My father spoke English with a slight British accent, a lasting mark of the schools he attended in Kabul in the 1940s and early 1950s. He would regale us with stories of teachers picking boys up by their belt loops and hurling them against the brick wall in the back of the classroom. One particular teacher, Mr. P., would announce how much he hated Afghan noses before proceeding to punch a kid in the face. Typical British-style corporal punishment, enhanced with a dash of local racist flavor. To my brother and me, these stories sounded like Pink Floyd's The Wall, Afghan edition. To my dad, they were the price of getting an education and one that, to my naïve self, he seemed fine with paying. Although, he would often end these stories by murmur-chuckling, "the fucking British."

Strange to write this now, but I think it was my father's accent, the way he would drawl "Hallo?" when picking up the phone, embellishing the word to amuse my friends, that drew me to Victorian literature. It wasn't that he and I ever discussed English literature, which surely must have been part of his curriculum. But reading Bleak House in college for the first time, with its fogginess, its intricate structure, and its palpable desire to believe that everything is connected despite the dizzying and proliferating contradictions of industrial capitalism and the British empire that characterized its world, felt like being, if not totally at home, at a home. It didn't fill the gaps or clarify the incoherencies upon which my childhood was built, but this novel by Charles Dickens from the 1850s seemed to articulate, in a British accent, my own yearnings for answers and totality. "Hallo?"

The drive for wholeness is something with which we know many Victorian novels engage, with varying degrees of faith. And it's a drive that might explain why the most canonized Victorian novels rarely if ever mention Afghanistan. For the Victorians

And let me just stop and seize this line of type and bend it outward a bit, like a pipe, just to ensure that the plumbing of this article isn't too straight: "Victorian" is a term with baggage. Not only does it define a period by a monarch's reign (weird), but it also has layers of twentieth-century connotation that make it signify smug racial superiority, patriarchal unimpeachability, and sexual repression, three commonsense beliefs about the period that have been dismantled by cultural and literary histories.1 These histories have drawn on a rich tradition of postcolonial, feminist, and queer scholarship to show that the period does not bear these stereotypes out. British assertions of racial superiority and patriarchal right were attended by tremendous anxiety, and by contemporary critiques that exposed their constructed and contested status. Moreover, as Michel Foucault famously argued, the period witnessed an incitement to discourse about sex, not its repression. Perhaps these claims are projections. Perhaps twentieth-century European-American culture attributed these qualities to the nineteenth century, outsourcing them, as it were, to exonerate its own colonial, gender, and sexual hang-ups.

Nevertheless, Victorian is a term whose historical range I use advisedly. The First Anglo-Afghan War began in 1838, a year into Queen Victoria's reign, and the Second ended in 1881, two decades before she died and a few years before the cultural turbulence of the fin-de-siècle. In thus punctuating Victoria's reign and surrounding the epic event of the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, the Anglo-Afghan wars were symptoms of British anxieties around the very notion of sovereignty as indivisible, supreme, and natural.2 The Anglo-Afghan wars were not about conquest but control. For the most part, the British did not want to own or settle Afghanistan, they just wanted to, you know, tell it what to do, which was to be a buffer against Russian encroachment on the British empire's prized possession, India. These wars thus tested and denatured the meaning of sovereign rule on individual and national levels. The British presumed that the Afghan kingdom had sovereignty at the time of each war, but nevertheless violated that sovereignty through invasion, and then returned a constrained version of sovereignty back to an approved Afghan king. I have referred to this version of sovereignty as marginal: a form of sovereignty that placed (and in some ways continues to place) Afghanistan on the margins of India, of histories of empire, and of global politics. In this way, for the Victorians, Afghanistan served to keep a tortured and tortuous ambivalence about imperial and national sovereignty alive. Victorian then

For the Victorians, Afghanistan was the wild beyond, always in excess of the imperial imperative, whether it was free trade or the civilizing mission. In the early 1800s, before failed and costly wars tarnished its charm, Sir Mountstuart Elphinstone could romanticize Afghanistan in his 1815 travel narrative, praising its fierce antiquity, comparing its inhabitants to Scottish Highlanders, and admiring what he cast as their rugged individuality. Fantasies of Afghan manly independence as compared to fantasies of Indian docility and civilizability reinforced a desire not to interfere in Central Asia, while buttressing the supposed morality of the British presence in India. Afghanistan was an excess that worked to exalt British India as the scene of law and order, as well as of moral and economic progress. It was, at once, wild frontier, the margin that produces the center, and colonial other's other.

