OTC 2.5: Three Mini-Reviews of Novels from Algeria
Another unscheduled extra post for the Orbis Terrarum Challenge.
The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, published in French 2002, English translation by John Cullen published 2004.
The Attack by Yasmina Khadra, published in French 2005, English translation by John Cullen published 2006.
The Sirens of Baghdad by Yasmina Khadra, published in French 2006, English translation by John Cullen published 2007.
Yasmina Khadra is the pen name used by Mohammed Moulessehoul, a former Algerian army officer who used the female nom de plume to avoid having his work subjected to military censorship. Now retired, he lives in France but continues to use the feminine name as it has become identified with his published works.
The three novels form a trilogy connected purely thematically, rather than by characters or plots, by their focus on Islamic fundamentalism. Khadra has indicated that his purpose is to help the West to understand the real complexity of the various views that coexist under the umbrella of this fundamentalism. The novels illustrate a variety of these views.
The Swallows of Kabul takes place in Afghanistan during the ascendancy of the Taliban and shows what life was like under the Taliban's strict control of every aspect of Afghan life. The story focuses on two couples living in Kabul. The first is an upper-middle class couple Mohsen and Zunaira who have lost their wealth and positions within society; Zunaira, particularly, was educated as a lawyer and held a position as a magistrate until the Taliban came into power and stripped her of her position, sending her, like all other Afghan women, home, unable to participate in public life. The other couple consists of Atiq, a man of lower-class background who had fought against the Soviets in the mujahideen until he was seriously wounded, and Musarrat, the peasant woman who nursed him back to health; Atiq holds a position as the jailer at a tiny facility which temporarily holds women condemned to death for violations of Muslim law, while Musarrat is dying slowly of what appears to be leukemia. The stresses and brutality of life under the Taliban eventually cause the lives of these individuals to intersect with disastrous results.
The Attack takes place in Israel and focuses on Amin Jaafari, an brilliant Arab doctor who has been granted Israeli citizenship because of his abilities and service to the nation; he and his wife Sihem are accepted in Israeli society and treated as equals by their Jewish friends and colleagues. When a suicide bomber attacks a restaurant where a children's party is being held, Jaafari is called to the hospital to identify the body of Sihem who was killed in the attack. He cannot understand how this is possible as she was supposed to be out of town visiting her family, until he is told by the authorities that Sihem was actually the bomber, an accusation for which they have conclusive evidence. Jaafari then has to face the fact that his wife had a life and a whole body of beliefs about which he knew nothing and with which he totally disagrees; devastated, he sets out to try to learn who his wife really was, who her associates were, and how she came to believe that becoming a suicide bomber murdering children was of value. In the process, he comes to face a great deal about Arab society that he had ignored or disregarded in his concentration on his profession, particularly the views of fundamentalists such as his wife had secretly been all along.
The Sirens of Baghdad takes place primarily in Iraq, with sections at the beginning and end set in Lebanon. The unnamed young male protagonist had been a college student in Baghdad at the time of the invasion of Iraq, but has returned home to his small, remote village as all educational activity has ended for the time being. Over a period of time, the violence that has engulfed so much of Iraq extends to his village in the form of intrusions by American soldiers whose acts of brutality (killing a mentally disabled boy, bombing a wedding party, and raiding his home and humiliating his family) transforms him from one who has avoided any form of political involvement to a man who is willing to die to avenge the dishonor to his family and his people inflicted by the Americans who are almost totally unaware of their violations of basic Arab and Muslim beliefs. He goes to Baghdad to join the activists and become a suicide bomber in order to give expression of his hatred. Ultimately, his involvement leads to the death of an innocent friend; then, he is given the opportunity he has been working towards only to find that he still has to make a choice.
Individually and collectively, these novels do succeed in presenting multiple viewpoints that go to make up what constitutes "Islamic fundamentalism"; Khadra makes clear that there is no single such view, but rather a spectrum of views which need to be understood better in the West.