Jamil Ahmad, Who Published Debut Novel At 79, Dies At 83
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now let's remember a writer who was published for the first time in the final years of his life. Jamil Ahmad has died at the age of 83. When he was 79, he published a book of short stories to widespread acclaim.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The fictional tales in "The Wandering Falcon" were drawn from Jamil Ahmad's real-life experience as a Pakistani civil servant. He worked in Pakistan's so-called tribal areas on Afghanistan's border. Those areas are at the heart of the region's wars. We sought insight on the tribal areas in 2011 by visiting author Jamil Ahmad's home in Islamabad.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
INSKEEP: How did you come to write this book?
JAMIL AHMAD: Well, I think I blame her for it.
INSKEEP: He means he blames his wife, Helga, who moves in and out of the room putting snacks on the table. The beautifully patterned tablecloth was originally a tribal headscarf. Decades ago, as they moved from one remote posting to another, Jamil Ahmad tried to write poetry and showed it to his wife.
J. AHMAD: But she was very dismissive about the quality of my poetry. And she said, why don't you write about tribal areas, because by that time you'd spent about 15 years of her married life in the tribal areas.
INSKEEP: So he began writing stories. His characters moved across bleak and awesome landscapes, like the far western desert near Iran, where the wind blows clouds of sand so thick you can barely breathe.
J. AHMAD: It took about 2-3 years to complete the manuscript. By 1973-'74, it was ready.
INSKEEP: When I open up the book here, the copyright, the publication date is not 1973 or '4, it's 2011.
J. AHMAD: Yes, because I hibernate it for 40 years. It's a scomodo (ph) writing.
INSKEEP: What does that mean? Why didn't you send it to a publisher?
HELGA AHMAD: We tried to. We sent it to America. We tried in England.
J. AHMAD: We tried.
INSKEEP: Nobody wanted to publish it - then. But Helga kept showing it to journalists, diplomats and others. And finally, a publisher bought it. For decades-old book, it's turned out to be timely. "The Wandering Falcon" describes an ancient and often violent culture, like the two rival tribes settled on either side of a trickle of a river in Waziristan. Every few months, Ahmad writes, their hate and tensions explode into violence and some men die - never the women, who continue caring for the land and fetching water from the river.
J. AHMAD: It is brutal, undoubtedly. But I what I wanted to convey - and there's probably worse brutality in the city than in the plains - brutality exists. But how the tribes deal with it, I thought was clean and clear. There's a clear dividing line between right and wrong.
INSKEEP: You describe some of the tribal customs that people from the outside will have heard about and surely will disapprove of. There is a young man and woman who commit adultery and according to tribal custom, they must be killed. They have borne a son, who becomes the main character of the story, and he is left without his parents. And yet you, at the same time, portray the tribesmen and women that you write about as human beings. You write about their honor, their spontaneity and offering affection. Their graciousness and trust - your words from the book. You seem to have real affection for...
J. AHMAD: I do. I very much do. I mean, I've got - I've always felt that's the basic building block of human civilization, the tribe.
INSKEEP: Did you come to find the tribesmen in some ways more civilized than so-called civilized people?
J. AHMAD: Of course. Of course. Of course. I did. I did. Always. Always. You can say that they were not literate but they were more educated.
INSKEEP: What do you mean by that?
J. AHMAD: I mean, they didn't know how to read or write but they knew what, you know, the basics of what, you know, human values are.
INSKEEP: Is there anything that you think people don't understand very well about this region when they talk about it and think about it?
J. AHMAD: One thing is very clear, that you see a lot of mistakes have been made in the recent past. They are, in a way, destroying a system which was a strong countervailing system to all what is happening today - terrorism, you know, bigotry and whatever.
INSKEEP: You're saying the traditional tribal system is being destroyed.
J. AHMAD: Was a countervailing force.
INSKEEP: Tribal organizations could resist rebellions or extremist groups. Now that system has come unglued during decades of war along the border. The U.S.-backed fight against the Soviets in nearby Afghanistan, followed by the rise and fall and rise of the Taliban.
J. AHMAD: You can even switch off the microphone if you choose to, because I'm going to have a cigarette. Or give me a five-minute break.
INSKEEP: You want a five-minute break?
J. AHMAD: Yes.
INSKEEP: Ahmad's wife won't let them smoke in the house, so we adjourn to a balcony and the cigarette lighter snaps. So when we look from this balcony out over the trees, I see the mountains there.
J. AHMAD: Yes. Yes.
INSKEEP: And the sun is setting so that's West. So the land we're talking about is in this direction. It's just over those mountains.
J. AHMAD: That's right. That's right.
INSKEEP: Gazing towards the tribal region where he set his book, "The Wandering Falcon," Jamil Ahmad becomes almost mystical.
J. AHMAD: The first thing is for all of us to understand the tribes, to resonate, to harmonize, to have the same beat as the tribes. Because frankly speaking, I still think that each one of us has a tribal gene inside, embedded inside. I really think that way.
INSKEEP: Jamil Ahmad published "The Wandering Falcon" at age 79, and died at home Saturday at age 83. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.