‘The Wandering Falcon’ – Jamil Ahmad’s first offering to the world of fiction – explores the traditional, honour-bound culture of the remote regions that straddle the borders of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran. Often appearing in the news for extremism, lawlessness and drone attacks, these shadowy ‘badlands’ are still little understood by people in other parts of Pakistan or around the world.
However, Ahmad’s years as a Pakistani civil servant in these areas and later as a minister in the Pakistani embassy in Kabul have provided him a rare insight and understanding of a land that has for centuries been resistant to the forces of modernity and change. Narrated with bitter honesty and naked compassion, the story is a sum of the many things that Ahmad saw and learned about the region and its people. Now, almost 30 years after writing this story, Ahmad (himself in his late 70s) has finally seen the book in print.
‘The Wandering Falcon’ can be read or understood either as a single story or a collection of stories set through nine chapters in the book. Each story can be read alone, but their chronological progression helps the reader appreciate how times change and how some things never vary, regardless of their point in history.
Appearing in each story is the character of Tor Baz, a boy who grows up during the course of the book, whose uprooted, nomadic life serves as a conduit to shine light on various clans and tribes that inhabit his region. His character is one that the reader never fully understands or gets to know, perhaps because the narrative focuses on the region as a whole rather than any individual that forms part of it. Tor Baz merely represents a window for the reader, with his migrant lifestyle and wanderings demonstrating that he is both everyman and no man – a symbolic representation of tribal identity.
Quite interestingly, Ahmad’s complete lack of description or even mention of major conflicts through the years is imperative to his narration, as he sets out to give his characters their own true identity as seen from within, as opposed to the circumstances that are external to their everyday lives.
The beauty of the ‘The Wandering Falcon’ is Ahmad’s ability to make the reader, who may never have visited the region, feel immersed in his vivid, intricate and delicate descriptions of the issues that occupy the forefront of the lives of the tribes. There is violence, kidnapping, the buying and selling of women – in one case a father sells his favourite daughter for a pound of opium and in another a wife competes for her husband’s attentions over his dancing bear – and a fierce, unrelenting commitment to tradition. The harshness and danger of the nomadic life is clear to see, with no lack of uncertainty and conflict and no guarantees that the roads ahead with be passable, either literally or metaphorically.
Having read the book one can understand the high level of praise it has garnered from critics and readers alike; its unique and refreshing look into tribal life and customs, and its ability to narrate with sincerity but without judgement make it a truly remarkable read that will most likely stay with the reader long after the last page is turned.