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Book Review: Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul

Book Review: Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul

Join Taran N. Khan’s journey as she explores the grassroots of a post-Taliban Kabul

Labanya Maitra
February 29 , 2020
03 Min Read

“Stories in Kabul begin with the phrase ‘Yeki bood, yeki na bood’. There was one, there was no one,” writes Taran N. Khan. Her story in Shadow City is similar. Walking around and exploring a city isn’t an unknown concept, neither is it new. But a woman walking around post-Taliban Kabul isn’t something you come by every day. And yet, Khan did it daily, and for years.

She writes about the city not how people write travelogues, but in the same way people write about life itself—full of analogies, of anecdotes, and of mysticism. “Exploring Kabul, I found, required the same principles that help in the reading of mystical Persian poetry, in the relationship between the zahir, or the overt, and the batin, the hidden or implied,” she says. “This works on the tacit understanding that what is being said is an allegory for what is meant or intended.”

Each character in Khan’s book tells us a story of Kabul that we expect to hear. Of the dark times under the Taliban following the collapse of the USSR. The involvement of international communities and their subsequent abandonment. It’s all there, it’s all true, in flesh and blood. But, that’s not what it is about. The book is an experiential read, albeit interspersed with Khan’s reporting. She goes in and out of being part of the story, and being a fly on the wall; merely retelling the tales of Kabul itself.

Reading between the lines seems to be a theme that runs true throughout the pages. Khan describes what she sees around. She describes the people she meets, the conversations she has, all the while the city shifts, changes, morphes; taking our reading experience with it. The people in her book are simply, people. And their experience of living through war juxtaposed with Khan’s description of warmth, of laughter, and of humanity.

Khan’s poetic description of her book is a thematic refrain that appears often in the text. The tales of Saleem and his lover, of Murad and his family, of Doctor Sahab and his doves, all woven into a similar idea. “To talk of the moon, for instance, is to talk of the beloved; to talk of clouds across the moon is to talk of the pain of separated lovers; to talk of walls is to speak of exile,” she explains. “It is also a useful reminder that in this city, what is seen is often simply one aspect of the truth. What lies behind— the shadow city—is where layers are revealed.”

She draws inspiration, and parallels, from her life in India. How growing up in Aligarh as a woman prepared her for her experiences in Kabul that were strikingly similar, yet worlds apart. She talks of history, of politics, of cinema, and of love—with the same lens of the obvious against the obscure.

Reading the book, you can not only see Kabul changing, but also Khan’s understanding of it. “In the space between what I saw and what I wrote, Kabul twisted its shape and changed,” she writes. “It has changed again, even as you read it. Bood, nabood.”

As for the reader, we won’t call this book a walking guide to Kabul. Rather, it’s an atlas of Kabuli experiences. It doesn’t paint a tragic picture, it talks about the celebrations of life and the lives of the characters that Khan interacts with. It’s a narrative of the good and the bad, of hardships and triumphs, of laughter and love; just like life itself.


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