Dublin Unitarian Book Club’s choice for February 2020 - March 2020

“The Swallows of Kabul”

by Yasmina Khadra’s

Perhaps the author Yasmina Khadra’s own words best explain the purpose of this novel which is the study of a city and a country so riven by war and by reversion to the strict enforcement of Sharia law that it has ceased to function as a 20th or 21st century state.
          "The West interprets the world as it likes. It develops certain theories that fit into its world outlook, but do not always represent the reality. Being a Muslim, I suggest a new perspective on Afghanistan, on religious fanaticism and what I would call religiopathy. My novel “The Swallows of Kabul “ gives readers in the West a chance to understand the core of a problem that they usually only touch on the surface. Because fanaticism is a threat for all, I contribute to the understanding of its causes and backgrounds. Perhaps then it will be possible to find a way to bring it under control.”
          The story opens with a short introduction to Kabul baking under an unforgiving summer sun, devastated by endless war and civil war since the Russian invasion.
          “ The Afghan sky, under which the most beautiful idylls were woven, grew suddenly dark with armoured predators; it’s azure limpidity was streaked with powder trails, and the terrified swallows dispersed under a barrage of missiles.”
The description of Kabul’s devastated state continues to build throughout the novel as we follow the lives of two couples: Moshen Ramat and his wife Zunaira; Atiq Shaukat formerly a member of the mujahideen and now the part-time jailer of a temporary prison where condemned women are detained until their executions and his seriously ill wife Mussarrat.
          All four of these characters had experience of much better lives before the Russian invasion and the subsequent civil wars; Moshen and Zunaira had met at university and got married while very young. He had ambitions to become a diplomat and Zunaira hoped to become a magistrate. Atiq had served in the mujahideen under the command of his friend Mirza during the Russian invasion until he was seriously injured by an artillery shell. Mussarrat nursed him back to life and he felt compelled to marry her to thank her for what she had done for him. Now both couples live in greatly reduced circumstances, tired and drained by endless war, the Taliban patrols who confine women to the burkha and to live at home and who subject men who laugh in the street to blows of a club.
          Atiq is beginning to have serious doubts about the teachings of the Mullahs, he is distraught that he can do so little to ease his wife’s deteriorating health and he has begun to dislike and hate everything about his job as jailer.
          Moshen spends his days aimlessly wandering through the streets of Kabul. He does not know “where to go or what to do with his idleness”. He looks back to the time before the Russian invasion, not remembering much of it except that his happiness was complete. Over the years he has observed so many public executions that “the light of his conscience has gone out”. One morning, without ever intending to, he participates in one such a gruesome spectacle.
          From Atiq’s mental tortures and Moshen’s involvement in a public execution begin a series of events which will ultimately lead to the deaths of three of the four protagonists of the story.
          Moshen feels compelled to reveal to his wife his part in the public execution. She cannot comprehend how he could do this and so begins a slow unravelling of their marriage. In the middle of a furious argument Moshen falls backward and injures himself fatally.
          Atiq’s wife Mussarrat is worried that her illness causes her to feel for the first time since their marriage that she “must be failing in her obligations as a wife”. They row endlessly until Mussarrat persuades Atiq to resolve all his problems by letting her take the place of Zunaira who is awaiting execution for allegedly killing her husband. This will end her suffering and will allow Atiq to marry Zunaira with whom he has fallen in love. The plan succeeds only in part.
          “The Swallows of Kabul” is a well crafted novel which, in my opinion, conveys very effectively the horror that life can be in cities and countries under the control of religious fanatics. In the absence of autobiographies of such experiences we have to rely on the imaginative work of fiction writers to give us get some sense of what living in such dreadful circumstances might be like. Yasmina Khadra, the author, has done this very well. I recommend the novel to anyone who has ever wondered what life might be like in such a repressive city or country.

Tony Shine
Dublin Unitarian Church

There will be no meeting of the bookclub until further notice.