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By Yasmina Khadra
(nom de plume of Mohammed Moulessehoul)
London: Random House, 2004
ISBN: 0-099-46602-3
195 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
June 2014

This is a dark, sad and very powerful novel. It is about 1989 in Kabul, Afghanistan. The Russians had invaded about 10 years earlier. The war brought the Taliban to power and the rule of the terror of the Taliban and their stringent religious rule.

Atiq Shaukat, 42, is a jailor, his salary, if one can call it that is a pittance. His wife is very ill and he is worried about her and their life. Atiq has been a quite ordinary person of the underclass all his life. He was decent, but simple.

His wife Musarrat is 45. She is seriously ill and can’t really leave the house or do much in the way of cooking or cleaning. Atiq is angry with her for being ill. Their relationship is quite cool.

Mohsen Ramat and his wife Zunaira are the other principle characters. Unlike Atiq and Musarrat, they are learned, university educated and had been on very positive career paths until the coming of the Taliban. Now they are reduced greatly in circumstance and Zunaira simply will not leave the house. She absolutely abhors the symbolism of the burqa and just stays at home. On the other hand she is rather had on Mohsen for not being more resistant of the Taliban. He tries to explain his absolute powerlessness, but this just makes her more angry.

One day when Mohsen is out walking the Taliban are having a woman stoned, accused of prostitution . He is shocked to find himself participating and even threw a stone which hit the woman in the face. He is completely shocked in disbelief at himself and can’t imagine what has happened to him. He is deeply troubled by what this society has done to bring him to this. He just can’t stand the guilt and tells Zunaira what he has done. This is just too much for her and she rejects him and they have a terrible argument.

It’s a bad night at home, but the next morning she’s considered it all and forgives him, understanding the pressures of life on the “outside.” He begs her to take a walk with him. She doesn’t want to leave the house since she’d have to wear a burqa and that would demean her and make her an anonymous person. However, he begs and begs and is so down that she gets her burqa and they take the walk.

In the meantime Atiq has come on hard times too. One of his friends, Mirza Shah used to be in the army with the Russians, but became discouraged and deserted. He joined the mujahedeen and now sells drugs.

Another old friend, Nezeesh, is older and a former holy man, once a learned man and great preacher who seems to have lost his mind after losing his sons in the war against the Russians. Nezeesh keeps telling people he will just walk off never to return but he never leaves. Then one day he does it; he just ups and walks away from Kabul into the mountains to die. This weighs heavily on Atiq.

Perhaps a sole positive feeling, if it can be called positive, is that Atiq is moved by the masses of starving, dirty children, some barely able to walk, who clog the streets and markets. This depresses him but at least he is very happy he has no children. He just can’t face life any longer.

He is walking home, hardly knowing what he is doing and he crashes into Mohsen and Zunaira on their walk and almost knocks them down. They laugh it off. However, a Taliban police man hits him in the face for laughing in public. They then drag Mohsen off to hear a Mullah preaching, and Zunaira has to wait for him.

Mohsen gets stuck for 2 hours of a wild preacher and she suffers in the hot sun. The event of the walk and Mohsen’s behavior on the street has infuriated Zunaira and he insistence of her going out and the result, the humiliation, the difficulty in the sun. She’s at her wits end and the two fight about it. She gets so angry she pushes him and he falls, hits his head and dies.

Zunaira is arrested for killing her husband and is to be killed at a public execution in a few days. She is taken to Atiq’s jail. He doesn’t remember having run into them on the street, especially since she had on a burqa, and not, seeing her in jail he is so utterly overcome by her beauty and behavior that his entire life changes. He tells his wife all about it and, shockingly, she is happy for him. She tells him:

“A new day is dawning for you. Something is taking place inside you that would make you the envy of saints and kings. Your heart is being reborn.”

She urges him to go away with Zunaira. Musarrat, herself, is dying and will only live a short time longer. However, she simply won’t run away despite his willingness to free her.

Then Musarrat decides she will to go to death in place of Zunaira; she’s likely to die in the next few weeks of natural causes and she wants Atiq to be happy. She points out the Taliban will never lift her burqa, so no one will know. The plan is for Zunaira and Atiq to run away and she will pretend to be Musarrat. However, his boss sees Zunaira (now posing as Musarrat) at the jail and insists she comes to see the stoning of the murder (the actual Musarrat). Atiq awaits Zunaira outside the stadium where the executions are taking place, and she never comes back to him.

His goes completely out of his mind, keeps tearing burqas off passing women, to see if one of them is really Zunaira, which really underlines the notion of the inability of men to tell the difference among women in the society, and eventually he is seen as mad and is stoned to death. His death underlines the horrors of the society in which he lives.

Author Yasmina Khadra had painted a portrait of degradation, cruelty beyond belief and utter hopelessness. The novel is a difficult read, but I would think most readers will learn and feel more from this portrait of the social effects of the Taliban’s rule more than anything else one might read. I think it is an important novel and many would profit from reading it, as emotionally difficult as it is in many places.

Bob Corbett


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