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The Warlord's Son

The Warlord's Son

4.0 1
by Dan Fesperman

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Dropping into the smoky chaos of Peshawar after 9/11, Skelly, a burned-out American foreign correspondent, discovers that to survive in Peshawar's swirling humanity he will need a 'fixer': a local man who speaks English, knows the area, and is a jack-of-all-trades who can both save his skin and take him to the action. And for journalists in Peshawar, the real


Dropping into the smoky chaos of Peshawar after 9/11, Skelly, a burned-out American foreign correspondent, discovers that to survive in Peshawar's swirling humanity he will need a 'fixer': a local man who speaks English, knows the area, and is a jack-of-all-trades who can both save his skin and take him to the action. And for journalists in Peshawar, the real action is in Afghanistan.

Skelly chooses Najeeb, the banished son of a tribal warlord. Soon they are driving dusty roads westward in the shadowy wake of ex-Mujahadeen Mahmood Razaq, tipped to claim leadership of the next regime.Skelly's quest for the scoop of a lifetime means tracking down the one man the whole world is seeking.
And Najeeb, torn by divided loyalties, must find the way for both of them, in a land where a single misstep - or lapse of trust - can prove fatal.

Editorial Reviews

John Hartl
A Baltimore Sun reporter who has worked in Afghanistan, Fesperman does a marvelous job of scene-setting as he describes both this volatile region and the deadly influence of the Taliban (which is felt most intimately in the daily life of Najeeb's spirited girlfriend, Daliya). Although Fesperman protests in his acknowledgments that ''I am not Skelly,'' his writing suggests he knows exactly what he's talking about when he delves into, say, the dangers of ''the armed tyranny of 12-year-olds, vacant-eyed boys who had lost all sense of fear, order and limits.''
— The New York Times
Patrick Anderson
The Warlord's Son, offers a brilliant picture of what might be called the journalistic condition -- specifically, the joys, absurdities and horrors of the foreign correspondent's life -- and it will teach you more than you ever expected to know about tribesmen for whom violence is a given and betrayal is an art … [it} deserves the attention of anyone who is open to first-rate fiction about war, journalism and the dark, dangerous worlds called Pakistan and Afghanistan.
— The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly
Fesperman, author of Small Boat of Great Sorrows, a critically acclaimed espionage thriller set in Bosnia, now turns his sights on war-zone journalism in this chilling, timely novel. Newspaper reporter Skelly (aka Stan Kelly) is a former hotshot war correspondent, now a burned-out hack covering town meetings for a Midwestern daily. Five weeks after 9/11 he is given a chance-his last chance to get back in the game, he believes-to cover the war on terror, the Taliban and Afghanistan. In Peshawar, Skelly hires Najeeb, a bright fixer who speaks English and mountain dialects. What Skelly doesn't realize is that Najeeb is an outcast from his tribal clan and an unwilling informer for the Pakistani secret police; Najeeb is also involved in a dangerous, illicit affair with Daliya, who's being punished by her family for resisting an arranged marriage. Battling the pollution and bureaucratic corruption of Peshawar, Skelly and Najeeb try to find a way into Afghanistan. They finally manage to join a warlord's entourage, but just before they leave, Daliya goes missing. Forging ahead, Skelly and Najeeb develop an enduring friendship, tested by their harrowing journey into Afghanistan. Capture, escape and shocking revelations finally save one man and condemn the other in this gripping portrayal of shameless media frenzy and hopeless geopolitical gamesmanship. Agent, Jane Chelius. (Sept. 16) Forecast: "No, I am not Skelly," says Fesperman in his acknowledgments, but the Baltimore Sun reporter and war correspondent has a similar enough background to make him a fascinating interview prospect, and his detailed insider's account of war reporting will be catnip for news junkies. Eight-city author tour. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Caught up in events that are both monumental and intensely personal, reporter Stan "Skelly" Kelly and his fixer, Najeeb, cross from Pakistan into war-torn Afghanistan. Though the Americans have just started bombing and the Taliban is still fighting back, Skelly and Najeeb have their reasons to be there. As a semiretired war correspondent forced back into duty, Skelly is determined to prove to himself that he can still do the job. Najeeb, meanwhile, is trapped by past choices into serving others with far different goals. After a difficult and surreal crossing, the two men must forge an uneasy alliance if they're going to survive. Fesperman has written three novels (e.g., The Small Boat of Great Sorrows), but his journalism background is still evident on every page. Here, however, the characters are the centerpiece. Recommended for all public libraries. Jane Jorgenson, Madison P.L., WI Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Adult/High School-A superbly written tale of betrayal, brutality, and courage. Skelly (a slurring of Stan Kelly) is a thrice-married, journalistic warhorse, a veteran of hot spots from Managua to Sarajevo to the Kuwaiti deserts. Suffering burnout, he