5/31/2009

Peshawar



Minutes into my first jaunt in Peshawar's Old City, I found myself in a sticky situation, one almost as hard to explain now as to the crowd of Pashtu/Urdu speakers that surrounded me in the bazaar. Before hell broke loose, I was admiring some metalwork piled up the walls of a shop to my left. Moving through a throng of shalwar-kameezed shoppers, I scanned up and down the rows of brass and silver, taking a slight step back to the right to clear the walkway. Before my foot touched ground, I felt I'd knocked over some object behind me, maybe a clothes rack or a mannequin. The latter was what I imagined in the split second that I reached behind me to firmly grab hold of it, hoping to prevent it from falling into the street and thus avoid causing a scene.

My blind reflexive squeeze did cause a bit of a scene. I spun around to see the mannequin staring at me with fiery eyes of rage above a firm, dropped jaw. She started shouting and barking into my face. The wiry old woman had just been violated, her rear end still pulsing with pain. It wasn't the most gentle of grabs. As passers-by began to gravitate towards the one-sided shouting match outside the metal shop, one life-saving local Peshawari man grabbed my shoulder and pointed down the road. The woman continued her angry rant as I took off down the lane, stopping only once I'd cleared the area. I considered myself lucky that somehow someone understood the whole cheek-palming incident had been an unlucky accident, that of course I thought she was just a mannequin, not a real person--maybe he'd reasoned that no person in their right mind would grab that person. Either way, I was very relieved as I set off to explore the city. A tough, elephantine texture lingered on my fingers a while.

That morning, along with a young British traveler and Oxford student named David Lewis, I'd hopped on a bus in Islamabad, but not before getting carted off to the police station by a suspicious officer. Thanks to our local dress, complete with locally bought, ultra cheap day-packs, we'd somehow struck him as Afghans. A brief interrogation and thorough bag inspection convinced them we were Western tourists. Dropping us off back at the bus terminal, the officer tried to charge us 60 rupees for the ride to the station. Ignoring him, we rushed away to grab some food for the trip.

I was drawn to Peshawar in equal parts by the lure of a Central Asian frontier town, the thrill of danger (at least two bombs had ripped through sections of the old bazaar the day before I arrived), and the Chinese embassy. Back in Islamabad, a grumpy little man at the consular window decided it would take a week to get me a visa. It usually takes a day. The Karakorum Highway delayed for another 7 days, I decided bomb blasts were no excuse to leave out a trip to Peshawar.

Only 30 km from Afghanistan at the Khyber Pass, Peshawar has long been the archetypal frontier town. Choked in dust, fumes, and desert heat, it's home to Pashtuns, Afghans, Punjabis and Chitralis, among many other shades of ethnicity. From green tea's ousting of chai to a healthy smattering of pale eyes and brown hair, most signs indicate Central Asia rather than the subcontinent. Men completely dominate public life. The odds were 500:1 that I should have grabbed a man's behind back in the market. Women over 10 and under 60 are virtually banished from the streets in the older part of town.

Zooming out a bit, Peshawar straddles the border between Pakistan-controlled Pakistan and the lawless tribal territories that are to blame for the smuggling of drugs and weapons which in turn are to blame for fueling the Taliban war effort over the past eight years. In that time it seems most Peshawaris have grown very tired of their bearded firebrand neighbors to the west, not to say they're any more fond of The West. As I stood in front of a gaping black hole cluttered with crushed concrete, twisted metal and shards of glass, I understood why the Taliban wasn't so popular. Less than 24 hours earlier, snipers had stood on the rooftops above that very street, picking off policemen after their bomb went off.

"Business is ruined," said one shopkeeper, owner of a stationery store specializing in wedding cards (you'd have to go next door for "invitation" cards, while the "thank you" card store was closed that day). Although the market appeared pretty bustling to me, it was reportedly quieter than usual. One young man showed me his fresh facial wounds from the blast just the day before. Throughout my stay I heard multiple cursings of the Taliban.

Walking a gold stretch of jewelry shops for the fifth time, I slip'sped through an ancient-looking arch to enter Mahabat Khan Mosque, built back in Shah Jahan's day. A couple dozen men were seated on the carpets under intricately carved Mughal arches, all lined with Arabic calligraphy. My dull shalwar kameez, complete now with a white skull-cap, seemed to get the job done: all treated me as just another worshipper, at least until I pulled out my camera.

Getting lost in the old city's traffic-choked alleyways, I enjoyed dozens of mostly short, utterly basic conversations, hundreds of curious stares and countless cups of hot kava. As in Islamabad, most assumed I was from Afghanistan.
The old city is filled with Afghan immigrants, many having arrived in the 80s and better known as refugees. Although they've now grown roots, families, and new lives in Peshawar, the Afghans I spoke with all wished they could go back to their homeland. Especially at this particular time, they said, with the escalating battle between government and Taliban fighters, the refugee outpouring from the Swat and Dir valleys, and, of course, explosions infecting the town with terror, Peshawar was a kind of purgatory for them. To me, half the town looked like a bomb just went off, with its crumbling bricks smothered in soot and grime, everything sizzling under a cloudless brown haze. I can't blame the Afghans any impatience to leave. Taking the advice of just about everyone I'd met, I left shortly after arriving. Several had advised me to "get out now, it's not safe," and one had added, "Hurry!" With several decent photos and some crazy memories, I did just that, speeding back towards Islamabad after just two days in Peshawar.









