Reading Guide Questions
Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About This Book
From brutal battles with Soviet troops to the rise of the Taliban theocracy, to
the American invasion in the wake of 9/11, Afghanistan has become a potent
symbol of the political and religious realities shaping the landscape of the
twenty-first century. The Swallows of Kabul
puts a human face on the
horrors and repression of that war-torn country. It tells the story of two
couplesMohsen and Zunaira Ramat, born into the privileged classes of
pre-Taliban Afghanistan, and the prison guard Atiq Shaukat and his wife Musarrat,
raised in poverty and drawn into the jihad in hopes of bettering their lot in
Mohsen once hoped for a career as a diplomat, but now he aimlessly wanders the
devastated streets of Kabul. On one such desultory excursion he comes upon the
stoning of an adulteress and finds himself joining the frenzied crowd. The next
day Zunaira, anxious to assuage her husbands guilt and her own shock,
capitulates to his pleas to accompany him to the marketplace, the first outing
she has made in months. But the burqa she hides behind cannot protect them from
the harassment of zealous Taliban soldiers, and their marriage, already frayed
by Mohsens act of violence, collapses under the strain of new resentments and
suspicions. The shadow of the Taliban darkens the lives of Atiq and Musarrat as
well. Worn out by years of war and deprivation, Musarrat is slowly succumbing to
an incurable illness and Atiq to despair, which corrodes his faith in the
mullahs and threatens to destroy his soul.
In lucid, lyrical prose, The Swallows of Kabul
carries us into a land of
mind-numbing fear and harrowing hardship and reveals the possibilities for love
and compassion that simmer beneath the surface.
- Khadra depicts the city of Kabul in exquisite detail. How does the
language the author uses turn the city into a presence as vital and as
memorable as the people who inhabit it? In what ways does the physical
environment mirror the inner lives of the characters?
- How do small passing moments or incidents bring to life the atmosphere of
Kabul? How do the descriptions of the marketplace [p. 19] and the services
at the mosque [pp. 4042 and pp. 9397], for example, reinforce the fear
and sense of claustrophobia that engulfs the city and its population?
- Why does Mohsen experience "an access of unfathomable joy" [p. 14] when
his stone strikes the condemned woman? Is he simply swept away by the fervor
of the crowd, or does the incident reflect a deeper need of his own? Is
scapegoatism a natural, if highly regrettable, human impulse? What purpose
might it serve in society?
- What does Mohsen hope to gain by revealing his participation in the
stoning to Zunaira? Why does he "understand that he should not have confided
to his wife what he refuses to admit to himself" [p. 38]? From what you know
about Mohsen and the dynamics of his marriage, would it have been possible
for him to keep his actions a secret? Why does Zunaira remain silent in the
face of Mohsens appalling confession?
- Zunaira has steadfastly refused to leave her home or wear the burqa that "cancels
my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object" [p. 77]. Why
does she give in to Mohsens insistence on taking a walk? Is she persuaded
by his arguments, or does her decision come from the desire to heal the
breach between them? How does Khadra build a sense of uneasiness and
impending disaster in the description of their outing? What aspects of
Mohsens behavior turn Zunaira against him? Why does the experience of
waiting for him [p. 98] affect her so profoundly? What does she learn about
herself and her ability to survive the intolerance that defines her world?
What is the significance of her decision "never again to remove her burqa"
[p. 125]? Is it a sign of defeat or defiance?
- Is Atiqs businesslike acceptance of his job and his complicity in the
deaths of innocent people an unforgivable moral failing? Do his
circumstancesincluding his wifes illness, as well as his increasing
misgivings about his position as jailer [p. 18]mitigate his culpability?
Do the conditions in Kabul necessitate the suspension of the usual ethical
rules? Do readers also need to modify or even suspend ordinary judgment in
evaluating the characters and events in the novel?
- Initially, we see Musarrat through Atiqs eyes [pp. 2627]. Do the
face-to-face interactions between husband and wife [pp. 5358] change your
impressions of her and of the nature of their marriage? At what point in the
novel does Musarrats character come into her own?
