High in the mountainous borderlands of Pakistan and Afghanistan live the warlike Pathan people, who for centuries, have defended their land, honour and culture with their lives. In the ‘Tribal Areas’ of the North Western Frontier Province (NWPF) of Pakistan, the Pathans make up one of the world’s largest autonomous tribal societies. Here the Pakistani national laws have no force.
We arrive in Peshawar, the capital of the NWPF, hoping to get permission to visit the 'Tribal Areas' and are unfortunately told that at this time it’s not possible to issue permits to foreigners. Confronted with bureaucracy and disappointment we use our time to explore the old city sipping on cold sweet mango juice as we go. The old market is a labyrinth of small shops and narrow alleyways, alive with the hustle and bustle of buying and selling and a strong Arabic energy. Turbaned men with stylish beards and moustaches, beckon us into their shops to chat and drink tea. Donkeys saunter past, heads down, pulling carts of merchandise for their commanding masters. It's as if we've stepped back in time.
The market place is a way of life and a place for socialising. One street full of herbs, spices, dried fruits and nuts, another gleams with gold and antique jewellery. In the women's street ‘burquahs’ (large pieces of loose cloth), glide silently past us hiding the person beneath. Dark eyes dart back and forth behind closed mesh watching the world from their inner sanctuaries. Merchants sell brightly coloured materials, costume jewellery and cosmetics to these faceless women who inspect potential purchases that only the family will see. The mazes of alleyways, the turbaned men, mysteriously shrouded women and the bustle of Arabian energy create a mystical & timeless ambience.
East of Peshawar lies the infamous Khyber Pass, gateway to Afghanistan. Stretching 55 km across massive mountains, this is the ancestral land of the Pathans. Here they once lived taking tolls from traders and travellers that dared to cross the pass. Today the pass sees many Afghanis fleeing the never ending internal conflict of their country. With them they bring the riches of their culture: antique objects and jewellery, richly hand-woven carpets and Afghani produced hashish. On the outskirts of Peshawar a refugee camp which has transformed itself into a maze of high walled compounds to become an Afghani satellite village . With common Pathan ancestry and Muslim brotherhood, there seems to be little conflict between the people of Peshawar and the newer residents.
Away from the internal conflict in their country, Afghani merchants jam small shops with piles of exquisite carpets and shelves full of old artefacts. These friendly merchants offer sweet kawa tea, while they roll out endless beautiful kilns (woven carpets) and tell tales of Afghanistan. It's an entertaining and informative way to spend an afternoon, I just hope they leave behind some of their heritage. These people have a habit of treating you like a long lost friend, even if you don't buy anything.
Just past the old Afghanistan refugee camp is the smugglers bazaar. Gone are the days of turbaned men in tents, instead businessmen sell all kinds of electronics and other western goodies such as refrigerators, VCRs, crockery and toiletries from inside sturdy shops. Luckily it's still possible to get a delicious traditional lamb kurrai - a spicy tomato and lamb fried dish, cooked in front of you and served with hot nan bread.
42 km south of Peshawar is the Afridi Pathan village, Darra Adam Khel. For the Tribal Areas this has been the home grown armaments factory, where they have hand-made counterfeit guns, for almost a century. Although the town is off limits to foreign visitors we manage to board a bus bound for Darra and an hour or so later, the sandstone hills of the Kohat Frontier Region are visible. We soon find ourselves in the small and dusty arms manufacturing centre, our plans to get off the bus on the outskirts of town gone astray. Before there is time to think about which alleyway to disappear down, we’re greeted by a policeman who demands to see our special travel permits.
The kilometre long street is crowded with gun shops and dotted with hashish and tea parlours. Armed turbaned men casually stroll from shop to shop inspecting the latest stock, laughing, haggling and sipping on tea. It’s obvious everyone enjoys the bargaining as much as the purchasing. There is not a single woman in sight.
Many Muslim women live under the restraints of ‘Purdah’, but the Pathans observe a very rigid form. From the age of puberty, women are hidden from men outside the immediate family, if they leave the relative freedom of their high walled homes they are heavily veiled or dressed in their burquahs. Offences which infringe the rules of Purdah such as eye contact, conversation, flirtation or worst of all adultery are considered to be ‘tor’ and can result in one or both parties being severely punished, perhaps outlawed from their homes or even killed.
The code of ‘Puktunwali’ rules almost every aspect of Pathan life, it is the code of honour. Main elements of Pukhtanwali require that hospitality is extended to all strangers, visitors or refugees without expectation of reward ; the honour of the Pathan woman is protected ; and that all insult or injury is revenged. Vengeance is responsible for many of the bloody feuds that sometimes last for generations.
Our friendly policeman politely requests that we take the first bus back to Peshawar, then changing his mind, he escorts us to the back street arms factories. Inside the showrooms gunsmiths work shaping replicas of almost every known pistol and rifle, a speciality being the Russian Kalashnikov which can be purchased for about $US 120. We’re proudly shown the results of the painstakingly accurate work and surprisingly an original 9mm Brazilian pistol. In front of our policeman we’re offered the chance to buy our very own pen gun and to test a Kalashnikov, for a price of course.
Sounds of gunfire echo behind us as the Pathan warriors test their potential buys in the nearby sand hills. Arms licenses are not required within the autonomous Tribal Areas, though the Pakistani government understandably disapproves of the arming of these regions. A professional smuggling racquet exists in order to deliver weapons to customers who live under Pakistani jurisdiction (outside the Tribal Areas), most of whom are people of the NWPF who use their purchases to fuel the blood feuds. Those arms that are smuggled out of the NWPF usually end up in the hands of middle class Pakistanis as status symbols and a few cross the border, although these days the West is the major weapons supplier of the Afghanistan civil war. Dealers estimate somewhere between 400-700 guns are finished in Darra each day.
After refusing to pay the price to fire a few bullets, our policeman decides it’s time we left town. We’re personally put on the next bus out of town and waved goodbye, but once we’re over the first bridge we leave the bus and cautiously walk back. This time we walk through the eerie residential alleyways, it’s like a ghost town. Mud walls and the occasional startled child are all we see. Our only encounter with Darra women is the sound of their voices from inside their fortress like homes.
Back on the main street an old, bearded man invites us into his dark shop. Inside we’re surrounded by 1 Kg blocks of hashish which are available for $US 12 each. He offers us the traditional sweet kawa tea while his well-practised hands rub and mould the merchandise fresh from Afghanistan. As he presses and shapes he tells us stories from his Pathan life: a bittersweet love affair ending with a father killing his son and a husband killing his wife, long family feuds and revenge killings all to uphold the Pathan honour, which seems more important than to live in peace.
We leave the dark shop impressed by the warmth and hospitality of our friend and feeling the weight of the Pathan codes of honour these proud people live by. After inspecting a few more shops on the hot and dry street, we’re greeted again by our policeman who is not so happy to see us. This time there are no smiles as we leave the dusty, wild west town of Darra Adam Khel. Feeling we’ve outstayed our welcome we head back to Peshawar, exiting to the echoing sounds of gunfire.