War Is a Structure: On Jamil Jan Kochai’s “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories”
By Najwa MayerDecember 20, 2022
The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Jamil Jan Kochai
Kochai interviewed his father for the résumé’s occupational trajectory while formally drawing upon Annie Proulx’s short story “Job History” (from her 1999 collection Close Range: Wyoming Stories), which indifferently reports the life of an American Midwesterner moving from job to job, working hard and reaping little. While Proulx demystifies the capitalist plotline of the American dream through an ordinary working-class tragedy, Kochai adapts this formula to reveal the formative socioeconomic conditions of war — indexing the continuum of how war distributes violence, on and beyond the battlefield, through an average Afghan’s labors. An Afghan shepherd turned reluctant soldier turned refugee is displaced by imperial wars and then, in the heart of empire, is conscripted into racialized domestic economies that use Asian migrants to displace Black workers.
Kochai could have narrated the harsh trials of war and displacement through the interior life of a character, or mimicked popular war literature that engenders a reader’s intimacy with distant, devastated Others yet glosses over the geopolitical structures that produce unequal suffering. Instead, methodically translating lived violence via a résumé, a bureaucratic form that quantifies labor in its most banal functionality, paradoxically realizes the spectacular breadth of war and how it organizes life’s possibilities. A working-class refugee’s résumé poignantly grounds and measures a transnational economy of war through its various charges: soldiering, gravedigging, migrating, surviving, surviving, surviving.
In this collection, war is past, present, and plural. In Afghanistan, Kochai recounts the lives of Logaris and Kabulis, against the backdrop of the US occupation, still dealing with the detritus of previous wars — British, Soviet, and civil — including their shrines, mines, and memories. In the United States, Afghan Californians experience the diasporic conditions of war — state neglect of refugees combined with targeted surveillance — amid the coming-of-age of a second generation that must confront inherited traumas while struggling to build political solidarities with other displaced youth.
These 12 stories explore the reverberations between historical and psychic realities, invoking a ghostly practice of reading. Characters, living and dead, recur across the stories, moving back and forth between the United States and Afghanistan, whether in body or in memory. Wars echo one another, as the leader of a quashed insurgency against the contemporary US occupation unearths the oral history of an un-archived 19th-century British massacre in Northern Afghanistan. Scenes and states mirror each other, with one story depicting Afghan bureaucracies that disavow military and police violence while another depicts US bureaucracies that deny social services to unemployed refugees. History itself is layered and unresolved, as events unfolding in one story emerge as memories or even folklore in another. The collection tasks the reader with putting together the pieces — as in the meaning-making work of the dislocated refugee.
Kochai, who was born in a refugee camp in Peshawar, writes from the position of the Afghan diaspora, one of the longest-standing displaced populations in the world. Like him, my family and I were refugees, multiply moved across Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and finally the United States in the 1990s. We arrived in a working-class neighborhood of California among other immigrants from Asia, Africa, and Latin America, many of whom had résumés like Kochai’s father. My family experienced the US invasion and two-decade occupation of Afghanistan not as the warmakers and journalists insidiously narrated it — as a “good” war of liberation, even a “feminist” war — but rather as yet another war. In Kochai’s stories, too, the era of the so-called war on terror provides the anchor, while lying in the wake of many earlier wars.
The 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and 10-year proxy war with the United States is often depicted by Western journalists and scholars in terms of its ideologies rather than its ravages: two million Afghan civilians killed, three million maimed, over seven million displaced, and a country still littered with land mines. Another decade of factional civil wars followed, leading to the Taliban’s oppressive rule. Imperial interventions during this “Cold War” period extended British and Russian empires’ earlier “Great Game” in the region, creating the geopolitical conditions for Afghanistan’s ensnarement in decades of war, as historian Ali A. Olomi has detailed. What anthropologist Anila Daulatzai has termed a condition of “serial war” better approximates the way Afghans have experienced the last 20 years — as a continuation of the 20 before, haunted by the 100 before that.
