From the first page, the reader of The Swallows of Kabul is drawn into a time and place that is synonymous with eternity: the wild emptiness of the Afghan countryside, where “erosion grinds away with complete impunity.” This is the land of the Pashtuns. With the invasion of the Russians, war finds a home in the hills of Afghanistan, filling the skies with death. Then the terrorist reign of the Taliban continues the brutalization of these people, rendering the streets of Kabul joyless and dangerous.
Mohsen Ramat has grown used to executions under the Taliban, his conscience subdued by the frequency of the deaths. The women in their burqas are only specters, existing at the fringes of society. Ramat and his exquisite wife have lost everything; he wanders the city without purpose, while she stays inside the home, unwilling to endure the random violence of the streets. To please her husband, Zunaira agrees to walk with him, seduced by earlier, happy days, but they are almost undone by that walk and Zunaira is humiliated beyond endurance.
Zunaira’s distress is more painful because she understands the enormity of her loss; she has known the joy of freedom, now her female essence is forfeit. Since the incident with Mohsen, she looks upon her young husband as the enemy. Like those who roam the streets with whips, attacking passersby indiscriminately, Mohsen is a man. And such men will never allow a woman her dignity. Zunaira refuses to remove her burqa, even inside their house, although her husband begs her to, imploring, “Your face is the only sun I have left.” Implacable, Zunaira cannot forgive. They argue. As he struggles to remove the burqa, she resists. Tragedy strikes and Zunaira is thrust into the indifferent hands of fate.
The life of another man is disintegrating as well. Atiq Shaukat nurses his own discontent under the deadening rule of the Taliban, unbearable days that leech out all feeling and memory. The jailer in charge of guarding prisoners before their executions, Atiq drifts between his dingy office and home, where is wife is ravaged by a terminal illness. His soul is shriveling for lack of spirit, crushed by the weight of boredom. When Zunaira is brought into the prison, Atiq falls in love, but is in such agony that he cannot identify the emotion. Such feelings have been suffocated by years of oppression, leaving the jailer no tools to cope with this new reality.
The Swallows of Kabul is a scathing indictment of a world turned to stone, where the worship of a fundamentalist God makes life uninhabitable. The softness of women has been extracted from society; due to that separation, men’s hearts have hardened. What is left beside despair and madness?
This small book is a journey, a rapid descent from a nagging discontent straight into hell. Like the missing swallows, the bearers of hope have been sentenced to endless days of mourning, covered in the colors of “fever and fear”. To avoid the oversight of his manuscript by the military censors, author and Algerian army officer Mohamed Moulessehoul used the pseudonym Yasmina Khadra.