The Construction of Empathy in the Work of Jamil Jan Kochai

Jamil Jan Kochai 99 Nights in Logar

“I swear to God those sorts of men existed in Nawe’h Kaleh, in Logar.”1

The global Muslim community—the ‘Ummah’—is now under siege. The dominant political, economic, and military powers in the world today are states and corporations representing cultures whose historical heritage involves a hatred of Islam and Muslims. Moreover, this hatred inspires important aspects of the foreign and domestic policies of these forces, including the ‘war on terror’ conducted by the US and its allies, China’s genocide of the Uyghurs, and the violent persecution of Muslim citizens by India’s ethnocratic government and the movements associated with it. When Muslims, seeking physical asylum or moral support, turn to entities and individuals who are at least ostensibly distinct from the centers of political and military power in the West—human rights organizations, the bearers of so-called liberal culture, or the remnants of the political left—they are likely to find that any empathy from these sources is conditioned or accompanied by a host of far-reaching demands for personal, cultural, and religious transformation. Many Muslim writers are constrained to find ways of dealing with this double siege; but Afghan writers face an extreme version of this challenge. They are entangled in problems stemming from the eagerness of the West to view their nation as sharply and conveniently divided between those who must be utterly condemned and those who are to be pitied and patronized, and perhaps (though rarely) rescued. It seems as if the historical trajectory of Afghanistan from the 1970’s to the present constrains Afghan and Afghan-heritage authors to condemn their society or deliberately distance themselves from it; alternatively, or indeed at the same time, they may be pushed to a stance of mediation between their people and the West, carrying out a kind of lobbying mission towards the West.

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories

In the two books published so far by the young Afghan American author, Jamil Jan Kochai—99 Nights in Logar2 [henceforth Logar] and The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories3 [henceforth Hotak]—we may occasionally find expressions of a principled and explicit refusal to submit to this compulsion. However, their main achievement in the face of siege and coercion lies in delegitimizing these by totally ignoring the perspective of the besiegers: neither submitting to them, nor carrying on any type of dialogue with them, nor confronting them with direct defiance, but simply not giving them any voice or role in the story other than that of faceless anonymous external forces. Kochai’s writing forgoes the tempting mission of apologizing to outsiders (in both senses of ‘apology’) in favor of a proud, inward-looking independence. The impact of this approach—not at all paradoxically—is to arouse a response of universal human empathy. 

Within the variegated narrative fabrics woven by Kochai, the perspectives of Afghan characters—Pakhtuns and Tajiks, village dwellers or people of recent rural origins who generally do not belong to any of the shifting elites of Afghan society, and almost without exception believing Muslims—are taken for granted. In Logar, these people talk to each other and about each other, in friendship or in hostility, all the while seeming unaware of the threat posed by other types of ‘talk’—the globally amplified deadly alien ideologies that dehumanize them. Obviously, they are perfectly aware of material threats—they have seen and heard clearly and often, during several generations, the deadly cannons and bombs of the British, the Soviets, and the Americans; but with such messengers of death, they know how to deal, for they have weapons of their own. Kochai has explained how he conceives his responsibility as a writer regarding the way he presents those who are objects of demonization on the part of contemporary Western culture—traditional rural Afghans, traditional Muslims in general, as well as Palestinians.4 He may be said to have a justifiably protective attitude towards these groups. But in a certain sense, the characters who populate Logar do not need his protection; these people know very well how to defend themselves. On the other hand, in the stories comprising Kochai’s second work, the deadly siege has become deeper and more complex; the besieged grope their way, mostly powerless to influence reality itself, and are pushed into types of defensive activity that are more symbolic than actual.

The Story

Logar tells a story that wraps itself around many other stories, which flow within it in different directions. The enveloping story does not dominate or control its offshoots. Initially it embraces the other stories without being sharply demarcated from them, and later it mixes with them in a wild flood; thus, it cannot really be called a ‘frame story.’ The book’s hero, the narrator of the enveloping story, is a 12-year-old boy, called Marwand. Marwand loves God and His commandments, and loves his father and mother, all with a love not lacking in awe; his love is not problematized—it is primary and unmediated, not the sort of love which might be achieved or synthesized through struggle, negation, and negation of the negation. Here is his personal prayer, uttered when he and his friends stop by the side of the road to fulfill the obligation of one of the five daily prayers:

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“First, I prayed for Allah to forgive me and to save me from myself … Then I prayed for my parents, Moor and Agha, for her mind and his body. I prayed they wouldn’t have to be so lonely all the time. I prayed that my brothers might become men, Mirwais especially, who I thought might become a snitch or a coward, though in many ways I couldn’t admit, he was much braver than me.

