The Wandering Falcon
- Jamil Ahmad
- Riverhead Books/Penguin
- 243 pp.
- Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
- October 17, 2011
A debut collection of linked stories present extremes of climate and culture in the remote border lands where Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran meet.
Reviewed by Susan Storer Clark
The remote area where Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran meet provides the setting for The Wandering Falcon. On a map the borders are clearly delineated, but in this book and on the ground, these national borders blur. Jamil Ahmad writes powerfully of the austere beauty and harshness of the environment, a subject he knows well having spent several decades in the remote tribal areas as a civil servant for the government of Pakistan. He is now 80 years old, and The Wandering Falcon is his first novel.
As the story begins, a young man and a woman are struggling toward a remote army post during a lull in sandstorms created by the dreaded “wind of a hundred and twenty days.” They ask for refuge, but are denied it because the wording of the request implies that they are in trouble. They then ask for shelter, and their request is granted. Soon afterward, the woman gives birth to the boy who is the novel’s central character.
They stay at the outpost for four years, until their presence is discovered by members of her family and the husband she deserted. The couple flee with their little boy, but they are caught and stoned to death at a water hole. The little boy is left alone in the desert, with only the family’s dead camel to shelter him from a sandstorm. He is rescued by six Baluch tribesmen, rebels who have been fighting the Pakistani army but are now on their way to a town. They have been summoned for what they believe to be peace talks, but since none of them can read, they don’t really know what the document said. As it turns out, they are given a short, dishonest trial, condemned and executed. Ahmad writes, “These men died a total and final death. They will live in no songs ... .What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust.”
The boy is informally adopted by an officer in the Pakistani Army, a subedar, who takes him to another remote army post. When the subedar is relieved of his post years later, he tells the boy he cannot take him, and entrusts him to the care of a wandering mullah.
The next chapter begins with the sounding of an alarm in a Bhittani village because a boy has disappeared while grazing sheep. The villagers find the young shepherd dead and disemboweled, another boy bound to a tree and nearby, a mullah staring into space. The villagers kill the mullah, and the parents of the dead boy take in the other boy and give him their son’s name, Tor Baz, or “black falcon.” Only at this point, when he’s 11 or 12, does the novel’s central character get a name.
Tor Baz is a character in each of the stories in this book, although seldom an important figure. Several of the stories dramatically present the clash of cultures. In one, the government has decided that there will be no movement between borders without documents. The nomadic tribes find this problematic because wandering with their animals to find better pastures is a matter of life or death; they have no documents and no way of obtaining any. They also find the constraint laughable: “It would be like trying to stop migrating birds or the locusts.” But they are stopped by the army, massacred by soldiers with machine guns as they try to cross the border. Kidnapping is shown to be a seasonal industry for some tribes. As Ahmad writes: “If nature provides them sustenance for only ten days a year, they believe in their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat, and comfortable lives on the plains.”
Ahmad has written a fascinating book, especially for the reader to whom the tribal cultures of that region are a mystery. It is sympathetic but not sentimental, and most chapters begin with a spare, vivid description of a specific place where part of the story is set. Although these stories apparently occur in a pre-Soviet, pre-Taliban time, it is clear why the values people held then endure now. Although the area has become one of enormous geopolitical significance, its inaccessible world, with extremes of climate and culture, is one that many readers will not understand at the beginning of the book, and understand much better at the end. Ahmad’s slender book is a mind-opener, as well as an engaging read.
Susan Storer Clark, a former broadcast journalist and retired civil servant, has been a member of the Holey Road Writers for more than 10 years and contributes often to The Independent. She recently completed a novel set in 19th-century America.