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Published: August 27th 2008
Reputed as the most beautiful mosque in Peshawar, and rightfully so...
19 August Amritsar, Punjab, India
Except for arriving from and departing back to the United States, I usually do not take too many flights when traveling. Yes, I know they cut distances and save time. But I need to be lodged against a window and see what I would be missing, impossible at 35,000 feet. If a train goes, I’ll be on it. Otherwise I’ll settle for a bus, minivan, outside panel of a jeep, or bed of a pickup truck. Ameen asked me back in Gilgit where I would go after we parted company in Chitral.
“Peshawar”, I said.
“Are you sure you want to go there?”
I was. “Yes.” I would be fielding that question very often.
“How will you go?”
“Well, from what I gather, it is a ten-hour ride with a change of minivans in Dir and then...”
“Maybe you should fly, sir.”
I knew there was a daily flight from Chitral to Peshawar. It is reputed to be very scenic and worth it. But I wanted to go over land. I could see the fabled Swat Valley. It’s not like I’m coming through here anytime in the near future. It’s what I wanted. “Really? Why?”
It's a wonder the electricity ever worls at all...
Ameen’s one-word answer removed any question that I would be getting a window seat with Pakistan International Airlines.
“How can we book a flight?” And with that Ameen escorted me straight to the PIA booking office in Gilgit and made sure the reservation was complete before we left the line.
Don’t go there. It’s too dangerous. You’re…an American? Maybe you should go to Karachi instead.
These among others were the comments I heard when I told people about my interest in Peshawar. Many were from foreigners; some were Pakistanis. But it is worth mentioning that Peshawaris along the way reassured me that as a single traveler with no government agenda, I would come up against no major problems, no different than the rest of Pakistan. The Peshawaris would always add at the end, “Be careful.”
The good thing is that by the time my father reads this, I will be several days out of Peshawar, most likely completely out of Pakistan and in a chilled hotel room in Amritsar where I plan to compose this chapter. It will be of little relief to the man who must be prodded into to travel by my mother just for
A Peek Inside
Mahabat Khan: Copies of the Koran are shelved in an alcove...
a four-day excursion to New Hampshire. For decades his fear of flying kept the soles of his feet solidly on the ground. My father’s fear of flight has never subsided, but he has learned to cope and with yearly visits to San Antonio to see my brother and his children. He does not understand why I travel. I need to be on the edge. He needs to make wine.
A typical conversation will take place as follows:
“Why can’t you just go to Maine or Oregon? They have nice people there. There are mountains. You can have fun.” What he wants to say is that I won’t get maimed by a rabid mob wielding axes or incapacitated from some unpronounceable disease.
“I’d be bored, Dad.”
“What about Switzerland or Austria?”
My thoughts turn to the one time I was in Austria, the capital of tedium. “Austria is as boring as it is beautiful. There’s nothing to keep me there. There’s no edge.”
Then he starts stabbing at destinations that would keep him at ease over the course of nine weeks. “Norway?”
“And what would I do after the tenth day when all my funds have been vacuumed up?”
Wrinkles of Desperation
He makes it a daily routine to loiter near the money exchangers...
I may as well have been speaking in Hungarian.
Enter Peshawar. My father will have already had a panic attack that I crossed into Pakistan, which is why I have withheld that information until back in India. But Peshawar, the city under occasional threat from falling into hands of the Taliban? Where bombs go off and people are kidnapped just outside the city limits? Dad would bite the large knuckle of his forefinger for days; he might even sever it. He’d go sleepless and pace up and down the hallway from the guest bedroom to the living room. He’d go back and read the email several times; during each visit to the computer screen he’d beg that he had misread Peshawar for Pittsburgh and envision me taking in a three-game series between the Pirates and Dodgers.
He’d be angry. At me.
I try to rationalize and justify why and how I could pull it off. Nothing ever happens to singleton tourists who have their heads about them in Pakistan. But arguing intellect against emotional is futile every time. If my boy ever told me he was going to Peshawar, I’d probably bolt his limbs to the floorboards. Why couldn’t he
Old Trading Post
Amazing what you can find when you duck around forlorn alleyways...
just go to Oregon? That’s how I’d most likely handle it.
