The 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.