The New Yorker
Two men struggle to keep their sanity in a brief, despairing novel written pseudonymously by a former Algerian Army officer. Before the destruction wrought by the Soviet war and Taliban rule, Mohsen was an affluent merchant; now he wanders the streets while his beautiful wife is confined to home and burka. Atiq, a volatile ex-mujahideen, guards the prisoners awaiting public execution. One day, Mohsen stops to observe the public stoning of a prostitute, one of Atiq’s charges. Caught up in the frenzy, he joins in, initiating a series of tragic events. Khadra’s prose is gentle and precise, but the violent climax of the book makes a powerful point about what can happen to a man when “the light of his conscience has gone out.”
The New York Times
Yasmina Khadra — whose previous books have chronicled Algeria's savage civil war, pitting Islamic fundamentalists against the armybacked government — is intimately familiar with the consequences that war and religious extremism have on people's daily lives, and in this book he gives the reader a tactile sense of what life under the Taliban might have been like. Michiko Kakutani
Khadra is the nom de plume for Algerian army officer Mohamed Moulessehoul (In the Name of God; Wolf Dreams), who illustrates the effects of repression on a pair of Kabul couples in this slim, harrowing novel of life in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. Gloomy prison guard Atiq Shaukat is tired of his grim duties, keeping watch over prisoners slated for public execution. Life at home, where his wife, Musarrat, is slowly dying of a chronic illness, is no better. Mohsen Ramat, meanwhile, clings to the remains of his middle-class life together with his beautiful, progressive wife, Zunaira, after the Taliban strip them of their livelihood and dignity. Khadra's storytelling style recalls that of Naguib Mahfouz in the early chapters, in which the tense dissatisfaction of both couples is revealed. The pivotal event occurs when Ramat discharges his frustrations by participating in the brutal stoning of a female Taliban prisoner. The incident changes the dynamic of his marriage; after an extended argument about the incident, Ramat persuades Zunaira to go for a stroll in downtown Kabul and the couple is harassed and nearly brutalized by Taliban soldiers. Zunaira continues to bridle at her situation, and when their next argument turns physical, Ramat falls and dies after hitting his head on the wall. Shaukat is given the assignment of guarding Zunaira after she is arrested and charged with murder, and his instant infatuation with her sets off a remarkable chain of events. Khadra's simple, elegant prose, finely drawn characters and chilling insights ("Kabul has become the antechamber to the great beyond") prepare the way for the terrible climax. Like Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner, this is a superb meditation on the fate of the Afghan people. (Feb.) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Set in Afghanistan during the Taliban's rule, this novel features Atiq; his sickly wife, Mousarrat; and an educated woman, Zunaira, who winds up in prison and is sentenced to death for the accidental killing of her husband, Mohsen. Atiq is one of the fortunate citizens who, because of his status as a veteran in the Russian war, is still useful to the Taliban as a jailer of moral transgressors. Zunaira's story, in particular, dramatizes the plight of the countless Afghanis who endured the prolonged medieval code of conduct when the Taliban was in power. Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Mohamed Moulessehoul, a former officer in the Algerian army who has published two books in English, In the Name of God and Wolf Dreams. His jarring new work, ably translated from French, has crisp prose and an ominous-but not heavyhanded-tone as he contrasts the criminally absurd world of the Taliban's theocracy with touching and ultimately heartbreaking relationships of love and sacrifice that humanize the whole tragic society. Recommended for all fiction collections. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/03.]-Edward Keane, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A bleak, terse tale in which a harsh fundamentalist culture suppresses individual liberty and summarily victimizes its citizens. The setting is Afghanistan's war-torn capitol city under Taliban rule, and still reeling from the catastrophic Russian invasion-during which, one character remembers, "the terrified swallows dispersed under a barrage of missiles." These swallows are both literal and metaphoric, as is dramatized in the powerful opening scene, of a woman condemned as a prostitute being publicly stoned to death. The pseudonymous Khadra (Wolf Dreams, p. 704, etc.), who has been identified as a former Algerian army officer, then focuses in turn on major characters who, initially, cross one another's paths but do not actually meet. Mohsen Ramat, a young intellectual, is caught up in the frenzy of the prostitute's "execution," participates in the stoning, and thereafter endangers his marriage by confessing this to his wife Zunaira, a former "lawyer, who worked for women's rights." Meanwhile, Atiq Shaukat, a wounded veteran of the Russian War now working as a prison guard, tortuously reexamines his own relationships to both his drastically changed homeland and his wife Musarrat, who had nursed him back to health and is now dying from a painful enervating disease. Khadra's unflinching portrayal of the scorching, suppurating environment in which these people struggle not to be noticed, is quite effective. And his principal characters' trials are ingeniously echoed in stark glimpses of other stunted, redirected figures (e.g., a cynical entrepreneur, an aged cripple obsessed by fantasies of escape). But Mohsen and Atiq declaim incessantly, creating static patches that stand out glaringly inthis story's short compass-and are only partially redeemed by a powerful climax in which Zunaira becomes everything she most despises, and the jailer Atiq becomes the prisoner of his own best-and most foolhardy-impulses. Still, despite such contrivances, Khadra's latest is informed by a fine ironic intelligence, and its message is not an easy one to shake off.