… and I prayed for the health of the girl I might marry someday, and I prayed for the health of all the mothers on the earth, but in Afghanistan especially, and I prayed for the men in the village who took care of their families and prayed all their prayers and watched over their neighbors and worked all day in the sun and never beat their wives and never sold their daughters and never snitched on their people and never joined the Americans and never hurt anyone they didn’t have to hurt, because I swear to God those sorts of men existed in Nawe’h Kaleh, in Logar …”.5

Marwand lives in California with his parents and younger brothers; his parents arrived there because they had an opportunity to immigrate to the US from a refugee camp in Pakistan, to which they had fled when life in their village became impossible due to the murderousness of the Soviet occupation. The parents adhere to their religion and to the Pakhto language (the language of the father’s ethnic group) and take the children to visit their extended family in their native village, in Afghanistan’s Logar province, whenever possible. The main course of events in the book takes place during one such visit, which occurs in 2005; but the story wanders between the happenings of this visit and those of the previous visit when Marwand was 6, and the tales told by family members about what happened to them in the past, and what happened to their ancestors in the more distant past, and what happened beyond all this in history and legend and parable. In all these dimensions – of the present and the past – empirical reality and fantasy trickle and flow into each other unhindered by any separation barrier. The author does not place warning signs informing the readers that they are crossing the border between the two. Simply categorized, the novel belongs to the genre of magical realism, and it has much in common with the works of authors who wrote in this genre while living and creating around the borders between the heritage of the West and that of other civilizations.6 

Structure

The structure and content of Logar is nonproblematic and unmediated in several additional respects. The author rejects the temptation to give the boy who has come from America the role of a mediator—of a representative or messenger of ‘Western culture’ (for better or for worse) to the members of his extended family living in rural Afghanistan, or of a bridge between the two cultures. Marwand does not play any such mediating role towards the family in general, nor towards the boys of his own age, with whom he almost immediately establishes a rapport, participating in all their activities. He is no less devout a Muslim, as well as no less a naïve believer in the fantastic world of magic and legend, than his local cousins; and they, like him, are fans of Rambo-style action films. All these boys are fond of adventures, and they all have an ambivalent attitude towards school—a lack of interest in studies alongside a strong desire to succeed so as to meet their parents’ expectations.

Kochai does not need a representative of the West to send on the journey to Afghanistan; he also refrains from imposing on his characters—the inhabitants of Afghan villages and the refugees from these villages—any implicit role of self-representation vis-à-vis the West, any burden of explaining or justifying themselves. The conversation within his novel, and between the novel and its implied primary audience, is internal to Afghans. 

Kochai’s works thus radiate a powerful sense of steadfast autonomy, of an inward gathering of various strands of Afghan religious, cultural, and ethnic forces. This stands in distinct contrast to the approach of the only Afghan writer who has achieved widespread publicity and a large readership in the West in recent decades—Khaled Hosseini, of Kite Runner7 fame. Hosseini’s oeuvre gives the impression of a continuous authorial act of representation and mediation vis-à-vis the West, even of the performance of a mission, implicitly calling on the West to come and save the Afghans from the horrors of their own way of life, or to save the disadvantaged in Afghan society (women, children, ethnic minorities) from the evil of patriarchy in general and from the wickedness of Pakhtun men in particular.

These remarks are not intended as a criticism of Hosseini himself, who is entitled to his own perspective. What I find disturbing is the Western reception of The Kite Runner: its best-selling status, its assignment as reading to secondary-school students, the response of many readers who felt that the book stirred them to an empathetic connection with Afghan victims and taught them something about the horrors experienced by many people ‘out there’ in the non-Western world. This response seems to me to be utterly self-deceiving in itself, and dangerous in its consequences. Rather than an empathy based on awareness of other human beings, what we have here is basically an empathy for oneself—a process of daydreaming about the kind of people and situations which it would suit one best to empathize with, and then directing compassionate concern towards these notional objects. Of course, the scope and consequences of this type of self-regard go far beyond the problematic reception of Hosseini’s books.8 

