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‘Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul’ by Taran N. Khan ****

I stumbled across Taran N. Khan’s Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul on my library app, and thought it sounded fascinating.  Thankfully the ebook version was available for me to borrow, and I began it right away.  First published in 2019, Indian author Khan arrived in Kabul, Afghanistan in 2006, three years after the Taliban regime was overthrown.

49114654._sx318_-1On her arrival in Kabul, where she embarked on a new work project with her husband at a local television station, Khan was ‘cautioned never to walk [around the city].  Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker.’  As a Muslim woman, she was able to access parts of the city which were closed to other travellers.  She continued to walk around different regions of the city until she returned to India in 2013.

In her memoir, Khan ‘paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace.’  Shadow City has accordingly been split up into seven different sections, and begins and ends with a chapter named ‘Returns’.  Throughout, Khan gives a comprehensive history of Afghanistan, and of Kabul specifically.  The city is one which kept drawing Khan back, and even after short absences, she always longed to return.

In her foreword, Khan writes: ‘Memory returns in fragments.  I remember walking through the half-empty streets feeling the sun on my back.  I heard snatches of song on a radio, passed a group of young men lounging on a broken sofa they had pulled onto the street.  I saw walls with bullet marks, and barriers across gates…  Under my feet was the slush of the spring.’  She later describes Kabul as a place of hidden scenes: ‘It deceives you with its high walls streaked with brown mud…  It hides behind the fine mist of dust that hangs over its streets and homes, so that the city appears as though from the other side of a soft curtain.  Like a mirage, a place that is both near and far away.’

Khan’s ability to walk around Kabul was a sharp contrast to her strict upbringing in the city of Aligarh, India.  The few outings which she was allowed on were strictly regulated, and she was always chaperoned.  Of her past and present, she reflects: ‘The carefully cloistered routines of my adolescence corresponded seamlessly with the rhythm of the city in 2006…  the things other women from abroad found difficult about the city often seemed quite natural to me.’

Khan comments: ‘Being told not to walk was another way in which Kabul felt familiar.  To map the city, I drew on the same knowledge and intuition that had helped me navigate the streets of my home town…  These were routes of discovery – maps of being lost.  To be lost is a way to see a place afresh…  To be lost in Kabul is to find it – as a place of richness and possibility.’  I can understand Khan’s outlook, as a fellow walker; one of my favourite things to do is to wander, sometimes aimlessly, particularly when I am exploring new places.  Walking also allows Khan some freedom; she allows herself to walk, as a woman, around a male-dominated space, which ultimately gives her a lot of agency.  She becomes a flaneuse, an observer of her new place.

An element of Shadow City which I particularly enjoyed was the way in which Khan notices and interprets absences; for instance, of those who have passed away, and who now reside in various graveyards – a ‘web of memorials’ – around the city.  She also describes, quite wonderfully, how the city alters over her repeated visits: ‘With each return, my paths turned inwards as well.  I learned to see Kabul in fragments, to move through terrains of the imagination while remaining motionless.  I wandered through myths and memories…’.

Shadow City is an impressive debut, which sings with the glory of being in charge of one’s own agency, even in a geographical location which is often threatened by external forces.  Khan’s narrative is both rich and thorough, and gives a different, and worthy, perspective to the Kabul which many of us in the Western world are aware of.  Shadow City is fascinating, and serves to open a window onto both geography and society, politics and remnants of war.  Khan gives her readers an insider’s view of a city which most of us have largely seen in the wake of destruction.  She writes about the wonderful people which she meets, a sometimes fruitless search for reading material, and the way in which Kabul is slowly regaining itself.

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Five Great Memoirs

I have always delighted in learning about the lives of others, and have tried to incorporate as many memoirs into my reading as is possible.  I enjoy reading about individuals, particularly women, whose lives are very different to my own, and always find this a highly enriching experience.  With this in mind, I have gathered together five wonderful memoirs of women which I have read of late, and which I would highly recommend.  There are illness narratives, translated books, works set during wartime, and quiet meditations in the list, and I dearly hope that you find something new to pick up.

34104392._sy475_1. The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs *****
An exquisite memoir about how to live–and love–every day with “death in the room,” from poet Nina Riggs, mother of two young sons and the direct descendant of Ralph Waldo Emerson, in the tradition of When Breath Becomes Air.  Nina Riggs was just thirty-seven years old when initially diagnosed with breast cancer–one small spot. Within a year, the mother of two sons, ages seven and nine, and married sixteen years to her best friend, received the devastating news that her cancer was terminal.  How does one live each day, “unattached to outcome”? How does one approach the moments, big and small, with both love and honesty?  Exploring motherhood, marriage, friendship, and memory, even as she wrestles with the legacy of her great-great-great grandfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nina Riggs’s breathtaking memoir continues the urgent conversation that Paul Kalanithi began in his gorgeous When Breath Becomes Air. She asks, what makes a meaningful life when one has limited time?  Brilliantly written, disarmingly funny, and deeply moving, The Bright Hour is about how to love all the days, even the bad ones, and it’s about the way literature, especially Emerson, and Nina’s other muse, Montaigne, can be a balm and a form of prayer. It’s a book about looking death squarely in the face and saying “this is what will be.”  Especially poignant in these uncertain times, The Bright Hour urges us to live well and not lose sight of what makes us human: love, art, music, words.

