"The Swallows of Kabul: A Novel" by Yasmina Khadra
Published by Nan A. Talese 208 Pages
List Price: $18.95
review by Daniel Bisagni
Winds of ancient lands and cultures invade my mind like an artillery shell shot through a city hall. Its impact is felt in the deepest core of my person, and nearly all my understandings of law and karma, skip a heartbeat. What would possess men to act in ways that animals would consider questionable? The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra depicts life in Taliban ruled Afghanistan, where faith is enforced, rules are relative and rights, like sunlight, rarely touch the skin of women.
The life of women in Afghanistan paints a horrifying microcosm of the general rule of law that is deteriorating the land. The darkness of the burqa suffocates even the most educated men to the point of mob inspired violence. Heat, hunger, poverty, fear and death are the only plentiful things in marketplaces, and it taxes the minds of young adults who can remember the metropolitan world (pre-Taliban) of clean streets, bustling trade, universities and courthouses that was Kabul only a decade earlier. It casts a magically dark spell, as the minds spew their learning into the gutter like foul food, rejecting it after the viewing of so many public executions has made education a risk rather then a blessing; some minds even relinquishing their sanity.
Yasmina Khadra's (a penname for protection) depiction of this world centers around two households: Atiq and Massarrat Shaukat a middle aged couple of descent means, struggling with health issues in a now third world nation; and Mohsen and Zunaira Ramat a thirty-something couple who have lost everything, including family, to these wars. The depiction of love between these two couples amidst the rubble and violence is astoundingly clear.
The story is an ominous one. Atiq, the warden at a local womenís prison is tormented by his love for his wife Massarrat, who is dieing of an incurable disease. She was the woman who cared for him and hid him from the Russians when he served in the military. Massarat saved his life and in return he married her. Though initially it was not out of love, he has grown to love her and receives much abuse for making it known to his compatriots. Their misogyny infects his judgment and at times his wife bears the brunt of his frustrations. This causes Atiq to lash out at everyone around him, even in the mosque, where he horrifies himself by abusing a patron trying to worship there. Their lives become entwined with that of Moshen, once a well to do son of a merchant and now destitute from the aftermath of war, and his wife Zunaira. Zunaira was once a trial attorney working to improve the rights of women in Afghanistan. Since the insurgence of the Taliban, she has been reduced to a homemaker; required to wear an all-covering burqa when outside the home. Zunaira accepts this, her love for her husband allowing her comfort and security from their unjust circumstances. Moshen spends his days wandering the streets in search of work, his stomach gripped in hunger and mind spinning from the desertification occurring around him. Reminiscing about better times in Kabul he makes two tragic mistakes that changes the course of his marriage forever. Caught up by a public execution and carried away by the surge of the mob, he helps them pummel a woman to death with stones. Moshen also requests that Zunaira accompany him on a walk like the ones they took when Kabul was a more metropolitan entity. After much convincing she agrees and dons the suffocating burqa that she hates with every shred of her being. Their walk is interrupted by a group of Mulahs that force Moshen into a Mosque for a two-hour worship while his wife waits in the sun beneath the swaths of black fabric. It is a humiliation she will never forgive him for.
The massive vocabulary is overshadowed only by the eloquence and readability of the book. To see roses growing in concrete is always a beautiful thing, but these roses are torn up from their roots and cast into a pile of decaying matter for just the slightest brush of a thorn. The impact this book made on me was much like the whistling bombs of old wars, I could hear it coming, I could see the target, and I tried guessing its fallout; but when the round detonated on impact, its effect was unpredictable. Another thing that stood out in my mind was: How did the US play a part in the destabilization of this once progressive state and capitol? The lack of mention here is indicative of the way US policy plays out its wars without "involvement", but also depicts the way our presence is there by default. An interesting handling but I would have been more direct. Overall, this is an excellent book.