The recent success of the film Of Gods and Men, which is set in Algeria in the 1990s when the country was gripped by a civil war between an Islamist insurgency and the government, prompted me to re-read a review-essay I had written in 2004 of the latest novel of the Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra. Although Khadra’s Swallows of Kabul is not set in Algeria, the review, which was published in the Daily Star/International Herald Tribune, devotes considerable attention to the political background of Khadra’s Algerian novels. ~~
Early in The Swallows of Kabul, Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s fourth work published in English, the scene is set in “a city in an advance stage of decomposition” where “men have gone mad; they have turned their backs on the day in order to face the night.” Khadra is a writer of plagued, decaying places and lives. His latest work, originally published in French in 2002 and rendered into often beautiful and strangely mysterious English by John Cullen, shifs the locus of action from civil war-torn Algeria, the setting of Khadra’s earlier novels, to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Yasmina Khadra is the nom de plume of Algerian high-ranking army officer Mohammad Moulessehoul, who used a woman’s name to evade the military censors. In 2001 Khadra revealed his identity, after many years in the army and a considerable body of work that had generated much speculation about the person behind the name. A year earlier, he had chosen exile in France. The revelation caused an uproar in French literary circles because of the Algerian army’s crackdown against the Islamist radicals in the late 1980s and the 1990s. In addition to The Swallows of Kabul, two other novels are also available in English: In the Name of God (2000) and Wolf Dreams (2003). Khadra is also the author of the Commissioner Brahim Llob thriller trilogy, one of which, Morituri, has been translated in English.
These biographical and literary facts make Khadra an author on the move: from his native Algeria and Arabic to France and the French language; from a military identity to a female writerly disguise whose style has been noted for its sensuality and tenderness; from soldier at a time when the Algerian army was engaged in a furious, sustained campaign against the Islamists to a writer of shimmering prose and liberal predisposition. Some in the French literary establishment have argued that all this makes him a person of mixed, perhaps irreconcilable loyalties. As a soldier, his critics have said, he must have been at least complicit in state violence against the Islamists.
The controversy notwithstanding, at least in these three novels Khadra is single-minded and unequivocal in his thematic choices, in what he includes and what he leaves out. In Wolf Dreams and In the Name of God, Khadra describes the sources of Algerian popular resentment, the economic inequalities which have lead to social fragmentation and given rise to radicalism, and the unholy alliance between a disaffected citizenry, inept and corrupt politicians and a well-organized Islamist movement, the FIS, which won 47% of the vote in the first round of national elections in 1991 only to be banned when parliament was dissolved and a state of emergency declared. Behind all this is the shadow of the Algerian war of independence and the unresolved process of settling old accounts, not to mention the end of the Afghan war of the 1980s and the return of the so-called Arab Afghans from battle. All these factors, Khadra suggests, play a role in shaping the atmosphere and characters of his novels. The Algerian army — its violence, personnel, and aims, not to mention its less-than-enthusiastic attitude toward the democratic experiment initiated in 1989 — does not play a defining role in Khadra’s work although some of his characters are policemen particularly in In the Name of God.
The Swallows of Kabul begins where In the Name of God and Wolf Dreams end. The Afghan war is over; the Taliban have triumphed, and Khadra’s Kabul is narrower and more hermetic than the Algeria of his two other novels. Kabul is a rotting carcass that devours the novel’s characters and their capacity to be equal to what they feel and believe. But Kabul is completely closed not only to human agency and free will but to everyday necessity and habit as well. It is a circle that has trapped and condemned its inhabitants. Khadra is a master at creating atmosphere and setting, and he puts this ability to good use in all of his work, particularly in The Swallows of Kabul where Kabul is as unforgettable as it is horrific, where the characters are ghost-like presences rather than breathing, living human beings. But this asset is also ultimately the source of the novel’s limitations.
The novel tells the parallel stories of two married couples. One day, a seemingly simple desire –- taking a walk in the evening — hurls these four individuals together. As it moves to its climactic conclusion, the novel curls on itself and brings the story back to the opening scene of a woman being stoned to death. The circle is device and metaphor, both of which Khadra uses to great affect to underline the stifling life of Kabul under the Taliban and the impossibility of change, revision, progress or at least a second chance.
Atiq Shoukat is a poor, uneducated jailer. A devout Muslim, he has not so far questioned his fundamentalist faith. Whip in hand, he goes about his business, but he is “starting to doubt the mullahs’ promises.” He is also anxious about the deteriorating health of his wife Musarrat and senses that this is an omen of bad things to come. Atiq is a simple man the very foundations of whose life –- his religious faith and his sense of manhood–are beginning to shake. “Atiq is unable to say whether the silence of the two empty cells or the ghost of the prostitute who was executed this morning is the reason why the jail’s shadowy corners are filled with the musty reek of the next world,” writes Khadra. When he confides to a friend about his wife’s situation, he is told to throw her out, divorce her, marry a younger woman who will give him a child. But if Atiq’s marriage is a loveless one, it is not empty of a sense of duty and gratitude, for Musarrat herself nursed him to recovery when he was wounded in the Afghan war. Later in the novel, Musarrat will suggest a much more daring remedy for her husband’s sorrows, one which is as shocking as it is utterly liberated and potentially liberating.
