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• Saturday, March 01st, 2008

Yasmina Khadra is the pen-name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an Algerian ex-army officer who while still in the army used this pseudonym in order to avoid submitting his manuscripts for approval by the military censors, due to his notoriety which irritated his superiors. He was encouraged by his wife to work clandestinely by using her first two names, Yasmina Khadra.

He started writing his collection of stories “Houria” at the age of 17. Six more novels were published under his real name while in the army and before adopting his pen-name, Yasmina Khadra.

Mohammed Moulessehoul was born in Kenadsa in the Algerian Sahara in January 1955. His father joined the National Liberation Army in 1956 in the war against the French occupier. After Algeria’s independence in 1962, Mohammed Moulessehoul was sent by his father to cadet school to become an officer which also satisfied his mother’s wish.

After thirty six years in military service, Mohammed Moulessehoul decided to go into exile in France in 2001, and devoted his entire time to writing. He currently lives in Aix-En-Provence in the South of France.

Mohammed Moulessehoul received the Médaille d’Or from the Académie Française in 2001 and the Prix des Libraires in 2006. He was also awarded the trophy of Créateurs sans Frontières, presented to him on the 19th of February 2008 at the Quai d’Orsay, by the French minister of foreign affairs, Bernard Kouchner.

Some of Mohammed Moulessehoul’s books have been translated in 25 countries, but only a few books were translated from French into English : “In the Name of God” in 2000, “Wolf Dreams” in 2003, “Morituri” in 2003, “The Swallows of Kabul” in 2004 and “Double Blank in 2005.

He wrote several books about the civil war in Algeria and is today one of Algeria’s most important writers. The Swallows of Kabul has been a best seller, it will be made into a film and will be released soon in the cinemas.

The Swallows of Kabul is a parallel story of two doomed Afghani couples who have seen better days but now have to endure a hard life under the Taliban’s oppressive regime.

Mohsen Ramat and his wife Zunaira are well educated, they meet at university, he comes from a middle-class family of prosperous merchants and she is the daughter of a distinguished man. Mohsen is looking forward to a diplomatic career, and Zunaira’s ambition is to become a magistrate. She is a liberated feminist and a human rights activist when a student at university. All these dreams are shattered when the Taliban come to power. Mohsen’s family business is destroyed and Zunaira has to stay home because women under the Taliban ruling are not allowed to study, have a job or go out without wearing the burka, which Zunaira felt was stripping her of her identity and her freedom.

Atiq Shaukat an ex-mujahideen fighter from the Russian war, and now a part time jail keeper, lives with his wife Musarrat an ex-nurse who is suffering from a painful and terminal illness. He married her twenty years ago out of gratitude because she saved his life when he was severely wounded by the Russians during the war. He doesn’t love her and can’t bear the thought of coming back home to find her lying in her corner and him having to deal with the household chores.

Mohsen and Atiq have many things in common. The dissatisfaction of their gloomy life, the fear of the unknown, the boredom and the aimless and endless wandering in the streets of Kabul day after day, and the rejection of the intolerable situation the Taliban had led the country into. The two couples are deeply depressed and distraught by the frightening nightmare they are going through. They try to remain sane amongst all the insanity surrounding them caused by the Taliban’s repressive regime and the state of advanced decomposition in the city.

Mohsen releases his rage by joining a crowd stoning an adulterous woman to death. He always had a gentle nature, he felt horrified by his act, and couldn’t even believe that he was capable of such a deed. In order to unburden himself of such a heavy weight on his conscience, he had to confess to his wife what he had done: “I don’t know what came over me. It happened so fast. It was as if the crowd put a spell on me. I don’t recall gathering up the stones. I only remember that I couldn’t get rid of them, and an irresistible rage seemed to come into my arm… What frightens me and saddens me at the same time is that I didn’t even try to resist.”