After their stunning and humiliating defeat in the First Anglo-Afghan War, which the British declared out of fear that the amir, Dost Mohammad, was allying with the Russians, the British representation of Afghanistan shifted. Now it was the chaotic Asiatic and fanatical site of ungovernability, a festering, if still exoticized, sore. To be contained and stanched, but neither conquered nor considered fully sovereign. A rocky, mountainous space across which British imperial power needed to surge upon occasion to keep the Russians from invading India, but upon which it would not settle. In 1875, six years before another declaration of war, Lord Salisbury would write to Lord Northbrook, referring to Afghanistan, "we cannot conquer it we cannot leave it alone."3

This quote expresses a haunting formula. Poetic in its repetition, it sets up conquering and leaving alone as opposites. The opposite of conquering is to leave alone. The opposite of leaving alone is to conquer. It marks a site of ongoing conflict, of unsatisfied desire. The "cannot" in the first part might mean, we cannot actually and materially conquer this wild, savage place. Or it might mean, we must not conquer it for strategic, moral, economic, or political reasons. The "cannot" of the second half is even stranger: a negation of a nothing. We are not able to do nothing. And there, in that space, in that in-betweenness marked by Salisbury's em-dash, is where Britain and later the US has imagined Afghanistan to be ever since. Not to be conquered, but neither to be left alone.

For whichever power tries to occupy the role of global hegemon, Afghanistan is a nightmare, the proverbial quagmire. In the nineteenth century, it was Britain's nightmare. In the twentieth and early twenty-first, it has been one for the Soviet Union and then the US. For the British, Afghanistan was the space across which the Russians might enter India. For the US, in the 1980s, it was the scene of the last gasps of the Cold War, the Soviets marching in to buttress the Communist government and fight the US-backed mujahidin. After 9/11, for the US, Afghanistan was again a threat, not because of its government, controlled by the Taliban since the mid-1990s, but, rather because of its perceived status as the extra-governmental training ground for al-Qaeda and the hiding place of Osama Bin Laden. We cannot conquer it we cannot leave it alone. If, for the British, Afghanistan's threat was conceived as a wide horizontal expanse across which the Russians could march right into India, for the US after 9/11, Afghanistan took on a menacing verticality, harboring deep interior spaces (the caves) and dizzyingly high altitudes (the mountains), beyond the reach of the most sophisticated security surveillance technology.

Oddly enough, the point takes us back to the form of Bleak House, which, in its drive for wholeness, to connect different domains and levels of society, fills its story space with holes, rooms, chambers, desk cubbies, and pockmarks, which are then re-filled by that famous Chancery fog. Afghanistan does not appear in it, but Borrioboola-Gha does, or at least the idea of it. The fictional African site serves as the unfortunate focus of the efforts of the London-based philanthropist, Mrs. Jellyby, who dreams of sending "a hundred and fifty to two hundred healthy families" there to grow coffee and civilize the natives.4 The novel  famously criticizes her neglect of her husband, children, and home in favor of meddling abroad. It connects this imperial overreach with charity activities within England, especially when ideals override specifics, such as people, as in the case of Mrs. Pardiggle, who barges into poor people's homes and moralizes to them about their reading and hygiene habits. As Bruce Robbins argues, for Dickens, these civilizing-mission efforts, whether abroad or at home, involve a detachment that troubled the novelist, even though his own narratorial style and indeed humor also involved detachment.5 And, while I might appreciate the critique of imperialism and philanthropy that the novel makes the ridiculing of what we might think of as the Victorian version of a Karen it's hard not to feel that the narrator is also upset that these women have dared to think beyond their own domestic sphere, to consider their agency beyond the Angel in the House. Could he find a way to critique imperialism that did not also involve renormalizing gender asymmetry?

In other words, Bleak House is a mixed bag. If Afghanistan does not enter Bleak House, I can feel it in the anxieties and contradictions about human possibility and the proper sphere of politics that the novel boldly lays out: it informs the margins. A novel whose characters become consumed by the idea of inheritance, it also leads me to ask about what kind of inheritance from Victorian Afghanistan the world has now in the present, whether already deposited in our accounts, held up in Chancery, or diverted into some civilizing scheme in Borrioboola-Gha.

A recent novel by Jamil Jan Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar, set in the titular Afghan province of Logar, just south of Kabul, takes up themes of enclosures and contagious nausea, if not exactly holes and fog.6 It also shows us forcefully how the invaders' quagmire is the invaded's home, rich with history, family, and, in the case of Afghanistan, ghosts. It features Marwand as its first-person narrator. Raised in Fremont, California, he describes the summer of 2005, when, at the age of twelve, he visited Logar for the second time with his family. The novel borrows from Arabian Nights and riffs on the Victorian troping of Afghans as wolves, a trope that is foregrounded in one of the epigraphs, a line from "The Amir's Homily," by that most imperialist of Victorians, Rudyard Kipling. 99 Nights in Logar cuts up linear time, moving back and forth among chapters numbered by day and further differentiated by part of day. The plot involves Marwand's hunt for his mother's family's guard dog, Budabash, who may or may not be a wolf or part wolf. Budabash and Marwand are locked in conflict: the wolf-dog a figure of Afghanness as much as Marwand is a figure of both Afghanness and Afghan-Americanness, the mixing of identities and locations that complicates any notion of purity, authenticity, or clarity.