returns to the U.S., but "three years of the suburbs of the Midwest had left [him] forgetful of past lessons." Now in Pakistan, he plans to cross the border into post-9/11 Afghanistan in hopes of a career-crowning story. The warlord's son of the title, Najeeb, is his translator/guide, a Pashtun whose father has banished him from his native country. Further complicating Najeeb's political and familial situation is his live-in relationship with cosmopolitan Daliya, which places them both in cultural jeopardy. The plot is a heart-stopping drama (a rope-bridge crossing straight out of Indiana Jones; a grisly hanging) even as the author weaves everyday cultural realities into deeply affecting scenes; Daliya's visit to a burqa shop is both enlightening and sobering. With a polished writing style, Fesperman delivers plot twists, adept characterization, attention to detail, and a masterful use of setting, making The Warlord's Son highly recommendable to teens who enjoy a quality reading experience.-Dori DeSpain, Fairfax County Public Library, VA Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Fesperman's experience reporting firsthand for the Baltimore Sun made The Small Boat of Great Sorrows (2003) the best thriller to come out of the Bosnian war; now, he goes to the Tribal Lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan in the last days of the Taliban. There's no way to soften the scenery in the godforsaken territory ruled by the Pashtun tribes and no story to tell from that part of the world that isn't, if truthful, grim as death. Here the eponymous warlord's son is Najeeb, the University of North Carolina-educated and now exiled son of an Afghan tough guy supporting himself as a reporter and translator in Peshawar, Pakistan's gateway to Afghanistan. Cut off from his family for spilling secrets to Pakistan's powerful secret police, Najeeb is hired as a local fixer by thrice-married and overexperienced American reporter Stan "Skelly" Kelly, freshly back in action after several boring years in the Midwest. Skelly needs Najeeb to accompany him as he follows one of the many Afghan strongmen of the moment returning to join the chaotic war on the Taliban theocracy. The translator's attention to the job is compromised by his concern for Daliya, a university-educated 20-year-old woman sent to Peshawar by her family to rethink her attitude toward arranged marriages. Daliya and Najeeb have become lovers, placing themselves in mortal danger not only from the wrath of their families but also from the harsh judgment of their fundamentalist neighbors. Indeed, Najeeb has been receiving menacing letters quoting passages from the Koran. When Skelly and Najeeb's reporting takes them across the border with a cutthroat whose interests are unclear, Daliya must flee Peshawar first to save her life, thento save her lover's. Bleak and gritty, but thoroughly believable, especially the reporting scenes. Agent: Jane Chelius/Jane Chelius Literary Agency
From the Publisher
"Mesmerizing. . . . Visceral. . . . Keeps the reader's attention until the stunning climax." —The Denver Post"A terrific novel of intrigue, duplicity and death in the shadow of the Khyber Pass. . . . Fesperman is that rare journalist who is also a gifted novelist." —The Washington Post“A thrilling odyssey into Afghanistan during the waning days of Taliban rule . . . a kind of post-modern Heart of Darkness.” —Seattle Post-Intelligencer“Compulsively readable. . . . Fesperman [is a] writer to watch.” —The Seattle Times"A novel ripped from the headlines. . . . Better than any news dispatch and . . . far more entertaining. . . . Fesperman amazes [with his] searing insights into human nature." —The Baltimore Sun“A first-rate geopolitical yarn. . . . Fesperman combines his strong eye for detail with bleak film-noir cynicism, managing to make plot twists that could have felt contrived seem depressingly believable.” —Entertainment Weekly“A convincing, accurate thriller. . . . This book is worth reading if only for the passage where the hero, Skelly, glimpses Osama bin Laden at a public hanging; the scene both convinces and frightens.” —The Economist"Thoroughly gripping, intelligent and wholly believable. . . . There will be other novels written about the last days of the Taliban . . . but few will match the verisimilitude, drama and compelling characters found in The Warlord's Son. . . . The conclusion . . . has the impact of a stun gun." —Flint Journal“Fesperman’s experience as a war correspondent, together with his powers of description and characterization, produce an utterly compelling thriller and quite simply the best I’ve read all year.” —[writer TK], Sunday Telegraph"Enlightening and entertaining. . . . A riveting and sometimes frightening read. . . . Fesperman sheds light on the tribal culture in such a way that a murky idea momentarily crystallizes into a vivid picture." —The Charlotte Observer"[Fesperman] exhibits a keen eye for the landscape's details...he excels at drawing characters." —Pittsburgh Tribune-Review"[This] veteran reporter. . . . depicts politics, geography and the tradecraft of reporters, smugglers, warriors and spies with rare insight." —San Jose Mercury News"The Warlord's Son is a story of humanity, of how primal instincts come to the forefront in dangerous situations. But it's also about friendship and loyalty and redemption, either achieved or disappointed. . . . One of the must-read novels of the year." —January Magazine