Atiq is broken down by circumstances, by the darkness around him. “What’s happening to me?” he wonders. “I hate it when anybody looks at me or touches me. In fact, I can hardly stand myself. Am I going stark raving mad?” he wonders. By contrast, Ramat Mohsen is educated and well-off though lacking in drive and ambition. Whatever professional aspirations he may have had are now a thing of the past, squashed by his listlessness and the regime’s zeal. He has sold much of his belongings and has covered his windows with canvas curtains. His wife Zuniera, an ex-magistrate and a woman of deep beauty, is now confined to the house because she refuses to wear the burka.
Mohsen shares with Atiq a deep sense of alienation, which erupts into something frightening early in the novel: wandering the streets, Mohsen stumbles on the stoning of the woman who was in Atiq’s jail and, to his horror, ends up participating in her death. Later, Ramat tells his wife, “I walked along the streets, trying to shake off my shadow, trying to put some distance between me and what I’d done, and at every corner, at every pile of rubble, I came face-to-face with that moment of … of confusion. I am afraid of myself, Zuneira. I don’t have any more confidence in the man I’ve become.”
The questions which Atiq and Ramat ask are also the novel’s questions. Khadra’s intention is ambitious and quasi-philosophical. How is it possible for decent people like Atiq and Ramat to be complicit in this kind of horror and, even worse, to participate in it? This is the same question which informs Khadra’s Algeria novels, particularly Wolf Dreams. The novel shows Algeria as a society in the grip of poverty, corruption, and lack of opportunity, its young people marginalized, desperate and willing to commit murder in the name of absolutes. Khadra describes how frustration — pervasive, deep-rooted, chronic – and political violence feed off one another. The naive dreams of Nafa Walid, the hero, are gradually and slowly hardened and distorted. “So, who was I, when it came to it?” Nafa asks. “Nafa Walid, son of the retired railway worker; in other words a man who could not afford his own dignity.”
Set against the background of the FIS’s electoral victories in 1991, Wolf Dreams shows that Walid’s transformation from a young man who enjoys the company of poets and seers, endowed with good looks and eagerness to make a name for himself in the movies, to a cold-blooded killer is a complicated process. The novel is a carefully wrought study of the factors and circumstances which go into the creation of this particular militant. In The Swallows of Kabul, by contrast, the Afghan setting has stopped convulsing with civil war; the class tensions of Wolf Dreams and the personal and political rivalries of Ghachimat, the rural setting of In the Name of God, have disappeared. The array of diverse characters that populate the earlier novels–- characters like Dactylo, the letter writer; Haj Maurice, the teacher ; Tej, the mechanic and fundamentalist; the charlatan Murad Brik; even the wretched and gradually repugnant Zane-the-dwarf– has been tweaked. Characters still move in and out of the narrative space in The Swallows of Kabul, but they are fewer, and they have less energy. By shifting from Algeria to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, Khadra may have narrowed not only Atiq’s and Ramat’s choices but his own imaginative, critical possibilities as well.
In the end, it is those possibilities which give Khadra’s writing its power and consequence. Khadra is at his best when he writes about place and setting as the sites of tension and fragmentation. In Wolf Dreams, some of Khadra’s best pages are those which describe the opulence and conspicuous consumption of Algeria’s newly-rich in the hills surrounding the slums of the Casbah—their corruption, lack of humanity and sense of collective responsibility. In In the Name of God, one of the recurring themes is the tension between the young, disenfranchised generation and their elders – guerilla fighters and collaborators alike—whose life was shaped by the Algerian war of independence. Tej tells his father, Issa Ossmane,who was a collaborator with the French in the 1950s: “It’s finished, do you hear?. . . The humiliation. From now on, you’re going to hold your head up high and walk upright among men. Nobody will dare look you in the eye, I promise.”
Khadra’s weave of place and character is so tight, so integrated that often the public and private realms of his characters’ lives are one and the same thing. This is a particularly striking quality in all the novels and often gives them a tale-like texture, as though the novel were improvised around a fire, in the company of a group of listeners. Khadra’s scenes are often short, abundant, and noisy with an unusually large number of characters, some of whom enter the narrative as if by accident. Many of these characters often lack a stronger interior dimension; many cannot afford the privilege of introspection. Their speech is often declarative, and they carry their large emotions on their sleeves.
All this gives the novelist himself the role, the mission even, of a seer. In several places in Khadra’s work, a poet or a teacher or an elder delivers a short speech, tells a story or anecdote, offers wisdom. In these instances, it is as if the novelist himself has intervened to save his characters from their worst excesses. The most memorable of these moments occurs in Wolf Dreams when the poet Sid Ali, “the bard of the Casbah,” tells Nafa, whose dream of stardom has been destroyed, “I may be merely a passionate story-teller, a griot dazzled by his own genius , but however mild it may seem, I cannot abandon the idea that in the beginning, the Mediterranean was a fountain. A spring not much wider than the shadow of a carob tree, before Eve bathed in it and Adam slaked his thirst.“ When Nafa is irritated by the poet’s words, the poet replies: “Always remember this: there is nothing, absolutely nothing that is more important than your life. It is the only thing that should matter to you, for it is the only thing that truly belongs to you.” Sadly, in The Swallows of Kabul, the poet’s intervention is a persistent, repetitive lament rather than counsel;his characters have lost the capacity to heed — or imagine — Sid Ali’s advice.