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Fiction Literary

This Shall Be a House of Peace

by (author) Phil Halton

Dundurn Press
Initial publish date
Jan 2019
Literary, Historical, War & Military
  • eBook

    Publish Date
    Jan 2019
    List Price
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Jan 2019
    List Price

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After the collapse of Afghanistan’s Soviet-backed government, a mullah finds himself doing anything to protect his students.

Chaos reigns in the wake of the collapse of Afghanistan's Soviet-backed government. In the rural, warlord-ruled south, a student is badly beaten at a checkpoint run by bandits. His teacher, who leads a madrassa for orphans left behind by Afghanistan’s civil war, leads his students back to the checkpoint and forces the bandits out. His actions set in motion a chain of events that will change the balance of power in his country and send shock waves through history.

Amid villagers seeking protection and warlords seeking power, the Mullah's influence grows. Against the backdrop of anarchy dominated by armed factions, he devotes himself to building a house of peace with his students — or, as they are called in Pashto, taliban. Part intrigue, part war narrative, and part historical drama, This Shall Be a House of Peace charts their breathtaking ambition, transformation, and rise to power.

About the author

Phil Halton has worked around the globe as a soldier and security consultant, including in Afghanistan. He is the author of the novel This Shall Be a House of Peace, and is currently writing a non-fiction book on the conflict in Afghanistan. He lives in Toronto.


Phil Halton's profile page

Excerpt: This Shall Be a House of Peace (by (author) Phil Halton)

Chapter 1

The sun hung behind the distant mountains, seemingly suspended in place below the horizon. Only a thin line of light outlined the far-off peaks. Swirling unseen in the darkness were clouds of dust, rolling over the landscape. As the sky began to lighten, the wind died and the dust settled over the countryside like a shroud. The air became heavy and still.

The sun’s first, harsh light fell upon a tiny village of a half-dozen abandoned mud-brick houses perched atop a rocky plateau. Their design was unchanged since ancient times; they squatted silently within the thick walls of the courtyard. Although the walls were solid, their surfaces were like lace, the plaster pockmarked with bullet holes and scarred by blasts, revealing the bricks underneath. The brown, terraced fields surrounding the village were untended and grew nothing but short clumps of grass. A disused track led up from a thin ribbon of asphalt that stretched across the valley below. A slight breeze blew ripples of dust between the houses, but all else was still in the heat of the new day.

In the centre of the abandoned village was the madrassa, its white paint barely visible under a thick coat of dust. In its courtyard, an old tarp was tied between the main building and one of the outer walls. A teenage boy with a wispy beard, perhaps fourteen years old, stood in the shade of the tarp, stirring a large pot of daal that bubbled over a small open fire. Set well into the ground near the pot was a large earthen jug that served as his tandoor.

A young boy no more than eleven years old played nearby, hitting a ball made from tightly tied plastic bags and scraps of cloth against the wall with an old cricket bat. “Tell me the story again,” said Amin.

His brother’s voice was wearier than it should have been for a boy his age. “But I have told you the story a thousand times.”

Amin stopped hitting the ball and turned to him. “Please, Wasif. The smell of the daal always reminds me of it.”

Wasif scowled, in the way that he had seen adults do. “I should be making you do your job and helping to prepare the meal.” Even as he scolded his brother, he did not stop the rhythmic motion of the thick-handled spoon that kept the daal from burning to the sides of the pot. Amin had turned away and was contemplating the ball in his hand in silence, and so after a moment, Wasif relented and began to tell the story. “There once was a rich and powerful man with seven sons. One day, he summoned them all together and told them to sit with him. Once they were seated, he asked each of them, ‘How much do you love me?’”

Amin continued to hit and chase the ball, but in his mind he saw himself seated with the other sons, preparing his reply to his father. His feet kicked up a roll of dust as he ran after the ball, quickly dissipating across the courtyard.

