Jamil Jan Kochai: An Afghan Odyssey

Jamil Jan Kochai: An Afghan Odyssey
Jamil Jan Kochai. Photo courtesy of the author

In his debut novel, the Pakistan-born author broadens and complicates the way we understand life in Afghanistan

In his debut novel, 99 Nights in Logar (Bloomsbury, 2019), which has been shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, US-based author Jamil Jan Kochai, 25, tells the story of a 12-year-old boy, Marwand, who returns from America to his village in Logar in the war-torn Afghanistan in 2005, along with his parents and two younger siblings, during summer. Soon after his arrival, Budabash, the village dog, bites off the tip of his finger and escapes. And this triggers Marwand’s 99-night-long odyssey across Logar, accompanied by his cousins. They navigate through mazes, wade into floods and have unexpected, and unpleasant, confrontations with American soldiers. 

The coming-of-age novel, written with a lot of heart, humour and empathy, is hilarious and heartbreaking, ferocious and funny — as some blurbs rightly mention — in equal measure. It is also a deeply felt meditation on the power of storytelling and its inherent ability to variously shape, define and redeem us. Kochai says that in the novel, he wanted to broaden and complicate the way we understand life in Afghanistan, instead of reducing Afghans to “a series of stereotypical caricatures.”

As the American war in Afghanistan, the longest running war in the history of the United States, completes 17 years this November, Kochai says it has a way of seeping into the daily lives of Afghans, into their most intimate experiences — the way they speak and dream and travel and even tell jokes. “Many of my young cousins in Afghanistan are overwhelmed by a general sense of hopelessness. Despite their faith and perseverance, the unending nature of the war, the constant violence, has wearied them. In order for any sort of recovery to begin, the war in Afghanistan has to end,” he says.  

Excerpts from an interview: 

Shireen Quadri: Your novel, 99 Nights in Logar provides a poignant counterpoint to the misconceived narratives around Afghanistan largely invented and fueled by the West. In what ways do you see the novel tearing into these narratives?

Jamil Jan Kochai: It was important for me to illustrate the complexity, nuance, and depth of life in Afghanistan. Something that is often lost in Western perceptions of the country. Most of the time, life in Afghanistan is depicted as this bleak affair, completely made up of domineering, evil Islamists and oppressed, submissive women. Western narratives will often toss in a white character to act as the voice of reason or the savior. Although the lives of Afghans have been dominated by war and oppression for many years, I also wanted to show the different ways that Afghans still joke and gossip and recite poetry and resist oppression within the circumstances of the occupation. Instead of reducing Afghans to a series of stereotypical caricatures, I wanted to broaden and complicate the way one understands life in Afghanistan.

Shireen Quadri: What are the memories of the Afghanistan of your childhood?

Jamil Jan Kochai: My memories of Afghanistan were largely very joyous. I remember playing with my cousins, swimming in canals, climbing trees, eating berries, washing cows, running through fields, games of cricket and soccer. My extended family in Logar did whatever they could to make sure I felt comfortable. Oftentimes, I would be having so much fun in the countryside of Logar, it would almost sort of eclipse the war. Almost. But amid all the fun and play, the war was still present. In the night, with the rumbling of the bombs. In the markets, with the rolling tanks and the checkpoints. It was in the air, too. Everywhere I went in Logar, there was the smell of grain and flowers but also the constant stench of smoke. Somewhere in Logar, there was always something burning. As a child, I remember it being oddly exhilarating. The joy and the fear. The fun and the danger. Everything — the mountains and the cobras and the markets and the gunmen and the land itself — seemed so beautiful and so frightening all at once. I was in awe. And once I got back to the US, I searched everywhere for that same sense of awe, of frightening beauty, and I couldn’t find it in the quiet neighborhoods of West Sacramento, California. I became very nostalgic for Logar, and I think it was out of that sense of nostalgia that I began to write in the first place. 

Shireen Quadri: What damages has the war caused to people and polity? How do you see the Afghans coming to terms with their after-effects? Could you outline some challenges before them?

