by T.L. Khleif
“In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten, and broken hills where the borders of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet,” begins Jamil Ahmad’s astonishing debut novel, The Wandering Falcon, “is a military outpost manned by about two score soldiers.” He continues:
Lonely, as all such posts are, this one is particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around, and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against one another, and no water other than a trickle among some salt-encrusted boulders, which also dries out occasionally, manifesting a degree of hostility.
This is the land that Ahmad brings to vibrant life: desolate and sometimes cruel, remote from urban centers, home to tribesmen whose families have lived by its whims for generations. The novel, which reads less like a story with primary narrative arc and more as a collection of linked stories, examines the complicated, often troubling implications of belonging to a place—a land, a family, a tribe, a country—particularly at a time of tumultuous change.
The time period is the 1950s and 1960s, and states around the northwest frontier of Pakistan are enforcing strict borders and notions of citizenship. Tribes across the region find their lives thrown into chaos, their futures uncertain. In prose that echoes the language of fables, Ahmad explores, among other things, how the ambivalent nature of home comes into sharp relief at a time of widespread dislocation. The land sustains and punishes inhabitants; tribes both protect their members and inflict devastating brutality upon them. The narrative traverses a vast terrain, following an orphaned boy who acquires the name Tor Baz, the “black falcon”—who is not so much a protagonist as a guide, often lingering on the fringes of events, surfacing and disappearing as we encounter men and women across the region. Ahmad’s expansive and intimate voice accentuates the smallness of the characters’ lives while offering vivid glimpses into each individual’s struggle for dignity and a foothold in the world.
The book itself, completed in 1973, endured its own impossibly long journey before reaching audiences in 2011—the year the author turned 80. Ahmad, a career civil servant in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas in Pakistan, began work on the manuscript after his wife Helga encouraged him to abandon his lackluster experiments with poetry, which, as he recalled to the LA Times in 2011, she deemed “rubbish.” “Why don’t you write about something you know?” she asked instead.
But in the decades between his finishing the novel’s draft and seeing the book in print, he told Publishers Weekly in 2011, the pages were “absolutely shut up in a trunk.” His few attempts to interest publishers had come up empty; one reader, as Ahmad noted to the LA Times, even recommended that he rewrite the book as nonfiction. Ahmad eventually gave up seeking publication, but his wife kept faith—as did his brother, who, in 2008, submitted the pages to a short story competition in Pakistan. The manuscript arrived too late for entry, but the contest organizer, moved by the work, sent it to an editor affiliated with Penguin Books.
The following year, with a swiftness that belied the manuscript’s history, Penguin bought the book. In 2011, the novel was shortlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize. Two years later, it was named a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. All at once, in the eighth decade of his life, Ahmad’s long-abandoned dreams of becoming a published author had materialized. Yet if it hadn’t been for his wife, he told Publishers Weekly, “these stories would have been eaten by white ants. Helga was as protective of these stories as she was with our other babies.”
Ahmad passed away last July, after battling a long illness. In interviews the year the book was released, he offered hints—now poignant to read—that he might consider a second book. “It depends on how this thing is received,” he told the LA Times not long before The Wandering Falcon’s publication. “If this is acceptable, then maybe I’ll try my hand.”
The author at least lived to see the novel receive warm reviews. A number of critics have praised the book for illuminating a geographical region that American and European audiences might mostly associate with intractable U.S. military entanglements. As these observers and others acknowledge, the work’s enduring power stems from Ahmad’s nuanced and compassionate depictions of the land and its people.
In The Wandering Falcon, the landscape appears in dazzling complexity. It is often indifferent, even antagonistic, to the people who live there. At the frontier outpost of the book’s opening pages, for instance, a four-month-long wind drives men to near madness, “blowing clouds of alkali-laden dust and sand so thick that men barely breathe or open their eyes when they happen to get caught in it.” Meanwhile, near the Shaktu River in Waziristan, tribes must scratch out sustenance from a land that Ahmad renders with subtle beauty and a touch of menace:
The river provides only a brief interruption. Where the fields end, the convolutions and whorls of bare, cruel rock once again resume their march across the land—occasionally throwing up spires and lances of granite into the sky.
