Reviews / March 2012 (Issue 16)

The Land of Blood and Stones: Jamil Ahmad's The Wandering Falcon

by Glen Jennings

Jamil Ahmad, The Wandering Falcon, Hamish Hamilton, 2011. 180 pgs.

The United States of America and Osama Bin Laden are never mentioned in this stark novel from the tribal borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan. It may be unfair to add an explicit layer of contemporary politics on to this story, which in some ways goes back centuries into local tradition and ingrained character and custom. Most of the novel's interweaving stories deal with life and death in the period from World War I to the 1970s, when restrictive state borders came disastrously to the land of nomads and outsiders encroached on tribal life and loyalties. But it is impossible to ignore the iconic images of bearded mullahs, veiled women and rugged landscapes drawn from the nightly news of "terrorists" and "Islamic fundamentalists." And it would be a failure of imagination not to make the connections between Jamil Ahmad's fictionalised history and what is happening today in Afghanistan and his homeland of Pakistan. The mountains, deserts and broken hills of The Wandering Falcon are the same ones that CIA drones fly over. The suspicion of outsiders, the shifting sands of tribal allegiances and the cycles of vengeance are familiar. The school girls brutalised with acid by the Taliban for attending class may be the daughters or cousins of women beaten with sticks, sold into slavery or murdered in the so-called honour killings described in The Wandering Falcon.

A terrible beauty pervades this novel of hunger, torment, narrow mountain defiles, coloured stones under a relentless sun and full moons half hidden behind ragged cliffs. The land is as dry as stale unleavened bread, and Jamil Ahmad's imagery of both food and land is evocatively memorable. We are what we eat. We also are where we live. Landscape is character. There is no more powerful character in The Wandering Falcon than the hills, stones and sand of Pakistan.

Jamil Ahmad writes mainly of Pathans (the Pashto speakers of Afghanistan and the frontier region of Pakistan), but his cast of characters is drawn from many tribes, including the Wazirs and the Mahsuds, "the two predatory tribes of Waziristan":

If nature provides them food for only ten days in a year, they believe in their right to demand the rest of their sustenance from their fellow men who live oily, fat and comfortable lives in the plains. To both tribes, survival is the ultimate virtue. In neither community is any stigma attached to a hired assassin, a thief, a kidnapper or an informer. And then, both are totally absorbed in themselves. They have no doubt in their minds that they occupy centre stage, while the rest of the world acts out minor roles or watches them as spectators – as befits inferior species.

Landscape moulds temperament and character, and this was evident in the effect that the windswept desert has had on the Baluchs, illiterate men whose tribal traditions have brought them into conflict with a central government that they neither understood nor respected. We are told that "The pervading silence of their land had taught their people to be deliberate in their actions and slow in responding to emotions." But when roused their passions are swift and bloody. Violence is always just below the surface in this novel. It strikes individuals and whole communities, like the nomadic Pawindahs, the "foot people," who are slaughtered by the army as they try to cross an arbitrary border with their camels and sheep herds, heading for the plains to which their ancestors had trekked each winter for centuries.

Shaped by their landscape, the tribesmen of this novel also mark their physical surroundings – signposting tradition, proclaiming and enforcing their own law through stone. Jamil Ahmad builds his own twin towers. But these are traditional structures, small columns of stone erected over the bodies of adulterers. The towers mark the graves of the parents of Tor Baz, the black falcon, a six-year-old boy left alone in the desert beside the carcass of his father's camel.

The Wandering Falcon is his story in part, although we only ever see Tor Baz in glimpses as he grows up to become a man: deserted amongst the corpses of his parents and their camel; adopted briefly by a soldier on the new frontier; living a peripatetic existence with an enigmatic mullah; adopted again briefly by a tribal family after the strange and violent death of the religious visionary; working as a mountain guide and gem spotter and finally seen in the tribal lands of the Wazirs and as a trader in the market.

Tor Baz was born in a sentry fort near the borders of Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan. His mother had fled there with her lover, escaping from her father, the Siahpad tribal chief, and her unloving husband. The novel ends with an echo of this event: an adult Tor Baz is linked to another young woman fleeing a violent marriage. Shah Zarina was married off to a man who roamed the towns and villages with his performing bear. Although the bear had a ring through its nose and was beaten every day to keep it manageable, her husband treated the bear more kindly than he treated his eighteen-year-old wife: "I can get another wife, but not another bear."

Despite the superficial symmetry between the start and end of the novel, with two young women fleeing their marriages and the unifying presence of Tor Baz, this is not a full or accurate picture. This is no heart-warming tale of a young orphan's triumph over adversity and growth to empathy, compassion and selfless love. This is not a tale of New Age tribal wisdom, of transcendence and redemption. This is a novel of hardship, a story of murders, hunger, deception and vengeance.

The stones are sharp. The dust is heavy. Nothing is light or frivolous, even the humour is cutting or contemptuous. Love and affection are very private. A husband and wife never hurry to be reunited after a parting or show eagerness "as it might cause ribald comments or even a reputation of imprudence." A slight to one's honour, like a blood debt, is neither forgotten nor forgiven.

Survival is the only virtue: "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."

CIA drones may fly over Waziristan, and to American authorities, the "tribal areas" of Pakistan may appear on the periphery. But each tribe exists at the centre of its own world. What is happening on the ground beneath those spy cameras, and what is felt in the hearts and stored in the minds of the people beneath the wings, may be imagined through the simple words and striking images of The Wandering Falcon. The stones are hard. The stones are plentiful. Some may slide down the mountain, others may shift under foot, but they are not going anywhere. The colour of the stones may appear different from certain angles, cool in the moonlight and heat up in the sun, but the stones have not changed fundamentally.

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