“I could tell you that I was beating the dog because I was beaten, that I was six and stupid and knew no better,” Marwand recounts to his cousin Zia in eastern Afghanistan. “But here is the other thing I have to admit: the more I hurt him and the more he took it, as quiet as he did, without even a growl, the more I became attached to the dog.” Six years later, Marwand, now 12, returns from California to his extended family’s home in Afghanistan for 99 days. When Marwand goes to greet the dog, Budabash, the latter finally responds to the earlier violence, biting off the tip of Marwand’s index finger.
These injuries sustain Jamil Jan Kochai’s brilliant first novel, 99 Nights in Logar, as Budabash escapes and Marwand, along with his uncles and cousins in Logar, searches extensively to capture the beast. This adventure takes the reader through a small village in a war-torn Afghanistan as we confront different scenes and characters, from the American military to Jawed the Thief, eventually getting lost in the labyrinth of stories the boys encounter.
Kochai’s work raises multiple questions about how we typically consume narratives about Afghanistan, especially when we consider the stereotypes of the country that abound in the public sphere. Here, Afghanistan presents a challenge not because of the presumed harsh terrain of a remote frontier region. Nor does Afghanistan present a challenge because of the assumed intractability of religious and ethnic divisions. Instead, Kochai turns the gaze around and forces Western readers to interrogate themselves, their own foundational assumptions and attachments.
The reader is forced to ask: What does it mean to witness injury? What does it mean to listen to torment? How do we consume narratives of affliction? And, confronted with these questions, we learn that difficulties stem not from the need for better representation or more humane understandings of Afghanistan, but from our proclaimed sovereignty over what it means to be human.
Kochai troubles the desire for mastery by unsettling many of our familiar categories, most notably the autonomous, unified self central to conceptualizing the human. This is, of course, an especially important task since the never-ending war in Afghanistan is premised on mastery and the production of autonomous subjects. The goal of the War on Terror, after all, is to know and control a population in order to provide liberty and, of course, property, while rooting out the ostensible savage—a project that uses bombs to transport freedom to silenced but expectant peoples.
In Logar, the trouble began when Marwand failed to break Budabash during the trip six years earlier, much as the British and the Soviets failed to domesticate Afghanistan years prior to recent US involvement. If Marwand had dominated Budabash in an earlier time, he would have created a world that we, as readers, could master easily. Everything would be in place; we would have secured our own place by fastening Budabash to his.
To be more explicit: had Marwand succeeded and settled the matter with Budabash in that prior trip, he would have removed the foundational violence of sovereignty from our sight. Sovereignty requires the separation and classification of human and beast. We would have taken our place by separating ourselves from the beast.1 But we are refused that comforting domination and are, instead, complicit. We are in a zone of undecideability. Budabash, therefore, presents a challenge to our desires for easy demarcations, unsettling our stark divisions. Striking back, Budabash denies the reader the beast-as-usual—and, hence, Afghanistan-as-usual.
Marwand (absent a fingertip) and his fellows look for the escaped Budabash in order to settle the debt. Searching for certainty, we too wind down the roads and mazes of Logar. We encounter missing limbs, starched bones, and, yes, blood. Still, Budabash confounds his search party, even though their surveillance tactics are culled from the security apparatus of an enduring colonial presence in the country.
Budabash evades his would-be captors because he is stealthy as a wolf, or perhaps because he is a wolf—Marwand describes dragging his “hands across the wolf’s wet skin. Or what I thought was a wolf. Or what I thought was a dog. Or what I thought was Budabash.” Budabash provokes this hesitation throughout the novel. He eludes capture, proceeding in the narrative silently and discreetly, almost inaudibly, to surprise the ostensible victim.
And, through it all, the reader must remember, while waiting at makeshift checkpoints with Marwand, that it was George W. Bush’s sovereign pronouncement, as a “decider,” to follow “the path of boots on the ground” in Afghanistan and Iraq.2 To be a decider would mean that one is an absolute and indivisible sovereign.3 To be a decider would be to devour and master the beast and his setting. This sovereign indivisibility would be comforting, since we, too, as readers, could proclaim dominion as we consume the words that spill across the page. Indeed, the very notion of comprehension is a kind of incorporation, a devouring.4
Striking back, the dog Budabash denies the reader the beast-as-usual—and, hence, Afghanistan-as-usual.
