Imagine a small box, its exterior a tiled mosaic of tiny but intense geometric patterns. Open it, and it magically contains a piece of someone's soul, set in a particular place, time and culture.

Atiq Rahimi -- author, filmmaker and political refugee from Afghanistan since the Soviet Invasion of '84 -- has written something like that. His novella is short, even for a novella, but aptly named; it's like the small house where the protagonist hides, a dark, enclosed space that contains, paradoxically, "A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear."

A typical college student, Farhad is mainly interested in women, wine and song. Being a young Muslim man in a small theocratic state, he's had access mainly to song, while wine does double duty, purchased in back rooms with an air of illicit excitement. White and red wine are referred to as "the blonde" or "the redhead." After a night of drinking and reciting verse, Farhad, a young man of genuine innocence, falls afoul of some law -- which one, he doesn't know. Beaten by soldiers, he's dragged off the street unconscious by Mahnaz, who hides him in her tiny unlit home. He's literally in the dark.

Rahimi's Kabul is a shocked city, silent, but not quiet. In Mahnaz's dark shelter, Farhad has visions, both real and imagined. There are the maleficent suffocating Djinns, but worse, there are the stories of Mahnaz and of Farhad's own mother. "There's something in your eyes that reminds me [of her]," Farhad says, and he realizes the connection with a mixture of shame and gratitude.

He owes them both his life, while theirs have been marked by constant hurt. They've both been bullied and battered by husbands and soldiers, Mullahs and mothers-in-law. Farhad's father took a second wife -- after years of indifference and contempt toward his first -- and then abandoned the family. Mahnaz, her eyes gleaming in the shadowed kitchen, relates how the soldiers took first her husband and then her brother, Moheb, who returned broken and terrified. While her 9-year-old son dreams that his father has gotten lost in a city of twirling bridges, her in-laws try to force her to marry her husband's unpleasant brother.

Meanwhile, Farhad waits for a smuggler who might get him out of Kabul alive. The record of his waiting should be given to anyone studying Afghanistan, or taking a course on life during wartime. Here, in our section of the planet, we are facing economic uncertainty, but this sharp little jeweled dagger of story carves out clearly for us what we don't (yet) know, what Farhad calls, "annihilation ... moments when you begin to doubt your very existence ... so paralyzed with fear that you turn to fantasies for reassurance, to imaginary women, to Djinn, to angels ... to life after death." To describe the unspeakable, as Rahimi does, is to resist it. It's an act worth watching.

Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."