Author, Book review, Fiction, Gallic Books, Libya, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Yasmina Khadra

‘The Dictator’s Last Night’ by Yasmina Khadra


Fiction – paperback; Gallic Books; 190 pages; 2015. Translated from the French by Julian Evans. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.

The Dictator’s Last Night by Yasmina Khadra puts us in the shoes of Colonel Gaddafi at the height of the Libyan civil war in 2011 shortly before his capture and execution by the NATO-backed rebel forces of the time. It’s a fictionalised account, of course, but it has a ring of authenticity about it. Unsurprisingly, it’s quite a dark and sombre novella, seeing as it provides a fascinating glimpse into the mindset of one of modern history’s most controversial and divisive figures, yet there’s a certain delicacy of touch, which makes it a fast and compelling read.

Secret hideout

When it opens, Gaddafi is holed up in a disused school — his troops’ secret headquarters — waiting for his son to join him so that they can move on to another, safer, location. It is the night of 19 October 2011 and the city of Sirte is raging all around him, as NATO attacks from the air and rebel forces attack from the ground.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, Gaddafi recalls his life story —  a Bedouin who grew up believing he was the Ghous clan’s “chosen one” yet forever remembering the childhood curses and slights against him even as he rose to become one of the Middle East’s most powerful and influential men, albeit one with a  messiah complex — while confronting his own fears for the future. He is largely resolute in defeat, knowing that his time has come, but he’s also angry and bitter at what he perceives to be the ingratitude of the Libyan people and he has short shrift for those in his immediate employ who he treats with disdain and cruelty.

But despite his circumstances, trapped in a situation with seemingly no safe way out, he still wears his megalomania on his sleeve:

I am Muammar Gaddafi, mythology made flesh. And if there are fewer stars in the sky over Sirte this evening, and my moon looks no fatter than a nail clipping, it is so that I should remain the one constellation that matters. They can fire all the missiles they have at me, I shall see only fireworks celebrating me.

Portrait of a complex man

Of course, we know how the book ends, but as Gaddafi moves towards his final hour the author expertly charts the fallen dictator’s ever-shifting moods — from acceptance to anger, from fear to fury.

It’s not a sympathetic portrait by any stretch of the imagination — Gaddafi is delusional, sociopathic, unrelenting in his inability to forgive, or trust, anyone — but neither is it a caricature of the embittered “kooky” tyrant the Western media often portrayed him as. Indeed, the book’s greatest achievement is in the way it gives voice to a proud man who set out to liberate his people but got corrupted by the taste of power along the way:

Pride is invaluable to reason. When you have ruled over peoples, you sit on your cloud and forget reality. But what exactly have you ruled over? To what purpose? In the final analysis, power is a misunderstanding: you think you know, then you realise you have made a thumping mistake. Instead of going back and redoing it properly, you dig in your heels and see things the way you would like them to be. You deal with the unthinkable as best you can and cling to your fancies, convinced that if you were to let go all hell would break loose. And now, paradoxically, all hell has broken loose because I did not let go.

Yasmina Khadra is the pen name of Mohammed Moulessehoul, an award-winning author from Algeria, and  this is his latest novel to be translated into English.

I read this as part of #DiverseDecember.

Afghanistan, Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yasmina Khadra

‘Swallows of Kabul’ by Yasmina Khadra


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 195 pages; 2005. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

This is the third novel by Yasmina Khadra that I have read: the first, The Attack, was set in war-torn Israel; the second, The Sirens of Baghdad, was set in war-torn Iraq; and this, Swallows of Kabul, was set in war-torn Afghanistan.

All three books explore long-established cultures being torn apart at the seams, usually from within — and while considered and intelligent, all are unbearably bleak with little joy in the narratives.

Life under the Taliban

First published in 2002, Swallows of Kabul examines what it is like for ordinary citizens to live under brutal Taliban rule before the American invasion in the wake of 9/11.

When the book opens we are immediately thrust into the dark reality of a public execution and by the time the narrative comes full circle, just 195 pages later, we are back in the stadium to see another condemned person put to death by the state.

In between, we meet two very different couples whose lives become intertwined in an inexplicably cruel and unusual way. They are: Mohsen Ramat, an educated young man who once wanted to be a diplomat; his beautiful wife, Zunaira, who has had to give up her career as a magistrate because women are no longer allowed to work; Atiq Shaukat, a jailer who guards prisoners who have been sentenced to death; and his wife, Musarrat, who is dying of an unspecified, incurable illness.

