“You spend too much time in your bad moods, Atiq, all locked up inside them. Be careful, I told you: One day, you won't be able to get out. You didn't listen to me, and what's the result? Your black moods weakened you, and when some smelly bitch appeared, all she had to do was whine and it broke your heart. Let her croak. I can assure you, she's right where she belongs.
After all, she's only a woman."
Qassim Abdul Jabbar, Prison Commander, to Atiq Shaukat, guarding the condemned—an innocent woman—in The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra’s novel of love and death under the Taliban.
As Americans with a sense of history, not to mention irony, it’s important to remember that we supported the Taliban, murderous Muslim Fundamentalists and Osama bin Laden’s hosts and protectors in Afghanistan, during that nation’s ten-year war with the Soviet Union.
Not exactly the sort of guys you’d like to party down with over a couple sixers at the Super Bowl, the Taliban (largely ethnic Pashtuns trained in religious academies) proved initially to be quite popular with Afghanis, who’d grown tired of grand and petty thievery, rampant corruption, and neighborhood violence during and after the long Soviet war.
In a country rife with clan and party feuds at the time of their rise to power (in the early 1990’s), the Taliban, at least, provided a readily-understood, if not totally appreciated governmental policy: their intention was to create a “pure” Islamic state, and in the process they banned television, music, movies, kite-flying, photographs, and education and jobs for women.
You can see how some of this might not have been such a bad idea: no Janet Jackson; no Super Bowl, actually; and—thank God in Heaven—no The Passion of The Christ.
But this business regarding women, now, you know, well…let’s just say it could have been rethought. As the Taliban assumed control of over 90% of Afghanistan, women trained as physicians, lawyers, and teachers immediately found themselves unemployed, virtual prisoners in their own homes, AND forced to wear that unfortunate fundamentalist fashion statement, the burqa, basically a gunny sack covering the entire body, to “protect” the wearer from “impertinent eyes.”
Islamic law enforced-to-the-letter resulted in public executions for transgressors in venues formerly used for sporting matches. Watching people die in barbarous ways for their “crimes” was pretty much all the average Afghani had to look forward to under the Taliban. That and the five prayers a day (if you were a man, of course).
Well, as famous Christian-Jew Bob Dylan
put it: "you're gonna have to serve somebody
,” and—I guess—many of us have trouble deciding just who that somebody is, because then we went and bombed the shinola
out of these guys during the first quarter of George Bush’s WAR ON TERROR™
, and the ones we didn’t kill we shipped to Cuba and forced to listen to Madonna
night and day.
A sanguine observer of American politics, a realist, a pragmatist, might shrug and murmur Ah well, that was then. Things are different now.
And I might say: tell it to a woman in a Muslim Fundamentalist state, no matter where else she might be. Today. Tomorrow. And for the foreseeable future.
Novelist Yasmina Khadra spent 36 years as an Algerian army officer, donning the uniform at the age of nine. Born Mohamed Moulessehoul, he wrote his first novel at seventeen, and after decades of harassment by his military superiors took his WIFE’s name, ironically, as a nom de plume. Upon his retirement, the couple also wisely relocated. To France, where Khadra’s books today are best sellers.
The author of two previous works published in English, In the Name of God, and Wolf Dreams, Mr. Khadra has fashioned in his latest work, The Swallows of Kabul, one of those literary gems that seems to exist, like a galaxy one would never hope to visit, within a space and time entirely of its own creation. Its set and setting have no resonance in our Western experience, except for the fact that it is about love in a hard time. You've never read or imagined anything like it, and upon its completion you marvel that in an age which sustains such horrors as murder in the name of God and sexism in service to a lie, men still sing of truth and beauty for their own sake.
The Swallows of Kabul, published only three weeks ago in America, should be able to find an American audience, for despite its stark tale of life under the Taliban, its theme is love and marriage. One might consider it the REAL Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, the ultimate prescription for what can go wrong in life and love.
Atiq Shaukat, the protagonist, is a tired man with an ugly job: he guards the prisoners on the Taliban's equivalent of Death Row. A distinguished veteran of the Russian War, he thoroughly believes in the Taliban's effort to return Afghanistan—and specifically the city of Kabul—to something like its former glory. His wife, Mussarrat, who saved his life during the war and nursed him back to health, is dying, literally wasting away before his eyes. Unable to watch her die, desperate to find some medicine, some salve for the hurt and pain he knows she feels, which he feels, Atiq spends his free time wandering the streets of the city, his whip in constant employ against the teeming crowds of the jobless, the hopeless, the destitute.
This old sad couple is contrasted with Mohsen Ramat, a young man of inherited means who has lost everything including his soul, and his wife, Zunaira, an unspeakably beautiful and gifted teacher who, unable to teach because of the Taliban's proscription, has been consigned to the twin prisons of a shuttered house and the burqa. She dare not leave the hearth unescorted without fear of Taliban harassment.
On the day the book begins, Atiq readies his prisoner, an adulteress, for her execution. There is nothing particular about this woman, nothing to set her apart from the scores of women he's accompanied to their deaths in the past. She will simply be buried up to her waist in the dirt of the stadium and stoned. The machinery of sin and retribution is well-oiled by the words of the Prophet and the damning oratory of the Mullah:
"There are some among us, humans like ourselves, who have chosen to wallow in filth like pigs. In vain have they heard the sacred Message, in vain have they learned what perniciousness lurks in temptation; still they succumb, because their faith is insufficient to help them resist…
This woman knew exactly what she was doing. The intoxication of lust turned her away from the path of the Lord. Today, the Lord turns His back on her. She has no right to His mercy, no right to the pity of the faithful. She has lived in dishonor; so shall she die."
And at the hands of her friends and neighbors; under a hail of rocks and stones placed on the playing field by the Mullahs
; within a tumult of jeers and imprecations, like a helpless desert creature beneath a wave of hate and fear and frustration, the adulteress dies.
And Mohsen Ramat, a child of privilege, a young man in love once with the most beautiful girl in Kabul; Mohsen Ramat, too, caught up in the unfathomable roiling of mob vengeance and hate and confusion, Mohsen Ramat throws a well-aimed rock at the beshrouded head of the malefactor, watching, aghast, as the red stain slowly spreads across the lattice of her burqa, the blue/black symbol of all that is wrong with his world.
Thus are the destinies of the two couples fixed. In a stunningly brief 195 pages, Yasmina Khadra lays bare the paths of love and hate, truth and falsity, in a land that has lost all hope.
With the heart and eye of a poet, he inscribes for us the torturous complexity of Islamic fundamentalism and the depth and beauty of the Muslim world.
The Swallows of Kabul is a compassionate glimpse into a society that we can never hope to comprehend, but one which we, as a nation, seem compelled to try to change.
It is for this reason I recommend a careful reading of this beautifully-crafted novel. For throwing rocks at birds of any feather is a recipe for sadness, no matter how sleek, sure, and righteously-constructed those missiles may seem to be.
The Swallows of Kabul, Yasmina Khadra, translated from the French by John Cullen,
Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. New York, 2004
First published in 2002 as Les Hirondelles de Kabul in France by Julliard, Paris.