Excerpt from The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Swallows of Kabul

by Yasmina Khadra

The Swallows of Kabul
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2004, 208 pages
    Apr 2005, 208 pages

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At the time of the Soviet invasion, Mohsen was ten years old, an age when one fails to understand why, all of a sudden, the gardens are deserted and the days as dangerous as the nights; an age when one is particularly ignorant of how easily great misfortunes happen. His father had been a prosperous merchant. The family lived in a large residence in the very center of the city and regularly entertained relatives and friends. Mohsen doesn't remember much from that period, but he's certain that his happiness was complete, that no one challenged his outbursts of laughter or condemned him for being a spoiled, capricious child. And then came the Russian tidal wave, with its apocalyptic armada and its triumphant massiveness. The Afghan sky, under which the most beautiful idylls on earth were woven, grew suddenly dark with armored predators; its azure limpidity was streaked with powder trails, and the terrified swallows dispersed under a barrage of missiles. War had arrived. In fact, it had just found itself a homeland. . . .

The blast of a horn propels him to one side. Instinctively, he puts his long scarf up to his face as a shield against the dust. Abdul Jabbar's truck grazes him, just misses a muleteer, and hurtles into the square, closely followed by the powerful 4 ´ 4. At the sight of this cortege, an incongruous roaring shakes the crowd, where shaggy adults and slender youths vie for the choicest places. To calm people down, militiamen distribute a few savage blows.

The vehicle comes to a stop in front of the freshly dug hole. The sinner is helped down while shouts of abuse ring out here and there. Once again, waves of movement perturb the crowd, catapulting the less vigilant into the rear ranks.

Insensible to the violent attacks intended to eject him, Mohsen takes advantage of the agitation, slips through the gaps it opens in the throng, and gains a spot near the front. Standing on tiptoe, he watches a fanatic of colossal proportions lift up the impure woman and "plant" her in the hole. Then, to keep her upright and prevent her from moving, he buries her in earth up to her thighs.

A mullah tosses the tails of his burnoose over his shoulders, addresses a final glare of contempt to the mound of veils under which a person is preparing to die, and thunders, "There are some among us, humans like ourselves, who have chosen to wallow in filth like pigs. In vain have they heard the sacred Message, in vain have they learned what perniciousness lurks in temptation; still they succumb, because their faith is insufficient to help them resist. Wretched creatures, blind and useless, they have shut their ears to the muezzin's call in order to hearken to the ribaldries of Satan. They have elected to suffer the wrath of God rather than abstain from sin. How can we address them, except in sorrow and indignation?"

He stretches out an arm like a sword toward the mummy. "This woman knew exactly what she was doing. The intoxication of lust turned her away from the path of the Lord. Today, the Lord turns His back on her. She has no right to His mercy, no right to the pity of the faithful. She has lived in dishonor; so shall she die."

He stops to clear his throat, then unfolds a sheet of paper amid the deafening silence.

"Allahu akbar!" yells someone in the back of the crowd.

The mullah raises an imperious hand to silence the shouter. After reciting a verse from the Qur'an, he reads something that sounds like a judgment, returns the sheet of paper to an interior pocket of his vest, and at the end of a brief meditation proposes that his listeners arm themselves with stones. This is the signal. In an indescribable frenzy, the crowd rushes to the heaps of rocks placed in the square a few hours earlier for this very purpose. At once, a hail of projectiles falls upon the condemned woman, who, since she has been gagged, shivers under their impact without a cry. Mohsen picks up three stones and throws them at the target. Because of the tumult around him, the first two go astray, but on the third try he hits the victim flush on the head. In an access of unfathomable joy, he sees a red stain blossom at the spot where his stone has struck her. At the end of a minute, bloody and broken, the woman collapses and lies still. Her rigidity further galvanizes her executioners; their eyes rolled back, their mouths dripping saliva, they redouble their fury, as if trying to resuscitate their victim and thus prolong her torment. In their collective hysteria, convinced that they're exorcising their own demons through those of the succubus, some of them fail to notice that the crushed body is no longer responding to their attacks and that the immolated, half-buried woman is lying lifeless on the ground, like a sack of abomination thrown to the vultures.

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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