Subjugation of women

As a portrait of life under a frightening and oppressive regime, Swallows of Kabul is an illuminating and often distressing read. It is particularly good at highlighting and exploring the Taliban’s subjugation of women.

For example, Zunaira refuses to leave the house, because she doesn’t want to wear the compulsory burqua. “Of all the burdens they’ve placed on us, that’s the most degrading,” she tells her husband, before adding: “It cancels my face and takes away my identity and turns me into an object.”

But even without the Taliban’s harsh rules, women are essentially second-class citizens in this culture, so when Atiq confesses to a friend that he is distraught about his wife’s illness, he gets little sympathy: “Kick her out. Divorce her and get yourself a strong, healthy virgin who knows how to shut up and serve her master without making any noise.”

The impact on men

But the book is equally good at examining the effect of the Taliban’s rule on men. Both Mohsen and Atiq are desperately unhappy and, in a rather ironic way, emasculated because they feel they cannot control their wives.

Mohsen, who has seen his dream of a successful career shattered, is beginning to feel “infected” by the new order. In a telling scene at the beginning of the book, he gets caught up in the collective hysteria of a public execution and throws a stone at the female prisoner, experiencing “unfathomable joy” when he sees “a red stain blossom” where he has struck her. This action later torments him, so much so that when he confesses what he has done to his wife, it almost destroys their marriage.

Meanwhile, Atiq is depressed by his job in which innocent people are put to death, and his home life isn’t much better. He must look after his ill wife alone, because, for one reason and another, the couple have been abandoned by family and friends. It is a lonely existence and there is no solution in sight. He does whatever he can to avoid going home, even if that means wandering the streets in a daze.

A bleak but important read

You may have gathered that I didn’t find Swallows of Kabul a cheery read — though perhaps that’s not surprising given that it is set in Kabul, where “pleasure has been ranked among the deadly sins”.

But as an insight into a foreign culture and way of life it is very good, and it is exceptional at showing how an oppressive regime can infect and poison mindsets by spreading violence and hatred and destroying the very things that make us human.

The bleakness of the book is only bearable for two reasons. The first, is the elegant prose and the exisiqute detail of Khadra’s writing — the descriptions of Kabul are particularly good. And the second, is the narrative tension created by wanting to know how the lives of these two disparate couples will come together. When the connection becomes clear, it is both shocking and disturbing and certainly one of the more memorable endings in a novel I’ve read for quite a while…

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Iraq, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yasmina Khadra

‘The Sirens of Baghdad’ by Yasmina Khadra


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 307 pages; 2008. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

This novel, first published in 2005 under the title Les Sirenes de Baghdad in France, is yet another earnest and thought-provoking story by Yasmina Khadra, the non deplume of the Algerian Army officer Mohammed Moulessehoul. While The Attack was set in war-torn Israel and examined what it is that drives people to become suicide bombers, The Sirens of Baghdad is set in war-torn Iraq and looks at what spurs young men into becoming insurgents.

The story is told through the eyes of an anonymous young man, a Bedouin, who lives in Kafr Karam, a village in the Iraqi desert, a “place so discreet that it often dissolves in mirages, only to emerge at sunset”.

Determined to become more educated than his illiterate well-digger of a father, he attends the university in Baghdad a few months before the American invasion. But when the war begins, the university is vandalised and closed down, and he returns to Kafr Karam, “wild-eyed and distraught”.

Back in his parent’s house, living on the roof in a remodelled laundry, he settles back into village life, feeling far removed from the troubles in the capital. But the war is soon brought home to him in a series of violent incidences involving American soldiers. These despicable acts — an interrogation and shooting at a US army checkpoint, the bombing of a wedding reception and a raid on the family home — turn the young man from a rather shy, sensitive creature into an angry youth desperate for retribution.

Consumed by a desire for revenge, he makes his way on foot to Baghdad, where he falls in with a radical group planning a major terrorist operation to be carried out in London. Groomed as the key terrorist in the mission, he is told that his sacrifice will represent “the end of imperial hegemony, the turning wheel of fortune, the redemption of the just”. He is fully confident and prepared to go “all the way, without flinching”…

Obviously, this is a very contemporary novel, and it felt slightly odd to be reading about real events that most of us are familiar with via television news footage. Here’s a good example:

And I happened to arrive in Baghdad the day a false alert caused an enormous crush on a bridge — you remember — and a thousand demonstrators got killed. When I saw that, cousin, while I saw all those bodies on the ground, when I saw those mountains of shoes at the site where the panic took place, those kids with blue faces and their eyes half closed — when I saw that whole mess, caused to Iraqis by Iraqis, I said to myself, right away, This is not my war.