I first set eyes on the little she hadn’t covered up at the airport. But for her face, she was in black from head to foot, like any other woman should be in Peshawar. Marie-Élise has been here before and her experience assures her that she does not ever make herself a target. We took notice of each other during the flight from Chitral and in the arrivals lounge as we were the only Westerners bound for Peshawar. The only detail about her that I could discretely collect was that she was travelling on a European passport. We never spoke to each other and took separate taxis. I thought that would be the last I’d see of her.
There she was next to me at the reception desk of the hotel. I couldn’t help myself, “You know, I came on a flight with a lady just looking like you. Very beautiful of course.”
It put her off a bit. Men just don’t talk like that to women in Peshawar. I, of course, did not care.
“Oh, really?” is all she could muster. She was involved in filling out
Having her nearby was a good security blanket...
the registration form. We continued to talk while entering our details. I caught her accent, very English.
“Madam, what is your profession?” inquired the receptionist.
Marie-Élise turned her head away from me to reply, “Academia.”
“Me, too. Well kind of.” It was enough to reel her in to a more substantive chat. Upon learning of my writing and teaching, she invited me to lunch.
“Sir, what time will you and Madam be dining? And should I put you in the same room?”
Marie-Élise took over. “No! We are not together.” The thought made her uncomfortable because of the setting. But I tried to keep it light.
I jokingly commented to the receptionist, “Not for right now”, and that ruffled her feathers.
Lunch with the French professor from Paris ended with what I set out for: Marie-Élise asked me to come along with her to the Old City. She is not a newcomer to these parts, knows her way around town, and can accurately gauge the emotional atmosphere of Peshawar. Being linked to her was in my best interest and a far better option than risking it alone.
Marie-Élise had somewhere in mind when we boarded the autorickshaw. She rattled
The Art of Decor
Decorated vehicles are all the rage in Pakistan...
off the name of a site in the Old City with enough proper inflection in Pashto to pass for a local if that was all she had to say.
The driver deposits us at an entrance to a broken cement stairwell that leads through an archway. “Wait here,” instructs Marie-Élise. “I want to check it out first before you come up.” There is concern in her voice. She climbs the stairs and disappears for only a few seconds. When she skips down the steps she crackes a smile. “Come on up. I don’t think there should be a problem.
The textile ceiling covers to the courtyard of Mahabat Khan mosque have been pulled along ropes to provide shade for the few worshippers this late afternoon. Marie-Élise quickly examins the people, their faces, and emotion. Chances are they are doing the same to us. Nothing more than the usual stares of surprise and curiosity shoot our way. None feel exceptionally hostile. “Good,” she comments as she exhales, “I expected there to be more tension. We can stay.”
I whispered in her ear, “It wouldn’t be the first time I got kicked out of a mosque.”
“Believe me, you don’t want to
Butcher at Market
He wasn't too enthused about my taking his photo, but he agreed...
cause trouble here.”
Me? Lil’ ol’ me cause trouble in a mosque in Peshawar? How stupid do you think I am? “Don’t plan on it. Never do.”
Over time, our presence is more gradually accepted. We sit in the corner and observe children rocking to chants being recited from the Koran. Overall, not much is happening. Mahabat Khan is where many idle and unemployed men come to sleep in the afternoon. I exchange nods of acknowledgement and an occasional handshake with the men in the courtyard, but kept a more solitary stance when inside the prayer hall. Marie-Élise and I zigzag around slumbering men to the Mihrab, the main recess representing the qibla, or the proper direction to face Mecca. Followers prostrate themselves in prayer. A muezzin is reading aloud from the Koran, having selected from a few dozen copies from a nearby alcove. Voices are low, as are tensions. No one has a problem with us here.
“Don’t take out your camera right now.” She isn’t taking anything for granted and assumes very little of me. Then again if I were a single woman traveling through Pakistan, I would act the same way.
“Wouldn’t think of it.” And that
Sugar and Spice
Masala and curries perfume the marketplace...
was true. There is a time and a place for photos and this sure isn’t either. Its prayer hall reinforces the reputation of Mahabat Khan being the most stunning in Peshawar. The floral designs on the wall coupled with the hanging cast iron chandeliers are extraordinary. The Mihrab and the hallway in front of it are quiet and cool. Floor fans hum. The designs on the domed ceilings of blues, deep reds, golds, and aquamarines are ridiculously beautiful. I comment on them to which Marie-Élise responds, “You should see the mosques in Iran. They are the most spectacular in the world. This is nothing.” I’ll remember that.
