1966-69: SHEEPHERDER, DEH-NAW, LOGAR
Duties included: leading sheep to the pastures near the Black Mountains; measuring the distance between the shadows of chinar trees on dirt roads; naming the sheep after prophets from the Quran, who, according to Hajji Atal, were all sheepherders at one point in their lives; reciting verses from the Quran to dispel djinns; borrowing fruit from neighbors’ orchards for sustenance; watching sheep; counting sheep; loving sheep; understanding the nature of sheep; protecting sheep from bandits, witches, wolves, rapists, demons, and half brothers (nicknamed the Captain and the King); taking younger brother, Watak, along to the pastures; swimming in a stream with Watak instead of watching sheep; losing two sheep; getting beaten by the Captain for losing sheep; leaving Watak at home, and never taking eyes off sheep again.
1969-75: GRADE-SCHOOL STUDENT, DEH-NAW, LOGAR
Duties included: sneaking away from home on the first day of school to sign up for classes without permission from Hajji Atal, who thought school was for Communists and Kafir; registering identity with the government minister at the local school office; existing for the first time in the official records of King Zahir Shah’s modernist regime; begging Hajji Atal for forgiveness; walking two miles to school, barefoot, without a notebook or a pencil or Hajji Atal’s forgiveness; sitting on the bare clay of a small room filled with dust and dirt and the eager panting of fifty pairs of lungs; fashioning a pen out of chinar branches; mixing white clay from the riverbeds with water and berries to create ink; dabbing and swirling and turning alifs into trees and nuns into boats and mims into blossoms; gradually learning to read and write in Farsi and Pashto; excelling at arithmetic; attempting to avoid trouble with the schoolboys; fighting with the schoolboys; earning a reputation as a brawler; earning the nickname Atal’s Wolf; earning Hajji Atal’s forgiveness; studying the auspicious and honorable kings of Afghanistan; coming home from school to discuss the auspicious and honorable kings of Afghanistan, and hearing from Hajji Atal that almost all of them were traitors, sadists, cowards, pompous weaklings, and servants of the English; returning to school to question the honor of kings; arguing with Malam Sahib; standing up before the class of fifty boys—some of them ragged and dirty, some of them still bleeding from rock fights in the yard—hand outstretched, palm open, and accepting the thrashing from Malam Sahib, who was so malnourished and whose arms were so slender and whose switch was so flimsy it didn’t even break skin; rubbing calloused flesh and smiling; returning home, triumphant; bidding farewell to the Captain when he was sent to America for military training by President Daoud Khan, who had recently overthrown Zahir Shah—the last King of Afghanistan.
1971-82: FARMER, DEH-NAW, LOGAR
Duties included: plowing fields; scattering manure; planting seeds; insuring the fair and equal distribution of water throughout the village by maintaining a series of interconnected canals extending from the Logar River; picking apples and tomatoes; shucking corn; harvesting wheat, rice, onions, potatoes, beets, carrots, and gandana; avoiding beatings from half brothers; hiding Watak from half brothers; teaching Watak the tricks of the plow, the shovel, the hammer, the sickle fork, and the fist; laboring alongside Watak in the wheat fields and apple orchards; watching him try to keep pace; laughing at his failures; chopping down chinar trees with Hajji Atal, and ignoring his calls to slow down; clearing twenty chinar trees in a day, impressing Hajji Atal, and injuring left wrist in the process, not knowing that the wrist was broken until two days later, when it swelled to the size of a cantaloupe; receiving permission from Hajji Atal to travel to Pul-i-Alam to see a doctor, who fashioned a brace with sticks and tape and shreds of cloth; resting broken arm for several weeks; slowly mending, healing; hearing word of the return of the Captain; climbing up onto the roof of Hajji Atal’s compound to gaze at the spectacle of the Captain flying an F-4 Phantom above Deh-Naw; dreaming of jets for years afterward.
1972-76: MERCHANT’S ASSISTANT, MANDAI, KABUL
Duties included: waiting sleeplessly for three days and nights before the trip to Kabul; accompanying Hajji Atal on the short walk to the market village of Wagh Jan, where buses from Kabul showed up every few days at Fajr; tugging along a donkey strapped to the limit with goods to barter or sell; sitting with Hajji Atal on the steps of a shop in Wagh Jan, in the cold of the morning, wrapped up together in a shared patu; watching the headlights of the bus float through early-morning mist; journeying from Logar to the Mandai markets in Kabul; following Hajji Atal through enormous crowds of shoppers and sellers and servants and guards; learning Hajji Atal’s haggling technique; selling wheat, corn, fat, oil, sheep’s wool, vegetables; buying flour, cloth, linens, shoes, jackets, and chaplaks; hauling supplies; inspecting quality of supplies; eating freshly grilled shish kebab on the street; seeing the lights of the shops in Kabul glimmer like fairies; rushing to catch the second-to-last bus back to Logar; resting head on Hajji Atal’s wiry arm; returning home at night; meeting up with Watak on the roof of the compound; telling him Hajji Atal’s stories; falling asleep with Watak beneath the starry sky.