Approach

Kochai’s approach in Logar also renounces another type of ‘mediation’—the mediation constituted by reliance on a formal set of moral concepts, the generalized concepts of ‘good’ and ‘evil.’ This approach is antithetical to that which characterizes many of the stories—fictional, factual, or ostensibly-factual—which have been told about Afghanistan in recent decades. There are no ‘good’ or ‘evil’ characters in Logar—again in contrast to Hosseini’s novels, which are distinctly moralistic, to the point of superficial caricature. The story told by Kochai in Logar is founded on the distinction between attachment and repulsion—the attachment brought forth by love and the repulsion brought forth by fear—rather than on the dichotomy between good and evil. There are those, in the story, to whom the boy’s love is given—God, the father, the mother. As against this, there is that of which the boy is terrified—but not with the paralyzing horror which certain types of stories instill in their readers’ psyches, the horror created by melting the boundaries of meaning and collapsing the ability to build expectations in the world. Rather, what we encounter here is an active, venturesome, sort of fear, leading to attempts to fight against its object. The object of the boy’s fear is the family guard dog, Budabash; Marwand decides that the dog, who has bitten off a part of his finger, is a demon and embarks on a prolonged battle against it. There is also that which has evoked the same kind of active, militant fear in the adults, the boy’s family and neighbors, many of whom are veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad, and who now tell their tales to the boy and to each other. Their object of fear was the Soviet army, which in the 1980’s destroyed a great part of the village with its bombings, killed many of the father’s family members, and murdered the father’s younger brother, Watak, in cold blood. The tattered flag that marks Watak’s grave is a physical and mental focus of the story, an existing fact and a yearning for that which no longer exists, a cry of pain and an unhealed wound, a declaration of praise to God and the expression of an unfulfilled ideal of submission to God’s decree.

Present Day (2005)

Now—in 2005, the ‘present’ of the story—these former jihadists are tired, and bruised by the incessant fighting and killing that took place from the 1980’s until the present time: a time when the sounds of explosions from the combats between the Americans and the Taliban echo all night long from the mountains near the village; a time when, high up above the various types of weapons carried by many of the people—soldiers, rebels, and civilians—the robots in the sky (the American drones) saunter and hum. The fighting that took place in the interval was, for the most part, a brutal civil war between rival ideological and ethnic groups, and the adults who surround the boy have mostly lost the ability and desire to act in any broad national or ideological context. Nevertheless, it cannot be said that any of the characters in the book lacks the capacity to act and to influence; nobody here is deprived of agency. They all have quite clear, concrete, goals, on the familial and the personal levels, and they do their best to achieve these goals, with a realistic mixture of success and failure—rather more success than could be expected given the prevailing conditions. The story of Logar avoids tragedy in its ‘present’, although it is replete with memories of tragedies in its recent past. 

To put these observations in more abstract terms: One of the heartwarming characteristics of Logar is that all the people in it exist in proximity to the objects of their desires, and accordingly do what they can to achieve them. None of the characters is an intellectual or academic whose approach to reality is mediated through theory; no one is alienated from social reality, observing it with a sense of unbridgeable distance or strangeness; none of the characters has a fundamentally passive attitude towards the world and society, born of a deep insight into the impossibility of influencing an unbearably complex whole, nor has anyone’s psyche been distanced from the world by the disease of irony. There are no ‘strangers’ here, and no ‘infinite jesters;’ Logar’s people are at home. In these respects, the spirit of Kochai’s writing differs from that of a considerable part of the ‘high’ literature of the West since the beginning of the 20th century, in both its modernist and its post-modernist phases. 

The structure and content of Kochai’s novel is, therefore, ‘unmediated’ on three levels: the absence of distance between the boy who arrives from America (as well as his parents and brothers) and his extended family in the Afghan village—there are no feelings of alienation between them, no significant cultural and mental gaps; the absence of an implied reliance on abstract classifications, whether those of moral theory or those of social critique; and most importantly, the lack of distance between people as subjects and agents and their objects of action, between the characters in the story and the realities they hope to influence, between the ‘I’ and the ‘world’. This imaginative presentation of the possibility of being at home with one’s neighbors and in the world creates a reading experience that is essentially empowering. De Quincey’s classic definition of ‘the literature of power’ is very broad, comprehending any literature which gives its readers the ‘power’ identified with sympathy for truth, as distinguished from that which gives knowledge of truth; in other words, all literature that is intended to rouse the moral feelings and the motivations associated with them.9 Within this framework, it is possible to designate a literature which is more specifically empowering in the sense that it arouses the feeling of hope—the expectation of living and acting effectively, in rapport with others, in the world. Logar belongs to this latter type of literature.

