First Look Club: Reina reviews 99 Nights in Logar

Based off a short story that won the 2018 O. Henry Prize, 99 Nights in Logar is author Jamil Jan Kochai’s debut novel. The book is set in 2005, and centers around 12-year-old Marwand, who lives in the States and spends an eventful vacation in his parents’ hometown in rural Afghanistan. Kochai himself was born in Pakistan and raised in the USA, so if there’s one thing he knows, it’s the duality of living in Marwand’s shoes. If there’s another, it’s sustaining a compelling story.

On tradition and tales

An excerpt from the O. Henry Prize reads: “Marwand has two nationalities, two homes, two identities, and is at times comfortable with neither.” From the first page, we can see how far removed Marwand is from his roots – he’s struggling to re-learn Pakhto, can’t write in Arabic script, and doesn’t know much of his family’s history. Most notably, he expected the family guard dog, Budabash, to fit the American man’s-best-friend idea of a dog, a mistake which sets the events of the book in motion.

Marwand spends most of his time with his cousin and uncles his own age – Zia, Gul, and Dawood – hunting for Budabash and getting into mischief typical of teenage boys. Their scrapes weave in and out of the larger tapestry of their family’s affairs: the search for the missing Budabash, an aunt’s wedding, a strange illness that plagues the whole compound and comes and goes with no explanation whatsoever.

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The book is told in Marwand’s voice, and as 12-year-old boys are, the prose often seems simplistic, short on empathy, and self-centered. Trigger warning: a number of scenes feature animal cruelty by Marwand, made worse by his unsympathetic thought processes before and after the acts. Personally, I found the first few chapters difficult to get through because of this; I didn’t think these moments of cruelty were essential to the overall plot, nor would Marwand’s character have been improved or diminished without them.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, skipping back and forth around Marwand’s 99-day stay. Nestled within the narration are the family’s Tales, each titled and told in the voice of whoever is telling the story. The subjects range from local legend, family anecdotes, to stories of the war and Russian occupation. Oral storytelling like this is part of Arabian tradition; the format is reminiscent of the Middle Eastern classic One Thousand and One Nights, with stories layered one beneath the other, sometimes in multiple strata.

On culture and context

A significant issue I struggled with as I read 99 Nights in Logar was language. Arabic words are sprinkled liberally throughout the text – with no translation, and little in the way of context clues to help you guess what they mean. For Arabic-speaking readers, this unadulterated representation of the language is a clear win. Yet for someone on the outside trying to gain a better understanding of Afghan culture, constantly having to stop reading to look up a word is not going to help the story flow easily at all. An entire chapter at the end is written entirely in Arabic script – also with no translation.

It’s frustrating, but also poetic: it’s a lesson in how you can’t expect to learn about a culture by having it distilled into a capsule and spoonfed to you. If you truly want to understand, you have to be willing to put in your due diligence.

A similar issue is the lack of context with regard to the setting. The book just jumps right in and expects the reader to be abreast with Afghan current events and politics in the 2000’s, with only the barest explanation of who is pointing guns at whom and why. Again, frustrating if this is your first introduction to Afghanistan; but consider it an invitation to do some deeper research instead.

This book made me work HARD and I learned QUITE A BIT.

Despite difficulties with context and animal cruelty, once it hits its stride, 99 Nights in Logar still turns out to be an engrossing read. The book doesn’t sugarcoat the grit, the reality of thieves and hash-heads and kids who know how to shoot rifles before they’re even old enough to drive. We are shown the dynamics of the locals with both the American soldiers and the Taliban, as well as the aftermath of the Communist occupation.

But there is warmth here too. It’s impossible not to be taken in by Marwand’s kin, who form a picture of the day-to-day life of a tightly-knit Muslim family – and all the good and bad that they get up to. And always present is the steadfastness and consistency of Islam, underscoring every choice and action and tradition followed.

On what you’ll take home

There’s a richness in Logar, a heart that beats in what the media all-too-often makes out to be a barren land where nothing but death and violence grows. At the end, 99 Nights in Logar is not really a story about the hunt for a dog, or a boy’s coming of age. It’s about the histories you inherit, the stories that were handed down to you and that you have an obligation to pass on one day so the wisdom within them never dies.

You may find your shoes are rather like Marwand’s too; in which case, 99 Nights in Logar invites you to seek the stories of the people you belong to – and what they might mean, wherever you go.

Originally published on the Fully Booked blog on January 25, 2019. See fellow First Look Club member Jed weigh in on 99 Nights in Logar here!

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