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.