Characterization

The discussion so far implies a characterization of Logar as a work in which there are no problems of alienation, no chasms of foreignness. However, this characterization is incorrect in one crucial aspect. The argument presented above, according to which Marwand is not a ‘stranger’—the assertion that there is no distance between him and Afghanistan and between him and his extended family in the village—is true, I believe, as far as the sphere of ‘the real’ is concerned. But it is not true on one important fantastic-symbolic level, which constitutes the backbone of the entire story—that of Marwand’s attitude to the dog-wolf demon. We may infer that Marwand has brought with him, from his exile in America, an unacknowledged perception of the spirit of Afghanistan as demonic, wild, and brutal—a spirit he then identifies with the dog. At this point we can begin to understand the two quotations which Kochai places as epigraphs to the book, and in the first place, the second of these quotations. The quote is from Kipling, alluding to the Afghan people:

“Herein he is as unaccountable as the gray wolf, who is his blood-brother”.10 

The context of this sentence is a passage which expresses an unrelieved racism, a total dehumanization of the people who are the objects of this racism, with the obvious intention of justifying any act of mass slaughter or genocide that an imperialist power may exercise against them, either directly or as a consequence of the support it gives to tyrannical local rulers, such as the historical Amir Abdur Rahman who here ventriloquizes the British attitude:

“To the Afghan neither life, property, law, nor kingship are sacred when his own lusts prompt him to rebel. He is a thief by instinct, a murderer by heredity and training, and frankly and bestially immoral by all three. None the less he has his own crooked notions of honour, and his character is fascinating to study. On occasion he will fight without reason given till he is hacked in pieces; on other occasions he will refuse to show fight till he is driven into a corner. Herein he is as unaccountable as the gray wolf, who is his blood-brother… And these men [are ruled] by the only weapon they understand – the fear of death, which among some Orientals is the beginning of wisdom.”11 

This epigraph of Logar, representing an ‘external’ viewpoint of dehumanization, must be read in tandem with the first epigraph—a quotation from Franz Fanon referring to the ‘internal’ viewpoint of language and culture. Here are two possible attitudes, and the Afghan American protagonist of the book holds both. His gaze is ‘internal’ when turned upon his extended family, the village, and the other realistic elements of the people and society of Afghanistan. However, on the symbolic plane of his attitude to the dog, he looks at the Afghans through the ‘external’ gaze of those who perceive them as vile wolves and demons, lacking even the desperate wild nobility sometimes attributed in literature to wolves and to demons. Towards the end of the book, indeed, after Marwand and the dog are swept in a great symbolic flood – a mythical, but also historical and contemporary catastrophe—he comes to a more complex understanding of his relation to Budabash and his own wound of (self)-demonization. 

However, the implicit dismantling of self-demonization and strengthening of internal mutual empathy is to be found, not so much in the symbolic ending of the story as in the details of its course—above all in the detailed construction of characters who are convincing in their humanity; in other words, in the traditional means employed by realist literature. The portrait of Marwand’s father, sketched with a light hand in several places in the book, radiates the warmth and quiet glow of love. This is a man who, in his youth in Afghanistan, acted and fought for a time, but whose sufferings from the bereavement of many members of his family left a much greater mark than his actions; who afterwards, in the US, worked for many years in hard physical labor, tirelessly and without pause, in order to provide for his wife and children; a man who consistently cleaves to his religion and his language, and educates his children to do the same; a man who knew well both how to wield weapons of war and how to dance the dance of the Pakhtuns, the Attan—to dance with the violent intensity and  unapologetic arrogance which this dance demands—and yet in the bitterness of his heart he tells his son that all the disasters the Pakhtuns suffer from are a consequence of their loving war and the dance more than they love God; a man who, together with his wife, sustains the fire of a warm, but generally tired and speechless, mutual love (and who never beats his wife—but does routinely beat his children, a customary response to any of their pranks); a man whose attitude is more patriotic, more anti-imperialist, than that of his relatives living in Afghanistan, which of course involves a contradiction, since he lives in the US and serves the wealthy Americans of California by laboring in their gardens; a man whose spirit, and actually above all his body, are almost shattered by the events of his past life and his present hard labor, but who makes every effort not to break down so as not to break his wife and children.

