The first story in Jamil Jan Kochai’s newest collection has an interesting title and premise. “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain” leads The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories. But what starts as a story of a young Afghan-American man buying the latest installment of the stealth video game becomes an exploration of Afghanistan, how its borne the brunt of generations of imperial and geopolitical conflict—and how that history is etched on its people.

The prominent Afghan-American writer Jamil Jan Kochai, author of 99 Nights in Logar, is also well-known for his stories published in magazines and journals like The New Yorker, Ploughshares, and Zoetrope. Now some of these have been compiled in The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, bringing them and others together in one collection. Kochai’s writing is graceful all while tackling subjects like war and occupation and how families suffer from them, both in Afghanistan and overseas.

On 9 September 2001, Ahmed Shah Massoud—called one of the greatest guerilla leaders in history, alongside names like Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, was assassinated by two Al-Qaeda suicide bombers. Coming just two days before the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Massoud’s assassination is thus one of those points in history that invites counter-factuals: was it a warning of things to come? And what might have happened in Afghanistan had the assassination failed?

My Pen Is the Wing of a Bird came about through the efforts of Untold Narratives, a UK-based organization which works to develop and amplify the work of writers marginalized by social, geopolitical or economic isolation, particularly those in areas with recent or ongoing conflict. In 2019 and early 2021, Untold put out open calls across Afghanistan, asking women to submit short stories in either of the country’s two languages, Dari and Pashto. 

We have been here before. In 1220 the Mongols sacked Afghanistan, scattering its artists and musicians in all directions. The Sufi poet Rumi wound up in Konya, in today’s Turkey, but the majority of these refugees fled into neighboring India, where they were warmly welcomed by culture hungry audiences. They contributed to the development of Hindustani music, whose modern avatar is Bollywood music. I wonder today if the musicians chased out of Afghanistan today will leave such echoes of their musical exile. If they do, it will be because of the tireless touring of masters like Daud Khan Sadozai, who recently performed at Lisbon’s Fundacão Oriente.

America’s humiliating withdrawal from Afghanistan in the summer of 2021 and the return of the Taliban to power occurred after Sandy Gall wrote this fascinating book about the military exploits of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a mujahideen commander who fought against the Soviets in the 1980s and against the Taliban and its allies until his assassination two days before Al Qaeda’s attacks on 11 September 2001.