From the Publisher
"A surprisingly tender book. . . . Amid the terror a classic story about love sneaks through: love lost, love imagined, love morphed into madness." —The New York Times Book Review
“A novel very much in the tradition of Albert Camus, not only in its humanism and concern with the consequences of individual choices but also in its determination to bear witness to the absurdities of daily life. . . . [A] chilling portrait of fundamentalism run amok and its fallout on ordinary people.” — The New York Times
“Beautifully written. . . . It puts a human face on the suffering inflicted by the Taliban. . . . Disturbing and mesmerizing, The Swallows of Kabul will stay with you long after you’ve finished it.” -- San Francisco Chronicle
“Riveting. . . . Spare, taut, and pristinely clear prose . . . . An uncanny knack for making moral tension palpable. . . . Extraordinarily moving.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Stunning. . . . [Khadra] conveys the physical deprivations and humiliations with a few startling details, but the book’s most devastating sections explore the mental damage of living under such terror. . . . [This] novel is a surgical strike against fundamentalism more penetrating than anything the Pentagon could devise.” --Christian Science Monitor
“Yasmina Khadra’s Kabul is hell on earth, a place of hunger, tedium, and stifling fear.” --J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature
“A brief, despairing novel. . . . Khadra’s prose is gentle and precise. . . . Makes a powerful point about what can happen to a man when ‘the light of his conscience has gone out.’” --The New Yorker
“Chilling. . . . Powerful, surreal. . . . A meditation on the ultimate sacrifice of love. . . . [Khadra] expertly reveals the breakdown of human relations in a repressive society.” --Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“I am so grateful that The Swallows of Kabul has been written, and written with such relentless poetry and passion. . . .[It] once more proves the power of fiction to turn our despair into hope, to restore our stolen sense of dignity and humanity, and to desire life when death seems to be the safest refuge.” --Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
“Khadra writes with economy, saying a lot with a little. . . . His style is as spare and flinty as the craggy hills that surround the city. . . . The Swallows of Kabul is for readers who wish to explore despair’s deepest shadows.” --The Baltimore Sun
“Powerful, despairing. . . . Communicates a sense of urgency, as if its creator knew he was on the verge of being found out. . . . What gives The Swallows of Kabul its momentum is the sense of conviction it brings to its most dramatic moments.” --The Oregonian
“Plac[es] the reader not only inside the daily rhythms of Kabul but trapped, as well, beneath a woman’s burqa. . . . Khadra exemplifies the novelist’s gift: he bestows an emotional life and voice on those who have been alienated and silenced. . . . [The Swallows of Kabul] is a necessary advance, taking us deeper into this world than the reportage we have seen for so long now.” --The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
“Riveting. . . . Thrilling, horrifying. . . . Khadra’s snapshots of Kabul are the stuff of Dante’s Inferno.” --Colombus Dispatch
"[A] wrenchingly beautiful novel. . . . [Khadra's] strength as a writer lies in his precisely passionate phrases, his psychological probings, and the gnarled and twisted relationships he conjures up between endless war and relentless theocracy. There is a lyrical starkness to his prose that you just want to read out loud to capture its searing rhythms and perfect cadences. . . . This is a brilliant, resolute, elegiac novel that not only hurts but, in the sheer beauty of its style, also exhilarates and creates sublimely tragic moments you will never forget." --The Providence Journal
“Brillian[t]. . . . Accomplished. . . . [Khadra's] portrait of the Afghan tragedy is unflinching, his lean prose and storytelling skills unimpeachable. . . . The bleak portrayal of life under the Taliban contained in this brief, straightforward narrative musters the complexity and moral impact of a much bigger book.” --South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Read an Excerpt