2. When a Toy Dog Became a Wolf and the Moon Broke Curfew by Hendrika de Vries 45480725._sy475_****
Born in the Netherlands at a time when girls are to be housewives and mothers and nothing else, Hendrika de Vries is a “daddy’s girl” until her father is deported from Nazi-occupied Amsterdam to a POW camp in Germany and her mother joins the Resistance. In the aftermath of her father’s departure, Hendrika watches as freedoms formerly taken for granted are eroded with escalating brutality by men with swastika armbands who aim to exterminate those they deem “inferior” and those who do not obey.  As time goes on, Hendrika absorbs her mother’s strength and faith, and learns about moral choice and forced silence. She sees her hidden Jewish “stepsister” betrayed, and her mother interrogated at gunpoint. She and her mother suffer near starvation, and they narrowly escape death on the day of liberation. But they survive it all—and through these harrowing experiences, Hendrika discovers the woman she wants to become.

50403465._sy475_3. The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui ****
Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels in a besieged Syrian town, who find hope and connection making an underground library from the rubble of war.  Day in, day out, bombs fall on Daraya, a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. In the midst of chaos and bloodshed, a group searching for survivors stumbles on a cache of books. They collect the books, then look for more. In a week they have six thousand volumes. In a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary is born: a library where the people of Daraya can explore beyond the blockade.  Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya was under siege for four years. No one entered or left, and international aid was blocked.  In 2015, French-Iranian journalist Delphine Minoui saw a post on Facebook about this secret library and tracked down one of its founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad, an aspiring photojournalist himself. Over WhatsApp and Facebook, Minoui learned about the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs fell above. They devoured a marvelous range of books–from American self-help like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People to international bestsellers like The Alchemist, from Arabic poetry by Mahmoud Darwish to Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places, such as the siege of Sarajevo. They also shared photos and stories of their lives before and during the war, planned how to build a democracy, and began to sustain a community in shell-shocked soil.  As these everyday heroes struggle to hold their ground, they become as much an inspiration as the books they read. And in the course of telling their stories, Delphine Minoui makes this far-off, complicated war immediate. In the vein of classic tales of the triumph of the human spirit–like All the Beautiful Forevers, A Long Way Gone, and Reading Lolita in TehranThe Book Collectors will inspire readers and encourage them to imagine the wider world.

4. These Silent Mansions: A Life in Graveyards by Jean Sprackland **** 49569565._sy475_
Graveyards are oases: places of escape, of peace and reflection. Each is a garden or nature reserve, but also a site of commemoration, where the past is close enough to touch: a liminal place, at the border of the living world.  Jean Sprackland’s prize-winning book, Strands, brought to life the histories of objects found on a beach. These Silent Mansions is also an uncovering of individual stories: vivid, touching and intimately told. Sprackland travels back through her own life, revisiting graveyards in the ordinary towns and cities she has called home, seeking out others who lived, died and are remembered or forgotten there. With her poet’s eye, she makes chance discoveries among the stones and inscriptions: a notorious smuggler tucked up in a sleepy churchyard; ancient coins unearthed on a secret burial ground; a slow-worm basking in the sun.  These Silent Mansions is an elegant, exhilarating meditation on the relationship between the living and the dead, the nature of time and loss, and how – in this restless, accelerated world – we can connect the here with the elsewhere, the present with the past.

49114654._sx318_5. Shadow City: A Woman Walks Kabul by Taran N. Khan ****
For most Indians, Kabul is a city that is near, yet far-familiar, yet unknown. When Taran N. Khan arrived in Kabul in the spring of 2006, five years after the overthrow of the Taliban regime, she was earnestly cautioned never to walk. Her instincts compelled her to do the opposite: to take that precarious first step and enter the life of the city with the unique, tactile intimacy that comes from being a walker. She didn’t stop until 2013, when she returned to India.  In Shadow City, Taran N. Khan paints a lyrical, personal, and meditative portrait of a city we know primarily in terms of conflict and peace. As a Muslim woman raised in a small town in India, Taran discovered that she had access to parts of Kabul uncharted by travellers before her. The result reads like an elegiac prose map of the city, rich with surprises-from the glitter of wedding halls that shine like a bizarre version of Las Vegas; to the mental health hospital where women are abandoned and isolated but exist in a rare space of freedom and solitude; to the bookseller behind The Bookseller of Kabul, who sued Åsne Seierstad for her portrayal of him and then published the rebuttal which he displays proudly in his shop window.