Marwand tells us that on this trip he sought reconciliation for torturing the dog in the summer of 1999 at the age of six, during their previous visit to Logar. As he approached Budabash this time, the dog attacks, seeming to remember the torture of six years previously, and bites off the tip of Marwand's index finger. Budabash then escapes and Marwand and his cousins take a road trip, running from armed Taliban, as well as American troops and local thieves, to try to find him and bring him back to the family compound. Themes of eating, consumption, internalization, and integration, as well as nausea, diarrhea, belly aches, and seasickness on land, follow. As Rajbir Singh Judge eloquently states in his review of the book, the novel forces non-Afghan readers to confront "how [they] typically consume narratives about Afghanistan, especially when we consider the stereotypes of the country that abound in the public sphere."7 The novel draws our attention to the layers upon layers of fighting that generations of Afghans have endured, participated in, and lived their lives through, from the three British invasions (two in the nineteenth century and a third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919), to the Communist coup, the Soviet invasion, the Taliban take-over, and then the US-launched "Global War on Terror," that started in 2001 with Operation Enduring Freedom.

At the end of the novel, Marwand gets lost in the maze of compounds that separates his mother's family compound from his father's. The walls close in, he sees Budabash, they get locked in a death grip and (like Maggie and Tom Tulliver in a different Victorian novel, The Mill on the Floss) get washed away in a flash flood, this one caused by US troops bombing dams in the black mountains. Floating on the water, awash with bones and garbage, recalling descriptions of Hurricane Katrina and thus, perhaps like Bleak House, asking an American reader to link US domestic and imperial violence and trauma, Marwand finally vomits, purging himself of something he had internalized that could not be reconciled or concluded, but must join the wreckage and waste around him. Unlike George Eliot's Victorian characters, but like Esther and her husband Woodcourt at the end of Bleak House, Marwand and Budabash survive to get reunited with the family. But the dog disappears yet again. At the end, as Marwand's family takes a van out of the country on their trip back to the US, his younger brothers swear that they finally see the ghost of his fingertip, which never heals in the three months since the injury, oozing pus and blood: a ghost that will not stop haunting Marwand and that points to, in a way that his index finger can no longer, irreconcilable, unfinished stories that will not add up to a whole.

Marwand's fingertip, ingested by Budabash, cannot be sutured back on to his injured finger, the gauze on which, like the western gaze in this novel, is always unraveling. That fingertip will remain in Afghanistan, but its ghost is not so landlocked. The novel suggests that pain and loss beget travel and stories, but not conclusions. Even nice stories are told in place of painful ones, existing to divert and protect the young. 99 Nights in Logar adeptly puts Victorian ghosts in conversation with twentieth- and early-twenty-first century invasions of Afghanistan. That em-dash in Salisbury's brutal clause, "we cannot conquer it we cannot leave it alone," holds open an indeterminacy and a severing that Kochai's novel narrates, holding it open to allow us to see all the living that goes on despite it, despite an infection that oozes pus, but is also the effort to expel something foreign.

Zarena Aslami is an associate professor of English at Michigan State University. The author of The Dream Life of Citizens: Late Victorian Novels and the Fantasy of the State (Fordham UP, 2012), she is currently developing a book project on nineteenth-century British representations of Afghanistan.


  1. See the work of Antoinette Burton, Nancy Armstrong, Ann Stoler, Catherine Hall, and Saree Makdisi.[]
  2. I develop this point in my article, "Victorian Afghanistan, the Iron Amir, and the Poetics of Marginal Sovereignty," Victorian Studies 62, no. 1 (2019): 35-60.[]
  3. Salisbury to Northbrook, India Office - MSS Eur. C.144/12, Letter 50, (November 19, 1875): 102, quoted in John Lowe Duthie "Pragmatic Diplomacy or Imperial Encroachment?: British Policy Towards Afghanistan, 1874 - 1879," The International History Review  5, no. 4 (1983): 475-495, 479. []
  4. Charles Dickens, Bleak House (Buffalo, NY: Broadview Press, 2011), 92.[]
  5. Bruce Robbins, "Telescopic Philanthropy: Professionalism and Responsibility in Bleak House" in Nation and Narration, edited by Homi K. Bhabha (New York, NY: Routledge, 1990), 213-230.[]
  6. Jamil Jan Kochai, 99 Nights in Logar (New York, NY: Viking, 2019).[]
  7. Rajbir Singh Judge, "When Dogs Bite," Public Books, June 7, 2019.[]