Atiq Shaukat flails about him with his whip, trying to force a passage through the ragged crowd swirling around the stalls in the market like a swarm of dead leaves. He's late, but he finds it impossible to proceed any faster. It's like being inside a beehive; the vicious blows he deals out are addressed to no one in particular. On souk day, people act as if in a trance. The throng makes Atiq's head spin. In thicker and thicker waves, beggars arrive from the four corners of the city and compete with carters and onlookers for hypothetically free spaces. The porters' effluvia and the emanations of rotting produce fill the air with an appalling stench, and a burden of relentless heat crushes the esplanade. A few spectral women, segregated inside their grimy burqas, extend imploring hands and clutch at passersby; some receive a coin for their trouble, others just a curse. Often, when the women grow too insistent, an infuriated lashing drives them backward. But their retreat is brief, and soon they return to the assault, chanting their intolerable supplications. Others, encumbered by brats whose faces are covered with flies and snot, cluster desperately around the fruit vendors, interrupting their singsong litanies only to lunge for the occasional rotten tomato or onion that an alert customer may discover at the bottom of his basket.
"You can't stay there!" a vendor shouts at them, furiously brandishing a long stick above their heads. "You're bringing my stall bad luck, not to mention all kinds of bugs."
Atiq Shaukat looks at his watch and clenches his teeth in anger. The executioner must have arrived a good ten minutes ago, and he, Atiq, is still dawdling in the streets. Exasperated, he starts hitting out again, wielding his many-thonged whip in an effort to part the flood of humanity, futilely harrying a group of old men as insensible to his blows as they are to the sobs of a little girl lost in the crowd. Then, taking advantage of the opening caused by the passage of a truck, Atiq manages to squeeze into a less turbulent side street and hastens, despite his limp, toward a building that stands oddly upright amid an expanse of rubble. Formerly a clinic, but fallen into disuse and long since ransacked by phantoms of the night, the building is used by the Taliban as a temporary prison on the occasions when a public execution is to take place in the district.
"Where have you been?" thunders a large-bellied, bearded man stroking a Kalashnikov. "I sent someone to fetch you an hour ago."
Without slackening his gait, Atiq says, "I beg your pardon, Qassim Abdul Jabbar. I wasn't home." Then, in a resentful voice, he adds, "I was at the hospital. I had to take my wife. It was an emergency."
Qassim Abdul Jabbar grumbles, not at all convinced, and puts a finger on the face of his watch, indicating to Atiq that everyone's growing impatient, and all because of him. Atiq hunches his shoulders and heads toward the building, where armed men waiting for him are squatting on either side of the main door. One of them stands up, dusts off his behind, walks over to a pickup truck parked about sixty feet away, climbs inside, guns the motor, and backs up to the prison entrance.
Atiq Shaukat extracts a ring of keys from under his long vest and rushes into the jail, followed by two militiawomen hidden inside their burqas. In a corner of the cell, in a pool of light directly under a small window, a veiled woman has just finished her prayers. The other two women, the ones from the militia, ask the prison guard to withdraw. Once they are alone, they wait for the prisoner to rise to her feet. Then they approach her, unceremoniously command her to keep still, and begin to bind her tightly, pinioning her arms to her sides and trussing her legs together at midthigh. Having verified that the cords are pulled taut and solidly knotted, they envelop the woman in a large sack of heavy cloth and push her ahead of them into the corridor. Atiq, who is waiting at the door, signals to Qassim Abdul Jabbar that the militiawomen are coming. He, in turn, tells the men in front of the jail to move away. Intrigued by the proceedings, a few onlookers form a silent group at some distance from the building. The two militiawomen step out into the street, seize the prisoner by her armpits, push and haul her up into the back of the truck, load her onto the bench, and sit beside her, so close that she's pinned between them.