Atiq doesn’t know what’s happening to him, he can no longer withstand the pitiless violence of the Taliban regime he genuinely believed in at the beginning. He feels claustrophobic in his prison cubby hole called an office. He feels disoriented and lost : “What’s happening to me? I can’t bear the dark, I can’t bear the light, I don’t like standing up or sitting down, I can’t tolerate old people or children, I hate it when anybody looks at me or touches me. In fact, I can hardly stand myself. Am I going stark raving mad?” “The prison world is getting Atiq down. During the last several weeks, he has devoted much consideration to his position as a jailer. The more he thinks about it, the less merit he finds in it, and even less nobility. This realization has put him in a state of constant rage.”

Zunaira loses her mind by becoming shockingly extreme in her attitude and behaviour towards her husband. She doesn’t want to see him any more because she holds him responsible for the shame she had to endure from a Taliban police agent in the street. She no longer respects him. In order to stop her husband arguing with her she pushes him violently, his head hit the wall, and he dies instantly.

Musarrat leads a tortured life without any hope of recovering from this long, mysterious and consuming disease. She decides in her own drastic and extreme way, to sacrifice herself in order to make her husband happy. She wants to substitute herself for the woman he fell in love with and who is sentenced to death. She tell her husband : “I’ve been inspired by the Lord : That woman is not going to die. She’ll be everything I couldn’t be for you. You have no idea how happy I am this morning. I’ll be more useful dead than alive. And at long last, you’re being offered a chance. I beg you not to ruin it. Listen to me, just this once…” She is a selfless, angelic figure amongst all the surrounding abominations.

Mohammed Moulessehoul in his powerful, realistically disturbing and traumatic, short but very dense story is able to convey the misery, injustice, suffocation and oppression of the devastated city of Kabul under the Taliban regime. He writes with great compassion about the complexity of human nature when faced with extreme hardship, absurd rulers and rules, and how extreme repression and senseless violence can bring people to the brink of helplessness and despair to the extent of losing their souls. They end up dying or raving mad.

Mohammed Moulessehoul in The Swallows of Kabul is writing about an Afghanistan that he has never visited. He says in one of his interviews that he understands the era of the Taliban very well.

“I understand that Taliban mentality very well. The landscape, the struggles, the hardness of life-all these are just like my homeland.” He points to the cover of his book: “Look at that photo (of a woman in a burka crossing a parched, desolate city scape) , that could be the Sahara village where I was born… I wanted to bring a new look from a Muslim on the tragedy of Afghanistan. And to bring to it a western perspective at the same time. When there are two perspectives there is a better chance of understanding.”

Understanding that it is extremism which is the cancer of Islam.

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Author:
• Thursday, January 31st, 2008

Anita Shreve was born in Dedham Massachusetts in 1946 from an airline pilot father and a housewife mother. She graduated from Tufts University. She worked as high school teacher at Amherst College, Massachusetts. She started writing her novels while working. She was awarded an O. Henry Prize in 1975 for her book “Past The Island, Drifting”.

She then stopped writing fiction in the late 1970s and worked as a journalist in Nairobi, Kenya for three years. She wrote for Quest magazine, US magazine, New York Times and New York magazine. She decided to give up journalism and dedicate herself full-time to writing fiction. Her books were translated into many languages and she won The Pen L.L. Winship Award and the New England Book Award for fiction. She currently lives between Longmeadow Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

Anita Shreve wrote several novels :
Eden Close in 1989.
Strange Fits of Passion in 1991.
Where or When in 1993.
Resistance in 1995.
The Weight of Water in 1997.
The Pilot’s Wife in 1998.
Fortune’s Rocks in 2000.
Sea Glass in 2002.

She wrote non-fiction books :
Dr. Balter’s Child Sense in 1985.
Dr. Balter’s Baby Sense in 1985.
Working Woman in 1986.
Remaking Motherhood in 1987.
Who’s in Control in 1988.
Women Together, Women Alone in 1989.

