Thursday, 6 April 2017

#2 A book with a place in the title

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra

             As most of the tales coming from Afghanistan goes (of course I mean Khaled Hosseini), this too is a heart wrenching story of two couples set in war-torn, Taliban governed Kabul, Afghanistan. It paints a terrible and cruel life under the Taliban regime – it investigates the effect of Islamic fundamentalism and unchecked violence in the lives of ordinary people.

The book is unrelenting in its depiction of human degradation; it begins with the execution of a woman by stoning in public and it ends in the same way too. The story happens in between these two public executions. It tells the tale of Mohsen and his beautiful wife Zunaira, whose lives are destroyed systematically by the Taliban regime. Mohsen had once dreamt of going into the diplomatic service and his wife, who was born into a prominent household and had been a lawyer who advocated for women’s rights before the Taliban regime brought an end to all of it. Since Zunaira refuses to wear the burqa, which is essential for a woman to step outside under the Shari’a law, she is mostly confined to her dilapidated house. Her diatribe against wearing the burqa by force resonates across the pages:

“I refuse to wear a burqa. Of all the burdens they’ve put on us, that’s the most degrading….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.”

Mohsen, her loving husband, also undergoes a lot of painful and humiliating circumstances that leads him to question his identity, his beliefs and his sanity. He finds it shocking that one day, taken by the crowd he participates in stoning the ‘prostitute’ in the public execution. He is devastated as to what has come over him and confides it to Zunaina, who finds herself in shock to as what her husband had done. She understands that “they are not anything anymore”, they had forfeited their humanity when they didn’t defend it against the mullahs and Talibans who imposed a regressive regime.

           Another story runs parallel to theirs – that of Atiq, a jailer and his ailing wife, Musarrat. Her illness has doomed her to certain death, even the doctors having given up hope. This leads Atiq to question his duty, his obligations and his God. His brooding silence and inner thoughts are revealed to the reader and paints a picture of a cynical and tired man. It is a startling revelation when one hears his friend’s advice when he reveals to him that his wife is beyond cure. The advice of his thrice-married friend is cringe worthy, “it’s simple…divorce her….you don’t owe her anything..she has little significance outside of what you represent for her.” Though Atiq has no idea how to help her or himself, he firmly knows he will do no such thing. Mussarat , his wife, is in constant pain, and seems like to be in last stages of cancer , but even then realizes the workings of her husband’s mind – she cooks and cleans so that he isn’t disgusted by the untidy house.
              The story of these two couples intertwine at a devastating climax, with their destinies becoming  inexplicably intertwined. I believe I will reveal too much of the story’s end if I continue and hence will bring my review to a close. This book was difficult to read in terms of the fact that all that happens is painful to accept to be the truth. But yet, it is a world where the Taliban thugs roam the streets with whips and the penalty for truth is death. In this unforgiving place it is in fact the men who crumble fastest. It is the housebound women - Zunaira and Musarrat, Atiq's fiery dying wife - who fight back.Hence the name of the book - the 'swallows' of Kabul. As Maureen Freely justly states, “they're caught in a man-made plot: the end of the novel is not what should have happened but what we ought to have known was inevitable.”

A note on the author: Yasmina Khadra (in Arabic it means ‘green jasmine’) is the pseudonym of a former Algerian army officer named Mohamed Mou-lessehoul. Yasmina also happens to be his wife’s name. He chose to write under a false name since he was still in the army when he wrote his first novel, so he used an assumed (and feminine) name to circumvent the military censors. He writes his novels in French and this is his third novel in English (translated by John Cullen). It was the first time I came across an author choosing a feminine pseudonym to get published, and that itself speaks volumes for what is happening in war-ravaged Afghanistan today.
"Don't ask me to become something less than a shadow, an anonymous thing rustling around in a hostile place." -  The Swallows of Kabul

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