In August 2021, the US relegated Afghanistan to the past, declaring the “longest American war” over. Over for whom? one should ask. The United States is, of course, still at war in Afghanistan, including through drone strikes and forms of economic warfare such as sanctions, resource theft, and enforced starvation. Meanwhile, Afghans are governed by another corrupt state they did not choose. Displaced Afghans experience infrastructural effects of war that are global in nature, including racialized borders that welcome some refugees while abandoning others.
War, in other words, is not an event but a structure. Understanding imperial war, especially in the Afghan context, requires a conceptual framework similar to that deployed by Australian anthropologist Patrick Wolfe (and further complicated by Indigenous studies scholars) to describe the mode of invasion characteristic of settler colonialism — not an event but an enduring structure, consisting of ongoing land theft and elimination. Settler colonialism is different from imperialism, but in the US context they are materially bonded in the violent expansion of power, capital, militarism, and ideas. As Indigenous studies scholars have shown, war is a racial and reproductive strategy that connects US settler colonialism at home with imperial adventures abroad, from the “Indian Wars” to the “war on terror.” The war on terror’s structure features military and counterterrorism operations in at least 85 countries, including within the United States itself through expanded policing not only of Muslims but also of Black, Brown, and Indigenous peoples. Seeing war as a structure helps us grasp its truly global scale, at once there and here, as well as how its effects are unequally distributed and experienced. War’s structure includes its diffuse militarisms, profit economies, reforged borders, and cultural marketplaces, as well as its displacements and wounds, which leave indelible marks and absences long after the bombs have dropped.
In Kochai’s collection, war is not the story; rather, war arranges the scenes and life possibilities, generating a dispersed socioeconomic structure. Kochai carefully puts war itself, and the warmakers, in the narrative background, observing how they condition or encroach upon ordinary people’s lives — as in a résumé of transnational labor relations, mapped by imperial violence. This is a historically incisive narrative design for representing Afghanistan. Kochai challenges centuries of Western colonial discourses, from Rudyard Kipling to Rambo, that conflate Afghanistan with violence while erasing the international production of that violence as well as the social and conceptual worlds of Afghans themselves. Instead, this collection moves the reader across Afghans’ transcontinental, intergenerational, and multispirited social worlds — including through stories of migrations and returns, homes populated by the living and the martyred, language that enmeshes Dari, Pashto, and Northern California slang, as well as the occasional fantastical creature that conveys stark analyses about modern history.
Like Kochai’s debut novel 99 Nights in Logar (2019), this collection merges realism and the fantastic, oral and academic histories, Afghan folklore and Islamic texts, giving his fiction a dynamic relation to history. Each story is an experiment, and many of them are replete with surreal or magical elements, including giants, angels, and djinn.
In “Return to Sender,” set in Kabul during the final years of the US occupation, an Afghan American couple on a medical mission receives a series of anonymous packages holding the dismembered limbs of their son Ismael (evocatively named after an Abrahamic figure that many Muslims associate with his father’s sacrifice to God). Seeking justice, Ismael’s father frantically scours the occupied city, carrying one of his son’s fingers. Passing a craven architecture of endless, dysfunctional security checkpoints, he is nearly shot several times, but “[n]ot a single policeman could tell him what to do, and instead each policeman kept directing him to meet with another policeman.” Despite being an elite expat in a city that “still belongs to America,” his quest fails because the authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer number of missing children. Meanwhile, Ismael’s mother collects each parceled limb as it arrives. Attentive to their fleshliness — and their supernatural pulsing, as if still bearing life — she resigns herself to stitching Ismael together again, piece by piece. There is a resolve in her devotion to this ghastly task of suturing up her child that makes one believe, or hope, that in this story’s magical law, Ismael will revive once reassembled. It’s not clear to us, but in the act of rehabilitating Ismael, his parents realize that they too are forever tethered to Kabul.
