The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and the breathlessness of Jamil Jan Kochai
I felt strongly about writing a review of Jamil Jan Kochai’s new collection of fictional stories The Haunting of Hajji Hotak, principally, to critique an awful and racist review that I read in the New York Times.
That NYT had chosen Elliot Ackerman, a former US marine and intelligence officer, to critique a collection that is attempting to come to terms with the destruction wrought by the institution he represented, perhaps indicates their blindness to the ways violence works.
In the NYT review, we see a bizarre moment of gas-lighting as Ackerman accuses Kochai of writing in reductive tropes about the US military, going further in stating that there is a “distracting fixation on whiteness.”
"We are treated to the most direct view of this lingering and cumulative trauma through the story ‘Occupational Hazards’, where Kochai presents a CV from 1966 through to infinity – marking each major moment of violence from the Soviet invasion through to the global War on Terror, both in Afghanistan and the diaspora"
This view suggests more of Ackerman’s lack of understanding of structures of power in the US and less about Kochai’s ability to narrate the spectres of aggression that continue to haunt his motherland.
However, I feel it is an injustice to Jamil Jan Kochai’s prose to focus on critiquing Ackerman, and so instead I turn to this stunning collection of short stories.
These are stories that reduce the large distances that exist. Whether it is between an Afghan living in the US diaspora, or a drone operator flying unmanned vehicles of destruction from thousands of miles away, the distance to Afghanistan is reduced to nothing as the world is connected through Kochai’s storytelling.
As I was reading Enough I could hear somewhere in the background Arooj Aftab’s deep but gentle imperative: saans lo (breathe). I thought to myself how perfect, to be reminded to breathe while reading a story that permits no breath – a story whose sentences stumble into one another without the mercy of many full stops, forcing you to confront all the different parts of Rangeena’s life that she has to simultaneously think about and struggle with.
It is only at five points, almost akin to the five daily prayers for Muslims, that the flow of Rangeena’s life is given some semblance of a respite through the words:
The story Enough has the quality of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where at every turn in a short space of time, hangs the suffocation of a gulag; except this gulag is of the open air, a place that is free but still so suffocating with the ghosts of the past and the traumas of the present. In that space, Rangeena is only left with the scream of “enough”:
“…enough rambling, enough advice, enough pills, enough nightmares, enough lung damage, enough ghosts, enough beautiful dying boys, enough bomb smoke, enough burning apple trees, enough staring white neighbours, enough heavy breathing…”
Enough of what? The answer to that comes through almost every single page of these stories, for there is not a moment that intergenerational trauma is not present.
As with Enough, there is a breathless quality to Kochai’s writing as we are taken through large periods of history, but with enough signposting of violence that we can never detach these personal and historical moments from the impact they have on the human beings who live through them.
This, in essence, is one of the great successes of Kochai’s writing, the ability to inform of us of so much while expending very little effort in doing so.
The speed and the brevity with which this takes place to destabilise you to the extent that you cannot truly fathom that for Afghans…this is life. In A Premonition; Recollected, Mor recollects a vision that came to pass:
“…just a girl when she married, a child, kidnapped and beaten and forced into the bedroom of her husband, made to conceive two sons she could never wholly love, before dying in the thousandth bombing of a benevolent American invasion, her boys left behind to be raised by a war that will inevitably lead them to the mouth of an alley in the heart of Logar, and Mor will see their eyes seeing the headlights of her brothers’ Corolla tumbling down upon clay and ice and shadow, and she will see the gunmen step out from under the cover of branches into snowfall, into halos of light obscuring the faces of innocent men destined to be martyred for crimes they could never imagine, and she will see the tips of their fingers, already bitten by frost, inch toward the warmth of the trigger.”
We are treated to the most direct view of this lingering and cumulative trauma through the story Occupational Hazards, where Kochai presents a CV from 1966 through to infinity – marking each major moment of violence from the Soviet invasion through to the global 'War on Terror', both in Afghanistan and the diaspora.
We are reminded that surviving these moments isn’t necessarily just about bad luck, but part of what makes Afghan communities who they are today and communities that cannot be defined and bracketed so easily.
The unnamed protagonist who is sharing this CV of his life makes continual references to “the Captain”, a man who seems to be his tormentor until the point that the Soviets come to arrest this elder figure: “…praying for the Captain to live after years of praying for him to die.”
It is almost impossible to understand how these human relationships endure despite years of anthropology determining the fixed ways in which Afghans should be understood.
The Haunting of Hajji Hotak as an individual story, and as a whole collection, evokes a ghostly resonance, but these spectral references are far from the occult, they are the living ghosts that are encoded into the limbs of those who have survived bombings attacks; they exist in the amygdala and hippocampus of the brain’s fear system, only resurfacing to re-experience past traumas once again.
Through his mystical stories, Jamil Jan Kochai manifests these ghosts of the past, ones that leave the reader breathless in their intensity, but also the ones that are important in reminding us of the world that has been left for Afghans, who continue to pay multitudes of penalties for their very existence.
Dr Asim Qureshi is the Research Director of the advocacy group CAGE and has authored a number of books detailing the impact of the global War on Terror
Follow him on Twitter: @AsimCP