A Book Sanctuary

The Attack – Yasmina Khadra

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Published: 2005 (English 2006)
Translated from the French by John Cullen

Pages: 257

Challenges: Lost in Translation; Support your local library

A while ago I stopped rating books as I didn’t have a rating system that I was comfortable with and everything seemed to be either a 4 or 4.5 which seemed a bit pointless. I found myself looking at two or three completely different books that I had given the same rating to, thinking that wasn’t quite right and wondering if I should change them etc.. so I stopped and am happy now just to record my thoughts.

I didn’t have the same problem with The Attack. It was definitely a 5 star read for me. It wasn’t the writing style (there were several quite flowery descriptions which I found a bit over the top) or any special affinity with the main character but the message that comes through on a subject (terrorism and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict) which I have little knowledge. A powerful book, written from the point of view of an Israeli Arab in a balanced way that offers the reader a chance of a glimmer of understanding.

The book opens with a bomb blast seen through the eyes of a fatally wounded man. He lies dying but not realising he is dying, describing the mayhem and terror all around him:

My hand gropes among the gravel. I believe I’ve been hurt. I try to move my legs, to lift my head; not one of my muscles obeys me…. My trousers have almost disappeared; only a few strips of scorched cloth cover me here and there. Against my side, grotesque and horrible, my leg is lying, still connected to my thigh by a thin ribbon of flesh…. A man comes to me, picks up my wrist and lets it fall again….”This one’s a goner. We can’t do anything for him”. I’d like to hold him back and force him to reconsider his assessment, but my arm mutinies, refusing to obey me…..

The scene then shifts to a hospital where Dr Amin Jaafrie, a respected surgeon works through the night to save as many blast victims as he can. Exhausted, he stumbles home, falls into a deep sleep only to be woken and called back to the hospital. His wife’s body has been found among the dead. Her injuries strongly suggest she was the suicide bomber responsible for the attack.

Told in the first person, Amin Jaafrie relays how his world then falls apart. Not only does he have to deal with the grief of losing his wife, but the shock of what she is accused of and the accusation that he was in some way involved. On top of this people who previously tolerated him because of his “integration” and good standing revert back to their prejudices against him as an Arab. Prejudices that have always been simmering just below the surface of superficial tolerance.

Desperate to understand what has happened to his beloved wife, the wife he thought he knew so well, he revisits his memories and despite the danger seeks out the people that were with her in the days before the attack.

There are some lovely quotes throughout the book:

My father said, “Anyone who tells you that a greater symphony exists than the breath in your body is lying. He wants to undermine your most beautiful possession: The chance to profit from every moment of your life.”

I came naked into the world, I’ll leave it naked, what I possess doesn’t belong to me, and neither do other people’s lives. All human unhappiness comes from this misunderstanding…


Yasmina Khadra is the author of Swallows of Kabul which I had heard of before but haven’t read yet. She is actually a he, Mohammed Moulesshoul, a former Algerian army officer who wrote under this pen name to avoid military censorship.

How grateful I am that this book is available to read in English – a real gift.

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