A Fortress with One Clear Gate

Trip Start Mar 21, 2005
Trip End Ongoing

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

On the several bus trips from Lahore to Peshawar, I looked out of the bus window as Bollywood and Pashtun films played loudly (I can still hum the theme song).  The countryside flew past--fields, farms, then sparsely-vegetated dry looking mountains, then Islamabad, then Rawalpindi thanks to a kind-hearted taxi driver, then into rolling dry hills interspersed with farmland, then tan plains with villages and farmland, then views of distant brown mountains and increased urbanization--approaching Peshawar.

The roads reminded me of American highways and we were approaching 100 kilometers per hour, something I haven't done since eastern China.  Maybe I took all the backroads in India, but there was a marked difference in the infrastructure and the cleanliness.

On the way to Peshawar, a young Pashtun Afridi man and I spoke in broken words about America and Pakistan and Afghanistan and 9-11.  "Afghanistan and Iraq, part of America," he said.  "Pakistan also, perhaps." He is not the only one who feels that America is now an empire extending to these three countries and that Musharraf, who is a dictator of sorts, is its puppet.  At the same time, though, many people do, it seems, like Musharraf, who was recently "re-elected" via electorates (not voting) as I write this one month later.  Time will tell.

For the first full day in Peshawar--September 12--I decided to take a touristic visit of the Khyber Pass, arranging all the paperwork along the way.  I walked to the Khyber Agency and was greeted by friendly uniformed men with machine guns.  The lieutenant told me what I needed to do--go to the NWFP government building across from the Peshawar Museum, on the third floor.  There, look for the permit office (its two right turns from the stairs away).  "After that, find a taxi, come back here; we will provide a guard."

Soon, I found Farid-ul-la sitting in his idle taxi and we struck a deal.  Paperwork in hand, I returned to the Agency.  They provided a guard, but thirty minutes into the drive, he was called back to the Agency on his cell phone, so we began once again.

Our first stop was the gas station, which for me was a tourist attraction in itself: much more advanced than in America, in a way.  What I mean is that the driver filled a large cylinder in the rear of his Mini-Taxi with CNG, Compressed Natural Gas, for Rs 33 per kilogram.  Natural Gas burns much cleaner than gasoline and somehow in Pakistan they have figured this out.  Another new attraction was that CNG stations competed with others by offering amenities such as a Mini-Mart, as in the West, but also a Mini-Mosque, in case you're on the road and need a quick prayer.

With a full cylinder of CNG, we continued towards the outskirts of town, where we passed a destroyed village (perhaps urban renewal!) and a couple of empty coffins for sale on the roadside.  Then we passed the Khyber Agency checkpost and left Pakistan, in a way. 

The Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP) is one of those areas of the world that was a victim of colonial boundaries, drawn for strategic purposed, but in the end, not drawn for stability.  The Pashtun people of the NWFP are more related to the Afghanistani tribes to the west as compared to the Punjabis of the subcontinent.  Yet the Durand Line which set the boundary after the British-Afghanistani War in 1893 divided the Pashtun people.

So when the American media talks about porous borders, it is because this line was drawn in an area where people have always moved freely back and forth and will fight for their right to do so with their people.  So when the American media talks about lawless areas near the border, they are wrong.  There are laws, just not Pakistani laws (which the Americans can control), as the areas are given autonomy, similar to the autonomy the Dalai Lama seeks for Tibet. 

We continued through lawless and porous Khyber Agency, one of the Pashtun tribal areas.  The buildings resembled fortresses, with turrets and gun slits and large metal doorways.  Here they had factories to make copies of most military guns as well as a smuggler's bazaar.  Clearly, this was a land whose laws are still governed, at least in part, by the gun, but this goes on to some degree in every country of the world, including America.  What would John Wayne do? He would defend his home and land just like the Pashtuns.

The laws here are Pashtun and Islamic laws, which the West may find somewhat harsh.  When I was talking with Bahadar Khan back at the motel, he mentioned this (he had lived in America): "both countries love guns." 

Each area within the NWFP has its own militia, too, which complicates things for the Americans and Pakistanis but makes things safer for the local people who want a Pashtun way of life: the Khyber Rifles, the Zhob Militia, the Tochi Schouts, the South Waziristan Scouts, and the Chitral Scouts, as well as a Frontier Corps, a sort of supportive umbrella force.

We heading up through the brown mountains, past brown villages with their fortress homes, as trucks moved back and forth along the two lane trade route, finally reaching the pass, a long winding road that evenutally overlooks Afghanistan. This pass was the place where Alexander the Great and the Mughals entered the Indian subcontinent--a little over 3,000 feet, but surrounded by jagged brown mountains, like a fortress with one clear gate.
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