Thoughts from Peshawar

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December 18th 2007
Published: December 18th 2007
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The wine is a very light red. Like it's been diluted. It's reasonably strong, though. I had too much to drink last night, so I'm slowly sipping my single cup. Wali's brother is drinking with us and lets out a sigh of "Ya Alya". It was supposed to be Allah, but Pakistanis can't pronounce shit. Tonelessly blaring from religious cassette shops and carts, pre-pubescent voices screaming "Alya! Alya !".. It's disturbing and shameful. We're here to make our own gods tonight. Or goats. I'm not sure which they said. Possibly both. Humps of dough are handed out. Last year there was a French girl who made really good goats with eyes and a face and everything. The competition is on. At the temple the kids were re-decorating the walls with paintings today. The elderly French man said it's exactly the same as prehistoric art. It's true, but I suddenly feel annoyed at the comparison. They're idealized goats; enough with the European patronizing. What are you making? The lump of clay looks more formless than when I started. I'll show them prehistoric. It's a masterpiece; don't rush me! I'm an engineer, I need to carefully plan things. They roar with laughter. Now what was it like? A head on either end, and a very flat nose like a pig's. Did it have horns? Mine look like donkey ears anyhow. Sardar comes over and looks at it intently. In the absence of evidence to the contrary people are inclined to assume foreigners know what they're doing. Is it an airplane? An airplane?! It's a two-headed cow! I hear the word "engineer" repeated over and over amidst general laughter. An engineer with two left hands; I was amazed I could learn to type. "It's something I saw in a museum; a very ancient god, maybe thousands of years old." Honestly!!

Her huge dark eyes with thick lashes are looking straight ahead; they look like they've been heavily darkened with kohl. There's a colorful necklace around her dainty neck, and bangles with bells on her slender ankles that jingle when she walks. Her dark skin shimmers and begs to be petted. She is lovely. Her ears flap around her eyes in rapid succession. This cow is the embodiment of Middle Eastern beauty. Calm, sedate, trustful and vulnerable, her delicate legs and thighs seem to contradict her full figure. She's a concubine. She awakens feelings of compassion and protection, and also slaughter and tender juicy young flesh.

The goats have sleek figures, they are athletic, they are strong-willed and inquisitive. They restlessly look around, they strut, their muscles ripple under their skin as they walk. A very European ideal of a woman. Also beautiful, but awakening a very different set of feelings. She is going places, with or without you. Though the taste will linger and not be soon forgotten, she will not love you passionately.

The water buffaloes seem embarrassed of their figures, large powerful leg and jaw muscles, shapelessly massive hips and abdomen. Unloved domestic creatures. They will patiently work and bear, they are reliable and honest, but you'll never be sure she really sees you from behind those marble-blue or black eyes. A life gone to seed before it ever began. She'll sit in some cool spot to ease the discomfort, and you'll occasionally pity her.

"Today is the shortest day of the year" she had said. "That means things will only get better from now on." She smiled and kissed me. I guess I was wrong.

Hello my friend where are you from? What the... ? I thought I looked local! Come drink some green tea with me. Grreen Tea! Grrreenn Tea! The image of Sardar Ayub Khan, the kafir with a Muslim name. Sit down! Look through my photo albums! Read my visitor's book! We do trips to Kyber Pass, Smuggler's Bazaar, Afghanistan... Two totally white dudes in shalwar kameez in Afghanistan, posing for the camera. Who would be so stupid? We guarantee their safety. I speak 9 languages. It's not about languages, it's about that one pissed off dude who's going to take a shot at their white heads. I've already been to Afghanistan, so I'm not going to buy the tour. Well, we also do tours to places where even Pakistanis are afraid to go... Do I that obviously have a penis complex? I smile. Punjabis are afraid of everything. I can safely badmouth Punjabis since everyone hates them. No, not Punjabis, people from other places too.. You're not selling me no tour, ok?

On the train back from Mashhad, speaking a couple of words of Farsi and some English to my Iranian mates, and stumbling through Yemeni Arabic with the two Iraqi dudes from Basra. One of them has a distinctly American accent and he's freaking me out. They're telling me a story... Once when driving down the road the tire blew out right between two thababas. How do you say thababa in English? Aren't those the really tiny Suzuki minivans you ride in Sana'a? Minivan. Ok, then the American soldiers were training their guns on us, with the laser target thing all over, but we didn't care, we just replaced the tire and drove off. We aren't afraid of anything; the Americans are afraid. Oh, my bad dude. Not minivan. Tank.

The Somali man in Al-Ghaidha had finally gotten angry at the shopowner who kept saying All Somalis are Jews, and dispassionately said when turning to go: You see Jews are afraid and cry. Somalis Never Cry.

There's a similar notion among the more badass Middle-Easterners: A Muslim is Never Afraid.

I claim to be against modern society and lifestyles, but I'm a sucker for motorized transportation and especially laundry detergent. A tiny 30g packet for 5Rs. No consequences, no deliberation. Just the bag. You can spend hours scrubbing away with a bar of soap, but you're bound to miss a handful of patches on your once-white long underwear. Try again with detergent. It's Zen. Effortless. They come out spanking clean and perfumed!

