"On Kalashnikovs and Kipling" by George Mastras

An awesome story of our trip written by my friend George about one of the trips we took together. Read it and you will feel like you are right there with us.

On Kalashnikovs and Kipling; In the Tribal Areas of Pakistan on the Eve of 9/11
Copyright George Mastras
ghmastras at yahoo.com

“SHOOT!” commanded the red-bearded Pathan with piercing blue eyes.
We were in Darra Bazaar, a dusty market town tucked in a large, arid gorge in the remote Tribal Areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province, only twenty-five miles east of the Afghan border. It was 28 July 2001 – an ominous time to be in the Tribal Areas, a region ardently supportive of Osama bin Laden and recently slapped with a slew of staunchly worded U.S. State Department travel advisories, in sum and substance, warning all Americans, “DO NOT GO THERE!” From the ‘Osama bin Laden – Our Hero!’ t-shirts sold in the nearby Peshawar bazaar, to the wild-eyed mullahs distributing jihadi leaflets lambasting the “American-Zionist” conspiracy against Islam, one thing was clear – the place was an anti-American powder keg waiting to blow.
But little did we know how much powder had been packed into that keg. Less than 150 miles away, bin Laden and his Al Qaeda cohorts were finalizing their plans for the worst terrorist attack ever committed against America – one that would alter the course of history in one fell swoop.

“Shoot where?” I inquired.
“There!” The Redbeard gestured toward a row of crumbling mud-brick shops -- or maybe they were houses? In front of them, an old man dressed in traditional, baggy shalwar kamiz sat on a wooden bench gazing back at us with vacant eyes from beneath his Muslim skullcap. A woman covered from head to toe in a black chaddor scuttled by like a shadow. A few scrawny kids played kick the can in the dust. I looked around in disbelief. No one seemed to think it odd in the slightest that I was standing in the middle of a crowded street, cradling a Kalashnikov in my hands.
To be precise, the weapon was a locally manufactured carbon copy of a Chinese knockoff of the infamous Russian-designed AK-47. Though nothing aesthetic, the gun was undeniably a masterful accomplishment given the primitive foot-pedal and water-powered machinery and old-fashioned elbow grease employed to make it. Still, I did not trust it one iota to shoot straight.
“But there’re people over there,” I objected, trying my best to be polite so as not to insult the proud Pathan’s intelligence, a slip punishable by death under Pushtunwali, the ancient Pathan tribal code still good law in these parts. The Redbeard looked at me, bewildered. A gathering of local men stood around watching, tugging curiously on their beards, apparently also puzzled by my reluctance to open fire. This was a gun market, after all.
“No shoot people! Shoot up the people!” he cried.
As I struggled to grasp this distinction without a difference, the Redbeard grabbed the gun’s muzzle, raising it until it pointed at the barren hillside above and behind the row of dwellings. The old man on the bench shifted positions, but beyond that, made no effort to seek cover.
“I don’t know,” I equivocated. “What if I miss?”
“No problem,” he grunted.
I glanced at my wife, Hope, fear in her eyes, as she hid behind my longtime friend, Ming, wisely utilizing him as a human shield. What the hell am I doing here? I asked myself. As if reading my thoughts, the Redbeard broke into an amused grin. Indeed, it was a good question.

Echoes of Kipling
Just four months prior, Hope and I were enmeshed in gainful legal careers in Los Angeles, making money and viciously spending it like good Americans, and shirking off parental pressure to procreate. But the restlessness of being settled was driving us insane. After much deliberation, we threw caution to the wind, quit our jobs and traded our cars for the trekking boots and sturdy backpacks of the modern nomad.
We set out to follow the ancient Silk Road, starting in Beijing and traveling by rail westward through the deserts of Western China to the oasis city of Kashgar, then south via local buses and hitched rides along the Karakoram Highway, one of the highest roads in the world, to Gilgit, Pakistan. There, we met like-minded Ming, fresh from traveling in Africa, and completed the breathtaking Concordia Glacier trek to the base camp of K2, before heading to Islamabad for the government’s post-trek debriefing.
Our plan then was to leave Pakistan for India, but I convinced Hope and Ming to first take a side-trip to Peshawar, my interest in the ancient city having been piqued by the literature of Rudyard Kipling, the famed Indian-born British author of the late 19th Century who penned more than a few fascinating stories speaking of Peshawar and the legendary frontier of the old British Raj. Having traveled previously in other parts of Pakistan, we did not pay much heed to the ominous travel advisories; admittedly, to fools like us, they merely enhanced the lure.

