Here There and Everywhere

Expat wanderer

Khadra and The Swallows of Kabul

While waiting for our luggage to be offloaded, we were passing time, visiting with our greeter / expediter, asking about his family, his life in Zambia.

“How does this work, travelling with your son and your daughter-in-law?” he asked us. “Do you like her?”

Nothing on earth could disguise the delight on our faces as we both said “Yes!” We truly adore her.

When our son was only seven years old, a Christian speaker passing through said that if you have children, it is likely that their mates have also been born, so to start praying now for the unknown mate your child would choose, and we did.

When our son called us from university, and told us there was someone he wanted us to meet at graduation, and graduation was still months away, we knew, we just knew, that this might be THE ONE.

We were so delighted when we met her, we liked her immediately. What parent isn’t happy to see his/her son/daughter happy, and choosing well?

“But!” our meeter/greeter added, “how do you like her family?”

And we laughed again! We love her family! Her father is smart and very funny, and her mother is kind and practical, and we all share the same values on family and friends and living our lives. She comes from a large rowdy family that gathers when they can, and so do we.

And YOU are thinking “what does all this have to do with The Swallows of Kabul?” but I am getting there.

On the trip, we all had books for our quiet time, and I could see EnviroGirl deeply engrossed in this book. When I asked her, she said she had gotten it from her father’s wife, a woman with whom I often talk books, and that she (EnviroGirl) was trying to finish it so that she could leave it with me.

And thank goodness that she did! I couldn’t put it down!

First, you think it is written by Yasmina Khadra, but that is a pseudonym. The real author, Mohammed Moulessehoul, was Algerian army officer, and he used the pseudonym to avoid having to submit the manuscript for approval by military authorities. That got my attention right away.

The book is about Taleban era Afghanistan, and starts out with utter hopelessness, describing the deterioration in life brought about by the arbitrary imposition of religious rule, as interpreted by men who have memorized the Qur’an, but have a poor understanding of what they have memorized. Women lead a dismal, limited life, at the mercy of men who treat them as detestable if they are seen in public, even totally cloaked.

His language is beautiful, poetic and compelling, even describing despair and desolation.

We meet two couples, Atiq, a jailer, and his wife, Musarrat, who risked her own life to save his life back when he was seriously wounded and left for dead, and Mohsen, former member of a moderately successful merchant family, married to the love of his life, Zunaira, who is beautiful, educated and from a wealthy background. These men love their wives, and have a strong, genuine connection to them. Their ability to maintain that connection, and to stay connected to their own values, withers in the dry, dusty context of fundamentalist rule.

Their lives and relationships have been changing gradually, increasingly limited and undignified under the stress of Taleban rule, and the novel follows a rapid spiral of deterioration and folly. The steady decline of their lives speeds when Mohsen makes a terrible impulsive decision, has to live with the consequences, and confesses to his wife.

Atiq, too, faces dismal consequences. Even though we know he is limited, he becomes a sympathetic character. His hardness of heart covers a genuine grief that his wife is dying, and he can do nothing to stop it, nor to alleviate her pain.

We all face hard times. In our family, when someone lashes out unjustly, we often ask “is it something I have done, or am I just the nearest dog to kick?” It always gets a laugh, and it puts things back in perspective, puts us on the same side. Sometimes we can’t always vent our frustrations against those people or events creating the frustration, so we take it out on those we love – and who love us. It’s not right, it’s not fair or just, but it is very human, and once you get that out on the table, it is easier to discuss the real issue.

When Zunaira ends up in jail, Atiq’s world is shattered as if by an earthquake – the earth moves under his feet, all his understanding of life is shaken.

“As he cleans up, he cautiously lifts his eyes to the roof beam looming over the cell like a bird of evil augury, and his gaze lingers on the anemic little lightbulb, growing steadily dimmer in its ceiling socket. Screwing his courage to the sticking point, he walks back to the lone occupied cell, and there, in the very middle of the cage, the magical vision: the prisoner has removed her burqa! She’s sitting cross-legged on the floor. Her elbows are on her knees, her hands are joined under her chin. She’s praying. Atiq is thunderstruck. Never before has he seen such splendor. With her godess’s profile, her long hair spread across her back, and her enormous eyes, like horizons, the condemned woman is beautiful beyond imagination. She’s like a dawn, gathering brightness in the heart of this poisonour, squalid, fatal dungeon.

Except for his wife’s, Atiq hasn’t seen a woman’s face for many years. He’s even learned to live without such sights. For him, women are only ghosts, voiceless, charmless ghosts that pass practically unnoticed along the streets; flocks of infirm swallows – blue, yellow, often faded, several seasons behind – that make a mournful sound when they come into the proximity of men.

And all at once, a veil falls and a miracle appears. Atiq can’t get over it. A complete, solid woman? A genuine tangible woman’s face, also complete, right here in front of him? He’s been cut off from such a forbidden sight for so long that he believed it had been banished even from people’s imaginations. . .

Atiq has a friend, Mirza, who thrives under Taleban rule, as a soldier, and also running illegal businesses highly profitable under the current regime. He encourages Atiq to abandon his cancer-striken wife, to get rid of her and to find a fresh, young wife. He offers Atiq shady business opportunities, and tells him a wise man bends with the wind. Ignorance and chaos benefit Mirza, and he has no wish to see the good old days return.

In spite of the bleakness, the desolation, the crushing arbitrariness and inhumanity, there is hope, love, and compassion in a thin, steady stream throughout the book.

Once I started reading, I had to finish. It was a great book for the long trip back to Kuwait, one I am eager to pass along to the next avid reader.

June 29, 2008 Posted by | Books, Bureaucracy, Community, Cross Cultural, ExPat Life, Family Issues, Interconnected, Law and Order, Leadership, Lies, Living Conditions, Marriage, Poetry/Literature, Political Issues, Relationships, Social Issues, Spiritual, Women's Issues | , , , | 5 Comments