Billings native Kim Barker learned to fish and backpack in Montana, but she learned to sing karaoke, interview warlords, shoot Kalashnikovs and jump-start a car using a metal ladder in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Barker describes her antics, trials and triumphs working as a foreign correspondent in her 2011 memoir, “The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
In what may be the first-ever comedy based on a real-life Montanan, superstar comedian Tina Fey will portray Barker in the upcoming film adaptation of the memoir, currently titled “Fun House,” slated for release in 2016.
Barker speculates that Fey took an interest in the book after the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani described Barker “as a sort of Tina Fey character.”
Looking at Fey’s body of work and style of comedy, Kakutani spoke truth. Or, at least half-truth. The book is part confessional dark comedy, part current affairs primer, a combination that is solidly in Fey’s wheelhouse.
“Pakistanis and Afghanis have a dark sense of humor,” Barker said. “Same thing with ER doctors—that’s how you survive through tragedy.”
Barker started covering the Near East for the Chicago Tribune following the U.S. occupation of Iraq in 2003, when fighting the Taliban and rebuilding Afghanistan took a back seat to finding and killing Saddam Hussein. She writes that “everyone complained about how Afghanistan was a ‘forgotten war.’”
Barker remembers how truly inexperienced she was when she agreed to her first assignment to Afghanistan.
“I’m grateful that the Chicago Tribune took a chance on someone so green,” she said.
Before that, Barker had little international travel experience under her belt. She spoke only English and didn’t know much about Islam.
Yet, Afghanistan gave her the improbable feeling of home. She writes: “Afghanistan seemed familiar. It had jagged blue-and-purple mountains, big skies, and bearded men in pickup trucks stocked with guns and hate for the government. It was like Montana—just on different drugs.”
These were strange days, indeed. “The Taliban Shuffle” recounts Barker’s firsthand curiosity and the sense of paradox, hyperbole, violence and humor that characterized this region at the time.
Hilarity is juxtaposed with tragedy. Drinking and debauchery abut conservative Muslim culture. Key international players enter the story offhandedly like party entrants.
Barker’s personal life intertwines with her professional life, to mixed results. Never shying away from disclosing uncharitable details about herself, Barker comes off as an honest, if unorthodox, tour guide.
Much of this tour deals with subterranean expat culture. Barker went to a place much different from what is portrayed in recent literature and film about Afghanistan. She describes her first foray into a newfound social scene like this:
“In the morning, I awoke with a hangover fueled by cheap wine and guilt, mixed with a feeling of possibility. My social life had not hit a mud wall in Afghanistan. There were parties, a scene, places to wear little black dresses.
“There was potential here, even if that potential resembled a cross between a John Hughes high-school movie and Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street, given the small foreign community and the inevitable cliques, with do-gooders, guns for hire, and journos approximating brains, jocks, and goths.”
Barker steeps in this culture, hopping across the Afghan-Pakistani border to varying degrees of personal and professional success. Herein lies the eponymous “shuffle.”
Barker is not too concerned about how accurately the filmmakers adapt her memoir, or even about the quality of the film, though she acknowledges that seeing someone else interpret her work has the potential to be a “jarring, unsettling experience.”
“It’s not my life, it’s fiction,” Barker said. “It might be more disconcerting if it was actually me up on the big screen.”
The film project is not merely fiction: this is a big-budget comedy, replete with A-list stars. Billy Bob Thornton, Alfred Molina, Margot Robbie (the leading lady in “Wolf of Wall Street”) and Martin Freeman (the leading Hobbit in “The Hobbit”) join Tina Fey on the silver screen. Lorne Michaels, of Saturday Night Live fame, is producing. Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, who found success with “I Love You Phillip Morris” and “Crazy, Stupid, Love,” are directing.
Robert Carlock, of “30 Rock,” is adapting the book and writing the script for “Fun House.”
Barker hasn’t read it, but said she trusts Carlock. She hopes the movie will both “drive interest and cause people to pick up my book or any book on Afghanistan or Pakistan or the Middle East.”
She now works at the New York Times’ Metro desk, reporting on stories “in neighborhoods your parents wouldn’t want you anywhere near.” The multifarious neighborhoods of New York City still allow her to experience the wanderlust that made her leave the United States in the first place.
In her early life, before she got itchy feet, Barker lived at 723 N. 31st St., kitty-corner from McKinley Elementary School, where her grandmother, Mrs. Mars, taught. She had a springer spaniel terrier with a reputation for lurking behind trees during schoolyard kickball games, waiting for a ball to roll his way. When a ball came near, the dog would pounce on it and pop it with his teeth. This happened many times. Mrs. Mars had to intervene so the games could go on.
Until she moved away at 13, Barker attended McKinley, and then the now-defunct Lincoln Junior High.
Mrs. Mars has since moved to Missoula, where Barker visits when she returns to Montana.
She said she still misses this place. The second chapter of “The Taliban Shuffle” is titled “Montana.” Here, Barker touches on her modest, unorthodox Treasure State upbringing. Her “hippie” parents tasked her with taking care of their marijuana plants but never taught her to shoot a rifle.
At one point in the book, a friend of Barker’s named Tom is aware of her Montana upbringing and assumes she could handle a gun. Barker then “aims” at the target (a melon) but instead shoots Tom in the shin.
Like many of the near-catastrophic mishaps in Barker’s memoir, everything turns out all right. She assures her readers that Tom was fine.
Although Barker didn’t glean firearm expertise from her days under the Big Sky, she considers herself a Montanan at heart. She writes that she prefers “few people, lots of open range, and boundary lines meant to be respected.”
“It would be great to find a great journalist job in the middle of the mountains somewhere,” she said. “I’m still looking for that.”