It was only 9 a.m. on our first morning in Peshawar, and already 114-Fahrenheit degrees of grueling heat had driven us into the air-conditioned lobby of Green’s Hotel, one of the up-scale hotels in Peshawar, with an aura of colonial charm. With rooms at $25 per night, it was beyond our backpacker’s budget; but fortunately, the breakfast was not. We sat at a quiet table in the restaurant, chewing fried eggs and chapatti (a ubiquitous pancake-shaped bread, baked in a clay pit oven), when a strange mustachioed man skulked into the room, wearing a baby blue shalwar kamiz and an odd European-style tan chapeau, carrying a photo album under his arm.
He introduced himself as “Duke” – not exactly a common Pakistani name. When I asked him if he was a fan of American cowboy movies, he burst into unwarranted laughter, explaining between guffaws: “Please, sir. I am Duke because I am a duke.” As the name suggests, “Duke” purported to be a member of a royal family of the Kalash, a tribal people denizen to the remote Kalash Valley, hidden high in the Hindu Kush Mountains about 200 miles north of Peshawar, straddling the Afghan border.
Isolated from the spread of Islam by daunting terrain, the vanishing Kalash are the last of the pagan tribes (called kafirs by Muslims) once dispersed throughout the Hindu Kush and Karakoram Mountain Ranges. Like many of the mountain peoples of Northern Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Kalash claim lineage to the Macedonian troops of Alexander the Great, who invaded these wild lands in 367 B.C. with an order to his men to Hellenize the locals by the typically Greek method of prolific fornication.
This legend of Hellenic ancestry was seized by Kipling as the basis for his famous story The Man Who Would Be King, about two itinerant British adventurers who journey far into the hinterlands of the Hindu Kush, where they hoodwink the fierce indigenous tribes of fair-skinned kafirs into worshipping them as the long-awaited heirs to Alexander. Whether or not the myth of Hellenic origin is supportable by anthropological science, it is nevertheless startling to see so many blue-eyed, blond and fair-skinned people – a common genotype of the ancient Greeks (if not their modern counterparts) – throughout the mountainous regions. The recessive genes came from somewhere – why not Alexander’s troops?
Duke, if indeed a Kalash, was a living contradiction to the legend of Alexandrian lineage. He was as dark-skinned as a Punjabi, and a Muslim to boot, who chose to wear a Western brimmed hat in lieu of the ubiquitous flat, round Chitrali-style cap favored by tribes of the Hindu Kush, and an almost Clark Gable-thin mustache instead of the customary scraggly beard. I began to suspect Duke had invented his royal Kalash status as a business gimmick to lure tourists into guided trips to the Kalash Valley.
“I am a local guide,” he predictably informed us, at which point I gave Hope and Ming an obvious signal to leave. “Here is my book of photographs,” he pressed on. “I have shown many, many people around the Tribal Areas.” Hope, always reluctant to appear the rude American, paused to leaf through the sweat-smudged pages of his album, while Ming and I rolled our eyes.
“I can take you to Darra, sir” he whispered at me with a twinkle in his eye, somehow knowing it was bait I couldn’t refuse. DARRA!

