Jamil Ahmad

The Wandering Falcon

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The Wandering Falcon Summary

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The Wandering Falcon is a 2011 novel-in-stories by Pakistani author Jamil Ahmad. Set in the Federally Administered Tribal Area along the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, the novel follows orphan Tor Baz—the “wandering falcon” of the title—as he traverses the region, witnessing the struggles of the many tribal peoples who inhabit it. Although Tor Baz appears in each of the novel’s nine connected stories, he is not the protagonist of any of them: rather he is an enigmatic witness. Instead of a plot, the novel charts the slow decline and torment of the tribal peoples as for the first time they encounter the impositions of governments in the aftermath of decolonization and the run-up to the 1979 Soviet war in Afghanistan.

The novel’s opening story first appeared in British literary magazine Granta’s 2010 edition collecting stories and essays from Pakistan. It launched the career of Ahmad, a seventy-eight-year-old debut author. Ahmad’s novel draws on his decades of experience as a Pakistani civil servant in the border regions. As the Development Commissioner for the region, and attached to the Pakistani embassy in Kabul, he came to a deep understanding of the tribes and their different ways of life.

The novel begins as a young couple arrives at a remote border outpost manned by a handful of soldiers. The couple is on the run from the wife’s father, who is the chief of the Siahpad tribe. The husband was a servant of the household, and he married the chief’s daughter in defiance of tribal custom. The tribes follow an ancient system of honor-based law—“jirga”—under which the couple’s action is punishable by both their deaths.

The young husband asks the leader of the outpost’s soldiers to give them refuge, to which the leader replies, “Refuge I cannot offer.  I know your laws well, and neither I nor any man of mine shall come between a man and the laws of his tribe…[but] shelter is yours for the asking.  For as long as you wish it, for as long as you want to stay.”

The couple lives at the outpost for five years, during which time the woman gives birth to their child, before the Siahpad track them down. The husband acts according to the couple’s long-held plan. He shoots his wife and their camel, and he offers the child to the tribe—having the chieftain’s blood, he is eligible for his protection. Then he hands himself over to be stoned to death.

However, the tribesmen refuse the boy, instead, leaving him in the meager shelter of the dead camel. There, he is found and adopted by an old, almost-blind Baluchi man, who is leading a group of his fellow tribesmen to a parley with the Pakistani government.

Thus the boy—who is given the name Tor Baz, meaning “Black Falcon”—witnesses firsthand the first moments in which the noose of statehood begins to tighten around the tribespeople.

This process lies at the center of the ensuing stories, which bring Tor Baz into contact with representatives of the wonderfully varied tribes of the region: Afridis, Wazirs, Bhittanis, Gujjars, Masuds,  Brahui, Kharot, Nasirs, Dortanis, and Baluchs. Tor Baz encounters many and varied characters: a father with so many children he has forgotten their names, rebel mullahs, aging warriors and wandering nomads. At the slave market of Mian Mandi, he witnesses women sold into sex-slavery. He sees teachers kidnapped and children abandoned. Perhaps the novel’s most memorable character is the landscape itself: varied, harsh, mountainous, and starkly beautiful. Its climate is inhospitable: “wind rages continuously during the four winter months, blowing clouds of alkali laden dust and sand so thick that men can barely breathe or open their eyes.”

Learning early in his life that tribal loyalties tend to bring about early death, Tor Baz shuns allegiances. When he meets a Pakistani district commissioner who tries to pin down his tribal identity, Tor Baz replies: “Think of Tor Baz as your hunting falcon.”

Through these stories, a mounting sense of despair builds: a growing realization that the tribes’ way of life is doomed. It “had endured for centuries, but…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;…and the writ of the state as opposed to tribal discipline.”

Finally, Tor Baz travels with the nomadic Kharots, a tribe of more than a million. They have driven their livestock along their traditional grazing routes only to find, for the first time in their history, that the path is blocked by soldiers, who demand documentation if the Kharots are to cross the “border.” These documents cost money and require other documents, such as birth certificates. The Kharots cannot obtain them.

One woman places a Quran on her head and leads her animals towards the border post. The soldiers fire, and the Kharots and their animals are massacred.

The Wandering Falcon was hailed by Publishers’ Weekly as “A gripping book, as important for illuminating the current state of this region as it is timeless in its beautiful imagery and rhythmic prose.”