Jamil Jan Kochai on a Shared Cultural Language

Your story “On the Night of the Khatam” takes place primarily at a gathering of Afghan refugees who are living in Sacramento, and who meet to talk, gossip, eat, and pray together, although their histories, political views, and affiliations in Afghanistan are all quite different. Did gatherings like this take place when you were growing up in Sacramento?

Sure, and it’s funny because, when I was growing up, I would do whatever I could to escape these gatherings. It was only as an adult that I began to appreciate the stories that were told at khatams or parties. Many of our family friends were also fantastic storytellers. Sometimes, you had to wait a few hours for them to finish arguing about gardens or masjid politics, but, if you were patient, you might hear some sweet old gray-bearded man tell the most harrowing (or sorrowful) story you’d ever heard, and you’d drive home at night thinking about how you had known this man for decades, had grown up with his children, could distinguish his chuckle in a room full of laughing guests, and still never would have guessed the immensity of the suffering he had experienced.

The host of the gathering, Hajji Hotak, is a character who has appeared in many previous stories of yours, including the title story of your collection, “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories.” What keeps you engaging with Hajji Hotak and his family in your fiction?

I believe James Baldwin once said, “Every writer has only one story to tell, and he has to find a way of telling it until the meaning becomes clearer and clearer, until the story becomes at once more narrow and larger, more and more precise, more and more reverberating.” And I think there might be something about Hajji Hotak and his family that I haven’t figured out yet. A clarity, or a reverberation, I have yet to uncover.

In the story, we’re thrown into a number of long-term disagreements and disputes that aren’t always easy for those without a detailed knowledge of Afghan history to follow. What effect do you want the litany of half-finished sentences about that history—which come when the men argue partway through the story—to have on the reader?

Though this wasn’t a conscious decision, I suppose I may have wanted my reader to experience these disputes and historical tensions in a similar way to how I experienced them as a child. The stories, the historical narratives in my community, were always fragmented and unfinished. There were constant omissions and contradictory accounts. Though the Soviet war and the subsequent wars that emerged as a consequence of the Soviet war have ended, the battle over the memory of these wars continues to be waged to this day.

An unexpected guest arrives at the gathering—a man named Fahim, who has been more or less ostracized from the community because of his alcoholism and bad behavior while drunk. He is welcomed in and allowed to reconcile with the other men. Later (spoiler alert), we discover that he may have been guilty of many far more serious betrayals. How did the character of Fahim come to you? Do you feel sympathy for him? Ambivalence?

Years ago, there was an old Afghan man who used to come to our local mosque a little tipsy, or sometimes high. He always cried during prayer and wore the same old bell-bottom suit. Something from the seventies, I thought. I imagined him strolling around Kabul before the wars. And, out of this image, the whole story unfolded, and Fahim became the center of it. And, yes, I not only feel sympathy for Fahim, I care for him.

What makes the other men accept him back into the community and then go to great lengths to honor him after his death, with the founder of the community offering up his own burial plot?

I think that, despite his flaws and self-destructive habits, Fahim is charming and vulnerable in a way that the other men in this story find both unusual and endearing. He is the sort of person who is so nakedly flawed that, on meeting him, you begin to see yourself differently. Your secret defects and weaknesses may suddenly seem less monstrous, and I think that might be why Fahim is still loved in the end.

In this world of shifting allegiances, political disagreements, muddied history, and the basic struggles of integrating into another country’s very different culture, what are the ties that bind these characters and keep them coming together in this way?

Oftentimes, I think it can be something rudimentary, like language. It’s not just that they speak Pashto or Farsi (though that, in and of itself, is important) but also that they share a cultural and historical language. The language of exile. Of war. You want to speak. You want to be heard by others. You want to be at least briefly understood. It can be as simple as that.

In a couple of other stories of yours that appeared in The New Yorker, you used a second-person narrator. Here, it’s a collective first-person. “We” attend the gathering—and we, the readers, never learn anything specific about the narrator. Why is that?

Initially, I tried writing this story in a singular first person, from the perspective of Hotak’s son, the unnamed Ph.D. student, but I found that the more I wrote the more the narrator disappeared into the story, into this chorus of other voices and opinions, and so eventually I just decided to let the singular first person evaporate into a collective voice, and it turned into this roving, bodiless, almost omniscient presence that is attempting to speak for (and about) the men in the story but, I think, is failing in the process.

You know, it’s odd, because at a gathering like this you may find yourself witnessing intense moments of vulnerability. One man might describe how he was tortured as a prisoner of war, or another might recall the day his brother was hauled away from their home, never to be seen again. But, even amid these memories, these recollections, so much is left unsaid that you can leave the encounter feeling that you know even less about the person, or the community, than you did before. We speak and speak, we narrate, we attempt to communicate, and yet, the gulf widens, or, at least, becomes more mysterious. ♦

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *