The Wandering Falcon

The Wandering Falcon

by Jamil Ahmad

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A haunting literary debut set in the forbidding remote tribal areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Traditions that have lasted for centuries, both brutal and beautiful, create a rigid structure for life in the wild, astonishing place where Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet-the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). It is a formidable world, and the people who live there are constantly subjected to extremes-of place and of culture.

The Wandering Falcon begins with a young couple, refugees from their tribe, who have traveled to the middle of nowhere to escape the cruel punishments meted out upon those who transgress the boundaries of marriage and family. Their son, Tor Baz, descended from both chiefs and outlaws, becomes "The Wandering Falcon," a character who travels among the tribes, over the mountains and the plains, into the towns and the tents that constitute the homes of the tribal people. The media today speak about this unimaginably remote region, a geopolitical hotbed of conspiracies, drone attacks, and conflict, but in the rich, dramatic tones of a master storyteller, this stunning, honor-bound culture is revealed from the inside.

Jamil Ahmad has written an unforgettable portrait of a world of custom and compassion, of love and cruelty, of hardship and survival, a place fragile, unknown, and unforgiving.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101547953
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/13/2011
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 58,960
File size: 162 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Jamil Ahmad was born in 1930. He joined the Civil Service of Pakistan in 1954 and served mainly in the Frontier Province and Baluchistan. He was also development commissioner for the Frontier and chairman of the Tribal Development Corporation, and was posted as minister in Pakistan's embassy in Kabul at a critical time, before and during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He lives in Islamabad with his wife, Helga Ahmad, a nationally recognized environmentalist and social worker. This is his first book.

Read an Excerpt


The Sins of the Mother

In the tangle of crumbling, weather- beaten, and broken hills where the borders of Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan meet is a military outpost manned by about two score soldiers.

Lonely, as all such posts are, this one is particularly frightening. No habitation for miles around, and no vegetation except for a few wasted and barren date trees leaning crazily against one another, and no water other than a trickle among some salt- encrusted boulders, which also dries out occasionally, manifesting a degree of hostility.

Nature has not remained content merely at this. In this land, she has also created the dreaded bad-e-sad-o- bist-roz, the wind of a hundred and twenty days. Th is wind rages almost 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 when they happen to get caught in it.

It was but natural that some men would lose their minds after too long an exposure to such desolation and loneliness. In the course of time, therefore, a practice developed of not letting any soldier stay at this post for two years running, so that none had to face the ravages of the storm for more than one hundred and twenty days.

It was during one of these quiet spells that the man and woman came across this post hidden in the folds of the hills. The wind had been blowing with savage fury for three days, and had its force not suddenly abated, they would have missed the post altogether, and with it the only source of water for miles around. Indeed, they had steeled themselves to travel on during the approaching night, when the impenetrable curtain of dust and sand seemed to lift and reveal the fort, with its unhappy- looking date trees.

The soldiers, who had remained huddled behind closed shutters while the wind blew, had come out into the open as soon as the sky cleared. Sick and dispirited after three days and nights in darkened, airless, and fetid- smelling rooms, they were walking about, busy cleaning themselves and drawing in gulps of fresh air. They had to make the most of this brief respite before the wind started again.

Some of the men noticed the two figures and their camel as they topped the rise and moved slowly and hesitantly toward the fort. Both were staggering as they approached. The woman's clothes, originally black, as were those of the man, were gray with dust and sand, lines of caked mud standing out sharply where sweat had soaked into the folds. Even the small mirrors lovingly stitched as decorations into the woman's dress and the man's cap seemed faded and lackluster.

The woman was covered from head to foot in garments, but, on drawing closer, her head covering slipped and exposed her face to the watching soldiers. She made an ineffectual gesture to push it up again but appeared too weary to really care and spent all her remaining energy walking step after step toward the group of men.

When the veil slipped from the woman's face, most of the soldiers turned their heads away, but those who did not saw that she was hardly more than a child. If her companion's looks did not, the sight of her red- rimmed swollen eyes, her matted hair, and the unearthly expression on her face told the story clearly.

The man motioned for the woman to stop, and walked up, by himself, to the subedar commanding the fort. He kept a frenzied grip on the barrel of an old and rusty gun that he carried across his shoulders. He had no time to waste over any triviality. "Water," his hoarse voice said from between cracked and bleeding lips. "Our water is finished, spare us some water." The subedar pointed wordlessly toward a half- empty bucket from which the soldiers had been drinking. The man lifted the bucket and drew back toward the woman, who was now huddled on the ground.

He cradled her head in the crook of his arm, wet the end of her shawl in the bucket, and squeezed some drops of water onto her face. Tenderly, and feeling no shame at so many eyes watching him, he wiped her face with the wet cloth as she lay in his arms.

A young soldier snickered but immediately fell silent as the baleful eyes of his commander and his companions turned on him.

After the man had cleansed her face, the Baluch cupped his right hand and splashed driblets of water onto her lips. As she sensed water, she started sucking his hand and fingers like a small animal. All of a sudden, she lunged toward the bucket, plunged her head into it, and drank with long gasping sounds until she choked. The man then patiently pushed her away, drank some of the water himself, and carried the bucket up to the camel, which finished whatever was left in a single gulp.

He brought the empty bucket back to the group of soldiers, set it down, and stood there, silent and unmoving.

At last the subedar spoke. "We have given you water. Do you wish for anything else?"

A struggle seemed to be going on within the man, and after a while, very reluctantly, he looked back at the subedar. "Yes, I wish for refuge for the two of us. We are Siahpads from Killa Kurd, on the run from her people. We have traveled for three days in the storm, and any further travel will surely—"

"Refuge," interrupted the subedar brusquely, "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."

He repeated, "Refuge we cannot give you."

The man bit his lips with the pain that roiled within him. He had diminished himself by seeking refuge.

He had compromised his honor by off ering to live as a hamsaya, in the shadow of another human being. He turned as if to move but realized that he had no choice but to humble himself further.

He once again faced the subedar. "I accept the reply," he said. "I shall not seek refuge of you. Can I have food and shelter for a few days?"

"That we shall give you." The subedar hastened to atone for his earlier severity. "Shelter is yours for the asking. For as long as you wish it, for as long as you want to stay."

T here was a long line of rooms some distance away from the fort. These had been hastily constructed during the First World War, when the strength of this fort had, for a short period of time, increased almost a hundredfold. Sand had started collecting against the walls as soon as the construction was raised. Slowly and steadily, it had risen and, with no one to clear it, had reached roof level after a few years. With the passage of time, most of the walls and roofs caved in under its crumbling pressure. Now, nearly fifty years after the initial construction, mounds of sand occupied these rooms. However, there still remained a few that had not yet collapsed.

It was in one of these rooms that Gul Bibi and her lover were provided their shelter. For a few days, the couple hardly stirred outside their one small room. The only signs of life were the opening and closing of shutters as the wind died or strengthened, or when food was taken to the hut by the soldiers. Some time after the food had been left at the doorstep, the door would open furtively and the platter would be dragged in, to be pushed outside a while later.

As days passed, the couple appeared to gather more courage. They would occasionally leave the door open while the man stepped outside to look after his camel. Then one day the woman, too, came out to make a broom out of some thorn shrubs for sweeping the room. After a few days of inactivity, the man, of his own volition, started fetching water for the troops on his camel. He would load up the animal with water skins and visit the springs twice a day. Once he brought to the fort, as a gift, a few baskets, which the girl had woven out of date- palm leaves. "They are to keep your bread in," he explained to the soldiers. And this is the pattern life followed as time rolled by. Days turned to weeks and weeks to months. Winter gave way to summer. Some soldiers left as their period of duty ended. Others arrived to serve their turn at this outpost.

With each change—even the most minor—the couple appeared to withdraw into themselves for a while. They hardly ventured outside, and none of the shutters would open. Then, after some time, they would cautiously emerge and slowly adjust to the change. In this state, they reminded the soldiers of small, frightened desert lizards, which rush frantically into their burrows at the slightest sign of danger.