1976-78: MERCHANT, MANDAI, KABUL
Duties included: receiving instruction from Hajji Atal to head to Kabul (alone) with an allotment of cash; waiting in Wagh Jan (alone); journeying to Kabul (alone); haggling with merchants (alone); purchasing necessary supplies for no more than half the asking price (alone); sneaking into the latest Amitabh Bachchan film (alone); hearing word of political strife among the Communists in Kabul (alone); cursing the Communists in Kabul (alone); fighting a pack of college students (alone); barely escaping a terrible beating by rushing through streets and alleys and open sewers (alone); staining new clothes with sewage (alone); bathing, clothed, in the Kabul River (alone); sitting on the edge of a bridge above the Kabul River to dry in the setting sun (alone); returning home on the last bus out of Kabul (alone); resting head against window of bus and dreaming it was the bony shoulder of Hajji Atal (alone).
1976-79: HIGH-SCHOOL STUDENT, DEH-NAW, LOGAR
Duties included: studying history, algebra, chemistry, biology, English, Pashto, Farsi, Arabic, physics; discussing Communism, Stalinism, Maoism, Islamism, Salafism, Wahhabism, and Jihad with distressed peers; pledging loyalty to Daoud, then Taraki, then Amin, then Karmal; marching to the tune of Communist chants; hearing word of purges and coups in Kabul; hearing word of the murders of imams and elders in Pul-i-Alam and Baraki Barak; noticing the disappearance of dissident students and teachers from school; seeing Communist soldiers arrive in Deh-Naw in the middle of the night to arrest the Captain because of his military training in America; listening to the lamentations of his wife and daughters; praying for the Captain to live after years of praying for him to die.
1977-79: MUJAHID RECRUIT, DEH-NAW, LOGAR
Duties included: gathering old English rifles with cousins and neighbors and travelling up to the Black Mountains; meeting with mujahideen forces recently arrived from as close as Baraki Barak and as far away as Bamyan; guiding mujahideen fighters through the mountains of Logar all the way to Peshawar; climbing cliffs and sleeping in caves and mosques and the homes of friendly villagers and waking up repeatedly throughout the night to make sure rifle was still there and listen for wolves; heading to Kabul with the King to retrieve the Captain upon his reported release from prison, ordered by Chairman Karmal after the Soviets had executed Chairman Amin for the execution of Chairman Taraki; waiting with thousands of other Afghans—lined up from Ghazi Stadium to Pul-e-Charkhi Prison, ten miles down the road—searching for their disappeared sons or brothers or fathers; witnessing the release of only a few hundred prisoners, the Captain, alhamdulillah, among them; journeying back to Logar and listening to the Captain’s harrowing tale of prisoners buried alive in a mass grave, which wriggled and moaned for three whole days; continuing to attend the high school overrun by Communists while secretly assisting the mujahideen; dropping out of high school in twelfth grade after a failed sickle-fork ambush; growing out hair and beard; joining the forces of Maulana Mohammad Nabi; waiting for the call to action, to ambush, to kill and die for the sake of Allah.
1980-81: MUJAHID, DEH-NAW, LOGAR
Duties included: transporting a rewired Soviet bomb that had landed in the center of Hajji Atal’s compound without exploding; avoiding Communist kill squads and Soviet air power; planting the rewired Soviet bomb near the bridge above the Logar River, where Soviet patrols often crossed; waiting in the branches of a mulberry tree for the arrival of enemies; watching a tank approach the bomb; hearing but not seeing the bomb explode; smelling the stench of cooked flesh; returning home and sniffing wheat, flowers, dirt, leaves, shit, wood, gunpowder, anything, anything else; firing on Russian tanks and patrols; firing and missing; firing and never killing; surveilling the skies for Soviet helicopters from the roof of the compound with Watak; warning family when air raids approached; huddling in a bomb shelter with Watak and mother and little sisters; breathing bomb smoke and shattered earth; burying the tattered remnants of neighbors and friends and women and children and babies and cousins and nieces and nephews and a beloved half sister named Khoro; refusing Watak his right to jihad by referring to the twentieth Hadith from the Book of Jihad in the Sunan an-Nasa’i, because someone must live for mother and little sisters.
