“I had always wanted to meet a warlord.”
These words, which comprise the first sentence of Kim Barker’s memoir, The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, appear seemingly simplistic, yet they embody the absurdity that marked Barker’s journey as a reporter covering the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the years following the 9/11 attacks. During her time in the Middle East, she realized her thirst for adventure could only be quenched through her own discovery of the madness and ridiculousness of life on the two countries’ chaotic and often dangerous streets.
In light of this, it may be hard to imagine such a daring individual sitting on a comfortable-looking couch situated in the bright, fluorescent lighting of a Ritz-Carlton interview room. But Barker excitedly answered two college journalists’ questions about the extraordinary experiences which led her to write her 2011 memoir, as well as her thoughts about Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, which hits theaters March 4.
Based on her dark, satiric memoir, the film follows Barker (played by Tina Fey), a journalist for the Chicago Tribune, as she bravely embraces life as a war reporter. The movie touches on various aspects of Barker’s life, including her friendship with British TV journalist Tanya Vanderpoel (Margot Robbie) and her wild romance with Scottish photojournalist Iain MacKelpie (Martin Freeman), all the while never losing touch with the brilliantly bitter satire that adorns Barker’s book.
Reflecting on what initially drove her to cover the war in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Barker described how seeing fellow journalists and neighbors pack their bags for the Middle East and having the determination to test her own journalistic abilities fueled her desire to report on the conflict.
“As time went on, you know, it was very clear that we were going into Afghanistan and Pakistan, and they were sending people from the Metro desk, and it’s like, I’m watching this neighbor go and this neighbor volunteer, and I just thought, ‘I really want to see if I can do it,’ you know?” said Barker. “I had never done anything like it, and I just wanted to go to where this had started.”
Barker discussed how she decided to write a memoir about what she had seen during her time as a war reporter. She chose not to lay out her experiences in a mundane and factual way, but to instead describe the ridiculousness of life in Afghanistan and Pakistan in a darkly humorous context.
“I kind of thought, ‘Oh, I want to see if I can do something funny that reflects the absurdity of everything we’ve seen here,’” said Barker, explaining how strange she felt about going to wild parties at night while continuing to cover the war on terror.
Commenting on her decision to quit her job at the Chicago Tribune in order to commit herself to writing her memoir, Barker said the experience was one in which she was forced to see fear as a mere obstacle to overcome.
“I decided, look, you have a couple chances in your life where you either roll the damn dice and do the scary thing, or you do the safe thing,” Barker said.
She said that her brother’s words of encouragement at a London restaurant solidified her decision to quit her job and write a memoir.
She also elaborated on the strong friendship that she had with her translator, Faruk, who is named Fahim in the film (Christopher Abbot). Barker expressed how she wished to portray both her and her friend as two complex, yet ordinary humans.
“I’m like, you know, we’re both going to be multi-dimensional characters in this, you know, because … people are complex — people are not black or white — and I didn’t want to do a book that was like, ‘Oh, heroic Kim’ or ‘heroic Faruk,’” Barker said. “It’s just like, we’re all real people dealing with these situations.”
As for Faruk’s onscreen portrayal, Barker had only the highest praise for Abbot and his ability to convey the translator’s likable personality in the film.
“I think Christopher Abbot does just such a nice job playing him; you just really like his character,” said Barker, adding that Abbot comes off as “the adult in the room, which [Faruk] usually was.”
Barker also revealed the satirical approach she took when describing the horrors of the war, sharing a dark, funny story that she had written about an experience in Afghanistan.
“There was this bus that they sent out in Kabul that’s whole job was to go and take beggars off the streets and bring them to this place and threaten them with prison and give them food, and they’re, like, yanking beggars off the streets as if they’re … kidnapping them, and it’s all these kids, and like. there would be this little boy like, ‘Everybody cry, everybody cry,’” Barker said, laughing. “And they were yanking on a woman in there who was in a wheelchair, and she was like, ‘Alright, fine,’ and she walks up the stairs, and it’s just sort of like really human experiences where you can totally see that happening — something like that happening here.”
However, despite the satire and humor that she used to illustrate life in a war zone, Barker stressed how survival in the midst of such atrocities, rather than the brutality of the war itself, is what motivated her as a journalist.
“I liked to write about how people lived through war, rather than how people died in it, and I did those stories,” said Barker. “You have to do those stories.”