But when he visits his home village and works in the fields belonging to his family, the hard labor becomes a spring of life for him:

“ .. that day with Agha [father] out in those fields, that was a good one. The whole time he sang. Wallah, he sank his shovel into the rough clay and lifted massive slabs of the earth and flipped them back down and then I’d get at these slabs, cutting them up, and the whole time he was singing. Old Pakhto love songs or war chants or Sufi poems for God. He had the shrill voice of a mule, but me and my brothers still loved hearing him, smelling him, watching him in the sun.”12 

The same tenderness suffuses the description of the boy’s parents, in quiet interaction during and after an argument between them about the behavior of some of the mother’s brothers, who are collaborating with the US army, and about the possibility that they themselves will return to live in Afghanistan:

“Agha [father] … lit a lamp and smoked by the window …When Moor [mother] arrived, she sat near Agha, by the window’s sill, and didn’t speak.
The lamp sat in between them. Its fire was long and thin and did not flicker.


The lamp in between them brightened Moor’s skin. 


Moor shook her head and touched Agha’s cheek. Held her fingers there. Behind them, the long fire of the lamp seeped into the space between his skin and her hand. Their flesh seemed to burn in the dark. They didn’t say anything for such a long time…”.13

The thin warm flame, illuminates, and symbolizes the connection between a man and a woman, as individuals; a flame which shines a light on the personal and intimate, in its physical and spiritual aspects, in the midst of the vast conflictual political wasteland of a world which imposes a great burden of menace and danger on individuals: When giving us this description, Kochai is not a magical-realist, but simply a realist. Taking his place in a realist-humanist tradition of the novel that crosses borders and cultures, his description of a particular human moment makes any polemics against dehumanization redundant. Transcending borders, cultures, ideologies, and religions, we may find the same type of human moment, similarly illuminated, in Pasternak’s poem, “Winter Night”:

“It snowed, it snowed across the world
At every turning.
A candle on the table burned,
A candle, burning.


The blizzard etched the glass with whirled
Arrows and circles.
A candle on the table burned,
A candle, burning.

And shadows lay together on
The lighted ceiling:
Entwining feet, entwining arms,
Twined fate and feeling.”14 

[Translation: A. Z. Foreman]

Realist Aspects

When we focus on the realist aspects of Kochai’s works—The Haunting of Hajji Hotak as well as Logar —we may be reminded of Erich Auerbach’s15 contention that it is realist literature which expresses the supreme value of the ordinary human being, of common life. More specifically, we may recall a hope formerly placed in the genre of the realist novel: the hope that it could function as a significant, socially influential generator of empathy. In other words, the expectation that if we could only get to know a variety of human characters whose lives, personalities, and situations are described with a detailed, complex sensitivity, then we would no longer be able to treat our fellow humans as objects of undifferentiated punitive coercion or of mass destruction. 

In recent decades, however, a more prevalent interpretation of the realist novel emphasizes the role of realism in legitimating ‘the world as it is’—or a somewhat reformed version of this world. This reading is succinctly presented by Terry Eagleton: 

“The [realist] novel is the mythology of a civilization fascinated by its own everyday existence. It is neither behind nor ahead of its times, but abreast of them. It reflects them without morbid nostalgia or delusory hope. … This refusal of both nostalgia and utopia means that the realist novel, politically speaking, is … neither reactionary nor revolutionary … it is typically reformist in spirit.”16 

Concomitantly, according to this approach, truly radical critique belongs to the ‘Gothic’ or the ‘fantastic’ in the novel. These genres give a twisted, symbolic expression of the horrors inflicted upon the powerless in society and are haunted by both forgetting and remembrance of the acts of eradication upon which society is founded”—a remembrance sometimes shadowy and obscure and sometimes suddenly, shockingly revealed. 