1982: REAPER, DEH-NAW, LOGAR
Duties included: cutting wheat in the dark of pre-dawn with Watak so that the family would not starve to death while waiting out the occupation; dodging Communist patrols and Soviet helicopters; hiding among stalks of grain with Watak as the headlights of tanks and armored trucks cascaded above; seeing a searchlight float closer and closer; considering Watak’s plan to split up and take different routes home to divert the Communists; wavering; wavering; wavering; agreeing to Watak’s plan; splitting up; rushing home; getting spotted by a patrol; dodging a hundred bullets and two rockets; making it home only to find out that Watak had been caught by a patrol and executed on the bank of a canal in the shade of a mulberry tree; learning that five other family members had also been murdered; spending all of the next night digging graves and collecting limbs; seeking blood; seeking death; seeking the solitude of gunfire; watching little sisters, twelve and three, search for roots in the dead garden; deciding to live, to leave; asking Hajji Atal to abandon Logar; arguing with Hajji Atal about abandoning Logar; leaving Hajji Atal in his bombarded compound; gathering the rest of the family, along with a number of donkeys and horses; fleeing.
1982: REFUGEE, PESHAWAR, PAKISTAN
Duties included: travelling on horseback through the White Mountains toward Peshawar; hiding in bushes and caves and canals to avoid Communist patrols; looking after aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, nephews, mother, and sisters; getting caught up in the middle of a firefight between Soviets and mujahideen on a desert road; losing track of sisters in the chaos; searching for them on horseback and hearing the echoes of their voices in the mountains; finding sisters on a stony trail of junipers, with their feet bleeding and their throats dry, eager to return home; reaching the camps in Peshawar; sleeping in a dried canal on a barren plain; setting up tents nearby; gradually building up walls of mud around the tents; searching for work; cutting and hauling wheat for twelve hours straight, for fifty rupees a day, at a local farm; breaking stones in the Kirana Hills, where General Zia was obliterating mountains to build a testing facility for Pakistan’s first atomic bomb; working two weeks at a time, thirteen hours a day, no breakfast, no lunch, only one huge meal in the work camp at night; filling a dolly behind a huge tractor with as many of the dynamited mountain stones as possible; breathing dust and earth; breathing stone and tar; never coughing, never tiring, never hurting; turning mountains into roads; saving up enough money to hire a donkey to retrieve Hajji Atal, after any hope for the salvation of Deh-Naw had been lost; finding Hajji Atal in his wreck of a home, still brandishing the ancient sword he’d used to chop down English invaders during the third Anglo-Afghan war; assuring the old man that the men in the family would return to fight off the Soviets just as soon as the women were settled; trekking back to the tents in Peshawar, not knowing that Hajji Atal would never see Logar again; receiving word that the Captain’s military connections in America had finally come through; flying on a passenger jet, across the ocean, to a distant land called Alabama.
1984-89: ASSEMBLY LINE, MONTGOMERY, ALA.
Duties included: renting a small trailer in Mobile, right beside the trailers of the Captain and the King; finding work at an auto-parts factory, along with half brothers and half nephews and Korean, Chinese, Hmong, Laotian, Cambodian, and Vietnamese immigrants; replacing local Black workers because the white factory owner seemed eager to be rid of them; assembling harness wires for Dodge, Chrysler, and Volvo vehicles for three dollars and fifty cents an hour, ten hours a day; purchasing groceries and medication for Hajji Atal, who, at ninety-three years old, wouldn’t stop asking after Watak’s whereabouts; promising Hajji Atal that he would be able to return home any day now; driving youngest sister to and from grade school; keeping the fact of youngest sister’s education hidden from Hajji Atal; slowly picking up English from “Three’s Company” and “Wheel of Fortune” and “Sesame Street” and friendly co-workers; hearing about a community of Afghan refugees in California; tiring of the ghosts of Alabama; saving up enough money to buy a Chevy Astro minivan; hauling Hajji Atal and mother and sisters across the country and leaving the Captain and the King behind forever.
1989-91: PLUMBER’S ASSISTANT, RYCOLE ENGINEERING, SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.
