Lest there remain any doubt that Afghanistan under the Taliban was a place barely fit for human habitation, Yasmina Khadra's spellbinding new novel, The Swallows of Kabul, removes it once and for all. The story begins with the scene of a prostitute being stoned to death and ends with a madman being beaten to death; Khadra's Afghanistan has simply gone insane.

The novel centers on two couples: the jailer Atiq and his moribund wife Musarrat, and the well-educated and dignified (but unemployed) pair Mohsen and Zunaira. A mujahedin during the Soviet occupation, Atiq now finds his life grim and savorless, and he cooperates with the Taliban out of fear. Dreading his shabby hovel, he wanders the streets aimlessly streets filled with beggars, tetchy Talibs and disfigured men capable only of recounting exaggerated war stories.

Formerly involved in the promotion of women's rights, Zunaira now has to don the burqa whenever she goes outside. When Mohsen is unwilling to defend his wife's honor for fear of worse befalling him, Khadra deftly shows how no one, no matter how honorable, can escape the degradation around them. Yasmina Khadra is the pseudonym of Algerian army officer Mohamed Moulessehoul, who writes in the mournful tone characteristic of veterans. His language is beautiful and economical, and he has a knack for deadly understatement. "Afghanistan's countryside," he writes, "is nothing but battlefields, expanses of sand, and cemeteries." Reading Khadra, you can almost feel the dust in your throat and even begin to understand the impossible: that a clique as odious as the Taliban could initially be seen as redeemers. The novel ends before the events of 9/11 and the subsequent American intervention, which has yet to stabilize the country. And what is more distressing, the once-humiliated Taliban is again on the rise. If you need reminding that their fulminations against the West and their unabashed misogyny have no place in the modern or indeed a sane world, read this unforgettable, deeply tragic book. Kenneth Champeon is a writer based in Thailand.

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