We recess to the courtyard and Marie-Élise looks upward to a rooftop where men are delivering crates of drinks. “There’s a way to get up there, to see the mosque from up high. We exit through a side doorway past more sleeping men and put our shoes back on by the steps. Having showed face inside, I’ll go back and find a quiet corner of the mosque tomorrow afternoon. Marie-Élise struggles to find the staircase to the rooftop view; there are so many. We climbs three before she finds the right one. Mahabat
They start awfully young in Pakistan...
Khan is a city mosque scrunched in between brick buildings and a bustling market, a sea of tranquility of which there is very little in Peshawar.
One morning over breakfast, Marie-Élise and I notice an older woman alone at a table. As she orders, we both hone in on her accent to determine what her country of origin might be. She orders tea and the waiter makes a dash for the kitchen.
“English, perhaps?” the professor asks.
“Amercian or Canadian. I need to get closer to be sure.” Under most circumstances, neither she nor I would care about such details; we come across Westerners all the time, but not in Peshawar. It is easily a safe bet that the three of us at the hotel restaurant could be the only Western travelers not associated with an embassy, the U.N., or and Non-Governmental Organization. By and large tourists do not choose to come to Peshawar, at least not the normal ones.
The pale and aged lady is dressed in a white shawl with red floral print. A black patch covers her left eye like a pirate. When she speaks, her voice is feeble and we both lean in her direction
Hand-crafted embroidery on display...
to hear her scratchy words. All of her characteristics on the surface abruptly clash with Peshawar. Just by looking at her we can tell she doesn’t belong.
Then things get really bizarre.
Marie-Élise breaks the ice with some innocent questions that brings the lady to a table right next to ours. They are the kind of questions I despise, but I also understand their value and necessity. I keep quiet and doodle in my notebook to see what my French companion can extract from her. “Are you visiting Peshawar as a tourist?” It is a question perhaps uttered in the English language for the first time in eight years.
“Oh, no” she replies weakly. “I am in transit.”
In transit? This ought to be good.
She continues over sips of watery coffee, “I am trying to organize a driver to take me into Afghanistan.”
“Have you been before?”
“Yes, twenty years ago. I am looking very much forward.” She goes on to tell of her plans to do volunteer work somewhere outside of Kabul for four or five days. My pen drops to the page as I am writing in mid sentence and I fight every temptation to either laugh
Some places are free of motor traffic and chaos...
out loud or declare her mentally incapacitated.
As a side bar, Marie-Élise is in Peshawar for exactly the same reason. But she has been through the land crossing at the Khyber Pass before. She knows the rules, can speak the language enough, and has researched every last detail. Like Miss Imbecile, Marie-Élise also is organizing safe passage to Kabul, but has weighed every factor and considered every option. I have listened to her outline her plans and schemes to get across at the border. I would never dare attempt the crossing myself. But if anyone could do it, Marie-Élise could pull it off.
Marie-Élise pushes the lady to find out more, but employs a soft tone that amazes me given this lady’s lethal naïveté. “You were in Afghanistan before?”
“Yes, twenty years ago. It was a lovely time.” News Flash, lady: Times are not lovely anymore. News reports in the local paper yesterday state three aid workers, including two Germans, were killed roadside by the Taliban.
“I see.” The woman’s disregard for common sense makes me want to physically distance myself from her. Marie-Élise and I make eye contact me and without uttering a word communicate our incredulity surrounding this
Home for Lunch
With groceries for the family...
woman. She turned to her breakfast and delicately picked at her fried eggs and cereal.
“Est-ce qu’elle est folle?” I say out loud, strong enough for her to hear, and in poorly hidden anger. Is she crazy? I continue in French with the next thought that pops in my head. “Est-ce qu’elle pense qu’elle va en Autriche?” Does she think she is going to Austria? Marie-Élise quiets me down, concerned that I will be overheard. Perhaps if I am overheard it will do Miss Imbecile some good.
“Madame,” recommences Marie-Élise, “any ill-intended people would immediately see the potential you represent as a hostage.”
Miss Imbecile responds, “I know that.” Sure you do, lady. You are completely insane. For two days, Marie-Élise has been unable to organize a ride to the border, after which point she is confident that she will be out of harm’s way, that she will not be a target. As she explains it to me, it at least makes some sort of sense. Marie-Élise takes risks, intense ones, but I do consider them calculated. The lady next to us is simply unaware she is organizing her own funeral.
