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The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon (edition 2012)

by Jamil Ahmad

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2373648,722 (3.72)48
Title:The Wandering Falcon
Authors:Jamil Ahmad
Info:Riverhead Trade (2012), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 256 pages
Collections:Your library, Literary fiction

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The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

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Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
a fascinating yet somewhat frightening insight into the lives of various tribes living on the borders of Pakistan...I enjoyed it, but found the abrupt ending of some of the stories disappointing - you didn't always get to see the conclusion. I guess that may well have been the point, though. ( )
  shirleybell | Sep 26, 2013 |
I enjoyed this book even if I didn't fully understand it. I think I'm going to have to read it again to perhaps absorb what the author is trying to say. ( )
  lafon | Mar 31, 2013 |
Most of what I know about the part of the world where Pakistan and Afghanistan meet is through Kipling's The Man Who Would Be King. So you know I don't know much.

But I do know that when Daniel Dravot and Peachy tried to use their guns and wits to conquer the tribes in this mountainous, inhospitable region, the tribal culture initially worked for them, then against them.

This view of tribal culture, in which the individual may endure but does not achieve dominance, is but one of the conclusions reached reading another book that takes part in that high corner of the world. Jamil Ahmad, at age 80, published his first work with The Wandering Falcon after spending years in the area.

It isn't quite accurate to call The Wandering Falcon a novel. It is part fable, part character study of a way of life rather than one singular character and part a setting down in writing tales that have probably been told there for years.

There is a man in the book who is a wandering falcon. His parents are unfortunate lovers; she's the daughter of a tribal leader and he's a nobody. They ran away together, finding refuge for several years near an army fort. When her father's people eventually find them, the outcome is not good. Their child, the falcon of the story, survives. He's passed from mentor to mentor over the years. What he learns and how he became what he did is not told, however. He disappears for pages and pages.
But in between those appearances, the various stories provide a few clues as to how the people of the region may view life.

In one of the early stories, a tribe comes to grips with the newly enforced border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, not sure if everyone will be able to get across as they move their few animals to better grazing. The tribe's leader tries to negotiate safe passage with an army official, unsuccessfully. As he leaves, he adjusts his cloak. As he does so, his son realizes that the cloak is now an "ordinary covering for an old man". The "general" has lost his authority.

The general later reminds his son about a time they met another old man, who said the secret to his long life was eating raw onions:

What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions.

As bitter as life is for the menfolk, it's worse for the women. They are property to be kidnapped, sold for a pound of opium, to be treated worse than a bear that does tricks. Malala Yousufzai would know the attitudes here well.

In all these stories within the book, the boy who is known as the falcon either does not appear or makes only a brief appearance. He could be likened to a bird that views the actions of these characters from a distance and without passion.

One character, a magistrate, in Ahmad's tales is disdainful of anything that is not a cold, hard fact. Telling rationales through fables, for example, serves no purpose in his world view. "Fables have no use here," he says. "Can a fable explain a death?"

Of course a fable can explain a death, a way of life and the dying of a way of life. Which is, perhaps, more to the point of The Wandering Falcon than anything else.

The Wandering Falcon is a finalist for the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature. The winner will be named Jan. 25 in Jaipur. Also on the shortlist are The Good Muslim by Tahmima Anam, River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh, Our Lady of Alice Bhatti by Mohammed Hanif, The Walls of Delhi by Uday Prakash, translated by Jason Grunebaum, and Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil. ( )
  Perednia | Dec 10, 2012 |
The boy who sits on top of the gun called Zam-Zammah in the opening scene of Rudyard Kipling’s Kim is called “Little Friend of all the World” by the people in the market places of Lahore. He has no parents, no family, no caste. He practices no religion, cultivates no feuds, plots against no enemy—for he has none. Instead he moves at will among the myriad of different cultures and castes in the city’s crowded streets and alleys, as at ease with a Muhammadan as he is with a Hindu, as accepting of the mothering of an elderly Sahiba as he is of the flirting of a dancing girl with kohl-lined eyes. Eventually someone in the British government recognizes the potential uses of such a boy, and after training him in one more culture’s idiosyncrasies (how to be “white”) sets him loose in the Punjab to wreak havoc among the intrigues of petty kings and principalities.

