In THIS SHALL BE A HOUSE OF PEACE by Phil Halton, a mullah teaching at a religious school in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the Soviet occupation becomes a local hero for standing up to bandits, only to be sucked into using violence as a way to end violence. Along the way, we see his students become fighters. In the local language, the word for “student” is taliban.
The story begins with a mullah (an Islamic scholar), a former Mujahid who fought the Soviets in the Eighties. The Soviets and the reforms they introduced resonated with many people in the cities, but in the more traditional rural areas, the people balked at what they saw as a foreign attempt to change their culture, resulting in an insurgency and brutal response from the Red Army. Now the war’s over, the country is lawless and broken and even more impoverished, and many Mujahideen have resorted to banditry. When local bandits beat and rob one of the mullah’s students, he drives them away, making him a local hero. One thing leads to another, and he finds himself engaging in increasingly complex problems and escalating conflict until he and his students finally see no other path than jihad to make not only their village, but their entire country, a “house of peace.”
When I first picked up this book, my first thought honestly was, “Somebody actually wrote and published this?” Either it would serve up virtue-signaling drivel denouncing the Taliban’s founders as evil, blah blah, we know already, or it would portray them as real people deserving understanding, an idea I found proverbially ballsy. The author is a Westerner; even if he chose the latter path, could he deny his own innate biases to do such a story justice?
The answers to these questions are yeah, it’s historical fiction about the origin of the Taliban, and yes, the author at least for me did an admirable job presenting it from the point of view of Pashto/Afghan culture. The result is a story about men struggling on a righteous but increasingly bloody path where I found the characters and their mindset both understandable and alien. While the flashpoint of how the Taliban formed is historical, I couldn’t determine via Googling how much of the rest of the novel is historical versus fiction.
The author is Phil Halton, a Canadian Forces officer who served in conflict zones around the world as a soldier and security consultant. He did an amazing job presenting characters who live in a very different world than most Westerners and have a different morality, while being understandable. The mullah, for example, is uncompromising in his pursuit of righteousness, but righteous in this case means fundamentalist observance of Islamic law. To Westerners, that observance sometimes appears noble, other times strange and even brutal, especially to women.
Overall, I enjoyed THIS SHALL BE A HOUSE OF PEACE quite a bit. I admired its courage and aspirations, enjoyed the perspective of historical fiction that tried to tell it like it is without propagandizing either way, and found the narrative of escalating conflict compelling. In the end, I didn’t like the Taliban any better than I do now, which is to say not at all, but I feel like I understand them better with his story that portrays them as real people instead of comic-book villains.