As each party of soldiers left, some would try to leave behind for the couple anything they could spare out of their meager possessions. A pair of partly worn- out shoes, a mended bedsheet, some aluminum utensils. These they would tie into a parcel and place at the doorstep of the hut before the army truck drove them away, back to the headquarters. Then the soldiers started taking up a collection on every payday and insisted on handing it over to the man for fetching their water. He had refused the money the fi rst time, but as the soldiers appeared to get upset at this rebuff, he forced himself to accept the payment without expressing his gratitude in words. With no discernible expression on his face, he would take the proffered money, stuff it into a pocket of his tattered waistcoat, and walk away. Indeed, there were times when his look of infinite patience, aloofness, and lack of expression made some new arrivals among the soldiers feel uneasy. But as time passed, each new group would accept him, though they failed to breach the barrier he had drawn around himself.

The real change came with the birth of their child.

The soldiers had become accustomed to the same collection of drab buildings with their sullen and frustrated dwellers, each begrudging the days wasted at this bleak outpost and desperately longing for a return to more habitable places, to the sights and sounds of crowded bazaars, the smell of water and vegetation, the feel of clean, freshly laundered clothes, and the banter and sally in the shops. But with news of the birth, the air of resentfulness and bitterness, which seemed permanently to envelop this post, appeared to lighten.

To most of the soldiers, there was sheer wonder in the wizened looks of the infant, with his black locks of hair, as he was carried around by the mother. Th e baby's thin, plaintive cries brought back memories of their own families, whom they had not seen for years.

With the birth of their son, the couple, too, seemed to shed their fears. Indeed, they appeared to be relieved finally of their worries and tensions.

As soon as the season of sandstorms was over, the woman wove an awning out of desert scrub and rigged it over the door to provide protection from the strong sun during the coming summer months. She mixed some clay and water, and coated the room, the fl oor, and the door front with it.

She did more than that. She made a low wall about six inches high and enclosed an area the size of two beds in front of their room. She also made a gate into this small courtyard of hers— a gate with two small towers, each topped with a small round knob. After completing it, she stood proudly, waiting for her man to return in the evening to see her handiwork.

She had to wait for a long time, because his camel had wandered away while grazing. When he fi nally returned, he looked at her work for a long time before speaking. "My love, take away the towers, there is something about them I do not like."

She stood still for a while, and then, as the meaning sank into her, she rushed frantically toward them and crumbled them back into clay.

S ubedar followed subedar as each year ended and a new one began. Indeed, the couple measured the passage of time by the change of subedars.

When the sixth one arrived, they realized that the boy was five years old.

A sprightly and active child he was, too. Fed on army rations, he looked older than his years. He spent his days inventing games of his own and playing them by himself or skipping from boulder to boulder, following the soldiers on their patrols. By the evening, he was generally tired and would creep into his mother's lap and sleep for a while before they started the meal.

One evening, when the man returned with water from the springs, the boy was still asleep in his mother's lap.

She turned as if to get up, but the man stopped her with a gesture. "Stay for a while, I like looking at you. There is an air of peace around you.

"I wonder what his life shall be when he grows up. What would you like him to be?" He looked at the woman.

She thought for a while. "Let him be a camel herder, handsome and gentle as his father," the woman murmured.

"And fall in love with the sardar's daughter, his master's wife," the man countered.

"And carry her away," continued the woman.

"Into misery and sorrow and terror," fl ung back the man.

"Don't ever repeat this. You must never talk thus," she whispered.

The sleeping boy suddenly opened his dark eyes and said laughingly, "I have been listening to you, and I shall tell you what I will be. I shall be a chief, I shall have horses and camels. I shall feast your friends and defy your enemies, wherever they be."

Gently the woman pushed the boy away from her lap and started getting the evening meal ready.

O ne winter morning, while the couple was sitting in front of their hut, a camel rider suddenly appeared and rode his camel straight up to the fort. His arrival was so unexpected that it left them no time to hide. So they remained sitting impassively while the man finished his business and rode away without casting a glance in their direction. Nevertheless, as soon as the stranger rode over the crest, the couple gathered the child, who had been playing in the dust of the courtyard, and moved inside the hut, as though its chilly interior suddenly off ered more warmth than the sun outside.

A little later, the subedar walked up to the hut and called the man outside. He wasted no time on preliminaries.

"That rider who has just left the fort was a Siahpad," the subedar told him. "He was asking questions about you. You know what that means?"

The man nodded dumbly.

"If you wish to leave," continued the subedar, "collect some food from the canteen. Th e men have packed a bag for you. If God wills, we shall meet again one day."

