Over the last 20 years, a lot has been written about Afghanistan, but very little of it has actually managed to capture the beauty, pain, and humor of Afghan life. Too often, think pieces, news reports, and glowing profiles of highly controversial figures trafficked in dangerous stereotypes and tired War on Terror-era political punditry.
What so many of these works were missing was the truth of lived experiences. Too many were written by outsiders looking into a society they could never truly engulf themselves in enough to understand the personal dynamics of. There were those pieces that came very clearly in the wake of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations. Others seemed too much like poverty porn written by the typical “well-meaning” white person. And some were just plain not good.
Then, in 2019, 99 Nights in Logar, the debut novel by Afghan American author Jamil Jan Kochai, took readers through daily life in the villages of Logar, a province just over a half hour south of Kabul. Set during the U.S.-led occupation, 99 Nights was by nature a book about war, but it was also the story of a group of rambunctious boys, including two who were visiting from California, desperately trying to track down the family’s guard dog while the elders busied themselves with an impending wedding. It put Kochai on readers’ radar as one of the most exciting Afghan American writers to date.
One reason these familial, emotional stories resonated so realistically was that they were borrowed directly from Kochai’s own experiences in the villages of Logar during the summer of 2005.
Born in Peshawar and raised in Northern California, Kochai, like most children of Afghan immigrants and refugees of the ’80s and ’90s, grew up in a life that was both a constant remembrance and recreation of Afghanistan. His father would recite Pashto poetry. They ate Afghan food and sipped cups of green tea. They spoke Pashto and Dari and hung out with other Afghans, most of whom were somehow related to them.
It wasn’t until he started kindergarten in 1998, that a 5-year-old Kochai realized that he was “a little Afghan boy running around in Hayward.”
That meant his first year of school was a constant struggle to be heard and noticed. As Kochai puts it, he didn’t know a word of English, his teachers largely ignored him and he struggled to make friends. By 1999, as he was just getting acclimated, his parents decided the family would spend the summer in Afghanistan. At the time, the Taliban were three years into their first stint in power, and his family in California were inundated with news reports of beatings, public executions, and severe restrictions imposed by the group.
While other boys his age were watching Dexter’s Laboratory and playing the original Super Smash Bros in California, Kochai was swimming in streams, walking through orchards, picking apples, and listening to his aunts and uncles telling stories and cracking jokes.
“It’s all anybody wanted to know about: ‘Is it true?’ They all kept asking,” Kochai recalls of the questions his family was overwhelmed with upon their return.
But the truth was, he had no idea.
Kochai and his family had gone straight to their native province of Logar, where they bounced from one of the family qalas, compounds, to another. They never even made it 40 minutes north to Kabul. For four months, Kochai spent his days with countless cousins, aunts, and uncles. While other boys his age were watching Dexter’s Laboratory and playing the original Super Smash Bros in California, Kochai was swimming in streams, walking through orchards, picking apples, and listening to his aunts and uncles telling stories and cracking jokes.
“I was covered in mud 90 percent of the time,” Kochai said by phone from Princeton, where he is in the midst of a yearlong Hodder Fellowship. “Those were some of my fondest memories. Gathering in the bagh, garden, sitting on the doshaks, cushions, it’s so vibrant, it’s so lifelike, it’s so beautiful.”
Put simply, he was never far enough away from his family at the time to have even encountered a Talib.
Kochai wouldn’t return to Afghanistan until 2005, when he was 12 years old. By then, the U.S.-led Afghan war was already four years in. In California, news reports were still billing Afghanistan as “the good war,” and then-President Hamid Karzai was being heaped with praise by leaders in Washington and London.
But while the outside world was still talking about supporting Afghanistan, Kochai’s second experience in the country taught him more than he could have imagined about the United States and Afghanistan—and his place in both. He spent much of the first month sick from the food and water. Though most of his family were quick to re-embrace him, others started to label him as “the foreign kid who came back from America.”
Most importantly, he finally made it to Kabul, where he would go with his cousins to buy bootleg DVDs of the latest Hollywood and Bollywood releases they would watch back in Logar.