Abdul Jabbar raises the truck's side rails and fastens the latches. He takes one last look at the militiawomen and their prisoner to assure himself that all is as it should be, then climbs into the cab beside the driver and strikes the floor with the butt of his weapon to signal the beginning of the procession. The truck pulls away at once, escorted by an enormous 4 ´ 4 topped with a rotating light and packed with slovenly militia soldiers.
Mohsen Ramat hesitates for a long time before he decides to join the crowd gathering in the square. The authorities have announced the public execution of a prostitute: She is to be stoned to death. A few hours earlier, workers came to the execution site to unload wheelbarrows filled with rocks and dig a small hole about two feet deep.
Mohsen has been present at many lynchings of this nature. Just yesterday, two young men--one of them barely a teenager--were hanged from a traveling crane mounted on the back of a truck; their bodies were not taken down until nightfall. Mohsen loathes public executions. They make him conscious of his vulnerability, they sharpen his perception of his limits, they fill him with sudden insight into the futility of all things, of all people. At such times, there's no longer anything to reconcile him to his certitudes of days gone by, when he would raise his eyes to the horizon only to lay claim to it. The first time he watched someone put to death--a murderer, whose throat was slit by a member of his victim's family--the sight made him sick. For many nights thereafter, his sleep was dazzled by nightmarish visions. He started awake more than once, shouting like a man possessed. But time has passed, and scaffolds have come to seem more and more a part of ordinary life, so much so that the citizens of Kabul grow anxious at the thought that an execution might be postponed. Now expiatory victims are dispatched in droves, and Mohsen has gradually stopped dreaming. The light of his conscience has gone out. He drops off the moment he closes his eyes, he sleeps soundly until morning, and when he wakes up, his head is as empty as a jug. For him and everyone else, death is only a banality. Moreover, everything is banality. Apart from the executions, which are the mullahs' way of setting their house in order, there's nothing at all. Kabul has become the antechamber to the great beyond: a dark antechamber, where the points of reference are obscure; a puritanical ordeal; something latent and unbearable, observed in the strictest privacy.
Mohsen doesn't know where to go or what to do with his idleness. Every day, starting in the morning, he roams through the devastated areas of the city with a vacillating mind and an impassive face. In the old days--that is, several light-years ago--he loved to take an evening stroll along the boulevards of Kabul. Back then, the windows of the bigger stores didn't have very much to offer, but no one came up to you and struck you in the face with a whip. People went about their business with enough motivation to envision, in accesses of enthusiasm, fabulous projects. The smaller shops were filled to bursting; a hubbub of voices poured out from them and spilled onto the sidewalks like a flood of friendliness and goodwill. Settled into wicker chairs, their fans laid carelessly across their bellies, old men smoked their water pipes, occasionally squinting at a sunbeam. And the women, despite wearing long veils and peering through netting, pirouetted in their perfumes like gusts of warm air. The caravan travelers of bygone days used to swear that they had nowhere and never, in all their wanderings, encountered such bewitching beauties. They were inscrutable vestals, their laughter a song, their grace a dream of delight. And this is the reason why the wearing of the burqa has become a necessity, more to preserve women from malicious eyes than to spare men the temptations of infinite allurements. . . . How far off those days seem. Could they be nothing but pure fabrications? These days, the boulevards of Kabul are no longer amusing. The skeletal facades that by some miracle are still standing attest to the fact that the cafes, the eating places, the houses, and the buildings have all gone up in smoke. The formerly blacktopped streets are now only beaten tracks scraped by clogs and sandals all day long. The shopkeepers have put their smiles in the storeroom. The chilam smokers have vanished into thin air. The men of Kabul have taken cover behind shadow puppets, and the women, mummified in shrouds the color of fever or fear, are utterly anonymous.
At the time of the Soviet invasion, Mohsen was ten years old, an age when one fails to understand why, all of a sudden, the gardens are deserted and the days as dangerous as the nights; an age when one is particularly ignorant of how easily great misfortunes happen. His father had been a prosperous merchant. The family lived in a large residence in the very center of the city and regularly entertained relatives and friends. Mohsen doesn't remember much from that period, but he's certain that his happiness was complete, that no one challenged his outbursts of laughter or condemned him for being a spoiled, capricious child. And then came the Russian tidal wave, with its apocalyptic armada and its triumphant massiveness. The Afghan sky, under which the most beautiful idylls on earth were woven, grew suddenly dark with armored predators; its azure limpidity was streaked with powder trails, and the terrified swallows dispersed under a barrage of missiles. War had arrived. In fact, it had just found itself a homeland. . . .
