Border crossings … a guerrilla from the Marri tribe prepares rockets for firing on a Pakistani troop outpost, 2006. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images
Jamil Ahmad, a Pakistani civil servant, began his career in Baluchistan in the 1950s. Most civil servants posted to such a remote area as Baluchistan, North Western Frontier Province, or the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border would lobby hard for a posting in the bigger cities of Pakistan, but Ahmad stayed on, spending several decades working as an administrator. Unlike most officials from the plains, Ahmad learned Pashto, the language most tribes along the dreaded frontier speak. Along the way, he took notes, and by 1974 had turned his impressions into a collection of inter-linked stories.
- The Wandering Falcon
- by Jamil Ahmad
Ahmad stashed away his first draft, leaving it untouched for three decades. In 2008, he was 75, retired from the civil service, and living in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Two young Pakistani women, a Lahore-based bookseller, Aysha Raja, and a Karachi-based columnist and editor, Faiza Sultan Khan, called on Pakistani authors to submit stories for a competition. Ahmad’s younger brother insisted that he must show them his work. After reworking the 35-year-old manuscript, Ahmad sent it to Khan, who championed it, and showed it to an editor at Penguin.
Two years later, Jamil Ahmad made his debut as the 78-year-old writer of The Wandering Falcon, one of the finest collections of short stories to come out of south Asia in decades.The Wandering Falcon begins in Baluchistan in the early 1950s, as a tribal chief’s daughter married to an impotent man elopes with her father’s servant and finds shelter in an isolated fort manned by a few dozen lonely soldiers. Ahmad conveys the fear and desperation of the lovers as he describes them being offered water on their arrival at the fort gates after an arduous trek. “As she sensed water, she started sucking his hand and fingers like a small animal. All of a sudden, she lunged towards the bucket, plunged her head into it and drank with long gasping sounds until she choked.”
The couple find shelter in an abandoned corner of the fort. A son is born, and they raise the child in a hidden corner for six years until the Siahpad, their tribe, sends men in pursuit of them. The couple and their son run for safety but are hunted down, and two stone shrines are raised over their graves as a sign of Siahpads’ revenge. Tor Baz, the boy left to die, is adopted by Baluch rebels fighting the Pakistani government and grows up to be the wandering falcon of the title, a boy with no fixed identity, moving between precarious worlds full of humanity, courage, cruelty, and above all poverty so dire that survival seems to be the greatest virtue.
Although the tribal areas of Pakistan have dominated the news and opinion pages for years, rarely has a writer shown greater empathy for its people, or brought such wisdom and knowledge to writing about a terrain largely inaccessible to journalists and writers. The Pak-Afghan frontier has become synonymous with terrorists and the mechanised war of drones. The ambitions and interests of nation states – America, Pakistan, Afghanistan – have rendered invisible the Baluch. Jamil’s stories return the humanity to this devastated region. His characters defy the much-used categories of our times: moderates or extremists, Salafis or Sufis, pro or anti-American. Their concerns are often ordinary, mostly difficult struggles for a life of dignity and love.
The Wandering Falcon is also a blistering critique of the ruthless ways of nation states, as they seek to impose artificially constructed borders on older, more fluid worlds. In one of the most powerful stories, “The Death of Camels”, Ahmed describes the world of a tribe of cattle herders who moved their flocks from the Afghan mountains in winter to the plains of Pakistan in summer. One autumn, as the state of Pakistan tries to enforce its borders, a caravan of these nomads faces armed Pakistani soldiers who order them to return to the tribal territory. Curt orders are issued through amplifiers. Guns are pointed. A woman, unfamiliar with the ways of modern states, moves forward with some camels, carrying a copy of the Koran on her head, assured the holy book would protect her. “They had hardly gone fifty yards when two machine guns opened up from either side and mowed down the camels. The firing was indiscriminate. Men, women, and children died. Gul Jana’s belief that the Koran would prevent tragedy died too.”
The clash between a people governing themselves through old tribal codes and the modern governments permeates Ahmad’s stories. Another story, “A Point of Honour”, shows a group of Baluch rebels, who had taken in the six-year-old Tor Baz after his parents’ murder, debating over a Pakistani government pamphlet announcing an offer of talks. The rebels, led by an old, half-blind chief, march proudly to an outpost of governance for talks, but end up being disarmed and sentenced to death for murder.
“There was complete and total silence about the Baluchis, their cause, their lives, and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf . . . No politician risked imprisonment: they would continue to talk of the rights of the individual, the dignity of man, the exploitation of the poor, but they would not expose the wrong done outside their front door,” Ahmad writes. Sadly, his words continue to ring true. This collection is reminiscent of the work of two masters of the short story: Saadat Hussain Manto’s stories of India’s violent partition and Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalary stories. The power and beauty of these stories are unparalleled in most fiction to come out of south Asia.
This book is available at liberty books