According to the bio at Fishpond, Jamil Ahmad is a former Civil Servant who worked in the frontier provinces of Pakistan and also in Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul before and during the Soviet Occupation of Afghanistan. Now living in retirement in Islamabad with his wife, he has – at the age of nearly eighty – gained international recognition with this remarkable debut novel.
The Wandering Falcon is superb writing: an elegy for a vanished lifestyle, it will change the way you think about the ‘badlands’ where Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan meet. These tribal areas today are the focus of global attention because their apparently porous borders facilitate the movement of Islamic militants but Ahmad writes of them in the 1950s long before the rise of the Taliban and Al- Qaeda. The British had departed India in 1947, and Pakistan had been created from Indian and Afghan lands, but these lines on the map meant nothing to the tribes who lived there nor the nomads who travelled freely along traditional routes in search of pastures for their flocks. These people had no concept of nationhood or borders but rather, were antipathetic to each other and fiercely loyal to tribal customs.
Ahmad does not romanticise these traditions. The story begins with a couple who have broken the laws of their tribe and have to flee through a harsh landscape to escape retribution. Desperate for food and water, they reach a military outpost in a remote area. Hospitality is obligatory in places where there are no shops or restaurants, but refuge is denied them.
‘Refuge,’ interrupted the subedar brusquely. ‘I cannot offer. I know your laws well and neither I nor any man of mine shall come between a man and the law of his tribe.’
He repeated, ‘Refuge we cannot give you.’
The man bit his lips with the pain that roiled within him. He had diminished himself by seeking refuge. He had compromised his honour by offering to live as a hamsaya, in the shadow of another human being. He turned as if to move, but realised that he had no choice but to humble himself further.
He once again faced the subedar. ‘I accept the reply,’ he said. ‘I shall not seek refuge of you. Can I have food and shelter for a few days?’
‘That we will give you.’ The subedar hastened to atone for his earlier severity. ‘Shelter is yours for the asking. For as long as you wish it, for as long as you want to stay.’ (p5)
The brutal significance of that distinction is manifested five years later. There are rumours of approaching tribesmen, and to protect the woman from tribal discipline the couple enact a pact planned many years before. The child – witness to this and other arbitrary violence – is spared, but abandoned in the desert.
Then he was completely alone. The thousands of birds, which had kept him company for a while, had disappeared. With nothing to keep him occupied, he became aware of his thirst and hunger. He tried to resist it for a while, but as the pangs grew sharper, he finally walked over to the camel and opened the bag containing food. He ate a little, drank some water and then lay down squeezed against the dead camel as the sandstorm approached. (p18)
Five years old, and abandoned to a sandstorm in the desert. For most of us, such heartlessness is hard to imagine… but so are many of the customs depicted in the loosely linked stories which follow.
This boy is rescued by a group of Baluchi rebels whose fate demonstrates again the arbitrary nature of justice in these lands, and he is then taken into the care of a subedar called Ghuncha Gul. By now it is 1958 and as the once fluid boundaries are straitened by both Pakistan and Afghanistan, Ghuncha Gul escorts a nomadic tribe led by a self-styled General across a landscape that is suddenly subject to confusing new policies on the frontier.
Decolonisation and Partition have created inexorable new rules of civilisation which are incomprehensible to nomads: concepts of ‘statehood, citizenship, undivided loyalty to one state; settled life as opposed to nomadic life and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline‘ (p38). There are now new prohibitions on the movement of the ‘foot people’ known as the Pawindahs who have traversed the foothills and plains of High Asia for centuries. To them, closing the borders seems like ‘attempting to stop migrating birds or the locusts‘ (p46). They have to move to new pastures if they and their herds are to survive. But they may not, now, and there is a brutal lesson to be learned.
Ghuncha Gul is relieved of his duties and at home in his village there is no room in his life for an adopted son. So the boy moves on, this time under the protection of a quixotic mullah, a man with a curious reputation…
Questions of honour are defined differently amongst these people, and it would be easy to seem censorious when describing a culture so different to norms that seem elsewhere to be universal. These Peoples are unabashed about acts of betrayal – they are inevitable, and if not committed by one who calls himself your friend, would have been committed by someone else, and at least the friend will help you deal with it. Within the same tribe, rival paid informants can happily serve the Germans and the British during WW2 because each has value to the great power only because of the other – and the money received benefits the whole tribe. Selling information to those who want it – and to multiple clients on opposing sides – is neither dishonourable nor covert. The informant’s honour, however, must be preserved by an elaborate game of refusing with great indignation to accept payment – until the buyer humbles himself by saying he would be deeply hurt if the money is not accepted.
Faraway governments acknowledge the realities and their staff know soon learn to play the game (which made me wonder by what euphemism the assorted bribes and payments are entered in the accounts). To exert control in these remote regions, there is even a treaty which – in stark contrast to contemporary ideas about individual human rights – confers collective tribal and territorial responsibility under a pragmatic arrangement called Frontier Crimes Regulation. In return for an annual stipend and non-interference in their affairs, tribes are expected to maintain order. Infractions are punished by the government through detention of any member of the tribe ‘whether or not directly responsible‘, a blockade, non-payment of the stipend, or (the biggest disincentive because it involves ‘trespass’ on tribal lands) a ‘punitive expedition by the government‘ (p96).
The threat of these sanctions against intermediate tribes enables the management of the routine kidnappings, raids and robberies which sustain the finances of predatory tribes like the Wazirs and the Mahsuds. In these tribes there is ‘no stigma attached to being a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer‘ (p86). There is even a kidnapping ‘season’: it starts in October with the onset of winter. Experienced officials know how to deal with it, but it is easy to see how the Americans bumbling into remnants of a culture like this after 9/11 would have been bewildered, frustrated and angry.
This is mostly a womanless world. With rare exceptions it is the men who speak and act, and although the women of feuding families engage in ritual symbolic warfare, it is the men who die in long-held feuds between tribes. Those who staff the forts spend long months and years of stoic loneliness away from wife and family; and when women marry they leave their families and often never see them again.
The worth of women is best expressed by the man who owns a dancing bear: on their travels in towns, the bear has a room of its own, and the wife and husband do not – because he can ‘get another wife, but not another bear (p164). Sexual morality is conflicted: contact between the sexes is strictly circumscribed in ‘this land where imputation of immorality meant certain death‘. (p112) Men turn their faces away from a woman who has let slip her veil. Yet women are openly bought, sold, or stolen, a prince may buy a child for his pleasure and a young boy may ‘serve the needs‘ of a kebab shop owner with no censure other the inconsequential distaste of a peasant woman. (Who is rebuked for it by her more worldly-wise and treacherous male companion).
Different voices: the calm, wise and occasionally nostalgic voice of the narrator, one who has a grasp of history and politics not shared by the people about whom he speaks. Then there are the voices of individual tribespeople speaking in first person: they tell ancient parables, or explain an event for others. Their voices bring us an intimate perspective, a close-up view of a vanished way of thinking about the world. And there is also the voice of an unnamed German of Afridi ancestry, who undertakes a perilous journey to see his father’s homeland because he has always felt that he did not fully know himself. He speaks for the outsider who tries to make sense of a complex world, both hospitable and hostile.
And when Tor Baz – the Wandering Falcon of the book’s title – speaks for himself at the very end of the book, it is clear that he is no oddity after all. The boy who became a man with no tribe – an outsider with no past who moved among them but never belonged - has learned the ways of his world only too well.
A brilliant book. Highly recommended.
Author: Jamil Ahmad
Title: The Wandering Falcon
Publisher: Penguin UK, 2011
Source: Personal library
Fishpond: The Wandering Falcon $17.76