The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

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The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: An echoing collection of tales from the borderlands of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. Don’t make the mistake of thinking it’s a novel and you’ll love it.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: June 2011
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
ISBN: 978-0241145159

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In the tangle of crumbling, weather-beaten and broken hills, where the borders of Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan meet, is a military outpost… Thus begins the tale of Tor Baz, the Black Falcon. To this desolate place come two wanderers, a man and a woman seeking refuge.

Refuge is denied them, since it places duties that the fort commander cannot accept, but instead he offers them shelter from the wind of a hundred and twenty days. For as long as they want it. Shelter, and food.

A few days turns into years and the man helps around the fort to earn his keep and the woman raises a son.

But those who are sought are usually found and eventually, the woman's husband and his father catch up with her.

The 5 year old boy is left alone, snuggled into the side of a dead camel, in the desert.

Thus begins the tale of Tor Baz, although it is more the stories of the people he comes across in his wanderings. Ahmad's writing has a mystical quality to it. He tells of the hardships of the "tribal areas", how difficult life is and how easily lost. He talks of honour and treachery. Above all he talks about a way of life that was being (now has almost certainly been) eradicated: a life where the boundaries of states were meaningless, the migrations followed the season and then came back again. The idea that these frugal lands belonged to one person or another or that you could be stopped going where you'd always gone was such a nonsense that it took many deaths for the truth of it to penetrate. With all of the customs, love and gentleness, and all of the harsh brutality, a very real freedom has also been lost. The freedom to have a sense of place that bore no relationship to its name or government, but only to the land and the air.

Ahmad does not take sides, as such. He simply says: this is how it was. In condemning what was done to the local peoples, he doesn't flinch from showing the injustice that they were equally capable of. Joining the civil service in the mid-50s, the author Ahmad worked in the Frontier Province of Pakistan and in Balochistan. Rather than using his wits to lobby for a more comfortable posting, he learned Pashto, the lingua franca of the frontier tribes, and observed their lives. And he started to write, though his manuscript would not see the light of publication for some decades to come. He was a Commissioner in Dera Ismail Khan and in Swat. He was in Kabul when the Soviets invaded. We can assume therefore that he knows whereof he speaks.

I struggled with the Falcon because I had misunderstood it. I felt that for all the clarity and beauty of the story-telling it didn't really hang together properly, the characters were mere sketches, a cohesive plot non-existent. Only upon reading around the book, about the author, did I find confirmation that what I had thought of as a flaw, is entirely intentional. This is not the novel I thought it was pretending to be. It is a collection of loosely linked short stories. Seen in that light, the complexion is changed entirely. For each chapter is complete unto itself, and makes its own point about how it was – for good or ill.

A book that echoes likes the shifting sands of the desolate hills. Understand the structure and it becomes a treasure chest of short fables.

I'll finish with a rare word of praise for the designers. The Hamish Hamilton imprint of Penguin Books has produced a suitably elegant package. A beautiful book in every way. I'd like to thank them for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: for more modern tales from the area try Fabio Geda’s story of child abandoned in Pakistan, while his family are in the Afghan war zones: In the Sea There Are Crocodiles.

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