A collection of short stories from an unknown, almost 80-year-old civil servant from Pakistan, who has never published anything, may not sound very promising. But this collection has been described as "one of the finest collections of short stories to come out of South Asia in decades".
The author, Jamil Ahmad, has worked for years in a very controversial area: the remote regions of Balochistan and the tribal areas of Swat and Waziristan along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. This is the very same area that has now become notorious, because it is supposedly the nest of al-Qaeda terrorists and the Taliban. But Ahmad wrote his stories before al-Qaeda was even born, in the early 1970s. Apparently, he hid the manuscript in a drawer for more than 20 years until it was finally dug out by his brother. He submitted it to a short story competition from where it ultimately found its way to a publisher (and finally even to the shelves of my local library!).
The Wandering Falcon begins with a story called "The Sins of the Mother" where a man and a young woman are walking across the desert. They are eloping, running away together from male relatives who are chasing them to kill them and regain their honour. The couple find a small, remote military post and seek refuge there. They have nowhere else to go, so they decide to stay and live there. A boy is born and named Tor Baz, or Black Falcon. He is the character that links all the stories of the book together.
The world described in the novel is dominated by the local tribes and their culture. It is a world of ancient rules and customs, of loyalty and pride, of cruelty and honour, of independence and infinite hospitality towards travellers, of strong women and mysterious men. Kamila Shamsie writes in her review that sometimes Ahmad's writing feels more like anthropology than fiction and that is definitely true - but in a very positive sense. Ahmad sheds light on the harsh beauty of an area that is rarely seen expect from a negative perspective in the media - and tribes whose existence is often forgotten as their way of life is overrun by modern conflicts. Although the tribal areas of Pakistan are constantly in the news, there are probably very few journalists - let alone fiction writers - who have as much empathy for and insight into the actual people living in those areas as Ahmad does.
The Wandering Falcon is a somewhat pessimistic and sad novel about the clash between an old way of life and contemporary society, old tribal laws and a modern state. The nomadic tribes have never had to ask permission to cross national borders, but now they are suddenly forced to come to terms with the fact that this is not their land anymore. Their world is changing and their lifestyle is under threat.
Jamil Ahmad: The Wandering Falcon. Hamish Hamilton. 2011. 192 pages.
The Express Tribune: "Ahmad, 80, and the author of a literary success"
The Guardian/Kamila Shamsie: The Wandering Falcon
The Guardian/Basharat Peer: The Wandering Falcon