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.
On 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.