> Zed Book Club / ‘Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday’ Showcases a Little-Seen Side of Afghanistan

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‘Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday’ Showcases a Little-Seen Side of Afghanistan

Debut novelist Jamaluddin Aram shows how everyday life continues, even in a war zone, and routine is essential to survival / BY Adnan R. Khan / June 30th, 2023

There’s something twisted going on just beneath the surface in Wazirabad. The rooster feels it as he navigates through the shards of broken glass Aziz has embedded in the wall around his house to keep the mysterious thieves out. His daily trek to meet his hens has an urgency to it that no one can quite explain. The old hag, Aja, feels it too: the world is upside down, all the women have gone barren, and the wall of her house has collapsed, exactly the way she dreamed it would, and it all started when that beautiful young widow, Roya, arrived in town. 

The dizzying array of characters in Jamaluddin Aram’s debut novel, Nothing Good Happens in Wazirabad on Wednesday, offer up a tantalizing view into the riotous banality of everyday life in a war zone. It’s Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital, supposedly in the early ’90s during the early days of the civil war, though the specifics are incidental; it could be at any time in the last four decades of conflict. Life goes on even when the bullets fly: love blossoms and dies, friendships form and are tested, small kindnesses endure, despite the desperate times. 


Jamaluddin Aram


Zoomer spoke by phone with Aram at his home in Toronto about the process of bringing the vapidity of a war zone to life, and how the everyday becomes precious when the future is uncertain.

Adnan R. Khan: Thanks so much for being here. I’ve been looking forward to your book for a while now. I heard it was coming out through the Afghan diaspora grapevine. 

Jamaluddin Aram: Great to be here. I understand we have a few friends in common. 

ARK: The Kabul scene back in the day was small. I think we can all boast a single degree of separation. Let me kick things off here with a bit of background. You left Afghanistan some years ago. Did you write this book before, after or during the Taliban takeover of August 2021? Does it draw at all on those events, or the events since the fall of the last Taliban regime in 2001?

JA: My family left Kabul in 2013, a few months before I left for Union College in upstate New York, where I did my undergraduate studies. I came to Canada to go to Concordia University in Montreal for my MFA in creative writing. My hope was to one day return to Afghanistan to teach and write. But the universe doesn’t care about our hopes. I never went to Concordia; and Afghanistan, well, I have to wait a little longer. As for the book, the first draft was done before 2021, before the Taliban takeover. Technically, at least according to the jacket, the story is set during the civil war in the early ’90s. But when I was writing the book, I intentionally avoided anchoring the book in any specific time or place. I wanted Wazirabad to stand for any village or any town across Afghanistan, across decades. It could be a place in the ’90s; it could be a place in the mid-2000s; or it could be a place somewhere in Afghanistan right now. Pegging it to the civil war was a decision I made with the publisher. We felt like the story is so complex that readers could get lost if we didn’t give them some kind of grounding.

ARK: There are some Easter eggs though, right? Someone with a decent understanding of Afghanistan, and Kabul’s geography, can figure out that the setting is close to the city centre, just north of Qalai Musa (I won’t give away any other details). Did you have a specific reader in mind when you were writing?

JA: Not really. I very much believe that the writer of fiction has a duty to serve the reader as much as he or she must serve the craft. You can’t sacrifice one for the other. So when I was working on the book, I didn’t have a specific audience in mind, whether it’s people who have never been to Afghanistan or Afghans themselves. I tried to write well, and when I was writing, I was hoping that whoever appreciates good writing will enjoy this book. But you’re right. There are things — for example, phrases, sentences and words that are in Farsi but left untranslated — that I didn’t want to just hand over to the reader. I wanted the reader to be an active participant in the story. That was one of the reasons I included these coded elements. And they are treats for people who have been to Afghanistan or are Afghans and understand Farsi!

ARK: They are! I had fun figuring them all out! But the story does a wonderful job also of managing to be accessible to the general reader. The key device you use to make that kind of layering possible is dreaming, both as a literary device and a cultural artifact. Can you talk a bit about what dreams mean to you, both in literary and cultural terms?

JA: Well, there are a couple of things. One is that the story takes place with a war in the background. The war is this massive, chaotic, grand thing that no one can control. The characters are subject to the war; they can’t in any way affect it. The war disrupts the narrative, causes havoc in the lives of the characters, so they turn to dreams to look for some sort of continuity and stability. There, they can have some agency, some sort of hand in how to arrange the things that happen in their lives, to build a narrative for themselves.

ARK: Like the Gabriel Garcia Márquez quote you use for the epigraph: “Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.” Life, in other words, is a story told.