I'm embarrassed at the barber shop. I haven't washed my hair in almost a month. It's too cold to shower. I haven't even undressed in 10 days, and I suspect I smell like a goat, although I don't notice it myself. The hair he cuts falls off in matted clumps. Dull. Like felt. Yeah shave the beard too. People gather around: are you sure? Clean shave? Yes. This isn't a beard anyhow; it's just month-old stubble. What about the mustache? the barber winks. They recoil in horror: no no!

How do people manage without a hat? I only take mine off when asleep. And sometimes not even then. Or when showering. Hot water is available in the mornings before 10am. Now that's luxury! A tiny sachet of shampoo for 3Rs. No non-conditioner ones. Oh well, I guess I'll be soft and silky for a day or two.

Contessa said it was a Smurf hat. Too bad she can't see the one I'm wearing now. This is the coolest hand-woven wool cloth smurf hat ever!

"Please don't spit" the Contessa had said. "It's disgusting." You filthy Middle-Eastern man. My mouth is full of noswar and saliva. I can't even talk. The "getting to know you" stage. I swallow. A burning sensation in the throat and disquiet in the stomach. Suppress the urge to vomit. Take a deep breath. It's just a drug. The feeling will pass and you'll be yourself again.

Pashtun Warrior. I've always felt safest among the strong and violent. The Pukhtoon have a reputation, and I'm sure most wouldn't think too hard before killing someone they think deserved it. But that means they won't engage in petty acts of aggression or violence. Just like in Yemen where everyone had at least one gun and a dagger in his belt, and they were the sweetest kindest friendliest people ever. Beware the weak and the unarmed.

Sitting in some random tea shop. The tea maker sits on his elevated dais, everything is arranged around him. Tiny kettles hanging from the wall, yellow and green, the tub of sugar, the milk boiling in the big pot. He scoops the milk into the kettles arranged over the hot coals with his small metal cup and puts it back in its own saucer. An art, not a science. Dood pathi chai . Delicious. Now that I've been moved to the cheaper single room in the hotel, wouldn't it be cool to hang out in Peshawar for a while? They line up like petitioners in front of the King, and he hands out his favors in small yellow or green kettles. Even if you're on your own they give you two cups. Two tiny bowls. "You claim to have been to Uzbekistan but underneath the cup you brought back is written Made in China!"

A reasonably busy-looking restaurant. A couple of men manning an assortment of aluminum pots. One dude at the "register" with the toothpicks in a plate. Chaval is a good default. It's easy to pronounce, and there's usually meat mixed in with the rice and they give you a small saucer with some sauce (or more meat) and a roti too. But yesterday's was pretty bad and the meat looked like it had been sitting in that pot for a week. Don't eat the meat, Layla had said. They re-refrigerate it sometimes when there are power cuts. Little do you know, little girl... there is no refrigeration! They kill the animal and keep it hanging until it's all sold. And the restaurants? I think they reheat and serve it up the next day. I'd like some vegetable dish. Someone's eating spinach. Cool. I know that word, and it's more specific than saying sabzi. Eye contact with the waiter: Palak. Palak? Palak. He disappears. I study the room for the next 10 minutes. The people at the table finally say something to the waiter and he rushes me a kettle of green tea and a roti. Blah blah blah blah? Main Angrez Hun. What kind of language has silent 'n's? My Urdu is deplorable. And maybe only the Kalasha called all foreigners Angrez. Ziya had said "porridge". Main Porridge Hun. I don't think these guys will get the joke. Which country? Turkey. Muslim? I had vowed to launch into an explanation focusing on "there is only one God, and many ways to reach him"... but we have a language barrier here. Plus, Mesmelek said I'd end up as canned meat. Yes, I am Muslim. Doesn't Palak mean spinach? Spinach? I don't think they have that here. What is your job in Pakistan? I'm a tourist. Only a tourist? If Pete were here he'd say "Aha! Nobody goes to Pakistan for vacation!"

One of Wali's brothers speaks some English. Wali's wife speaks none. Nor Urdu. We communicate using two words: Baba and Baya. His eldest daughter is in "college" in Chitral. She's studying to be a doctor. They wear Muslim clothes when in school there, and un-braid their hair. She'll go to university in Peshawar and then maybe even go to America, and then when she comes back she'll make lots of money! I'm sure of that... but if she's a doctor working at the hospital who will cook the food, look after the kids, clean the place and do the laundry? Wali's wife says I'm right. Trust me, I have experience with this sort of thing. She'll hire a maid to do it! 6000Rs a month! Or her husband can stay at home! Or... she won't marry at all. Modern life. Are you married? No; I had a girlfriend but she left. Maybe when I'm 30. Here men who are 30 already have 5-6 children. Yes, I'm an old man. I don't know how it happened; I must have been looking somewhere else when I skipped from childhood to middle age. I look at all these young men, younger than myself with families and real lives, and here I'm still a kid with half-baked notions. Maybe one becomes a Real Man when they have children. Or maybe Westerners never become Real Men.


24th December 2007

sen kimsin
sen kimsin bizim saraplara rengi acik diyorsun.... alya alya
30th December 2007

Brilliant writing
Am really enjoying your blog - good to get another viewpoint on places I've just been to.
4th January 2008

Canim, what an honour to be mentioned in your fabulous blog :). I did not know it was THAT disgusting to swallow - sorry... Keep your smurf hat out of trouble!

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