Saba's Story

Jamil Jan Kochai

Winter 2019

About a month before our Agha flew back to his old kaleh in Logar, he demanded that one of his three sons—preferably which ever one of us loved and respected him the most—buy him a metal detector. I tried to dissuade him, but Agha’s one of those OG Pakhtuns who’d argue with Allah over the nature of existence. 

He went on to explain his intentions with a story. 

“Some seventy years ago,” he started, “after Logar was invaded by the English, many of the villagers in our kaleh fled through the black mountains for safety. Your Nikeh was guiding one of these groups of refugees when an English regiment suddenly fell upon them. A massacre ensued, and only Nikeh was able to escape into a series of caves and underground tunnels, which led him so deep into the heart of the black mountains that he became hopelessly lost. 

“For several days he wandered these tunnels, without food, without water, without knowing in which direction he should pray, without even being sure that God could hear him so deep within the black stone. Eventually, just as he was on the verge of collapsing from thirst, your Nikeh came upon a secret city within the mountains. A city of gold and jewels, of statues and idols and other remnants of the kafir fire-lovers from which we descended. He gathered up as much of the treasure as he could and restarted his journey out of the caves. But he had become so lost and weak that, within hours, he had dropped every jewel he carried, one by one, giving them up to Allah in the hopes that He might free him in return. His prayers were answered, and later that day Nikeh escaped the mountain with only a single golden nugget shoved so far up his colon that he supposed even Allah couldn’t see it. 

“Your Nikeh buried the nugget somewhere on our land, and for many years I thought your kaakaa used the gold to pay off the case worker who got us into America in eighty-two, but he called me the other day wanting to make amends for the ten thousand beatings he gave me as a child. I brought up the gold, and he said there was no gold. You boys understand?”

We did. A hundred times over.

This was Agha’s latest attempt in a series of get-rich-quick-schemes. Though Agha had always been wary of schemers, seeing himself, for a long time, as a worker’s worker, after he was injured in a trucking accident, and after the nerves in his neck and shoulder got torn up, leaving his hands almost useless, and after his company refused to pay out worker’s comp, and after Medi-Cal declined to cover his pain meds, my family suddenly found itself without a steady source of income. Agha took his bosses to court for the comp, but the judges saw it their way.

We found ourselves in debt. 

So while he wallowed in his depression, his nerve damage, and his insomnia, Agha started coming up with a never-ending series of schemes to get us out of the red: buying salvaged Civics and trying to hustle them on Craigslist, then growing gandana in the backyard to sell in bushels at the mosque, then flipping real estate. Everywhere an empty lot popped up in Sac, he was there, bidding with money he didn’t have and wouldn’t have and could barely dream about.

When my little brothers and I explained to Agha that a halfway decent metal detector was going to cost about a hundred and fifty bucks on Amazon and that, in the meantime, the girls needed backpacks for the first day of school, the garage door was still busted, Athai’s walker had been stolen, my FAFSA was delayed, and there were a hundred other little things we could use the money for he asked us how long the delivery might take. 

Both of my brothers IM’d me at the same time, demanding that I shut his scheme down like I had with Operation Chicken Coop on Monday. But two rejections in one week was more than I could bear to deliver, especially when he was in such a good mood. 

I bought the metal detector that night.

About a month later, Agha was on a plane to Afghanistan, hoping not only to scour his father’s land but also to reclaim a few portions of his rightful inheritance. Once he’d arrived in Kabul, he met with my cousin Waseem—a banker, an orphan, and a genuine sweetheart—and together they secretly drove out to our old village in Logar. Apparently fighting between the marines, the government forces, and the Ts had escalated. Ts were retaking territory. The Afghan Army was panicking. Marines couldn’t figure who to shoot. Pit stops led to executions. And bandits thrived. 

If the wrong Logari got word of Agha’s return, some desperate gunmen might try and get a taste of that American money he was supposed to be harboring. But alhamdullilah, Agha arrived at his father’s compound just before Fajr prayer, alive and well. Malang—Agha’s hash-headed cousin who watched over our land—greeted him at the inner gate and quietly led him to the quarters of the compound that had been taken over by old Masoomai.

According to Agha, old Masoomai was only related to our family by a marriage that never should have occurred in the first place. The story went that back in the seventies, Agha had an older half sister named Saba, who early in her teens was beset by rumors questioning her honor, and, although these were never confirmed with a pregnancy or a confession, they ruined her reputation, and Saba entered her twenties without a single suitor to her name.

Jamil Jan Kochai was born in Peshawar, Pakistan, but originally hails from Logar, Afghanistan. He was a Truman Capote Fellow at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and his first novel, 99 Nights in Logar, was published in January by Viking. His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares, A Public Space, and the O. Henry Prize Stories 2018.

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