The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

Postby Maiwenn » Fri Mar 29, 2019 7:46 am

kanewai wrote:I finished Les hirondelles de Kaboul over lunch ... and I'll be impatiently waiting until the end of the month to discuss it. I've got some things to say about this book.

The short spoiler-free version: it was a fascinating look at life under the Taliban, and on the emotional and spiritual impacts this had on the main characters. I was impressed that a male author was able to imagine what impact fundamentalism had on women. And then I got to the last twenty pages - and the author blew any good will I had for him. Rage post to come April 1.

Note: I assume it's safe to discuss books after the month is up without worrying about spoilers, yeah? I'm not sure if we ever came up with a standard practice for those.


Yesssss to all of this! I had a reaction of "wait... what?" the first time I read it. I look forward to reading your thoughts!
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

Postby Serpent » Sat Mar 30, 2019 1:34 am

I'm not planning to read this but I'm intrigued :shock: :shock: :shock:
wasn't the original plan that it's okay to post spoilers in the last few days of the month as long as you warn about them?
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

Postby MamaPata » Sun Mar 31, 2019 11:57 am

Yeah, personally I sort of expect people will end up sharing spoilers here, so if I haven't finished (as for example is the case now!), I just won't check until I'm done. If it's a major spoiler, it might be good to put a heading at the top of the post so people can skip if they're joining in later. But otherwise, I don't think we can avoid spoilers completely.

(Will finish the book asap so I can join you all!)
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

Postby MamaPata » Mon Apr 01, 2019 8:36 pm

I have now finished it! I have to admit, it didn’t really work for me (from the beginning, but ah, also the end was an experience). I didn’t hate it but I just wasn’t particularly into it - if we hadn’t been going to discuss it here, I’m not sure I would have finished it. I’m not quite sure what didn’t work for me, so I’ll be interested to hear other people’s experiences.
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

Postby kanewai » Mon Apr 01, 2019 9:22 pm

My reactions to the book were varied. Spoilers ahead for the non-readers.

The book opens with imagery of a city in ruins, followed by the public execution of a woman accused of prostitution. It all feels very post-apocalyptic. To me, it was relatively obvious that the execution was foreshadowing, and that the book would also end with an execution. I was sure that not all the characters would make it out alive.

The main part of the novel follows the intersecting lives of about five characters. The women are all prisoners in their home, the men are all broken. The relationships between everyone is broken too, as if the Taliban had poisoned people's very capacity to connect. I thought this part was vivid and frightening; it was hard to believe that this was taking place in the modern world. The sense of place as strong, but there wasn't much plot, or significant depth to the characters.

It was an amazing look into a world that is closed to most of us. I was also impressed that a Muslim writer would take such a critical look at political Islam, and that a male writer would offer such an empathic look at what the experience of women must be like under fundamentalism.

And then, in the last act, one of the men, a jailer, falls in obsessive love with a prisoner who's set to be executed in a few days. There's no reason for his obsession beyond that she's beautiful (she never talks to him), but it's also somewhat believable. Obsessions aren't always rational. It's what happens next that I found completely unbelievable: the man confesses his love of the prisoner to his wife. The wife is happy that the jailer is finally showing emotion - she thought his heart had been permanently closed to the outside world - and is so full of joy that she swaps places with the prisoner so that her husband can have a chance at happiness. And he accepts this!

And so I don't know what to make of the book. Had I read it wrong all along, and was the book really about one man's redemption and the women were just plot devices? Does the author really believe that a woman's calling is to sacrifice her life for her husband - and if so, should he really be using a women's pen name??? Or, if I'm feeling charitable, was this just a very poor attempt at introducing a plot twist at the end?

------------------------------------------------

As an aside: I thought this was an excellent choice for the book club. It's short, so most of us can finish in a month. It's international, so should appeal to a wider variety of readers than many authors who are more 'tied' to a language. And it's a book I want to talk about, even if I'm not sure I liked it.

I'm taking a pass in April. I've read Shadow of the Wind twice. The first time was in English, and I really enjoyed it. The second time was in Spanish, and I discovered that it is not one of those books that fully work the second time around. I'll hold off until May to discuss more.
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul

Postby Cèid Donn » Tue Apr 02, 2019 3:31 am

kanewai wrote:
The main part of the novel follows the intersecting lives of about five characters. The women are all prisoners in their home, the men are all broken. The relationships between everyone is broken too, as if the Taliban had poisoned people's very capacity to connect. I thought this part was vivid and frightening; it was hard to believe that this was taking place in the modern world.