Jamil Jan Kochai: The American war in Afghanistan is the longest running war in the history of the United States. Seventeen years in November. In a few months, there will be Americans enrolling in the US military who were not even born when the invasion began. It’s been such a long time since the initial invasion that many of the primary actors (Bush, Cheney, Osama, Mullah Omar) are either dead or retired from politics or being invited to the Ellen DeGeneres show. But the war persists. Afghans are dying and continue to die. Innocent people (even by American military standards) are being beaten, kidnapped, tortured, sexually assaulted, shot, and blown to pieces for the sake of, or in response to, the American occupation. Besides the larger war crimes directly committed by NATO forces (bombing humanitarian hospitals, drone striking wedding celebrations, outright massacring civilians in their vehicles and homes), there are also constant “human rights” violations being committed daily by Afghan militias and military forces that are trained and funded by the occupation. What the war has created is a permanent atmosphere of violence that not only impacts the population in terms of direct bodily harm, psychological trauma, and death, but the violence of the occupation has a way of seeping into the daily lives of Afghans, into their most intimate experiences. The way they speak and dream and travel and even tell jokes. It is deeply insidious. And it is also long lasting. An entire generation of Afghan children, the ones coming into adulthood just now, have lived with the violence of the occupation since the earliest days of their youth. Many of my young cousins in Afghanistan are overwhelmed by a general sense of hopelessness. Despite their faith and perseverance, the unending nature of the war, the constant violence, has wearied them. In order for any sort of recovery to begin, the war in Afghanistan has to end.

Shireen Quadri: How did One Thousand and One Nights help you settle on the flow and the structure of the novel’s narrative?

Jamil Jan Kochai:  The Arabian Nights gave me the timeline for this novel. It allowed me to see that I didn’t always need to be moving forward with the plot, and that, in fact, there was this long tradition of digression, of story-telling just for the sake of story-telling. In this way, I was able to reorient how I was conceptualizing time. The story within the story is able to compress time and space and entire histories in a completely organic way. And so, I felt more comfortable limiting the timeline of the central plot. It didn’t need to be this huge eight hundred-page, thirty-years-long, multi-generational plot line (which I was actually considering). Ninety-nine nights, I told myself. That’s all I’d get to tell the story because I realized that I didn’t need to expand the actual timeline of the plot in order to make the novel an expansive project. I just needed a few stories within stories, and the book would expand within itself. Both historically and thematically. This was essential to the development of the novel. If I hadn’t read One Thousand and One Nights when I did, I might not have ever finished this project.

Shireen Quadri: How do you look at Afghanistan of today and what shape do you see it taking in the foreseeable future as a society and a nation having to deal with not too palatable geopolitical realities.

Jamil Jan Kochai: I think much of Afghanistan’s future is dependent upon the possibility of a peace deal. Without a peace deal and a cease fire between the Taliban and government forces, the country, it seems to me, will only fall into further bloodshed and violence. CIA backed Afghan forces have been murdering civilians with seemingly no restraint. NATO forces continue to bomb civilian targets. Activists and journalists have been arrested, tortured, and executed. And militant forces continue to carry out bombings in heavily populated government districts. The War in Afghanistan has turned into a terrible stalemate. The Taliban will not be defeated. And it seems to me that without a peace deal, only an elite minority of Afghans will continue to benefit from the occupation, while the majority of Afghans, especially in the countryside, will continue to suffer under the horrific shadow of the ongoing war. Though, I will say, that just two years ago, a peace deal would have been unthinkable, but now, it does seem possible.

Shireen Quadri: There has been a bunch of coming-of-age stories based in Afghanistan, including Khalid Hosseini’s wildly popular, The Kite Runner (2003). What are some of the best literature on Afghanistan, both fiction and non-fiction, that you would like to recommend to the world?

Jamil Jan Kochai:  Hassan Kakar’s historical work, especially his book Afghanistan: The Soviet Invasion and the Afghan Response (1995), is some of the finest in the world. He draws upon firsthand experience and an incredible reservoir of primary sources. Some of Rudyard Kipling’s greatest short stories, including “The Man Who Would Be King” and “The Head of the District”, are set in Afghanistan. If you’re looking for a memoir, Abdul Salam Zaeef’s My Life with the Taliban (2010) is an incredible account of a life lived amid poverty and warfare. Finally, I would be remiss not to recommend Emran Feroz’s book Tod per Knopfdruck or Death by Pushing a Button (2017) on drone warfare and civilian deaths in Afghanistan.

Shireen Quadri: Awards and recognitions are vital for writers, especially those making their debut. Could you illustrate how being shortlisted for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature help you get your story across to readers around the world?

Jamil Jan Kochai: Literary awards as prestigious as the DSC Prize can really make or break a career. The success of a debut novel is often very dependent on the recognition of the larger literary community. Literary awards can influence the direction of the larger culture of the literary world. Through these awards and shortlists and longlists, a new generation of writers and stories from marginalised cultures and communities can be introduced to readers and classrooms and scholars across the globe. I hope that being shortlisted allows 99 Nights in Logar to reach a whole new audience of potential readers on a global scale. 

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