Darra is famous for nothing if not guns. It is the seat of the infamous gun shops of the lawless Tribal Areas, where weapons, opium and other contraband are peddled daily across the nearby smugglers’ route into and out of Afghanistan. Of course, gun shops don’t exist in Pakistan. Not officially, anyway. Unofficially, they unambiguously do.
Darra Bazaar simply means “market in the pass” – the Kohat Pass to be exact – but insiders refer to the town as Zarghun Khel, named after the clan of Afridi Pathans who reside there. A people steeped in legend, the Pathans call themselves Pushtuns and their lands as Pushtunistan. They constitute the largest tribal society in the world, comprising roughly sixty percent of Afghanistan’s population and fifteen percent of Pakistan’s. Pathan lands encompass the entire Tribal Areas of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province and much of Afghanistan, stretching as far north as the Hindu Kush (“Crusher of Hindus”) Mountains, and straddling both sides of the British-drawn Durand line, the largely artificial, porous border between modern Afghanistan and Pakistan.
The Pathans’ origins are unknown. According to their own story the Pathans derive from a common ancestor named Qais, who traveled to Arabia and met the Holy Prophet. Mohammad gave Qais the name Pushtun, meaning “heel of the ship” in Arabic, ordaining him with the privilege of transporting the Islamic faith back to Central Asia. Though united by common language and culture, Pathans are splintered into an intricate mosaic of sub-tribes and clans, called khels, linked by bloodline, yet often marked by bitter rivalries.
Since ancient times, Pathans have been renowned for their fearlessness in battle. To conquer Central Asia from the south, east or west, one had to defeat them. Few succeeded. Those that did win a battle or two, did not stay in Pathan lands for long before being driven into retreat. Alexander’s hoplites battled with these fearsome tribesmen in 367 B.C. during their brief foray into Central Asia. The Pathans also repelled invasions by Persians, Arabs, Mongols, Huns and Moghuls, among others.
Even the technologically advantaged British failed to control Pathan lands. Time and again Pathan warriors completely annihilated whole units of the better-equipped British forces, the most infamous defeat being the 1842 massacre of an entire British expeditionary force of 16,000 men. Despite such bloody conflicts, Pathan soldiers served with distinction with the British armed forces in both World Wars, inciting fear among enemies far from their home in places like Gallipoli and Ypres.
The Afridis, the Pathan sub-tribe to which the people of Darra belong, are especially infamous for their cruelty. Afridi women were reputed to relish torturing wounded and captured soldiers by castration or by “death of a thousand cuts” – multiple incisions strategically inflicted on a prisoner’s body to cause slow death by bleeding – providing the inspiration for Kipling’s poetic admonition to imperial British soldiers:
When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

“Foreigners can’t go to Darra,” Hope said. Duke’s wary eyes scanned the room, worried the waiter had heard her.
“For a price, Madame, anything is possible,” he replied.
“Maybe tomorrow,” I winked, before heading out into the infernal heat of Peshawar.

