Penn State

New York Times reporter speaks about time in Afghanistan

New York Times metro reporter Kim Barker outlined some rules she learned in Afghanistan during her speech Thursday in the Lewis Katz building on Penn State’s campus.

Barker, who specializes in investigative reporting and narrative writing, also talked about her book, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” published in 2011, a dark comedy memoir about her time oversees.

Her book was subsequently made into the movie “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” which was released earlier this year and starred Tina Fey. It received average reviews and lost more than $10 million at the box office.

Barker’s speech was riddled with humor, as she began by saying that the university only invited her to talk because they wanted Tina Fey, “but alas, it’s just me, the reporter played by Tina Fey, ‘Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,’ which is in itself pretty unusual.”

“The only other living person to be played by Tina Fey is, of course, Sarah Palin,” Barker said. “I guess if your choice is Sarah Palin or me talking about knowledge in foreign countries, you will decide they made the better choice, or at least the one who knows where Afghanistan is on a map.”

As for her inspiration for writing the book: “Watching as those countries seemed to do worse and worse and worse, the experience probably left me a little scarred. So, I did what seemed perfectly natural at the time, I decided to write a funny book on the War on Terror.”

Barker’s first lesson is to do your research. When Barker arrived in Islamabad, she “ordered sushi from room service in the Marriott,” she said, “because I thought somehow we were close to the ocean, and that was a real mistake.”

The second, she said, is to adapt to the culture.

“You have this culture here where you get to the point,” Barker said. But in Afghanistan, “you can’t bring up business until you have three cups of tea with somebody, you can’t negotiate anything over lunch.”

“You have to be comfortable just sitting and waiting for hours and talking about nothing until you gain the trust of somebody to actually ask the questions you want to ask.”

Baker worked from 2004 to 2009 as South Asia bureau chief, based in New Delhi and Islamabad, for the Chicago Tribune, focusing mostly on coverage in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

“For me, going to Afghanistan, it kind of felt really familiar to me, because I grew up in Montana, which is a (state) with lots of mountains and guys with beards and pickup trucks and guns who hate the government,” Barker said.

Renato Buanafina is a journalism student at Penn State.