Long-forgotten tribal tales put 80-year-old on shortlist

AN 80-year-old former civil servant from Pakistan, who cannot use a word processor, much less type, makes an unlikely literary star.

Jamil Ahmad finished his first and only novel almost 40 years ago, writing it out long hand for his wife to type up.

At the time, his tales of life in the country’s tribal badlands, where he worked as a government administrator, was rejected by London publishers and then left in a drawer and forgotten.

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That all changed after his brother entered the unpublished manuscript in a competition. Last week he was named on the shortlist for the region’s biggest book prize, the $30,000 Man Asian Literary Prize, making him the latest star in Pakistan’s growing ranks of celebrated authors.

“It has been an astonishing year, full of surprises,” he said at his home in Islamabad.

His book, The Wandering Falcon, tells the stories of tribal chiefs, political agents and colonial officers in the decades before Pakistan’s tribal regions became synonymous with al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

It depicts a harsh landscape of mountains and desert peopled by tough, warrior tribes made human by their quirky ways.

Reviewers described the book as a “sensational debut” and a “blistering critique” of misguided attempts to stamp out tribal identity.

The collection of interwoven short stories draws from Mr Ahmad’s own time as a civil servant working in remote outposts along the borders with Iran and Afghanistan from 1954 – as well as a stint as a diplomat in Kabul from 1979 to 1980 just as the Soviet tanks rolled in.

For two years he would write in the long, quiet evenings, passing page after page of longhand to his wife. “Whenever I had free time I would write, and she would type it,” he said. “I still don’t know how to type

The result chronicles a disappearing way of life in Pakistan’s tribal areas.

The stories come from Mr Ahmad’s travels in the region, from folk histories recounted over sweet cups of tea and even gleaned from official records.

One tale describes how a British officer rode off on a mule with 50,000 gold sovereigns to pay off a tribe in danger of siding with the Germans during the Second World War. The story was found in a dusty diary locked in a safe that had not been opened in decades.

The book was finished in 1973 but never made it to print despite some interest from London publishers. “They wanted me to do it as non-fiction, or take out what they thought was archaic language.

“I said ‘sorry but I don’t think the tribes converse in the modern idiom’.”

The manuscript was destined to remain a family keepsake, brought out for grandchildren curious to hear about their grandfather’s life.

Two years ago, however, Mr Ahmad’s younger brother heard about a competition in Karachi. The organisers immediately spotted the book’s value and helped get it published.

He is one of seven writers shortlisted for the Man Asian Prize, which is due to be announced in Hong Kong on 15 March.