These two views of the meaning of realism, and accordingly of the ‘necessity’ of fantasy, may be associated with different conceptions of the depth and intractability of oppressive structures in society. Accordingly, the dichotomy between the reformist (or revolutionary only in a limited sense) spirit of realism and the utopian-revolutionary or nostalgic-reactionary spirits of ‘the magical’ or ‘the fantastic’ can help us understand something about the differences between Kochai’s two works. Although both works contain elements of both types of spirit, in Logar the realist spirit and its implications are, I think, dominant; this work has a simple realist strength, grounded in the detail of humanity and creating empathy and recognition rather than horror and a desperate desire to escape an overwhelming unbearable reality. The radical implications of ‘the fantastic’—its uses as the only possible mode of expression which can be given to the subaltern, the suppressed, the expelled, the erased—have a much more significant role in Hotak

Logar is compelling and heartening in the impression it gives of the possession of agency—of the ability to act and, moreover, to act effectively, which its characters retain. These people inhabit a world which in a sense belongs to them; there are certain clear paths connecting them with the objects of their desires, and accordingly, they move in the direction of these objects, with greater or lesser success. In contrast, a common theme of many of the stories in Hotak is the discovery of a profound lack of agency of the characters—lack of agency in the ‘real’ world, in actuality. They lack material agency in a world ruled by their enemies, and this state of being is accentuated by the fact that these enemies not only attack them (in the simple sense of actual war and military occupation as well as in other senses) but also offer their only possible place of refuge (the refuge of exile in the West). The characters in Hotak are more or less powerless in the face of overwhelming impersonal military force and of total surveillance and control, as well as of the anarchic circumstances of war; most importantly, they are simply on the wrong side of world-hegemonic economic and cultural forces.

This lack of material agency appears not only in terms of the characters’ being socially disadvantaged—disempowered because of their cultural or religious identities and their political and economic circumstances. It is imaginatively conceived, in the stories, by the presence or sudden appearance of chasms, of unbridgeable gaps between people and their objects of desire; in some of the stories, a character might not even be on the same plane of existence as that of the thing they would like to influence, while in others, reality may be continuous but the barriers to action within it are insuperable. These chasms and barriers negate any attempt to influence material reality and push the ‘agents,’ who have lost the more obvious or ‘real’ types of agency, to a different, ‘fantastic,’ sphere of action.

The evolution of Kochai’s work can be conceived in terms of an injury suffered by the ability to hope. Hope is not lost; the characters in Hotak do not lie down in despair. Like the people of Logar, they try to fend for themselves and for others; but the substance of hopeful action is displaced from the actual to the symbolic or fantastic realm. Here the radical implications of the ‘magic’ in magical realism are realized. The weapons wielded by Afghans (and, in one story, by Palestinians) in Hotak are not mainly those of material—economic, political, military—reality. They belong to other realms: to the realms of the modern fantastic and symbolic, whose armaments include video games and critical academic theorizing; and to the realms of the traditional fantastic and symbolic, which encompass the magic of metamorphosis and, ultimately, the ideal of religious self-sacrifice ushering in a Messianic salvation. 

Thus, in “The Tale of Dully’s Reversion”17—a long, complex, and wildly funny story which constitutes the anarchic heart of the book—the Afghan American academic protagonist is initially occupied in writing a Ph.D. thesis entitled “Historical Erasure and State Violence in the Logar Province of Afghanistan.”18 In this work, the lack of written evidence for the occurrence of massacres perpetrated in this area, in the late 19th century, by the British army—massacres of which the memory is preserved by the inhabitants of his family’s village—is ultimately conceptualized in terms of the interlinked suppression, de-legitimation, and re-legitimation of the testimonies of the oppressed. “The violence of erasure is perpetuated onto infinity in each instance of its denial19—thus Dully formulates his conclusion in the received idiom of radical academic critique. He eventually gets an opportunity to fight against imperial forces with weapons in the form of guns rather than of intricate theoretical phrases, but this is only made possible by his having been transformed into a monkey. 

