I was not sure what to expect when I started reading Phil Halton’s This Shall Be a House of Peace, a novel set in southern Afghanistan during the early days of the Taliban. It exceeded my expectations on two counts however, both in terms of the storytelling and the insight it provides into the socio-cultural milieu into which the Taliban movement was born.
Ever since 9/11, when the world began to take much more notice of Afghanistan, much of what has been written about the country has – in my opinion – significantly lacked depth. All too often the narrative about the Taliban has been a caricature of two dimensional “bad guys” with a surprising lack of interest in the reasons why the movement began in the first place.
Numerous media interviews with cosmopolitan Kabulis about the dark days of Taliban rule have told an important story, but have also been far too one-sided in supporting the repression-to-freedom narrative used to justify the ongoing presence of US and Nato troops in the country. Such reports have often been far too simplistic in their telling of the story, often beginning with something along the lines of “Abdullah, who like many Afghans goes by only one name, took a break from flying his kite to tell us about how the Taliban had banned all such activities.” Such stories give important insight into life in Kabul during Taliban rule, but do little to explain why the movement began or the context in which it was shaped.
In this regard, Halton’s book was both refreshing and deeply informative in terms of its exploration of the social and cultural factors that gave birth to the Taliban movement. The novel skillfully weaves a picture of the complexities of interests, ideas and cultures that gave rise to the movement. The characters in the story reflect the complex social, cultural and political landscape in rural Kandahar at the time. Mullahs, corrupt commanders, Kuchi nomads, bandits, shopkeepers and orphans walk across the pages. Almost all of these characters, even the villains, are multi-dimensional themselves, at times like-able or heroic and at other times revealing deep flaws.
The author’s careful injection of humanity into each character does much to give the reader a deeper understanding of the complexities of the Taliban’s beginnings. So too does his exploration of social, political and cultural issues. These include the drug trade, the rights of nomads, violence against women, banditry and pederasty. Parts of the novel are very dark and even shocking at times. But there is also an optimistic and deeply human thread that runs through the novel, giving the reader sympathy with many of the characters and understanding of events.
I was pleasantly surprised with the author’s knowledge of and insight into Afghan, or specifically Pashtun culture. I once stopped reading a novel when I came across a description of the palm trees of Kabul. Halton makes no such blatant errors in his writing, showing that he has actually spent time in – and researched – the country. His novel is rooted in Afghanistan, rather than just using it as an exotic backdrop for a good story.
I also appreciated the way the author explored the tension between tradition and modernity that some who write about Afghanistan ignore or over-simplify. Afghanistan is not some living museum that has remained untouched by the modern world as some would have you believe. The country is deeply connected with the world around it, and the fates of Afghans have been deeply entwined with the currents of change around the world. Halton does a good job of showing this, one example being his use of the iconic jezail musket at different points in the story. At one point, men laugh when this ancient artifact from the days of the Anglo-Afghan wars is brought to a gunfight. At another a jezail is used at a wedding in a manner that shows respect for tradition and culture.
I give my recommendation to this book for two reasons, disturbing as a book about the Taliban inevitably is. Firstly, it is a very good novel in and of itself with an intriguing plot and a colourful cast of characters. But even more importantly, it makes an important contribution to the relatively sparse pool of literature that gives readers a deeper insight into the complexities behind the conflict in Afghanistan.