Pakistan’s unlikely storyteller of the Swat Valley
Four decades ago, a rangy civil servant in charge of overseeing the forested ridges and brick-hut villages of Pakistan’s Swat Valley sought a pastime to get through slow days. He dabbled in poetry, composing haiku in longhand. His wife read the poems and called them “rubbish.”
“Why don’t you write about something you know?” Jamil Ahmad recalled his wife, Helga, telling him. She said his focus should be the tribes of Pakistan’s northwest frontier, where Ahmad had worked for 15 years. He thought, “That makes sense.”
For the next two years, Ahmad worked on his novel. He hewed his characters from the tribal badlands, where Pashtun society has always been demarcated by strict codes of honor, yet where the region’s remoteness and anarchic economy made smuggling, snitching and kidnapping routine occupations. He wrote about the harsh beauty of the Baluch desert, the stoning of adulterers, and a market where men shopped for women with the casualness of browsing for furniture.
Thirty-eight years would pass before the publication of “The Wandering Falcon,” a collection of interwoven stories that is quickly making the 80-year-old retired bureaucrat Pakistan’s unlikeliest literary star.
Written long before the emergence of the Taliban, “The Wandering Falcon” moves far beyond the Western media’s stereotypical depiction of the tribal areas and lays bare the nature of a place that is now a focal point of U.S. and European foreign policy.
The book, due for U.S. release in October, arrives at a time when Western publishers are taking notice of Pakistani authors.
Mohammed Hanif won international acclaim for his 2008 debut novel, “A Case of Exploding Mangoes,” a satirical fictionalization of the 1988 plane crash that killed Pakistani military ruler Gen. Zia ul-Haq. Mohsin Hamid’s 2007 novel, “The Reluctant Fundamentalist,” the tale of a Pakistani who leaves a turbocharged career in post-Sept. 11 Manhattan to teach in Pakistan, reached No. 4 on the New York Times bestseller list. Daniyal Mueenuddin’s “In Other Rooms, Other Wonders,” an exploration of corruption and greed in feudal Punjab province, impressed the late U.S. envoy Richard C. Holbrooke enough that he gave President Obama a copy.
Ahmad brings a different vista to the literary landscape of a country known to the West mainly as Al Qaeda’s post-Sept. 11 sanctuary and home to a volatile mix of Islamic militant groups.
“Part of the immersive power of the book comes from Ahmad’s ability to combine a clear affection and respect for this world of tribal discipline with a clear-eyed look at its harshness,” Pakistani author Kamila Shamsie wrote in a review in Britain’s Observer newspaper last month after the book’s release in Europe.
“This is not a book in which a central protagonist will walk down a path and invite the readers to follow him, narrative and personality cohering around him along the way,” Shamsie wrote. “Instead, it is a book of glimpses into a world of strict rules and codes, where the individual is of far less significance than the collective.”
Dressed all in khaki and seated in an armchair at his Islamabad home, Ahmad exudes an energy that belies his years. Wisps of white hair top his head and his sun-weathered face is long with age, but he spryly moves from anecdote to anecdote in meticulous detail. His sleepy green eyes widen as he explains how his fascination with tribal life began, when as a boy in British India’s Punjab plains he excitedly leafed through stacks of books about tribes of all stripes: North America’s Indians, the bands of West Africa, the clans of the Scottish Highlands.
“I had an interest in the tribes per se, even in school,” Ahmad said between cigarette puffs. “So that acted as a catalyst. I developed this interest early. And when I was selected for the civil service, you were given a choice where to serve. And my first choice was what was called the frontier list.”
Stretching from the snowcapped peaks of the Hindu Kush down to the desert flats of northern Baluchistan, Pakistan’s frontier for centuries has been home to the Pashtun, a proud tribal people with a history of resistance to foreign occupation, be it Britain’s 19th century colonial exploits or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s. Taliban militants waging war with the U.S. in Afghanistan are ethnic Pashtuns.