Duties included: moving into a small apartment in Hayward, California, across the street from another Afghan family torn apart by the killings in Kabul; maintaining boilers in buildings in San Francisco for twelve dollars an hour; driving a nineteen-fifties Ford F1 from work site to work site, through the chilly fog of the city by the sea; filing citizenship paperwork; visiting the Golden Gate Bridge with mother and sisters but not the bedridden Hajji Atal; searching for a wife in Fremont; passing citizenship exam; failing to find a wife in Fremont; quitting job as a plumber’s assistant in order to fly back to Pakistan to find a wife in Peshawar because civil war was still raging in Afghanistan between the mujahideen warlords and the puppet President Najibullah; roaming the dirt roads of the refugee camps; hearing word of a family from Logar, old neighbors, with an eligible daughter; visiting said family with two old aunts; meeting the girl’s father, a pharmacist, once jailed and tortured by the Communists for giving medical aid to mujahideen; impressing the girl’s father with stories from the jihad; receiving the Shireeni; seeing fiancée for the first time in a room of flowers and mirrors on wedding day; realizing she was only eighteen years old; promising her a good life and all her Islamic rights; beginning the paperwork for her visa; spending a few short weeks together at her father’s home; learning that she had left Logar when she was only six and that she hardly remembered Afghanistan; wondering if it would have been better to have forgotten; heading back to America to search for more work.
1991-92: NEWSPAPER DELIVERYMAN, HAYWARD DAILY REVIEW, HAYWARD, CALIF.
Duties included: filling the trunk and back seat of a Nissan Maxima with copies of the Hayward Daily Review; delivering papers from 3 A.M. to 6 A.M.; calling wife every other night with shitty phone cards that always ate two minutes out of every five; finding out wife was pregnant; learning that the pregnancy would delay the visa process; delivering more papers; completing wife’s visa paperwork after she passed her interview at the embassy in Peshawar; quitting job as a newspaper deliveryman in order to fly back to Pakistan to pick up wife and child.
1992-94: RUG MERCHANT, CARAVANS, SAN FRANCISCO, CALIF.
Duties included: showcasing rugs; lifting two-hundred-pound rugs onto racks mounted along walls; cooking and cleaning for Agha Sahib, a wealthy Hazara businessman from Kabul; coming up with absurd plans to sabotage Agha Sahib’s brother and main rival, Sayeed Sahib, who owned a different rug shop one block away; hosting parties at the store; serving the legendary Ustad Mahwash; hearing her sing in person; witnessing the birth of a second son and the death of Hajji Atal; escorting Hajji Atal’s body back to Pakistan because the mujahideen were now at war with the Taliban, and there was no way to enter Logar; locating a graveyard atop a steep hill in Peshawar, where Hajji Atal was born a hundred and four years earlier, the eldest son of the nomad Lahore, who was the son of the nomad Sayed Akbar, who was the son of the nomad Mahdat, who was the son of the nomad Azmat, who was the son of the nomad Shahee, who died attempting to kill a tiger with his bare hands; losing job as a rug seller in the process.
1995-99: CONVENIENCE-STORE CLERK, 7-ELEVEN, SAN LORENZO, CALIF.
Duties included: riding the BART every morning to the unincorporated county of San Lorenzo; manning the cash register from 6 A.M. to 11 A.M.; heading home for an hour-long nap before travelling back to the store to work from 2 P.M. to 11 P.M., for fifteen dollars an hour, cash; witnessing the birth of a third son; watching older sons ransack the store for candies and chips with almost total abandon; paying for their snacks when they left; watching an episode of “The Simpsons” for research and noting the unrealistic depiction of the cashier named Apu, who has neither a wife nor children to keep him working through the long graveyard shifts at the Kwik-E-Mart; watching youngest sister graduate from San Lorenzo High School; paying for her books and fees at the University of California, Davis; getting robbed at gunpoint four times in one year; receiving a tip that a tax on tobacco would raise the cost of cigarette packs across the state; buying five thousand dollars’ worth of cigarettes and selling them six months later for a profit of fifteen thousand dollars; saving enough money for a trip back to Logar; quitting job as a cashier; taking wife and three sons to Logar; walking the trails and fields and orchards of Deh-Naw for the first time in seventeen years; visiting the graves of Watak and Khoro and all the other martyrs; telling sons to pray for their souls, to name their names, to remember where they died and how and why.
2001-07: LAWN TECHNICIAN, WEST SACRAMENTO, CALIF.
