This book was nothing at all like I expected. I bought it (before my book-buying fast, I should add) when it became clear that one of the pieces of fiction I’m working on might need to include some farcical elements concerning the U.S. military’s role in Afghanistan. This is not a topic that I would usually treat in a comical way, but fictional characters can be difficult taskmasters sometimes, and when it became clear that the story was heading in that direction, I thought it best to be prepared. I knew that this book would treat the events of the first decade of the 21st century in Afghanistan and Pakistan with a light touch (and even if I didn’t, the Andy Warhol-style psychedelic cover would certainly have tipped me off), but I did expect this book to be fundamentally a work of journalism. What it is, however, is Cheryl Strayed in a burqa. I’ll explain.
This book is a memoir of the years Kim Barker spent in central Asia as a journalist for the Chicago Tribune. The fact that Barker is probably quite an excellent journalist is a fact that the book keeps hidden for some time. You know how you can read all of Lolita and not actually find any direct references to the fact that Humbert Humbert is having sex with Lolita unless you look really, really closely? This book is the same way, but without the child molestation. On its surface, this book is about Barker’s social life and personal and professional angst, and it’s easy to view her as a classic American idiot who mocks the poverty and violence of the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan by enjoying these countries too much. Let me be clear: Eat, Pray, Love was too self-reverent for me, as was Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and in some ways this book is worse. Nevertheless, Barker won me over, mostly.
Barker arrived in central Asia in March of 2003, when the U.S. media’s attention had shifted away from Afghanistan and toward the invasion of Iraq. The U.S. military had worked assiduously for a year and a half to capture, kill, and/or imprison Taliban leaders and al-Qaeda members in Afghanistan, which Barker describes as quite safe. Always surrounded by a bevy of male admirers (whom she treats only slightly better than Elizabeth Gilbert treats the men in her life in Eat, Pray, Love) – her Afghan driver and ‘fixer’ Farouq; boyfriend Chris, who moves to New Delhi to be with Barker just in time for her to dump him; various journalist friends; new boyfriend Dave; and – oh yeah – the attorney general of Afghanistan and a former president of Pakistan, both of whom offer themselves to her as suitors, Barker behaves more or less like a ditzy schoolgirl. She self-mockingly describes these early years in Afghanistan as her tenure at “Kabul High,” though to me her experiences seem more like college, where random groups of half-drunk mostly-acquainted kids roam around and do things like pound on the doors of brothels past midnight and shout, “Wake up, whores!” (75). These sections of the book annoyed me, because of course Barker and her friends aren’t in high school – or college. You know how old Barker was when the above-mentioned episode took place? Thirty-five. Barker is a good writer and describes these incidents well (and at times she is apologetic for her behavior, though not always), and over time it became clear to me that these incidents happened after hours, after she had put in long days of reporting and researching and writing. But still – she was thirty-five. Couldn’t she have found something to crochet? Or maybe a water aerobics class at the local gym?
This book isn’t really about the Taliban, of course; it’s about Americans. It’s about the stubborn way that no matter how much time passes, we’re still the world’s resident adolescents. America is the country where kids trick or treat until they’re in college, where laser tag and paintball and shooting at road signs are time-honored traditions. Barker reflects that the reason she felt so at home in Afghanistan is that it reminded her of her own childhood in lawless, libertarian Montana: “Even though New Delhi would be my home base, Afghanistan felt more like home than anywhere else in the region. I knew why. Afghanistan seemed familiar. It 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 – just on different drugs.” (19)
This memoir’s other key focus is Barker’s growing obsession with her work. Back in the U.S., tumultuous things were happening to the economy (as you perhaps recall), and the Chicago Tribune was bought out by a conglomerate whose CEO didn’t see much reason to invest in international news (!!!). By the second half of the book, Barker is actively fighting to keep her job, darting all over the place, back and forth between Pakistan and Afghanistan and occasionally India. Every time she plans a short vacation, something explodes, and she makes a U-turn and goes back to work. Finally, she’s told she must return to Chicago and work on reporting local news, and she quits and hangs around Kabul for a while, unable to leave the intensity and adrenaline-soaked chaos that she associates with this city. I really do admire Barker’s work ethic and courage – she’s a class act in ways that Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed are not – and am aware that the behaviors I object to took place during Barker’s off hours. Crotchety as I can be, I do respect a person’s freedom to act like an idiot in her spare time.
I could do more summarizing, but I think I’ll call this review done. I enjoyed the book overall, even when it made me cringe a little, and I do think it helped me to see how the horrible events of these years can be rendered comically. I recommend it and will be interested in reading more of Barker’s work in the future.