The concept of how such an oppression, corrosive social order erodes the human capacity to connect, have real relationships and experience intimacy with others is, I think, the main theme of the story. And as a woman, I find it hits home as it speaks very intimately to my experience of this world. I think it's very easy for Westerners to fixate on the Taliban as something that happens somewhere else, but what motives them isn't any different than people we have sitting in our Western governments right now. I think a lot of Westerners, especially more privileged ones, prefer to "other" the reality of places like Afghanistan when they need to looking at how our societies are not that different.

The sense of place as strong, but there wasn't much plot, or significant depth to the characters.


I am on the fence about whether the author managed to succeed with this novel. This, I think, relates to that. I am not sure he wanted deep characters but rather characters that represented something more universal. They seem to be somewhere between characters and metaphors, especially the female characters. That said, I do think there is more depth to these characters than what you found. The two female characters carry tremendous amount of pain--both are having their lives stripped slowly away from them--and I think understanding the depth of their pain is the only way to make any sense of the ending

And then, in the last act, one of the men, a jailer, falls in obsessive love with a prisoner who's set to be executed in a few days. There's no reason for his obsession beyond that she's beautiful (she never talks to him), but it's also somewhat believable. Obsessions aren't always rational. It's what happens next that I found completely unbelievable: the man confesses his love of the prisoner to his wife. The wife is happy that the jailer is finally showing emotion - she thought his heart had been permanently closed to the outside world - and is so full of joy that she swaps places with the prisoner so that her husband can have a chance at happiness. And he accepts this!

And so I don't know what to make of the book. Had I read it wrong all along, and was the book really about one man's redemption and the women were just plot devices? Does the author really believe that a woman's calling is to sacrifice her life for her husband


I can't say if the ending works or not. There's a lot of the prose and elegance of this novel that I really loved, but the ending is...messy. Part of me is horrified at the idea of Mussarrat, a disabled woman, being sacrificed like this and I don't like Atiq's infatuation with Zunaira. So what to make of this mess? Well, I've given it a lot of thought.

For starters, I don't think anyone is redeemed and the ending is horribly tragic for everyone.

One thing I have been kicking over a lot is what swallows mean for the author. They are clearly a symbol of women living under the Taliban, but I'm not fully sure I understand what that symbols means. To my Western mind, swallows are birds, and birds often symbolize freedom. But the women here clearly are not free, so I can only see "swallows" as paradoxical symbolism--a symbol that reveal a truth by being a paradox of itself.

I need to break down a few things here to explain my thinking:

Musarrat is dying--her illness, if I'm not mistaken, is not really described beyond the understanding that it's the result of enduring extreme hardships like poverty and scarcity in a war-torn country, so that suggests to me her illness has symbolic meaning in the story. She's inescapably suffering as result of the world she lives in, a world damned by the power struggles of men. And Atiq, the one man closest to her, has no power to help her either.

Zunaira is in her own way trapped by men's power struggles--she had a much more fortunate life than Musarrat before the Taliban yet she still loses everything because of the Taliban and now her world is nothing but an endless prison. She cannot fight it and she cannot escape it. And the man closest to her, Mohsen, ends up viciously attacks her--an attack rooted in his own guilt--and his death ends up putting her life in grave peril.

So we have two entrapped women suffering without end and two pathetic men, both of whom, in the course of the book, participate in the larger mechanics of the Taliban rule that is afflicting suffering on the women and are dragging these women down with them. Mohsen's participation (via the first stoning) destroys his relationship with Zunaira to the point he's violent towards her. Atiq's participation (via his job) is in direct opposition to caring for Musarrat as a husband should.

So what are we to make of Atiq's infatuation with Zunaira? I think we have to really think in terms of symbolism here to not end up just hating the story. Musarrat is a "swallow" that is doomed and knows it, but Zunaira is a "swallow" who has not yet accepted her fate in this world. I think she is suppose symbolize the world where people are still free and can connect with each other, and I think Atiq's reaction to her is the result of his own poverty of the soul. I think the author wants us to see that when woman are oppressed, not only do women yearn to be free, but men also yearn for what women are no longer free to give them. And to Atiq, Zumaira appears to be his chance to have that intimacy and connection that he was denied with Musarrat because the illness (again, symbolic of crushing oppression that denies her her life) that is killing her.