Pashtuns adhere to a code of conduct known as Pashtunwali. Besmirched honor must be avenged. Sanctuary must be given to anyone who asks for it. Hospitality to visitors isn’t an option; it’s a commandment. Once exposed to Pashtunwali, Ahmad was deeply moved.
“I felt the tribes had far more grace, a far greater sense of honor, rectitude, truth — the qualities we associate with a decent human being — than you found in the cities,” Ahmad said.
He began working in northwestern Pakistan in 1956, serving as the government’s arm in a tribal world that relied on its own brands of justice. His experiences became fodder for the novel. He never took notes or kept a journal, but relied only on his “kit bag of memories,” as he put it.
In one chapter, a band of Mahsud tribesmen kidnap a group of teachers in Waziristan. A young assistant commissioner is dispatched to a neighboring tribe’s jirga — a meeting of Bhittani elders — to warn them of their treaty obligations to turn over the kidnappers. Because the kidnappers escaped through Bhittani territory, the tribe was also accountable for the crime, according to treaty rules.
A tribal elder responds with a story of an eloping man and woman who are confronted and raped by a pack of ruffians. Afterward, when the man chastises the woman for being raped, she replies that although what happened to her was wrong, it was a natural act. What happened to him was not.
The elder then tells the assistant commissioner, “You are like the man in the story.... You let them do it and when the deed is done, you rush out and vent your fury on others.”
Ahmad says he indeed sent a young officer to the jirga, who left humiliated after hearing the elder’s story. The only difference was that the original crime was not a kidnapping, but the theft of rifles from a police checkpoint.
Though thrust into a Pashtun tribal world leery of the federal government’s oversight, Ahmad developed a rapport with elders and tribesmen that often produced memorable encounters. Some he recalls with a raspy chuckle.
Before taking an eight-day trip on mule into a Khyber valley controlled by a notoriously violent tribe, Ahmad learned that a tribal elder whom he had once befriended was preparing to ambush him. Ahmad took a different route and escaped unharmed. Sometime later, when Ahmad ran into the elder, the man explained that he set up the ambush because he was miffed that Ahmad had not told him of his trip in advance.
The two men bear-hugged. “I felt my sunglasses crunching against my chest,” Ahmad said, smiling.
In 1971, when Ahmad was appointed commissioner of the Swat region, he began to write “off and on.”
“As commissioner, one had time,” he said. “Sometimes I’d just play Scrabble.”
At first, the manuscript was a collection of short stories. A friend who was the U.S. consul general in the city of Peshawar at the time read the stories and suggested it needed a central character that linked them. Ahmad created Tor Baz, Pashtun for “the black falcon,” an orphan boy who takes on a series of roles, an informant in one chapter, a mountain guide in another, a client at a market that bought and sold women at the novel’s conclusion.
Finished in 1973, the manuscript sat in a drawer for years. On occasion, Ahmad would show it to publishers in London, who were lukewarm. One suggested recasting the book as nonfiction. “I said, ‘Sorry, but I’m not an academic or an anthropologist. This is fiction,’” Ahmad recalled.
Then, in 2008, Ahmad’s younger brother heard an ad on a Karachi radio station about an upcoming short story competition. The manuscript was submitted past the contest’s deadline, but the competition’s organizer was impressed with the work and showed it to an editor at Penguin Books’ India subsidiary. Penguin bought it the following year.
In Pakistan, Ahmad’s writing has been getting rave reviews.
“It took me by surprise, with its rich texture of observation, its uncanny power of making the eerie landscape come alive, and the sheer mastery of language,” said Asif Farrukhi, a Pakistani writer and co-founder of the Karachi Literature Festival. Ameena Saiyid, managing director for Oxford University Press Pakistan and a co-founder of the Karachi festival, called Ahmad’s writing style “natural and very forthright.... It just came across as something very true and real.”
Ahmad, who hasn’t written anything since finishing “Wandering Falcon” 38 years ago, hasn’t made up his mind about tackling a second book. “It depends on how this thing is received. If this is acceptable, then maybe I’ll try my hand.”
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