“I need to see if I can go to the border today or go back to Islamabad and fly to Kabul from there.” The poor lady is terribly misinformed. Marie-Élise brings her up to date with information she has collected from her own sources. “The border is closed and no one has announced when it will reopen again.”
“You mean closed to foreigners?”
“Foreigners and Pakistanis. My driver refuses to take me to the border.” Marie-Élise does not elaborate of the significance of this. If a local taxi driver won’t make the trip and comes back with reports of shots being fired behind ocean containers at the crossing, what should that say to Miss Imbecile?
The delicate American woman thanks Marie-Élise for her help and excuses herself to her room. As soon as she exits the restaurant, I let loose. “She is as good as dead.”
“No,” Marie-Élise contemplates, “I don’t think so.”
“OK, I’m listening.”
“I have been across the border. And yes, she is stupid. But if she falls into the hands of the Taliban, they won’t hurt her. She is an old woman. They will certainly use her as a bargaining chip to have others released from prison in exchange. But harm her? I doubt it.’
“So then, how do you get away with it? How did you cross last time?”
It’s not that hard, actually. And being a woman makes it much easier.” She points to her hand to call attention to her complexion. Being of Cypriot descent, it is a deep and attractive olive color. “I am completely covered in a burqa and never speak. Locals, Pakistanis and Afghans alike, can simply walk across the border unimpeded. I make sure I am with a man. I blend in. No one questions me.”
“And what about transport?”
“I avoid travel in the south of Afghanistan. Up north, you will encounter no problems at all. When there is tension, I take local transport and never board an armed convoy of aid workers. They are a target from the very beginning. Armed military personnel, stay away from them. When you do, there’s no problem. No one ever knows I am a Westerner.”
I can see it working for her. But I cannot envision it working for Miss Imbecile or me. We do not comingle safely. The difference between the both of us is that I am aware of this. She is totally clueless.
Marie-Élise darts off to determine whether she will wait in Peshawar until she gets the green light for a land crossing or compromise with a flight from Islamabad. I pack up my things at the breakfast table, toss my backpack around my shoulder, and make for the Old City. This time I will go it alone. Before I make to the door, Marie-Élise catches me for one quick word of sage advice. “Rich, just be careful. Today is Independence Day. Stay away from any demonstrations.” I know this. It’s always been part of my routine. “Independence Day can also mean Bombing Day in Pakistan.”
There’s no way to hide that the Northwest Frontier Province’s capital city of over one million is tougher, poorer, and less refined than anywhere else in Pakistan, save perhaps Quetta. It is a mish-mash of bazaars, tangled in electrical wires, and aimless but suicidal motor traffic. Stalls of various commodities are compartmentalized like anywhere else in the country and India for that matter. Monstrous combustible engines for passenger cars and heavy duty pickup trucks spill out into the street. Bald tires have been recycled and sewn together to form large rubber receptacles, proving that raw materials no matter what their condition do not go to waste.
Farther on I stop at an open-air embroidery workshop of some one hundred workers. Two or three at a time sit with their legs under a loom. While one stitches in colorful and reflective pieces into a ladies garment, his partner applies blue and green dye through a stencil. His fingers are profoundly stained from the tips all the way to the second knuckle. As with anywhere in Peshawar, I attract attention. And my notebook brings them in like flies to just about any food source. Rasheed, the owner, brings me in to show off his operation over green tea, terribly excited to have an American in his presence. As with most in Peshawar, I am a first-time and singular event in their lives. In the corner of one room a seven-year-old boy smiles at me then places his concentration to his needle and shiny beads needed to be stitched. He is one of many boys silently at work.
“Rasheed, how many hours do people work here?”
“Normally, from nine in the morning and they take a break for lunch and sleep in the afternoon. Most of the time they finish at twelve.”
“Yes, at night.”
“So about twelve hours.”
“Many boys work here?”
“Some. My boys like to work here. See, they are smiling.” And they are smiling. I cannot argue with the boss. By the looks of it, no one argues with the boss. “They are happy to have a job with me.”
“How many days a week do they work?”
The question confuses Rasheed. If they want work and to be paid, they work. The day of the week and number of consecutive days are not relevant. “They come every day”, Rasheed replies beamingly.
“And do they go to school?”
No answer to that one. But instead, “Would you like more green tea?”
