The border areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan are synonymous with terrorism and violence today, feared as dangerous places where those who preach deadly international jihad are gladly given sanctuary. But before there was the Taliban, before anyone thought of a country called Pakistan, and for long before and after the line named after the British colonial administrator Sir Mortimer Durand cut arbitrarily through the lands inhabited by the Pashtuns and created that border, there lived tribes whose language, culture and traditions dated back centuries. Foreigners have often written about them over the years, rarely entirely positively; at best, praising them as good soldiering stock, at worst implying that those same martial characteristics made them peoples still stuck in medieval barbarism. Seldom have their own voices been heard, which makes Jamil Ahmad's new book all the more welcome - especially as it might well have never seen the light of day.
A retired civil servant whose career was spent in the frontier regions, Jamil Ahmad's fictional debut comes at an age - 78 - when other authors find their powers waning, not awakening. He started off decades ago writing poetry, but his efforts were dismissed by his wife, who suggested he concentrate on the remote areas to which he had been posted instead.
Although the results were completed in 1974, no publisher was interested. Ahmad was only "discovered" when his manuscript was passed on to an editor at Penguin India and one of his tales then appeared in Granta magazine's Pakistan issue last autumn. Hence his emergence on the literary scene so late in life.
Because the book covers a period from roughly after the Second World War to the early 1970s, there is an enchanting dualism to The Wandering Falcon: the reader feels familiar with the landscape, not least from frequent news reports, yet is being shown it from an entirely different perspective. No longer are the lands of the Wazirs, Mehsuds, Balochs and Bhittanis troublesome, wayward provinces at the edges of more stable states.
Ahmad conjures the region itself as a tangible entity, a recreation made wistful by the knowledge that the old ways he describes were crushed or displaced so very recently. One tale, set in 1956, the first year that the international boundary was enforced, has a soldier asking a nomadic tribesman if he has heard rumours that the borders are to be closed.
"It would be impossible to do that," he replies. "It would be like attempting to stop migrating birds or the locusts." Yet soon after the Pawindahs, the "foot people" who annually descended from the Afghan mountains to the plains of Pakistan with their herds, were forced to choose a settled home. No longer could they declare they "belong to all countries, or to none".
The Wandering Falcon is not quite a novel, but its nine stories are told chronologically and linked by Tor Baz, whom we meet as a baby and who ends the book possibly on the cusp of marriage. Tor Baz (the name means "Black Falcon") does not know where he is from - even his name originally belonged to the dead child of a couple who adopted him when he was about eight - but that allows him to be an everyman among the tribes.
His wandering life is a device to illuminate those of others, and above all the strength of the culture that binds them. For Ahmad makes it clear that if these are lawless parts today, they were not so then. Their traditions and codes may have frequently been brutal, but they were fiercely treasured and observed and were at one with the harsh landscape they traversed and from which they scratched livings that often barely deserved the name. Moreover, their rigidity neither precluded the possibility of kindness nor failed to contain glimmers of the yearnings of the human soul.
When Tor Baz's unmarried parents, on the run from the husband the woman has left behind, seek refuge in a hill fort close to Iran, that is refused. "Neither I nor any man of mine shall come between a man and the law of his tribe," comes the answer. But shelter, on the other hand, can be given. Five years later they are discovered, and their abandoned child is taken in by Mengal Balochis on their way to dispute the right of district officers to choose their chiefs, or "sardars". The officials do not seem to understand that "each man needs a sardar, seeks and finds one for himself - a Baloch more than others".
Although the book is characterised by a laconic lyricism - parts reminded me of Somerset Maugham, some of whose best short stories have no need to resort to unnecessary drama or adornment to keep the reader enthralled - the narrative is dotted with delightful descriptions and similes. After the Mengals' mission fails, Tor Baz is taken in by Ghuncha Gul, the soldier who cannot believe that his duty will soon be to stop the movements of the million tribesmen to enforce boundaries that existed only on paper before.
After all, he is known to many of them, and famous "in the area because of his moustache which measured 12 inches from end to end". Relieved of his command, Gul passes Tor Baz on to an itinerant mullah who tells outrageous stories of the rewards good Muslims will enjoy to the poor people of a barren mountain village. Accused by a visitor of lying, he replies: "These are not lies. These stories are like ointment, meant for healing, or like a piece of ice in the summer with which water in a glass is cooled. Would you call that piece of ice a lie?"
As Tor Baz and the mullah depart, the general of the Pawindahs reminds his son of how, as a boy, a man of more than 100 had explained his longevity to him. "The secret is raw onions. I eat raw onions and I survive." However, as the general recalled, the centenarian was not referring to diet. "What he told you that day was the secret of life itself. One lives and survives only if one has the ability to swallow and digest bitter and unpalatable things. We, you and I, and our people shall live because there are only a few among us who do not love raw onions."
The unpalatable, at least to modern sensibilities, is to be found throughout the book: in one tribe's readiness to raise revenue by kidnapping, in the many infractions for which the customary punishment is death, even in the actions of Tor Baz who, we learn, is not above either spying or purchasing slaves. Ahmad's intention is not to judge, however. Although when he wrote these stories they described recent or still existing ways of life, their late publication turns them into an elegy to a culture that had pride and purpose, and which tolerated with some bemusement the frequent attempts by outsiders - Germans, Turks, British, Russians - to make them pawns in great games that had no relevance to their lives.
Ahmad sketches his characters plainly, with little attempt to influence the reader's opinion of these men (they are, not surprisingly, mostly male). But he also does so with sympathy and with dashes of humour, too. When the European-born son of an Afridi journeys to see his homeland in the Tirah Valley for the first time, his guide expresses his desire to possess a radio. "Of course, I could not have dared to mention it only 10 years ago," he says. "The poor man who brought the first radio to Tirah was hauled up before the mullahs. His transistor was condemned and a firing squad shot it to bits."
This is exactly the kind of instance that could be used to suggest that the border regions were, or still are, areas yet to be blessed by any of the advances of civilisation and modernity. That is not at all the impression one is left with, however. Ahmad subtly suggests a nobility in his subjects and their traditions, just as although the land of the Baloch might strike the outside visitor as monotonous, to its inhabitants it offered "a thousand shades of grey and brown ... beauty and colour were rampant around them". No reminder of what has happened in these areas in the decades since Ahmad laid down his pen is necessary. While enjoying the great pleasures of his prose, one cannot help but join him in mourning what has been lost.
Sholto Byrnes is a contributing editor of the New Statesman.