Exacting vengeance

2008-05-14 00:00

“Yasmina Khadra” is the female nom de plume of the Algerian army officer, Mohammed Moulessehoul, chosen as a way of avoiding the need to submit his manuscripts for approval by the army. He is the author of four other books published in English, including the acclaimed The Swallows of Kabul.

The story is told by a nameless young Iraqi Bedouin, forced to leave the University of Baghdad when the Americans invade Iraq, and to return to his small desert village. Through his eyes we are given a view of post-Saddam Iraq considerably at variance with the versions propagated by the United States and the other nations whose purported mission was to wipe out terrorism and promote political stability.

His dusty, barren little village is home to a close-knit, peaceable community whose life has a long-established and respected structure and rhythm. One does not expect, there, to witness mindless brutality and bloodletting. Which is why his concept of the way of the world is shattered when he sees tense, trigger-happy American soldiers at a checkpoint shoot to death the village idiot, a sweet-tempered, mentally afflicted creature loved and protected by the villagers. Soon after comes the second jolt: an American plane mistakenly and lethally bombs a wedding party on the outskirts of the village. And then one night, American soldiers looking for terrorists come to the young man’s own home and —unwittingly, of course — totally humiliate his father in front of the terrified family, an unspeakable act which, in Bedouin tradition, demands that his son exact vengeance.

And so the novel charts the transformation of a once gentle, academically-inclined young man into a being whose consuming rage must find a violent outlet. He leaves the village, struggles to get to Baghdad and, after many vicissitudes, is taken up by a radical group. Striving to convince them that he’s willing to do anything and risk anything to help their cause, he participates in several attacks and, having proved himself, is sent to Beirut on a super-secret — and truly dreadful — mission which will take him to London. As the time to board the plane nears, he struggles to reconcile his mission with his moral principles.

This is a masterly and chilling look at violence and its effects on ordinary people — one which boldly and honestly examines ideas and situations most writers would prefer not to confront. Perhaps because the style is economical and quietly low-key (and the translator must be congratulated on his smooth, even-toned rendering) it’s an extraordinarily powerful read with an almost mesmeric pull towards what could be an apocalyptic conclusion. Yet Khadra, with a fine understanding of human nature, leaves room for hope and suggests that good may prevail even in the most horrifying circumstances. An important contribution to our understanding of the turmoil in the Middle East and our appreciation of world-views so diametrically opposed as to seem — at present, anyway — irreconcilable.

Stephanie Alexander

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