It was in the capital that Kochai first saw signs of urban life and the post-invasion reconstruction boom that would make millionaires of opportunistic Afghans and foreigners alike. He saw high-rises being constructed, sprawling shopping malls full of goods from China, the UAE and India, and billboards for the quickly growing mobile phone industry.
He also came face-to-face with the “militarization” of the country. In Kabul, he would cross several checkpoints to get from one neighborhood to another, where Afghan and Western military vehicles were parked prominently on the streets. The police would stop their cars to ask where they had come from, where they were headed, and what was in the bags in their hands as they headed back to Logar.
In Logar, his cousins would tell him horrific stories about U.S. soldiers killing civilians, raping women, and burning the Qur’an. At the time, he believed the stories about the dark side of a war that had been billed as an act of liberation and charity by George W. Bush, Tony Blair, and Hillary Clinton.
“I felt like everything I was seeing in the states was wrong, that the ‘hoorah’ was all lies and propaganda. I started to feel less and less like an American.”
Looking back on it now, Kochai says he can’t be sure all of the stories of abuses by Western forces his cousins told him were true, but what he could see was that the occupation had very clearly been “in full force” by the time he returned as an adolescent.
Adding to Kochai’s mixed feelings was the fact that prior to his return to Afghanistan, he had just started learning about the Transatlantic slave trade, Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, and the wide-scale slaughter of the indigenous people of the American landmass in his California classrooms. Those lessons about the United States’ violent past mixed with the realities of its occupation of his homeland helped cement Kochai’s politics, which took a much more critical view of the United States and its penchant for war. “I felt like everything I was seeing in the states was wrong, that the ‘hoorah’ was all lies and propaganda,” he says. “I started to feel less and less like an American.”
Despite those feelings of being lied to, Kochai couldn’t stay in Afghanistan forever; he had to return to California. But he kept his memories of Afghanistan and the confusion, joy and resentment it stirred up, in the back of his mind.
When he finally sat down to write what would become 99 Nights in 2015, Kochai turned to those memories, including the real-life escape of a family dog, as a jumping off point. “All I wanted to write about was Logar. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I just had to get out of my system,” he says.
But capturing what he calls the “vibrant chaos” of life in Afghanistan wasn’t easy. It required very specific, unique details that could convey a sense of the messiness of a situation where a war, a wedding, a dog chase, illness, and longing for lost family members all vied for the attention of dozens of people. He says, “So much of life in an Afghan family is that whole idea of all these little things happening at the same time.”
Afghan families don’t work like that, though; they cut across generations, and very often, everyone is talking at once while the TV blares and someone is scrolling through their TikTok feed.
It all seemed to go against what he had been taught in creative writing courses in high school and California State University, Sacramento. “Traditionally, as writers, we’re taught to write chronologically,” he says. “One character having dialogue with another character.” Afghan families don’t work like that, though; they cut across generations, and very often, everyone is talking at once while the TV blares and someone is scrolling through their TikTok feed. “The more characters you toss into a story, the messier it gets, the more chaotic.”
He started to think back on the stories his parents and grandparents had told, and brought that style into his novel. Most importantly, he remembered how those stories always had some levity. “No matter how dark it got, there was always some room left for laughter,” he says of the anecdotes his parents told about the brutalities of the former communist governments that took control of Afghanistan in 1978 and the jihad against the Soviet occupation that supported those governments.
“As much as I want my readers to be moved, the thought that I could have them laughing gives me a lot of joy,” says Kochai, who self-identifies as “a former class clown” in high school. That sense of humor served Kochai well in a novel where the protagonist is a 12-year-old Afghan American boy leading his cousins on a Goonies-style adventure through the villages of what had become one of Afghanistan’s least-secure and least-developed provinces despite its proximity to Kabul.
“I felt a great weight and concern, that I did my due service to my depiction of Afghanistan. That I didn’t misrepresent Afghanistan or that I wasn’t relying upon orientalist tropes or demonizing any one side.”