Peshawar – City of Chaos and Intrigue
“Osama Bin Laden – Our Hero,” Ming read aloud a t-shirt held up by a youthful street vendor. “He’s a hero here?”
We were strolling around the bustling bazaars of Peshawar’s ancient inner city – the Andar Shehr – with a portly young man named Ahmad whom we had befriended five minutes before in a teashop. In response to Ming’s question, Ahmed cocked his head ambiguously to the side – the patented Pakistani “yes” – always suggesting the possibility of a “no.”
I took out my camera to snap a picture of the t-shirt, before changing my mind and putting it away. Who back home would care, I thought? Americans are apolitical. Of course, as fate would have it, in a few more weeks the entire world would care. It was not until a year later, however, that we would discover in the news with grim irony that a secret Taliban emissary (the aid of the Taliban foreign minister) had come to Peshawar at the exact time we were there to warn the U.S. consul general of the impending attack by Al-Qaeda on U.S. soil. The warning obviously fell on deaf ears.
Aside from the evidence of seething anti-Americanism, I instantly fell in love with Peshawar. How could one not? Its labyrinthine alleyways swarming with a mind-boggling amalgam of men and animals evoked fantastic visions of Arabian Nights and Kipling’s Kim. There were proud, green-turbaned Balochis from the Iranian border area; long-bearded, wild-eyed Pathan chieftains; Mongolian-featured Hazaras from Afghanistan; and Uigher carpet salesman from China tending multicolor shops draped with fine silk and wool carpets imported from Hotan, Tashkent, Kabul, and other legendary cities along the ancient Silk Road.
Child beggars, refugees from Afghanistan with striking green eyes and reddish-blond hair, needled their way through the crowd, one hand out for alms while the other groped under shalwars for something to lift. Ahmad kept a pocket full of change just for handouts. “I pay zakat now,” he said, holding his right hand over his heart as he passed out coins to the greasy-faced ragamuffins, referring to the “poor tax” ordained in the Koran.
The goods on offer were as diverse as their peddlers: bags of bright yellow and green curries, chili peppers and orange saffron; carts heaped with dried apricots, figs and fleshy dates from Hunza and Iran; stalls lined with glittering teapots and Arabesque lamps; and butcher shops stacked with disembodied heads and limbs of sheep, goats and even horses, blood from the fly-covered carcasses flowing freely into gutters. Each sector of the bazaar greeted our ears with a new cacophony of sounds: the clip-clop of hooves on cobblestone, cries of goats in death throes of slaughter, and everywhere the incessant chatter of men arguing, haggling and proselytizing in the multifarious tongues of Central Asia: Urdu, Pushtun, Tajik, Hindi, Kurdish, Kashmiri and Farci. Nowhere before had I experienced such a dazzling phantasmagoria of cultures.
The linguistic diversity was an attestation to Peshawar’s status as one of the world’s great crossroads. At the foot of the fabled Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, Peshawar has been since ancient times a crucial gateway into Central Asia, and a junction for traders, travelers and armies from all over the vast Eurasian landmass. It has also been an unparalleled center of geopolitical intrigue – from Britain’s clandestine Great Game of “spies and lies” with Imperial Russia during the 19th Century, to America’s “secret war” against the Soviets, the fallout from which America is reeling from now.
By some estimates over $500 million a year in American taxpayer dollars, matched by at least as much money from the oil-rich Gulf States, was poured into recruitment, weapons, training, and other support for Islamic “freedom fighters” during the 1980’s. Peshawar was the headquarters of this multi-billion dollar effort. The CIA and its Pakistani equivalent, the Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (“ISI”), directed much of this money into a burgeoning network of madrasah religious schools intended to inculcate destitute Pakistani and Afghan boys with the militant Saudi brand of Wahabi fundamentalism and incite them to join the jihad, or holy war, against the “godless” Soviets. Courtesy of the American taxpayer, one can see these madrasahs, now more active than ever, throughout Peshawar and the rest of Pakistan.
Beside the indigenous fighters, Muslim warriors from all over the Islamic world (called “Afghani,” because, though foreign, they risked martyrdom for Afghan freedom), trained and funded by the CIA, ISI and British intelligence, flocked to Peshawar to spearhead the fight. One of these “Afghani” was bin Laden. The son of a billionaire Saudi real estate magnate, bin Laden single-handedly financed construction of vast networks of underground bases and tunnels in the mountainous Pathan tribal lands on both sides of the Afghan border from which the mujahideen could command their operations. Intelligence officers believe, in one of these mountain hideouts somewhere in Pathan lands, bin Laden still hides from American and Pakistani forces.
By pouring millions of dollars into efforts to foment Islamic militancy, America and its partners transformed the Afghan freedom movement into a multinational Islamic revolution. The immediate end result was a stellar military success; the Soviets pulled out their last forces in 1992, and the Afghan communist puppet regime was obliterated shortly thereafter in a glorious victory for the mujahideen which still resonates proudly with Muslims everywhere. But with no jihad left in Afghanistan, emboldened by their victory, the highly organized international cadre of mujahideen searched for other jihads to fight. They found them in Bosnia against the Serbs and Croats, in Chechnya against the Russians, and most disturbingly because it involves nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan, in Kashmir. Then, for many reasons debated every day in the news post-9/11 but very little before then, they turned their guns and bombs on us.
On the eve of 9/11, the signs of this turbulent history were apparent everywhere in Peshawar, not just in the abundance of sophisticated weaponry for sale in the gun bazaars and the militant slogans (such as “Jihad is an Obligation” and “Martyrdom is Freedom”) emblazoned across building walls. Hundreds of Afghan refugees displaced by America’s “secret war” flooded the streets, begging and scrounging for meals, a small subset of the several millions who settled in Pakistan’s Tribal Areas in squalid tent cities, unable or unwilling to return to their villages. Among them were thousands of orphaned and abandoned youths – Afghans and destitute Pakistanis – fodder for the militant madrasahs.
The refugees and their abject poverty are the breeding grounds of hatred toward America and anyone else perceived as oppressing Muslims. Without a doubt, 9/11 proved that the policy of fomenting Islamic militancy to fight the Afghan war, and then abandoning the Afghans and Pakistanis to suffer the mess, proved a tragically myopic act for which we are paying dearly today. Being in Peshawar on the eve of the attacks made this more brutally clear than any news report or policy analysis could begin to do.

