By Aslam Kakar
The Wandering Falcon, Jamil Ahmed’s debut novel, was published in 2011—almost four decades after it was written in the early 1970s. Why it took so long for the novel to hit the bookstores’ shelves were the endless rejections from publishers from around the world. One wonders what was it then that kept the author for so long from trashing the manuscript at first.
Perhaps, it was the book’s promising content and Ahmed’s faith in his words, or, perhaps, his wife Helga’s tenacity in introducing the manuscript to a wider network of journalists and writers globally till it was published finally in the US. And no wonder why Raza Rumi, a renown Pakistani journalist and author, says, ‘this is the finest book amid all the other Pakistani writings in English’.
One way to look at the book is the incredible hope and power it gives to the aspirants of fiction writing. All writers, particularly the beginners, must understand that no writing is a waste. Good or bad writing is really a subjective opinion. One never knows when one’s voice and story resonates with millions’ others to change perceptions about people, places, and the world.
The author’s first hand experience as a civil servant for decades in the tribal regions of Pakistan makes his’ a unique voice to reveal the areas’ complex socio-cultural dynamics. The story or stories of the novel, since it is a novel built on a collection of short stories with closely recurrent theme(s) throughout, take(s) place at the crossroads of tribal life and culture and the modern nation-state system. For example, how, in the novel, the check-posts at the Pak-Afghan border destroy the livelihood and meaning of life of the Afghan nomadic tribes that had taken them centuries to form.
I think the survival of people in the rugged and naturally unjust terrain is the recurring theme of the book. Whether it is the Baloch tribes’ ‘rebellion’ against the Pakistani state; the Mehsuds’ or the Waziris’ tribal vendetta for supremacy; the nomads from Afghanistan fighting the odds of the nation state system; the killed couple, Gul Bibi and her lover, fleeing the spell of honor killing from the enraged Baloch tribesmen; their son, Tor Baz (Black Falcon), the wandering protagonist who appears with peculiar faces in the novel; or, the two women, Sherakai and Shah Zarina, escaping domestic violence and hate into an unknown world, all are in quest for safer and better lives.
The novel also sharply mirrors the tribal wit and wisdom and the integrity of tribal cultural personality overshadowed by clichés like the ‘hot bed of militancy’ and ‘no man’s land’ used very often by the media to describe the tribal areas and its people. It sets to explode such platitudes, and, instead, offers a holistic insight into a much complex way of life that the tribal people are unknown for.
In one of his interviews with a British journalist, Ahmed says that we all have the instinct of associating with a tribe, which is absolutely true and fine. He maintains that what he likes about the tribal people is the clarity and honesty in what they say or do—a tendency he finds the government and the system short of.
They are, Ahmed says, as honest about honor killing and working as informers for the state as about cooperating with it. An oddity as it is, the truth about it is impeccable. An example of such integrity from the book’s second chapter, A Point of Honor, is the ‘rebel’ Baloch tribesmen’s curiosity when the state officials ask them to swear an oath on the Koran for speaking the truth. In their culture, they swear by their chief—the sardar, not the book, Ahmed writes.
Not only that, the officials also violate their offer for negotiations on just terms with the tribesmen by detaining them. And that is exactly what the Pakistani state has repeatedly done to a number of Baloch sardars in history. But, it’s media and Pakistani journalists, which Ahmed rightly points out, have been either silent or fussing about injustices and wrongs done to people in Palestine and elsewhere.
Finally, is it a weak state that shapes the tribal people’s social and political behavior and their affiliation to the tribes rather than the state or vice versa. Second, while absolutely agreeing with Ahmed about the much authentic nature of the tribal cultural personality, the question is how one can reconcile with this bitter truth reflected in acts of violence like honor killings and endless tribal vendettas. Also, does the alternate dispute resolution mechanism, or the Jirga system, much effective as it is in some cases, truly fulfill people’s needs and demands of social justice like in modern democracies.
Ahmed’s book is an open question to how the Pakistani state can look in a holistic manner to the woes of its forgotten lands and people and reintegrate them in the system with respect to their way of life.