As in Ahmed Saadawi’s 2013 novel Frankenstein in Baghdad, a nightmarish sensorium collides with a postcolonial body politics in the image of a stitched-up creature that evokes a fractured postwar nation. In Kochai’s story, Ismael’s body is both a sacrifice to and a symbol of Afghanistan’s (im)possible recovery. The hacked-up pieces of the child and Kabul’s labyrinthine yet paralyzed architecture of urban policing surreally metaphorize what the US “withdrawal” confirmed: the colonial state’s corporeal decomposition and the fictions of an infrastructurally recovered Kabul propagated by the American architects of occupation. One may read “Return to Sender” as an abstraction of war, but what seems abstract manifests again and again, horrifically, as in the periodic arrival of Ismael’s packaged limbs.
Documenting the effects of the US war on Afghanistan, like many other historical atrocities, has mobilized all manner of realist representations, from treatises on war’s infrastructural devastation to data about the massacred and displaced to testimonies and photographs of bare suffering. In some cases, these depictions act as forms of witness, but sometimes they merely reiterate the violence they represent or reduce entire populations to their injuries. In most cases, they have not produced justice or even a second look.
In a recent interview, Kochai said that writing about his family’s experiences of war has compelled him to explore “realms of the surreal or magical realism […] because the incidents themselves seem so unreal […] [I]t takes years and decades to even come to terms with what had actually happened to them before their eyes.” He points not to a documentary dilemma but to an epistemological one. While some scholars have argued that fantastic genres like magical realism are often conflated with exoticized imaginaries of the Global South, others have defended the form’s critical possibilities for rendering complex realities and multiple modes of interpretation. Literary metaphors, whether magical or otherwise, are always imprecise; as Afghan poet Aria Aber puts it, “you flee into metaphor but you return / with another moth / flapping inside your throat.” But the moth is also the point. Cultural theorist Lisa Lowe has argued that the social sciences often instrumentalize metaphor when they try to make sense of modern globalization, to “rationalize as comprehensible the incomprehensible” within an empirical framework. Aesthetic metaphors, on the other hand, subvert empirical knowability: their allusiveness — appealing to the reader to be read as something else — implicate them as “incomplete, in excess of what can be contained by representation.”
Kochai’s metaphors, his nonrealist mediations of war’s effects, are not necessarily acts of exposure — we already know that war is violent — but, rather, modes of interpretation at the epistemological limits of mere documentation. Kochai does not “escape” into the surreal or magical as fictions but as other ways of reckoning with war’s pasts ongoing in the present.
In Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2017), author Viet Thanh Nguyen, himself a war refugee, writes that “all wars are fought twice, the first time on the battlefield, the second time in memory.”
When The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories was published in July, an unfavorable review in The New York Times written by a former US military commander elicited widespread criticism about the persistent representation of Afghanistan, the Afghan American diaspora, and even their art and literature through the narratives of the occupying forces. The reviewer, Elliot Ackerman, criticizes Kochai’s portrayal of the US military and his alleged “fixation on whiteness.” Yet, very few white characters appear in the collection; indeed, a narrative decentering of whiteness in a collection about the US empire’s racialized wars is, perhaps, the point. Kochai does, of course, intimate the well-documented history of white supremacy that is foundational to the enterprise of US imperialism — a history never lost on the colonized themselves.
The post-9/11 literary marketplace remains a chief ideological exporter of the war on terror, churning out racist narratives about an interminable clash between “savage,” if sometimes redeemable, Muslims and a “benevolent” modern West. At the same time, a cadre of foreign soldiers, humanitarians, and journalists, posing as experts on Afghan politics and culture, have generated books and articles promoting their own political, economic, military, and cultural agendas, often reproducing the war on terror’s ideological script. This long legacy of Western empires simultaneously demolishing and reimagining entire peoples is particularly insidious in the age of mass media, when marketplaces transform and commodify the distant violence of empire’s foot soldiers into intimate knowledge about their victims. Nguyen encapsulates this process as the work of “memory industries” — wherein publishing houses and Hollywood deliver a stream of predominantly white perspectives on US wars against Others. The traumatized marine — or the compassionate CIA agent or the white feminist savior — undertakes a journey of conscience amidst a landscape rendered into a violent ideological laboratory, where Afghan — or Somali or Vietnamese — people are both their targets and their lessons.
