A bleak, terse tale in which a harsh fundamentalist culture suppresses individual liberty and summarily victimizes its citizens.
The setting is Afghanistan’s war-torn capitol city under Taliban rule, and still reeling from the catastrophic Russian invasion—during which, one character remembers, “the terrified swallows dispersed under a barrage of missiles.” These swallows are both literal and metaphoric, as is dramatized in the powerful opening scene, of a woman condemned as a prostitute being publicly stoned to death. The pseudonymous Khadra (Wolf Dreams, p. 704, etc.), who has been identified as a former Algerian army officer, then focuses in turn on major characters who, initially, cross one another’s paths but do not actually meet. Mohsen Ramat, a young intellectual, is caught up in the frenzy of the prostitute’s “execution,” participates in the stoning, and thereafter endangers his marriage by confessing this to his wife Zunaira, a former “lawyer, who worked for women’s rights.” Meanwhile, Atiq Shaukat, a wounded veteran of the Russian War now working as a prison guard, tortuously reexamines his own relationships to both his drastically changed homeland and his wife Musarrat, who had nursed him back to health and is now dying from a painful enervating disease. Khadra’s unflinching portrayal of the scorching, suppurating environment in which these people struggle not to be noticed, is quite effective. And his principal characters’ trials are ingeniously echoed in stark glimpses of other stunted, redirected figures (e.g., a cynical entrepreneur, an aged cripple obsessed by fantasies of escape). But Mohsen and Atiq declaim incessantly, creating static patches that stand out glaringly in this story’s short compass—and are only partially redeemed by a powerful climax in which Zunaira becomes everything she most despises, and the jailer Atiq becomes the prisoner of his own best—and most foolhardy—impulses.
Still, despite such contrivances, Khadra’s latest is informed by a fine ironic intelligence, and its message is not an easy one to shake off.
"A surprisingly tender book. . . . Amid the terror a classic story about love sneaks through: love lost, love imagined, love morphed into madness." —The New York Times Book Review
“A novel very much in the tradition of Albert Camus, not only in its humanism and concern with the consequences of individual choices but also in its determination to bear witness to the absurdities of daily life. . . . [A] chilling portrait of fundamentalism run amok and its fallout on ordinary people.” — The New York Times
“Beautifully written. . . . It puts a human face on the suffering inflicted by the Taliban. . . . Disturbing and mesmerizing, The Swallows of Kabulwill stay with you long after you’ve finished it.” — San Francisco Chronicle
“Riveting. . . . Spare, taut, and pristinely clear prose . . . . An uncanny knack for making moral tension palpable. . . . Extraordinarily moving.” — The Philadelphia Inquirer
“Stunning. . . . [Khadra] conveys the physical deprivations and humiliations with a few startling details, but the book’s most devastating sections explore the mental damage of living under such terror. . . . [This] novel is a surgical strike against fundamentalism more penetrating than anything the Pentagon could devise.” —Christian Science Monitor
“Yasmina Khadra’s Kabul is hell on earth, a place of hunger, tedium, and stifling fear.” –J. M. Coetzee, winner of the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature
“A brief, despairing novel. . . . Khadra’s prose is gentle and precise. . . . Makes a powerful point about what can happen to a man when ‘the light of his conscience has gone out.’” —The New Yorker
“Chilling. . . . Powerful, surreal. . . . A meditation on the ultimate sacrifice of love. . . . [Khadra] expertly reveals the breakdown of human relations in a repressive society.” —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
“I am so grateful that The Swallows of Kabul has been written, and written with such relentless poetry and passion. . . .[It] once more proves the power of fiction to turn our despair into hope, to restore our stolen sense of dignity and humanity, and to desire life when death seems to be the safest refuge.” –Azar Nafisi, author of Reading Lolita in Tehran
“Khadra writes with economy, saying a lot with a little. . . . His style is as spare and flinty as the craggy hills that surround the city. . . . The Swallows of Kabul is for readers who wish to explore despair’s deepest shadows.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Powerful, despairing. . . . Communicates a sense of urgency, as if its creator knew he was on the verge of being found out. . . . What gives The Swallows of Kabul its momentum is the sense of conviction it brings to its most dramatic moments.” —The Oregonian
“Plac[es] the reader not only inside the daily rhythms of Kabul but trapped, as well, beneath a woman’s burqa. . . . Khadra exemplifies the novelist’s gift: he bestows an emotional life and voice on those who have been alienated and silenced. . . . [The Swallows of Kabul] is a necessary advance, taking us deeper into this world than the reportage we have seen for so long now.” –The Times-Picayune (New Orleans)
“Riveting. . . . Thrilling, horrifying. . . . Khadra’s snapshots of Kabul are the stuff of Dante’s Inferno.” —Colombus Dispatch
"[A] wrenchingly beautiful novel. . . . [Khadra’s] strength as a writer lies in his precisely passionate phrases, his psychological probings, and the gnarled and twisted relationships he conjures up between endless war and relentless theocracy. There is a lyrical starkness to his prose that you just want to read out loud to capture its searing rhythms and perfect cadences. . . . This is a brilliant, resolute, elegiac novel that not only hurts but, in the sheer beauty of its style, also exhilarates and creates sublimely tragic moments you will never forget." —The Providence Journal
“Brillian[t]. . . . Accomplished. . . . [Khadra’s] portrait of the Afghan tragedy is unflinching, his lean prose and storytelling skills unimpeachable. . . . The bleak portrayal of life under the Taliban contained in this brief, straightforward narrative musters the complexity and moral impact of a much bigger book.” —South Florida Sun-Sentinel