Another very different story may be said to rival “The Tale of Dully’s Reversion” for the position of the book’s heart or focus; this is the hieratic, severe—far from anarchic in its fundamental spirit, though not lacking in Kochai’s usual brilliant humor— “Hungry Ricky Daddy.”20 A tale which brings together Afghans and Palestinians in the self-sacrifice of hunger strikes carried unto death and in the chiliastic hope of an approaching transformation of the world into a realm of justice. Nabeela Mohammad (who in the story’s realm of ‘the actual’ is an activist in a Palestinian Islamic resistance movement, and in the religious-symbolic realm gives birth to a daughter who may be the Second Coming of Jesus as foretold in Islam as well as in Christianity) says in a speech addressed to the present rulers of the world, the Americans: 

“It is as if every one of you has turned into grave diggers, and everyone wears his military suit—the judge, the writer, the journalist, the merchant, the academic, the poet—… a whole society was turned into guards over our deaths and our lives. Nonetheless, you may be sure … that we will die satisfied and having satisfied. We do not accept being deported from our lands. We do not accept your courts and your laws. … For the defeated will not remain defeated, and the victor will not remain a victor. History isn’t only ever measured by battles and massacres and prisons, but also by the incremental blood drip of the thinnest veins.”21 

The consummation of history imagined in the last part of this story—in terms of questions asked rather than of outright prophetic statements—is that of Messianic salvation, the ultimate reality-shattering hope of the oppressed. Yet even here Kochai’s persistent construction of empathy from the materials of common, actual humanity is apparent. The final sentence of the story, describing Nabeela’s response to the narrator, who has asked her about the pictures of the last days and death of the Afghan student who starved himself for the Palestinian cause, is as follows:

“I thought he looked very beautiful,” Nabeela replied one morning, some years after Ricky died, and then asked me who had moistened his lips.”22  


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Notes:

  1. Quoted from: Jamil Jan Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar. p. 63.
  1. Jamil Jan Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar. Bloomsbury Publishing, London, 2020.  First published by Viking, New York, 2019.
  1. Jamil Jan Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories. Viking, New York, 2022.
  1. Interview: Bareerah Ghani, “Jamil Jan Kochai, author of ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories’, on the responsibility attached to writing Muslim characters”. Electric Literature, January 3, 2023.
  1. Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar, pp. 62 – 63.
  1. Kochai has spoken about his affinity to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which is particularly evident:

“Jamil Jan Kochai Recommends …”, Poets and Writers, July 27, 2022.

https://www.pw.org/writers_recommend/jamil_jan_kochai

Farooq Chaudhry, “Reality is Not that Simple: An Interview with Jamil Jan Kochai”, Chicago Review of Books, November 10, 2022.

  1. Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner. Riverhead Books, New York, 2003.
  1. For one example of Kochai’s own animadversions on The Kite Runner, see: Sameer Rahim, “The unsettling, dreamlike world of author Jamil Jan Kochai”, hyphen, November 14, 2022. 
    https://hyphenonline.com/2022/11/14/the-unsettling-dreamlike-world-of-author-jamil-jan-kochai/

For another Afghan writer who has been sharply critical of Hosseini’s works and their reception in the West, see: Emran Feroz, “The West’s Favorite Afghan”, Jacobin, July 24, 2015. https://jacobin.com/2015/07/hosseini-kite-runner-thousand-splendid-suns/

 An example of the reception in the West of Hosseini’s work, including specifically its use (or rather, in this case, the use of the film based on it) as recommended reading for high-school and college students and as a guide to various aspects of Afghan society: Amnesty International USA, Human Rights Education Program, The Kite Runner: Companion Curriculum, 2007.

https://www.hrwstf.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/kiterunnerhigh_0.pdf

  1. Thomas De Quincey, Passages on the literature of knowledge and the literature of power in “The Works of Alexander Pope”, North British Review, Vol. IX, May-August 1848.
  1. Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar. Epigraphs page.
  1. Rudyard Kipling, “The Amir’s Homily”, Life’s Handicap. Heron Books, First published 1891. p.332.
  1. Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar. p. 145.
  1.  Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar. pp. 169, 171-172.
  1. Boris Pasternak, “Winter Night”, translated from the Russian by A. Z. Foreman. From A. Z. Foreman’s blog, “Poems Found in Translation”.

http://poemsintranslation.blogspot.com/2018/02/boris-pasternak-winter-night-from.html

  1.  Erich Auerbach, Mimesis. Translated from the German by Willard R. Trask. With a new introduction by Edward W. Said. Fiftieth-Anniversary Edition, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford. 2003. Epilogue and passim.
  1. Terry Eagleton, The English Novel: An Introduction. Blackwell Publishing, 2005. Chapter 1, pp. 6-7.
  1.  Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. pp. 175-247.
  1. Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. p. 192.
  1. Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. p. 214.
  1. Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. pp. 77-100.
  1. Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. pp. 93-94.
  2. Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak. p. 100.
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