Abdul Jabbar raises the truck's side rails and fastens the latches. He takes one last look at the militiawomen and their prisoner to assure himself that all is as it should be, then climbs into the cab beside the driver and strikes the floor with the butt of his weapon to signal the beginning of the procession. The truck pulls away at once, escorted by an enormous 4 x 4 topped with a ro-tating light and packed with slovenly militia soldiers.
Mohsen Ramat hesitates for a long time before he decides to join the crowd gathering in the square. The authorities have announced the public execution of a prostitute: She is to be stoned to death. A few hours earlier, workers came to the execution site to unload wheelbarrows filled with rocks and dig a small hole about two feet deep.
Mohsen has been present at many lynchings of this nature. Just yesterday, two young men--one of them barely a teenager--were hanged from a traveling crane mounted on the back of a truck; their bodies were not taken down until nightfall. Mohsen loathes public executions. They make him conscious of his vulnerability, they sharpen his perception of his limits, they fill him with sudden insight into the futility of all things, of all people. At such times, there's no longer anything to reconcile him to his certitudes of days gone by, when he would raise his eyes to the horizon only to lay claim to it. The first time he watched someone put to death--a murderer, whose throat was slit by a member of his victim's family--the sight made him sick. For many nights thereafter, his sleep was dazzled by nightmarish visions. He started awake more than once, shouting like a man possessed. But time has passed, and scaffolds have come to seem more and more a part of ordinary life, so much so that the citizens of Kabul grow anxious at the thought that an execution might be postponed. Now expiatory victims are dispatched in droves, and Mohsen has gradually stopped dreaming. The light of his conscience has gone out. He drops off the moment he closes his eyes, he sleeps soundly until morning, and when he wakes up, his head is as empty as a jug. For him and everyone else, death is only a banality. Moreover, everything is banality. Apart from the executions, which are the mullahs' way of setting their house in order, there's nothing at all. Kabul has become the antechamber to the great beyond: a dark antechamber, where the points of reference are obscure; a puritanical ordeal; something latent and unbearable, observed in the strictest privacy.
Mohsen doesn't know where to go or what to do with his idleness. Every day, starting in the morning, he roams through the devastated areas of the city with a vacillating mind and an impassive face. In the old days--that is, several light-years ago--he loved to take an evening stroll along the boulevards of Kabul. Back then, the windows of the bigger stores didn't have very much to offer, but no one came up to you and struck you in the face with a whip. People went about their business with enough motivation to envision, in accesses of enthusiasm, fabulous projects. The smaller shops were filled to bursting; a hubbub of voices poured out from them and spilled onto the sidewalks like a flood of friendliness and goodwill. Settled into wicker chairs, their fans laid carelessly across their bellies, old men smoked their water pipes, occasionally squinting at a sunbeam. And the women, despite wearing long veils and peering through netting, pirouetted in their perfumes like gusts of warm air. The caravan travelers of bygone days used to swear that they had nowhere and never, in all their wanderings, encountered such bewitching beauties. They were inscrutable vestals, their laughter a song, their grace a dream of delight. And this is the reason why the wearing of the burqa has become a necessity, more to preserve women from malicious eyes than to spare men the temptations of infinite allurements. . . . How far off those days seem. Could they be nothing but pure fabrications? These days, the boulevards of Kabul are no longer amusing. The skeletal facades that by some miracle are still standing attest to the fact that the cafes, the eating places, the houses, and the buildings have all gone up in smoke. The formerly blacktopped streets are now only beaten tracks scraped by clogs and sandals all day long. The shopkeepers have put their smiles in the storeroom. The chilam smokers have vanished into thin air. The men of Kabul have taken cover behind shadow puppets, and the women, mummified in shrouds the color of fever or fear, are utterly anonymous.
Excerpted from The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra Copyright© 2004 by Yasmina Khadra. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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