The Shalamar Code

The Shalamar Code is young adult fiction for middle school readers, set in contemporary Pakistan. Published in Septermber 2006 (ISBN 0738709344), it’s one of the first seven young adult novels published under the Flux imprint of Llewellyn Worldwide.

“In a post-9/11 world, Pakistan is an uneasy place to live, let alone become involved in political intrigue and drug trafficking. However, that is exactly what Mumtaz and her friend Rashid do, putting both of their lives in danger. When Mumtaz becomes aware that her older brother is in trouble with a drug-running, political spy, she devises a plan to rescue him. Being a headstrong 15-year-old, she does not realize the danger and the sacrifices that have to be made because of her actions. The novel reflects a time in Pakistan when cultures and ideologies collide. Memtaz is from a privileged background; her friendship with Rashid, the assistant to the tennis coach at her club, defies generations of cultural traditions. Since her father is a member of the outlawed opposition political party, she must learn to live under constant governmental surveillance. Her courage and character are admirable.”– Sharon Morrison, Southeastern Oklahoma State Univerity, Durant, OK, for School Library Journal

Teen Book Review

Two teen-agers, Mumtaz and Rashid, become entangled in an adventure that involves the activities of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, as well as drug smuggling on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mumtaz Mahmoud lives in Karachi and takes tennis lessons every morning at the Sind Club. Her tennis partner is Rashid Khan, a Club employee her age (15), son of a waiter in the Club dining room. Mumtaz’s older brother Sikandar has gambling debts owed to an unsavory type at the university, called Moocher, who bribes him into delivering a mysterious carton of cigarettes. Mumtaz and Rashid scheme to get possession of the cigarettes and discover that Moocher is attempting to trap Mumtaz’s father. Sirdar Mahmoud is a leading lawyer, who is trying to learn who in the Army Intelligence Service is still supporting the remnants of al-Qaeda after they slipped over the border from Afghanistan into the territory of his tribe on the North-West Frontier of Pakistan.

The carefully laid plans of the two youngsters to trap the Moocher go awry when Mumtaz disguises herself so successfully that she isn’t recognized. This one innocent mistake puts the two young people’s lives in danger.

The adventures of the two young people permit a picture to be drawn of the vast gap between the wealthy strata of society to which Mumtaz belongs and the very poor working class background of Rashid’s parents. Ordinarily, the two would never associate, but the unusual circumstances permit them to become good friends. In addition, Mumtaz is a young woman who is being educated, but is struggling against fitting into the traditional female role in Pakistan. Her brother has no interest in taking over the family business, as he is expected to do, and Mumtaz wants her father to recognize that she could assume that role with much more enthusiasm than feckless Sikandar.

Finally, the story highlights the extraordinary courage and determination of dedicated Pakistanis like Mumtaz’s father, who struggle to combat religious terrorism in the face of a military dictatorship, elements of which may still be supporting the Taliban clandestinely.

I’ve spent more than two years in Pakistan. We lived for several months at the Sind Club, where much of the story takes place. I watched a young woman (whom I named Mumtaz) play tennis every morning before breakfast. Having written three books on Afghanistan, I have followed events there very closely and foresee situations identical to the one portrayed in The Shalamar Code occurring in Pakistan in the months to come.

CHAPTER 1           Sikander is late

“Your brother telephoned, Miss Mahmoud.”

“Oh? What did he want?”

“He said he would be late picking you up.”

Maf kijiye—excuse me,” Mumtaz protested as she rested her tennis racket on a folding chair and studied the Sind Club reception clerk. “How late?”

The man smiled, trying to ease the message. “About ten o’clock, he thought.”

“Ten? That’s two hours late!” Her voice rose in dismay. Her immediate thought was that Sikandar must be in trouble again. Just the previous week they had watched a news report about a young man who was stopped in boarding a flight from Karachi to Peshawar carrying a duffel bag stuffed with $100,000 in U.S. currency. He claimed he hadn’t known what was in the bag, nor who was to receive it—only that it would be picked up at Dean’s Hotel in Peshawar.

Sikandar sat suddenly erect. “My God, I play bridge with that jerk!” When Mumtaz questioned her brother, he dismissed her abruptly. “Forget it, infant. It’s not a subject for children.”

Mumtaz had been gnawing at the incident ever since, wondering how well Sikandar knew that foolish young man.

She asked the clerk, “Did Sikandar say why he’ll be so late?”

“No, ma’am.” The clerk studied her sneakers to avoid meeting her eyes. After all, the annoyance of a fifteen-year-old, even if she was the daughter of a prominent club member, was not his problem. “He suggested you pass the time by the swimming pool.”

“The swimming pool isn’t open until ten.”

“No, ma’am.”

“The video games are all inside the pool fence. What am I supposed to do with myself?”

“It’s cool on the verandah. The boys have finished sweeping. You could sit there.”

She realized that the clerk was trying to be helpful. “All right. Shukriya—thank you, Aziz.”

He dipped his head and strolled away across the lawn. Mumtaz zipped her tennis racket into its cover with swift, impatient movements. She wished her mother would let her have a cell phone. Then she could call Sikandar on his and find out where he was.