A former American soldier Elliot Ackerman, who wrote a scathing review of Jamil Jan Kochai’s book in The New York Times, has sparked an immediate backlash on social media.
When the whole world was fixated with Afghanistan last year as the US soldiers pulled out from there, the international news outlets very often ignored the viewpoint of the Afghans who had suffered the most in the 20-year-long conflict.
It was another setback for the Afghan diaspora scattered around the Western countries. It only increased their feeling of neglect and alienation when their home country was at the center of debate and no one bothered to ask them what to do.
No wonder then that many of them were looking forward to reading Jamil Jan Kochai’s new book, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories.
Kochai, an Afghan born in a refugee camp in Pakistan during the 1980s Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has made a name for himself with his writings for publications such as The New Yorker.
But his achievements don't seem to count for a former American soldier Elliot Ackerman who wrote a fallacious review of Kochai’s book for The New York Times, calling it a work of “poor research”.
Telling an Afghan his work on his own country is under-researched is, for many Afghans, nothing short of a “mockery" - especially coming from someone like Ackerman who faces accusations of killing civilians when he served in Afghanistan.
“What we see in Ackerman’s intervention is the insidious nature of whiteness as not simply refusing that the other ever speaks, but to exercise total mastery over the scene of the crime,” Sahar Ghumkhor, an academic who studies political violence, racism and Islamophobia at University of Melbourne, tells TRT World.
“To continue to murder, this time by words. It’s the dominant trait of serial killing to rehearse the murder.”
Ackerman was an assault force commander in Afghanistan in 2008 when American drones rained bombs on an Azizabad area of Shindand district in Herat province, killing 90 civilians including 60 children, according to an investigation by the USAToday.
That incident has been investigated multiple times and Ackerman has often been directly linked to that assault - the deadliest during the US war in Afghanistan. Now he’s referred to as an accomplished author and columnist.
Ackerman did not respond to TRT World’s request for an interview.
Jamil Jan Kochai’s book is a short story collection of the Afghan diaspora living in Northern California, in which the characters travel back and forth from Davis, Sacramento and Fremont to Kabul and the Afghan province of Logar.
The interconnected stories have been told in a way that hit emotional notes for many Afghans and their diaspora today. Whether it's a teenager rescuing his long-dead uncle in a video game or a captured American soldier transforming into a goat, the book realises that Afghan Americans don’t have the luxury to live in the present moment as the war-ridden past haunts them.
I hope you’re all buying copies of @JamilJanKochai's new collection, THE HAUNTING OF HAJJI HOTAK. I hope it gets a hundred glowing reviews, tens of prizes. I hope it inspires more stories. I hope this teaches editors across books departments a lesson or two in assigning reviews.— Sana Goyal (@SansyG) July 20, 2022
But instead of discussing the style and the historical perspective, Ackerman seems more intent on pointing out how Americans are “broadly painted as imperialists” by Kochai.
“Kochai also has a distracting fixation on whiteness. When he wants to signal characters are generically bad, he describes them as white; all the characters from the US military — a remarkably diverse institution in reality — are described as “a small clan of white boys,” Ackerman wrote in the review titled “The Echoes and Echoes and Echoes of War”.
No wonder there was an immediate backlash to Ackerman’s remarks on social media.
“Ackerman‘s review of 'The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories,’ by Jamil Kochai is disappointing because it’s just a reactionary negative review of a perception of anti-colonialism, under the guise of anti-racism. It’s unfortunate,” one Twitter user wrote.
A Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, Aria Aber, called for fairness and nuance in book reviews.
“Truly astonishing that Afghans are just out here, existing, surviving, telling their stories with humor and love and originality, and a marine who served in Afghanistan has the audacity to project his own insecurities onto the artwork and then publish it as a so-called review,” she wrote.
Book unboxing with Papa Kochai for Pub Day! A certain review almost ruined my morning, but the support I’ve seen from everyone, especially my Afghan community, has meant the world to me and my family. Please consider ordering The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories today! pic.twitter.com/M7tdwsJgcM— Jamil Jan Kochai (@JamilJanKochai) July 20, 2022
On the other hand, Kochai seems unfazed by the one-sided review of the former American soldier.
Just a day after Ackerman’s review was published, Kochai on July 20th posted a video on Twitter in which he, along with his father, happily unboxes the first set of books.
“The support I’ve seen from everyone, especially my Afghan community, has meant the world to me and my family,” he said.