Here, inhabitants envy the men of the plains who, in their view, live “oily, fat, and comfortable lives.”
But whether the land sustains or starves them, every tribe has learned to live in a certain rhythm with their home terrain. “I’ve always felt that’s the basic building block of human civilization, the tribe,” Ahmad reflected in an interview with NPR shortly after the novel’s release. “I still think that each one of us has a tribal gene inside, embedded inside.” Throughout the novel, tribesmen’s intimate understanding of their land contrasts sharply with the myopia of the state bureaucracies that begin imposing their will. At one point, tribesmen from the arid region of Baluchistan must take flight from district officers who have attempted to appoint their chief and who have deemed them rebels. On the run through a desolate stretch, the Baluch take comfort from hidden treasures their adversaries might never discern:
The land—their land—had seen to it that beauty and color were not erased completely from their lives. It offered them a thousand shades of gray and brown, with which it tinted its hills, its sands, and its earth. There were subtle changes of color in the blackness of the nights and the brightness of the days, and the vigorous colors of the tiny desert flowers hidden in the dusty bushes, and of the gliding snakes and scurrying lizards as they buried themselves in the sand. To the men, beauty and color were rampant around them.
Only someone deeply attuned to this desert landscape can glimpse its subtle variations and unexpected beauties. In a similar vein, the nomadic Kharot tribe synchronizes its movements to the demands of the land it traverses each year:
[Their] entire lives were spent wandering with the seasons. In autumn, they would gather their flocks of sheep and herds of camels, fold up their woven woolen tents, and start moving. They spent the winter in the plains, restlessly moving from place to place as each opportunity to work came to an end. Sometimes they merely let their animals make their decisions for them. When the grazing was exhausted in one area, the animals forced them to move on to another site.
But suddenly, as they discover, government authorities are ordering tribes to present travel documents in order to cross the frontier between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Kharot, who have been making this trek for generations, possess no birth certificates, identity papers, or health documents; it is therefore impossible for them to obtain the required forms. All at once, they face losing their livelihood and everything they have known. In a quietly poignant scene, the Kharot’s leader, a man known to all as the General, negotiates with a sympathetic but ultimately powerless government officer. His son Naim, also present, speaks up: “We . . . belong,” he says, “to all countries, or to none.” Uttered in a government office, Naim’s statement sounds painfully naïve. Indeed, as father and son rise to leave, Naim watches the General shed, in an instant, the dignity and status he has carried all his life:
The General once again adjusted his cloak, and his son felt a stabbing pain as he realized that within the last few minutes this garment, which had signified grandeur, pride, and strength, had become an ordinary covering for an old man seeking to hide his mind and body.
In this scene and others, government power appears inexorable; and yet many moments reveal too a grim absurdity in the project of state-building. In one heartbreaking example, the aforementioned Baluch rebels, believing they have been invited to hold talks with government officials, find themselves lured into a trap and taken to trial. The tribesmen, never having been in a courtroom, do not immediately recognize what is happening—while the reader does. The distance between these two perspectives imparts an appropriately chilling and surreal tenor to the proceedings:
The room that [the Baluch] entered was full of people. Some were sitting on chairs and others on benches. . . .
Harshly, [the Baluch] were asked to remain standing. It is a strange custom of these people, they thought to themselves, when one part stands and the others sit. They were asked to swear an oath on the Koran that they would tell only the truth. This made them even more curious. They swear by a book, while we swear by our chief—the sardar of our tribe. . .
Then the charges were read out to them.
Adding to the bleakly farcical atmosphere is the court clerk’s repeated question, “Do I have to write all that is being said?” State authority, only now beginning to assert itself, is still uncertain how to implement its own ordering mechanisms.