If Kim had been sitting on that gun forty or fifty years later, and wandering the dusty roads to the west of Lahore rather than those to that climbed the hills towards Tibet in the east, he might have been Tor Baz, the “wandering falcon” of Jamil Ahmad’s beautiful book of the same name. A collection of stories that almost coalesces into a novel, The Wandering Falcon is a vivid, compassionate portrait of the people of FATA—the Federally Administered Tribal Areas—along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

It is wild, unapproachable country, barely understood by westerners who believe its mountains are nothing more than piles of rock serving as hiding places for fanatics and terrorists. But Ahmad sees something less ephemeral than political strife, more beautiful than a new machine gun:

Yet the land—their land—had seen to it that beauty and color were not erased completely from their lives. It offered them a thousand shades of gray and brown, with which it tinted its hills, its sands, and its earth. There were subtle changes of color in the blackness of the nights and the brightness of the days, and the vigorous colors of the tiny desert flowers hidden in the dusty bushes, and of the gliding snakes and scurrying lizards as they buried themselves in the sand. To the men, beauty and color were rampant around them, even if the patches of decorative colored cloth had been unrelentingly shorn from their own clothes.

Jamil Ahmad had long service as a civil servant in the FATA, apparently content with his position and unwilling to be transferred to more populated (and more prestigious) areas as any ambitious civil servant should have done. While his compatriots were jockeying for promotions and positions in Lahore, and Islamabad, Ahmad was apparently writing stories of the people who came under his care as a mid-level administrator in a backwater section of Pakistan. (Although that backwater area soon came under the world’s eye when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan.) Long after he had retired, his stories came to the attention of a Pakistani literary critic when they were submitted, by his brother and past the deadline, for a literary contest. He didn’t win the contest, but he did win a spot on the desk of an editor at Penguin Books and last year The Wandering Falcon was finally published: nearly forty years after Ahmad had written it, and almost a hundred years after the eloping couple found shelter in an all but forgotten military outpost and bore a child who would eventually be called Tor Baz (“Black Falcon”) in the first story of the book.

Beauty, compassion and empathy are draped over these stories like the decorative shawls of the women in the caravans of the migrating Kharot tribes that moved between the Afghan highlands and the Pakistani plains each season. It is clear that the author has a profound respect and affection for the people of the FATA, even as he acknowledges that the life is harsh and often cruel—so much so that when a father sells his daughter for opium, the fact that she chooses slavery over humiliation is seen as act of self determination, even empowerment. Survival, it seems, is its own virtue. Read full review
  southernbooklady | Oct 7, 2012 |
An insider's view of a life that lasted for thousands of years.

This book is well deserving of its high accolades. It is a highly accessible view of the life of the nomadic tribes of the barren borderland area between Afghanistan and Pakistan. The author, born in 1933, knows these people first hand and we are honoured to be able to read his version of this rapidly disappearing lifestyle.

The narrative is basically an assemblage of short stories, but they are brought together by the common theme of Tor Baz, 'The Falcon', a young man who we meet at his birth in the early chapters. He is the son of two members of the Siahpad tribe from Killa Kurd. They have run from their people because they are in love and are not permitted to marry. The use of the falcon to join the stories also gives them a chronology as he grows to a young man of no fixed tribe, wandering the lands, carrying information.
The image that Jamil Ahmad paints of this way of life shows us a people of fierce loyalty and honour, following customs that date back thousands of years. The women are second class citizens, struggling in a cruel environment.
Two images remain with me on finishing this book, one was the women taking advantage of a pause in the strenuous spring migration, to wash the clothes. The other was the trauma caused by the sudden enforcement of borders between countries, introduced by the 'powers-that-be'. Nomads had no certificates of birth or marriage and could not, therefore obtain the documentation required for crossing the borders. The animals, however, needed to move to the plains for the summer for feeding, the rugged Afghani mountains did not provide the necessary food and water. Their men and women needed the animals to survive, there was no comprmise.

