Khalil, a young Belgian, is set to blow himself up near France’s national stadium, in the outskirts of Paris, along with his best friend. Khalil reaches for the detonator of his explosive vest in a packed suburban train. There is a twist: he survives, and he wasn’t meant to.
Algerian writer Yasmina Khadra’s latest novel explores European home-ground terrorism in a gripping psychological first-person novel. We follow Khalil’s dumbfounded journey back to his native Belgium, grappling with the circumstances surrounding his vest’s malfunctioning. He wonders whether it was an accident, or if someone set him up for failure, what his Emir and peers would think of him for not fulfilling his “duty”. His determination to Jihadism stays outwardly unhinged.
Now that I’d come to this last off-ramp, I was focused on my purpose: I had chosen under oath to serve God, and to avenge myself on those who had reduced me to a thing.
On that Friday, November 13, 2015, I was going to accomplish both ends at once.
While Khalil seeks to escape arrest and lays low in the immediate aftermath of the attack, Khadra sketches the outline of a perfect candidate to radical Islam: a dissolute family unit and strained father-son relationship, a school drop-out who can’t stay in a job, the corrupting influence of “brothers”, a charismatic emir casting his spell on a young adult still emerging from his formative years, and a bitter feeling of not belonging to his Belgian community, being confronted early on with racism and othering.
For Khalil, jihad is about reclaiming respect: “the mosque did more than give me refuge, it recycled me, the way you recycle trash,” he tells his other childhood friend Rayan. Unlike Khalil, Rayan assimilated, and climbed up the social echelons through education and a hard-won career. Rayan shares none of the radical Islamic sympathies which have pushed Khalil to contemplate an unfathomable act. In one of the most moving scenes, Rayan tries to show his friend what is around him: a rural field, an earthly manifestation of paradise, right under his eyes. Why to die when one could simply live?
Khadra’s strength lies in weaving real and fictional events with Khalil’s inner conflicts to keep us guessing where truth ends and fiction takes off. The terrorist attacks which killed over 130 people in Paris and the French national stadium in November 2015 happened— Khadra himself now lives in Paris. The Brussels metro attack happened. The reader is taken on a hyperrealist deep-dive in the complex, intrinsically contradictory and disturbed jihadi mind.
Khalil’s motivations, while underscored by social difficulties, also reveal themselves as profoundly selfish. Instead of addressing his broken family ties, he reaches for the comfort of an alternate foster home in the folds of the ISIS-affiliated brotherhood. Motives for martyrdom are less grandiose than some of the propaganda claims. It is a way for a young, troubled man to express pride, to force admiration and to demonstrate self-worth. He compares himself to a fallen leaf, yet can one join such an enterprise as inconsequentially as the passing of a season, and bend on a given day when a breeze may blow too hard?
Accustomed to setting his sweeping novels in countries such as Iraq (The Sirens of Baghdad), Afghanistan (The Swallows of Kabul), Palestine and Israel (The Attack), or Libya (The Dictator’s Last Night), Khadra this time offers a European theatre for a contemporary tragedy. This is not incidental. In Molenbeek, a neighborhood of Brussels, preachers have for years relied on the presence of marginalized North African communities, instrumentalized grievances against persisting discrimination and limited socioeconomic opportunities to radicalize young people. Khalil resonates well with the author’s chosen themes of exploring tensions between Occident and Orient in a post-colonial world, identity and tipping points, following the pulse of current political events.
Khadra’s mastery of competing narratives and viewpoints is best illustrated by Khalil listening to a conversation between young second-generation immigrants at a local kebab joint. One argues that terrorist attacks bring shame to the Muslim community. Another points out that the group of friends are “fake” Belgians. No matter their efforts, they will never fit in. When a third suggests that terrorists go back to where they come from, implying Morocco, the first retorts that their country is Belgium. This intractable situation is well captured in Khalil’s complex character. Khalil can love—his twin sister, his best friend, his emir and sheikh—while expressing no empathy towards infidels to be slain.
Award-winning Yasmina Khadra has penned another fast-paced, thought-provoking and immersive story within a ravishing novel. Khalil tackles the blurry moral edges of agency, right and wrong, guilt, as well as coming to terms with choices and mistakes. Can control of one’s life ever be regained once it has set on a seemingly irreversible course? There is a degree of unsettling intimacy in Khalil’s writing. Khadra (a pen name), a former officer in the Algerian army, fought against Salafis during his country’s civil war, succeeds in bringing out a certain humanity in Khalil’s personality and fate.
John Cullen’s English translation superbly carries life and nuance. An ambiguous ending makes this book even more memorable.
Farah Abdessamad is a French-Tunisian writer who has worked and lived in Cambodia in 2008-2009 and in 2019. She is currently writing a literary fiction set in Japanese-occupied Cambodia, and is based in New York City.