Hellish Lives

Book cover
The Swallows of Kabulby By Yasmina Khadra, translated by John CullenNan A. Talese/Doubleday 195p $18.95

A former Algerian army officer named Mohamed Moulessehoul, writing under the pseudonym Yasmina Khadra, paints a graphic picture of Afghanistan and Kabul under Taliban rule that is as troubling as it is unforgettable.

His evocative prose describes a once proud city brought to its knees by Islamic fundamentalists and an ideology that has intellectually, emotionally and even physically smothered individualism in Kabul.


Two quite different protagonists and their wives illustrate the debilitating effect the repressive regime has on the citizens. Atiq Shaukat has earned respect on the battlefield and parlayed it into a jailkeeper’s position in the city. Unfortunately, there is little joy in the position, because his wife, Musarrat, is slowly wasting away with cancer. Mohsen Ramat and his wife, Zunaira, are well educated and were part of the city’s upper class until the Taliban seized control. Now she cannot leave their home without an escort, and he listlessly wanders about the streets alone.

Once disgusted by the almost daily public executions he encountered while on his daily walks, Mohsen is horrified to discover “the light of his conscience has gone out.” This fact is violently brought home one morning when he inexplicably joins in the stoning of an adulteress. Disheartened by this action and the acquiescence to the collective hysteria and blood lust that it represents, Mohsen returns home to tell his wife what he has done.

Incredulous and not willing to accept her husband’s pathetic excuse that the sun was to blame for what he did, Zunaira turns away from him in shocked silence. The respect she once had for Mohsen has been seriously compromised. Too late, he realizes he should not have confided in her what occurred outside their home.

Troubled by his wife’s condition and suffering from a deep depression he cannot fathom, Atiq has become antisocial. “What’s happening to me?” he wonders. “I can’t bear the dark, I can’t bear the light, I don’t like standing up or sitting down, I can’t tolerate old people or children.” When Atiq says, “I can hardly stand myself,” and thinks he might be stark raving mad, he voices a sentiment that could just as easily have been uttered by Mohsen.

As both men’s lives begin to spin inexorably out of control, their paths incidentally cross, although they are insensitive to each other’s presence. The two families do, however, eventually connect in an astounding manner. Ironically, this occurs because of the actions of the two women rather than their husbands.

Without giving away this aspect of the plot, what occurs in the novel’s closing chapters will come as a major surprise. All four central characters have suffered in isolation throughout much of the story. The two women, in particular, have had to deal silently with soul-numbing humiliation as well. For Musarrat this was caused by her debilitating illness, while Zunaira, a former magistrate, has been chastised for appearing in public with her husband and can now only go out wearing a burqa.

Yet in this culture in which women are denigrated and the common belief is that “it’s an error to believe that any man owes anything at all to a woman,” these two rather remarkable characters have a profound influence on the outcome of the story.

In a very real sense The Swallows of Kabul is an obituary for a group of individuals (and the nation as well) who are already dead but are only just beginning to realize that fact.

The Soviet tidal wave and its aftermath not only dispersed the city’s terrified swallows but irrevocably changed life for the worse. With nothing but misfortunes to share, everyone prefers “to nibble at his disappointments in his own corner and thus avoid burdening himself with other people’s problems.”

This is a world where solace is neither offered nor expected. What little faith the people have left is tested daily. Mohsen wistfully hopes that “one day, God will remember us. He’ll see that the horrors we’re subjected to every day haven’t diminished our faith, that we haven’t failed in our duty, that we deserve His mercy.” Unfortunately, Khadra doesn’t allow us or his characters to see that day arrive.

Continuing to use his wife’s name as a nom de plume, although he no longer has to get around military censorship, Khadra has written a number of books, including a mystery trilogy featuring a police inspector named Brahim Llob.

A highly descriptive writer whose prose often flows like poetry, Khadra creates images that are so vivid they linger long after the book is set aside. Because this skill is coupled with a riveting narrative, it comes as no surprise that this novel became a bestseller when it first appeared in France in 2002.

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