This is one of the best, most readable books I've come across about this fading way of life. Highly recommended. ( )
  DubaiReader | Aug 23, 2012 |
Showing 1-5 of 35 (next | show all)
Jamil Ahmad takes us to the high desert and mountains of a region crisscrossed by hundreds of nomadic tribes for thousands of years. We read of lovers fleeing the deadly punishment of their tribal group, of women desperate for affection, buried under customs and habits millenniums old, of men of honor living lives of crime, of tribal members returning from exile who must carefully navigate each clan and sub-clan in order to stay honorable and sometimes to stay alive.

Most of the nine roughly connected chapters of this narrative - one can't really call it a carefully shaped novel - partake of the power of myth and give back to the reader the ambiguities of antique culture alive and well in the world of contemporary national borders...
added by Jcambridge | editNPR, Alan Cheuse (Sep 27, 2011)
After a lifetime of service as a bureaucrat in the wild terrains between Pakistan and Afghanistan, 78-year-old Jamil Ahmad has the perfect understanding and insight into a place that vexes many a strategist around the world today. The Wandering Falcon, his debut novel, is a product gleaned from that experience, a record of individual tales of honour and desire among the tribes inhabiting Balochistan, Waziristan or the Swat Valley, people for whom “the terrible struggle for life makes it impossible for too much time to be wasted over thoughts for the dead”.

Tor Baz is the eponymous falcon, who is born and grows into adulthood during the course of the novel. In a region of fierce tribal identities, his origins remain amorphous. Nor is he useful in lending narrative cohesion but ends up loosely linking the stories of his parents who defied the tribal code of honour and eloped, the nomadic Kharot tribe trying to come to terms with the limitations of political boundaries or the way of life of the Wazirs, Mahsuds or Afridis.

Set in the mid-20th century, it is the changing life and mores of the nomadic tribes that Ahmad captures in clear, haunting prose: “One set of values, one way of life had to die … The new way of life triumphed over the old.” His keen observation is not lacking in humour either: a peek inside the Mahsud jirga reveals not just a dour assembly of bearded men but also intense discussions about “the safest smuggling routes, the most profitable items of contraband …and all the current social gossip and scandals in the area.” For the sheer humanising of a much-misunderstood people, the book is worth a read.
added by kidzdoc | editHindustan Times, Antara Das (Aug 10, 2011)
Jamil Ahmad, a Pakistani civil servant, began his career in Baluchistan in the 1950s. Most civil servants posted to such a remote area as Baluchistan, North Western Frontier Province, or the tribal areas along the Pakistan-Afghan border would lobby hard for a posting in the bigger cities of Pakistan, but Ahmad stayed on, spending several decades working as an administrator. Unlike most officials from the plains, Ahmad learned Pashto, the language most tribes along the dreaded frontier speak. Along the way, he took notes, and by 1974 had turned his impressions into a collection of inter-linked stories.

Ahmad stashed away his first draft, leaving it untouched for three decades. In 2008, he was 75, retired from the civil service, and living in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad. Two young Pakistani women, a Lahore-based bookseller, Aysha Raja, and a Karachi-based columnist and editor, Faiza Sultan Khan, called on Pakistani authors to submit stories for a competition. Ahmad's younger brother insisted that he must show them his work. After reworking the 35-year-old manuscript, Ahmad sent it to Khan, who championed it, and showed it to an editor at Penguin.

Two years later, Jamil Ahmad made his debut as the 78-year-old writer of The Wandering Falcon, one of the finest collections of short stories to come out of south Asia in decades.
added by kidzdoc | editThe Guardian, Basharat Peer (Jun 25, 2011)
(This is a link to a story on NPR in which Steve Inskeep interviews the author in Islamabad, Pakistan about the book.)
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A debut novel set in the Federally Administered Tribal lands at the intersection of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan follows the story of banished refugees' son Tor Baz, who travels throughout the region while considering his prestigious lineage and witnessing the effects of extreme culture and geography on the lives of those he encounters.… (more)

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