Ahmed turned into a small eatery, eager to treat us to some local specialties. Carcasses of dead animals hung from the ceiling; everywhere was the smell of festering meat. Turbaned Pathan attendants stood stirring huge metal vats of boiling brownish liquid with giant, two-handed ladles. Upon closer examination, one could see bobbing animal heads in one of the vats. “Goats head soup,” Ahmed smiled, licking his chops. In another, scraps of what looked like intestines floated in a foamy red broth. “Boiled stomach. You must try,” Ahmed goaded us.
“We ate a big brunch this morning,” Hope lied.
“So long ago? Okay. Then I eat, and you try little bit. I am very hungry.”
Ahmad paid a few rupees to the soup handler, who scooped up a huge ladleful of yellowish intestines in the vile red sauce. We crouched on makeshift seats, Ming, Hope and I across from Ahmad, as he stabbed a big hunk of stomach tissue with his fork and, with great effort, bit off a piece of the resilient flesh. “Bite?” he asked. Completely nauseated, but not wanting to be rude, Ming and I submitted (Hope wisely abstained). It was chewy, like boiled squid, but rough in texture, like tongue – I can’t say I’d recommend it.
Between mouthfuls of stomach stew, Ahmad explained he had learned English in England, where he studied chemical engineering. He didn’t like it there. When we asked him why, he said one day he was walking along the side of the road when someone threw a bottle at him from a car, screaming “fucking Paki.” He left England after that, never to return, having no desire to move his wife and four daughters there, even though the chance of finding a job in his field in Pakistan was negligible. Instead, he resorted to odd jobs catering to the now dead tourist market.
“Could such a thing happen in America?” Ahmad asked.
“Maybe,” I replied.
“Definitely,” said Ming.
Remarking on the plethora of pro bin Laden leaflets being handed out on the streets by mullahs and their students, I asked Ahmed why people seemed so fond of him in Peshawar. Though weeks before the September 11th bombing, bin Laden was already a wanted man for the deadly U.S. Embassy bombings in East Africa, among other crimes.
“Osama is bad man. I believe that,” he replied. “But most people here do not believe America that he is a terrorist. He is a hero of the war against the communists, and he stands up to America in the name of Muslims. Whether or not one agrees with his politics – and I do not – we have very few leaders in the Muslim world that have the courage to do that.”
“Would the people fight for him?” I asked.
“For bin Laden? Not many. We love our children too much.”
After the grisly meal, we walked Sethi Street, a serpentine alleyway with rows of old merchants’ homes dating to the 18th Century adorned with beautifully carved wood doors and facades, lining the street like a phalanx of ancient, weathered sentries. Somewhere to the West, the red-orange ball of the sun was sinking below Afghanistan, and the cobblestones released their great heat in mesmerizing waves. The muezzins’ call to prayer blared from competing minarets, reverberating over the tumult of the city. Though profoundly affected by America’s long, strong reach, the city evinced the feeling of being untouched by time, proudly resilient to the relentless march of Western culture.
“So, what do you think of my city?” Ahmad asked.
“It’s the most remarkable place I’ve ever been.” And I meant it.

