Review: ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak’ Is a Surreal Gamified Tale of the Occupation of Afghanistan

Author Jamil Jan Kochai explores the Logar province of Afghanistan through the short story collection 'The Haunting of Hajji Hotak.'

The Haunting of Hajji Hotak by Jamil Jan Kochai Penguin Randhom House

In the American commercial market, diasporan fiction is regularly presented as a conduit between the safety of the United States and a distant, exotified locale—often one amidst turmoil—and of finding both struggle and solace in assimilation. It’s about gain through loss, and the loss usually comes from violence and trauma occurring somewhere else, even if manufactured by American military invasion. This problematic narrative is convenient, and it holds to a number of formulaic conventions, and it sells, but in his collection of short fiction, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories, Author Jamil Jan Kochai not only throws such harmful oversimplifications to the wind, but also precisely points out the misleading jingoism of such narrative patterns. 

Kochai, with dark humor and lush surrealism, employs video game culture, fairy tale conventions, autofiction, and meta-commentary to tell stories about military occupation in the Logar Province of Afghanistan, where the author’s family is from and where many of the characters reside, as well as relocation to the U.S. The result is a collection that feels punchy and postmodern without trying too hard to lend itself to that aesthetic. 

Told in second person, the opening story, “Playing Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain,” follows an Afghan American teenager, Mirwais, through a day purchasing the title game and getting lost in its militaristic expanse, which he geographically blurs with his father’s small village in Logar. Immediately, Kochai implements Millennial touchstones—Harry Potter, Taco Bell, MF Doom, GameStop—to ground an American lifestyle that temporarily allows the narrator a certain level of disassociation from the video game’s war-torn setting. But after smoking some kush, the narrator—whether through stoner logic or a slipstream reality—plays out parts of his father’s lived traumatic past, working to relieve the worst moments and save his murdered uncle, all while various family members knock on his bedroom door and try to shake him from the game’s mesmerizing trance. Unlike the average player, Mirwais has historical, cultural, and personal understanding of Metal Gear Solid’s violence, and appears to awaken from a desensitized state after being numbed from playing other first-person shooter games like Call of Duty. Once Kochai sets it up, such altered realities carry through the entire collection.  

Kochai regularly includes chunks of autofiction and family history, but it’s difficult to know where the lines blur. For example, “Occupational Hazards” reads as a comprehensive CV and biography of the author’s father’s life, given that the final entry is titled, “2016-2019, Co-Writer of 99 Nights in Logar, West Sacramento, California.” The entry details the years of helping Kochai through the research and writing process of his novel along with being awed by the proceeding book deal and publication. In some sense, the CV functions as a key to the entire collection, mentioning integral scenes and characters from other stories. “Occupational Hazards” thus reveals part of the author’s central inspiration, but it would be lazy to conclude that this is yet another case of a writer jotting down what they know behind a thin fictional veil. From the novel-writing entry: 

Duties included: answering oldest son’s questions regarding the history of Afghanistan, the history of Logar, the history of his family, the deaths of his uncles and aunts and cousins, the massacres in Logar, the atrocities of Dostum and Massoud and Najeeb and Hekmatyar, the flight from Logar, the years in Pakistan, the nature of migration, orating the story of Watak’s death and allowing him to turn the story in the penultimate chapter in a novel he writing;

The list goes on. Kochai, in this case through an extensive summary, is operating as a family historian, storyteller, and curator, amalgamating imagination and brutally accurate retellings to capture atrocities that are overlooked and intentionally erased in American literature and pop culture. Displacement is a central theme to the collection and many of Kochai’s characters struggle to find a sense of home, but, ironically, the forced migration brings them first to Alabama and then to California. 

Kochai’s fiction varies in structure and length—including a lone piece of flash—but it’s the three lengthy stories that close the collection that are arguably most memorable: “The Parable of the Goats,” “The Tale of Dully’s Reversion” (arguably a novella), and “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak.”

“The Parable of the Goats” illuminates the flipside of the longstanding glamorization (and recent nostalgia trip) of Top Gun American aerial assaults. Across the collection, Kochai’s deft and lofty decisions on the sentence level are noteworthy, but this story contains a couple of the most remarkable. For example: 

Twenty-five thousand nine hundred and fifty-eight meters above the spot where Merzagul hurled his father’s legendary sword, Second Lieutenant Billy Casteel was flying a McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 twin-engine, supersonic, all-weather, carrier-capable, multirole combat jet, affectionately deemed “the Silver Angel.” Casteel had just completed his twentieth bombing mission of the year by successfully obliterating forty-six insurgents, twenty-eight of their young wives, one hundred and fifty-six of their children, forty-eight of their sister, seventy-three of their younger brothers, nineteen of their mothers, ten of their fathers, twenty-two of their chickens, eight of their cows, three of their bulls, an orchard of their trees, and three thousand honeybees, whose death, it was hypothesized, would eventually lead to the extinction of the human race.

In 120 words, Kochai goes from technical, patriotic jargon to the realities of mass atrocities to looming environmental collapse. The safe distance Casteel maintains as to not overthink the destruction caused by his missions is immediately stripped away. After Casteel is distracted by a scene of two children shepherding goats—memories from his childhood on a goat farm take hold—he is brought down to earth and captured, where the consequences are unusual, humiliating, and, depending on your reading, result in Casteel’s zoomorphic transformation into a goat. 

Concluding the collection, the title story is told—again in second person, offering an elegant sense of coming full circle—from the perspective of an American intelligence worker tasked with listening to phone taps in the home of an Afghani family living in West Sacramento, California. Things go awry when the father, code-named Hajji, is alone and falls from an attic ladder, potentially fatally injuring himself if no one intervenes. Seeing the whole thing play out, the narrator is left with the dilemma of either watching Hajji die or intervening. The narrator calls an ambulance, but in doing so gives away the presence of their surveillance. It’s perhaps a slightly maudlin note to end on, but exemplifies the human complexity Kochai weaves throughout these stories. 

Haunting implies a person, experience, or event from the past remaining present, incapable of being set aside or forgotten. We’re haunted by a legacy of violence and displacement, by patriotism and revisionism, but also by the distance between ourselves and those we love. The Haunting of Hajji Hotak narrows that distance. These stories are imaginative, dexterous, and thrilling. 

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Review: ‘The Haunting of Hajji Hotak’ Is a Surreal Gamified Tale of the Occupation of Afghanistan