But what struck me most about this book — which is slightly laboured and over-worked in places, as if Khadra wanted to make sure we really understood certain points — is this: under a series of strict unwritten codes, revenge is vital to the Bedouins and insults can only ever be washed away in blood. I immediately thought of the protests over the Danish cartoons controversy and how violent it all became — and suddenly something “clicked” as if I’d been given a fleeting glimpse of a mindset I’d never quite understood before.

On the whole, though, The Sirens of Baghdad is a tough read, because it’s so damn depressing.The narrator doesn’t help things much because he’s effectively carrying the weight of the Islamic world on his shoulders and he is completely and utterly miserable for the entire story. Coupled with a cold, detached prose style, it doesn’t make for a cheery novel. But it’s a worthy, edifying read that leaves one deeply unsettled.

Author, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Israel, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting, Vintage, Yasmina Khadra

‘The Attack’ by Yasmina Khadra


Fiction – paperback; Vintage; 257 pages; 2007. Translated from the French by John Cullen.

It’s not very often that I get about 10 pages into a novel and decide I absolutely must buy everything else written by this same author. But that is what happened when I started reading Yasmina Khadra’s The Attack. I was so stunned and impressed by the novel’s opening I just knew that I had to explore her back catalogue as quickly as possible.

But Yasmina Khadra is not really a female author. She is, in fact, a man and former officer in the Algerian Army who used a pen name to avoid military censorship — or that’s the explanation given on the “about the author” page in this book. (You can find out more on the Wikipedia entry and on the author’s official [French language] website.)

Khadra has some 20 books to “her” name, but only four have been translated into English. The bestselling 2002 novel The Swallows of Kabul, shortlisted for the 2006 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, was the first. The Attack, also shortlisted for the 2008 IMPAC Award, was (as far as I can gather) the second. This book was also shortlisted for the Prix Goncourt, the Prix Femina and the Prix Renaudot, and won the Prix de Libraires. So, my initial impression, that The Attack was by an author of some standing was pretty much on the money.

The Attack is set in Israel and — surprise, surprise — it’s about a suicide bomber. It opens with Dr Amin Jaafie, a surgeon in a Tel Aviv hospital, dealing with the bombed and bloodied victims of a terrorist attack in a downtown pizza restaurant that has killed 19 people. As a naturalised Israeli Arab, Amin has worked hard to be respected, admired and accepted by the Jewish culture in which he could so easily be cast as an outsider. A dedicated, highly professional doctor, married to the woman of his dreams, he socialises in the most fashionable of circles, making him a shining example of integration.

But when police inform him that the suicide bomber is his much-adored wife, Amin’s carefully constructed world begins to fall apart. His house is vandalised, he is shunned by his colleagues and suddenly his adopted homeland wants nothing more to do with him regardless of his previous social and professional standing.

And all the while Amin fails to believe that his wife is responsible for so much death and destruction, even when the police provide evidence to the contrary.

For much of the book we follow Amin’s search for truth. How can it be that the wife he loved so much had so much hate in her? What caused her to turn away from him and their seemingly perfect life together to carry out such an abominable act? What clues did she give him beforehand that he missed? Could he have stopped her?

During his investigation, helped in part by a female colleague whom he trusts, Amin put his own life in danger. At times the reader wants to reach into the story, grab him by the shoulders and tell him to get over it — he will never find anything that will make him comprehend the incomprehensible.

This is a searing heart-felt book, at times graphic and shocking, at other times incredibly moving. It is always believable.

My only quibble is that the first person narrative becomes wearing after awhile, but this may simply be a reflection of the rather wearing, or should I say heavy, subject matter.  This is a book that makes for uncomfortable reading, but despite this I found it difficult to put The Attack down. I raced through it in a matter of days and felt completely wrung out by the end of it.

Khadra definitely knows how to write a thrilling, often thought-provoking, narrative so that it forms one powerhouse of a novel that doesn’t shy away from exploring the wider implications of faith and cultural identity. Given the times in which we live, The Attack is an important book and one that will stay with me for a long, long time.