A boy even younger than the seven-year-old stands at my side as I sip my tea. The sun is making its presence known in the late morning. He firmly swipes a straw fan at my face with such force I think he wants to slap me. The breeze is delightful and I jot notes onto paper for twenty minutes. Meanwhile the boy keeps up his pace for the entire time, never ceasing his back-and-forth motions to keep me comfortable. As with other businesses in the bazaar, I have to decline a third and fourth drink along with invitations to lunch, dinner, and accommodation at private homes. I depart for other points in Peshawar.
“Thank you for visiting my shop. America is a good country.” And his last words were familiar to me. “Sir, be careful.”
“You, American!” How he knew my nationality was beyond me. There was nothing about my appearance to give it away. The man of about sixty jumped in my path; he had something to get off his chest. I stopped because there was no way to get around him or the donkeys towing fresh produce. “You, American! All Muslims bad! America great!” He repeated this three or four times very loudly. A crowd of overly curious onlookers immediately materialized. It was the kind of attention that I did not need being alone in the bowels of Peshawar’s markets. The man, evidently suffering from some imbalance of the mind, went on a rampage trashing his own country and praising mine. A few dozen people, all men, had focused in on the drama. I needed to escape. I had no idea where he was going with this, but association with him in public would do me no good. I turned to get out of the circle of immobile men by pushing my way through them and briskly made a series of lefts and rights through the bazaar until I was sure no one had followed me. I made it a point not to head back in that direction. Yet with the maze of streets so puzzling, I could never be sure where I would wind up in a half hour.
The rest of my time in the bazaar gladly lacked the drama the crazed old man provided earlier. I walked through a fish market of unforgettable aromas at ninety degrees without the slightest chance of anything being refrigerated. I fought through the flies and came across platforms where live animals were for sale. Chickens, calves, and sheep were all either tethered to poles or trapped in overstuffed cages. Within full view, butchers grabbed and hacked at animals that were once alive, recently alive, or in downward transition. It reminded me of a tea stop on the way to Karimabad. There I witnessed a woman’s order for fresh chicken be processed from cage to parts right in front of me in less than four minutes. It’s amazing what you can do to an animal with a razor and small axe.
At a newspaper stand, I pick of a copy of the English language daily The Nation. The banner headline tells of a terrorist blast in Lahore. Seven people have been killed.
On my third visit to Mahabat Khan, I pick up a one of the copies of the Koran from an inner alcove and flip through the fragile yellowing pages. I wave hello to worshippers and two approach me to shake my hand. They go back to their seated position and bury their faces into copies of their own and recite the passages aloud.
By a series of bookshops, a voice calls out from behind me. “Hey, I know you!” Even before I turn to learn who my next inquisitor is, I am impressed with the opening line. At least it is original, so superior to Hello my friend, How are you?, or Please sit down here now. I turn to see a man on a motorcycle with a woman aboard (a rare happening in Peshawar). She is completely veiled but for her deep brown eyes.
I do not react to the young man who is smiling and evidently rather excited to see me. He continues in decent English and a crowd predictably gathers to ascertain what is going on. “Don’t worry. I am a Christian, a true believer in the savior Jesus Christ. You have nothing to fear from me.” I may have nothing to fear. But I do admit to being confused. A bible-thumping Christian on the eastern border of hardcore Islam? “I saw you in Karimabad.”
Whoa. Karimibad? How in the world does this guy know I was there? He could not have tracked me from Hunza through Shandur to Chitral and Kalash. That would be impossible. “You did?”
“Yes, remember the jeep?”
“Yes, we were a group on a Christian retreat to Duikar and hired a jeep to go up to Eagle’s Nest.”
“OK.” I marvel in the coincidence but cannot make the same connection as he does. I await his next revelation.
“You were the man holding on to the outside of the jeep on the way up. There was no room inside. Then”, he started laughing, “you sat on the bonnet for the rest of the journey and burned your butt!”
He wasn’t lying. He was there. I surrendered my skepticism and shook the man’s hand. I was more astonished over the coincidence than he was. He offered me an invitation. “You will come to my home for dinner tonight. Where do you stay in Peshawar?” I broke a firm rule never to give out those kinds of details and told him. “Good. What time?” All the while, the lady seated behind him made no sound and did not establish eye contact with me.
“Eight o’clock OK with you?”
“I will be there to pick you up.” Without concluding the conversation with formalities, he drove into the market stalls and disappeared behind hanging dresses and shawls of turquoise and peach.
