The feeling of being haunted has a way of collapsing one’s sense of direction and space. The presence of something blankets the world like mist, lingering, but impossible to locate. The feeling is inevitably followed by the question, “is it all in my head?” Maybe I’m projecting the rumblings of my psyche out into the world. Or maybe there was a glitch in the realm of the unseen, and maybe I was lucky to catch a glimpse of the ineffable. (Or maybe I’m not being haunted, but the FBI agent assigned to watch my every move isn’t as discreet as he thinks he is.)
The lines between what is and is not real blur often in the brilliant new short story collection The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories by Afghan-American writer Jamil Jan Kochai. In the opening story, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” a young boy scrapes up the money to buy a newly released first-person shooter video game which happens to be set in 1980s Afghanistan, the same time and place where his father and uncle fought among the mujahideen against Soviet forces. The boy detours his character from the game’s mission to wander the digital landscape. When his character reaches Logar, the village where his father was stationed, the virtual becomes personal: inside the game, he finds his father’s old home and sees his father and uncle nearby. And just like that, the game is no longer a game, but a chance at familial salvation and redemption.
War and its discontents permeate the collection. Some stories are situated directly in the horrors of wartime itself; in others, the contours of lives are shaped by a multitude of things, war being just one, humming in the background. In “Return to Sender,” an Afghan-American couple’s desire to “repay their debts to the land from which they had descended” brings them back to Kabul on a medical mission, where they plan to stay for only a year. Six months into their stay, their son goes missing, and pieces of the abducted boy’s body arrive in small increments at the door of his parents’ apartment. One could say the couple suffers from survivor’s guilt, but what does it mean to survive when your desire to settle emotional debts further entrenches your suffering? In “Saba’s Story,” an elderly father living in Sacramento asks his sons to buy him a metal detector so he can go back to Logar to find some gold he believes is buried in his land, dating back to the British’s 1888 military campaign in the Black Mountains. But what initially seems like a story about escaping poverty, appeasing your father, and the aftermath of war is actually a story about love and destiny, leaving us to ponder the question: “why must we always ruin what is beautiful with what is true?”
Kochai seamlessly weaves in and out of war, and back and forth between Afghanistan and Northern California, crafting stories that are sometimes folkloric and other times distinctly contemporary. An armed insurrection of monkeys taking over Afghanistan, and an FBI agent spying on, and developing an emotional attachment to, an unsuspecting suburban Afghan-American family both feel completely inevitable and unextraordinary because of the measured, almost casual prose with which the stories are crafted. The result is a collection that has the aura of an oral tradition of storytelling; as if you’re hearing them directly from an elder or cousin who has lived these stories and feels no need to sensationalize the details, no matter how sensational they are.
The stories traverse emotionally complex terrain, introducing readers to places and peoples that are routinely demonized and dehumanized in contemporary America. It’s not often you read stories featuring former mujahideen, a college student willing to die for love and Palestinian liberation, or even sympathetic FBI agents for that matter. And that’s what makes Kochai’s masterful collection so refreshing and riveting. We’ve been told such boring, distorted, and harmful stories about Afghans, Muslims, and the War on Terror. It would be easy for a writer to fall into the trap of taking those lazy, bad-faith stories seriously and to try to write against their current, attempting to offer a correction of sorts.
But Kochai doesn’t fall for it. The imperialist narrative of helpless Afghan women who need to be liberated by benevolent American forces, which was happily peddled by American media and politicians throughout the War on Terror and after the US withdrawal, isn’t counteracted by Kochai with stories of morally perfect and valiant Afghan men. Nowhere in this collection do we find oafish Muslims who blindly follow a faith perceived by some Americans to teach violence, but neither do we find Muslims who are more angelic than they are human. Even members of the Taliban are simply referred to as “Ts,” which subverts the view of them as hellish warmongerers and forces readers to see them from the vantage point of the everyday people who have to deal with Taliban members living in their neighborhood. Kochai penned a collection of highly original, enchanting stories on his own terms, decentering the narrative debris of the War on Terror, and opting to create his own spectacular worlds instead. He honors the multifaceted and rich cultural, familial, and spiritual lives of Afghans and Afghan-Americans without robbing them of moral complexity, reducing their lives to how they interact with bland, vicious stereotypes, or casting them as a monolith.
The epigraph of the collection quotes a verse from the Qur’an where God asks: “So where are you going?” The question isn’t necessarily about one’s outward direction on this earth, as elsewhere the Qur’an proclaims: “To God belongs the east and the west, so wherever you turn you are facing towards God.” Thus, the verse in the epigraph calls attention to the inward orientation of one’s heart while journeying through life. In other words, the question is not directional, but existential, whose presence demands a heightened sense of awareness that follows you wherever you go—like a ghost, perhaps. This verse is the perfect first impression for a collection of stories featuring dead children and grieving parents, lost love and blossoming romances, faith and martyrdom, and homeland and diaspora. Lighthearted yet powerful and oftentimes funny, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak is an incredible work of deep empathy and care, with witty writing and sharp stories that take unpredictable turns. And while reading, you may–alongside the characters–be confronted by the question: Where are you going?
The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories
By Jamil Jan Kochai
Published July 19, 2022
Farooq Chaudhry is a writer and editor based in Chicago. He currently serves as a Daily Editor for the Chicago Review of Books and is a J.D. candidate at the University of Chicago Law School. You can find him on Twitter at @spilledchai_.