Kathryn is the pilot’s wife and she is the main character of the novel. The story is about her tragedy, her distress, her love, her deceit and her rage, and how she has to deal with the initial shock when she is woken up in the middle of the night by a knock on the door to be told by Robert Hart, the pilot’s union employee, that her husband died in a plane crash with 103 passengers, 10 miles off the coast of Ireland and that there were no survivors.

The novel is divided in two parts, the first half describes in simple, clear prose Kathryn’s struggle to deal with her shock, loss and grievance, while trying to pull herself together for the sake and protection of her 16-year old daughter Mattie, with the help of the kind Robert Hart.

This part holds some hints to prepare readers for what follows in the second half which is full of unexpected painful revelations, challenging Kathryn’s prowess to deal with the truth of her marriage and what has become of it. What appeared at the beginning to be a sad and quiet story turns out to be a gripping one, a thriller combined with the difficult defiance between loss, love and betrayal but also about some hope for the future.

Anita Shreve manages to make a good, captivating read out of a banal, common theme of betrayal and adultery.

Kathryn finds it very hard to bring together her happy memory of a stable, peaceful and uneventful married life in a beautiful home overlooking the ocean in Ely, New Hampshire, a bright teenage daughter, with a husband she cared for dearly, and thought that she knew, with the harsh deceitful reality of who Jack really was. A mixed feeling of grief and danger which triggers her determination to seek the truth at any cost after hearing all the unbelievable rumours, and after discovering various pieces of paper in Jack’s pocket and in his bath-robe with initials and phone numbers which she knew nothing about. She was ready to go through it all even if its outcome turns out to be devastating for her. In any case Kathryn knew that nothing will ever be the same again.

Anita Shreve portrays Kathryn’s confusion and disbelief in switching the chapters constantly from the present with all it’s unpleasantness and cruel devastation, to flashes of the serene, tranquil and more reassuring past. She has masterfully succeeded in conveying Kathryn’s feelings by contrasting the two lives through juxtaposition.

Anita Shreve’s books are often categorized under “women’s novels” due to her acquired art of describing women’s distressful feelings and sensibilities. The Pilot’s Wife appears to be a puzzle that Kathryn tries throughout the novel to unravel piece by piece. She thought she knew her husband but found out that she was living with a complete stranger she knew nothing about.

The readers are aware of that through what Mattie was telling her mother about the rumour that the pilot committed suicide : “Mattie you knew your father.” “Maybe”. “What does that mean ?” “Maybe I didn’t know him” Mattie said. “Maybe he was unhappy”. “If your father was unhappy, I’d have known.” “But how do you ever know that you know a person ?” she asked. What Kathryn didn’t know is that no matter how well you know a loved one intimately, there is always a little secret garden that each one keeps to oneself.

After meeting Muire Boland, Jack’s second wife and seeing their two children, Kathryn was overwhelmed with the sad and crude reality of her suspicion, which led her to drive all the way to the Irish coast, where the plane crashed. She decided to unburden herself from the weight she was carrying by throwing her wedding ring into the sea to join Jack at the bottom of the ocean. She wanted a new start by getting rid of the past and like that the healing operation can take place.

The Pilot’s Wife is an easy, readable book, the style is clear and simple. The plot was progressing well but then the author decided to end the story abruptly leaving a couple of loose threads untied.
The involvement of Jack with the IRA which led to the plane explosion was not explained sufficiently, and the relationship between Kathryn and Robert Hart was left undeveloped.

Anita Shreve was asked in an interview where did she get the idea for The Pilot’s Wife? She answered : “A novel is a collision of ideas. Three or four threads may be floating around in the writer’s consciousness, and at a single moment in time, these ideas collide and produce a novel… I overheard a conversation between a pilot and a woman at a party. Something he said lodged in my consciousness and wouldn’t go away. The thing he said was : When there’s a crash, the union always gets there first. He meant that when there was a crash of a commercial airliner, a member of the pilot’s union made it a point to get to the pilot’s wife house first. There are a lot of reasons for this, the most important of which is to keep her from talking to the press. And there was a collision of ideas.” which produced The Pilot’s Wife.

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