JA: Exactly. People draw on reality to create their dreams; and in my story, dreams also shape reality. This is where the cultural side comes in. Dreams are deeply rooted in Afghan society. There is only a thin veil that separates the dream world from reality. In Afghanistan, we have a saying that basically translates as ‘sleep is a brother to death.’ What that means is that when you’re asleep, you are half dead and half alive, and that allows you to venture into this other world, into the world of the dead.

ARK: A liminal space between the living and the dead. 

JA: Something like that. It’s a place where you can pull information from this other world, where the living and the dead can meet. 

ARK: Death, of course, is a feature of war. But in Wazirabad, the war is this background noise that only bursts into the open occasionally. 

JA: Yes. That’s the core of this book. For people who haven’t lived in Afghanistan, or experienced war, war tends to mean this constant chaos in people’s day-to-day lives. But that’s not true. There are moments that the fighting is intense, at its peak, and then, let’s say for a week or three weeks, there’s nothing going on. The people just resume their day-to-day lives. And that is what I wanted to show in this book, using Wazirabad and this community as an example: everyday life continues, even in war. In fact, that kind of routine is perhaps more urgent, more necessary, in a war zone.

ARK: What about trauma? All of your characters are broken in some way. Time itself is broken. The world is inverted. But still, people manage to create a community.

JA: Trauma, of course, is at the centre. What I tried to do, and hopefully it comes across, is that in trauma there’s a lot of life and a lot of lessons to be learned. There is acceptance, there is vulnerability, there’s a lot of kindness and compassion, there is a sense of awareness in trauma, and you can see how people who are in Wazirabad, how they help each other. 

ARK: I’d like to talk a little bit about sex. There’s surprisingly a lot of it going on in Wazirabad, considering this is Afghanistan. Your treatment of men’s desire tends to be two-dimensional — lustful and violent, bestial, primal and transgressive. The sexuality of your male characters is mostly about potency and power. But you treat women’s sexuality with more subtlety and care. Sex is about pleasure, and a kind of liberation.  

JA: The point I’m making here is that Afghan men are badly damaged by the years of war in Afghanistan. We’ve heard a lot, and rightly so, about how bad it is to be a woman in Afghanistan, especially now under Taliban rule. But I think it’s also the worst place to be if you’re a man. Afghanistan is an extreme example of macho culture. For example, you have this culture of honour. You have to defend your honour when it comes under attack. Sometimes you have to physically fight to protect it. But you should also not talk about your experiences and how they have affected you. You have to deal with those emotions yourself. All of those pent-up emotions find a way to come out. They show up in people’s marriages as violence or in how men perform sexually.

The problem is, Afghan men are stuck in this surreal world where masculinity is this specific thing, where, to be a man, you have to be a certain way. It would be so much easier for men to accept their shortcomings and their weaknesses. They know that some of the things they do are absolutely wrong. But they still have to do them because otherwise people will judge them, people will say that they’re less of a man. Living with that kind of conflict and contradiction within you, it wears you down. 

ARK: How do you feel as an Afghan man writing about Afghan women’s sexuality?

JA: Ha! Well, fortunately I haven’t been criticized about it yet, but I’m sure the criticism will come. You know, I didn’t want the novel to be strictly about the problems of Afghan men. We hear enough about that. You barely hear about Afghan women’s desire. A few years ago, I heard this conversation in Afghanistan. Some religious clerics were saying the usual thing, that women should cover themselves, they should not laugh in public because men would find that arousing, and so on. There was one woman who stood up and said: ‘What about us? What if men walk any way they want, or dress any way they want? What if men laugh? Wouldn’t we women feel aroused?’ That shifted the whole conversation and made me interested in how women’s desire works. Whether that qualifies me to write about it is something else, but I consider myself an observant person. I have female friends, a lot of them, and they’re very outspoken about their private lives. Recently, a friend of mine read my novel and said that usually when she reads a female character written by a man, she gets annoyed. But she said she really enjoyed how the female characters were portrayed in my book. So, hopefully I got it right.

ARK: What really shines through in your female characters is this sense of hope, or at the very least, perseverance. Are you still hopeful about the future of Afghanistan?

JA: Absolutely. You see it in the women out on the streets of Afghanistan right now, protesting and speaking the truth. That kind of bravery — knowing how brutal and how violent the Taliban can be — if that’s not an expression of hope, I don’t know what is. In terms of writing the book and the characters, I’m an optimist. I’m always of the belief that there is hope. It’s up to us to see it, to not downplay it, and to persevere and walk towards it, no matter how slowly.



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