Movies

Kim Barker, the real foreign correspondent behind 'Whiskey Tango Foxtrot'

Movies based on true stories are prone to overdramatization: a new romantic angle, a few extra daring feats. The war zone comedy “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” opening Friday, does add those things, but if anything it undersells the story of Kim Barker, whose book “The Taliban Shuffle” is the basis for the movie.

As the Chicago Tribune’s South Asia bureau chief from 2004 to 2009, she spent time embedded with U.S. troops, interviewed important government officials and covered numerous major events in the region. The assassination and funeral of Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto? Check. The deadly tsunami of 2004? Check. Interviews with warlords and members of the Taliban? Check and check.

Her book provides an educational, firsthand look at what happened in the region during that time, carefully explaining customs, conflicts and more, while also being an extremely fun read: Readers get a window into the community of the foreign journalists working in Afghanistan at the time, an extremely social group with wild parties, karaoke outings and other shenanigans.

Barker writes humorously, with frequent jokes, funny observations and stories about punching handsy men in the face or getting hit on by a government official. Long before “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot” was a thing, the New York Times writer reviewing the book noted that Barker “depicts herself as a sort of Tina Fey character.” In the film, Fey plays the journalist, now a TV reporter named Kim Baker.

While Barker’s resume makes her seem fearless, she says she was a "very frightened child," and she makes references in her book to fear. Asked during a recent interview with RedEye at The Ritz-Carlton about dealing with that while she was overseas, the Montana native and Northwestern alumna said that while she thinks the incomprehensibility of what happens when you die is what made her scared as a child (she noted that she was raised without organized religion), as an adult, it’s made her spiritual. It’s an outlook that has shaped her career.

“I feel very much like you’re here for a short time, and you get the chance to be able to see what you can see, and it’s almost like I wanted to test myself,” she said. “At a certain point in my career, I started picking the option that seemed the scariest. Like, if I’m offered this and this, what seems harder? If I’m offered this and this, what’s going to challenge me more as a journalist? What might push me out of my comfort zone?”

She remembers getting a call from her editor the day after Christmas in 2003 and being told to go cover the earthquake that had hit southeastern Iran, killing more than 26,000 people. Mostly working in Chicago at the time, with occasional trips to report overseas, she knew nothing about Iran. After getting new passport photos taken of her wearing a headscarf, on the advice of her brother’s girlfriend (who was from Iran), she took off for Tehran.

“I thought I was going into a place that was scary, you know, evil empire,” she said. “And so they tell you basically as you’re flying into Tehran, ‘OK, ladies ... Gear up, get your stuff on.’ And it’s like, you know, ‘Welcome to the Islamic Republic of Iran; dress appropriately.’ ”

Wanting to “look the part and look conservative,” she put on a “thing that looks like a graduation gown,” a headscarf and baggy pants. After arriving and waiting nine hours or so to get fingerprinted, she finally met her “fixer,” a paid local who would be an interpreter/guide and set up interviews ... and who was wearing lipstick, a cute, stylish white jacket, tight black pants, high heels and “a red see-through scarf tied like a Hollywood movie star,” Barker said.

“... And she looks me up and down, she goes, ‘Well, clearly the first thing we have to do is take you shopping,’ ” Barker recalled, laughing. “And it just sort of goes to the whole idea of, I thought I was going into this one place, and I was going into someplace completely different, and it’s all about who you work with.”

Her time in the region wasn’t all about challenging herself: She wanted to be able to tell good stories, and Afghanistan, she said, is a country that you fall in love with as a correspondent—the hospitality, the terrain, the beauty and the Afghan people themselves, who she said are hilarious, with dark senses of humor.

“The longer I was there, the more you sort of get over your fear, the more you’re just sort of like, you know, this is your life," she said. "It’s like this becomes home to you, like they do in the movie.”

These days, pushing and challenging herself means staying in the U.S., where she currently works as a reporter for the New York Times. When she left Afghanistan in 2009, she left her possessions there packed in boxes, planning to return as soon as she had completed a fellowship and her book. But toward the end of writing her book, she thought that not returning would actually be the scarier thing.

“It would be so easy to go back to that life and to go back to, where’s the next war zone, and it’s fun, it’s exciting, it’s like you’re covering world events as it unfolds, but I kind of felt like I had to get off of that for a while,” she said, adding that she wanted to see if she could develop a more balanced life in the U.S. than the one she was living overseas.

Now, she said, anyone wanting to be a foreign correspondent (which has become more of a freelance than full-time opportunity) should be very careful, do research, work with the right people and maybe take a combat awareness class. “It’s really challenging; it’s very expensive to do foreign reporting safely in a war zone,” Barker said. “I would say to somebody who wants to go over there, don’t go to the war zone. Go someplace that’s undercover that’s got a really interesting story that you can do stories and get [what] nobody else [is getting].”

Meanwhile, her friends who still visit Afghanistan regularly tell her that it’s not the place she once lived—it’s much more grim. But she does see herself going back overseas, maybe to Beirut, Turkey or Cairo.

If readers are lucky, maybe she’ll write about those experiences, too.

@gauxmargaux  |  mhenquinet@redeyechicago.com

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