November 5, 2011 by markstani
Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon is set in the heart of the stateless stretch of mountains where the borders of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran meet: an area mythologized by news bulletins as lawless, tribal Taliban hidey-holes, buzzing only with unmanned drones.
Ahmad gives a rare voice to this forbidden region’s human collateral as he follows the wanderings of a boy named Tor Baz – the Black Falcon – through its many different, complex cultures and honour-bound societies.
Ahmad writes of a region pre-Taliban, but its roots are plain to see in a land where ‘imputation of immorality meant certain death’, and whose relentless hardships breed a perverted if somewhat understandable sense of justice:
‘Despite their differences, the two tribes [Mahsuds and Wazirs] share more than merely their common heritage of poverty and misery. Nature has bred in both an unusual abundance of anger, enormous resilience, and a total refusal to accept their fate. If nature provides them with food for only ten days in a year, they believe it their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat and comfortable lives in the plains. To both tribes, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer.’
The region is changing. Governments are beginning to patch up their porous borders, threatening to irrevocably alter the lifestyles of the wandering tribes who have migrated between mountains and plains for centuries. The young are beginning to look less towards their elders and more to the distant cousins who have grown rich selling opium in the city.
Ahmad captures this creeping change through an extraordinarily successful narrative device, in which the wanderings of Tor Baz act as a conduit for the author to shine his light on each new tribe or clan in turn: often, that is where the role of Tor Baz ends, as the story loops away to engage others before we meet him again, often chapters later, elsewhere. This clever conceit enables the author to stay true to the traditional storytelling techniques of the region, at the same time deftly weaving in elements of a more modern, character-driven tale.
Ahmad’s book laid unpublished for thirty years before his wife convinced him to seek publication. Now 78, Ahmad, who served in the border regions as a member of the Civil Service of Pakistan and later as minister in the Pakistani Embassy in Kabul, has been rewarded with a longlisting for the prestigious MAN Asian Literary Prize.
‘The Wandering Falcon’ is a deeply affecting book which provides a riveting insight into an area which the West is all too ready to write off as a vast outdoor training school for bandits and bombers. What Ahmad has, in fact, crafted out of this land of endless dust-storms and unforgiving mountain ranges is a beautiful testament to the triumph of the human spirit.