But Budabash escapes, leaving in his wake a wounded narrator. Who is hunting whom? Who consumes whom? Sovereignty is beastly. The line between decider and beast is not so easy to draw. While consuming, we start choking. We cannot comprehend so easily. How do we witness, if we are not sovereign? How do we witness with a bone in our throat?5
Does this mean all narrative is contaminated and, therefore, we should refuse stories and representation? The solution, if there is one, is not to avoid listening or reading altogether. This would be a moral righteousness that is, as Parama Roy observes in Alimentary Tracts, “a form of destructive absorption or self-destruction.”6 It would be a closure. It would still be a form of mastery.
The problem, then, is not how to properly answer for our encounter, to settle and bury the question of consumption. As Roy writes, “the question is not whether one should ingest the other but how this should [be] done.”7 All such encounters, if we think of hospitality as Kochai does, require that we give and receive, that we interiorize the other while also submitting to incorporation by the other. The problem, then, might be that, seated in the beranda in Logar with Marwand, we wish to consume stories with as much vigor as Marwand’s uncle Dawood consumes food. Dawood, we read, “devoured bowl after bowl. He ate with his mouth open, without hardly chewing, without even savoring the taste.”
Quenching an appetite like Dawood’s is a difficult task. It again brings forth more questions about how an encounter takes place. What is hospitality? Who submits, who is interiorized? Typically, our host—that is, the narrator himself—would have done the violent work of preparing an adequate meal prior to our arrival. Marwand, we must remember, did try six years prior. And there the problems emerged. Budabash now challenges Marwand’s domination, much as Marwand’s wound refuses care, much as our familiar categories refuse to work as they should. We are outside our immutable categorizations. We are forced to forgo our usual modes of consumption.
The questions do not simply disappear once they are explored. Marwand still struggles with his injured self. He yearns for a unified sovereign body, a finger made whole. Falling asleep to the rumbling nights in Logar, Marwand dreams that “it was mended and whole and that none of me was missing anywhere, and when I woke up to the howling of a wolf I couldn’t see, the ghost of my finger started wriggling at the end of my hand and—” But, alas, it is not possible to reunite Marwand with his ghostly appendage. It is not possible to resurrect his fingertip and make his hand whole.
To make matters worse, the wound on Marwand’s finger festers. Challenging the promise of prescriptions and ointments, the scab refuses “to close in on its center of blood and pus, the end of my finger was starting to look like a rotting eyeball.” This condition is exacerbated by Marwand, who keeps picking at it to see if the wound really is there, since the ghost of the fingertip continues to haunt its former home. Time is out of joint and the injury repeats. Marwand relays: “You feel it there wriggling and when it’s gone again it hurts like the day Budabash took it.”
The wound caused by Budabash, therefore, becomes an endless task. And, as the search for the dog lengthens, we learn that the wound is also an inheritance, a repository of injury and violence. We can bear witness to this inheritance, but not in its unity.8 It is a struggle, since an inheritance is never just given; it is not recoverable content that is passed down intact.
Narrating life in Logar is a struggle with this inheritance, since, as Gulbuddin, Marwand’s older uncle, tells him when recalling the death of Marwand’s paternal uncle, “no one hears the whole thing,” just pieces. And Kochai, too, demands we hear pieces—fables and stories within a vertiginous narrative. There is no easy summary or recounting to map. Instead, the stories accumulate and leak out uncontrolled, much like the product of Marwand’s indigestion, which sticks with him, ebbing and flowing, until the shit is too much and is expelled from his body. He cannot control the lineaments of narrative. The stories refuse the desire for adjudication and control; recall Budabash’s bite.
Again, this is not to say that Marwand does not try to move the narrative forward, to make it coherent for us. He does try to control his movements. But it is a difficult chore—another winding path.
we must pause again and listen more, without demanding comprehension, though still asking, dangerously, as we must: What are these fragments we consume?
