Batting for PakistanPurchase 'Batting for Pakistan'
2 - Life at the Frontier
The name of Peshawar meant 'Place at the Frontier'. It was still a city intimately connected with Afghanistan. To all intents and purposes, Peshawar was once part of Afghanistan, and it still is in some ways.
We had only been together a matter of weeks, but my 'wife' Kathrine had to leave me. She was travelling on to Lahore for a wedding, although it definitely wasn't her wedding. It was an amicable separation as we headed our separate ways. But I soon got over it when I heard the voice from reception as my door was opened.
'Good Morning Sir', was not something I had heard for a very long time.
There was no need to set a morning alarm. A tingling school bell, which sounded like a boxing bell between rounds, rung out very loudly from behind a next door wall at the beginning of each day at 8 am precisely. The playful screams of children were harmoniously transformed into patriotic and strangely melodic singing. A bit like if schools in England started each morning with renditions of the national anthem and Land of Hope and Glory.
I started my early morning with a lecture from the big bearded, thick set old man, who approached where I was sitting. His tumbling dyed beard was on its own a formidable entity. He moved his own chair into position directly opposite my own, even as I was trying to read a newspaper, and began some well meaning, but uncomfortably blunt, interrogation questions. It was like the crudest of job interviews.
'What is country? What is purpose of visit?'
I didn't feel ready to tell him I had come to watch some cricket, after England's latest defeat.
'England, yes. Good Heavens! Oh my goodness!' he proclaimed with a chuckle to himself.
'You are married?' he continued.
Stupidly, I answered no. Kathrine had left me to travel on to Lahore, while I allocated time for cricket watching. When I told him that Kathrine and I were not actually married, he was very taken aback.
'She is not your wife? Your country very different to ours! No good sleeping with woman who is not wife!'
Maybe I could have pointed out, as my departed 'wife' had enlightened me, that for some reason the word Engelestan means 'Land of Angels' in Danish. To Danish eyes at least, my nationality strangely bestowed heavenly purity on me.
Nonetheless, I didn't bother to dispute what he was saying, even though the room had two separate beds and was the only spare room we had been allocated. In his eyes, it was unacceptable for a man and woman who were not married, to be alone together in a private area. I decided not to linger in his disapproving company longer than I had to and set off to explore the old city of Peshawar.
On my way, I saw some wonderful signs:
There was also the Forward High School, which boasted 'International Quality Here!'
And the Osama School, which presumably did the same. It wasn't too far away from the School of Artillery.
My favourite was the Working Folks Grammar School ('We have Best of US and UK.')
'Officer of Head Train Examiner', which was marginally less grandiose than the
'Office of Deputy Official for Peshawar Rail.'
The sort of job titles appropriate for John Prescott perhaps. It even boasted an extensive and immaculate lawn inside its front gates which would have been perfect for that most gentrified of English pursuits, croquet, here in the wild west of Pakistan.
But the real action was to be uncovered in the heart of Peshawar's old city. Buying and selling were being conducted with a lively flourish in every direction I glanced in.
Cries of 'Hello. Yes, Come here!' peppered me from improbable angles.
Advertising was indiscriminately painted on walls. Minor brand names were everywhere.
The Pick and Choose Store
The Decent Cloth Store
Welcome to the Need Superstore!
Commercial Sanitary Store - All Your Sanitary Needs here today!
Islam and Sons Druggists
Good Luck Furniture (the Pakistani IKEA perhaps?)
Hero Auto Centre - 'Refresh Your Engine Here Today!'
A Hair Cuting Salon
We Have Very Latest Electronics!
We Are Export Merchants and Commission Agents too!
Buy Your Guns Here!
Miscreants Not Welcome Here.
The PICK ME MODEL SCHOOL - was it for aspiring models or school pupils?
At certain times of the day, food starts to emerge in Peshawar. Boys with armfuls of hot, fresh nan breads darted with nimble dexterity in and out of the fizzing traffic. The smells were infectious. Hot, crispy fresh aromas salivated the mouth. Waiter service knew no bounds. Across and along the streets with giant trays balanced on their heads, men carefully eased their passage.
Giant steaming pans bubbled and simmered away. Plates and glasses were scrubbed by small boys in readiness for potential customers. The same little boys would suddenly be required to run errands. Seen from a distance or above, it was like one giant moving stage of activity, a ship even. Woe betide the man or boy who drops or spills someone else's food.
