"A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear,"

By Masha Hamilton
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, February 15, 2011; 9:42 PM

The first time I went to Afghanistan, a woman I met told me about her grandfather, who had been dragged from her side and arrested in Kabul during the time of communist rule. He reappeared two years later, his nails ripped from his fingers, a hole burned through his tongue. Broken but brave, he met her gaze with a smile until the moment she asked her grandmother, "Who is this old man in our home?" Only then did he begin to weep.

That sense of losing one's identity, of being subsumed by a greater, if illogical, power, is a key theme in Atiq Rahimi's taut, layered novel, "A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear."

The story's hero, 21-year-old Farhad, is leading a regular life until the night he is beaten senseless by soldiers while returning home drunk past curfew in Kabul. They abandon him beside a sewage ditch. As he fades in and out of consciousness, he is rescued by a young widow, Mahnaz, who he first believes is his sister, and watched by her son, who insists on calling him "Father." Mahnaz also cares for her younger brother, who after being imprisoned for three months can now only shake and moan - a warning of what might lie ahead for Farhad if the soldiers catch him again.

They are, in fact, searching for him. As his hallucinations ease, his situation grows more desperate and more absurd. Caught in a Kafkaesque web, he becomes a target for two competing factions struggling for control of his country: the communists and the Islamists. The soldiers claim he distributed leaflets. The Islamists brand him an infidel. He is violating cultural tradition by remaining in the young widow's home, putting them both at risk. When his mother comes to visit, hidden beneath a laundry-woman's veil, she tells him he must escape in a rolled-up carpet that was her dowry. "I do believe in the journey of my soul, in the existence of the djinn, in the finality of death - but I cannot believe what I'm going through right now," Farhad reflects. In one night, he's been yanked from the boundaries of his life.

Kabul-born Rahimi, a filmmaker as well as a novelist, fled Afghanistan in the mid-1980s, crossing the mountains by foot into Pakistan before moving to France. This novel is set during the tumultuous days before the Soviet invasion of 1979, but in many ways it could have come from nearly any slice of Afghanistan's recent history, with its abrupt invasions, reversals and betrayals. In this way, "A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear" is the intimate narrative not only of Farhad, but of an entire desperate, anguished country.

bookworld@washpost.com Hamilton is the author of "31 Hours" and other novels and the founder of the Afghan Women's Writing Project.

a thousand rooms of dream and fear

By Atiq Rahimi

Translated from the Dari by Sarah Maguire and

Yama Yari

Other. 155 pp. $15.95

© 2011 The Washington Post Company