With Dawood unconscious and Gulbuddin lost, Marwand eventually has to make his way home. Once he arrives back, this continual attempt to create order by securing Budabash and narrative coherence brings an unidentified vertigo to the household. Narrative, again, does not follow our prescriptions, and the entire family comes down with a “land-induced seasickness.” In a story within a story, Marwand’s father, recounting his own experiences in the Afghan-Soviet War, no longer knows “which narrative I was supposed to finish”; we encounter more death, families literally torn to pieces. Eventually Kochai stops our dizziness and refuses to translate. We must stop consuming.
A concluding chapter is in Pashto, and Western readers are required to have respect, to quote Derrida, for “that which cannot be eaten—respect for that in a text which cannot be assimilated.”9
In his novel, Kochai forces us to ponder, as Stefania Pandolfo does in Knot of the Soul, “the reality of the loss of the symbolic itself … the aftermath of culture … and the possible worlds that might be born in that vision of ruin.”10 To return to digestion: Roy writes, “If the bodily intervention that is alimentation involves injury and fragmentation, might it also involve some form of prosthesis, something both alien and critically necessary to function?”11
Even though Marwand struggles with Abo, his grandmother, and questions her visions, he still listens. She tells him that she will flush the sickness right out of him. She crushes “spices and tea leaves and mint and tree bark and a chunk of brown sugar and the yolk of a hard-boiled egg and a pinch of what looked to be just plain old dirt, and she mixed in a teaspoon of well water, spat a surah, stirred the potion for about a minute, and poured it in seven unmarked plastic bottles.” Heeding her demand, Marwand finally consumes her foreign potion, having avoided it at first. As Roy continues: “Consumption may signify mastery over the other, but it may also signify one’s subjection to the other, something that cannot be entirely refused.”12
This space of injury, subjection, and submission leaves our original line of inquiry around witnessing murky. Witnessing does not provide a solution; it remains a question. In this questioning, we cannot proclaim dominion over Afghanistan. Instead, by accepting the novel’s invitation for us to submit and accept these stories, we, too, can pause and listen, as Marwand does in Logar. We can subject ourselves and listen, for example, to Abo’s lament, her singing about Dasht-i-Leili, the massacre of an unknown number of surrendering Taliban soldiers by an American ally, who, too, was a decider.
While reading this, we must remember that boots on the ground are not there to submit or witness, but to nourish our own beastly vision of democratic sovereignty. Boots on the ground are there to master the landscape, write a new narrative of liberation and redemption. But, as Abo sings, we recall that Kochai told us earlier “how a few miles could turn bombs into lullabies.” Here we must pause again and listen more, without demanding comprehension, though still asking, dangerously, as we must: What are these fragments we consume?
This article was commissioned by Matthew Engelke.
- For example, see Jacques Derrida, The Beast and the Sovereign, vol. 1, translated from the French by Geoffrey Bennington (University of Chicago Press, 2009). ↩
- For more on Bush as a decider and sovereignty, see Hal Foster, “I Am the Decider,” London Review of Books, March 17, 2011. ↩
- On indivisibility and sovereignty, see Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, translated from the French by Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas (Stanford University Press, 2005), p. 141. ↩
- For devouring and comprehension, see Daniel Birnbaum and Anders Olsson, “An Interview with Jacques Derrida on the Limits of Digestion,” e-flux, no. 2 (2009). ↩
- For bone in throat, see Slavoj Žižek, “Class Struggle or Postmodernism?: Yes, Please!” in Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left, edited by Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau, and Slavoj Žižek (Verso, 2000), p. 310. ↩
- Parama Roy, Alimentary Tracts: Appetites, Aversions, and the Postcolonial (Duke University Press, 2010), p. 29. ↩
- Ibid., p. 14. ↩
- For more on this understanding of inheritance, see Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, translated from the French by Peggy Kamuf (Routledge, 1994), pp. 16, 54–55. ↩
- Birnbaum and Olsson, “An Interview with Jacques Derrida on the Limits of Digestion.” ↩
- Stefania Pandolfo, Knot of the Soul: Madness, Psychoanalysis, Islam (University of Chicago Press, 2018), p. 63. ↩
- Roy, Alimentary Tracts, p. 20. ↩
- Ibid., p. 30. ↩