Cover Image: Khalil


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I think the premise sounded very interesting however I'm not sure if the story got lost in the translation. The characters felt stiff and underdeveloped, the dialogue especially felt off and unnatural. The fact that it's based on true events was interesting and impactful but not enough to create a compelling story.
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Khalil, a twenty-three year old Belgian of Moroccan descent, plans to detonate a suicide vest on the Paris Metro near the Stade de France. Explosions are rocking Paris, at cafés and the Bataclan theater, and when other bombs drive the stadium crowd to flee in his direction, near the Metro, his time has come. He presses his button, and . . . nothing. Fearing he has failed in his mission for Fraternel Solidarity (FS), an ISIS affiliate, Khalil has little choice but to blend in with his would-be victims and run. He relies on his family and friends for places to stay, but he keeps the truth about himself secret. All the while, he contemplates what he almost did, and what he will do next–particularly when it comes to light that his vest accidently had been a harmless training unit all along, and FS has a new mission planned for him. 

This book explores extremism and radicalization from an interesting perspective: from the perspective of the terrorist himself. Khalil lives in the Molenbeek neighborhood of Brussels, a predominant Muslim immigrant neighborhood. It is here that Khalil and his friends come-of-age, contemplate the ways that they have experienced neglect from the Belgian government and racism from their community, and find community with others who feel the same way. Yasmina Khadra carefully explores the factors that lend themself to radicalization even when surrounded by family and friends who deplore extremist ideology. Khalil offers a serious look at how a terrorist might be created and how, faced with the unexpected consequences of a terrorist act that hit close to home, a terrorist might begin to question his own dogma. In college, I primarily focused my studies in terrorism and radicalization and wrote my undergraduate thesis on the psychology of terrorism. I thought that Khalil was a poignant story about radicalization and what may pull people back from extremism. Altogether, I thought it was a thoughtfully written book about a subject very rarely explored in Western literature. Finally, this book seriously reminded me of (my favorite movie) Four Lions, a comedy movie of a group of British terrorists who botch their own terror attack. While the film is definitely not serious like Khalil, it is also a poignant commentary on how isolation, neglect, and racism drive radicalization.
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First published in France in 2018; published in translation by Doubleday/ Nan A. Talese on February 16, 2021

Written in the first person, Khalil is an impressive examination of the key months in a young terrorist’s life. Yasmina Khadra imagines how a man whose mind has been twisted by religious zealotry might respond when his mission of destruction goes wrong.

Khalil was raised and lives in a suburb of Brussels, along with his twin sister Zahra (whose husband repudiated her after a brief marriage) and his older sister Yezza (who works in a sweatshop). Apart from Zahra, Khalil resents his family. Yezza has mental health issues that may have been exacerbated by an exorcism, or perhaps by religious traditions for which she is ill-suited. Khalil views his parents as parasites. He considers his buddies to be his family, the streets to be his home, the mosque to be his private club. He happily dropped out of high school with his best friend Driss. Under the tutelage of a man named Lyès, Khalil found a path that gave his life purpose: “to serve God, and to avenge myself on those who had reduced me to a thing.”

As the novel begins, Khalil is in Paris, one of four suicide bombers who have been chosen to attack the city. Driss will blow himself up after joining the crowd leaving a soccer stadium; Khalil will explode his vest while standing in a crowded line to board a train. To Khalil’s shame, something goes wrong and his vest does not detonate. He spends much of the novel trying to understand what happened; the explanations he receives leave him puzzled.

The reader is encouraged to understand why Khalil is a terrorist, despite being surrounded by Muslims — including Rayan, another childhood friend — who deplore terrorists. He does not want to reveal the crime he tried to commit, but he occasionally argues with people who have a very different view of what their mutual religion teaches about love and violence. Rayan tries to persuade him that “God’s not a warlord, much less the boss of a criminal organization” and that the Quran teaches “that if someone kills a human being, it’s as if he’s killed all humanity.” Yet Khalil rejects Rayan for marrying an infidel, choosing pleasure over restraint, and abandoning God. Whether Islamism is Islam is a question that pervades the novel.

Khalil offers a serious look at how a terrorist might be created and how, faced with the unexpected consequences of a terrorist act that hit close to home, a terrorist might begin to question his own dogma. Khalil isn’t a likable guy — apart from contemplating mass murder, he’s incredibly judgmental about most people, particularly women who don’t cover their faces — but the story is intended to make us understand Khalil, not to admire him. The novel builds tension as Khalil positions himself for another suicide assignment. Khalil is young; whether his destiny has been written is a question the reader will ponder until the last page reveals a satisfying answer.