Kochai’s concluding story, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak,” implicitly exposes these narrative formulas by recounting an Afghan American family’s life in suburban Sacramento through the eyes of the FBI agent surveilling them. Peering into the family’s home, he dutifully interprets their idiosyncrasies for his superiors, all the while forming a perversely longing attachment. Written in the second-person, the story also implicates the reader in surveillance’s voyeurism, an intimate gaze premised on violation.
This collection avoids ethnographic generalization; its object is primarily, sometimes self-referentially, the process of storytelling itself. Kochai commits to the stories of — and formally reckons with the compromised act of writing about — minor subjects through local perspectives, thus obviating a monolithic Afghan or Afghan American experience. Given the diversities and power disparities among Afghan ethnicities, sects, genders, classes, and regions, such nonessentialized storytelling is a reproach to the tendency toward identitarian reduction that marks so much of our literature (and politics).
Neither Soviet nor American wars are romanticized here. Kochai’s treatment, like history itself, is murkier. The so-called “insurgents” are not homogenized Islamic reactionaries but include poor farmers mourning their ceaseless losses to foreign bombs while finding themselves alienated by the Afghan government’s repression campaigns in one era and its systemic corruption in another. The Afghan American characters have not internalized a “civilizational clash” between East and West, as is often the Asian immigrant’s caricature in diaspora literature, but, rather, are politically and psychically reckoning with their statuses as imperial citizens in relation to their parents’ homelands.
Afghan American literature as a canon is still, perhaps blissfully, undefined. One model for its future is Kochai’s complex (sur)realism. Afghanistan and its diaspora offer opportunities for a mode of storytelling that amounts to its own kind of social theory, providing critical interpretations not only about Afghanistan but also about the longue durée of colonialism, empire, war, capital, migration, and modernity as well as resistances, kinships, and narrative itself.
“Hungry Ricky Daddy,” for instance, is a story about the diasporic alliance between Afghan and Palestinian Muslims that is attentive to both political entwinement and historical difference. Set in a California college town, it depicts social and ethical solidarities — akin to what Junaid Rana and Sohail Daulatzai call a “Muslim Left” — forming among the children of multiple displacements. An Afghan American student nicknamed “Ricky Daddy,” who has fallen in love with a Palestinian activist, pursues an intellectual and religious journey toward political consciousness, filled with “Marxist book clubs, SJP meetings, anti-police rallies, postcolonial theory courses.” Inspired first by love and then by anti-colonial commitment, he joins in the hunger strike of a Palestinian man imprisoned without charge in Israel. Along with his Muslim allies, he records and circulates a speech that seeks to draw an international audience in solidarity, outrage, or at least concern. But the “video barely made a blip.” The speech paraphrases an actual address delivered to Israelis in 2013 by Samer Issawi, a Palestinian political prisoner. Kochai’s version, by contrast, addresses Israel’s primary benefactor, the United States, and the complicity of its elites in the war on Palestinians:
Americans […] I have not heard one of you interfere to stop the loud wail of death and the quiet torture of our dark bodies. It is as if every one of you has turned into grave diggers, and everyone wears his military suit — the judge, the writer, the journalist, the merchant, the academic, and the poet. […] If you have passed over our country and destroyed it in the name of a God or a principle, you will not pass over our elegant souls, which have declared disobedience.
Indicting a transnational structure of war that conscripts everyone — rulers, warriors, writers, and witnesses alike, either through consent or disavowal — we hear in this passage not only the voice of Palestine but also of Afghanistan, and Iraq, and Somalia, and …
Acknowledgments: The author would like to thank Anila Daulatzai, Shaista Patel, and Helena Zeweri for their comments on earlier forms of this essay.
Najwa Mayer is a writer and scholar who researches the cultural politics of race, gender, Islam, and United States empire. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow with the Society of Fellows in the College of Arts & Sciences at Boston University.
LARB Staff Recommendations
Afghan author Homeira Qaderi on the sorry fate of literature under the Taliban regime....
A soldier’s journey through Afghanistan reveals dismal truths about the United States....
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Please consider supporting our work and helping to keep LARB free.