A carry-on up the Khyber

I had been warned that my Peshawari hotel manager was a shady character, but I had not been prepared for him to show his credentials within half an hour of my arrival.  Before I’d even settled into my room he was offering me drugs and talking me into buying a bottle of whisky for one of his friends, who was obviously as far from being an enthusiastic Muslim as he was.

I wasn't surprised, then, when Wasim offered me a way around the apparent restrictions on visiting Darra, a local village infamous for its cottage industries specialising in the peddling of firearms and narcotics.  It sounded intriguing, but I didn't have much faith in Wasim as a guide.

The brochure issued by Peshawar’s tourist office waxed lyrical about Darra.  "Here strange, fierce looking tribesmen, their rosy complexions darkened by smoke, turn out hand-made weapons... by primitive methods", it said.  "These firearms are exact replicas of well-known foreign makes and are greatly treasured as souvenirs by tourists".  I had to read that last bit twice.  And then it calmly filled me in on the local Khattak sword dance and its "ecstasy of violence".  In person, the tourist office dampened down my plans: Darra was permanently closed to tourists.

Out in town and just back from a trip up the Khyber Pass, I was made an offer I couldn't refuse.   "Want to see some guns and hashish?" inquired an effusive voice, and I turned to meet a short, stout pensioner, whose bushy white beard made him look not a little like Papa Smurf.  He offered me a cross-section of lawless life among the Pathan and Afghani people that would have been terrifying without his company.

The ever-reliable tourist office had provided an intriguing profile of the Pathan people.  "A handsomely fierce warrior race of romantics...", its brochure fawned, "aggressively elegant... punctilious over religion yet fond of pleasure... fierce in enmity, kind in friendship".  I fixed a smile on my face and set off in a bus with my elderly guide.

We drove down the Khyber Pass road toward Afghanistan but got off the bus just before the first checkpoint.  Veering right, I was in the midst of "Smuggler's Bazaar".  But there was nothing illicit for sale that I could see: just shops and shops full of beauty products and Tupperware.  Waist-high children carried boxes peddling every brand of cigarettes known to man; women were hardly to be seen, those that were being fully veiled against men’s eyes.  This turned out to be the acceptable face of Smuggler's Bazaar.  I was soon led away from the road, down passageways whose high walls and tall steel gates incarcerated whole communities.  We had soon walked behind and around the police checkpoint.

The first courtyard was peppered with glazed old men sitting around smoking huge chillums and elaborate water-pipes.  Behind them were small shops, their occupants proudly assembling rifles and machine guns.  I was ushered into one displaying hashish and opium quite openly, with heaven knows what else under the counter.  A few shady, unshaven characters were sitting around in hats and shawls, drinking tea and puffing on joints.  There was nothing to suggest that they hadn't been doing this all day.  Papa introduced me to the suspicious shopkeeper, who took my hand to shake it, twisting it firmly round to read the inscription on my ring before returning it to me.

Over a cup of sweet tea, Papa took out an ordinary looking ball-pen from the counter and offered it to me for £6 as a James Bond style pen-gun.  He took a bullet out of a drawer, showed me how to load it, prime it and "click".  Nothing happened when he pushed down the clip to fire it.  I joked that I wasn't buying something that didn't work whereupon the offended shopkeeper took it outside and sent an ear-splitting round into the sky.  No one passing even turned to look around.  I reluctantly had to reject the miniature firearm, wary of the possible penalties for bringing it home, and for the same reason declined the hand grenades he went on to offer me.

Papa left me now for a few minutes and returned with a 17 year old lad in tow, whom he introduced to me as a tribal chief.  "Unlikely", I thought, but he was wielding an automatic weapon so I didn't contest the point.  He went on to embellish his story by claiming to have been married at 15 and casually pointing out to me, as we passed down another high-walled alley, the spot where he had had to kill someone the previous week.

The alley opened into a spacious courtyard, deserted but for a few small children playing in, and with, the dirt.  I was given a quick demonstration of how to operate his gun in its various modes and was assured that it was an accurate copy of a Kalashnikov.  I was in no position to dispute this, and opted simply to pump the contents of a magazine into the frontier airspace.  What difference would a few more make, I thought, and anyway I was supporting local industry.

Despite the unmistakable clamour of thirty rounds of ammunition being fired off in rapid succession, nobody came to investigate, least of all the local police stationed at their checkpoint only a few hundred yards away.  "They don't come here" I was told, entirely convincingly.  "If they do they will be killed, the same as the British before them".  I was glad that times had changed.

We slipped away, into an Afghan refugee camp.  Our visit was curtailed by a pestilence of over-inquisitive children, but what I saw was not what I had expected.  This was a permanent village of tightly-packed mud and stone huts housing an almost self-supporting community.  These camps used to be famous among tourists for a game called buzkashi, a grotesque form of polo in which a calf's carcass is used in place of a ball.  Sadly the Pakistani government has outlawed this sport, denying me a suitable way to finish off a ridiculous day.  I'd have to go to Afghanistan to see it, said Papa, and offered to take me.  "The Taliban are a very peaceful people", he assured me.

Declining his offer, we passed some time taking random turns around the bazaar.  We ignored the chador stalls and paused at the Afghani money changers, wondering how any money was to be made buying and selling a currency that was being devalued by a massive inflation rate every minute they held on to the notes.

Over in another section, the meat stalls were the usual vegetarian's nightmare.  As we passed through, one of the butchers lunged at a competitor with a meat cleaver.  "Oh my god, he's going to kill him" yells Papa and leads me away just as everyone else is arriving to enjoy the show.

The toiletries section seemed dull in comparison, but even here there were surprises.  A man with a glass eye (perhaps he used to work in the meat section) sat behind a pile of broken bricks.  "Shampoo", says Papa.  I look confused.  "The bricks" says Papa, and the stall-holder corroborates his story by pretending to rub a piece on his hair.  The Afghanis don’t take two bottles into the shower.

The day concluded with more tea, thick with sugar, on a rooftop with a burly man who introduced himself to me as a drug dealer by offering to deliver the narcotic of my choice to Tashkent.  Papa, who had been describing local counterfeiting facilities, suggested a photograph of the police checkpoint below, presumably on the grounds that this too would be illegal.  I made my excuses and we left, pausing only to chat to an elegant, white-haired gentleman with a permanent grin.  "He has a hashish factory too", said Papa.  "He's a big dealer round here", he added and the old man proved it by trying to sell me more drugs.

Despite Papa’s best efforts I returned to Peshawar empty-handed.  I said my goodbyes and handed over a small but worthwhile wad of Rupees.  My erstwhile guide crossed the road, throwing his arms up in submission to the traffic, and strolled into the central mosque for evening prayers.  A few extra would be needed tonight.

© Nicholas White 1999