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Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt

The sun does not rise in Peshawar.

It seeps--an egg-white smear that brightens the eastern horizon behind a veil of smoke, exhaust and dust. The smoke rises from burning wood, cow patties and old tires, meager flames of commerce for kebab shops and bakers, metalsmiths and brick kilns. The worst of the exhaust sputters from buzzing blue swarms of motor rickshaws, three-wheeled terrors that careen between horse carts and overloaded buses.

But it was the dust that Najeeb Azam knew best. Like him, it had swirled down from the arid lands of the Khyber and never settled, prowling restlessly in the streets and bazaars as if awaiting a fresh breeze to carry it to some farther, better destination.

In the morning it coated his pillow, a faint powder flecked with soot. In the evening he wiped it from his face and coughed cinders into a handkerchief, never quite able to flush it from either pores or lungs. Wherever he traveled it went along for the ride, a parasite, a little gift from his adopted home. He was respectful of its mysterious cloaking powers, because things had a way of disappearing in Peshawar--people, ideas, entire political movements. They would be loud and noticeable one day, only to vanish without a trace the next, and with each new day someone or something else always seemed to have gone missing.

A Peshawar dawn nonetheless had its charms, and Najeeb liked to rise early to savor them. So, on a warm morning in mid-October he stood in the darkness of his small kitchen a half hour before sunrise, brewing tea while listening to Mansour's horse cart leaving for the bazaar. He knew without looking that the old man stood like a charioteer on a narrow wooden flatbed, reins in hand, pomegranates and tomatoes piled behind him, the baggy folds of his shalwar kameez flowing ghostlike in the pale light. The lonely clip-clop was soothing, yet also a sort of warning, like the ticking of a bomb. It was part of Peshawar's daily countdown to chaos. Soon enough the narrow streets would explode with vehicles, animals and people, beggars and merchants elbow to elbow as both cried out for rupees.

The loudspeaker of a nearby mosque crackled to life. Najeeb strolled to the living room, setting his teacup on a shelf and kneeling, lowering his forehead to the rug in prayer. This, too, was a ritual of tranquillity, yet it never seemed quite peaceful enough here.

In the tribal lands of his boyhood the muezzin's cry had been a solitary call, haunting and lovely. He used to pretend the message was for him alone, and to Najeeb there was still no grander expression of power than the words Allahu akbar, "God is great," when carried on a morning breeze across empty countryside. But in Peshawar there were more muezzins than he could count, and their calls became an unruly conversation--one voice trumping another in a war above the rooftops. Cats yowling over turf. Or perhaps Najeeb was turning into an infidel, a worldly backslider. A Kafir, as his father's Pashtun tribesmen would have said. Life never seemed half so holy now as it once had, and in a country where not only a man's calling but also his marriage was generally set in stone by age eighteen, Najeeb was still a work in progress at twenty-seven.

