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.
The title comes from the last story in the collection and features an Afghan family in West Sacramento, California that is being surveilled by the US government. Hajji Hotak is the father of the family and finds himself home alone while the rest of his wife and children have gone to visit relatives a couple hours away. Hajji climbs up to the attic to fix a broken pipe and suffers a fall. Because the government officer constantly monitors him, he sees this and also knows about Hajji’s past.
Though the fall must have been only ten feet or so, Hajji has landed awkwardly and broken his leg. He lies on the floor, on his back, staring up at the attic from which he fell. You know for a fact that Hajji has broken this leg once before, during the Soviet occupation, when a Kalashnikov round pierced his fibula and forced him off the battlefield for six months, during the heaviest period of fighting in Logar, and that this injury probably saved his life …
Kochai’s family came from Logar before fleeing war for a refugee camp in Pakistan and then immigrating to the US. “Occupational Hazards” follows this trajectory in a series of chronological descriptions of jobs and begins in 1966 with a shepherd in Deh-Naw, Logar:
Duties included: leading sheep to the pastures near the Black Mountains; counting the length between the shadows of chinar trees cast on dirt roads; naming each sheep after a prophet from the Quran, who, according to Maulana Nabi, were all herders of sheep at one point in their lives; reciting verses from the Quran to dispel djinn; stealing fruit from neighbors’ orchards for no reason at all…
By 1977, life has drastically changed in Deh-Naw, Logar. For a mujahid rebel recruit:
Duties include: gathering old English rifles with cousins and neighbors and traveling up to the Black Mountains; meeting with mujahideen forces recently arrived from as close as Baraki Barak and as far away as Bamyan; guiding mujahideen fighters through the mountains of Logar all the way on to Peshawar …
The story continues through the Soviet invasion and Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and then on to the United States. The occupational hazards—and disruptions from war—never ease up.
“Return to Sender” is an eerie tale of two Afghan-American doctors who move to Kabul with their young son for a year to work in hospitals there. Yusuf and Amina choose to live amongst locals, not in the American complex, even though they are American citizens. They think this decision will give them a more authentic experience. But nothing about this year turns out the way they imagined. Amina trained in the US. as a pediatrician, but in Kabul she’s put to work in other ways.
She had seen patients walk into her hospital, without any assistance, carrying with them the wreckage of their own torn limbs. She burned herself seven times touching melted flesh. She carried men once twice her size but halved in two onto gurneys and beds and sometimes, when there was nothing else, just a thin blanket upon the floor. She heard soldiers and militants sob like children and had seen little dark boys look upon their lost hands or feet with a wonder that seemed almost holy in the time of its happening.
But worse will befall Yusuf and Amina when their son goes missing. All the American privilege they ask for at the police station will count for nothing.
Other stories in the collection take on magical realism while still others poke fun of American academia. The entire collection is notable for the diversity of Kochai’s stories and the way in which he creates compassionate characters from all walks of life. It’s no surprise it’s a finalist for 2022 National Book Award for Fiction.