Jamil Ahmad’s novel The Wandering Falcon is an elegy for a disappearing way of life in the mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan. But where most stories of that sort explain the loss of a culture by saying that the march of progress cannot be stopped, there’s no progress in The Wandering Falcon. There’s simply the slow increase of the power of the state in the middle of the 20th century, ending one harsh way of life without replacing the conditions that made it so harsh.
Ahmad—a 79-year-old man whose own life experience is reflected in this debut—is a former agent of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the organization behind the most heinous deed in the book. A nomadic tribe that has crossed the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan for generations is told they cannot do that without permits, which aren’t being grante. When they try to peaceably move with their animals, they and their animals are massacred. With Ahmad’s background in mind, it’s hard not to read the novel as an apology for a real destruction.
Yet the culture being forced into transition isn’t portrayed as worthwhile on its own. The book is divided into a series of vignettes, all related to the life of Tor Baz, the eponymous “Wandering Falcon.” of Although Tor Baz is the thematic protagonist, he’s never the point-of-view character, and usually only wanders the periphery of the story. First, his parents are cast out and executed years after the fact over a point of honor. Then he’s adopted by a wandering mullah who goes insane and begins murdering other children. Each of the stories deals with death, violence, subjugation of women, and the near-impossibility of living in a landscape most charitably described as rugged.
Ahmad’s writing style presents action in simple, direct language that doesn’t cast judgment on his characters. On the other hand, the characters often speak in near-religious (or outright religious) metaphorical tones, choosing to interpret their world through stories. So too does The Wandering Falcon, which creates a portrait of one of the most difficult, controversial regions in recent world history.