As a boy he'd roamed a wonderland of extremes, a rural princeling at play among bearded, turbaned men with rifles slung on their backs, all of whom owed their allegiance to his father. After breakfast he might sprint barefoot through the dew of waist-high poppies, dodging marauding boys from the village with slingshots round their necks. As the sun climbed higher he sought the refuge of high defiles to watch smuggler parades of camels and horses, teatime caravans swaying and clanking through the passes. Then, off to bed on the verandah of his father's hujera, the men's guest house, where he gazed up at stars so icy bright that it seemed they might pierce his skull. Pleasantly weary, he stretched out on a rope bed, eavesdropping on his father's guests and supplicants --smoky, piratical gatherings in the hujera's great room, with hubble-bubble hookahs and high-caliber bandoleers, lulling him to sleep with the streamside murmur of their mutter and growl, and the whine and hum of their radio, beaming news from the great beyond. Occasionally a burst of laughter or an angry shout shouldered into his dreams, but by morning there were only him and the muezzin beneath another clear sky.

Yet that world also had its special cloaking magic. It was a place where he learned quickly to conceal his thoughts and dreams, and from his earliest years Najeeb's elders taught him to hold in his emotions, sheathing them like a weapon.

At the age of eighteen he abruptly left that world behind, dispatched across the seas to a university in the United States. It was his father's idea, a vain stab at worldliness to impress a few haughty ministers in the government corridors of Islamabad. Najeeb went reluctantly, and for months he held himself sternly under wraps, bookish and brooding through a North Carolina winter amid airless dreams of home.

Then came the spring, and Najeeb emerged timidly from underground, sampling the bounty of bright new places that began to make home seem small, plain and crude. There were supermarkets as big as his village, libraries the size of canyons, lush trees alive with blossoms and songbirds. Then there were the women, practically naked compared to the ones he'd grown up with. They were a temptation, he knew, yet there was a holiness about them, too--as if heaven and hell had been rolled into one amazing creation of bare arms, exposed legs and lustrous heads of hair, their animated faces open to the world and all its possibilities. They soon became responsible for an altogether new kind of training in Najeeb's life. Tell us your feelings, they demanded. Share your thoughts. Having been exposed to Shakespeare in the same heady spring, Najeeb found himself torn in ways he had never anticipated. To feel or not to feel, that was the question.

And now, years after his homecoming, he was not only restless but trapped--banished from tribal lands by his father, barred from America by consular officials.

His father's action had followed a betrayal that Najeeb no longer cared to revisit. The consular ban was of a more recent vintage. The United States had decided the previous month that it no longer wanted his company, after his two worlds had collided in ways previously unimaginable in the burning skies of lower Manhattan.

So he soldiered on in Peshawar, feeling as if he'd snagged a little of himself in each place he'd departed. And as each morning's peace dissolved he often found himself brooding over what was missing, sometimes believing that he, too, was disappearing into the Peshawar haze, as indistinct as the horizon. In a country where most people defined themselves by family or faith, Najeeb found himself resorting to a more American approach, seeking identity from his various occupations. For the moment, then, he was a translator and guide, a painter of birds, an unemployed computer engineer, and, most recently, a journalist of sorts, reporting for a rambling English daily called the Frontier Report.

The few people in Peshawar who knew Najeeb well could have added further labels--disowned son, enthusiastic fornicator, occasional imbiber of forbidden beverage, habitual consorter with foreigners--tireless seeker of any path, in other words, that might lead beyond Pakistan. And at this precarious moment in the city's history, when choosing sides was the order of the day, Najeeb remained dangerously neutral.