Now, as for Musarrat taken Zunaira's place, I think for Musarrat death is her own way to be free. Granted, I'm a disabled, chronically ill woman who supports right to die, and so I'm admittedly colored by that. But I think for this story, that's what her death is suppose to mean-- it's the only why she can be free. It doesn't redeem Atiq. It's not about Atiq--I think the author fails a little here because of how he has Musarrat justify this to Atiq in a way that seems to be about him. But it is her choice, and I don't think if she had anything to live for she would have made that choice. Maybe if the author centered Musarrat more early on in the story rather than Atiq this would have worked better.

But I am sure the author had no intention of redeeming Atiq. Atiq's been guilty and pathetic since the first chapter--this is the toll the Taliban rule has taken on him--and just how deeply pathetic he is is shown in the last parts of the book. Even though he participates with the scheme that "frees" Zumaira, she doesn't belong to him, and being a "swallow" that means she "flies away." She flees, as that's all she can do. In this case, she disappears behind the burqa and disappears into the flocks of women hidden under identical burqas, with their personhood and individuality hidden away from others, and like all these other women, she takes her capacity to connect with others, and with men in particular, with her as she disappears behind the oppression of the Taliban. So Atiq is left desperately searching for that promise of intimacy he saw in Zunaira but finds nothing but strangers. And that he is so publicly seeking for her -- of rather, for that promise of intimacy--Atig attracts the public anger that results in his death.

Is this a solid story? Again, I'm on the fence. Do I think this novel qualifies as a feminist story, in that it challenges ideas that are made normative by patriarchy, which is shown in extreme form via the Taliban? Yes. Is it solidly so? Maybe not. I find the way he wrote Musarrat to be problematic and messy--she too much a metaphor and not enough character--and that is at the heart of the story's biggest weaknesses. But I think overall the author did well to tell a story that shows how patriarchal oppression destroys both men's and women's ability to connect with others in the way we as human beings need.
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul

Postby Maiwenn » Tue Apr 02, 2019 4:43 pm

Cèid Donn wrote:One thing I have been kicking over a lot is what swallows mean for the author. They are clearly a symbol of women living under the Taliban, but I'm not fully sure I understand what that symbols means. To my Western mind, swallows are birds, and birds often symbolize freedom. But the women here clearly are not free, so I can only see "swallows" as paradoxical symbolism--a symbol that reveal a truth by being a paradox of itself.


I looked into this and found this site which outlines the symbolic meaning of swallows in different cultures: http://www.hirondelle.oiseaux.net/croyances.html

The relevant section is this, apparently taken from Dictionnaire des symboles - Editions Robert LAFFONT:
L'hirondelle est le symbole du renoncement et de la bonne compagnie dans l'Islam. Chez les Persans, le gazouillement de l'hirondelle sépare les voisins et les camarades, elle signifie solitude, émigration, séparation, sans doute à cause de sa nature d'oiseau migrateur.

The swallow is the symbol of giving up/renunciation and good company in Islam. For Persians, the chirping of the swallow separates neighbors and friends, and signifies solitude, emigration, separation, undoubtedly due to its migratory nature.


While Afghanistan isn't necessarily where one thinks of when one thinks of Persian culture, there is a Persian cultural background for some. It seems possible that the Persian symbolism might also be found in Afghanistan (or that Khadra chose to draw on it anyway). Certainly, the idea of a solitary, isolated swallow matches with kanewai's description of the relationships:
kanewai wrote:The women are all prisoners in their home, the men are all broken. The relationships between everyone is broken too, as if the Taliban had poisoned people's very capacity to connect.


Cèid Donn wrote:But I think for this story, that's what her death is suppose to mean-- it's the only why she can be free. It doesn't redeem Atiq. It's not about Atiq--I think the author fails a little here because of how he has Musarrat justify this to Atiq in a way that seems to be about him. But it is her choice, and I don't think if she had anything to live for she would have made that choice. Maybe if the author centered Musarrat more early on in the story rather than Atiq this would have worked better.

