Category Archives: Algerian authors

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra [review]

swallows-of-kabul-montageThe Swallows of Kabul is not a novel which makes for comfortable reading. How can it be otherwise when it opens with the public execution of a woman in which one of the characters, a man who has hitherto shown no propensity for anything other than goodness, finds himself picking up a stone and joining in? This kind of heightened emotion is much in evidence in the rest of this novel, often born out of the despair of people who try to exist (live would be too strong a word) in a world controlled by the Taliban.

Yasmina Khadra takes us deep into the heart of the city of Kabul “a city in an advanced stage of decomposition” and into the lives of two couples. Moshen, the son of wealthy grocers, and his beautiful wife Zunaira have found their freedom and their hopes shattered. He can no longer aspire to become a diplomat while she, once a magistrate and a champion for women’s rights,  stays at home unwilling to comply with the requirement she is veiled whenever in public.

Explaining her resistance to the burqa, Zunaira tells her husband:

Of all the burdens that have put on us, that is the most degrading. The Shirt of Nessus wouldn’t do as much damage to my dignity as that wretched getup. It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object. … If I put that damned veil on I’m neither a human being nor an animal, I’m just an affront, a disgrace, a blemish that has to be hidden. That’s too hard to deal with. Especially for someone who was a lawyer, who worked for women’s rights. Don’t ask me to give up my name, my features, the color of my eyes, and the shape of my lips so I can walk through squalor and desolation.

One day, her husband makes a special appeal that she put aside her reservations so they can go out together and rekindle their evening walks from the old days. These were the days he recalls when “the windows of the larger stores didn’t have much to offer, but no one came up to you and struck you in the face with a whip”. Swayed by his love she does put on her burqa and goes out into the streets – but the result is disastrous.

Elsewhere in the city the ex-mujahedin Atiq Shaukat at least has a job though his soul is being nibbled away by his work guarding those who are condemned to death. Life is no better at home: his wife Musarrat suffers from an illness it seems no doctor can identify let alone cure and they live in a hovel. From separate sides of the city, the lives of these four intersect.

I think my appreciation of The Swallows of Kabul was much higher at the start than by the end.  Khadra vividly evokes a country reeling from war. Afghanistan’s countryside,” declares the narrator, “is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries.  Ruination is everywhere. Former soldiers who fought during the Soviet occupation huddle outside the Mosque, retelling stories of their former campaigns and heroism that cost them some of their limbs.  The city’s elderly people have become beggars gathering like ravenous dogs outside homes where charitable citizens leave a few grains of rice for the destitute. Taliban thugs roam the streets with whips.  The penalty for truth is death. Death has become a form of entertainment.

Khadra tries to penetrate under the skin of this beseiged city and into the souls of its women who once  “pirouetted in their perfumes like gusts of warm air” but are now reduced to walking in their husband’s shadows. And to some extent it works. Despite the atmosphere of  unremitting gloom and despondency I did feel that I was getting a glimpse of how obsession with an ideology can destroy lives.  But this didn’t overcome my reservations about the final stages of the novel which see Atiq fall so desperately, hopelessly in love that he puts his life at risk. Without revealing the exact nature of his actions which would spoil the novel for other readers, all I can say is that Khadra asks us to believe that the man is so besotted he loses all reason. This is a man who, admittedly had come to hate his job, but I couldn’t buy into the idea that he would make his passion so evident that he would risk questions from the Taliban. Nor could I buy into the idea that his hitherto non-descript and silent wife would summon enough courage to give him a way out by putting herself forward as a sacrificial lamb.

I wanted to like The Swallows of Kabul more than I did. I see there are some rather mixed reviews of it elsewhere with The Guardian and Kim at Reading Matters having a higher opinion than I did while Lisa at ANZLitLovers blog admitted she really disliked the book. Click on the links to see their thoughts.


The Book: The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra was published in 2004 by William Heinemann. My edition is in paperback from Vintage Books 2005. Translation from the French is by John Cullen.

The Author: Yasmina Khadra is the pen-name of an Algerian army officer who adopted a feminine name to avoid censorship by the army. The Swallows of Kabul is his third novel. You can hear him read an extract from the novel on the BBC World Service World Book Club site

Why I read this book: I bought this when I embarked on my world literature project  where I intended to read novels by authors from 50 different countries in the world. This was selected to represent Algeria. 

What’s tickling my fancy

The problem with social media and the web which make information instantly and widely available, is that it puts too much temptation in my way of books I want to get my hands on.