Duties included: moving into a small house in Broderick, only twenty minutes away from youngest sister’s apartment at the University of California, Davis; passing the G.E.D. exam; applying for positions that required a verifiable high-school education; driving a chemical truck to clients’ homes in Roseville, Rocklin, Auburn, Grass Valley, Colusa, Georgetown, and Stockton, including the house of all-star power forward Chris Webber; hauling chemicals; spraying chemicals; breathing chemicals; searching for pests or decay in grass and gardens and trees; becoming a top technician by the end of the first year; receiving a topnotch health-insurance plan with dental and vision coverage; purchasing a two-story home in Bridgeway; opening door of new home one morning—shortly after 9/11—to discover a pair of F.B.I. agents on front porch; inviting them inside and answering their questions about the Afghan jihad in the eighties; telling the truth; escorting the agents outside and never seeing them again; spraying up to four hundred thousand square feet of land per year; winning Employee of the Year award for 2002 and 2003; witnessing the birth of first daughter; training new lawn-care recruits; winning Employee of the Year award for 2004; working every hour of overtime offered; waking up at six in the morning and returning home at six in the evening; witnessing the birth of a second daughter; being passed over for a promotion in 2005 and 2006 and 2007; getting rear-ended by a semitruck toward the end of a shift in 2007; tearing nerves in neck and shoulder and spine; losing the ability to walk for several days; receiving workers’ compensation for exactly one month; suffering impossible pain in neck and shoulders; seeing a doctor and being accused of exaggerating pain; getting denied further workers’ compensation; losing job; hiring a lawyer.
2007-present: UNEMPLOYED, WEST SACRAMENTO, CALIF.
Duties include: filing a suit against former company for workers’ compensation; filing a suit against trucking company for pain and suffering and medical bills; applying for disability insurance, Medi-Cal, food stamps, and welfare; paying court costs and mortgage and electricity and gas and water and car insurance and medications out of savings account and with maxed-out credit cards; seeing a second doctor; being prescribed medication for pain, for migraines, for muscle aches, for extreme pain, for acid reflux, for blood pressure, for insomnia, for unbearable pain, for drowsiness, dizziness, constipation, diarrhea, swelling, stiffness, and sadness; selling gandana and fruit at the mosque for extra income; obsessively keeping track of plummeting home value; watching neighbors move out of foreclosed houses; allowing wife to sew and sell Punjabi kali, earning an income for the first time in her life; accepting cash from sons, who landed part-time jobs in high school and then college; going to the emergency room because of pulsing fire in neck and shoulders; lying in a hospital bed, begging doctors for help; weeping into burned, calloused, broken, punctured, hardened, torn, useless hands; passing out; receiving injections directly into the spinal cord; settling into a routine of medication; finally winning the case against trucking company eight years after the initial injury; receiving a one-time payment of a hundred thousand dollars, twenty per cent of which went to the lawyers, another twenty per cent to pay off old debts, and the rest cut into the mortgage, hopefully insuring that the wife and kids would always have a home; watching oldest son finish college; attempting to persuade him to pursue law school; gradually accepting that he planned to study writing; watching second son finish college with a degree in history (of all things); learning that he planned to become a teacher; attempting to do a bit of yard work before a sudden movement triggered the lightning bolts in neck and shoulders; collapsing during Tarawih prayers; reapplying for disability insurance, with the backing of several doctors of various specialties; standing before a wealthy white judge who’d never labored a day in his life; pleading for justice; being rejected for disability; hearing word of the death of the King; returning to Alabama for his funeral; finding an entire town filled with hundreds of cousins and nieces and nephews; visiting the family of the King and leading the Janaza prayer; running into the Captain, who, at ninetysomething years old, was still determined to fight over his inheritance, though his land in Logar was unreachable, though all the old memories were becoming unclear and meaningless, though oblivion was approaching; leaving Alabama until the next death; waiting for sons to begin their careers; waiting for daughters to begin college; waiting for wedding days and funerals; waiting for good grades and graduations; waiting for sleep and food and time and joy; waiting for the pain to ebb.
2016-19: WITNESS, WEST SACRAMENTO, CALIF.
Duties included: answering oldest son’s questions regarding the history of Afghanistan, of Logar, of the family, the deaths of uncles and aunts and cousins, the flight from Logar, the years in Pakistan, the nature of migration; recording the story of Watak’s death for the first time; speaking him alive again; whispering for him to stay there in that field, amid the wheat, with the searchlights floating, illuminating dust, specks of earth, swirling, just swirling; grasping Watak’s hand, his beautiful, slender fingers; feeling for his wrist, his pulse; counting the beats of his heart; counting the beats of his heart to slow down time; slowing down time; suspending the gaze of the searchlights, the approach of the Communists, the ascent of the sun, the pulse of Watak’s heart; then, allowing it all to continue once more. ♦
This is drawn from “The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories.”
Jamil Jan Kochai
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