I agree that this would have worked better if she were more developed as a character. I understand that it's supposed to have been a way for her to reclaim agency and make a choice for her future in a world where she's lost all power of choice, but it feels a bit too much like a sacrifice for her husband.

As with other books by Khadra, I don't necessarily like the characters or their actions, but he always makes me stop and reflect. I came away from Les Hirondelles de Kaboul feeling rather unsettled and I think that's a good thing. A happy ending would have been disingenuous.
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

Postby kanewai » Wed Apr 03, 2019 1:30 am

I think it would have helped a lot if we had heard Mussarat's 'voice' earlier. We see her trying and failing to connect with Atiq, but we don't go deep with her. I don't recall having her as a POV character in the way we did with Atiq, Zunaira, Mohsen, or even some of the war veterans who make brief appearances.

I hadn't thought that Mussarat's choice was a way for her to have agency. It' something to ponder, though I'm not really sure right now if that was the author's intent.

Regarding swallows and symbolism, there's a French proverb that I heard in Tunisia a few times: une hirondelle ne fait pas le printemps (roughly: one swallow doesn't mean that Spring has arrived). I was thinking that the 'swallows' related to all of the characters, - who are all killed or disappear. Again, this is a theory more than anything I'm convinced of.
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Re: The New Forum Book Club thread 2019. March: The Swallows of Kabul (February: Metro 2033)

Postby MamaPata » Thu Apr 04, 2019 7:04 pm

ALL of the spoilers. If you haven't read the book, maybe best to skip!

kanewai wrote:And then, in the last act, one of the men, a jailer, falls in obsessive love with a prisoner who's set to be executed in a few days. There's no reason for his obsession beyond that she's beautiful (she never talks to him), but it's also somewhat believable. Obsessions aren't always rational. It's what happens next that I found completely unbelievable: the man confesses his love of the prisoner to his wife. The wife is happy that the jailer is finally showing emotion - she thought his heart had been permanently closed to the outside world - and is so full of joy that she swaps places with the prisoner so that her husband can have a chance at happiness. And he accepts this!


The bit that particularly irritated me about this was actually where, while she is being executed and her husband is completely ignoring her, she hopes that he doesn't look in order to protect him?? Like, what?

kanewai wrote:Or, if I'm feeling charitable, was this just a very poor attempt at introducing a plot twist at the end?


I agree with this, but much less charitably. I found this with a lot of the book, it all felt like it was an attempt to prove something to the reader, rather than being a story in its own right.

Cèid Donn wrote:The concept of how such an oppression, corrosive social order erodes the human capacity to connect, have real relationships and experience intimacy with others is, I think, the main theme of the story.


I definitely agree with this as part of the author's goal, but I think it's also a failing of the story. I've read quite a few books with this kind of narrative (though about very different time periods and locations, for example, Nazi Germany, etc) and I find that I struggle with it. Not because of the misery - I can completely cope with that and have read some stunning books about the horrors of the world- but rather, it often feels to me like the author either uses the suffering as a way of moving the plot or they want to prove how much better they understand the world than the reader. In this case, it felt to me like the author relied on the sense of misery rather than creating a real connection with the characters or investing in the development.

Cèid Donn wrote:
The sense of place as strong, but there wasn't much plot, or significant depth to the characters.


I am on the fence about whether the author managed to succeed with this novel. This, I think, relates to that. I am not sure he wanted deep characters but rather characters that represented something more universal.
....
Is this a solid story? Again, I'm on the fence. Do I think this novel qualifies as a feminist story, in that it challenges ideas that are made normative by patriarchy, which is shown in extreme form via the Taliban? Yes. Is it solidly so? Maybe not. I find the way he wrote Musarrat to be problematic and messy--she too much a metaphor and not enough character--and that is at the heart of the story's biggest weaknesses. But I think overall the author did well to tell a story that shows how patriarchal oppression destroys both men's and women's ability to connect with others in the way we as human beings need.


I really appreciate this insight from both of you as it helped me clarify that this is what I struggled with most in the novel - the lack of depth. I never connected with any of the characters, and actually at times had to keep going back to check who was who just because people were introduced and then they vanished. Which can be a great tool, but it never quite seemed to work here. In general, I think there were some very clever ideas - how the different characters' stories overlapped at the start, the side characters (the veterans with their stories, the neighbour, etc) but the author never seemed to take it as far as I hoped.
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