The announcement of the National Book Awards in the US came with an enticing additional piece of information about an honour that is for authors under the age of 35. Of the six honourees, two immediately caught my attention

homegoingHomegoing by Yaa Gyasi. Gyasi is originally from Ghana but has lived much of her live in Alabama. On her first trip to her homeland to research material for a novel about a mother-daughter relationship she found inspiration  for a very different novel, – one that traces the legacy of slavery over eight generations. Homegong is her debut novel – for which she gained a seven-figure advance, a sum most new authors can only dream of achieving.  I seem to enjoy African authors or those who have left the country but retain an affiliation with the mother land so this has gone on my wishlist.  Read more about Gyasi in this Time article.


transoceanic-lightsTransoceanic Lights by S. Li is also calling to me. He was born in Guangzhou, China in 1984 and moved to the US in 1989. According to the publisher it tells of three families who immigrate to the US from post-Mao China. The unnamed narrator’s overbearing mother is plagued with regret as financial burdens and lack of trust begin to rend apart her marriage. Her only solace lies in the distant promise of better lives for her children. Yet her son spends his days longing for the comfort and familiarity of his homeland, while his two cousins, one precocious and the other rambunctious, seem to assimilate effortlessly. Transoceanic Lights explores familial love and discord, the strains of displacement, and the elusive nature of the American Dream.


Moving closer to home I came across The Earth Hums in B Flat, the debut novel by Welsh author Mari Strachan. I’m trying to do my bit to support Welsh authors so this of course is a title I want to keep on the radar. It’s apparently about the coming of age of a girl in in a small Welsh town in the 1950s where a shocking death occurs. The appeal really for me is that the life of the town is seen via this girl’s eyes.


And finally, a book I learned of via The Book Satchel: A Tale of Love ad Darkness, an autobiographical tale by Israeli author Amos Oz. It’s been hugely popular worldwide with translations into 28 languages.  The book documents much of Oz’s early life, told in a non-linear fashion, weaving his story with the tales of his family’s Eastern European roots. This is a culture and a part of the world on which my knowledge is woefully lacking so i’m hoping this book will help remedy this.

These are all now on my wishlist for Santa (dare not buy anything myself). What have you all found to wish for this week?

The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra

dictators last nightNot too many years ago it was rare to turn on the TV news without being confronted by images of the Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. A controversial figure from the time he seized power, his brand of nationalism, lack of regard for human rights and his financial support of revolutionary militants across the world brought him into conflict with the USA and UK. Even his death in October 2011 was mired with controversy with allegations he was found cowering in a disused pipe, then beaten and tortured by rebel soldiers.

Yasmina Khadra re-creates that final night in The Dictator’s Last Night. Gaddafi is holed up in a disused school in home city of Sirte having been forced to retreat after the fall of Tripoli. His army is in tatters. He’s besieged by NATO aerial attacks  and surrounded by rebel troops of the National Transitional Council (NTC). His people have turned against him. He no longer knows who he can trust. Waiting for reinforcements and a convoy that will enable him to break through enemy lines and find refuge in another country, he reflects on his life as “Brotherly Leader” of his nation.

This is a portrait of a man of humble origins who is acutely sensitive to slights about his illegitimate descent from an impoverished Bedouin goat herder. He counters this by associating himself with the prophet Muhammad and with Isa Ibn Maryam, (Jesus Christ in the Koran),  neither of whom knew their fathers. Alternately defiant and despondent, he remains supremely assured of his status as the chosen one”, the one who enacts God’s will.

People say I am a megalomaniac. It is not true. I am an exceptional being, providence incarnate, envied by the gods, able to make a faith of his cause.

Feeling betrayed by aides he believes are incompetent, he cannot even find comfort that his legacy will survive. He gave his people justice, replaced slums with sparkling shops and esplanades, built ultra modern hospitals but his crowning achievements are no more. Buildings are desecrated, the city pillaged, his portraits disfigured and his slogans eliminated. In truth he realises his people lied to him when they said they loved him.

I feared treachery inside my palaces but it was creeping up on me unsuspected in the towns and villages. … I should have dealt with them the way I dealt with dissidents, been more severe with them, distrusted them more. … If  I had my time again I would exterminate half the nation. Lock them up in camps to show them what real work is, and watch them die in the attempt.

By restricting the action to the span of one night  Khadra brings an element of dramatic tension to the novella.  The ending is graphic though not gratuitously so. The main issue for me however was that I felt the book lacked depth. I wanted more of an analysis of Gaddafi’s character but every time the novel edged towards an insightful point, it seemed to pull back. I was left with a disappointingly rather predictable portrait of an unstable mind who injects fear into all around him.

End Notes

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name for Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul, and the author of the best-selling The Swallows of Kabul. The Dictator’s Last Night is published by Gallic Books and translated from the French original (La dernière nuit du raïs) by Julian Evans. I received an advance courtesy via NetGalley.

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