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Published: March 22nd 2012
The Road to Peshawar
On my way to Peshawar, on the Pakistani side of the Afghanistan border, I was very fortunate to sit next to a very nice man who I ended up having some very interesting conversations with. He kept telling me that it is his duty to warn me about the dangers of Peshawar for Americans and Europeans- due to the US government's support of India in the Kashmir dispute and their backing of Israel. He explained to me that Lahore is very safe but in Peshawar people are much more conservative and take religion very seriously. "Militant groups exist and they lust for American bloodshed. If you insist on visiting Peshawar I will pray to Allah for your safety because I think you are a very nice person," he said with an intense sense of concern on his face. He said his job is to work as a security guard but in his free time he enjoys reading various books on politics and history and was very eager to share his knowledge with me. My companion kept stating that the violence in Pakistan is not an issue about Islam, but one of human nature. "The Koran says
we are humans first and Muslims second, but humans sometimes get fed up if someone is devastating their situation," he described. Before getting off the bus and setting off for his hometown, he kept on trying to convince me to visit his home for a few days to see what rural Punjabi life is like. "It would be an honor to have you as a guest in my home," he stated. I declined his offer this time around as I had limited time to travel and really wanted to see Peshawar. During the course of the seven hour bus ride from one border town (Pakistan-India)to the next (Pakistan-Afghanistan) the bus stopped at a roadside rest area that had a mosque (every rest area in Pakistan has a mosque) for afternoon prayer. At one point the bus driver stopped another time just to pray while everyone else was waiting on the bus. Along the way we had several police checks which involved filming every passenger with a video camera for about five seconds for security measures. I have to admit my conversation with my bus companion made me feel a bit uneasy about visiting the border town of Peshawar, but my
thirst for the unknown was far more powerful than any warning from locals and I was excited to see what was in store for me next! The First Day
We arrived at night in Peshawar and I was lucky to find a cheap hotel near the bus station where I got some solid rest. The next morning as soon as I stepped foot outside of my hotel I attempted to buy some fruit from an Afghani man but he refused my money with a wide smile. I tried to practice some of the Pashto I learned on the bus the previous night- suh taa noom sey dey? (What is your name?) chuh Pakistan hwah hoom! (I like Pakistan) Tey Dey Ruh Ha ee (you are very kind). They were pretty amused by my attempt at speaking the language and I looked down to see some Afghani kids laughing at me. As I continued on my way, I man approached me and invited me to come up to his office nearby for a cup of tea. While we sat at his desk and drank some chai he warned me over and over about the dangers of Peshawar and said
bombings happen here all the time. We talked for a bit and he escorted me onto the street after declining his offer to take me to my $2USD per night guest house on his motorbike. After walking for a few minutes in the direction of my guest house (which I wasn't sure how to get to) he pulled up again on his bike and this time I got on the back. While I was on the back of his bike he gave me a bit of a city tour. "There was a suicide bombing at this intersection one year ago," he said at a traffic signal. "There was also a bombing close to the airport a few days ago so we have to take a different route," he informed me. He finally dropped me off in front of my guesthouse after a longer ride than expected- it probably would have taken me at least a few hours to find the place on my own so I was glad I decided to take him up on the ride. A Different Kind of Travel Companion
Upon arrival at the guesthouse, I met a guy from Beijing, Yi, who said he
had been in Peshawar for three months. We talked for a bit and then decided to hit the town together. What I had figured would be a good opportunity to get to know the city with someone who had been there for awhile ended up putting me in a number of awkward situations. First we went to the clothing bazaar because he was looking for a shirt when I noticed right away he was drawing a crowd with his intense bargaining over about fifty cents. One guy that was observing everything going down came over and whispered to me "shut up" probably in reference to his obnoxiousness. I finally coaxed Yi to leave and we went to a juice shop and sat across some men who resembled Osama bin Laden in appearance. As we chatted with the men sitting across the table several women entered the shop, covered head to toe in black clothing with the exception of some pin holes that allowed a small field of vision. Much to my surprise they were escorted to the back of the store where a curtain was swiftly shut in front of us to separate us even though there was not one
micrometer of bare skin exposed on the women.
