Tuesday 28 June 2011

Jamil Ahmad's triumphant debut

Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon (Hamish Hamilton, London, 2011) is a remarkable book on traditional Pashtun society that should be compulsory reading for anyone studying this area. Written as a series of interlinked stories about an orphaned boy - Tor Baz, the black falcon - it brings the reader as close to the forbidden lands of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border as is possible. Its alternating tenderness and tragedy pulls at the heart strings to paint a picture of this brutal society. Nothing in literature comes near to his description, for example, of a meeting between a young political officer (possibly the author himself?) and members of the Bhittani tribe, who live on the borders of the much more powerful Mahsuds in South Waziristan.
The publishers, I hope, will forgive me if I quote a paragraph in full from this achingly beautiful book:
"The Mahsuds, because they always hunt in groups, are known as the wolves of Waziristan. A Wazir hunts alone. He is known as the 'leopard' to other men. Despite their differences, the two tribes share more than merely their common heritage of poverty and misery. Nature has bred in both an unusual abundance of anger, enormous resilience and a total refusal to accept their fate. If nature provides them food for only ten days in 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 in the plains. To both tribes, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer. And then, both are totally absorbed in themselves. They have no doubt in their minds that they occupy centre stage, while the rest of the world acts out minor roles or watches them as spectators - as befits inferior species."
Jamil Ahmad, now 80, is very well qualified to write this book. He spent his life in the Pakistan Civil Service, serving in the old Frontier Province and in Baluchistan. He served in Quetta, Chaghi, Khyber and Malakand and was later commissioner in Dera Ismail Khan and in Swat, as well as becoming chairman of the Tribal Development Corporation. He was Pakistan's ambassador in Kabul before, during and after the Soviet invasion in 1979 and finished his career as Chief Secretary in Baluchistan.

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