Victim of a Taliban bomb attack







5/26/2009

Lower Punjab



Leaving Lahore behind, I bused six hours south to Multan. A dusty little city in central Punjab, Multan is famous for its mosques, mausoleums, and shrines to Sufi saints. I was out of breath by the time I'd discovered that my first three guest house options, not exactly next door to each other, were full. When I reached the third floor "reception" of the fourth inn, the man behind the desk answered my broken Urdu request for a room with a big smile and a nod. I reached out to shake his hand, happy to have found a place. He seemed just as happy to meet me, asking the usual set of questions reserved for odd-looking foreigners (a set that usually begins with "what country?" and usually includes "marriage?"). Minutes later, feeling over my gratitude and bored of talking, I motioned to see my room, at which time he mentioned that all rooms were full. I was confused and irritated, but luckily the sixth time was a charm. I finally dropped off my bag in a shoe box of a room that was worth every rupee; 200, to be precise. Apparently, some guest houses avoid taking in foreigners to keep from doing the extra paperwork.

Aside from the crazy man that tried to snatch an ice cream cup out of my hands, Multan's people were friendly as anywhere. Everywhere I went I was treated as an honored guest, discounting the guest houses and sidewalks outside ice cream shops. First, a chatty store-owner decided not to let me pay for a coke. Minutes later and just down the street, a couple brothers pulled me into their conversation then handed me another soda, their treat. Half-way down the road to the Old City, a couple teenagers pulled their motorcycle over and insisted I hop on. They dropped me off right in front of the early Mughal mausoleum of Sheikh Rukn-i-Alam. And the luck didn't end in Multan: plenty of free drinks, food, and rides awaited further to the south.

My next stop was Bahawalpur, a much smaller and much dustier town than Multan. Bahawalpur borders the Cholistan region, a continuation of the Thar Desert in western India. Waves of dust blow through its streets day and night. Leaving my windows open to let in the breeze, I woke up to find I'd also let in a thin carpet of sand that lined every surface.

I wandered the old streets and alleys and finished off my shalwar kameez by picking up a thick string belt. I hoped to blend in a bit more for my final push to the southwest, not mention my upcoming travels in the north.

The local dress worked wonders. Having become close to numb towards the incessant pressure of staring eyes on my back, it has been a bizarre sensation to feel a lack thereof. Dressed in my shalwar kameez and kafiyya, most people don't even look up when I pass, and even then they rarely bother to meet my eyes. Of course, at that point they might notice something odd in my face and there may be a slight double-take, but overall, the results of the "disguise" are positive. The only downside is that people seem to expect me to speak perfect Urdu or Punjabi. Rather than play deaf, I've embraced foreignness, taking on the identity of a Palestinian named Yusef who speaks Arabic and broken English in an accent that sounds part-Arab-part-Borat. A cover-up may not be necessary, but I'm happy to avoid the otherwise constant shouts of "Hello! What country! How are you! Marriage!" and about a dozen daily invitations to tea. It also lowers rickshaw prices. Getting around becomes a much more pleasant and peaceful thing. Plus, several friendly Pakistanis have advised that, at least in meeting people on the street, I should never admit to being American. So maybe the get-up serves more than one purpose.

Stepping off the bus in Uch Sharif, I passed beneath one of the old town gates and meandered through its alleyways until I'd left most of the mud-brick buildings behind. But for a few Urdu characters painted on the walls and perhaps a shade of the locals' skin color, I felt I could just as well have been in rural Iran or even Iraq. Dust stormed across fields of trash which children bent over to scour, filling little plastic bags with garbage. Beyond the dump was a haphazard grid of green boxes lined with date palms stretching off into the hazy horizon. Further down the path, I caught sight of the glittering blue tiles of Uch Sharif's crumbling mausoleums, mostly hidden behind a giant earthen mound of graves and half-buried tombstones. The domed tomb of Bibi Jwindi alone was worth the trip from Lahore. A gem of a destination, it owes its lure almost as much to its remote desert setting as its artistic value, with its brilliant blue and white tile-work in a beautiful state of semi-collapse. Half of the building has in fact collapsed, revealing a crude cross-section of bricks that somehow manage to hold up the other half. I sat under some trees in the graveyard to sweat in the shade, joined by a bunch of little boys asking for rupees and candy and pens, a sign that I was by no means the first foreigner to make it this far. One of the few dumb enough to come in the middle of summer, maybe. But then again, if the heat is what got me such solitude at these sites, my timing was perfect.

Back in Bahawalpur by evening, I found a seat on an overnight bus to Islamabad.