One thing no one ever called him was lazy, and today's schedule was particularly industrious. First on the agenda: a ride on his motor scooter to the humble offices of the Frontier Report, where, as always, there would be plenty to write about. His daily task was to fashion a digest of news briefs from the tribal hinterlands of the North-West Frontier Province. It always made for strange reading--rustic feuds and oddball robberies, villages convulsed over the tiniest of matters. Perhaps someday he would collect them in a volume of curios for his friends in the United States, a Pakistani gothic that would finally help them understand what made this place tick.

The most important business of the day was scheduled for late afternoon, when Najeeb would meet yet another foreign journalist who wanted to hire him for guiding and interpreting. A fixer, the job was called, and today's client was American.

With most of the journalists so far the routine had been pretty standard. They spent their first few days doing interviews in the streets, liking the lilt of the word "bazaar" in their copy and enjoying the way every merchant invited them inside for tea. Najeeb translated while fending off hordes of curious barefoot boys and legless beggars.

If there happened to be a demonstration that day, they covered it, taking care to stay upwind from the tear gas. Then came the obligatory visit to a madrassah, one of the religious schools that supplied the Taliban with so many foot soldiers. Black-haired boys kneeling in straight lines on scrubbed marble floors, heads bobbing as they recited the Koran. Then perhaps a chant or two of "Death to America," before collecting quotes from the resident Holy Scholar.

Najeeb and his clients always shared an awkward laugh in the taxi afterward, the reporter never quite sure where Najeeb stood on these matters, and Najeeb never eager to say, not when every cabbie was a potential informant.

Then, unless there was some new wave of refugees to badger, Najeeb would escort his client east, three hours down the bouncing highway to the calm green sterility of Islamabad, to seek out bureaucrats and diplomats who might grant travel papers for the Afghan border--because Afghanistan was the ultimate goal of every client, even if the border had been closed for weeks and would likely stay that way awhile longer.

If it ever opened, Najeeb would probably cross it as well. Not that he enjoyed gunfire. But at a pay rate of a hundred fifty dollars a day he couldn't afford to say no, because the one thing that might yet get him out of this place was cash.

Yet even as his supply of cash reached three thousand dollars and counting, the American embassy grew ever more remote. A hasty security cordon that had gone into place after September 11 had crept ever farther down the surrounding boulevards. Now, a mere five weeks later, you couldn't get within blocks of the place, and for the moment a visa was out of the question. Not only had most of the embassy staff left the country, but there was now a waiting list, a clerk told him by telephone. It might take weeks, even months. Meanwhile, reports filtered back from the United States of young Pakistani men disappearing into jails by the hundreds, gone without a word of explanation. So Najeeb bided his time and stacked his crisp fifties and hundreds, stockpiling ammunition for a battle that might never come.

Such was the drift of Najeeb's thinking that morning when, still on his knees, he was startled by a whisking sound from over by the door. Had he completed his prayers? He wasn't sure. The loudspeakers of the mosques were silent. A rickshaw whined past outside, scouting for the day's first fare. He checked his watch--still time for another cup of tea--but his eyes were drawn to a spinning white object on the floor tiles. It was an envelope, just coming to rest. Someone had shoved it beneath the door. He listened for departing footsteps, but there was only the clopping of another horse, so he rose stiffly and crossed the room, throwing open the door in expectation of discovering the crouching messenger, caught in the act.

But there was no one. Nothing. And the stairwell was silent. It was as if the envelope had fallen from the sky with the first shaft of sunlight. Shutting the door, he picked it up. Whoever had sealed the cream-colored envelope had done so without a single smudge, meaning he was either clean or careful.

Najeeb tore it open at the top and pulled out a folded sheet of paper of the same creamy complexion. There was no letterhead or official markings, only a handwritten message in black ink, neat and cramped, giving the impression of someone not accustomed to writing. At the top were the numbers "24:30," and the writing below was in Arabic. It was a passage from the Koran. With no one there to watch, Najeeb allowed himself an irreverent smile. No doubt he was about to receive a scolding from a neighbor, some lesson in morals from a well-meaning meddler.

"Enjoin believing men to turn their eyes away from temptation and to restrain their carnal desires," the first line said. "This will make their lives purer."

