Wednesday, September 06, 2006


I had left India with the pace of an escaping inmate, with extreme nostalgia for Muslim hospitality, and reached Lahore, the first city in the Pakistani side of the Punjab, with the anxiety of that who has accumulated the thirst of several deserts. In Lahore Tabreez, my Hospitality Club host waited me. When you see Tabreez sitting in the conference room of his company, eyes fixed in his laptop with a stock market like preoccupation you wouldn’t guess he is checking hitchhikers forums and websites advising how to sleep in airports. Since his country cannot provide him with a credible passport, Tabreez travels through his guests, to who he treats as ambassadors. In this way, even if I normally enjoy walking around cities, I wasn’t brave enough to reject the offer of an air conditioned Corolla manned with a kind chauffeur.

Beyond static wonders, such as the Badshahi Mosque and the Mogul built Red Fort, the jewel of Lahore is by far the Sufi music nights every Thursday. Sufism is Islam in its mystic variant, a staging through dance and percussion of the mourning for the death of Emam Ali, the leader of Shiite Muslims, murdered 13 centuries ago. Far from being a tearful ceremony, Sufi nights in Lahore are a causeway for the very human instinct of party, so repressed in modern Pakistan, where discos are criminalized. But how do we pass from the mourning to a hypnotizing drum jam witnessed by a hash stoned, head shaking mob? I just know that we humans owe our survival to the fact our morale is made of plasticine. Obviously, most attendants wish, at least once a week, to do without the unperturbed understanding imposed by Islam and embark in a trip.

My plan was to reach China through Pakistan’s Norhtern Areas, and the most direct way to achieve this would have been to take the Karakorum Highway connecting Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital, with Kashgar, in the remote Chinese Turkestan, but a certain allergy for obvious roads and a compulsion for unnecessary detours caused me to tr4avel towards Peshawar, to only then start advancing northwards trough the Tribal Agencies of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP). NWFP is a conservative area inhabited by the rebel, proud, and fiercely hospitable Pashtun, and where the central government is as much of a tourist as I am.

The 450 km from Lahore to Peshawar were covered in a day. Fast cars driven by upper class Pakistanis were plentiful in the spotless motorway, so there was no need to stop the low, old, and over decorated Bedford trucks. Traveling north from Peshawar, Afghanistan’s proximity is evident. It’s a naïve statement, considering that Pashtuns have lived as one people at both sides of the imaginary line much before this came into being in 1893. Women covered in blue or brown burkas walk by the roadside as silent ghosts. More meaningful, a group of Kuchi nomads who clearly just arrived from Afghanistan set up their tent just meters from the now narrow asphalt lane. The artificial nature of the border is a well-assimilated notion in the Tribal Agencies. Over the last 4 years, this local phenomena has given a headache to the international community lead by George Bush, who has always accused Pakistan of not guarding its borders strictly enough, encouraging thus the free locomotion of extreme elements between the two countries. A guy called Bin Laden, for instance, is supposed to be hiding somewhere in the Chitral mountains, if you believe in Washington comic stripes.

In Malakdn district I was going to learn something more about the famous border. I was crossing Takht-I-Bhai bazaar when a Suzuki Vitara pulled by, as if arrived from another planet. The door opened…”Come in men! I am going to Sakhakot, if you like the place you can stay with us and continue traveling tomorrow” – said the driver with an unmistakable American accent. Azam had studied in Oklahoma and now occupied the main seat at the (ruling) Islamic Party of Pakistan for NWFP. I asked the, what was there of interest in Sakhakot to see. Ruins? An old mosque? Maybe somebody selling a roadmap of Pakistan? No. Azam think that it’s the bazaar that I am going to find interesting. I was about to feel disappointed, when he goes deeper: the specialties of the local smiths are guns and rifles, manually crafted. I can see their workshops and take pictures, if I like, he adds. “Wouldn’t they feel unease with a foreign photographer peeping around their stalls?” – I had to ask, because it was clear to me that, should something go wrong, 8 mega pixels didn’t stand a chance against caliber 45. Azam’s face transformed, and a bit offended, he replied: “It’s my bazaar. They do what I say”. Pashtun hospitality, either accept or choose an epitaph.

Next morning I was tidily combed and ready for my peculiar sightseeing. Azam summoned two of his nephews as escorts, and we were off. I was expecting to be conducted to clandestine cavernous workshops, to camouflaged installations, which a private militia makes sure remains off limits to everyone. And no: all along the main road, at day light, without any intention or need for cover, two dozen workshops produce and sell only one thing: guns. It’s hard to find in town where to buy bread or cucumbers, but shops displaying row after row of AK-47s and M-16s need no search. Local gunsmiths delay only three days to cut, bend, screw, and come up with a freshly baked Kalashnikov automatic rifle, charging some U$D 150 for the job. It’s a real free zone: without registers of any kind guns are bought and sold as day bread. Pakistan itself has enough landlords with personal armies to claim a substantial slice of the output. The rest travels to Afghanistan, at night, through well-established trails, joining the caravan of computers and other electronic goods that have zigzagged all the way from China without meeting any custom, from full tolerance from authorities both sides. “When the Soviet Union split there were some men here trying to sell tubes with uranium” – remembers with proud a kind machine gun seller as he re-fills my teacup.

Back in the house Azam asks me if I have ever fired a gun before. “Well, I guess I never needed to… I admire Che Guevara but I am not following his steps” The joke doesn’t manage to break the silence produced by my confession. Being gun-virgin in NWFP is worse than having never kissed a girl. (And since this is an Islamic country, the last is likely to happen much after local boys become experts in all sorts of rifles) “So do you want to try?” I knew that question was coming. “Do you have a fusil here?” “We have some 30. Sometimes we have problems with the lands and we have to use them. Kalashnikov or Mauser?” As if I had been furious with heaven, in Azam’s garden, I I fired a few thunderous bullets in the void.

No comments: