The modern history of Afghanistan is a tapestry rent and torn by invasions and internal conflict, both political and religious. Through it all, Afghanis have struggled to define what it means for them to be a united people. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear elegantly captures the essence of this tumultuous cultural narrative, with all its existential angst. To traverse the fractured mind of Farhad, the protagonist and narrator of Atiq Rahimi’s latest novel, is to glimpse the broken soul of a battered and confused country.
The backdrop of Farhad’s story is Afghanistan prior to the 1979 Soviet invasion, a time when internal politics are in upheaval. In 1973, a coup toppled Afghanistan’s constitutional monarchy, only to have the new ruling regime fall five years later after another coup. A series of bloody wranglings for power ensued, and while the communist Hafizullah Amin eventually emerged as president, his reign was short. The Soviet Union invaded the country in December 1979, killing Amin in the process. A Thousand Rooms takes place sometime between Amin’s final takeover and the Soviet invasion, a time of hellish violence and instability.
A young man with a penchant for upsetting conservative religious convention, Farhad is brutally beaten by soldiers one night for drunkenly staying out after curfew. (Farhad and his friends, Enayat and Moalem, are out celebrating Enayat’s impending departure to Pakistan.) He is left for dead in the sewers, but an angelic woman, and complete stranger, comes to his aid, dragging Farhad to her home where she feeds him and nurses him back to health. Mahnaz, as she’s called, also cares for her young son, who mistakes Farhad for his dead father, and her teenage brother, who had spent three weeks in prison and emerged crippled and mentally broken and whose hair has turned a ghostly white.
Fading in and out of consciousness and teetering between states of reality and imagination, Farhad quickly realizes that to save himself he must flee to Pakistan. Doing so means abandoning his life, family, rescuer, and country. Told from Farhad’s point of view, A Thousand Rooms is an intensely intimate portrait of a man (and by extension his country) questioning reality and the limits of the possible. The confusion over Farhad’s state of mind is one of the major accomplishments of Rahimi’s novel: by the end of the story, the only thing we are sure of is the severe beating Farhad receives from the soldiers. Everything else—be it Mahnaz, her son, and brother; the memory of his doting mother; the escape to Pakistan, what he sees, or imagines seeing on his journey there, could be real, but could just as well be hallucinations. Thus the finale—which I will not divulge—remains delightfully ambiguous as to whether the events are real or simply imagined.
The story of Farhad’s harried and confused flight from his homeland, A Thousand Rooms is more complex than it appears. Farhad’s layered story is woven together with threads of imagination (of what happens to the soul when one dreams), memory (of his loving mother), hallucination (of a mystic at a mosque), confounding punishment (his senseless beating), unquenched desire (for Mahnaz), confusion, dreams, and nightmares. (Our inability to distinguish reality from a dream is both maddening and captivating). It is no coincidence that the only items Rahimi describes in detail are decorated and worn carpets that variously comfort or smother the hero.
Everything about A Thousand Rooms is compact. Shy of two hundred pages, the book can be devoured in a single sitting. Rahimi’s prose is sparse and rarely descriptive; none of the characters are given so much as eye color, which fixes the reader’s attention on Farhad’s unsettled mind. Yet, this compressed and pointed narrative does not feel claustrophobic. Rahimi’s smooth, frequent oscillations between dream (or nightmare), the present, past, and glimpses into the future, and the guesswork as to which are real and which are imaginary, leave the reader little time to feel imprisoned by Farhad’s mind frame.
The quick (and steady) pace of the novel and its deliberate lack of descriptive color, however, do not amount to a lack of illumination. Quite the contrary, the book is full of elegant evocations. For example, with the description “She rises to her feet. Picking up the oil-lamp, she unsettles the silence of the dark passageway,” one can almost see the rustling of silence. And later, “I stay behind to keep company with her unspoken words,” a phrase that demands re-reading and absorption. Or this sublime personification of patient sunshine: “Morning waits outside the window. It waits for the curtains to be drawn so it can slip into this room where I am waiting.” Cotranslators Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari are to be commended for keeping Rahimi’s prose supple and uncluttered.
Many haunting metaphors can be drawn from A Thousand Rooms and applied to modern Afghan life, from each of its bit players: the brute soldiers, the caring angelic figure, Farhad’s burdened mother, the naïve child, the anxious protagonist. It is Mahnaz’s silent, tortured, deformed brother, however, who appears to sum up the state of Afghanistan as a whole today. Crippled, mentally and physically, from traumatic experiences, he exists in a dream/nightmare state between what is and what could be. Farhad reflects on the “young man with no youth. With no soul. A body suspended between two arches. . . I want to stay alive.” Farhad is optimistic that things can—must—get better.
Still, confusion reigns:
Strange how, when you’re dreaming, the dream-reality always seems to be more real than reality itself. This is what we are like: our dreams seem more plausible than our lives. But if they didn’t, all those revolutions, those wars, those religions and ideologies, could never have been dreamed up . . .
Farhad’s existential struggle makes us question whether living through a nightmare is preferable to not living at all. This grim choice, which is really the absence of a choice, underlines Afghanistan’s existential battle.
The book’s epigraph, “Unless sleep is less restless than wakefulness, do not rest!” from a thirteenth century Sufi mystic, anticipates Farhad’s (and echoes and Afghanistan’s) constant state of anxiety. A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear resonates deeply because, no doubt, Rahimi has written a true and sad account, but the story could easily be that of any other Afghan, of any other denizen of this modern, anarchic state. In the end, we are left to wonder whether Rahimi has presented us with a story, a dream, or a nightmare, though it is likely all three.