Sampling Kalashnikov Culture
The following morning, after an obligatory haggling session, Duke agreed to exert his “regal” powers of influence to arrange a “special permit” to Darra for the “cheap cheap” price of twenty-five dollars, including the cost of the transport and driver, and ushered us into a weathered sky-blue 1975 Fiat – not exactly a royal ride. The driver, Sahid, was a twenty-one year-old Punjabi who, despite his youth, had already sprouted a thick, wolf-like black beard so vast it threatened to encroach upon his eye sockets.
Sahid drove the little Fiat along the Kohat Road like Franz Klammer’s 1978 gold medal downhill run – precariously straddling the fine line between high-speed precision and complete lack of control – only instead of threading harmless flags, the “gates” were heavily armed tribesman wrapped in Khaki shawls, and little girls with black chaddors pulled fearfully over their heads driving herds of bleating goats into the irrigated fields of the Vale of Peshawar. Duke, oblivious to the video game unfurling before his eyes, sat in the passenger seat maladroitly piping shrill and discordant notes from a wooden block flute. “I am musician!” he announced proudly. “This is traditional Kalash flute. From my village.”
“It’s very nice,” I lied. Actually, it sounded like a bird suffering from a bout of giardia.
“Sounds Chinese!” added Ming.
Suddenly, I realized the cause of Sahid’s erratic moves: his eyes were fixated on Hope’s reflection in the rearview mirror instead of the potentially lethal game of human slalom unfurling through the windshield before him. Hope was not immodestly dressed – ever since we arrived in Pakistan she had been wearing a veil and shalwar kamiz, the traditional, pajama-like baggy pants and knee length shirt worn by men and women alike. Her outfit was so loose it would have made Tyra Banks look like a formless sack of potatoes, or in Hope’s case, given her choice of a bright purple one (forgive her, she’s Southern Californian), the greedy Blueberry Girl who got stuck in a vacuum tube in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – an analogy she did not find amusing. She is, however, blond and foreign, a combination that sometimes attracted unsettling (though harmless) male gawkers, despite her usage of hair-covering implements.
Thankfully, the danger of Sahid’s hormonal distraction was mitigated as the populous Vale of Peshawar gave way to the treeless foothills of the Tribal Areas. As the road wound higher, dwellings became fortified with mud-brick walls topped with parapets and turrets. Blue-gray craggy mountains loomed on the horizon. Aside from occasional patches of green, the land was a parched and lifeless moonscape of monochrome khaki.
Sahid screeched the Fiat to an abrupt halt at the police checkpoint marking the end of Pakistani jurisdiction and the beginning of the Tribal Areas. The Pathans themselves call the Tribal Areas ilaqa ghair – “lawless land.” Pakistani law does not apply there. The tribes have their own police force, the Frontier Corps, and their own tribal code of law, called Pushtunwali.
Pushtunwali is an ancient code preoccupied with resolving feuds over zar, zan and zamin -- gold, women and land. At its heart is badal, a fearsome code of revenge enshrining vengeance as both a right and a duty. Under some circumstances, an insult, or even a momentarily lingering stare towards one’s female relatives, warrants shooting the culprit dead.
“You’re lucky I’m not Pathan,” I joked with Sahid when I caught him staring at Hope again. His eyes shifted nervously to the road, but then quickly fell back upon her. It was a losing battle.
Another aspect of the Pushtunwali code is melmatsia – hospitality – which must be offered to all visitors and even enemies who pose no immediate harm. Melmatsia renders protecting one’s guest a sacred duty. To the frustration of Americans, the Taliban (who are Pathan) claimed it was this aspect of their code that precluded them in the aftermath of 9/11 from giving up Osama bin Laden. A Pathan would rather die before breaking his code of honor. Indeed, that is what many did.
The police waved us through the checkpoint into the Tribal Areas without batting an eyelid. Apparently, security in a region known for terrorist training camps, drug smuggling and gun factories is not a priority.
Minutes later, the unmistakable sound of gunfire jarred our nerves. Ming, Hope and I ducked behind the front car seats. Duke, unfazed, looked at us and chuckled. Once we mustered the courage to peek out the window, our eyes popped wide open. Bustling gun shops lined either side of the highway, steep cliffs rising behind them, forming a natural fortification. Sahid turned the car right and pulled to a whiplash-inducing stop.
“Darra Bazaar!” Duke announced proudly.
A grinning, red-bearded Pathan greeted us, looking like the Central Asian version of a bandito, with a pistol holster strapped across his chest and an AK-47 hanging over his shoulder. He wasn’t the only one brandishing weapons. In fact, Ming, Hope, Duke, our hormonal driver and I were the only ones without armaments. Everyone else, and I mean everyone, was packing. I wondered if we were being taken hostage.
“Salaam aleikum (peace be unto you)! What country are you from?” the Redbeard inquired.
“Canada!” Duke hastily interjected before any of us could answer correctly. None of us contradicted him, our will to live subverting our patriotism.
“Canada good! And you? From China?” he inquired of Ming, unable to conceive Canadians could be anything other than white people. Ming had spent enough time in Pakistan to realize being Chinese meant special treatment, as relations between China and Pakistan are exceptional. Both countries distrust India and share nuclear weapons technology. So, despite Ming’s dual American-Taiwanese citizenship, and his typically vociferous disavowal of the Communist Chinese government, he nodded opportunistically, joining in the nationality charade.
“Pak-China dost (friendship)!” The Redbeard cried jubilantly.
The Redbeard led us through rows of gunsmith shops, family run businesses mostly. Like the famous gunsmiths of America during the 18th Century, steel parts were still being cast in sand molds, the molten metal poured by hand-held crucibles. Rifling was bored into gun barrels with water and manual-powered drills. Some workshops were devoted entirely to casting, others to hand carving wooden stocks, and others still to assembly and engraving. Despite the remarkably primitive machinery, modern, complex small arms of every size, type and make were being manufactured by the hundreds, ranging from handguns to heavy machine guns, all exact replicas of name brands from around the world. Though they must have been of inferior grade and precision than their patented prototypes, they were obviously effective nonetheless.
Adjacent to the workshops were the display shops, where guns from all makes and vintages spanning the entire 20th Century were exhibited for sale, most locally manufactured knockoffs, identical to their brand prototypes to the untrained eye. Others were originals, capable of netting a fortune if importable to America where they could be sold to collectors, including early model Lee Enfields, World War Two era Springfield M1 Garands, and even German Lugers and rare Schmeisser submachine guns. There were Vietnam era Colt M-16s, and the whole gamut of captured Soviet and Chinese-supplied weaponry dating to the war against the Soviets – Russian Kronkov submachine guns, Druganov sniper rifles, Chinese rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and everywhere, the ubiquitous Kalashnikov AK-47 – the mujahideen weapon of choice. One store even sold derringers that fit into a belt buckle, and ‘pen-guns’ – they look and write like a ballpoint pen, but fire a single .22 caliber bullet, designed specifically for surprise, close-quarter assassinations.
As I sipped a cup of chai – a milky tea with enough sugar to rot one’s teeth on the spot – given to me by one of the gunsmiths, I thought about recent newspaper articles I had read since arriving in Pakistan two months before, citing the government’s professed crackdown on the gun trade in Pakistan as a method of controlling dissident (i.e., Islamist and separatist) groups. There was no indication of any crackdown here.
Pakistan’s self-proclaimed president, General Pervez Musharraf, who came to power in a military coup, once dubbed the North West Frontier Province a “Kalashnikov culture,” partly blaming the “Wild West” atmosphere on America’s “overt covert” war against the Soviets. Though the CIA certainly infused many formidable devices (including the hand-held Stinger anti-aircraft missile that arguably won the war for the mujahideen by neutralizing Soviet air power), guns have always been an integral part of Pathan culture. In the frontier, a Kalashnikov strapped across a man’s back is as much a part of his uniform as his turban or shalwar kamiz. In a land where feuds are settled by tribally-sanctioned vengeance killings, the constant flash of gunmetal serves as a useful deterrent to those who might be tempted to violate another man’s property, women or honor. With everyone so heavily armed, people tended to be very polite, though difficult to subdue, I imagined, in times of passion.