After finishing our juice we went to the city center and walked around some of the local neighborhoods. Along the way there was a modest looking bread shack selling chapatti while a group of twenty women covered from head to toe in burqas were sitting on the ground outside the entrance. Yi said they were Afghani refugees that were waiting for any kind of food people were willing to give. I decided to buy about 20 rupees worth (30cents USD) worth of bread that got me two piping hot pancake sized pieces of bread and give it to the women. All of a sudden one grabbed the bread from me to have it all to herself when she realized I intended to give it to the group. All of a sudden the other women all attacked the daring one like a group of wild vultures trying to get at the bread. I had to aggressively pry the bread from her hands and distributed the small pieces to the group in equal rations as best as I could. I couldn't help but feel sorry for them as I have never seen people
fight for food like that. Blunder After Blunder
As I was observing them eat my bread Yi somehow managed to get a group of female Afghani refugee kids around him and was casually chatting with them. His next few actions and decisions nearly got us killed and I still feel lucky to have survived my "walk downtown" with him that day. It first started when he pulled out a bottle of rum out of his backpack in front of a group of kids. As soon as the bottle was exposed a group of men came out of nowhere. "What are you doing? No! No! No! No! You can't have alcohol here" they exclaimed. He put the bottle back in his bag and the group dissipated. Next Yi made another brilliant decision that defies all logic by getting out his camera and pointing it at the young girls. As soon as he pointed it in the childrens' direction, the same group of five men ran over and rushed him "no no no" they shouted. "You can't take pictures of women! What are you doing?" they said in a very angry tone. Instead of acknowledging he had made
a mistake, Yi went on and began arguing with them. "The Koran says it is okay to take pictures of girls under the age of twelve so you are wrong. Go read the Koran again and tell me what it says about that." I couldn't believe he was telling these people as a foreigner and non-Muslim in one of the most conservative Muslim regions in the world to go study the Koran. They all stood there in shock and probably couldn't believe what was coming out of the mouth of this little guy who was half their size. They kept on going back and forth for much long than I expected. "You don't take pictures of these children," they continued sternly. "Go read the Koran and try educating yourself more and you will see you are wrong," the small Chinese man added. Finally both the locals and Yi calmed down and we moved on. I gave Yi an earful about nearly getting us killed and he just went on and on about how ignorant people were and complained about their lack of education.
Next we were on our way home as I just wanted to get away from this
Local Bread Shop
This is where I bought the Afghani refugee women bread.
guy for my own personal safety. Yi decided to buy some chicken to cook for dinner and asked me to borrow a few rupees. He ordered half a kilogram of chicken and then started arguing again. "If you are selling chicken for sixty five rupees per kilogram then one half kilogram should be 32 or 33 rupees, not the 35 rupees that you charged me. Do the math!" he started laying into them loudly. "This is the way I sell chicken. It is 35 rupees for half a kilogram," the chicken stall owner replied. Yi kept on going on and on about how the Pakistani man was wrong, had no education and called him ignorant while telling him to "do the math." To no surprise, the chicken salesman became angry and several other men came over to see what the commotion was. "Do the math, do the math" Yi just wouldn't stop. Finally the man gave in and gave him three rupees back (a few cents USD). This was the money Yi had borrowed from me so he tried giving it to me but I told him to keep it for himself. If he wants to fight over a few
cents then he can keep it. The Pakistani men smirked as I refused to take my money back that he fought so intensely to get back. I was lucky to even survive my first day in Peshawar associating myself with such an odd character. No Trips to Afghanistan This Time Around
The following day I decided to go to the Tribal Affairs Office to inquire about the possibility of going to Kabul by land from Peshawar. Unfortunately the manager said they are not giving out permits to cross the Kyber Pass (the Kabul-Peshawar border crossing) responding that the situation is currently "too dangerous." After I offered to pay for an AK-47 armed guard to accompany me the man said that "one guard is nothing and will not help you." After going to the travel agents they said flights were going for $400USD, so I decided to scratch that idea and check out Afghanistan on another trip. CIA Accusations and a Scolding by the Cops
After going to the travel agency to inquire about the trip to Kabul, I made my way on foot to a neighborhood called Namak Mundhi for some mutton but ran into some