- What qualities do Musarrat and Zunaira share? What are the differences
between them? To what extent are these differences attributable to their
respective ages, social position, education, and religious beliefs?
- Are the issues confronting the two couples universal? How has the
situation in Kabul increased the harm and hurt in their relationships? Have
their marriages been strengthened in any way by their dire circumstances?
- In addition to the main plot, Khadra presents the stories of Mirza,
Nazeesh, and Qassim. In what ways do these vividly drawn secondary
characters expand your understanding of Afghan culture, history, and values?
What, for example, does Mirzas advice to Atiq to divorce his wife [pp.
2627] suggest about the willingness of some Afghans to accept the
fundamentalists? What insight does Qassims character offer into the
brutalizing effects of war and tyranny? How does Khadra bring out Qassims
human side? Nazeesh, once a mullah respected for his erudition, "was found
one morning stalking along the avenues, wildly gesticulating, drooling, eyes
bulging" [p. 65]. Does Nazeeshboth a holy man and a madmansee the
transformation of his country in a way that eludes the other characters?
- Compare the sermon delivered by Mullah Bashir [pp. 9495], Qassims
speech about destiny [p. 118], and Musarrats musings about her fate [p.
119]. What do these passages demonstrate about the various ways religious
teachings can be interpreted?
- In the context of the novel, has the Islamic clergy abandoned its
religious mission and its moral responsibilities? Drawing on what you have
read about the rise of fundamentalism in Afghanistan and other countries, do
you think that this is an accurate picture? What light does the novel cast
on the differences between devout faith and fanaticism?
- The loss of intimacy is perhaps the most devastating effect of the
Talibans rule. In addition to the troubled marriages of the main
characters, how is this theme woven into the novel?
- References to swallows occur throughout the book, sometimes in literal
descriptions and at other times, as metaphors for the women draped in burqas.
Why is the juxtaposition of the literal and the metaphorical significant in
the context of the novels themes? What do the swallows symbolize? Do they
suggest different things at different times?
- From the stoning of the adulteress at the beginning of the novel to the
stoning death at the end, The Swallows of Kabul presents many images
of physical violence. What other kinds of violence does Khadra explore? Can
the demeaning treatment of women, the suppression of free expression and
movement, and the imposition of extreme religious orthodoxy also be defined
- After the attacks of 9/11, America invaded Afghanistan, ending the rule of
the Taliban. Despite continuing unrest, Afghanistan held free elections in
the fall of 2004. What aspects of Afghan culture might undermine this step
toward democracy? Can a Western military presence, as well as Western
political and economic pressures, offer lasting solutions to the issues
Khadra raises in the novel?
- In the preface, Khadra writes that the story about to unfold is "like the
water lily that blooms in a stagnant swamp" [p. 3]. Which characteror
plot elementrepresents the lily? Despite its darkness, is The Swallows
of Kabul ultimately a novel about hope and the possibility of
- The author, Mohammed Moulessehoul, was an Algerian army officer who
originally wrote under his wifes name, Yasmina Khadra, to avoid military
censorship. Why does he continue to use the feminine penname, although he
has retired from the army and now lives in France? What does this suggest
about his views and on his role as a writer?
Margaret Atwood, The Handmaids Tale
Jung Chang, Wild Swans
M. Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians
Gil Courtemanche, A Sunday at
the Pool in Kigali; Louis de Bernieres, Birds Without Wings
Anne Frank, The Diary of a Young Girl
Philip Gourevitch, We Wish to
Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families
Gordimer, The Pickup
M. E. Hirsch, Kabul
Khaled Hosseini, The
Christina Lamb, The Sewing Circles of Herat
Reading Lolita in Tehran
Orhan Pamuk, Snow
Ahmed Rashid, Taliban
Åsne Seierstad, The Bookseller of Kabul
Saira Shah, The
William Styron, Sophies Choice.
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Anchor Books.
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