Interview: Jamil Ahmad

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January 30, 2012 by markstani

Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon (pub. Penguin) is an extraordinary collection of inter-linked stories which shines a light on the remote tribal regions bordering Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran. It has been deservedly shortlisted for this year’s MAN Asian Literary Prize. Ahmad, now almost eighty, has come to literary fame late: his manuscript lay unpublished at his home for thirty years. You can read my full review here. Here, in a brief, exclusive interview, the author talks about the inspiration behind his book.

After taking so long to get published, are you surprised by the positive critical reception (and MAN Asian longlisting) for ‘The Wandering Falcon’?

I was surprised, but then ‘The Wandering Falcon’ has offered me one pleasant surprise after another in the past year and a half.

Tor Baz is an unusual, elusive central character. Why did you decide to convey him in such a relatively unconventional way?

I have always believed that no person is a dominating character, 24 hours a day and seven days a week (other than comic book heroes). Life is by and large a feeble struggle with strong currents. This is the theme that Tor Baz represents.

In your previous work as as Commissioner and political officer in the tribal areas, how difficult was it to gain to trust and respect of these societies?

I never found it difficult to gain trust in any of the areas where I served. All one needed to show was that you protected their interests with as much vigor and commitment as you protected the interests of the state.

The tribal areas obviously come in for a bad press, especially in the West, dismissed as breeding grounds and hiding places for al-Qaeda. But one gets the impression that Western society could learn a lot from the way life is organised in these areas: their honour codes and morals?

I do believe so.

Al-Jazeera reported recently on the terrible mental strain placed on inhabitants of these areas by the constant threat of drone attacks. In what way has the latest Afghan war and specifically these missile attacks changed these communities, and their perception of the outside world?

I am not current with the situation but I do feel that in many parts of the tribal areas drone attacks are not resented to the degree they are portrayed in the print and electronic media. The most traumatic event for these societies and these areas was the Afghan war in the late seventies. Traditional power centres of these societies were bypassed when Mujahideen groups were created. This tragedy was further compounded by other policy decisions in the years that followed. The west and its surrogates sowed the wind in 1978 and are now reaping the whirlwind.

Something that shines through in your book is the glimpses of strong female characters in a world many are quick to judge as terribly repressive. How do you perceive the role of women in such societies today?

As I stated earlier, I am out of touch with the current situation. However, the status of women in areas such as the Mekran coast or among the nomad tribes may not have changed too much even with the passage of half a century.


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