The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

22/07/11

A debut novel by a 78-year-old is always a cause for exultation but the distinguishing features of Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon are more numerous. Its setting alone, in the cruel and punishing highlands, deserts and rocky altitudes (5000 metres at points) where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran meet, is worth the price of admission. The Pakistani sections of the area, parts of the provinces of Waziristan, Balochistan, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas and the North-West Frontier Province, have never properly been assimilated into modern statehood and their names in the West are familiar, if at all, only as locations where Islamic terrorists and the Taliban hide. Here is a book, to my knowledge the first in fiction, that gives an insider’s account of the hard-bitten lives of the scores of tribes, collectively known as the Pawindas, or foot-people (they’re mostly nomadic), who lived in this bogeyland before the decade-long Soviet war in Afghanistan began at the very end of 1979. The result is mesmerising.

It is difficult to give a responsible plot summary of the book as it barely coheres as a novel, instead resembling something closer to an anthropology of the Pawindas. This, oddly enough, becomes the book’s strength; if there is a central character then it is not Tor Baz, the boy who, at the age of four, sees his parents killed in front of him as part of an honour-killing, and who runs like an intermittent thread through woof in most of the chapters of the novel, but the landscape itself. And instead of plot we have a series of short stories, separated significantly in time but united subtly yet tenuously, sometimes through Tor Baz, always through the landscape and its peoples.

There are shocking glimpses into Pashtun codes governing revenge (and hilarious ways of bypassing them) and the internecine warring of the various tribes. We learn about migratory lives, spent in the uplands in summer and the hostile plains in winter, about the sale of women into prostitution in Mian Mandi, the notorious thriving slave market. Instead of foaming at the mouth at the abysmal condition of women’s destinies, Ahmad lets the incidents speak powerfully. On one important level the book is a testament to the fragility of the tribals’ nomadic lives, which ‘had endured for centuries, but … would not last forever. It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself. Concepts such as statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state; … and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.’

He is also excellent at digging under the surface of that terrifying term, ‘honour code’, to show us the exact nature of lives lived under its shadow and how communities bound by such medieval and unforgiving codes of honour, tradition and loyalty can appear to be without any principles or morals when the order they are expected to follow, such as national allegiance, fall outside the domain of their traditional understanding. He elucidates for us the rubrics of highly stylised behaviour that obtain in this world; the exchange between Tor Baz and the deputy commissioner in ‘A Kidnapping’ when the former asks circuitously for payment for information that he has come to sell him is a gem of compressed comedy.

Of all the answers that can be returned to the question, ‘What is fiction for?’, a worthy one can be, ‘Taking readers where they’ve never been before’. The greatest strength of The Wandering Falcon is in this ability to transport, to crack open a world and its codes, which have remained unseen and uncomprehended by outsiders, with such economy and clear-eyed compassion.