December 11, 2006

The Swallows of Kabul

The Swallows of Kabul by Yasmina Khadra
Finished on 12/9/06
Rating: C (3/10 Ho-hum; not a keeper)

In the middle of nowhere, a whirlwind spins like a sorceress flinging out her skirts in a macabre dance; yet not even this hysteria serves to blow the dust off the calcified palm trees thrust against the sky like beseeching arms. Several hours ago, the night, routed by the dawn and fleeing in disorder, left behind a few of its feeble breezes, but the heat has scorched and smothered them. Since midday, not a single raptor has risen to hover above its prey. The shepherds in the hills have disappeared. For miles around, apart from a few sentries crouched inside their rudimentary watchtowers, there is not a living soul. A deathly silence pervades the dereliction as far as the eye can see.

For a book I didn’t really care for, I sure used a lot of Post-it flags! The writing is rich and lyrical – I’ll give it that. But I never felt drawn in and struggled to stir up any empathy for Moshen, his wife Zunaira, Atiq the jailer and his dying wife, Musarrat. Of course I felt a grave sense of sadness for the terrible torment inflicted by the Taliban on the Afghan people, yet this story fell flat, even as the predictable finale drew near.

I had The Swallows of Kabul on my TBR list for a couple of years and finally decided to buy a copy rather than check one out from the library. I had great faith that it would be a wonderful read, especially when Kailana, Lotus and Booklogged all spoke so highly of it. The cover is embossed with a gold sticker that reads, “Like Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner, this is a superb meditation on the fate of the Afghan people.” – Publishers Weekly. Hmmm… I loved The Kite Runner. It made my Top Ten in 2004. Unfortunately, The Swallows of Kabul failed to deliver and won’t even make my Top Hundred. Rats. I really was looking forward to another great book. I guess I’ll just leave you with a few of my favorite passages and let you decide for yourself if this much lauded book is one you’d enjoy.

The shopkeepers have put their smiles in the storeroom. The chilam smokers have vanished into think 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.


And then came the Russian tidal wave, with an 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…


Behind opaque veils, stepping like sleepwalkers, sparse flocks of women hug the walls, closely guarded by a few embarrassed males. And everywhere – in the squares, on the streets, among the vehicles, or around the coffee shops – there are kids, hundreds of little kids with snot-green nostrils and piercing eyes, disturbing, sickly, on their own, many barely old enough to walk, and all silently braiding the stout rope they’ll use, someday soon, to lynch their country’s last hope of salvation.


Without letting go, he looks all around to be sure it’s safe for him to speak. Then he clears his throat, but his emotion is so great that his voice comes out in an almost inaudible quaver: “Do you think we’ll ever be able to hear music in Kabul one day?”

“Who knows?”

The old man strengthens his grip, extending his skinny neck as he prolongs his lamentations. “I’d like to hear a song. You can’t imagine how much I’d like to hear a song. A song with instrumental accompaniment, sung in a voice that shakes you from head to foot. Do you think one day – or one night – we’ll be able to turn on the radio and listen to the bands getting together again and playing until they pass out?”

“God alone is omniscient”

A momentary confusion clouds the old man’s eyes; then they begin to glitter with an aching brightness that seem to rise up from the center of his being. “Music is the true breath of life. We eat so we won’t starve to death. We sing so we can hear ourselves live. Do you understand, Atiq?”


  1. Anonymous7:19 PM

    I totally agree with you! I loved Kite Runner as well, but it took me a long time to pick this one up and when I did, I was royally disappointed. You're right, the writing is good, but the story just didn't do anything for me.

  2. Anonymous8:54 PM

    I'm sorry you didn't like this one. It's most unfortunate that they compared it to The Kite Runner. I don't think it's in the same class, at all. I think timing sometimes makes a huge difference whether we like a book or not. This was my first book dealing with Afghanastan. I don't know if it would affect me the same if I read it in comparison with Kite Runner. I'm still glad I read it and read it when I did.

  3. Hi Les! Happy birthday!

  4. Lisa - Oh, it's so nice to have my feelings about this book validated by another reader! Especially after hearing so many good things about it.

    Booklogged - I agree about the timing of a read. Perhaps, with the holidays approaching, it wasn't the best of times to read a serious book such as this. Maybe I simply didn't want to care about the character, you know?

    Bybee - Thanks!! Hope you had a good one, too!

  5. Glad I didn't pick this one up at the UBS last week!

  6. Anonymous3:48 AM

    Hi, Les!

    So sorry you didn't enjoy this one so much, but I agree with booklogged, the comparison to "The Kite Runner" was unfortunate. No book about Afghanistan could ever live up to "The Kite Runner" for it's in a league of its own. Also, I think you might have enjoyed it more if you had read it before the KR instead of after.

    Would you attempt any other book by Yasmina Khadra after this? He's been quite prolific over the past few years.

  7. Lotus - Yes, I probably would've enjoyed this if I'd read it before The Kite Runner. Isn't it amazing how the timing of a read can affect the final outcome and overall enjoyment of a book? I'm reading some nonfiction right now and I'm tempted to set it aside until after the holidays. Just too much going on to really sink into the book. Tis the season for fluff, me thinks!

    I may give Khadra another try someday. Any recommendations?

    Andi - I'd be more than happy to send you my copy if you like.


I may not answer your comments in a timely fashion, but I always answer. Check back soon!