The author Jamil Ahmad talks about his book The Wandering Falcon, set among the Pakistani border tribes and just published after being spurned for decades.
The Wandering Falcon takes flight after 30 years
Writing came relatively late to Jamil Ahmad. He was in his late 30s - and for 15 years had served the Pakistani civil service in the border lands between Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran - when he decided to turn his hand to poetry.
"I had some time on my hands, and told myself, 'let's have a go at this'," Ahmad, now 79, recalls. "I started with short pieces, like haiku. My wife read my early attempts. She said, 'This is rubbish. Why don't you write about what you know?' She was very clear.
"So I started writing stories about the tribes that I had dealt with during my work. I wrote longhand, and my wife had an old German typewriter - she is German - and she typed up what I wrote. Two-and-half years later, the manuscript was finished. And then a long time elapsed."
Such, in short, is the remarkable story that has brought Ahmad to the favourable attention of readers and critics in his native Pakistan, as well as London and New York. The manuscript that he produced in the early 1970s lay in a desk drawer for 35 years before being published this summer as The Wandering Falcon. Described by The Guardian newspaper in the UK as "one of the finest collections of stories to come out of south Asia for decades", it has been lauded for providing insight into a region of great geopolitical importance. All these years later, Ahmad finds himself a feted, and somewhat fashionable, first-time novelist.
The spare, unmannered, unflinchingly direct stories collected in The Wandering Falcon are woven around a protagonist called Tor Baz, an orphan who is handed from tribe to tribe, and in this way observes much of tribal life. In the first story the boy's parents are killed by their tribe because of their adulterous relationship. In another, some Baluchi men enter a town for government "talks" only to find themselves tried and convicted of killing two soldiers. Many of the stories were written while Ahmad was posted in Swat, close to the Afghan border.
"I used to come home in the evening and have four or five hours to myself," he says, "so I had time to scribble, and my wife had time to type."
In an interview at a London hotel over tea punctuated by the odd cigarette outside, the author describes the long and convoluted path his manuscript took to published novel.
"We sent it to London; there were some mild expressions of interest but nothing concrete. There were suggestions I could not accept. One publisher wanted the book converted into non-fiction. I said, 'I am not an anthropologist; that is not my field at all.'
"There were criticisms that seem to have disappeared now. Another publisher said that the dialogue in the book was archaic. I said, 'These are tribesmen. You can't expect them to speak in the modern idiom. They don't use American slang.'"
The pages spent 30 years in a desk drawer before what Ahmad calls "total serendipity" brought them to the attention of the UK publisher Penguin. The process started when Ahmad's brother heard about a short story competition in Pakistan and asked Ahmad's wife if the manuscript still existed.
While the merit of Ahmad's fiction was recognised, the period following September 11, 2001, brought the tribal border lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan into the living rooms of the West - possibly making the book more saleable.
"Yes, that's possible, that's possible," says Ahmad. "Really, I have no idea why it happened one way 30 years ago and another way now."
Whatever the truth, the subtle, unflinching depiction of life in the border regions is a central part of the book's literary success. Western readers will be used to a characterisation of the region as brutal, primitive, and lawless, but The Wandering Falcon tells a different story.
"Some people see violence and brutality in my book," says Ahmad. "My intention was the opposite. There is more brutality in the cities than you find in the tribal areas. The tribes don't throw acid on their womenfolk, they don't do the kind of brutal things that occur in the cities.
"The tribes have a code that demarcates right and wrong, and they stick to that code. And that code applies to everyone, from the highest to the lowest. And among the tribes justice is is quick, which it certainly is not in the cities."
The nature of the tribal cultures described in The Wandering Falcon has a new significance, given the strategic nature of the Pakistan-Afghan borderlands, where the US and its allies focused the "war on terror" and where, it turned out, Osama bin Laden was not. Missile attacks by US drones have trebled under President Barack Obama; Ahmad's position is that from the start of US interference in the region the West has pursued a strategy that has undermined its own interests.
"It's been mismanagement from the start, a series of wrong decisions. The first was to assist in the creation of the Mujahideen, to fight the Soviet Union," he says, referring to the Soviet occupation in the 1980s.
"Now elements in the Mujahideen have become the Taliban, and they are destroying the tribal leadership and way of life. In the Pashtun area, which is the current focus of drone attacks, between 300 and 700 tribal leaders have been killed by Taliban. The tribes should have been a countervailing force to Islamic extremism, but we have assisted in the ongoing destruction of the tribes."
There is an urgent need for better understanding of the border tribes among western policymakers, and better treatment of them in general, says Ahmad. It's a kind of mission statement, developed after a lifetime spent coming to understand the tribal collective.
"These people - I mean tribespeople all over the world - have been treated disgracefully, and they continue to be. The tribe is the oldest form of human collective, perhaps even older than the human pairing. It's been the basic building block of civilisation.
"We were all tribesmen, 50 or 100 generations ago. The tribal gene, so to speak, is still in all of us. So if we understand tribes better, we can understand ourselves better, too."
It's an aspiration that is easy to share. What, then, of Ahmad? Will he be writing any more fiction that casts a light on the tribal people that he spent so much time among? Not likely, he says, smiling.
"The chances are very remote. What I love about the publication of this book now is the joy of my children and grandchildren: they are bubbling with joy about it.
"But I am an old man now. This book was written with fire in the belly. If I write something now, perhaps it will feel artificial. So it's a difficult decision. But for now, let's say the chances are remote."