three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
10-May-June-2004
user_rating: 
0

A Novel

A-SwallowsKabulIn Kabul under Taliban rule, everything "appears charred, fossilized, blasted by some unspeakable spell." Two men, each with their own marital problems, try to make sense of this decomposing city and survive. Atiq Shaukat runs a small jail and fears his wife's chronic disease. The once successful Mohsen Ramat walks the streets and questions his progressive wife's refusal to leave the house. The two men's paths cross when Mohsen participates in the stoning of a female prisoner from Atiq's jail, precipitating events that destroy his marriage and endanger all of their lives.
Doubleday. 195 pages. $18.95

NY Times Book Review 4 of 5 Stars
"...The Swallows of Kabul is a surprisingly tender book. The surprise is not that it renders slaughter palpable, or that it sets off religiosity from radicalism, but that amid the terror a classic story about love sneaks through: love lost, love imagined, love morphed into madness." Lenora Todaro

Philadelphia Inquirer 4 of 5 Stars
"Khadra's spare, taut, and pristinely clear prose reminds one of another Algerian author: Albert Camus. ... Khadra's vision is tragic, but not despairing." Frank Wilson

SF Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Beautifully written, The Swallows of Kabul does what countless news broadcasts after Sept. 11, 2001, ultimately failed to do. It puts a human face on the suffering inflicted by the Taliban." Simon Read

Baltimore Sun 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Although his prose is sometimes lacking in sensory detail, the unrelenting heat of a Kabul summer is about all we get, the bareness seems to be part of the plan, and 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." Dan Fesperman

Oregonian 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The speech, if one can forget its murderous subtext, is surprisingly persuasive: a litany of the West's failures that takes aim at greed, government lies, pseudo-progress, slave wages and the widening gap between rich and poor. ... What gives The Swallows of Kabul its momentum is the sense of conviction it brings to its most dramatic moments." John Hartl

Newsday 3 of 5 Stars
"His characters are so explicitly aware of their own predicaments that they tend to sound like novelists rather than people in despair. ... At moments like these, and there are, unfortunately, too many of them in this novel, Khadra seems to have raised his characters' burqa only to find his own face staring back at him." Robyn Creswell

Critical Summary

The Swallows of Kabul, whose title derives from the flocks of women in burkas, puts an ordinary face on the Taliban's repressive regime. Mohsen releases his rage by participating in a stoning; his wife feels demeaned walking in public. By focusing on the lives of the two couples and giving the Taliban only walk-on roles, Khadra (the pseudonym for Algerian writer Mohammed Moulessehoul) renders the repression all the more sinister. His spare, taut prose depicts the bleakness that leads ordinary men, and women, to violence. At times, the characters seem too aware of their misery; at others, they spout unconvincing political propaganda. But "disturbing and mesmerizing," the novel "will stay with you long after you've finished it" (San Francisco Chronicle).