Wasif continued to tell the story, his mind drifting, stirring the daal rhythmically as he spoke. He had not yet reached the end when he decided that the meal was ready.
Amin implored his brother, “Aren’t you going to finish?”

“You know how it ends. You could tell the story yourself in your sleep.”

“That’s not the point,” said Amin.

Wasif gestured toward the pot and held out the spoon as he pulled a bag of yesterday’s bread out of the crate that held their food. Amin put down his bat and ball, and took the spoon from him, quickly tasting the daal before beginning to stir it vigorously as his brother had done.

Wasif quietly approached the doorway of the madrassa, sliding off his sandals and standing just inside the door, waiting patiently. Young boys ranging in age from five to fourteen years old sat in rows that filled the spartan room. Other than a few ragged pillows and threadbare carpets, the only furniture was a small wooden bookstand on a low table at the front of the room.

The Mullah stood in front of the class, the boys — each one an orphan — watching him in attentive silence. Everything about him was plain and unadorned, from his thick, black beard, to his black turban and the homespun shalwar kamiz he wore. He was stocky through the shoulders and chest, and in his powerful hands was a well-worn Quran. He glanced at Wasif and gave him a brief nod before surveying the boys again in silence. They waited expectantly for him to speak, hardly moving. After a long moment of waiting, the Mullah pointed to one boy, smaller than the rest, in the middle row.

“You are truly blessed,” said the Mullah. “Indeed, you are rich almost beyond belief. Do you know why?”

The small boy shuffled uncomfortably, thinking for a moment before answering earnestly in a thin voice. “Have you found my parents? Are they rich?”

An older student sitting at the front of the class shot a look of annoyance at the small boy. “Yes, we have! Your father is the Amir! You will be going now to the palace and we all hope to find positions there working as your servants.”

The class burst into laughter. The Mullah held up his hand for silence, and the boys froze. “Enough! I will accept no mockery here.” In an instant, he was standing over the boy who had teased the other, his hand raised as if to strike him, but then stopped himself. He took a breath, and reassured the small boy. “No, we have not found your parents, though we are your family now and are as good as any that can be had.”

The Mullah held up the Quran, its polished leather surface shining like nothing else in the dusty classroom. “All knowledge required by humankind is to be found in this book, praise God. It is the mother of all books, and it contains the solution to every human problem, no matter how complex. And here you will learn it by heart. This knowledge will be the source of your wealth, a pool of riches beyond belief.”

The boys sat in complete stillness, transfixed by their teacher’s voice as he spoke to them. He held their attention for a moment longer before releasing it with a wave of his hand. “But first, let us eat.”

The boys were on their feet in an instant and stormed out of the room, digging through the pile of sandals on the other side of the door to find their own. The Mullah carefully placed his Quran onto the small wooden stand, and took a well-worn string of blue prayer beads off the table. The Mullah clicked his prayer beads mindlessly, as if they were a loose extension of his own fingers. Glancing around the room and satisfied that all was correct, he followed the boys outside, Wasif trailing close behind.

Editorial Reviews

Gritty, unsparingly realistic, and disturbing. And at the same time, Halton’s prose is beautiful and haunting.

A Ruined Chapel by Moonlight

This Shall Be a House of Peace won me fully from the first page. I could taste the dust of Afghanistan again and could see the hills and villages and the people in them. If we could go back in time and have the soldiers and generals of the last eighteen years of war read this book, perhaps we could have come up with better outcomes for Afghanistan than we have to date

Dr. Kristian C. Gustafson, Senior Lecturer, Brunel University

Halton’s debut is a must-read for all who turn to books for an understanding of worlds other than their own.

Booklist (starred review)

It's easy to look at the Taliban as a faceless, fanatic menace, but This Shall Be a House of Peace offers us something different: humanity and understanding. Phil Halton has told a story that feels both mythic and direct.

Matt Lennox, author of Knucklehead

Other titles by Phil Halton