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Kim Barker Shares Experiences From Time in the Middle East in The Taliban Shuffle

By Holly Shanahan ’18

Staff Writer


On Nov. 16, the President’s Speaker Series hosted author of The Taliban Shuffle: Strange days in Afghanistan and Pakistan and New York Times Investigative Reporter Kim Barker.

Barker wrote from her experiences as the South Asia bureau chief for The Chicago Tribune from 2004 to 2009. She has won numerous awards including Journalist of the Year 2016, 1st place Investigative Reporters and Editors 2013, and the Sigma Delta Chi award from the Society of Professional Journalists in 2013.

In 2014, actress Tina Fey purchased the rights to Barker’s book and created a movie adaptation of this dark comedy. The film was a major success in North America with a grossed total of $23.1 million.

During her visit at Merrimack, Barker spoke about her time spent in Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as the devastation she encountered. She also recalled the immense amount of hospitality and kindness from locals, some of who had very little to give. Barker addressed throughout her talk that “Muslims are people too.” In America, there is a stigma against Islamic and Muslim people, which Barker urged the audience to reject while learning to accept all races and nationalities.

Junior Allison Hart attended the event. “It was meaningful to me because it shows the human side of war. It’s relevant to Merrimack because we are all so privileged that we often disassociate ourselves from war.”

Barker revealed that the reason she entered this line of work was because of the attacks on 9/11. She set out to discover what was happening in other parts of the world and what exactly this war was about. By walking into her boss’s office and stating, “I’m Kim Barker. I’m single, and I’m childless. Send me anywhere,” she received her first assignment to Afghanistan.

Afghanistan is still a dangerous place, not only for visitors, but also for its citizens. After the Taliban was removed from Afghan government, women began to receive more rights and could leave their homes on their own. Unfortunately, in 2012, a “code of conduct” was instated that took away women’s rights to leave the home without the escort of a male family member. Due to the lack of women’s rights, Barker made a very conscious decision in her book not to mention the women she met, in order to ensure their safety.

“I decided I wasn’t going to write about any Afghan women. I don’t think there is anything funny about Afghan women, and it could cause danger for them back home if they were misidentified,” said Barker.

As for those she did write about in her book, Barker used pseudonyms in order to protect the identities of those who were still in danger. She referred to her friend Farouk and how she read the full book to him because his English was not perfected. When reading the parts about him, he did not understand why she didn’t use his name. In this case, Farouk is safe and living in North America, so his name stayed the same.

Barker kept a book of all the names of the people she met during her time in Afghanistan, and at the end of her time there, 17 of those people had been killed. At that point, she decided to leave for some time, in order to avoid becoming “numb to death.”

Barker recognizes that her book is written as a dark comedy because the heaviness of the subject would have been too harsh and would not have reached the intended audience. Humor makes it easier for readers to learn the facts and understand the problems that other countries face. The intention isn’t to make light of the serious problems facing Afghanistan and Pakistan, but to make it bearable to the readers.

Barker left her audience with these words. “It’s almost impossible to change the world, but you can change people and you can let them change you.”

Next up in the President’s Speaker Series is Presidential Ambassador for Global Entrepreneurship, Star of ABC’s Shark Tank and CEO of The Shark Group, Daymond John, which will take place in the MPR on April 4, 2017.