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"What were they thinking? "- this is something people often ask themselves of people who perpetrate suicide bombings.  In this fictionalized account, the author takes us inside the mind of a 23 year old Belgian man of Moroccan descent.  Khalil lives in Belgium with his parents, his twin sister and other siblings.   At the start of the novel, we are with Khalil in a car full of young men driving into Paris, on a mission to ignite bomb belts in several crowded locations throughout the city.   Khalil's bomb fails to go off.  He goes on the run-- afraid of both of the authorities and the leaders who planned the attack.  

This novel is based on the actual events that occurred in November 2015 in Paris.   Yasmina Khadra took an interesting approach to writing about these events.   We are in the first person perspective of one of the "bad guys".    After the events, Khalil does some self reflection as to how he got where he was and how to make things better and how to move on.     I had also just read another book about a bomber, [book:Tomorrow They Won't Dare to Murder Us|55361614], which was a fictionalized account of a European man who planted a bomb during the Algerian War.   Two different narrative approaches but both books gave a different glance inside the mind of men who decide the bomb public places. Both were powerful reads.
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Khalil, a twenty-three-year-old Belgian of Moroccan descent, plans to detonate a suicide vest in Paris on November 13, 2015 only to press his detention button and have nothing happen. The rest of this first person fictional novel follows Khalil as he figures out why his attempt was not successful and what life will look like for him after the attacks. 

This English translation of Yasmina Khadra's 2018 novel is unlike anything I've read before. This is my first read of Khadra's and it won't be my last. This first person narrative is so engrossing and saddening, and heartbreaking and is a perfect example of a book where I didn't like the protagonist but needed to know about his experiences and how his story will wrap up. I appreciate seeing Khalil's interactions with his friends and family while he figures out his next steps after the Paris attacks.

While I enjoyed the writing, there were parts that seemed a little choppy. I don't know if this would be the original writing or the translation but I found myself doing back and having to reread parts to make sure I didn't skip a page or paragraph when the scenes changed suddenly.
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This is the first book I've read by Yasmina Khadra, the pen name of former Algerian military officer Mohammed Moulessehoul, and flipping through some of the reviews of his previous books, it seems like the premise of Khalil is familiar ground for him: a directionless youth seduced by Islamic fundamentalists and the rippling damage wrought by extremist violence, braided with meditations on alienation, belonging, and the ability to find and hold onto joy in daily life.

Khalil, the narrator, pulls no punches and launches into his story immediately: in the first sentence he lets the reader know that he's a suicide bomber who, together with three other suicide bombers, are heading to the Stade de France.  For some reason, Khalil's bomb vest doesn't go off, and the story that follows places Khalil back in Brussels among his family, friends, and terrorist cell organizers.  The story shifts between Khalil's frantic actions to hide himself, figure out what happened, make money, and regain a sense of control, and his reflections on his largely estranged family, his early sense of the limitations placed on him as a blasé student, the alienation he felt as the child of Moroccan immigrants living in Molenbeek, a district of Brussels, and the respect and belonging he found in the mosque that radicalized him.

While the story has elements of a thriller, including escalating stakes and tragedies for Khalil, the narration lends the story a more contemplative feel, even as heart-pounding developments envelope Khalil and push him towards another act of terrorism.  Khalil's reflections on his life and his community recall Camus's The Stranger, but in many ways, I found these reflections somewhat simplistic (was his childhood friend Rayan's success solely down to Rayan's involved mother?).  In some ways, Khadra is trying to answer the questions of what makes someone susceptible to radicalization and what might pull them back from extremism, which are such timely, critical questions for the moment in both Europe and the U.S., and while I picked up the book knowing the astonishing statistic that, per capita, more Belgians have gone to Syria to fight for ISIS than any other country, I don't think the book provided adequate context for that figure - that is, Khalil could have been from the banlieues of Paris or the East End of London, and his story would have been largely the same.

Khadra tells a provocative story and invites his readers to spend time with a narrator difficult to empathize with, and even if he isn't entirely successful in rendering Khalil and his milieu, it is an unusual story and one that I'm glad to have read.
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Khalil takes the reader on a journey into understanding religious radicalization and the path out of it, documenting a young man's fears and desires and his search for meaning in a world where few human lives are attributed with it. I want everyone to read this book, to try to understand what happens when religion is used for violence and violence becomes the only way someone can achieve recognition or--as many feel--can achieve something important. Khalil is every boy raised by and with violence and in poverty and without education, every young man who finds solace in a form of belief that includes the tenet that to act for the religion equals love from that religion's god, and, perhaps more importantly, that god's living representatives.
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