The first thing this novel shows is that one is never too old to achieve amazing things for this is author Jamil Ahmad’s debut novel - and he’s 80 years old.Ahmad spent his life working for the Pakistani government and served mainly in the Federated Tribal Areas (FTA) where the story of this novel takes place. And considering how much this amorphous borderland is in the news the past decade, it only makes this story more poignant.
Although it is billed as a novel, it reads more like a string of interconnected stories with the protagonist Tor Baz figuring in most of them. The novel begins with Tor Baz as a child. He is a product of what appears to be an unmarried couple, on the run in the tribal lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan, being pursued by the tribe in which both his father and mother shamed. Seeking shelter in a military post, they live out a couple of years in relative peace until the leaders of the pursuing tribe eventually catch up with them. Seeing no way out, the father kills the mother, then awaits his own fate. The pursuing tribe kills him and spare Tor Baz, who is then taken into the custody of an eccentric Mullah. He lives a good part of his childhood with the mullah, until one day the mullah goes mad, having been found ranting and raving after killing two children. Again, Tor Baz is left on his own until he is taken in by another family.
The following chapters then center on the various tribes that exist in this semi-autonomous area between Pakistan and Afghanistan. They delve into their customs & traditions, revealing a way of life that would be alien to most Westerners. Meanwhile, Tor Baz is either a participant in these stories or simply an observer, and as he ages, the more he wanders from place to place, doing what he can to live his life without being connected to anyone in particular but known in the ways of the various competing - and sometimes warring tribes - in this hostile and brutal landscape. Overall, it’s a story about a place stuck in time, where ancient traditions still rule the day, despite the world moving on all around them.
What strikes me as particularly interesting about this novel is how difficult it was and is for those from a Western culture to be involved in this area of the world and that’s where the contemporary commentary comes in. These are people who know nothing of government, constitutions, bill of rights, and the rest of the trappings of modern government, mostly brought to this area of the world through the colonial exploits of the British. It is a land that has seen war and conflict since time immemorial and yet they still hold on to their ancient customs, traditions and manners of justice. It also shines an enormous light on why the Western powers have much difficulty in managing their missions in this part of the world. The characters in this story are not the Islamic fanatics like the Taliban or their ilk, but a people steeped in ancient traditions, who hold on to them as if the world hadn’t moved into the twenty-first century. A very eye opening account of this part of the world.
Ahmad’s prose reminds one of those ancient tales, told in a way not too dissimilar to “One Thousand and One Nights”. It is the voice of an old storyteller, sitting around a fire, regaling those who want to listen with a dramatic and meaningful tale, full of allusions and allegory.