“You want to buy?” The Redbeard asked me.
“I don’t think customs would permit it,” I declined.
“Customs, no problem,” he insisted. Perhaps in his experience it wasn’t? He picked up a shiny, new Kalashnikov. “Only 60 U.S. dollar.”
“No thanks,” I waved my hand in the universal no.
The Redbeard seemed upset that his money-making prospects might be over for the day. “You must try!” he insisted, leaving no room for refusal. “You pick.” He swept his arm wide through the hundred-gun display of the last shop we stumbled into. Duke nodded at me sternly, indicating my consent was obligatory. Though I was reluctant, I had never shot a machine gun before, and I admittedly found the Rambo-esque idea intriguing. Since Darra was a major center of manufacture for mujahideen arms, it only seemed right to choose a Kalashnikov. I indicated my choice weapon. The Redbeard picked it up with admiration. “Only 10 rupiahs per round,” he said with a saccharine grin. “How many rounds? 80? 100?”
I did some quick calculations in my head. “How about 10,” I suggested.
“10!” he shrieked, offended. “10 is for woman!”
“Ok, ok! 20.”
His smile disappeared, but he grudgingly accepted that number and took down a shoulder strap filled with bullets. “Let’s go,” he grumbled on his way out the door, leading us to a nearby street lined by a row of crumbling dwellings, before which sat the old man with the skullcap.