But writing that story also came with responsibility. “I felt a great weight and concern, that I did my due service to my depiction of Afghanistan,” he says. “That I didn’t misrepresent Afghanistan or that I wasn’t relying upon orientalist tropes or demonizing any one side.”
This responsibility weighed especially heavy on Kochai, as before him, the most well-known Afghan American writer was Khaled Hosseini, whose work was championed by the likes of Laura Bush and Oprah Winfrey, but who also faced a great deal of criticism among Afghans themselves. “My experience has been that a lot of Afghan readers didn’t see themselves in his work or appreciate it,” Kochai says of how Afghans in the United States and Afghanistan referred to Hosseini’s work.
Though he wasn’t a fan of Hosseini’s 2003 debut novel The Kite Runner, it was an important turning point in Kochai’s life. It showed him that it was possible to be an Afghan and a writer.
With that realization, he eventually set out to show what he felt was missing in Hosseini’s work. He relied on his continued visits to Afghanistan to guide him towards a more authentic, nuanced portrayal of Afghan life. “I kind of feel grateful to him. I don’t know if I’d be writing today if it wasn’t for The Kite Runner,” he says.
Growing up the “cliché immigrant kid,” Kochai remembers the trepidation he felt in 2012, when at 19, he told his parents he wanted to be a writer. At the time, he says his parents were drowning in debt and facing the possibility of losing their home. “The first thing all immigrant parents want for their children is stability, and here I was saying I wanted to study literature,” he says.
Despite their initial hesitancy, Kochai’s entire family has supported his writing career. He also hopes that his work, including his short story collection, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, released in 2022, challenges the narratives around Afghans he grew up seeing in film, television, and video games.
In fact, the first story in Haji Hotak is titled “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain.” “When I was younger, and I would see Afghans getting wholesale slaughtered. We were always the terrorists, it really troubled me,” Kochai says of the problematic depictions of Afghanistan typical in Western media.
Though he says it “still sucks” to see that these tropes have not died, he has learned to temper his anger and frustration at the works of others. “It’s still troubling, but also, I realize that they’re all blips in the culture,” he says. “They get forgotten and die very quickly.”
If the accolades Kochai has gained over the last six years are any indication, he doesn’t have to worry about being a cultural blip. In 2023 alone, Haji Hotak won him the O Henry award and the Aspen Words Literary Prize. Most importantly, Kochai says an Afghan literary boom is slowly approaching. “I feel optimistic about the direction of Afghan literature as a whole.”
He says getting more female Afghan voices out there is extremely important, because too often, male writers fall short when it comes to female characters.
He names the likes of the German-born poet Aria Aber, Queens native Seelai Karzai, Co-founder of the Afghan American Artists & Writers Association, Sahar Muradi, and Brooklyn-based Zohra Saeed, as the leaders of a new generation of Afghan writers and poets in the United States and Europe.
The fact that this new wave is led by women is not lost on him. He says getting more female Afghan voices out there is extremely important, because too often, male writers fall short when it comes to female characters, “As soon as even the most talented male writers start writing about female protagonists, the quality of their work starts to drop off.”
Just as often, writing on Afghans and Muslims veers into cliche, harmful stereotypes and tropes. Kochai says male writers can easily fall into dangerous traps when writing from the female gaze: “It starts to become kind of gross, you notice everything becoming way more sexualized, almost as if they are obsessing over the body of the character.”
Kochai hopes these four Afghan-hyphenate women will help lead the charge towards an Afghan literary movement not unlike the Latin American Boom of the ’60s and ’70s that gave the world the likes of Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, and Julio Cortázar.
When combined with the strides Afghans are making in comedy, fashion, photography and film, Kochai says he is hopeful for the future of Afghan art in general: “I’m excited for all the new ideas and characterizations that will come out as this new generation of writers, artists and poets continue to put their work out there.”
Published on June 8, 2023
Words by Ali M. Latifi
Ali M Latifi was born in Kabul and raised in California. He has been reporting from Afghanistan, Turkey and Greece since 2011. His work has appeared in The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Foreign Policy, TIME and VICE News.