An old man sat with a basket of old newspapers as he did some traditional weaving. Other old men with outrageously bright red and orange hennaed beards, ambled along. There was something curious about very masculine men looking slightly effeminate in appearance. I had to strongly resist the urge to stare for longer than I should have done.
Burkas with indefinable body shapes inside them glided along. Some had bundled mounds perched on their heads as they walked. But unlike the burkas I had become accustomed to in Afghanistan, these burkas were bright and diverse in colour. Whites and browns as well as the light blue ones. It was a rare sight to see a woman's face, and an embarrassing moment to catch a woman's eye for too long.
Two men struggled to drag a large wooden trolley. On top of it sat two large motor engines. Donkeys and horses trotted along with carts of large sacks and black tyres. Now and again a woman in a burka sat perched on top of the oversized luggage mound on the cart in the same way the queen might travel through crowds in her royal carriage.
Without even looking, crowds would efficiently part to allow a horse or a cow towing a wooden cart down the street with barely inches to spare. They were driven on ruthlessly by men standing behind with long whips which were used with surprising effectiveness to change gear or suddenly brake. Some of the paler horses had been bedecked with head scarves to protect them from the sun. The cows just lazily wandered through at their own leisurely pace.
Single bed sized wooden carts of dates and apples were being wheeled into new positions. Some had voluntarily become entwined into the collectively cacophonous engine of larger and noisier vehicles. Since they only had their arm power to use as brakes, it was a real strained effort for the men behind their carts to prevent their produce and livelihood rolling away down the hill too quickly at the wrong time. But they controlled their goods with the accustomed aplomb of men who did this several times a day and for several years.
Men bounded along under the weight of ridiculously sized carpets on their heads. Never did I see them try to even break stride for fear of the buckling collapse such a loss of momentum would inflict. Never was the view the same. I had soon lost count of the number of near misses and averted collisions on the streets of Peshawar's old city. The traffic was chaotically careless.
A deliberately intrusive air raid style siren told me, and everyone else, that it was time for prayer.
Peshawar was the capital of an old world Asia, far removed from gleaming metropolises of new world Asia like Shanghai and Singapore. The old Asia was one of goods travelling overland, silk, spices and camels. Names like Alexander the Great, Marco Polo, Babur all travelled through this area. It was a gateway to many places.
The old city was once surrounded by a heavy and very high wall, broken only by sixteen large gates, of which only a couple visibly remained. The city also housed an impressive fort.
Giant life size garish cinema portraits adorned a couple of walls on the back streets. Cartoonish men with flamboyant moustaches and large guns were glamorously depicted. Red tears of blood rolled down their cheeks. Although these wild-eyed men had a certain glowering menace about them. Villains wielded curved daggers into the bodies of enemies with unreserved gore. There was a strange honour and nobility to the depiction in a region where it was fashionable to fight for honour.
In front of the fake blood and enlarged daggers, men sat around grinding down slices of sugarcane for juice. Others were slowly consuming tea and curry inside creaking wooden buildings. Men were stirring lunchtime stews with large ladles in industrial sized vessels, which made my mouth water as they hissed and fizzed. Every such place seemed to be a family affair. The boys would help their father and to fetch and carry various things. Sometimes the eldest just sat and watched the world go by with a wise glint in their eyes.
Throngs of humanity surged and melted into each other. Every shadowy narrow slit of a side alley I cast a glance up seemed crammed with more bodies. Each street seemed congested with endless flurries of movement. It seemed an ideal place, for someone from the Taliban to blend in and conveniently camouflage himself from any observing outside eyes. An insider would always have the edge here. I started to sense why Rudyard Kipling described Peshawar as the city of evil countenances. There were many secret pockets and covert alleys where sinister acts could be safely plotted.
Buses with ornate crowns on the front and dangling plastic flowers inside growled and squeaked along. They were only slightly less outrageous than old men walking around with scarlet red hennaed hair. Lurid, garish colours could not be easily ignored elsewhere in Peshawar.
Several buses had been painted with eyes on their sides and rather implausible looking romantic Alpine landscapes. Artistic expression here had a huge and vigorous outlet in the form of trucks and buses. They were moving art galleries. All sorts of images from large animals and flowers to enlarged eyes, white mountains and red hearts.
When the buses were parked or queued next to each other, it became a beauty pageant. They were adorned with so many competing items, tinsel and jingling bells. It was like the mane of a large lion had been striped, died and inserted with various bits of protruding jewellery. The dedication, money and effort invested in achieving the end product must have been considerable. Of course the bus I was on never lived up to its 'DELUX' name painted on the outside, but I felt like I was sitting inside a very kitsch, moving living room belonging to someone else.