I called Marie-Élise’s room. She was still out. As I replaced the receiver to the light green rotary phone, it immediately rang out. On the third ring, I picked up. “Hello?”
“How is Peshawar treating you?” asked a voice, unmistakably Scottish. There was no question with whom I was speaking. I told Simon I’d be in Peshawar for a few days but did not think he’d recover and be well enough to travel in time for us to reconnect. His finding me at this hotel would have cost him little effort; he had learned the type of accommodation I seek and the accompanying comfort level. Its several notches above his preference of roughing it in a stifling room with just a fan that rarely moves the stale air because of power cuts.
“It’s a different world down here, Simon. Where are you?”
“Just checked into the Rose, in the Old City.”
“Did you fly down?”
“Bloody hell, it was the worst ten-hour ride I’ve been on.”
“Safe through Swat?”
“Yeah, pretty safe. Nothing happened. How’s the feel in Peshawar?”
“I like the place, really do. But you do have to be on guard. I know you’ve come through Iran and have been in Balochistan. But this is not like any other place in Pakistan. When they warn you about stuff, you’ve got to listen. Chitral is fine and the Northern Areas pose no problem. Peshawar is different. Remember you’re a Brit, one step below being an American in many eyes.”
“You have any problems so far?”
“Not a one. The Old City is intense. In fact Peshawar is the only place where it is possible to be an unwanted interloper, freak show, and rock star all in the course of fifteen minutes.” This appealed to Simon.
“Breakfast tomorrow. My hotel. Whaddya say?”
“I’ll be there.”
Suleman’s plight as Jesus’ messenger in Peshawar has taken a toll on him, but he is undeterred. A preacher in Urdu and radio broadcaster in Pashto, he claims to live safely and peacefully in Peshawar. In his modest suburban home in the city’s outskirts, the introduction to his wife is a breath of fresh air. Uncovered and unabashedly confident, she greets me with a soft handshake and brief smile. Though dressed as any other woman in Peshawar, her mannerisms are much more open. She is approachable. In their living room, a bumper sticker at the base of a mirror attached to an armoire reads “Jesus is King”. A crucifix hangs on the wall and a set of rosary beads are on a counter top. Suleman has bought a roasted chicken and his wife arranges some plates on their bed. She rips the bird open and poures soft drinks for Suleman and me. Then Suleman says Grace, invoking the name of the Lord our Savior and his son sent to earth to save humanity. It is eerily comforting to hear those ceremonial words, an instant connection to my upbringing. The dinner is like a Pakistani Thanksgiving. All the while Suleman requests divine blessings for our meal, a muezzin wailed out the evening call to prayer from a nearby minaret.
A singular tone on his cell phone often goes off, signifying an incoming text message. He shows me the content in Roman script and although I cannot decipher the foreign language, he places his thumb over the names on the display. “You see this man? His name is Said. He wants to be a member of our church and wants more information. But I have to be careful not to share his name with anyone.”
“Why not?” I had a feeling where he was going with this.
“It is not safe. He lives in a village and if they find out he is interested in Christ and his message, there will be much trouble.”
“Could he get hurt?”
“Possible”, answers the twenty-six-year-old. “He will be rejected by the village and his family will be no longer accepted.
“Do many around Peshawar convert to Christianity?”
“Only privately. I was born a Christian as was my wife. Life-long Christians are OK here. But converts are not tolerated.”
“But you still feel safe?”
“Yes. We have had only a few problems. We are small in number.”
His wife brings tea up to the rooftop where Suleman has put together some plastic chairs and a table on its last few days of life. The power once again is cut and all the lights of the neighborhood are extinguished save the homes and stores with auxiliary generators. The thick air temperature at ten o’clock at night still hovers around ninety. I observe a gathering of men in a storefront through a window. By all appearances at a distance of a few hundred yards it could be a meeting for the Lion’s Club or a self-help group. “Suleman, what’s going on down there?”
“Richard, that is a den of evil.” He brought his forefinger to the top of his head and swirled it around. “Six, six, six.” I offered him no comment in return and once again focused my eyes on the assembly of old men on pillows and cushions. Suleman goes on to explain that it a place where local men go to ask favors from some sort of mystic when conventional prayers and other support systems do not work for them. “All with Islam, is pure evil. They are not responsible.”
