99 Nights in Logar: A Novel

  • By Jamil Jan Kochai
  • Viking
  • 288 pp.

An American boy tries to reconnect with his family and culture in war-torn Afghanistan.

99 Nights in Logar: A Novel

Imagine taking a step into Afghanistan, a country whose name conjures up images of relentless bombings, of bearded men and covered women, and of a landscape that consists of little more than endless, scorching sand, broken only by a few crumbling stone buildings.

Author Jamil Jan Kochai’s lyrically powerful debut novel, 99 Nights in Logar, refuses to shy away from the images of a decrepit Afghanistan that the media, particularly Western media, so delights in pushing: dead, forgotten soldiers floating in stagnant water; piles of bones (human and animal alike); and the gnawing pain of loved ones lost.

Yet Kochai’s Afghanistan moves beyond these images, integrating them into a magical-realist world. The novel skillfully weaves folktales, Islamic hadiths, stories from the Quran, and simple retellings of past occurrences in a way that breathes life into the oral tradition of storytelling still so prevalent in countries such as Afghanistan, India, and Pakistan.

This novel is the Afghani equivalent of gathering around a warm campfire on a night where the air still has quite a bit of nip to it. You aren’t entirely comfortable, but you’re surrounded by loved ones as you share tales that evoke a spectrum of emotions.    

Kochai does not leave the reader to stumble alone through this world, which will be unsettlingly foreign to most. Cue the tour guide: 12-year-old Marwand, an American boy who returns to his homeland of Afghanistan after six years and ends up on a search for his family’s runaway dog. He’s as uncomfortable in the land of his birth and with its languages of Pashto/Pakhto and Persian/Farsi as readers are.

Like most tour guides, he’s slightly unlikeable. Often, he is unflinchingly cruel to animals yet regretful when taught why such actions are offensive. Unlike most tour guides, he can be unreliable and unhelpful. Muslims prayers are presented without any explanation. A non-Muslim reader has no clues with which to work out the difference between Fajr and Asr, or what a rakat (one part of a full prayer) is.

Marwand will, with maddening consistency, use words such as Wallah and musafir that will discomfit a reader, as one must possess some working knowledge of Islam, Farsi, and Urdu to understand their full meanings. (Wallah is similar to “I swear,” while the simplest definition of  musafir is traveler.)

Marwand, then, is a dubious guide to whom you will present a five-star review, regardless of his refusal to hold your hand as you navigate through the Logar, Afghanistan, of Kochai’s poetic and, at times, gritty novel.

Why? Put simply, Marwand performs magic. He shares stories, sometimes providing warning. Other times, he shifts away from his search for the dog that bit off his finger to tell a folktale. These interludes shift beautifully and mimic conversations in which interruptions are not only expected but embraced.

Each story that Marwand presents shimmers with an enchantment reminiscent of The Thousand and One Nights, Scheherazade’s crafted tales that still elicit wonder today. These narratives are not linear; they are often not even relevant to the overall narrative.

Yet they are undoubtedly the best parts of the novel, even when they interrupt each other, overlapping and entwining. The readers are not simply trudging along behind Marwand, lost and confused; they are fully engaged in this tour, each story drawing them deeper into this at once terrifying and magical world.  

As for the language barriers, they cause confusion without becoming obstacles. What does it matter that non-Urdu, non-Pashto, non-Farsi, and non-Arabic readers will be unable to comprehend that the words (ﮔﺮ ﻟﻮ ) heading each new chapter actually say “Logar”?

The guide himself struggles through the languages, often switching back to English for ease and stating self-consciously at the very start that “my Farsi was shit.” The wise reader will embrace this lingual discomfort, use it as a link to bond with the unreliable narrator.

This linguistic distress comes to a head when one running mystery of the novel — how Marwand’s Afghani uncle died — is solved. Readers are finally told…in untranslated Pashto in the very last chapter.

The intrepid (or unsatisfied) will make attempts to translate. The more patient will realize that we are not meant to understand every occurrence. Like our guide, we must stumble along the best we can, navigating our cultural roots with modern sensibilities.     

Despite the linguistic barriers Western and even some Eastern audiences will experience, the novel unerringly guides readers to consider our many, unexpected similarities. At some point and in some place, we will all be outsiders.

Marwand’s aunt states this succinctly when discussing emigrated Afghanis and visitors: “We live with them. We work with them. Our boys study with them. They know their language better than ours. Their culture. Everything. And we don’t support them?”

99 Nights in Logar’s resounding answer is that we should. We should support each other, though we speak differently, pray differently, and look dissimilar. We must find those bits and pieces that connect us (scattered and scarce though they may be) and allow them to spark childlike wonder. If we share our stories, we can share our lives.    

Fatima Taha is working on her Ph.D. in comparative literature at the University of Maryland while also teaching English writing and literature. She resides in Maryland, where she is working on her novel. She loves words almost as much as chocolate pastries.

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