AS WE WALKED BRISKLY THROUGH the narrow streets of Peshawar, Pakistan, toward my first “Death to America” rally, my translator, Hasan, called over his shoulder, “Stay close to me. If anyone asks, tell them you’re Canadian. And don’t worry, the demonstrators are well behaved—most of the time.”
It was my third day in the dusty, teeming city that became the best listening post during the first weeks of the war in neighboring Afghanistan. I normally cover Texas and the Southwest, including the Mexican border, as the Austin-based correspondent for National Public Radio. From mid-October to mid-November, NPR had gerrymandered my beat to include the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. “Promise me you’ll be safe” was the last thing my wife, Ginny, told me at the Austin airport. But at this moment, I was wading into a sea of bearded faces roaring, “Crush, crush, USA!” like a high school football taunt, while I tried to keep sight of Hasan’s bobbing head as he glided through the crowd.
A few weeks earlier, I had been in New York City interviewing rescue workers at Ground Zero who uttered the name Osama bin Laden as though it were a strain of hemorrhagic fever. Here in Peshawar, he was a folk hero. “Osama, the Great Mujahid [holy warrior] of Islam” read a $2 T-shirt for sale on the street.
Hasan and I finally found a spot at the rear of the six thousand chanting protesters. These weekly demonstrations are mostly street theater—they provide an outlet for Muslims to blow off steam. Nonetheless, I kept an appreciative eye on a nearby squad of riot policemen holding bamboo batons. At six foot seven, I’ve stuck out in crowds all my adult life, but at this moment I could not recall a time when I felt more uncomfortably conspicuous. The sensation was heightened when a flush-faced student hoisted a homemade sign directly over my head that read “Americans Are Uncivilized Beasts and Shameless Hellions.”
“Hasan, tell this man to take his sign down,” I said.
“Just ignore it,” he replied.
“Then tell him I really like his sign and I’d like to have it.”
“Ask him if he would give me his sign as a gift.”
Maybe the student wanted to show me he was neither beast nor hellion like my countrymen, or maybe he thought I needed to meditate further on his damning message at home. Whatever the reason, he rolled up the placard and handed it to me with a smile.
“You are our brother, no problem,” he said, extending his hand. “You are our friend, no problem.”
So began my introduction to the Pashtuns of western Pakistan, a people whose crustiness is matched only by their generosity of spirit. Think West Texans with Old Testament beards.
THE HUNDREDS OF FOREIGN REPORTERS in Pakistan left two things in short supply: a good fixer, someone who spoke the language and knew the local culture; and a decent hotel room. Luckily I had both.
My fixer was Hasan Khan, a Pashtun journalist who was so blond and blue-eyed that he was often mistaken for one of us. He seemed to know someone everywhere we went, from the plainclothes police lieutenant at the protest rally to the expert sandalmaker on the road to Islamabad. And his gentle, self-deprecating humor was a welcome antidote to the zealotry all around us. “Hasan must go pray now,” he said sheepishly one Friday, “or my mother will call me a bad Muslim.”
In covering a war, the hacks ideally situate themselves as close to the action as possible but not so close that they can’t get cocktails after deadline. In the first five weeks of this war, that place was Peshawar’s Pearl Continental Hotel. At any hour of the day, the lobby—which is decorated like a Raj-era Holiday Inn—was full of fixers, hustlers, sullen camera crews, and well-groomed intelligence operatives. While a hellish tape loop of the syrupy sixties instrumental “Love Is Blue” played on the hotel sound system, the spooks slouched in overstuffed couches and eavesdropped on other people’s conversations. When their nosiness became too obvious, they’d suddenly discover a fascinating ceiling tile.
One of the main assets of the PC, as the hotel is called, is that it has Peshawar’s only open bar—though “open” is subject to interpretation. A sign next to the door reads “Non-Muslims & Foreigners Only.” (When I asked the bartender who the clientele was, he said contemptuously, “Christians and Sikhs.”) Nightly, the hacks came to this smoke-filled chamber to ruminate over the day’s news and drink Pakistan’s answer to Pearl Light, a watery beer called Murree’s. But no one complained because we knew what it was like on the front. In the Afghan capital of Islamabad, a soulless city populated by bureaucrats and diplomats, the Western networks were paying the Marriott $850 a day to broadcast live shots from the rooftop. On the southern frontier, in the tense border city of Quetta, correspondents were forbidden to leave their hotels without an armed escort.
But nothing compared to Northern Afghanistan. My NPR colleague Annie Garrels said she and other journalists slept on cushions in mud-brick “guest houses,” washed in water from an iron barrel, and had their pockets picked by the Northern Alliance at every opportunity. Remember the scenes of bored Alliance fighters firing their assault rifles over the parapets at no one in particular? The “bang-bang” was bought and paid for by TV. Reporters who wanted to cover the northern front paid $600 to go in—they traveled seventeen hours a day for three days in a Russian jeep that crept over the brutal Hindu Kush mountains—and then $1,200 to $2,000 to get out. And the talcumlike dust got into everything, killing recording equipment and turning hair stiff. “I could mold it into some quite fanciful ‘dos,” Annie said. “We called it Afghan hair spray.”
THE ONLY TEXAS JOURNALIST I CONNECTED with in Pakistan was Lee Hancock, of the Dallas Morning News. We met one night at an Italian restaurant in Islamabad that discreetly served bottles of wine to anyone who asked,