The couple departed on their camel at early dusk, the man sitting in the middle with the boy perched in front and the woman behind him. Once again, the old familiar smell of fear was in his nostrils. Th e woman had asked no questions. She packed and dressed quickly, first putting warm clothes on both herself and the boy, and then making a light load of the few things that they needed to carry for their journey. The rest of her possessions, those collected over the past years, she neatly arranged in a pile in one corner of the room.

Her man had brought the camel around to the doorstep and made it kneel. He had cleaned his gun, and it was back on his shoulders. As she stepped out to mount the camel, she cast a quick backward look into the room, her glance briefly touching the fi rmly packed clay floor, the date- palm mats she had woven over the years, and the dying embers in the fi replace. Her expression remained as calm and serene as if she had been prepared for this journey for a long time.

The lone camel followed the lightly strung tele graph line for about twenty miles before the man decided to strike eastward into the broken country.

They tried to use their knowledge and wits to the fullest. They varied their pace, and changed direction frequently, and also the time of travel. Th ey never spent more than the very minimum time possible at any water hole. When they rested, they chose the most secluded spot, and even there, they would pile up scrub and thorn brush to hide them and their camel.

They saw no signs of their pursuers, and after fi ve days the woman became a little sanguine. "Perhaps the stranger was not a Siahpad. Perhaps we were not recognized," she remarked hopefully. "Perhaps he kept the news to himself. Perhaps they did not chase us. Perhaps they have lost us," she chanted.

"No," the man said. "They are after us. I feel it in the air."

The man was right. On the morning of the sixth day, as the couple was fi lling the water skin at a water hole, they saw their pursuers top the horizon.

It was still early morning, when the desert air is unsullied by the eddies of sand and the whirling of dust devils. The party was a considerable distance away, but there could be no mistaking who they were. Th e woman's husband and her father were riding their camels a short distance in front of the main body of men.

The man called Gul Bibi close to him. He placed his hand on her shoulder and looked into her eyes. "There is no escape for any of us. There was never any escape. You know what I have to do now?"

"Yes," she replied. "I know. We have talked about this day many times. But I am afraid, my love."

"Do not be frightened," spoke the man. "I shall follow you. I shall follow you soon." The woman walked away a few paces and stood there with her back toward the man. Suddenly, she spoke out again: "Do not kill the boy. They might spare him. I am ready."

The man shot her in the back while she was still speaking. He then reloaded his gun and looked refl ectively at the boy, who stared back at him with unblinking eyes. With a shrug the man turned away, walked up to the kneeling camel, and shot it dead. He then stood together with the boy, waiting for the pursuers to reach him.

The party rode up to the water hole and dismounted. The old man was in the lead. He glanced at the sprawled body of his daughter and looked at her lover.

"Who is the boy?" he asked. His voice was cold and without emotion. The voice of a stranger. Th e inky black folds of the headgear hid half his face, but the eyes were the old familiar eyes that each man of the tribe knew. Eyes that could show anger, hatred, love, laughter, fondness, and humor more vividly than anyone else's. Now they showed nothing.

"Who is the boy?" the sardar asked again, his voice remaining flat, not even showing impatience.

"Your daughter's son," replied the man.

The boy stood shivering as the two men talked about him. He was nervously fingering a small silver amulet that hung around his neck on a gray- colored string.

The husband of the dead woman approached.

"Whose son is he?" he growled. "Yours or mine?" Th e lover did not reply, but his eyes again met those of the old man. "He is her son," he repeated, pointing to the huddled boy. "That silver amulet is hers. She must have placed it around his neck before her death. Do you not recognize the amulet? She always said you gave it to her to ward off evil spirits."

The old man said nothing but picked up a stone. His companions did likewise. The lover stood still as the fi rst shower of stones hit him. He started bleeding from the wounds on his face and temples. Th ere was another shower of stones and yet another, before he fell.

At first he lay half sitting and half sprawling. Th en he lay with only his elbow supporting him. Finally, that small gesture of pride, too, failed him, and he lay stretched on the ground, his clothes darkened with blood and small rivulets of it running across his back, staining the ground. The hail of stones continued, with the circle of men moving closer and closer. Th e agony ended only with death, the bones broken and the head crushed beyond recognition.

After they had killed the lover, the off ended husband turned to his companions.

