To think of Kabul and of the culture, the people, the snow-capped mountains surrounding the brown, barren landscapes—the 3000-year old city has always felt familiar. This is a land that I have never visited, but in my mind’s eye, Kabul is vivid and intriguing. Faces of young men and women with flushed cheeks and bony noses, their tall, thin frame with a cautious gait, living in houses with flat roofs, set amid almond blossoms, pomegranate trees and lush gardens—this is what my imagination of Kabul has always been like.
Taran N Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul invited me to explore the city in an intimate manner; guiding me through narrow lanes, neighbourhood alleys, old landmarks, and ruins of historical significance. In a way, I lived every inch of this place and gazed at this part of the world through her multifaceted narrative. As you move through the book, you understand why the author calls, or rather identifies Kabul as a shadow city. Masked in the layers of corruption, lawlessness, fragmented societies and a fallen economy, the old city with a rich history and civilization is simply fading away amid all the chaos and conflict. In the act of appearing and disappearing, like shadows, the author watches Kabul transform through the years she had lived there.
The author writes—Yeki bood, Yeki nabood—to portray a city that emerges and vanishes. It is a Persian phrase, which means ‘once was, once was not’, and with what all Iranianian stories usually begin. In the pursuit of understanding the city’s true character and observing whatever she could grasp on the way, Ms Taran would often walk the streets, bazaars, and citadels, and absorb this experience fully with her heart and soul. Without a map or a guidebook in her hand, it was no less than an adventure and felt like an art, of finding Kabul between what is visible and what is hidden.
Finding glimpses of Urdu poetry and works of Muhammad Iqbal, Sa’ib-i-Tabrizi, Firdawsi and other Persian artists, was a pleasant discovery and equally enlightening. To learn about Kabul’s iconic bookstore felt as rewarding as to discover Afghanistan’s cultural past and its Buddhist heritage. Fortunately, or unfortunately, what remains today are the relics, statues and sculptures that have weathered through centuries. And not long ago, there stood centuries-old rock-cut Buddha figures in the Bamiyan valley, bearing strong dominance and cultural influence of Buddhism back in the day. Sadly, the Taliban government blew them to bits, wiping off their grand existence.
Despite being caught up in decades of war, opium addiction, poppy palaces, and changing regimes, there is still a hope for Kabul to revive and rebuild. For a country to survive and experience unimaginable losses and sufferings, there is so much history for this land, as the author puts it. And in between everyday life, unpredictability, and perilous living conditions of Kabulis (the people of Kabul)—poetry, literature and love for cinema have endured and found a way to the hearts of these common men.
Surely, with Shadow City, Taran Khan took me on a splendid journey and allowed me to experience her world in an intimate manner. Like a close confidante, I keenly listened to her conversations about poetry and literature with her grandfather and reminiscences of her childhood days in Aligarh. Over the course of seven years, between 2006 and 2013, she traveled to Kabul for her work as a journalist. Each time she visited, the city looked different. She could no longer find the roads she had once crossed. Yet, in all its strangeness, her affection only grew and brought her closer to this distant land.
This book was a chance discovery and I enjoyed every bit of it. Call it a travelogue or a biographical account of Kabul, Shadow City gracefully lifts the veil and reveals the beauty, the character, and the essence of this ever changing, three-thousand-year-old metropolis.