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The Swallows of Kabul: A Novel Hardcover – February 17, 2004
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From Publishers Weekly
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.
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From 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."
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker --This text refers to the Library Binding edition.
Top customer reviews
An Algerian friend proposed that I read Khadra (a nom de plume for a former Algerian Army officer, Mohaammed Moulessehoul), and I am most appreciative. I was impressed by his novel, "The Attack," based on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I consider this novel its equal. The four main characters are two couples: Mohsen and Zunaira are formerly of the educated middle class, still trying to survive, and Atiq and Musarrat; he a former soldier, now a jailer, and she the terminally ill wife. There are some noteworthy minor characters. All are depicted against a devastated landscape of war-torn Kabul, where the thugs and brutes are now clearly in charge, all depicted in words worthy of one of the nightmare paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. In this particular personification, the thugs are called "The Taliban," and like numerous other such groups throughout the world, and throughout history, have "God" on their side. I was impressed by Khadra's rendering of Mullah Bashir, and his hypnotizing sermons used to control the masses. Attendance at such events was "non-optional" thanks to the roving bands of "enforcers." There is nothing "uplifting" about this novel, nor its characters, and that sadly seems to be sufficient reason to dock a few stars off the reviews posted by some readers. I consider it much more realistic for this reason, and a better novel than say, "The Kite Runners," which one reviewer rightly dubbed "Afghanistan-lite."
For 11 days I traveled independently throughout Afghanistan in 1971. A country at peace. "Religion," or at least the latest perversion of same, was not as pervasive. The people met you on an equal basis, no doubt in part since they had never been colonized. I even climbed one of the hills surrounding Kabul, as Nazeesh did in the novel. So it is all the more painful to read this nightmare description of what has happened. Most reviewers tend to stress the specificity of a severely dysfunctional society to "Afghanistan," or "Islam," or "religious fundamentalism," but I tend to look at the more universal problem, when that proverbial thin veneer of civilization is ripped off, and humans act worse than animals ever would. No doubt a large contributing factor was the Soviet invasion (Russia's "Vietnam"), the brutal fighting, and the civil wars that were the aftermath. A similar descent into "hell" occurred in Cambodia; no doubt relentless B-52 bombings helped create the Khmer Rouge, which resulted in the auto-genocide of a third of the population, and being middle class and educated, like Mohsen and Zunaira, was tantamount to having a death sentence. And the "shock" need not necessarily be war: To what extent was the hyperinflation of 1923 the catalyst which led Hitler to power? And how many of my fellow citizens were pleased to be rid of habeas corpus and embrace torture because of the trauma of 9-11? The thugs are universal, maybe even within ourselves. Khadra describes the festive and social nature of a public execution in incisive prose: "Others, who have chosen to assemble as close as possible to the platform where the dignitaries of the apocalypse are lounging, do everything in their power to get themselves noticed;..." Public executions as a "must do" social event, yet I remember going to my one and only bull fight, and mainly watching the audience, including some beautiful women dressed for a Queen's wedding... Are bulls that much different that people when it comes to a ritualistic killing?
Khadra has probably never been to Afghanistan, as one reviewer speculated, since he managed to impose "palm trees" on a country far too cold for them, a mistake more likely to be made by a geographically-deficient American. Still, it is a remarkable feat of the imagination to create an overwhelming accurate account of present-day Afghanistan from his observations of similar behavior in Algeria. I also agree with another reviewer who thought the ending was too contrived, but these quibbles won't take a star off my 5-star rating, nor my willingness to order up another of his novels, "In the Name of God."
Khadra writes beautifully, and has tremendous insight into some of the central issue of our times.
This reminded me a lot more of a short story than it did of a novel, even though it's 200 pages long. The story is very tight, and just like when I've read a really good short story, I felt like I didn't get all of the intricacies in the story.
This book is translated from French, and I think that the translator used much bigger words than were really needed, but it surprisingly didn't take away too much from the book. Besides the vocabulary, the translation was very good.
I also think this is an interesting story regardless of the setting. I don't know much about politics or current events, but was still very intrigued by the whole story.
This story is a tragedy. I love tragedies, and that's what fascinated me most about this book.