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THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER - "Will all gunmen leave their weapons with Management"

Over the last 35 years or so I have made around 80 buying trips to the Middle East and the Asian subcontinent and in the last few years I would have to say that I really do prefer spending my time with the Afghans in the North-West Frontier on the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
 
The North-West Frontier is just that, a frontier, a tribal region so far removed from the Central Government that it seems that officials have all but given up enforcing its authority. Peshawar is the main town and the gateway to the Khyber Pass and to Afghanistan beyond and it is as lawless and chaotic as the Old Wild West. For example, and if I hadn’t seen it myself, I never would have believed it, there used to be a sign in the entrance to the P.C. Hotel that read: “Will all gunmen leave their weapons with the management”.
 
Yet for all the excitement that the North-West Frontier has to offer and the sense that you are really living something straight out of “The Boy’s Own Adventure Annual”, the real fascination for me has to be the Afghans themselves. Almost without exception I have found them scrupulous in business, courteous, hospitable, generous, dignified and honourable to a fault (I would not want to offend anyone’s honour - there are too many guns!). When I think of the Afghans, the word chivalry comes to mind, which I suppose is appropriate given the feudal nature of their society.
 
However one incident took me by surprise and showed how easily one can take the familiar for granted.
 
On a cold winter’s evening, at the end of another arduous but nevertheless, satisfying buying trip, I found myself sitting with friends in the main Peshawar carpet bazaar gossiping. Hot naan, fresh and fragrant from the oven had been passed around with bowls of sweet tea to wash it down, it was just delicious. I remember looking around trying to pick up on snatches of conversations, thinking how normal this part of the world had become for me now, how comfortable I was with it and how much I loved being there.
 
And then, unexpectedly an older man, who I knew by sight as a day labourer in the bazaar, but not by name, quietly, self-consciously sat down beside me and asked to take him back with me to America!

Now it became very obvious that he had no idea where America was, but for him and many Afghans I have met over the last 35 years or so, it is more of a concept, a symbol for a life that is good, safe and above all, predictable.

He told me his story, which in a way is every Afghan’s story. As he spoke it became so obvious that what he lacked in education and sophistication was more than compensated for by what I consider to be the most endearing Afghan trait - dignity.

 


The Carpet Bazaar, Peshawar.

In his lifetime he had had real-time experience of the Afghan catastrophe that most of us really only knew from the BBC and CNN images that played out across our T.V. screens.
 
There had been the communist takeover of Afghanistan, the Russian invasion and the Mujahadeen resistance, the Talibanisation of the country, the US led attacks against Al Qaeda and the Taliban and a civil war that continues to this day. This man, along with a few members his family had survived it all, barely, but now he had enough - he wanted to take them to “America”.
 
Listening to him I felt an overwhelming sense of discomfort because he was unwittingly forcing me to acknowledge what I have quietly thought for years but never articulated; that perhaps I can come to this troubled part of the world, have my great adventures, enjoy the danger and the excitement, and even a little poverty now and then because I knew that no matter how rough things got I had the luxury of leaving. This man could not. I felt awkward and ashamed of my own conceit on one hand and helplessness on the other.
 
Jason Elliot in his beautiful travelogue in Afghanistan “An Unexpected Light” had a similar request for help and, far more eloquently than I can, he wrote:
     
“At such moments you feel the weight of an outsider’s greatest privilege: to be able to leave”.
 
Of course there was no way I could help, and after a few moments of embarrassed silence he knew that too. But then the most beautiful thing happened. This dear old man, observing my poorly disguised discomfort, graciously put aside his disappointment and with great dignity and unbelievable kindness he moved our conversation to other things. In his own way he was doing for me what I could not do for him - he took care of me.
 
The next morning I flew back home and I never saw him again.

A few months later I learned that Najibullah, for that was the name he was known by in the market place, had, along with his family and the thousands of Afghans in refugee camps, been repatriated by Pakistan authotities back to Afghanistan.
 
Now here is the curious thing. I cannot think of any reason why Najibullah would have any cause to attach any importance to a brief encounter on a cold winters’ evening, to a conversation with a “Ferangi” over shared bread and a cup of tea.
 
Yet I think of that night often, and no longer because of any sense of helplessness on my part but because I had the privilege of meeting a man who, in the way of the world had nothing to give but gave all he had - kindness.
 
I am not sure when I will get into Peshawar again but given that the Taliban inspired fundamentalists have all but taken over the town I do not think it will be anytime soon.