to use her cultural background to befriend top officials in a country. One such “friendship” that has made The Taliban Shuffle a hugely controversial as well as popular book in Pakistan is between the author and ex-prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

In Pakistan, Kim is stunned with the obsession of the nation’s foremost political figures with making friendships with women. With a little effort, she manages to interview Sharif, now the country’s most popular opposition leader. In a second meeting, the twice elected primer asks the reporter, “can you turn that [voice recorder] off?”

“Sure,” I said, figuring he wanted to tell me something off the record.

“So. Do you have a friend, Kim?” Sharif asked.

I was unsure what he meant.

“I have a lot of friends,” I replied.

“No. Do you have a friend?”

I figured it out.

“You mean a boyfriend?”

“Yes”

I looked at Sharif. I had two options —lie, or tell the truth. And because I wanted to see where this line of question was going, I told the truth.

“I had a boyfriend. We recently broke up.” I nodded my head stupidly, as if to punctuate this thought.

“Why?” Sharif asked. “Was he too boring for you? Not fun enough?”

“Um. No. It just didn’t work out.”

“Oh. I cannot believe you do not have a friend,” Sharif countered.

“No. Nope. I don’t. I did”

“Do you want me to find one for you?” Sharif asked.”

Kim summarizes her instant reaction to Sharif’s offer.

“The militants were gaining strength along the border with Afghanistan and staging increasingly bold attacks in the country’s cities. The famed Khyber Pass, linking Pakistan and Afghanistan, was now too dangerous to drive. The country appeared as unmoored and directionless as a headless chicken. And here was Sharif, offering to find me a friend. Thank God the leaders of Pakistan had their priorities straight.”

Eventually, Sharif’s crush on the white woman becomes more desperate and one day he offers a new I-phone to her, which the author politely refuses to accept by terming it professionally “unethical to take a gift from a source.”

Nonetheless, Sharif, as the bizarre romance reaches its climax, keeps his earlier promise to find Kim a friend. In another meeting, the multi-billionaire politician [Sharif] demands that the journalist’s Pakistani translator leave the room so that they could discuss some important issues.

““I Know, I’m not as tall as you’d like,” Sharif explained. “I am not as fit as you’d like. I’m fat and I ‘m old. But I would still like to be your friend.””

As the author declines Sharif’s ‘friendship’ offer and shares the contents of the meeting with her local translator, his first reaction is: “I’m embarrassed for my country”. Many in Pakistan may not be surprised over the disclosure of Sharif’s attitude after they publicly saw their president flattering Sarah Palin as “gorgeous” and offering to “hug” if she insisted, which she did not.

With a bit of sarcasm and load of bitterness, Kim discusses the serious issue of harassment, groping and sexual advancements while working in the field. In many countries, female reporters do regularly experience harassment in the field or at their offices but fewer gather Kim’s courage to publicly speak up how some men objectify women’s sexual construct.

However, the writer fails to put a convincing case for the victims of harassment by excessively, and often exasperatingly, exaggerating the issue. One is left with a sense of disappointment as she broaches the topic of sex, pornography at times when her jokes no longer become laughable. Unfortunately, that is where the Western stereotypes of the developing countries begin. Instead of taking their experiences as foreign correspondent as an opportunity to deepen the understanding of societies in a transition, western journalists like Kim fail to appreciate almost anything positive in the countries where they work. While it is important for the eastern countries to understand that America is not all about Hollywood, the foreigners, on their part, should also refrain from depicting every eastern man as a sex-starved, porn-loving animal.

The Taliban Shuffle also raises the issue of our intelligence agencies contempt for foreign journalists on our soil. It is extremely frustrating how Pakistani sleuths bug foreign reporters by restricting their movements, taping phone calls and following the vehicles they drive.

As a journalist from Balochistan, this writer worked with dozens of foreign reporters who were chased, beaten up or deported by our spymasters. In December 2006, an Islamabad-based correspondent for the New York Times rang and informed that his boss, Carlotta Gall, the paper’s American South Asia bureau chief, had been beaten up by the secret agents her photographer, Akhtar Soomro, had been detained.

In January 2008, Nicholas Schmidle, a journalist with New York Times Sunday Magazine whose book To Live or to Perish was subsequently published, was deported from Pakistan after he visited the sensitive Balochistan province. In March 2009, secrete agents besieged the Quetta bureau office of Daily Times, a newspaper for which this writer worked as the bureau chief, for several hours because American journalist Willem Marx had been come to interview me about the political situation in Balochistan. Similarly, when a Danish journalist boasted at the Quetta Press Club that he would not be deported from Balochistan because he was not an American but a European reporter, authorities instructed him to leave Pakistan as soon as possible.

At several points, The Taliban Shuffle violates certain journalistic ethical standards by not adhering to the sources’ right to confidentiality and privacy. The book has indeed caused much embarrassment, discomfort and insecurity for many sources who had confided certain information with the author hoping that they would be kept off-the-record and never used for publication.

Considering the above challenges, it is a gallant job to serve in two of the world’s most volatile countries. Kim Barker’s The Taliban Shuffle does speak volumes about a brave female journalist but falls short to promote true understanding between the people of Af-Pak region and the United States. As the prestigious portfolio of foreign correspondence shrinks, let’s hope that the few remaining foreign correspondents continue to admire our global heritage of cultural diversity. At this technological age when floodgates of information have opened in the cyber space, foreign correspondents are still widely trusted as people who truthfully describe different societies rather than engaging in a ‘my country versus your country’ debate.

Book: The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan

Author: Kim Barker

Publisher: Double Day

Price: $17.13

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