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The Swallows of Kabul    by Yasmina Khadra order for
Swallows of Kabul
by Yasmina Khadra
Order:  USA  Can
Nan A. Talese, 2004 (2004)

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* *   Reviewed by Barbara Lingens

Yasmina Khadra is the nom de plume of Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former army officer, who took the feminine pseudonym to avoid submitting his manuscripts for approval by military censors. His work, The Swallows of Kabul, is slight in length but weighty in feeling. The prologue speaks of ruin that has 'spread into people's souls.' The sere landscape surrounding Kabul is echoed in the 'desertification which proceeds ... in the consciences and intellects of men.'

Set against this background is the tragic story of two couples whose lives cross by accident. The novel depicts how hard it is for decent people to keep their humanity when the only hope is to survive. A young man, unable to withstand the brutality of city life and its consequences for his family, finds himself beating a condemned woman. His confession to his wife results in her repudiating their relationship. At the same time, a city jailer, worn down emotionally from his wife's deadly illness, finds himself thwarted in every attempt to act honorably.

Even those who show unconditional love end up mocked for their actions. The hopelessness is unremitting and is the result of years of battles, battles of men against men and men against nature. 'The Afghan countryside is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries.' The rigid rules of Islamic fundamentalism are of no help, serving only to make a difficult life even more so. Those who wish to stay in the faith must struggle with increasing repression in addition to the psychological and physical hardships they face.

From the vantage point of those who live in a privileged society, we may find it hard to believe that such pervasive evil can exist. The Swallows of Kabul is a beautifully written work that not only sheds light on the plight of those who struggle in that seemingly God-forsaken place, but once again proves the power of fiction to illuminate truth in ways no newspaper account ever can.

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