Jamil Jan Kochai: 99 Nights in Logar
Marwand is a twelve year old Afghan boy. He and his family (mother, Moor, father, Agha, and brothers Mirwais and Gwora) had emigrated to the United States. They had previously visited Logar (in Afghanistan), six years ago in 1999. During much of his stay at that time, Marwand had spent his time abusing the vicious dog, Budabash. He feels a little (though only a little) guilty about this, so when they arrive this time, he is determined to be nice to the dog. The dog clearly remembers him and proceeds to bite off the tip of his finger. Once he recovers – which takes some time – his cousins (there are many) have all returned to school and the path is clear for Marwand and his brothers to torment the dog further. When any of the family appear, they brothers pretend they are reading or studying – Agha is determined they keep up their English as they forgot much of it last time. They throw things at the unfortunate dog and, as he is tied up, he cannot escape or retaliate.
This continues for thirty-one days. On the thirty-second day, Budabash breaks loose and disappears. The two older brothers, i.e. Marwand and Mirwais, with his two little uncles, Gul, aged fourteen, and Dawood, aged twelve, and his cousin, Zia, decide to set off looking for him, as the family love him and he is a good guard dog. Rahmutallah Maamaa, Zia’s father, has told them to stay at home, while he goes looking for the dog, but they disobey him and set off to find the dog. We follow their epic journey to find the dog.
We have a rough idea what happens to them early on, as Marwand gives us a list of things he saw on the journey. These include a cobra, various people, a man who may or may not be Taliban, but who was armed, two US helicopters and two strays that looked like what Budabash would’ve if he’d actually been a dog. Marwand is convinced that he is not really a dog but some sort of a devil. Children they meet who had seen him, say he is a wolf. Whatever he is, one of the things on Marwan’s list is No Budabash.
One thing that he does not mention in his list is the stories. To entertain one another on the journey, they tell each stories. These are normally about (relatively) recent events, though one or two are clearly older fables. They are often about friends or relatives. Quite a few have war as a background, not least because Afghanistan had suffered war in recent years. These stories continue throughout the book and are told by different characters in the book. They certainly enhance the book and give it something of an Arabian Nights feel.
One example is called The Tale of the Butcher’s Son (all the stories are given titles of this nature). Nabeela Khala is Moor’s younger sister. She was not married but the oldest unmarried girl in the family and therefore next in line to be married. She was not very pretty, nor very slim, nor very polite. Indeed, she did not generally seem to conform to Afghan ideals of what a wife should be like: she could slaughter a steer, chop down trees, whup on her nephews, dig ditches, toss bricks, and handle an AK as well as any soldier. When she was sexually harassed, she could beat up the assailant more easily than her brothers could. As a result she did not have any suitors. However, she started a dress shop and did very well with her fashions, so the local butcher’s son came calling. However, he was very poor so was rejected out of hand. He tried again and again and kept coming back. This became more complicated, as she fell in love with him but her family refused him and, eventually, her brothers beat him up to discourage him. This was the situation at the beginning of the book but the story develops later on in the book.
The journey of the five boys does not work out well. One boy is lost, one boy is carried home unconscious and no dog is found. They come across US troops and are nearly arrested and meet the local thief, who steals something from them. He will later play a key role.
The story becomes more complicated but also more serious, as the Afghan War and Taliban make more of an appearance. Love and marriage, flooding, cross-dressing, the depredations of Budabash and even a possible marriage partner for Marwan all add to the fun, against a lively and colourful background of Afghan culture and customs.
If your view of Afghanis is of dour Taliban members, this book clearly shows that Afghanis can be as fun, as lively and, on occasions, as vulgar as anyone else. Even Jawed, the thief, has his positive side. Indeed, the only people seriously criticised in this book are the Taliban and the various invaders: British, Russian and US.
Kochai is a natural story-teller and if you like a good story, or lots of good stories, you cannot fail to enjoy this book. It is colourful, witty, full of action, with unexpected plot twists and a host of fascinating characters. He is critical of the war or, more particularly, the various wars Afghanistan has suffered during its history and there is no doubt, that, while the Taliban take their share of the blame, the foreigners have caused and continue to cause many of the problems. For a first novel, this really is an excellent work and I hope we see more of his writing.
First published by Viking in 2019