hurdles along the way. As I was walking around the food district a man invited me into his barber shop for a cup of tea. We were having a normal conversation until one of the customers started asking about my nationality. Upon mentioning I was American his expression suddenly turned a 180 for the worse. "Muerdabad USA" (translation- die USA) he started saying with a very intense look on his face. "What are you doing in Pakistan?" he asked. When I responded that I was on vacation traveling and learning more about the great country of Pakistan it didn't seem to help the situation at all. "You are not traveling! You are a CIA spy! Nobody is traveling in Peshawar, only CIA spies that want to kill Pakistanis and Afghanis come to Pakistan!" he continued as the shop owner offered me another cup of tea with a smile on his face. The shop owner insisted I accept the tea refill and I attempted to explain myself in more detail to no avail. I went on about how I am only "one man" and don't agree with my government's actions and that if I had a magic wand I would stop
all of the wars going on in the world but unfortunately I'm not a magician that can solve everything. I don't know how much he understood but he kept on repeating "USA muerdabad" again and again. "You say you like Pakistan but do you like Muslims?" he asked in an unfriendly tone. As I explained how Muslim people are just like any other people in the world and I consider many of them my friends I quickly finished my tea and left that neighborhood without getting my plate of mutton.
I took a turn down one of the side streets in order to get a break from all the noisiness and chaos of the main streets. I encountered some older men who greeted me with warm smiles and handshakes. Before I knew it they were offering me tea and a crowd quickly formed around me. One of the people that came over was a fifteen year old high school kid who ended up being fairly well informed and spoke English very well. He didn't hesitate about asking me political questions straight from the get go when he found out where I am from. He was very quick at translating
my answers into Pashto, the local language. Here is how the cross examination went down as more and more people came in to listen closely-
BOY: "Why are you killing Afghani and Pakistani people in Afghanistan?"
ME: "I am not killing anybody. Do I look like somebody that wants to kill Afghani and Pakistani people? Do I look like an angry killer to you?"
BOY: "No you don't look like you want to kill anybody. You look like a nice man. Why do American people shoot Afghani people?"
ME: "The American people that shoot Afghani people are people that my government sends to do that. I don't agree with many things my government does and killing people is a horrible thing to do. What about you? Do you like the president of Pakistan and everything he does?
BOY: "No, I don't like our president."
ME: "American people are the same way. Many of us do not like the things our president does in Pakistan but there is nothing we can do about it. Can you change the things your president does?"
ME: "Neither can I. I wish there would be
no killing in the world but I can't change the things my president decides to do."
BOY: "Why do you hate Muslims?"
ME: "I was just having a cup of tea with all the nice Muslim people in this neighborhood. Does it look like I hate Muslims?"
ME: "How many American people have you ever met?"
BOY: "You are the first one."
ME: "What do you think of me? Do I seem like a 'bad guy?'
BOY: "No. You seem like a very nice man."
All of a sudden a police officer came over and interrupted my interview/cross examination. By the time he came over I must have had a crowd of 20-30 men around me listening carefully to the boy's translation of my answers. The police officer escorted me out and sat me down behind a barrier of sandbags and barbed wire while giving me a stern scolding, "Don't tell those people you are American. That is very dangerous for you. Be careful!" He went on for a few minutes about being careful about letting people know my nationality and then bought me a cup of tea as he
started asking me more casual questions in a more friendly and hospitable demeanor. We had a nice chat for about fifteen minutes or so and then hailed a cab for me. "It is starting to get dark. You better go to your guest house now." I decided not to put up a fight and rest for the night. What a day full of craziness! Another Unpredictable Day
As I left my guesthouse to walk towards the old city I started talking to a man who said yesterday an American Ambassador shot two Pakistani men on a motorcycle in Lahore after feeling threatened by them. He said the details about what exactly "threatened" means were not uncovered by the story. Anyway there were protests on the street due to this horrible event and he suggested getting into a rickshaw together in order to help me hide myself as the protests were likely to not be favorable to white Americans like myself. We passed the protest unscathed and had a cup of tea together in the old city. The man ended up being a journalist who is working in the tourism business as well and was trying to pick my
brain on ideas to help him promote his business. As a gift he gave me some Afghanis (currency from Afghanistan) that were used when the Taliban was in power a few years back. He also had some interesting carpets with some 9/11 depictions on it that included many spelling errors (see pics).