"Now we start with the boy." The boy, who had been standing next to the dead camel, heard this and started whimpering.

"No," admonished the old man. "The boy's death is not necessary. We shall leave him as we found him."

Some of the other men murmured their agreement. "Yes, let him stay as he is," they agreed. "The sardar is right."

The party dragged the bodies a short distance away and entombed them separately in two towers made out of the sun- blackened stones that lay scattered in profusion all around the water hole. They used mud and water to plaster the towers so that their work might endure and provide testimony, to all who cared, about the way in which the Siahpad avenged insults. The old man took no part in the burial but walked about by himself. He did, however, interrupt his walking for a while, and stood at the spot where the bodies had lain.

As soon as the men had finished, they mounted their camels and rode away. After traveling but a short distance, the father of the dead woman suddenly reined in his camel.

"I should have brought the boy," the older man said, shading his eyes with his hand and staring in the direction of the water hole.

"Death would be best for the likes of him," burst out the son-in-law. "The whelp has bad blood in him."

"Half of his blood is my blood. The blood of the chiefs of this tribe. What mean you by ‘bad blood'?"

"I still say what I said before," answered back the husband. "He has bad blood. Nothing good shall come out of him."

The sardar moved his camel up to the other man's as the rest watched him. He looked around. "Let me tell you all now," he shouted. "My daughter sinned. She sinned against the laws of God and those of our tribe. But hear this also. There was no sin in her when she was born, nor when she grew up, nor when she was married. She was driven to sin only because I did not marry her to a man."

He pointed a shaking finger at his son-in-law. "You know well enough what I say," he thundered, his emotions suddenly bursting out. "Marry another woman, marry as often as you like. Every one of them shall be driven to sin, for reasons you are aware of."

At this insult, shouted in his face before the men of his tribe, the face of the other man darkened with rage.

"You should not have said such things, old man, even if you be our chief," he shouted as he drew his sword quickly and slashed at Gul Bibi's father. Once, twice, thrice, he swiped, and the old man was already dead as he slid down in small jerks, like a broken doll, from the saddle to the ground.

With his death, the party scattered. The men did not wait to bury their chief's body in a proper grave but left it covered under a thin layer of sand, hoping the approaching sandstorm would bury it deeper. Whether fearful of the evil they had seen or afraid of being involved in another feud, or maybe weary of one another's company, they just rode away hurriedly.

At the water hole, the boy had stopped shivering after the party departed. He had overcome his fear and was sitting between the two towers, playing with some stones and quartz crystals. At first he had tried to prize some stones away from the towers, but they were too tightly wedged together, and his fi ngers made no impression on them.

As the sun rose higher, he sat quietly, watching the clouds of sandgrouse that appeared in the sky. Flight after flight alighted at the edge of the water hole, dipping their beaks in the water and flying away back into the sun. Their peculiar chuckling calls and the whirring of countless wings provided him some diversion from the horror he had just witnessed.

Then he was completely alone. The thousands of birds, which had kept him company for a while, had disappeared. With nothing to keep him occupied, he became aware of his thirst and hunger. He tried to resist it for a while, but as the pangs grew sharper, he finally walked over to the camel and opened the bag containing food. He ate a little, drank some water, and then lay down, squeezed against the dead camel, as the sandstorm approached.

What People are Saying About This

Steve Inskeep

....reminiscent of masterpieces like Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian ... (Steve Inskeep, NPR "Morning Edition" host)

Alan Cheuse

like that of an old storyteller...clear and sharp like the sound of plucked strings from a musical instrument. (NPR's Alan Cheuse)

From the Publisher

Praise for The Wandering Falcon
Longlisted for the Man Asian Literary Prize

“Mr. Ahmad’s deep understanding of his characters shows what a powerful truth teller fiction can be.” —The New York Times

"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 Los Angeles Times

“[R]aw, visceral and fresh.... his novel penetrates. The outcome is so inexorable and matter of fact, the prose so lyrical and simple that the reader is chilled.... Ahmad writes, not from the vantage of a high-altitude drone, but close to the heartbeat of this intricate web of tribes and clans... [S]pare, beautiful and powered by understatement. The Wandering Falcon is a gem of a novel, disturbing in its scrutiny of a way of life that we in the West persist in attempting to alter.” — The Cleveland Plain Dealer

