The Taliban Shuffle – a transnational professional review


I had no idea that I would find self awareness in a combat zone, a kind of peace in chaos. My life [in Afghanistan and Pakistan] wouldn’t be about a man or God or some cause. I would fall in love deeply, but with a story, with a way of life. (p.13)

Kim Barker's book The Taliban Shuffle: Strange days in Afghanistan and Pakistan is a highly recommended, accessible and thought-provoking read for everybody who works in the transnational, transient sphere of expatriate employment in developing countries or conflict zones. The book is less interesting if you are looking for factual information on post-9/11 ‘AfPak’, because most of Kim’s stories about the challenges of the international intervention (diplomatically phrased) have been written down before. Life in ‘Kabulistan’, the odd ‘embed’ with American troops and the messiness of Pakistani politics are hardly news, even if Kim has come close to some key, powerful, flamboyant and/or ruthless politicians of those two countries. But what makes Kim’s book an entertaining read is the fact that it sheds some important light on the ‘expat condition’ and what managing a professional life means outside of academic analyses (e.g. Inside the everyday lives of development workersor Heather Hindman's fascinating research and writing) or snarky impressions from the ‘blogosphere’ (e.g. Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (with a timely latest post on ‘Finding themselves’) or Tales from the hood).
I am not sure whether Kim intended her book in this way, but any researcher, student or professional who contemplates a career ‘in development’ may want to sit down with a mug of coffee and enjoy a weekend of entertaining as well as educating reading.

The absorptive power of expat lifestyles
I had good friends and a comfortable life in Chicago. I rode my bike to work. I listened to NPR. I played softball. But my world felt small there, a comfortable habit, an old shoe. Life in Chicago seemed grey compared to the Technicolor Jujitsu of Afghanistan. (p.21)

Kim’s journey into the unknown field of overseas war reporting is typical case of ‘Wanderlust’ that reminded me to some extent of another great book I’m currently reading, Ludwig Tieck’s ‘Franz Sternbalds Wanderungen’. The longing to explore the world outside your village, driven by discovering and appreciating art, stories and new shores was one of the key storylines for the German Romantic Movement. Tieck’s book was first published in 1798 and a few things have changed since then, but Kim’s arrival in Kabul is not that different from a young Franz Sternbald who is overwhelmed by the beauty of Belgium, the Netherlands and above all Italy. The Romantic Movement regarded naivety and being ‘child-like’ as a great virtue to connect with the world and Kim is not hiding that she isn’t an experienced global transnational citizen, but that the expat lifestyle, especially in Kabul, is an enticing magnet for her social and professional life and to some extent raised the bar (pun intended...) for post-conflict expat experiences:

The expat scene of Kabul even had its own magazine – Afghan Scene – that included articles and pictures of people at various parties, in various states of inebriation (To be fair, the money from magazine sales helped street kids). (p.74)

But before we unleash a stream of ‘told you sos’, expat and/or international media/development/post-conflict reconstruction/ ‘reconstruction’ bashing, Kim’s observations and stories actually deserve a closer look. Based on my own, albeit brief, encounters with the Kabul expat scene in 2003 the call for reflective aid workers and critical anthropologists seems to be the natural reaction. But in a complex and messed up situation like the one in Afghanistan what really are the options for any meaningful engagement? Going ‘there’ as a critical ‘observer’ contributes to the persisting problems in one way or another, but is withdrawal the answer? Is there a point in time when active disengagement sends out a more powerful signal than reflective engagement? Who cares if you are not there – and who cares if you position yourself on the fringes? Although Kim uses the metaphor of ‘Kabul High’ in a different way, I think it is an interesting way of thinking about transnational professionalism: You cannot simply stop going to High School, but the idea of niches or ‘going along with the system’ also seem very dissatisfying:

It was junior year at Kabul High – a time when we knew all the different players and were no longer gawky freshmen in the wrong clothes, but weren’t as jaded as we’d eventually become. It was party time and this was the party summer, the summer of 2006, the summer of the Fun House [Kim’s guest house in Kabul]. (p.107)

Especially her summary reflections from Pakistan where she mainly worked during the second half of her stay in South Asia are an interesting reminder that expat life may be a struggle similar to the one Pierre De Coubertin described with regards to the Olympic Games:

The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.
 Kim writes towards the end of her stay:
Only in this madness was it possible to feel such purpose. I was paid to watch history. In a small way, I felt that I was part of something much bigger, like I mattered in a way I never did back home. Every dinner conversation felt important. (p.242)

As much as this is understandable it just doesn’t feel a good enough reason to chose an expat life, but it helps to elucidate one of the core inclinations that many aid workers, volunteers and international expats have, to become part of a bigger project and meaning and to go ‘there’ to see, experience and criticise for yourself.

The relative nobody recognises anymore – maintaining relationships in Expatland
I needed to pay more attention to my clothes, my hair, my exercise routine, because against all logic a social life in a war zone seemed entirely plausible. (p.35)

Clearly Kim did not read ‘Emergency sex’ during her assignment, because otherwise she would have gotten the idea that war zones actually offer a particular kind of social life because of the transient nature of the environment, not despite it. Nonetheless the personal dimension of her story is equally important, because it reflects well some of the core challenges that work ‘in development’ has: How do you maintain relationships? How do you stay connected and involved when you more or less disappear from your family’s and friends’ radar? Kim starts dating an American aid worker ten years her junior after the relationship with her long-term boyfriend comes to an end and at some point she remarks:

Here I was, newly single and newly 35 [...] in Afghanistan, where nothing really mattered, where my sense of self-consciousness had been stripped away. (p.79)

Many of us know this feeling ‘spending Christmas holidays alone in Pakistan – adding “wow...congratulations” as a facebook comment to my former boyfriend’s relationship status change’ (p.240) and as willing as many, probably younger people in particular, to take a risk Kim is very clear and open about the pitfalls of her lifestyle that eventually leave her nearly burned-out, tired, alone and broke. As easy as it is to criticise Kim and many others that they shouldn’t complain given the state of many women in Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere, managing your expat identity and relationships is something that few organisations, researchers and writers really address. If we take the rising numbers of global expats as a given, managing expat lifestyles becomes another area of ‘reflective practice’, because personal and professional relationships have a powerful impact on how ‘we’ carry out our work and are perceived in host countries.

...and there will always be lukewarm curries somewhere
I said I’d take [friends] to the buffet at the Serena Hotel, the fanciest hotel in Islamabad. We ordered fresh orange juice, which tasted slightly rancid and then picked up plates filled with various lukewarm curries. (p.189)

Who hasn’t been to a similar place, a ‘non-place’ of elite expat living, dining and/or entertaining? Kim manages throughout the book to capture key daily realties of what it means to be a woman, a professional, an expat worker and a human being in complex, ‘fragile’ environments. Even though her book is relatively uncritical and ends with a (stereotypical) move to New York City which seems one of those places for those like Kim who find it difficult to return to Montana, Chicago and sometimes themselves. If you read Taliban Shuffle with a critical eye, you will find it an enjoyable story of our times indirectly asking challenging questions about our choices and aspirations when it comes to working and living in developing countries.

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