A novel born out of Taliban conversations and suicide bombers

Arif Shamim is a BBC journalist who has been writing for over two decades. Born and brought up in Lahore, Pakistan, Arif’s diverse media work has spanned Asia, the Middle East and Europe. His first novel, The Ameer is Dead, starts from a drone strike that kills a Taliban ameer and his companions somewhere in Waziristan. Here he talks about how the idea of the book came to him:

I was in Peshawar in 2009, the capital city of Khyber Pakhtoonkhwa, one of Pakistan’s most troubled provinces, when the idea to write a novel came to me while I was visiting a friend, a senior army officer. We were passing through the cantonment area in his official army jeep and stopped at a traffic signal. It was a busy August morning and the city traffic was at its maddest.

Suddenly, a car stopped beside us; three men were sitting inside, clad in chadors and turbans. They all looked dishevelled, stern and deprived of sleep. My friend looked at me, smiled and said, ‘Arif, say your kalima. Who knows if they might explode?

I got goosebumps at this reference to suicide bombers, and I didn’t know what to say. My friend, still smiling, said, ‘Now we have two options. Either we speed up the car and break the signal, or just stay here and go with fate.’

He left the decision to my lazy self. For him, this was routine, but for me it was the dawn of the new reality that confronts Pakistan today. I didn’t know how to react, so I simply said, ‘Let’s go with fate.’

Nothing happened.

My friend later told me they had to take such decisions on a daily basis. In the tribal areas, when the army moved in convoys, they sometimes found chador-clad tribal folks sitting beside the road. ‘You never know whether they are militants or ordinary tribesmen. So you have a split second to react: warn them, shoot them or ignore them. The fate of the whole convoy depends on that split-second decision.’

Writing this book was a kind of personal journey. Toni Morrison once said, ‘If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.’ As a journalist, I face the grim reality of war every day, in the form of news constantly bombarded from all over the world, mostly from Asia, the Middle East and Africa. I saw the devastation of war with my own eyes when I joined Kuwait Times right after the first Gulf War. No words can describe the pain and agony war brings. How else do you describe the experience of living in a desolate building in an almost desolate country? I was the only occupant of a four-storeyed building in Kuwait City, right next to an equally desolate five-star hotel. How else can you describe the experience of watching more than 900 burning oil wells and the environment catastrophe they had caused? Whenever the wind blew towards us, the whole city would get pitch dark even at the height of a July afternoon, where a moment ago the sun was right on top of your head. The sun continued to shine, but the thick smoke from burning oil wells would borrow the sky from it for some time.

Much has been written about wars; there are some great works of fiction about war or based on war-related stories, but somehow, I felt that very little material was available on Waziristan, one of the most-affected and war-torn regions of the world during the last few decades. Then by sheer stroke of luck, I got hold of conversations between the Taliban that intelligence agencies had intercepted, and that was how the novel was born.

Right from the first day of writing down my thoughts and experiences, I had decided that I would concentrate on the lives of people instead of events — hence the four profiles. They could have been anyone from hundreds, thousands or even millions affected by this barbarity called war, as countless lives are lost.

But no bullet or bomb, and no militants or armies could shatter my immense faith in humanity, in human beings and in the beauty of life itself. You can see it for yourself in The Ameer is Dead, which begins with death and a drone, but then returns to the lives of these four young men. This is what I wanted to write.

During the initial phase of writing this book, a friend asked me how I would describe a drone. I instantly replied, ‘Drone is death.’

Arif Shamim’s debut novel, The Ameer is Dead, is now available on Juggernaut here.