“Tautly written… Fantastic… Drawn with tenderness but without sentimentality… Ahmad is a deft storyteller and his slim volume possesses a strong allure.” — Financial Times

“[F]inely crafted…. Mr. Ahmad writes with an insider’s knowledge, a careful attention to detail and an admirable restraint in his language. Metaphorical flourishes are rare and he is almost never judgmental. This is how the tribes live, he says, neither romanticising nor criticising their way of life. The Wandering Falcon is not a long book. But it is dense with nuance and offers uncommon insight into a land too often explained away as ‘the most dangerous place on earth’." — The Economist

“Illuminates one of the most perilous regions of the world. This book… engages your head as well as your heart… The early chapters are reminiscent of masterpieces like Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which also features a boy alone in a gorgeous but harsh and often terrifying landscape… [A]ll the way through, the characters, the tales, and the landscape are rendered with clarity, sympathy, and insight. The author makes us travel with him… The book offers a rich picture of the ‘mountainous, lawless tribal areas’ we have previously known mainly for bullets and bombs.” — Steve Inskeep,

“[I]n his stripped-down prose lies a beauty that is almost sublime.” — The New Republic

“[P]artake[s] of the power of myth and give[s] back to the reader the ambiguities of antique culture alive and well in the world of contemporary national borders…. Ahmad's voice is usually clear and sharp like the sound of plucked strings from a musical instrument.” — Alan Cheuse,

"Superb. The work of a gifted story teller who has lived in the world of his fiction, and who offers his readers rare insight, wisdom and—above all—pleasure." 
— Mohsin Hamid, author of Moth Smoke, The Reluctant Fundamentalist and How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

“I’ve been talking about this book to anyone who will listen. From page one, I was transported to a land of nomadic tribes who live and die by ancestral codes. But The Wandering Falcon is not only about tribes. It is about honor, love, loyalty, and grace. And it is about borders—geographical, political, and personal. The terrain where Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan meet may be cruel and unforgiving, but every page of this book is filled with beauty and humanity. By the final pages, I found myself transformed.”
Nami Mun, author of Miles from Nowhere

“In his first novel (at the age of 80), [Ahmad] proves a masterful guide to the landscape and to the captivating art of storytelling at its finest. This is a shadowy, enchanting journey…. Over the course of the novel, the mysterious Tor Baz ("Wandering Falcon") weaves in and out of view, remaining as elusive and magnetic to readers as he does to those he encounters; familiar to everyone, he belongs to no one…. A gripping book, as important for illuminating the current state of this region as it is timeless in its beautiful imagery and rhythmic prose.”
Publishers Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

An accomplished and important debut novel…. [A] rare and sympathetic glimpse into a world that most Westerners know only through news reports related to military operations…. A fascinating journey; essential reading.”
— Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

Reading Group Guide


In this extraordinary story, Tor Baz, the young boy who becomes the Wandering Falcon, moves between the tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan and their uncertain worlds full of brutality, humanity, deep love, honor, poverty, and grace. The region he travels—the Federally Administered Tribal Areas—has become a political quagmire known for terrorism and inaccessibility. Yet in these pages, octogenarian debut author Jamil Ahmad lyrically and insightfully reveals the people who populate those lands, their tribes and traditions and their older, timeless ways in the face of sometimes ruthless modernity. This story is an essential glimpse into a hidden world, one that has enormous geopolitical significance today and that remains largely a mystery to us.


Jamil Ahmad was born in 1931 and educated in India and Pakistan. He joined the Civil Service of Pakistan in 1954 and served mainly in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA. He was also development commissioner for the Frontier and chairman of the Tribal Development Corporation. He lives in Islamabad, Pakistan.