His smile widened. Someone must have seen Daliya exiting a few nights ago, and it probably wasn't the first time. The memory brightened his mood. Whereas he thought of himself as wispy and insubstantial, she was full and complicated, a soul worth clinging to. He continued reading.

"Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments."

Oh, but such adornments. If this writer only knew. Another set of numbers followed, 24:39, meaning the writer had skipped ahead. The next passage took his smile away.

"As for the unbelievers, their works are like a mirage in a desert. The thirsty traveler thinks it is water, but when he comes near he finds that it is nothing. He finds God there, who pays him back in full. Swift is God's reckoning."

Najeeb wondered angrily what sort of "reckoning" the writer had in mind. Did God's self-appointed scold also intend to be His avenger? He crumpled the page, then reconsidered, smoothing it out and reaching for a pen. This demanded a reply. He pulled his own copy of the Koran from between English editions of Philip Roth and Paul Auster, thumbing the pages. Where was that verse that had recently caught his eye? There. Just as he remembered. He'd be quoting it out of context, of course. In fact, he was likely misinterpreting it altogether, a thought that returned his smile with a gleam of mischief.

"2:79," he wrote. Then he scribbled in rusty Arabic: "Woe betide those that write the scriptures with their own hands and then declare: 'This is from God,' in order to gain some paltry end."

He stuffed the page into the messenger's own envelope and resealed it with tape, then wrote on the outside in Urdu, "A reply to this morning's visitor to apartment 12." After a second cup of tea he grabbed his satchel and the keys to his scooter, taking care to lock the door before rushing down the stairwell. He posted the envelope by the mailboxes at the entrance, wondering how long it would be before someone took the bait. For a moment he had misgivings--why stir the pot?--and his stomach rumbled, as queasy as if he'd just eaten too much chapal kebab. He'd have to remind Daliya to take more care in her comings and goings. The city grew more dangerous and irrational by the day.

"Meddlesome fanatics," Najeeb muttered on his way into the streets. "They'll be the death of us all."

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Dan Fesperman is a former foreign correspondent who worked in Baltimore Sun’s Berlin bureau during the years of civil war in the former Yugoslavia, as well as in Afghanistan during the recent conflict. Lie in the Dark won the Crime Writers Association of Britain’s John Creasey Memorial Dagger Award for best first crime novel, and The Small Boat of Great Sorrows won its Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for best thriller.

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Warlord's Son 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Tigerpaw70 More than 1 year ago
The "Warlord's Son" is a riveting and compelling fiction about the experiences of a war correspondent on his last mission in Afghanistan. The first part of the novel has its slow moments. It opens with Skelly in Peshawar, Pakistan, a world far apart from the West he is accustom to. His aim is to enter Afghanistan and report from the center of the action. But in order to succeed he requires the help of a well connected, resourceful fixer and translator to bridge the language and culture gap while navigating the harsh terrain. He finds the perfect couple, Najeed and Daliya who want desperately to immigrate to the US and will do anything to help Skelly. The circumstances surrounding Najeed, son of a wealthy warlord and Daliya have left them estranged from their families. A good part of the novel revolves around the struggle in the two families. Intertwined into this strenuous situation is Najeed and Daliya's romance and Skelly's quest to obtain the story of his career. After crossing the border, Skelly and Najeed face one challenge after another as they bribe and con their way through one warlords' territory after another. Eventually their deceptive practices catch up with them and all hell breaks loose...intrigue after intrigue has the reader riveted to the edge of his seat till the very last page.... As the novel progresses we feel tension building and we gradually sense this can only end in a climatic and shocking way.... This fiction gives an amazing outlook on the dedication and hardship western reporters face under hostile conditions in a culture very different from what we as Westerners are used to. The characters are particularly well drawn to bring out the differences in religious beliefs and how they are applied amongst different groups in their quest for honour and power. The author appears to have shown great sensitivity and respect. I like Dan Fesperman's novels, he excels at capturing the atmosphere and portraying the different cultures through the eyes of his characters. He is also a master at building tension and spinning multiple storylines.