I make the mistake of engaging him. “Suleman, wizardry and mysticism have been part of Christian lore from the very beginning. You would know this from the Middle Ages.”
“Yes, but like I said, Muslims do not know how to be responsible; they are not modern. They are never on time.”
“And Christians are?” This is the problem with true believers: their minds are already made up and there is no free or open debate. An exchange of ideas cannot take place. “I can assure you that most of Latin America has no sense of punctuality, and they are all Christians. Irresponsibility knows no religious boundaries. We are all imperfect.”
“But you cannot reason with a Muslim. Their hearts are dark. You do not live with them. If you did, then you’d understand.”
I tuned the rest of his gibberish out. Pakistan is not the only realm of Islam I have known. Speaking for Pakistan, I have encountered many a heart far greater and generous than almost any other nation I have visited, regardless of faith. I keep a respectful attitude that should accompany any guest in a foreign home. Nonetheless, Suleman’s dismissal of Islam in its entirety annoys me. A part of me desires that he live in an open society where he could spread his word without fear of reprisal or violence. In Peshawar, he and his followers do live under a threat, a fear, a relentless anxiety. But Suleman has countered that extreme with one of his own. He is unable to distinguish between the common man’s plight to forge a meager living among political instability, the menace of border incursions, and a fledgling economy that offers few chances for any kind of professional growth. I agree with him that the form Islam has taken in Peshawar does not allow for personal growth and broadening of individual character. It subjugates women’s aspirations to be educated and productive beyond the role of the caretaker of a home and manufacturer of babies. Nevertheless, I cannot arrive at his sophomoric conclusion that everyone among him who has not seen the light of Jesus and the Holy Spirit is leading a malevolent or misguided life.
The lights come back on and within seconds people go outside their front doors to shut of their generators. I seek a way to go back to my hotel. I climb into an autorickshaw. Suleman thanks me for coming into his home. “You have been a gift from God to come here to Peshawar, Richard. Remember Jesus will always protect you.”
“Suleman, I’ll be honest with you, in this part of the world, I’ll take as much protection and guidance from whomever: Jesus, Allah, Jehovah, or Buddha. In Peshawar, the more the better.” I then ordered the driver to take me back to my hotel.
After Simon and I finished breakfast, he went off to have his own crack at the Old City. He had just bought a ticket for the same train on tomorrow’s morning departure to Lahore. The only difference was that he will go on to spend several weeks in the south of Pakistan. My days on the Subcontinent are seriously numbered. He walked through the leafy interior courtyard of the hotel at the same time I sat down to chat with Marie-Élise who was still planning her crossing into Afghanistan. She caught a decent glimpse of Simon.
“Who was that you were eating with?”
“Do you remember that guy Simon I told you about? The hospital episode in Chitral?”
“Wow, he’s emaciated. He looks awful.”
That may indeed be true. “Perhaps, but you should have seen him five days ago. He has improved a great deal.”
I spent my last night on the western frontier of Pakistan atop the posh Pearl Continental Hotel at its rooftop barbecue restaurant. The Pearl has all the trimmings of a five star resort with a few glaring exceptions. Armed sentries guard the entrance and man a gate for vehicles to come and go. At the main entrance, all guests must pass through a metal detector and send their belongings through an x-ray machine before enjoying the spa, pool, and linen tablecloths in the sparkling main-floor dining room. The Pearl is a fresh Western oasis amid the stern, conservative Islamic establishment. Outside its floral gardens and high walls of glass chards most of Peshawar moved to a very opposing beat.
Marie-Élise excuses herself to the ladies room to change out of her black frock into something more suitable for Copenhagen. The Pearl is one of the few establishments where she can get away with this as a woman. I gaze at the amenities on offer: three restaurants, a gym, and a side café that serves sandwiches and snacks twenty-four hours a day. The interior of the hotel is immaculate and decorated in high taste. The map may read Peshawar, but it could be Saint Tropez all the same.
Marie-Élise reappears in a blouse and tight pair of designer jeans. I drink in the sight of the forty-something woman’s shapely figure. She is a very pleasing sight for a lady of any age. It confirms that there is something French women possess about their overall figure and demeanor that the rest of the world will never be able to duplicate. Yet it occurs to me: Since leaving Amritsar, it is the first time I have set eyes on a woman beyond the bridge of a nose and maybe the lower part of an ankle. We take the elevator up to the roof. As the doors close, I could not be happier.