Even as Ahmad has expressed that authorities have dismantled and weakened tribal structures that serve as “a strong countervailing system to all what is happening today—terrorism, you know, bigotry”, what gives the narrative particular force is the book’s refusal to idealize tribal life. In Waziristan, for instance, the Mahsud and Wazir tribes “glower at each other” from across the river that divides them, erupting into bloody conflict every few months. The Gujjar people, forbidden by other tribes from owning land or property, live “quiet, tormented lives on windswept hilltops and dark, narrow mountain defiles,” traumatized by “centuries of insult.” And Tor Baz, the title character of the book, is orphaned after his mother is killed and his father is stoned to death for their adulterous affair and elopement.
“It is brutal, undoubtedly,” Ahmad said of certain aspects of tribal life when speaking with NPR. “But what I wanted to convey—and there’s probably worse brutality in the cities and in the plains; brutality exists. But how the tribes deal with it, I thought was clean and clear. There’s a clear dividing line between right and wrong.” The willingness to examine both the comforts and hardships of living in these societies characterizes the novel’s forthright, empathetic voice.
Despite his love for the land, the author told Publishers Weekly, it was “not the physical geography but the people who inspired me.” As we accompany the drifting and sometimes elusive Tor Baz through the region, we meet men and women whose struggles and yearnings leap into relief before the book moves to the next destination. In one brief passage, for example, the Gujjar mullah Fateh Mohammed, scraping to feed his family, reflects on the dismaying parallels between his life and that of his father, also a poor mullah:
In the innocence of youth, he had imagined that . . . he would break away. But before he was too old, he realized with some little fear that his life would be no different from his father’s. He learned the scriptures and prepared himself for the life of a mullah, wondering whether his father, too, in his childhood had thought of breaking away but had given up his struggle when he found the mesh too strong.
Still, his wife and daughters take some joy at the prospect of his returning from a spring journey with enough to eat—and these warm moments lend a crucial, life-like quality to the narrative.
With the fear of hunger temporarily banished, none of them felt as hungry as they did when prospects were grimmer. [They] chattered and laughed while they worked during his absence. . . . All of them were aware that when the man of the house returned from his trip, he would be a happy man, and it would be a joyous and happy house for some time.
But then there is Fateh Mohammed’s eldest daughter, Shah Zarina, who, after enduring merciless abuse from her new husband, returns home—only to find herself subject to vicious local gossip. She runs away after the situation grows untenable: “She could not venture alone in the fields without someone or the other trying to tease or assault her. If she complained, the whole village charged her with loose morals—if she didn’t, the men became bolder.”
In the end, Shah Zarina’s troubled journey leads us to a village embroiled in a cruel commerce, where she crosses paths with Tor Baz. Whereas Fateh Mohammed and Shah Zarina suffer from the rigid constraints in their lives, Tor Baz, in contrast, is prey to an abiding uncertainty. His name, not given to him until well into childhood, originally belonged to another boy, who was killed. No one can place Tor Baz’s accent or the tribe he is from. In adulthood, he leads an opportunistic life, dealing in unsavory commerce, working as a government informer, picking up what other scattered jobs he can. “Seeking out one’s past,” he reflects at one point, “is of little consequence.” Elsewhere, when a curious government officer asks him who he is and where he comes from, he laughs. “I can tell you as little about who I am,” he replies, “as I can about who I shall be.”
Tor Baz’s life brings into relief the unpredictable circumstances encroaching on the region. “Who but God knows what the future holds for me and for this land?” he muses to himself at the end. Life along the frontier is constantly in flux. Even while some people, like Fateh Mohammed, may long to break from some of the patterns that govern their existence, the question of what will replace these structures is perhaps more unsettling. The narrative, taking in a wide sweep of history, recognizes that whatever the circumstances, the most moving and enduring story lies in how individuals navigate the changing and often overwhelming conditions of their own lives, in the fleeting time they have. Jamil Ahmad, having waited half his lifetime to see his fiction reach a wide audience, preserves traces of lives, and of a place, that might otherwise fade from memory. It is disquieting to consider what would have been lost had those pages remained locked in a trunk.
T.L. Khleif has an M.F.A. from the University of Michigan and is the recipient of a MacDowell Colony Fellowship and a 2014 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in the New England Review and The Normal School. She is working on a novel set in Damascus, Syria.