I really disliked reading this book. It was a very bleak portrayal of Afghan life under the Taliban. There were no redeeming features, and this portrayal was so extreme, it left me feeling soiled, as if I had been reading propaganda designed not to justify the war in Afghanistan but to make the reader wonder why anyone would want to help them if indeed these horrible characters were representative. Unlike the New York Times Book Review, I didn’t find it ‘surprisingly tender’, not at all. Perhaps I have misinterpreted it, but I felt that the ‘love story’ was the author’s sick fantasy.
It’s not possible to explain why without spoilers, so please don’t read on if you intend to read this book.
The novel traces the intersection of lives destroyed by the Taliban. Afghanistan has been ravaged by the long war with the Soviets, rendering the countryside barren. (Unfortunately, the translation is rather clunky).
In the middle of nowhere, a whirlwind spins like a sorceress flinging out her skirts in a macabre dance; yet not even this hysteria serves to blow the dust off the calcified palm trees thrust against the sky like beseeching arms. Several hours ago, the night, routed by the dawn and fleeing in disorder, left behind a few of its feeble breezes, but the heat has scorched and smothered them. Since midday, not a single raptor has risen to hover above its prey. The shepherds in the hills have disappeared. For miles around, apart from a few sentries crouched inside their rudimentary watchtowers, there is not a living soul. A deathly silence pervades the dereliction as far as the eye can see.
The Afghan countryside is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries. Artillery exchanges shatter prayers, wolves howl at the moon every night, and the wind, when it breathes, mingles beggars’ laments with the croaking of crows. (p.1)
These sterile images of the vanquished countryside are followed by descriptions of Kabul baking in the sun, of rot, stench and decay. Hysterical crowds are contrasted with empty streets and listless characters skulking about in a vain attempt to elude the misery. As the Taliban impose their rule with whips, beatings and executions, only poverty and madness flourish. What was most noticeable for me was the strong sense of the narrator as an outsider, and a judgemental observer at that. He sees nothing but filth and degradation. The entire population has lost any sense of human dignity. The Swallows of Kabul is a stark contrast to The Taliban Cricket Club which I read just a short time ago. (See my review).
Chapter One begins with the gaoler Atiq Shaukat dealing out vicious blows to make his way through a crowd. The heat is relentless, there is an appalling stench and ‘spectral women segregated inside their grimy burqas’ are begging for the occasional coin. Their children are covered in ‘flies and snot’ and the ‘sobs of a little girl lost in the crowd’ go unheeded. They are gathering to watch the stoning of a prostitute. That this is a society that has lost its moral compass is confirmed when Mohsen Ramat joins the crowd: he used to have nightmares about these executions, but now he has moved beyond indifference. He is roused by the excitement, and he joins in the stoning.
Mohsen is a former shop-owner, his business shut down by the Taliban. His wife, Zunaira is a former magistrate, chafing under Taliban restrictions. When he confesses what he has done, she us utterly repelled, and this signals a breakdown in their relationship which ends us in her total rejection of him. Guilt-stricken, he roams the streets in desperation at the horrors which surround him until finally in a doomed attempt to reconnect he tries to tear off her burqa, which she has taken to wearing indoors as a way of separating herself from him. The significance of this is that her hated of the burqa was so profound that she had refused to set foot outside rather than submit to it.
I refuse to wear a burqa. Of all the burdens they’ve put on us, that’s 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 colour of my eyes, and the shape of my lips so that I can take a walk through squalor and desolation. Don’t ask me to become something less than a shadow, an anonymous thing rustling around in a hostile place. (p.78-9)
In the struggle she pushes him, he loses his footing, and falls. He hits his head on the stonework, and dies.
It is now that the author’s characters become even more like caricatures. Atiq’s wife is dying from an unspecified illness. His brutality now extends to total disinterest in her condition and rejection of her as a person, but unaccountably, she still loves him. When he tells her that he has fallen in love with Zunaira, now awaiting her execution for murder, Musarrat is enraptured by his love for this other woman and offers herself in exchange, a switch accomplished easily enough at the prison under the anonymity of the burqa. Easily enough, that is, if you find it credible (a) that a dying woman treated like dirt by her uncaring husband would dream up a scheme like this, (b) that she would be physically able to leave her sick-bed to do it and (c) that the Taliban didn’t check on the identity of the condemned females in some way. (They did have female guards, at last they do in this book).
So, ok, it’s a parable, intended to illustrate the dehumanisation of people under this brutal regime. The plot is too flimsy to be anything other than a vehicle for depicting the squalor and degradation of life under the Taliban, with the Soviets as extras who wrecked the place thrown in for good measure. There is historical truth in this depiction, but the excesses of the novel defy reality.
Firstly, we know that there were covert women’s groups operating in Kabul under the Taliban regime. There were networks providing education for girls and offering medical care using the skills of female doctors no longer allowed to practise. More importantly, women like the character Rukhsana depicted in The Taliban Cricket Club were active in getting the message out to the Western media. (I know this because I discovered their website before 9/11 when I was teaching English to Afghan refugees.) Life for the sophisticated professional women of Kabul was galling and frustrating under the Taliban, but it was not entirely without hope and resourceful women supported one another to bear it. And although Musarrat is not an educated professional, it beggars belief that any woman in her situation would have been left alone with her illness without the care and support of other women, the way she is in this novel. It seems to me that the critical male outsider-observer who wrote this novel can’t have known much about the hidden lives of the women he was trying to depict, and it shows.
What’s more, the representation of life for men under the Taliban seems phony too. If life for men under their rule were as wholly joyless, empty and brutal as shown in this novel, Afghan men would not have stood for it. After all, they have a long history of repelling powerful invaders. The simplistic portrayal of a population responding either with enthusiastic participation in the excesses of the regime, cowed acceptance or succumbing to madness feels like authorial manipulation.
Khadra, BTW, is a former Algerian army officer. He used a female pseudonym to avoid having to submit his manuscripts to possible army censorship.
I thought that the comments of Lucy Ann White who reviewed it for her book group were very perceptive. Kim at Reading Matters reviewed it too, finding that as an insight into a foreign culture and way of life it is very good, and it is exceptional at showing how an oppressive regime can infect and poison mindsets by spreading violence and hatred and destroying the very things that make us human.
Author: Yasmina Khadra
Title: The Swallows of Kabul
Translated from the French by John Cullen
Publisher: Doubleday 2004, first published as Les Hirondelles de Kaboul
Source: Kingston Library
Fishpond: The Swallows of Kabul