  • How would you describe life within an itinerant tribe? What intrigues you about this kind of existence? Would you be cut out for the harsh realities of desert life?
  • How would you describe the interactions between the tribes? How do they settle disputes? Is there any common ground that the tribal groups share? Were you surprised by the diversity or sheer number of tribes in this region?
  • How would you describe the interactions between the tribes and the “civilized” culture? What are the challenges or injustices that they endure? What is lost in translation, and why are there so few voices of support? For example, do you think the Baluchs had a fair trial? Or, do you think the conflict with bureaucracy snuffed out the Kharot tribe and their flock?
  • “The pressures were inexorable. One set of values, one way of life had to die. In this clash, the state, as always proved stronger than the individual. The new way of life triumphed over the old” (page 52). How is life changing for the tribes with modernization accelerating around them? What will be lost when their culture is extinguished—or do you think their way of life can be preserved?
  • What have you learned about this remote corner of the world? Have you researched or looked into the geopolitical importance of the FATA today?
  • What is Tor Baz’s influence on the events and people that inhabit the book? What is his journey like, and what events shape him? Is he a sympathetic, likable character? Where are his alliances?
  • How does honor—and revenge—play a role in the lives of the tribesmen?
  • Why do you think the author switched to a first person voice for the story “The Guide”? The speaker is a foreigner to the region, and is in search of something profound. What is it? Does he find it?
  • What roles are open to women in tribal life? How would you describe the female characters’ lives?
  • Did you enjoy the vignette style of this book? Do you think the author was successful in painting a vibrant, energetic world through such small windows? Did you find yourself transported?
  • In a way, this book tells an important “nonfiction” story through a fiction lens. What importance does the role of fiction play in helping us understand the world?


Five Questions for Jamil Ahmad

How did you first become interested in tribes and in the tribal areas between Pakistan and Afghanistan where you worked for many years and where your book takes place?

I think my interest in tribes developed in my school days, from reading tales about American Indians in the American West, Kipling's writing about the Indian Frontier and a series of books written by Edgar Wallace set among tribes in West Africa. This factor may well have influenced my choice of serving in the Tribal Areas.

The Wandering Falcon is distilled from an association of about two decades with the tribes residing on the borders of Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. In my service as a political officer, I was able to observe and understand their attitudes, their mores and taboos, their customs and traditions. More importantly, I was able to understand their perceptions of right and wrong and how it affected their response to living out their lives and solving their problems in this arid wasteland that stretches for hundreds of miles from the Arabian Sea to the foot of the Hindu Kush Mountains.

What is your definition of a tribe? What binds a migratory people together?

A Tribe is the earliest and the most enduring form of human collectivity, but it continues to be defined in terms of a stereotype. It is generally taken for granted that a tribesman is by nature more vengeful, more hospitable, more violent and disputatious. The fact that these attributes exist in equal or even greater measure in feudal and consumer-capitalist societies is ignored. Loyalty and friendship, treachery and betrayal manifest themselves in all societies but, perhaps are more ritualized among the Frontier tribes.

To my mind, the binding force of a tribal collectivity is its total and common commitment to what is considered as right and just and what as wrong and unjust.

There are so many wonderful, detailed moments in this book that illustrate the conflicts and moral choices that perpetuate one's existence in the tribal areas. Is there a specific anecdote from your time working there, that you could share?

In 1961, a military truck while being driven in the hills on the Iranian border hit and killed a man by accident. I sent word out that the heirs of the unfortunate man should be traced and asked to see me in my capacity as Political Agent, Chaghi. One day, when I was sitting in the office, a boy of about sixteen walked in, dressed in ragged and patched clothes. He was the eldest son of the man killed. After consoling him on the unfortunate death of his father, I handed him a wad of currency notes, kept in the drawer for this occasion. The boy asked what this was for and on explaining to him that it was the compensation the Government had sanctioned for the loss of his father, the boy stood up, declining the payment saying "I do not wish to make a profit from my father's death", and away he walked, towards his home 200 miles away in the mountains.

What is the story behind your debut as a writer at the age of 80?

About three decades ago, I felt an urge to write. I attempted to write pieces of poetry. It was my wife who recommended I focus instead on my two decades of association with the tribal areas, rather than try to venture into a field with which I was not too familiar. It was she who painstakingly typed the first draft of the handwritten manuscript on an old typewriter with a German keyboard. To her I owe an enormous debt.

Who have you discovered lately? What writers are you reading?

These days I am engaged in rediscovery rather than discovery. I have recently finished going through the complete works of the short story writer H.H. Munro, who wrote under the pen name of Saki about a century ago and two of whose stories I had read in my school days.

Currently I am labouring over the works of a Pakistani poet, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, who passed away over two decades ago. The verses he wrote towards the end of his life are haunting.

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