Thursday, 21 February 2008

The Swallows of Kabul

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohamed Moulessehoul, an ex Algerian army officer who took his wife's name when he tried to avoid censorship. French is his mother tongue and he now lives in France. His novel, Swallows of Kabul, opens with the execution of a woman and ends with one; Khadra focuses on the humiliation of women and certainly makes the reader feel that the life he describes would be intolerable.

Kabul is a hot, dusty, poor and joyless city, governed since the war by the brutal dictatorship of the Taliban. Laughter, music and shows of affection are not allowed whilst women are considered objects to be treated as their men see fit or cast off if their husbands choose. In the streets the women must be covered from head to toe in a burqa whilst their fearful husbands and sons are constantly whipped by the fundamentalists or forced into the mosque to pray.

The character Atiq became a mujahideen when the Russians invaded the Pashtuns in Afghanistan but he is now a jailer in Kabul. His wife, Musarrat, saved his life when he was injured during the war but is now dying from an incurable illness. The childless Musarrat loves Atiq but he married her because he felt beholden and now feels trapped and guilty, unhappy and angry.

Mohsen is a mild mannered pacifist from a wealthy family: during the war years his parents lost their wealth as well as their lives and, he, no longer able to realise his dream of becoming a diplomat, leads an aimless and ineffectual life. All that sustains him is his beautiful wife, Zunaira, whom he fell in love with whilst they were at university. As an educated lawyer she had a certain amount of freedom and liberal ideas: now she rails against the humiliation of being a faceless object without respect, unable to work or even hold her own ideas by the fanatics in power.

Unfortunately, John Cullen's translation is - especially at first - so florid it's like reading a bad romantic novel. Three of our book group read the book in its original French and enjoyed it because of the wonderful use of language: it was poetic, the French use of alliteration was more pronounced and, strangely, the more limited French vocabulary gave the words more weight.

We all agreed that a good translator actually has to be a poet or a writer too; a pedestrian translator is too literal, a good one goes with the meaning. Fortunately, the translation settles down as the novel progresses and becomes less flowery: it’s the story that the reader finally concentrates on and descriptions of place and atmosphere suit the tone much better.

The lives of the two couples central to the story finally fall apart. Mohsen is losing his conscience when he throws a stone at a woman: he is disgusted with himself and mistakenly tells his wife who is appalled. Finally, Mohsen convinces his wife to walk out with him in the town against her better instincts: she is humiliated when she is forced to sit in the sun for hours when her husband is made to pray in the mosque and she is sickened by his lack of backbone. She tries to spur him into standing up for himself: it's a terrible miscalculation.

Atiq begins to question his faith and now has no hope, no pity and no love. Then quite unexpectedly he sees a beautiful woman: she is condemned to death. He has seen so few women, and is so starved of beauty and anything that gives him joy, that he cannot bear the thought of her dying. Musarrat sees love and joy in Atiq when he falls under the woman's spell: awed to find he can feel such a way and delighted to see her husband so happy, she thinks of a scheme to save the woman.

We agreed that the characters were caricatures, that the female ones were a male fantasy and most thought them not at all well rounded. The total lack of respect for women was difficult for some of the group to believe possible: the bleakness and tragedy of the situation and setting affected everyone and, in half the group, depressed them. None would read it again and hardly any would recommend it.

But there were some wonderful observations: for example Zunaira described how she had in her relationship with her husband a small flame that she tried to blow into fire and in the process blew out. I was struck by Mohsens words "We've known the joys of life has to offer, and we thought them as good as the joys of eternity". So it is that in some parts of the world, in some regimens, the repressed, the poor and the uneducated look forward to the ease and joy that is promised in eternity.

Underneath the clunky translation, the caricature characters and the fantastical elements there is a strong moral – true, some times rather blatant: a society that does not respect women, that denies the pacifying and caring attributes of them, can become a cruel and dictatorial one.

And loss of intimacy and repression has a dehumanizing effect. The women are the swallows of the title: beauty and freedom have flown. Khandra's belief that 'Fundamentalism is the cancer of Islam' is certainly apparent in The Swallows of Kabul. This book describes a chilling situation, an awful message but one we need to understand.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I found this book riveting-
I choked on the dust and heat and found the characters illuminating to a larger issue.