The Wandering Falcon
For readers of Khaled Hosseini, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Mohsin Hamid, a remarkable, award-winning book about the tribes of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
In this extraordinary tale, Tor Baz, the young boy descended from both chiefs and outlaws 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 wild area he travels -- the Federally Administered Tribal Area -- has become a political quagmire known for terrorism and inaccessibility. Yet in these pages, eighty-year-old 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 still remains largely a mystery to us.
Jamil Ahmad is a storyteller in the classic sense -- there is an authenticity and wisdom to his writing that harkens back to another time. The Wandering Falcon reminds us why we read and how vital fiction is in opening new worlds to our imagination and understanding.
In the tangleof 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-obist-roz, the wind of a hundred and twenty days. This 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.
“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. Th e 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 off er. 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 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?”
"Mr. Ahmad's deep understanding of his characters shows what a powerful truth teller fiction can be."
-The New York Times
"[Y]ou instantly care so much about that boy and his fate that you can hardly stand to stop reading. 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 desert landscape.... [T]he 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, NPR
"A striking debut...The power and beauty of these stories are unparalleled in most fiction to come out of south Asia."
"[W]ritten with such a terrible beauty...With this novel Ahmad has followed Mark Twain's advice to write what he knows. And what he know is all the more fiction-worthy for his lived experience among these hardy people, much feared and little known...Highly accomplished first novel...Elegiac voice...They are neither romanticized nor vilified but shown in all their terrible, resilient beauty."
-The Independent (UK)
"Tautly written... Fantastic... Drawn with tenderness but without sentimentality... Ahmad is a deft storyteller and his slim volume possesses a strong allure."
"Outstanding...The novel is more than a beautifully written piece of fiction; it is a socio-anthropological account of a tribal landscape that is changing rapidly. Executed brilliantly...This is a book worth more than its weight in gold."
-Business World India
"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 and The Reluctant Fundamentalist
"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
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