You Are There

I spent a month in Peshawar, Pakistan, thousands of miles from my home and family in Austin, covering the war for National Public Radio. Here's what I saw.

January 2002By Comments

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.”

“What?”

“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, and we dined with two Delhi-based journalists who were curious about life back in Texas. Lee told them about paranoia in Tyler—that a federal agent she knows in the East Texas city has been getting reports of Pakistanis doing nothing more suspicious than running a convenience store. I told them about compassion in San Antonio—how the Saudi radiologist who came home after thirteen days of interrogation by the FBI was met by an outpouring of friendship and concern from his neighbors.

Lee and I marveled at the circumstances that brought us together. It turned out that she and I had both had premonitions that something big was going to happen last fall. We figured it was time for another Texas kook to erupt, someone like David Koresh or Richard McLaren. Who could have predicted we’d meet eleven time zones from Waco while covering the greatest manhunt in history, a story that would dwarf the Branch Davidian conflagration and the Republic of Texas standoff?

AT TIMES, THE ATTACKS OF SEPTEMBER 11 and the assignment in Pakistan seemed to be distant and unrelated. The street scene was mind-bending. Pelotons of bicyclists sped past with their shalwar kameezes, pajamalike garments worn by Pakistani men, fluttering behind them. Haulers rode their donkey carts standing like charioteers. Camel caravans plodded along the shoulders. The freight trucks were hand-painted works of rolling folk art that could put Houston’s Art Cars to shame. And every other vehicle was a rickety rickshaw taxi that invariably had one of two images painted on its tailgate: a grimacing image of a Pashtun action hero or a pair of seductive eyes, Pakistan’s version of the chrome-babe silhouette on truck mud flaps.

“Why the eyes?” I asked Hasan.

“That’s all we see of a woman and so that’s what attracts us,” he said in another of his patient tutorials. “For me, Muslim women create suspense. Western women show everything to a man. There’s no suspense.”

In parts of Peshawar, you’re lucky to see even the eyes. The city is more conservative than most in Pakistan because of its proximity to the ultratraditional Pashtun tribal areas along the border. Here, women don’t work outside the home, and it’s common for them to don the same head-to-toe burkas that TV viewers recognize in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. One day I sat down with a group of teenage Afghan exiles to find out what it’s like living under this sacklike garment. “On hot days we sweat under the burka—it is so hot it takes your breath away,” said a fourteen-year-old from Kabul. “Sometimes we trip over it and hurt ourselves. We cannot see our footsteps unless we bend over.”

Whenever we drove near the border by the tribal areas, we saw women in their burkas, wraithlike figures scurrying across the street with children or groceries in hand. Though I was told time and again that they are worn out of custom, not obligation, I could never shake the idea that this was some sort of public punishment for being born a woman. Nancy Dupree, a respected Peshawar-based relief worker and a student of Afghanistan for nearly half a century, told me that women symbolize honor in Pashtun culture. “And to protect a family’s honor,” she said, “it’s easier to keep them veiled and in seclusion.”

That’s the culturally sensitive perspective. Non-Pashtun women have a different view. “You don’t have to go to Afghanistan for the Taliban,” Musarrat Hilali, the local director of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, joked darkly. “The Taliban are living all around us.”

BUT THE SAME RIGID SOCIAL CODE ALSO made the Pashtun amiable hosts. It was impossible to conduct an interview, for instance, without being offered frontier-style green tea spiced with cardamom. This created certain urological necessities, because after three cups you learn that there are a restricted number of restrooms that Pakistanis deem suitable for use by foreigners. But I appreciated the tea. It had a calming effect. It seemed to keep the conversation civil when the topic at hand grew ugly, as it often did.

One day I was interviewing a friendly, educated hospital executive who told me matter-of-factly that Israeli Mossad agents flew the jetliners into the World Trade Center as a pretext for America to launch its crusade against Islam. Then the hospital public relations director, an unctuous man with hair growing out of his ears, asked me what state I was from in the aggressor superpower. Texas, I said.

“Ah, Texas!” he exclaimed, shooting finger-pistols at me. “I have seen Hollywood movies of Texas cowboys, and that is where your Mr. Bush is from. He is a cowboy who would rather shoot first and think about it later.”

He grinned for approval at the hospital executive, who grinned back and called for more tea.

MY ONLY DAILY ESCAPE FROM THE WAR was reading e-mail, which is still an amazing form of communication to me. I sat in my hotel room on the other side of the world and received daily messages from the Rosedale Neighborhood Association e-mail list back in Austin. Sandwiched between Associated Press bulletins and story assignments from NPR’s foreign desk came the news that Bessie, a black-and-tan Australian shepherd, had escaped during a storm from a house two blocks from ours.

My neighbors are public-spirited, opinionated, and long-winded. For days they engaged in a testy exchange over the possibility of a blood bank opening nearby. One suggested, “What if all the time and energy that is being put into protesting the blood plasma center were put into seeing to it that ‘unsavory’ people were encouraged and supported to live their lives more fully and effectively?” Another shot back, “Unless you have a suggestion that would address the neighborhood’s well-substantiated fears, I see your comment as completely unproductive.”

