Written nearly forty years ago and only recently published, Jamil Ahmad’s The Wandering Falcon is something between a novel and a collection of interconnected stories that follow Tor Baz, “The Black Falcon,” through different moments in his life. Tor Baz is an orphaned nomad whose life has been uprooted many times since childhood. He spends his life wandering the borderlands between Pakistan, Iran, and Afghanistan–called the Federally Administered Tribal Lands (FATA)–interacting with the people who live there, but never laying down roots.
Though the book is set in the post-WWII period, the nomadic tribes who live in the FATA remain largely unchanged by the world around them. Their lives are simple but hard, and one gets the sense that they’ve held on to many of the same practices and traditions as their ancestors did centuries before. But while the tribes are content to stick to their way of life, herding animals across valleys and mountains with each new season, the world around them is changing rapidly. Nations are being built, and borders are being marked. The concept of citizenship is of growing importance. For the people of the tribes, who have no birth certificates or any particular country of origin, these changes signal an abrupt and violent end to their centuries-old way of life.
In a way, The Wandering Falcon sort of reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad because of the way it was composed: though Tor Baz serves as the thread that holds each chapter together, each chapter only provides fragmented glimpses of specific scenes from his life. Secondary characters come and go, and although they contribute to Tor Baz’s life story, they too are of fleeting import.
The book is beautifully composed; Ahmad actually worked in the FATA starting in 1954, and his descriptions of these areas and their inhabitants are evocative. Though the writing is quiet and spare, it is illustrative of the people and their customs. It’s a short book and a fairly quick read, but I took my time with it; there’s a lot to soak in.
The Wandering Falcon was released by Riverhead Books, an imprint of Penguin, on October 13, 2011.