The best part of A HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS is its gorgeous cover art. Like the fabled Arabian Nights, the image promises hopeful revelations ahead. As it turns out, the cover is a fantasy that the women of Afghanistan can only imagine. They dream of sitting in the sunlight of an open society, but that vision has not been realized in a thousand and one nights, nor in a thousand years, nor is it ever likely to happen.
Over and over again, as I read, I put the book aside because of the emotional weight of the evil it unveiled. Set in modern day Afghanistan, Zeba, the main character and mother of four, is found covered in her husband’s blood with his murdered body sprawled at her feet. Narrowly escaping instant execution by her neighbors and later by a male relative, she is charged with murder and taken away. Her children are farmed out to in-laws while she is imprisoned to await her certain and fatal justice.
The mission of the story is to reveal what actually transpired and to expose the frightfully ill-equipped legal/religious system’s ability to deliver anything remotely akin to true justice.
Ms. Hashimi’s skills at placing the reader into the scenes and fashioning interesting characters are first rate. However, the realities of Zeba’s former village life, and the day-to-day plights endured by the Afghan women she meets are so relentlessly dark and despicable, that reading about them, page after page, became a burden. I knew the story was getting too dark for me when the time that Zeba spent confined in the women’s prison read like a paradise.
The Islamic republic that Ms. Hashimi portrays (and I have no reason to doubt her accuracy) is a human rights horror show with medieval notions of honor enforced by religious absolutism. To be sure, males have the upper hand, but the women and children are not alone in this house without windows; the men are trapped here, too.
What I found curious was that none of the women in the book retain any internal regard for Allah or Islam—including Zeba. Their religion holds nothing for them. They all avidly adopt black magic practices and seek charms and potions, anything to exert some small control over their precarious futures. On the men’s side, religion is an advantage and a tool of oppression but it seems to be only a loud external show, quietly tossed aside in private.
Ms. Hashimi struggles in her long book to bring some few glimmers of light into A HOUSE WITHOUT WINDOWS. Sadly, for me, even Zeba’s selfless victory seems but a lit match in a sealed mine. It won’t matter. It is not a harbinger of good things to come; it’s a measurement of the depth of the darkness. There is no way to fix things here—not by Zeba and not by do-gooders from the west. What real hope there may be is hard for this reader to imagine.