'Wandering Falcon' Describes Pakistan's Tribal Areas

Jamil Ahmad spent decades as a civil servant in the northwest tribal regions of Pakistan. He started writing stories about the people and tribes he met. Some 40 years later, those stories are published in the book The Wandering Falcon. Steve Inskeep sat down with Ahmad recently in Pakistan.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Let's look more closely at a phrase we hear in the news: The tribal areas of Pakistan. That's the label for the mountainous region along the border with Afghanistan where militants hide from American drones.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Behind that stock language lies an intricate world. And this morning, we'll meet a writer who knew the tribal zones before they became a battleground. He spent decades there as a Pakistani civil servant. Today, you'll find Jamil Ahmad and his wife at the top of a staircase in Islamabad.

(Soundbite of footsteps and conversation)

INSKEEP: Hello.

He's become an acclaimed first-time author at age 79. His book "The Wandering Falcon" is a work of fiction that takes the reader all along the border.

How did you come to write this book?

Mr. JAMIL AHMAD (Author, "The Wandering Falcon"): Well, I think I blame her for it.

INSKEEP: He means he blames his wife, Helga, who moves in and out of the room, putting snacks on the table. The beautifully patterned tablecloth was originally a tribal headscarf.

Decades ago, as they moved from one remote posting to another, Jamil Ahmad tried to write poetry and showed it to his wife.

Mr. AHMAD: But she was very dismissive about the quality of my poetry. And she said why don't you write about tribal areas, because by that time we had spent about 15 years of our married life in the tribal areas.

INSKEEP: So he began writing stories. His characters moved across bleak and awesome landscapes, like the far western desert near Iran, where the wind blows clouds of sand so thick you can barely breathe.

Mr. AHMAD: It took about two, three years to complete the manuscript. By 1973-74, it was ready.

INSKEEP: When I open up the book here, the copyright, the publication date, is not 1973 or four, it's 2011.

Mr. AHMAD: Yes, because it hibernated for 40 years. It was comatose, I think.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: What does that mean? Why didn't you send it to a publisher?

Ms. HELGA AHMAD: We tried to. We sent it to America. We tried in England.

Mr. AHMAD: We tried.

INSKEEP: Nobody wanted to publish it - then. But Helga kept showing it to journalists, diplomats and others. And finally, a publisher bought it. For a decades-old book, it's turned out to be timely.

"The Wandering Falcon" describes an ancient and often violent culture, like the two rival tribes settled on either side of a trickle of a river in Waziristan. Every few months, Ahmad writes, their hate and tensions explode into violence and some men die - never the women, who continue caring for the land and fetching water from the river.

Mr. AHMAD: It is brutal, undoubtedly. But what I wanted to convey - and there's probably worse brutality in the cities and in the plains; brutality exists. But how the tribes deal with it, I thought was clean and clear. There's a clear dividing line between right and wrong.

INSKEEP: You describe some of the tribal customs that people from the outside will have heard about and surely will disapprove of. There is a young man and woman who commit adultery and, according to tribal custom, they must be killed.

Mr. AHMAD: Mm-hmm.

INSKEEP: They have borne a son who becomes the main character of the story and he is left without his parents. And yet you, at the same time, portray the tribesmen and women that you write about as human beings. You write about their honor, their spontaneity in offering affection, their graciousness and trust -your words from the book.

You seem to have real affection for...

Mr. AHMAD: I do. I very much do. I mean I've got - I've always felt that's the basic building block of human civilization, the tribe. I'm all for it.

INSKEEP: It takes time for Ahmad to explain what he admires about people who live such a harsh existence. Helga has settled beside him now. She is of German birth, a woman with sky-blue eyes. Jamil Ahmad wears a graying mustache and a gentle expression. They describe days when he was a powerful civil servant. Under the region's rough governing system, a single man like Ahmad could simultaneously serve as politician, police chief, judge, jury and executioner.

Ms. AHMAD: Now, I remember this case when you arrested somebody that was stealing wire - telephone wire.

Mr. AHMAD: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes, amazing things, yes.

Ms. AHMAD: You see, he kept on stealing telephone wires...

Mr. AHMAD: Not kept on. You see, it was just I was traveling in the dusk time and saw that the telegraph wires, some strands were missing.

INSKEEP: Ahmad saw a campfire in the distance. He approached the men around it. Simply because he asked, one of them admitted to cutting down the copper wire to sell.

Mr. AHMAD: I said, you know that was not right. He said, yes, I know that was not right. So I said okay. I sentence you to 10 days in the lockup. But I'm going in this direction; you promise you will report to the jail? He said I will. And he faithfully reported to the lockup, served his 10 days and went.

You see, that was the quality of the village people.

INSKEEP: Even when committing a criminal act, they were completely honest about it.

Mr. AHMAD: Completely honest. Completely honest.

Ms. AHMAD: And he was caught, you see.

Mr. AHMAD: Can you believe that thing happening in any part of the civilized world?

INSKEEP: Did you come to find the tribesmen, in some ways, more civilized than so-called civilized people?

Mr. AHMAD: Of course. Of course, I did. I did always. Always. You can say that they were not literate but they were more educated.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?

Mr. AHMAD: I mean they didn't know how to read or write, but they do what, you know, the basics of what is, you know, human values are.

INSKEEP: Is there anything that you think people don't understand very well about this region when they talk about it and think about it?

Mr. AHMAD: One thing is very clear, that you see a lot of mistakes have been made in the recent past. They are, in a way, destroying a system which was a strong countervailing system to all what is happening today - terrorism, you know, bigotry and whatever.

INSKEEP: You're saying the traditional tribal system is being destroyed.

Mr. AHMAD: Was a countervailing force.

INSKEEP: Tribal organizations could resist rebellions or extremist groups. Now that system has come unglued during decades of war along the border; the U.S.-backed fight against the Soviets in nearby Afghanistan, followed by the rise and fall and rise of the Taliban.

Mr. AHMAD: You can even switch off the microphone if you choose to, because I'm going to have a cigarette. Or give me a five-minute break.

INSKEEP: You want a five-minute break?

Mr. AHMAD: Yes.

INSKEEP: Ahmad's wife won't let him smoke in the house, so we adjourn to a balcony and the cigarette lighter snaps.

So when we look from this balcony out over the trees, I see the mountains there.

Mr. AHMAD: Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: And the sun is setting so that's west.

Mr. AHMAD: Yes. Yes.

INSKEEP: So the land were talking about is in this direction, it's just over those mountains.

Mr. AHMAD: That's right. That's right.

INSKEEP: Gazing toward the tribal region where he set his book, "The Wandering Falcon," Jamil Ahmad becomes almost mystical.

Mr. AHMAD: The first thing is for all of us to understand the tribes, to resonate, to harmonize, to have the same beat as the tribes. Because frankly speaking, I still think that each one of us has a tribal gene inside, embedded inside. I really think that way.

INSKEEP: He thinks a better understanding could help end the wars that stain the tribal regions' mountains and valleys.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Im Steve Inskeep.

MONTAGNE: And Im Renee Montagne.

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