The story starts on the 32nd morning. Marwand is visiting his family in Logar from America with his two younger brothers, and the dog Budabash, who bit the tip of his index finger, has escaped. Finding the vicious dog was going to be a four-man mission.
“Me and Gul and Zia and Dawood heading out on the roads of Logar together for the first time hoping to get Budabash back home before nightfall.” This long sentence stands at the beginning, unwilling to be neatened or tidied, vast in its glory. Perhaps an indication of the scattered nature of this book. Perhaps just a joke. Who knows? Certainly, Marwand doesn’t. But he does know how to describe his surroundings:
“Near Maghrib, just as we got to the Khyber Pass within the White Mountains, our taxis ran into a mass of traffic. Buses and trucks and Humvees and donkeys and shepherds and flocks of sheep and rickshaws and packs of dogs and hustlers selling candies out of wheelbarrows and broke-wing robins and Kabuli commandos and pockmarked addicts and Uzbeki goat drivers and cartloads of djinn and Tajik butchers and Kochi tribeswomen and howling roosters and American robots and armless Sufi praying for the grace of their legs and weeping virgins and carsick kiddies and militiamen drunk on gasoline and big-bearded imams and the older of OGs and maybe even the shadow of a wolf or two, and it was in the middle of this commotion, this jumble of a migration, that my brothers asked me for the true tale of how I lost Budabash.”
Jamil Jan Kochai, author of 99 Nights in Logar – longlisted for The DSC Prize for Literature – based his novel on his O Henry Prize winning short story, “Nights in Logar.” He was born in Pakistan and raised in America, but his roots go back to Afghanistan. Kochai’s relationship with Afghanistan is that of both an outsider and a native. He grew up hearing stories of his home from his grandmother. When he first visited his home, he forgot how to speak English entirely, falling in love with a language he would later no longer feel close to, and barely be able to speak. Perhaps his protagonist Marwand is based entirely on himself. Or on many others like him who have the experience of multiple fragmented identities.
Kochai’s freewheeling portrait of a young child’s journey through the mazes of Afghanistan is not just a stunning debut for the author, but also for a country that has rarely been explored outside its modern reputation of being a conflict and terror zone. Marwand, who is an outsider in Logar, rarely misses America. Here, he soaks in his surroundings, acting like his cousins do, listening to the stories the elders tell him, and making up his own on the way.
He doesn’t speak Farsi like the rest of the family, but his Pashto is all right and he gets by. He doesn’t pray like his devout cousin Zia, but he doesn’t make the western distinction between the good Muslim and the bad Muslim either, admiring his cousin for his ability to keep fasts and speak a beautiful language that he doesn’t understand. He often gets diarrhoea from the rich food he eats but never insists on finding a McDonalds, sitting instead on mulberry trees, passing the days of summer throwing rocks at the butcher’s son who is trying to court his cousin Nabeela, a woman completely outside his station. Marwand is both part of this gang and an outsider, and sometimes his childlike sensibilities let the reader experience the vibrancy of his family life and of Afghanistan, and sometimes it shuts us out completely.
Often, the “greater” subjects in literature are war and political ideology. Kochai understands that this is how the idea of Afghanistan has been shaped. That people hear more from American soldiers than from natives is a problem for him. He wants to explore how the violence of Afghanistan’s tumultuous history, with its Soviet occupation, Taliban rule, and American war has affected people’s idea of time and language.
However, the book isn’t centred on either war or political ideology. Instead, Kochai writes entirely of family life and domesticity. The camaraderie and fights between cousins, a mysterious sea-sickness on land that brings fighting parents into a close embrace, an adventure through a maze to find the family dog, a wedding, and forbidden love. His focus on this domesticity itself is an act of subversion, and that his family is not just full of tragedy and conflict is a delight to the reader. This book will make you laugh, but it will also make you think twice.
Stories within stories
Kochai was heavily inspired by A Thousand and One Nights, and has kept the tradition of nested stories alive throughout the novel. Each day is a chapter in the novel, and each chapter is fragmented into smaller stories told by people surrounding the protagonist. Some of these stories are completed, and others are interrupted by other stories. It’s the onion layer style of writing, of unveiling mythologies and realities of the people of Afghanistan, that give the novel heart. It is a book written with love.
In an essay titled What Do I Risk By Writing Down My Family’s Stories in English, published on LitHub, Kochai writes:
“At first, I felt idealistic about the whole endeavour. I thought I was giving voice to the unheard, that I was shedding light upon atrocities. You see, my family has known trauma. Both deeply personal, but also as a part of the greater collective trauma of the Afghan Diaspora. Logar was decimated by the Soviets, and although very little has been written about these massacres, the memory of this unrecorded suffering continues to exist, primarily, as an oral narrative...Now when writing, I feel alternatively like a thief, a middleman, and an informant, and I have to keep convincing myself that to write and to be read is worth the disservice I do to the stories of my family.”
The central thread that stitches all the smaller stories together in the novel is that of Watak, a member of the family who died a tragic death. Marwand tries to put together pieces of Watak’s life. He died in the maze where Budabash disappeared, where Marwand meets many eccentric personalities, and eventually gets lost in himself. The complete story of Watak is finally revealed, but written entirely in Pashto, making it inaccessible to the English language reader.
Although the adventure tale, described often as the coming-of-age tale of Afghanistan, reveals to the reader more than just the location of the evil Budabash, it also keeps some things out of reach. We are welcome to this new Afghanistan, but Kochai is careful to let us know, we cannot conquer it. It is not ours. And that’s okay.
99 Nights in Logar, Jamil Jan Kochai, Bloomsbury.