Mirrors, glittering lights and dangling jewellery were also common. And just for good measure the driver's technique for picking up passengers involved instructing his young assistant to slap his hand on the outside of the bus as loudly as he could, while shouting out the name of the destination. It proved surprisingly effective.
'WELCOME TO BUS' read a sign on one of the buses I stepped onto. Another adjoining bus boldly called itself the 'HERO BUS'. There were no timetables. The bus just left when the driver thought it was full enough. There was always room for more passengers, men to the front and women to the back of course. It was not unusual to see men or boys sitting on the front of buses and trucks nonchalantly chatting away while other bodies dangled limpet like from the rear. Business class was on the roof where passengers could indulge in the self catering facilities of a flat roof to balance their tea and bread on while remarking how much more crowded all the other competing vehicles next to them were.
I was still waiting for a vehicle to surpass the award I had bestowed on one pick up truck I had seen on the Khyber Pass - the award for most implausible use of luggage space. Four men travelled merrily along sitting on top of a wardrobe. They were resting their feet on a large bed. All that was missing was an en suite bathroom. Sleeper class might have been extra.
'Only eighty rupees for one head!' came the cry. 'How many heads you like today Sir?'
'I think one is enough for me thank you.'
The smiling skulls of severed goats' heads with gritted teeth dangled nakedly outside one or two shop fronts. Business was brisk for the butchers. There was nothing particularly unusual about encountering blood and animal flesh on the streets of Peshawar. Various parts of animal anatomies, from hearts and livers to trotters (some furry) and skins, had been neatly assembled. Hacking and sawing of animal flesh was a brutal unappetising sight to the outsider, but an everyday one for those who lived here. And the hygiene in the work place would have horrified Food Standards Agency officials and put them off meat for life. There weren't many vegetarians in Peshawar.
Stalls selling all sorts of goods had been set up everywhere. Some people just opened out bundles of whatever it was they wanted to sell onto the side of the street. It was like an obstacle course trying to navigate a path through and around all of them sometimes.
There was a street in the old city where all the rickshaw engines had been nakedly piled up. The guts of the engines were upturned in stacked piles. And I realised how crudely made they really were, no more than a plastic shell over a moped. Not for the first time, I had seen things which in my own country would have been dismissively thrown away and discarded being put to some sort of productive use.
Schoolboys casually strolled the streets, carrying piles of books, and in their cricket whites.
The eating on the floor of a couple of restaurants was fairly basic and unhygienic, but the food was excellent. The only trouble was summoning over one of the waiters for something or other. They were always busy praying. Then someone's mobile phone rings.
There was a place called Storyteller Street, where travellers once gathered in ancient times. Now it had become Dental Alley, a place bursting with rudimentary dental clinics, one after another. Giant painted signs of grinning white teeth outside left the passer by in no doubt about the services they offered. There was always something to smile about here.
Hat makers feverishly sewed and threaded away. Someone even tried to sell me Afghan bank notes as souvenirs. I had enough of those already. It was a not uncommon sight in certain parts of the city to catch sight of men crouching down to pee under their hitched up long shirts. The expressions on their faces suggested it was not something particularly abnormal.
Sometimes, on realising that I was English, the charm was startlingly excessive and the exchange of courtesies back-breaking.
'Hello, My Dear. Hello darling.'
'Which city you from?'
'Yes, Birmingham - this is big palace where your Queen lives, yes?'
'No that's Buckingham. But she's welcome to swap one day if she likes.'
'So you live with the Queen?'
'Not all of the time, no.'
'Ah so you live with Prince Charles?'
'We're both very busy people who are away a lot so its difficult to spend time together.'
From a subsistence point of view at least, Pakistan initially promised me good things. Wonderful curries. Fresh fruit and juices on the streets. The distinctive green tea, elegantly served up in shallow, grubby saucers. And of course, there was cricket. You could not write about Pakistan without writing about cricket. The two are intimately interlinked. It would be like going to England and pretending that football didn't exist.
I knew I was well and truly back on the Indian Subcontinent, after wedging myself into a rickshaw, lured by the promise of a game of cricket. The rickshaws cram the streets to bursting point in places as they feverishly jostle for any remaining scraps of road space. Motorbikes accelerated aggressively for gaps, before being forced to check themselves again.
Accelerate. Brake. Accelerate. Brake.
Sitting hemmed into the back of a rickshaw was, in some ways I imagined, rather like being inside a burka. You can see little, if anything, approaching you until the moment it actually passes you, or you make sudden, abrupt contact with it.