“Shoot!” the Pathan grunted again.
“I don’t know,” I repeated, gun in hand, not wanting to kill anybody or riddle anyone’s property.
“No problem.” The Redbeard insisted, “I show you.” He snatched the gun from my hands and in a single burst, emptied the clip on fully automatic, the fusillade of bullets spraying into the hillside above the dwellings in an explosion of dust. The children playing nearby scrambled behind doors and dropped to their knees, holding their hands over their ears. To the old man on the bench, however, it was business as usual; he never flinched.
The Redbeard, beaming from ear to ear, eyes like blue flames, handed the gun back to me. “You go now.”
“We could always pay for the bullets, but not shoot them,” Hope interceded meekly. The Redbeard stared daggers at Hope, then at me, obviously disapproving of the idea. There was no way out without risking disrespect. So I shot the gun, violating the most fundamental precautionary rule of shooting in a non-combat situation – DO NOT SHOOT when people are down-range. Fortunately, the homemade AK-47 shot straight and there were no casualties.

“You like anything else? Hashish? Opium?” asked Sahid on the way back to Peshawar. To our surprise, he reached into his shirt pocket and passed Ming a dark brown, sticky chunk of opium resin, known locally as tor. “Smell! Very good quality! You want more, we stop at smugglers’ bazaar. No problem. ‘Cheap cheap.’”
The UN estimates up to seventy-five percent of the world’s yearly supply of opium is produced in Afghanistan, though during the years of Taliban rule, production was slashed substantially as a result of that regime’s Islamically-motivated ban on poppy growing. However, with the new precarious government in Kabul dominated by the Northern Alliance – notorious drug dealers – opium production reportedly has skyrocketed amidst the post-war chaos. The “smugglers’ bazaar” referenced by Sahid could have meant any one of hundreds of open drug markets in the refugee-laden Tribal Areas on the outskirts of Peshawar where opium and thick bars of hashish fresh from the hills of Afghanistan are stacked like bricks and sold in bulk – a veritable Price Club for narcotics.
At this point, visions of Midnight Express danced in our heads. We started to feel more than a little uncomfortable with our driver.
“No smugglers’ market? Then how about Afghanistan? Want to go to Kabul?” Duke, ever the opportunist, tempted us.
“Kabul!” Hope cried with disbelief. At the time, Afghanistan was closed to Westerner travelers, and Taliban relations with America were souring fast.
“For twenty U.S. dollars each I can arrange to take you there by cargo truck. You must all dress like woman – in chaddor – so the border guards cannot see you are foreigners.”
“Sounds interesting.” Ming pontificated. “Yeah,” I agreed. Fresh off our rush from machine-gunning in Darra, Ming and I were on a roll. But Hope sobered us up by reminding us the Taliban recently had been threatening to behead a group of captive American missionaries, two of them women. Though I doubted anyone would ever take us to be evangelists, a trip to Afghanistan at that point in time did seem to cross the proverbial line from adventure to plain stupidity.
“Maybe when we come back in a few years, Duke, Afghanistan will be safe,” I said, patting him appreciatively on the shoulder. “Then you can take us.” Unfortunately, the verdict is still out.

Copyright George Mastras
ghmastras at yahoo.com

Let us know how you enjoyed the story.