BY NANDINI KRISHNAN
In the 1950s, a young Jamil Ahmad joined the Civil Service of Pakistan, and opted to serve in the North West Frontier Province. For the next twenty-five years, he lived among the nomadic tribes of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. In that time, he crossed deserts and negotiated settlements, interacted with the tribes and earned their trust. He even forayed into the Tirah Valley, where only members of the Afridi tribe are allowed. Having served in Baluchistan, Khyber, Malakand and Dera Ismail Khan, aside from the Frontier itself, he wrote a whimsical book about the ways of the tribes in the 1970s. For the next 40 years, it had an audience of two—the author and his wife Helga Ahmad. A chance opportunity, a publishing deal and several awards later, The Wandering Falcon and its author have taken the literary world by storm. In this interview, Jamil Ahmad speaks of the baby he had to look after, the Fairy Godmothers who tended its story, and the honour, dignity, charm, warmth and wit of the people he loved living among.
Reading your book, one feels a sense of respect for tribal governance, a sense that the national government may have interfered too much in this region. Is that how you saw it?
Well, I think I look at it differently. I think governments of all kinds have been harassing the tribes for more than 2,000 years. If you look at the whole span of history, all the important history, you’ll see that governments have seen tribes as an adversary at all times, whether it was Caesar’s campaigns at Gaul, whether it was British India where the Criminal Tribes Directment was made, all over the world—in Africa, in Asia, in Europe, in the Americas. And the traditional ways in which the tribes lived have been phased away.
Now, with the region along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border becoming so sensitive for various reasons, can tribes live like they did?
Well, I’m feeling very unhappy because the tribal structure in this part of the world has been totally decimated. And, you know, the traditional tribal power centres, the decision-makers, the systems, are virtually gone. They’ve been harassed to the point of almost being exterminated.
What do you think it was that made those times different, that made it possible for them to sustain themselves? And do you think that can be redeemed?
I don’t know, because I think the repression has been massive, so I don’t know whether it can be redeemed now, at this stage. I wish it were possible, but let’s see.
You must have seen the transition from these men of honour to the warlords. Where do you think the system failed?
I think the issue of warlords is a recent creation, so I’m not completely aware of the scene on the ground now, but back when I was there, there were no warlords. There were tribal chiefs, there were what we used to call the greybeards—you know, the old men who used to jointly sit down and take a decision. So, there were no warlords as such.
In the book, you’re never judgmental, not when there’s sale of women or ill treatment of people because they’re considered low-born. Were you trying to portray the lives of the tribes as is, or does being there make you see these things as acceptable, as a part of life?
Well, what I think is in this time, you see, people sometimes get the impression that I’m talking about certain elements of feudality that need conquering. What I’m saying is that when we compare our systems vs. feudal systems, the theme of country vs. society, empires, nation-states, it appears this type of collectivity is less tyrannical, more just, and has very simple rules of right and wrong, compared to other society. In fact, if you think about it, the amount of brutality committed in the cities and what we know as civilised society is far more than has ever been committed in tribal areas.
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