A few days after reading this, I visited a blood drive in Peshawar where sympathetic Pakistanis were donating blood for holy warriors in Afghanistan. The blood sacks lay on the filthy ground, the IV’s were unsterilized, the blood was not tested for infectious diseases, and there was no refrigeration in sight. Suddenly, our proposed neighborhood plasma center didn’t seem so bad.

IN FACT, PAKISTAN PUT LOTS OF THINGS in perspective for me. Before my month in Peshawar, Mexican border towns seemed wild and otherworldly. But they’re sedate compared with the Pashtun tribal areas on the Pak-Afghan border, which have no statutes, no courts, and no police. Nontribesmen complain that the tribal zones are safe havens for criminals who engage in everything from drug smuggling to kidnapping. Tribesmen contend that they govern themselves by an ancient code of conduct enforced by universal gun ownership. Every man wears a Kalashnikov rifle “like a watch,” said a doctor in Peshawar. If someone violates another’s gold, property, or woman, the ensuing gun battle can be over in seconds—or it can last for generations.

Having worked in Mexico on and off for more than twenty years, I couldn’t help comparing Pakistan with our southern neighbor. Except for the ascendance of Vicente Fox, the perennial Mexico stories seem to be poverty, environmental problems, and corrupt governments. But Mexico and the rest of Latin America look refreshingly progressive compared with the authoritarian regimes and religious militancy of the Muslim world.

A wave of democracy has swept through the Americas in the past decade. These freely elected governments are generally pro-American, with expanding middle classes, a tolerant national religion, and—with the exception of Colombia—their opposition figures usually run for congress instead of blowing things up. Even the Juárez narcos, with their sunglasses and gold machine-gun pendants, seemed benign next to the bellowing Pakistani jihadis longing for combat.

THE LITERAL DEFINITION OF “JIHAD” IS “STRUGGLE.” A Pakistani political scientist told me wistfully that there used to be jihads against illiteracy, deforestation, and corruption before the word was hijacked by extremists to mean “divinely inspired violence.” But even in this context, I learned that the jihad is an elastic concept. The day I arrived in the country, I was sitting in a restaurant when a message flashed on my colleague’s cell phone, which was apparently intended for Muslim users. “Plz avoid KFC, McDonalds, Shell, Pizza Hut, Coke, Pepsi. To enter ur name in jihad against kufar [infidel] plz forward this msg to as many as u can.” Apparently, jihads now include consumer boycotts.

I was anxious to meet some of the authentic jihadi warriors that I had heard were massing with great fanfare in tribal towns and traveling to the Afghan border to fight with the Taliban. But the volatile tribal areas were off-limits to foreign reporters because the authorities feared our interviews would provoke violence. Nevertheless, my ever-resourceful guide, Hasan, had his driver slip around a police roadblock and get us into the tribal town of Temergarah, in the mountains north of Peshawar. We climbed out of the car and walked quickly into the office of our first interview, only to be spotted by a police informant. Within minutes, a contingent of Frontier Police streamed into the room and politely demanded to know what we were doing.

Soon after, we were taken to the station and introduced to the commander, a square-shouldered man with a massive triangular nose that seemed to occupy half of his face. I never figured out whether we were being detained or whether the commander was simply bored and wanted to have tea with a foreigner. Regardless, he explained more succinctly than anyone had in two weeks exactly what was going on in his country. “It is the poor, rural, unemployed, and ignorant people who are answering the call for jihad,” he began. “The educated people support the government. How can Pakistan defy the United States and be isolated in the world? Anyone knows we can’t afford to do that.”

“Then why doesn’t anyone stand up to them?” I asked.

“We can’t say this publicly because the jihadis will call us infidels,” he replied. “They’re dangerous.”

This is the devil’s bargain that Pakistan has made. The U.S. has taken as its partner in the war against terror a country that is one of the world’s foremost incubators of Islamic extremism. For years Pakistani governments have coddled jihadi guerrillas to fight against India in the contested Kashmir province. The country has allowed the establishment of thousands of free-admission radical Muslim academies, called madrasahs, which churn out fresh young militants ready for battle. And with the holy war in Afghanistan melting away and the Taliban headed for the history books, these fanatics have nowhere to go but the streets.

A WARM AFTERNOON IN EARLY NOVEMBER found us at yet another anti-American rally in the frontier town of Mardan. Like the others, it was called by an ambitious religious political party that was skillfully marshaling anger over the U.S. bombing raids to boost its popularity. The politicians brayed into a cheap microphone in front of a sign that read “America Is Not the Superpower. Allah Is the Superpower.” A handful of journalists sat on a balcony overlooking the street, which was full of bearded faces that looked up and scowled at us every time the speaker hit a high note of American treachery.

The calls and responses echoed off the dingy buildings as Hasan translated: “God is great . . . We will go for jihad . . . Death to the U.S. . . . The fight will continue until the destruction of America . . . Those who are friends to America are traitors.”

Hasan shot me a grin and added, “I’m one of them, John.”

If Pakistan is going to take back its streets from the fanatics, moderates like Hasan will have to do more than whisper their rejection of fundamentalism. They’ll have to shout it from the rooftops.

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