The blast of a horn propels him to one side. Instinctively, he puts his long scarf up to his face as a shield against the dust. Abdul Jabbar's truck grazes him, just misses a muleteer, and hurtles into the square, closely followed by the powerful 4 ´ 4. At the sight of this cortege, an incongruous roaring shakes the crowd, where shaggy adults and slender youths vie for the choicest places. To calm people down, militiamen distribute a few savage blows.
The vehicle comes to a stop in front of the freshly dug hole. The sinner is helped down while shouts of abuse ring out here and there. Once again, waves of movement perturb the crowd, catapulting the less vigilant into the rear ranks.
Insensible to the violent attacks intended to eject him, Mohsen takes advantage of the agitation, slips through the gaps it opens in the throng, and gains a spot near the front. Standing on tiptoe, he watches a fanatic of colossal proportions lift up the impure woman and "plant" her in the hole. Then, to keep her upright and prevent her from moving, he buries her in earth up to her thighs.
A mullah tosses the tails of his burnoose over his shoulders, addresses a final glare of contempt to the mound of veils under which a person is preparing to die, and thunders, "There are some among us, humans like ourselves, who have chosen to wallow in filth like pigs. In vain have they heard the sacred Message, in vain have they learned what perniciousness lurks in temptation; still they succumb, because their faith is insufficient to help them resist. Wretched creatures, blind and useless, they have shut their ears to the muezzin's call in order to hearken to the ribaldries of Satan. They have elected to suffer the wrath of God rather than abstain from sin. How can we address them, except in sorrow and indignation?"
He stretches out an arm like a sword toward the mummy. "This woman knew exactly what she was doing. The intoxication of lust turned her away from the path of the Lord. Today, the Lord turns His back on her. She has no right to His mercy, no right to the pity of the faithful. She has lived in dishonor; so shall she die."
He stops to clear his throat, then unfolds a sheet of paper amid the deafening silence.
"Allahu akbar!" yells someone in the back of the crowd.
The mullah raises an imperious hand to silence the shouter. After reciting a verse from the Qur'an, he reads something that sounds like a judgment, returns the sheet of paper to an interior pocket of his vest, and at the end of a brief meditation proposes that his listeners arm themselves with stones. This is the signal. In an indescribable frenzy, the crowd rushes to the heaps of rocks placed in the square a few hours earlier for this very purpose. At once, a hail of projectiles falls upon the condemned woman, who, since she has been gagged, shivers under their impact without a cry. Mohsen picks up three stones and throws them at the target. Because of the tumult around him, the first two go astray, but on the third try he hits the victim flush on the head. In an access of unfathomable joy, he sees a red stain blossom at the spot where his stone has struck her. At the end of a minute, bloody and broken, the woman collapses and lies still. Her rigidity further galvanizes her executioners; their eyes rolled back, their mouths dripping saliva, they redouble their fury, as if trying to resuscitate their victim and thus prolong her torment. In their collective hysteria, convinced that they're exorcising their own demons through those of the succubus, some of them fail to notice that the crushed body is no longer responding to their attacks and that the immolated, half-buried woman is lying lifeless on the ground, like a sack of abomination thrown to the vultures.
Atiq Shaukat doesn't feel well. He's tormented by the need to go outside and breathe some fresh air, to find a likely wall and stretch out on it with his face to the sun. He can't stay in this rat hole one more minute, talking to himself or trying to decipher the inextricable arabesques of words inscribed on the walls of the cells. The chill inside the little jailhouse revives his old wounds; sometimes his knee gets cold and stiffens up so much it hurts him to bend it. At the same time, he has a feeling that he's becoming claustrophobic: He can't stand the darkness any longer, nor the cubbyhole that serves as his office, festooned with spiderwebs and littered with the corpses of pill bugs. He puts away his hurricane lamp, his goatskin gourd, and the velvet-draped box where he keeps a voluminous copy of the Qur'an. After rolling up his prayer mat and hanging it on a nail, he decides to leave the jailhouse. In the unlikely event that his services are needed, the militia officers know where to find him.
From the Hardcover edition.