Jamil Ahmad, born in 1931 in Punjab, had never heard that Vladimir Nabokov was twice caught on his way to the incinerator with the manuscript of Lolita. Both times, his wife, Vera, intercepted him. With a deeper understanding of this anecdote than most, Ahmad laughs on the phone from Islamabad.
Ahmad's debut novel, The Wandering Falcon, reaches the hands of readers worldwide because of a similar rescue. In this case, the draft was "absolutely shut up in a trunk" for more than 30 years, lost, for all Ahmad knew. His wife, Helga, however, had always kept the key to that trunk.
Ahmad started working in the Pakistani Civil Service in 1954. Following his boyhood interest in adventure, sparked by books like Robinson Crusoe, Ahmad requested assignment in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. For many years he lived and worked in the remote border region where Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan meet. "I loved that remoteness," he explains. "I enjoyed no telephone, no contact, no bosses breathing over my shoulder. I loved that life."
Meanwhile, he was coming to understand with rare insight and compassion that the tribes were facing an almost certain end to their ancient ways.
In the 1970s, Ahmad began writing strikingly honest, humane stories that captured both the routines of daily life as well as the tragic demise of tribal leaders, their animals, and their cultures; once the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan started requiring identity cards for going back and forth, the nomads were unable to cross borders, even though they'd been traveling in these regions for hundreds of years. In the book, Ahmad portrays this shift poignantly as, unable to reach the next watering hole or forced back to previously grazed land, the animals die. Later, border guards shoot directly at the nomads' camels. Ahmad's intimate familiarity with the region is also reflected when a Pakistani guard accompanying the Pawindahs keeps looking at one of the women. He's used to women of the plains, who were "somber and staid and rarely smiled." But the Pawindah woman yells out, "You, there, who has been staring at me for a long time. Do you not know that you are smaller than my husband's organ?"
Although Ahmad loved the terrain, he remains emphatic that it was "not the physical geography but the people who inspired me." Ahmad brings many different tribes to life in the book, including Afridis, Baluchs, Kharot, Pawindahs, Wazirs, Mahsuds, and Mohmands, each of which has its own language and customs. Where the Wazirs hunt in groups, the Mahsuds hunt alone. And in the Afridi language the word for "cousin" can mean both a relative and one's fiercest enemy.
After early attempts to publish within Pakistan fell flat, Ahmad put his work aside. His professional responsibilities and his family were growing. He thought writing was "a dead end, a pipe dream. If it wouldn't have been for my wife, these stories would have been eaten by white ants. Helga was as protective of these stories as she was with our other babies." Helga was proud of Ahmad's stories, "talking about them and handing out photocopies to other people." Ahmad, for his part, remained amused but embarrassed by her enthusiasm, still convinced that nothing would come of his efforts.
More than 30 years after the first draft of this book was written, Ahmad's younger brother, Javed Masud, heard about a contest sponsored by a literary journal featuring new Pakistani writing. He asked Helga to unlock the trunk.
But after reading Ahmad's manuscript, The Wandering Falcon, and realizing it was a novel, Masud sent the work to The Life's Too Short Literary Review, where the editor, Faiza Khan, sent it to Penguin in London.
Does he see himself as an ambassador of sorts? Ahmad reiterates his lifelong interest in advocating for tribal people not only in Pakistan but all over the world: "The tribal structure is the basic building block of human civilization."
Does Helga now enjoy flaunting the fact that she knew of the book's potential all along? Ahmad says no. "But," he admits, "there is a new lilt in her voice."