Times 2

Pakistan badlands inspire belated literary success

ISLAMABAD, (AFP) - A retired Pakistani civil servant nearing 80 may not sound like the most obvious debut author to take the international publishing world by storm, but Jamil Ahmad has done precisely that.

Over a cup of tea and a glass of lime juice, he talks about a career as an administrator along Pakistan's desolate borders with Afghanistan and Iran, and how he turned those memories into a book that has earned rave reviews.

Jamil Ahmad reads a book at his home in Islamabad

"The Wandering Falcon", published by Riverhead Books in the United States this month, captures the raw romance of Pakistan's wildest terrain -- associated today in the West with Taliban lairs and Al-Qaeda terror plots.

Seduced by tales of 'cowboys and Indians' as a schoolboy, Ahmad quickly developed a lifelong passion for the tribal way of life in Pakistan's southwestern province of Baluchistan and the tribal areas along the Afghan border in the northwest.

He joined the civil service in 1954 and later became commissioner of Swat, a northwestern district where Pakistan in 2009 led a major operation against a Taliban insurgency, and of Waziristan, today the focus of the CIA's most active drone war against Taliban fighters.

He served at the embassy in Kabul from 1978 to 1980, a crucial time for both Afghanistan and Pakistan, coinciding with the Soviet invasion of the former. When he showed his German wife Helga some poetry, she dismissed it as "rubbish" and told him to write about something he knew -- namely, the tribal way of life.

The result was a manuscript finished in 1974 and tucked away in a drawer. Helga, "like a bulldog", kept showing it to people over 20 years. Then Ahmad's brother heard a short story competition on the radio, called up Helga for a photocopy and submitted the draft, which attracted local attention and ultimately wound its way to the publishers.

The book is a collection of gently interlinking short stories, all but one featuring Tor Baz, a boy born to a couple who elope. He becomes the "Wandering Falcon" after his parents are killed.
Contemporaries have queued up to pay homage to Ahmad for what Kashmir writer Basharat Peer described as "one of the finest collections of short stories to come out of South Asia in decades".
With the United States fighting a covert war against militants in Pakistan and locked into the 10-year conflict in Afghanistan, Ahmad's US editor hopes the book will shed light on a region isolated from the outside world.

Laura Perciasepe says it is a "clear and powerful story" set in an area "of great interest and importance to American readers, but so little understood".

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