The theory is to drive on the left and overtake on the right. Or was it the other way around? It can be helplessly disconcerting to watch your driver take you with a great degree of speed towards improbably small gaps. And if the gaps really do turn out to be improbably small, the drivers just ramps you up onto the pavement instead. The multitude of mirrors each rickshaw always seemed to possess, appeared to serve no real purpose of driving significance. They were turned inwards to assuage and replenish the driver's vanity.
Once out on the open road, if you or the rickshaw make it there that is, it starts to feel like the whole thing will have an involuntary heart attack at any moment, and whimper out altogether. You see a rickshaw for what it really is - an ordinary, inferior motorbike with a plastic covering and a seat. It was easy to see why many of the rickshaws had adverts for hair replacements splashed across their backs, such must have been the stress of travelling in them.
Occasionally, a large truck or bus, loaded with clinging bodies protruding from all angles with gravity defying agility, would rev heavily past. To cling to the back of a bus with one hand or perch yourself casually on the roof were perfectly normal methods of travel here.
It would be wrong to say rickshaws hold the country together. Cricket does. Still a little in shock and trauma after another England batting capitulation - there was a time when those words always went together - I was wary to probe too much on cricket as a subject of conversation with Pakistanis for fear of the ridicule I might receive. But I could hold out no longer.
'Please tell England team when you see them,' the man said to me, 'they must come here to Peshawar. It is very safe, you know. Do you like Refreshment?'
'Yes, we will bring tea for you.'
This was the voice of Farid, who had taken it upon himself to show me around Peshawar's international cricket stadium. He even took me to do a pitch inspection. I was sorely tempted to do a Geoffrey Boycott by getting my key out to poke into the ground, but thought better of it.
'My favourite England player Alan Mulally,' Farid confided.
I had to rack my cricket brains.
'And Ashley Giles too. He is a super star.'
Farid introduced me to one of the few people from Peshawar to have represented Pakistan at cricket, Umar Gul. It was the briefest of encounters. We shook hands.
'Umar Gul very promising young bowler.' Farid confided to me. 'He has played for Pakistani International Airlines, one of best teams in Pakistan.'
It was like in the Indian league where the Indian Railways team were one of the best, probably through shear number of potential players more than anything else. What price British Airways, or even an Easy Jet team decked out in orange perhaps, fielding a team in next season's English County Championship?
Then, after tea in the pleasant pavilion, we walked out onto the practice field. Boys in their cricket whites were practising. Here, one promising looking nineteen year old boy told me of his intention to play for Pakistan.
'This boy here,' Farid singled one boy out with a mischievous grin, 'he is miscreant. Very special player, very much talent for batting, but lazy. He must work harder.' The boy smiled back knowingly.
Soon, I succumbed to the inevitable temptation of exchanging watching for playing. In spite of the impending evening gloom and lack of any bodily protection against a hard red ball, the boys insisted I go into bat. I received a few gentle deliveries to start with, got my eye in and played some flowing cover drives. Pleasantly surprised, I started to merrily swing away. This was a major mistake.
The bowling became noticeably faster and more dangerous, probably a good deal more dangerous than anything I encountered in Afghanistan. I felt like I was playing with a matchstick instead of a bat as one heavy swish of thin air followed another. I was getting nowhere near the ever faster hard ball, but it was certainly finding its way past me, through me and into me. My track record with cricket balls, admittedly quite a while ago, was not too inspiring. When I was batting in the nets at school, the ball somehow managed to travel with unexpected velocity straight from the middle of my own bat into the middle of my own mouth. Red was the colour in every sense of the word.
However, Farid made the welcome excuse of bad light on my behalf and insisted that I should come back tomorrow, so I could be properly kitted out with 'helmet and other protection.' How reassuring. Still what price an England call up? Or what price an accident of some description?
But postponing my cricket experiences for another day would allow me to reflect on some of my first impressions of Peshawar. Back in the old city, I contemplated what I was standing in the middle of. A bursting, bustling feast of the most irresistible temptation.
If you desired safe, secure, organised and comfortable from your travel experiences, this definitely wasn't it. But if you desired vivid, vibrant life, the old city of Peshawar is brimming and bubbling. It demands your attention. An exotic infusion of sights, sounds and smells, which stimulates you to the point of drowsiness. A city where the sequence of events and accompanying dialogue regularly seemed to be like a bad fiction plot. An utterly infectious and strangely intoxicating place, which gets the blood flowing.Purchase 'Batting for Pakistan'