“Tonight, you will listen to the sorrows of my soul, though tomorrow, you will forget all that has been told.”
One quote that keeps on coming up in A House Without Windows by Nadia Hashimi. And when I was finished with the book, I was left mesmerizing and with a deep understanding of the power behind this quote. A House Without Windows was my companion this week, and it turned out to be as enchanting as the country in question, Afghanistan.
The story of A House Without Windows revolves around Zeba, who is found in the courtyard of her village home with a hatchet in her hand and her husband’s dead body nearby. Her children and neighbors find her covered in Kamal’s blood, and obvious conclusions are made that Zeba has murdered her husband. But when asked for an explanation, she doesn’t say anything. This horrendous event becomes the base of the novel, and Zeba is shifted to Chil Mahtab, a women’s prison in Kabul.
On the other hand, you get to meet Yusuf. A young Lawyer from America, who has come back to his homeland to make a change and do his duty towards his country. A country infested with war and poverty, dangling between newly made government laws and Sharia that secretly rules villages like Zeba’s. Yusuf comes across Zeba’s case and takes it up. He pays her a visit, but all in vain as Zeba doesn’t speak at all regarding what conspired that eventful day.
In the background, Zeba shares her story, about her mother Gulnaz, the magician who used her tricks to survive in a country where a life of a woman has no value. A country that is built on the honor and the responsibility of the upkeep of that honor comes on women’s shoulders only. Zeba has also learned a few tricks from her mother Gulnaz while growing up, but she cannot use them because she knows a hard truth about her homeland.
“What good is a woman’s telling of the truth, When nothing she says will be taken as proof?”.
Yusuf and Zeba both know that the system is broken, and justice is like finding a drop of water in a dry desert. But Yusuf still keeps on trying. He pays a visit to Zeba’s village, but even that goes out of hand. Until one day, a raisin seller comes across and shares what conspired that day. Very skillfully using few words, Nadia Hashimi shares through the raisin seller what exactly happened that day.
The day Kamal was murdered, there was not just Zeba and Kamal, there was a third person in the courtyard with them. Who was it? And why wasn’t that person coming front to share the truth and save Zeba’s life? Once the truth comes out, Yusuf demands to know the same from Zeba. But somehow both of them understand that if Zeba confesses, two lives would be taken. Kamal was dead, and Zeba didn’t want to murder an innocent for the sake of honor.
Even after Zeba’s silence, Yusuf works diligently, despite the obstacles placed in his path, to discover why a seemingly average woman, a caring mother who is well-liked by neighbors, would suddenly take a hatchet to her husband’s head. That is assuming she did commit the crime for which she is convicted. As Yusuf slowly begins to the learn the truth, his struggles become a synecdoche for the struggles Afghan women face on a daily basis, their voices silenced against the injustice that the legal system, the country, and men rain down upon them on a daily basis.
To understand the characters of A House Without Windows, one needs to understand a simple quote.
“Sometimes if you don’t lose your mind a little bit, there’s no way to survive.”
Zeba also lets go of herself that day, so that she can do her part towards her homeland. Similarly, Zeba meets many magnificent women in Chil Mahtab who have taken a step towards different life and landed up in prison with charges of adultery, murder, and thievery. Zeba becomes a beacon of strength and hope for the women of Chil Mahtab.
A House Without Windows doesn’t focus on just one thing, that how will Zeba get justice. It also shows a stark reality of Afghanistan after the war, where people are still divided between old and new things. Zeba is a woman, people believed she murdered her husband and that’s it. Her case becomes a metaphor for every case, every woman facing punishment for an act she did not commit or committed as a last resort, to survive. The reasons are lost and forgotten or simply don’t matter in a country where woman’s testimony hold half value to a man’s testimony.
Nadia Hashimi also doesn’t veil any facts and figures in A House Without Windows. Very intelligently she leaves everything open for the reader to evaluate and understand the events that happened during Kamal’s murder, and that’s the thing I loved about this book. Apart from this, I absolutely loved Gulnaz, Zeba’s mother character. Her strong-headedness, a vicious mind and killing looks are completely mesmerizing.
A House Without Windows is not a murder mystery, it’s a political commentary on Afghanistan’s culture and legal system, that is trying to wake up from a deep slumber of civil war and no legal rules. The country is still torn between old rules and new rules, but A House Without Windows shares that even that’s changing. Slowly but gradually. A House Without Windows is not just mere fiction, it’s a powerful story and a must read!