Jamil Ahmad’s publishers refer to The Wandering Falcon as a “debut novel,” though it is a stretch to think of the book as such—rather, a series of linked stories or incidents with some overlapping of characters. “Debut” is the more revealing word, since Ahmad is 78 years old. He wrote the book thirty years ago, put it aside and presumably forgot about it until recent events in the Pakistan/Afghanistan border areas made him realize the significance of what he had written. For years, Ahmad was a Pakistani bureaucrat working in the areas he describes. The questions of categorization for The Wandering Falcon are largely meaningless. What is important is the window the volume provides into one of the more troubling areas of the world today.
“Foot people,” wanderers, tribal peoples, nomads—people with no fixed address, who “belong to all countries”—these are the characters in The Wandering Falcon. Of one tribe, Ahmad observes, their “entire lives were spent in 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 the decisions for them. When the grazing was exhausted in one area, the animals forced them to move on to another site.”
The passage continues, “With the coming of spring they would start back to the highlands, their flocks heavy with fat and wool; the caravans loaded with food and provisions purchased out of the proceeds from work and trading; men, women, and children displaying bits of finery they had picked up in the plains. This way of life had endured for centuries, but it would not last forever. It constituted defiance to certain concepts, which the world was beginning to associate with civilization itself. Concepts such as 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.”
The opening story, “The Sins of the Mother,” chronicles the flight of a pair of young lovers, who have dared to defy tribal dictates and profess their love for one another. Their son, Tor Baz, is born after some months, but then the clans seek retribution and kill the parents. It’s a bloody opening sequence to a series of vignettes that deal with revenge killings, family/clan feuds, questions of honor and always—always—old scores to settle between warring groups. More often than not, two tribes remain at war with one another, generation after generation. The seasons provide brief interruptions in their revenge, with each tribe totally absorbed in themselves, eking out a livelihood in barren landscapes.
Tor Baz appears in several of the stories, often not identified as such until an entire incident has been related. As an adult, he helps guide a returned Afghani into his past, after the man has lived overseas in Germany for years. He also plays a major part in one of the vignettes about women who are sold into prostitution, their status little more than slaves. Clearly, you wouldn’t want to be a woman living in these areas. The entire narrative, in fact, focuses on the unpredictability of the future, especially for women, the harshness of their existence.
In a recent interview, Jamil Ahmed made a revealing observation about his people but, more accurately, all people: I “think that each one of us has a tribal gene inside, embedded inside.” It is that sense of tribalism that is revealed in every section of The Wandering Falcon, but I would argue that people in the West in recent years have demonstrated a similar narrow mindedness, suspicion of others, in spite of what is usually regarded as educational breadth. If the book had been published thirty years ago when it was written, it would have been heralded as a revelation.
The Wandering Falcon
By Jamil Ahmad
Riverhead, 256 pp., $25.95
Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email: Clarson@american.edu.