Before the Taliban Came
There is such a thing as the curse of literary asynchrony. The best books often lag years, even decades, behind the events they portray. Others appear too early: the novels that explain the Arab revolutions, such as those by Alaa al-Aswani, were published long before 2011 and for years went almost unnoticed in the West. Jamil Ahmad, born in 1933, a Pakistani pensioner unknown in literary circles, has managed to escape this curse. His trick: write before, publish afterwards. If his stories had appeared forty years ago, at the time when they were written, hardly anyone would have paid them any attention. Now, however, they have become an international bestseller.
The end of the world
For the end of the world that Jamil Ahmad describes, the Afghan-Pakistani border region, where the author once worked as a civil servant, has since become the retreat of al Qaida and the Taliban. The Wandering Falcon, as this belated debut is called, is a sort of garland of novellas that tells us how the people in the region once lived, loved and thought. In this way it succeeds in making the persistence of today’s conflicts there at least partially comprehensible; and it does so by refraining from judgment, something that would hardly be possible today.
A man kidnaps his lover. Fleeing their pursuers, the couple settle near an army outpost in an inhospitable region and have a baby. When, years later, the parents are found and murdered by their pursuers, the boy is left behind beside their bodies. This child is the falcon whose path through the stories provides the book with its leitmotif. The real heroes, however, are always the others who find the boy and take him in: the Baluchis, for example, who rebel against a state which, contrary to tradition, wants to dictate to them who should be their chief.
As men of honour, they believe a leaflet that promises them free passage. On arrival in the town, they are subjected to an outrageous trial and condemned to death. ‘There was complete and total silence about the Baluchis, their cause, their lives, and their deaths. No newspaper editor risked punishment on their behalf. (…) No bureaucrat risked dismissal. (…) What died with them was a part of the Baluch people themselves. A little of their spontaneity in offering affection, and something of their graciousness and trust. This too was tried, sentenced and died with these seven men.’
Depiction of an ethnocide
This commentary by the narrator, which is, incidentally, the only one in the whole book, is equally revealing of the motivation behind both Jamil Ahmad’s writing and his years of silence. The Wandering Falcon is also the depiction of an ethnocide, of a people who, prior to this book, have never had a voice, a narrator, have carried no weight. The idea of a national state, which we inevitably regard as a civilising achievement, here once again reveals its totalitarian flipside. The state borders defined in the twentieth century for the first time between Afghanistan and first British India, then Pakistan, arbitrarily carve up the region where the nomads live. For as long as they can remember, we learn in the story entitled ‘The Death of Camels’, they have roamed about in the rhythm of the seasons. They have never had any official papers. Now, all of a sudden, they are supposed to show their passports at the border. When they simply keep moving, they are mown down along with their animals. After reading this, it will be no surprise to anyone that these people’s descendants rebel against any form of control and welcome anyone who will support them.
Not all the stories end as tragically as ‘The Death of Camels’. There is even one tale of roguish deeds at the time of the First World War, in which the Germans and the English, who were both paying a lot of money as they vied for the allegiance of the clans, are played off against each other. But the world described here is threatened with extinction – and this knowledge resonates in every line. Jamil Ahmad in no way glamourises the harsh life of nomads in the Pakistani border region; but neither does he subject it to a hegemonic human rights discourse checklist. Tradition, honour and patriarchy define this society more strongly than Islam. And yet, as merciless as the prevalent code of honour may appear, it is one of consummate transparency and reliability. Everybody knows what is good and what is evil, what is right and what is wrong. There is an almost aesthetic quality to the unequivocal ethos with which the book confronts us post-modern relativists.
Jamil Ahmad writes in a simple, unpretentious style. Its charm lies in the narrative perspective, which maintains precisely the right distance: just sufficiently removed to observe this dying world from the outside, yet close enough never to allow this distance to become an internal one or the characters to become alienated from the reader - as alien as they are. One can therefore predict that Jamil Ahmad’s book will still be being read when, one of these days, there is peace again along the Pakistani border.Jamil Ahmad: The Wandering Falcon, first published 2011 by Riverhead Books (Penguin). The German translation by Giovanni and Ditte Bandini has now been published by Hoffmann und Campe Verlag, Hamburg (2013).
is the Editor-in-Chief of Fikrun wa Fann / Art & Thought.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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