Cover image of "The Return of Faraz Ali," a novel that illuminates Pakistani history

Pakistan was bathed in blood at its inception in 1947 and has rarely known peace ever since. Partition. Four wars and numerous border conflicts with India. The Bangladesh Liberation War, when East Pakistan split from the west. Numerous military coups throughout Pakistani history beginning in 1951, leading to several decades under military rule. And, more recently, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban. Imagine, then, what life might have been like for tens of millions of poor Pakistanis simply attempting to live their lives in peace. This is the backdrop to Aamina Ahmad’s stunning debut novel, The Return of Faraz Ali.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

A young girl’s murder in the red-light district

As a small child while World War II rages across the planet, Faraz was seized from his mother in the Mohalla, the red-light district within Lahore‘s walled inner city. There, she and generations of her forebears have worked as prostitutes. They consider themselves the heirs of the courtesans who served the Mughal court in centuries past. Faraz’s wealthy father, Wajid, had snatched the child and sent him off to be raised by a respectable family in a distant town, where he might gain opportunities closed to him as a son of the Mohalla.

The Return of Faraz Ali by Aamina Ahmad (2022) 353 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of a street scene in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1970, a tumultuous time in Pakistani history
Street scene in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1970, around the time much of the action in this novel takes place. Image: Stanford AI Lab

A murder, a cover-up, and a search for his roots

Now, in 1968, Wajid has eased Faraz into a desirable post as a senior police detective. But the time has come for Faraz to return the many favors. Wajid, now the executive secretary of the province, orders him to transfer to the Mohalla. There, he is to cover up the death of a young girl. Wajid insists the death was accidental. But it’s clear she was shot by one of several men in the room where she was plying her trade as a prostitute. Clearly, someone powerful has shot the girl. Was it the district councillor? Wajid himself? Or someone yet more powerful? The mystery Faraz must solve bedevils him, with everyone around him, including the victim’s family, insisting he ignore the facts. And, meanwhile, living once again in his birthplace, Faraz sets out to search for his long-lost mother.

A panoramic view of Pakistani history

Ahmad skillfully follows Faraz through his dogged, one-man investigation while shifting back in time to portray Wajid’s wartime experience as a prisoner of the Italians in North Africa. She also takes us into the lives of the women of the Mohalla, among them Faraz’s birth mother and his sister, both of them renowned dancers and actresses in their time. And as Wajid’s investigation proceeds, yet another of Pakistan’s many violent power shifts takes place, as one strongman gives way to another. Aamina Ahmad has achieved nothing less than a panoramic view of Pakistani society as viewed through the eyes of rich and poor alike.

About the author

Photo of Aamina Ahmad, author of this debut novel that explores Pakistani history

The publisher’s bio reads “Aamina Ahmad, a graduate of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, has received a Stegner Fellowship from Stanford University, a Pushcart Prize, and a Rona Jaffe Writer’s Award. Her short fiction has appeared in One Story, The Southern Review, Ecotone, and elsewhere; she is also the author of a play, The Dishonored. She lives in Berkeley, California.”

For perspective on some of the issues in Pakistani history, see Good books about India, past and present.

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