Dinner is a delight and its only foretold disappointment is the absence of a chilled bottle of crisp Sauvignon Blanc. We settle for lemonade with 7-Up instead. The buffet is a plethora of salads, pastas, and other edible delights. Behind that is a dessert bar of ice creams and cakes. At the far end of the dining area are the barbecue stations: mutton, chicken, beef, kebabs, and sausages are hot and plentiful. With full plate in hand, I walk back to the table to join Marie-Élise. I can see much of Peshawar at these heights, but in my view are the smallest handful that could ever envision the lap of luxury I can enjoy as a Westerner in their own country. Marie-Élise and I enjoy a dinner, the price of which back home might set us back a little more than a super-sized extra value meal at a fast food restaurant.
We once again turn to a conversation about her plans to get across the border into Afghanistan. Her driver still refuses to take her to the Khyber Pass.
“Frankly, Marie-Élise, can you blame him?”
“No, I guess not. But he gives me a hard time about refusing to take a ride for him to the Islamabad Airport for three thousand rupees when a bus from here is only three hundred. He says I should go with him because he needs to the money to feed his family.”
“He is tugging at your compassionate side to coerce you.”
“Of course he is.”
“If he wanted the business that badly, he’s take you to Afghanistan.” I paused to reconsider how intellectually vacuous that comment just was. “Then again, you can’t feed your family very well with several bullets inside you.”
Suddenly, BOOM!!! An explosion rocks a neighborhood within view of our table about two miles away. Both Marie-Élise and I involuntarily jump from our chairs; air easily flows between seat and butt cheeks for a split second. A few of the other diners are superficially concerned. Our waiter briskly walks to our table.
“Sir, Madam, do not worry. Just some extra fireworks from Independence Day. No more.” We refocus our concentration on skewed pieces of ginger chicken bathing in a Masala sauce. The waiter goes back to his station. Following a pregnant pause I make it clear to Marie-Élise, “You will indeed be careful in Afghanistan, right?” It is the first time I am on the offering end of such advice.
“F@!#-ing hell!” I have to admit that I am getting fatigued with the man’s prolific and gratuitous profanity. “What do you mean?”
I repeat my earlier statement as Simon drops his bags onto the platform.
“As I told you, the train is running late. It won’t be here until eight-fifteen.” Simon peers at his wristwatch. It’s seven thirty, not all that bad of a wait.”
“Yes, but the train will be here in station for a two-and-a-half hours. From what the ticket agent says, we won’t be in Lahore until after nine this evening.”
Simon releases more profanity. Pakistan Raiulways refunds out tickets minus a twenty-five percent penalty. We take the cash, grab a taxi for the Daewoo bus station, buy two tickets for Lahore, and pull into town by three.
Simon complains. He swears profusely. And he plays around with women putting his health at risk. I acknowledge his imperfections, no different than any other man. But he still has inner qualities that endear me to him. When given the option to lie, he tells the truth. When awarded the opportunity to run off with others’ cash, he follows through and returns what does not belong to him. Being the tightwad Scot that he is, no one can bargain for a room as hard or as furiously as he can. He travels on the cheap, willingly lives out of his car in the U.K., and accepts a ruthless driving schedule of pick-ups and deliveries to save as much cash as he can just so he can travel. He does not read much of anything and was never studious when in high school. He knows nothing of history beyond the boxed addenda in his guidebook. In Lahore, I sat him down in the city museum and outlined the events leading up to and immediately following the Partition of 1947. “I never paid any attention. Could never keep me interested.” Instead, he travels. There’s something to be said for a presumably uneducated man who is on the verge of completing an over-the-road odyssey from Istanbul to Kathmandu and actually pulling it off.
After two days in Lahore, we part in the lobby of our hotel. He has decided to stay on in Lahore before moving on to a small Punjabi village for a few days. I release his hand and comment that, “When you go back to Scotland and go to the pub for a pint, your mates will never understand what you’ve done.”
“Aye, I suppose.”
“Most of your mates have never made it past the last roundabout in town. You’ve frozen your ass off in north of Shenyang at a winter ice festival and bussed it through the most remote parts of the Iranian desert. Perhaps, Simon, you have now earned that education you consider yourself lacking.”
“I’ll see you, Rich.”
“Simon, it wouldn’t surprise me to open my door one evening too see you there.”
“Aye, you never know.”
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