Afterwards I went to walk around a bit more and ended up having tea with a 75 year old man who said he has two wives but wants one more. I asked him why he wanted more than one wife and he bluntly answered "for lust." He explained that the Koran says you can have up to four wives but anything more is not permitted. He said he is a wealthy man as you need to provide for each wife equally. I asked him what kind of woman he was looking for to be his third wife and he expressed his interest in having a wife that is 35 years old, beautiful and intelligent. He said 18 years old is too young but 35 seems like a good age. He read me some Pashto poetry that he wrote himself and then excused himself to go attend afternoon
prayer at the local mosque. Interesting philosophy indeed.
I got up to walk around some more and found myself in a shop that was photoshopping pictures of normal people and pasting their faces on various Pashto movie sequences. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to have my face in the place of a guy with a bloodied shirt next to a bearded man with an AK-47 (see pics). I learned that the pictures I selected were from "Shahid Khan" movies, the legendary Pashto action hero. After finishing up my photos I decided to check out a nearby movie theatre where one of his movies was being screened. I was one of thirty other men (I doubt that women are allowed to enter) in the dark, old cinema with cold metal chairs. Everybody around me was lighting up hashish and the audience began to yell and howl as they pounded on their chairs with excitement when the actress took off her coat to reveal her exposed shoulders and dance in a Bollywood manner (Lollywood in Pakistan- the movies are filmed in Lahore- hence the "L"). The audience really got rowdy when Shahid Khan opened a bottle of liquor and took
several swigs- a real taboo in ultra conservative Peshawar. The audience roared with approval as Shahid Khan gently touched the woman's exposed shoulders and one man was so excited he decided to dance in the aisle during one of the Lollywood songs. An outrageous experience indeed. The Smuggler's Bizarre and Visiting a Local Village
I started off the day by going to the smuggler bizarre (Karkhanomarket)
along the Kyber Roadway- just one or two kilometers from the Afghanistan border crossing. I decided to take absolutely nothing with me and just put a few rupees in my sock for the bus fares in order to blend in as much as possible. As I was on my way there I spoke to quite a few people and one man called me over and said "don't go there, these are the tribal areas, they are lawless and once they find out you are a foreigner they will kidnap you and no one will ever find you. Get off this bus and go back. You are dressed like a Pashto but once you speak they will know- don't open your mouth there," he said. I thought about his advice for a bit
and decided to keep going anyway.As long as I keep my trap shut I should be okay. After soaking up the atmosphere at the market that smuggles drugs, guns and stolen items intercepted from the US military to and from Afghanistan I decided it would probably be in my best interest to go back. Everyone in the area was armed with AK-47's under their shalwar keemez (traditional clothing) which did not make me feel any more comfortable.
I called one of the guys I met on the bus, Mohsin, and he ended up showing me around all day and even took me to his town, a few kilometers outside of Peshawar. The town, which is run in a completely autonomous manner independent of the Pakistani government, is headed by his uncle, who took over after his grandfather and great grandfather. He took me to the building where everyone gathers for meetings and decision making. I was greeted by many of his neighbors and family and we all had tea together. At one point an older man came over to me with a very stern look on his face, "I have many things to tell you!" he said in a
serious tone. "First of all, you must know we are not terrorists! The world does not understand Islam! Do we seem like terrorists to you?" he asked. The elder man said he is the town doctor and is working to educate people about Islam and gave me a website address where he is trying to share information on Islam.
I also enjoyed talking to another guy named Moin, an Afghani refugee who came to Pakistan during the war with the Soviets. He said he can't ever go back to Afghanistan because there is too much violence and danger. He is a very nice guy with a good sense of humor and had some good talks over tea and a plate of fish- awesome experience!
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